SEP was of little help, saying in its concluding paragraph that

there still might be no adequate reason to deny consequentialism. We might have no reason either to deny consequentialism or to assert it. Consequentialism could then remain a live option even if it is not proven.

Obviously there are subtle variations, and it needn't depend upon a very naive utilitarianism. I liked the phrase (from the SEP)

most people begin with the presumption that we morally ought to make the world better when we can. The question then is only whether any moral constraints or moral options need to be added to the basic consequentialist factor in moral reasoning. (Kagan 1989, 1998) If no objection reveals any need for anything beyond consequences, then consequences alone seem to determine what is morally right or wrong, just as consequentialists claim

  • So what sort of moral constraints / options may need to be considered, which cannot by definition be framed in terms of consequences?

Given that it seems like any moral act has consequences, I am skeptical

I'm just asking cos I came across this article in the UK press very loudly claiming that consequentialism is just obvious, at least to the refined moral (human?) thinker

moral judgments are supposed to be a matter of simple consequentialism: you add up how much suffering you think is caused by an action and balance it against the amount of good. and hey presto! An objective measure of whether something is good or bad, and by how much.

This is a worldview without tragedy or realism.

  • Does consequentialism deny tragedy or the reality of suffering / morality / god / anything at all?

Seems to me that its denial does, unless it is wedded to judgments of value which are artificially limited

  • is the newspaper complaining about quantitative judgments, even generalising, in the sphere of ethics? what are the terms for these two aspects ?
    – user6917
    Jun 3, 2016 at 20:51
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    The IEP article includes details of four arguments against consequentialism. Please see iep.utm.edu/conseque/#H3
    – nwr
    Jun 3, 2016 at 21:00
  • @NickR seems pretty weak "it is in the spirit of consequentialism", but thanks
    – user6917
    Jun 3, 2016 at 21:02
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    Both IEP and SEP appear to be a real mixed bag when it comes to quality. I've read very informative articles on both sites, but each site also contains its fair share of errors as well as less-than-informative articles.
    – nwr
    Jun 3, 2016 at 21:15
  • 2
    According to Kant it's some kind of hybris thinking that finite beings are even capable of reliably extrapolating consequences they can evaluate. We would have to be omniscient in order to base moral thinking on consequences.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 3, 2016 at 21:22

2 Answers 2


Some theistic bases for morality do not require consequentialism as typically defined. If what god wills is good, then it's good whatever the consequences.

More generally, addressing the perceived problems involved in "killing one person to use his/her organs to save eight others" (the "transplant" problem) often requires appealing to (or making a case that is essentially equivalent to) abstract human rights like self autonomy that start to seem like supra-consequentialist considerations. Consideration of the problems raised by "utility monsters" can also lead to similar solutions. If you accept the idea of inalienable rights, then you've moved beyond strict consequentialism.

There is a bit of ambiguity in the language: if you choose to count the "affront to god" or "violation of human rights" as a consequence then you might be able to pull these kinds of ideas within some moral framework that could be called "consequentialist", but this is more of an issue of the ambiguity of language than anything else.

  • yeah, agreed that the theistic overtones could be lost in consequentialism, i do not know enough about any theism to say. also, you make strict consequentialism sound trivially stupid ha :)
    – user6917
    Jun 3, 2016 at 22:07
  • all the above arguments seem to say it's incoherent because inaction, predicated on an attitude to God or knowledge or selflessness, is preferable to doing what we know we're obliged to
    – user6917
    Jun 4, 2016 at 7:57

The best summary of this position came up in the comments, and I am copying it here.

Basically, the argument is not about certainty or omniscience. it would be unfair to make something as important as morality depend too much on something as unequally distributed as intelligence. (It is hubris to assume we can see the future. But it is equally hubris to assume that good is mostly about what we are good at.)

So all forms of prediction, upon which successful consequentialism depends, are not good bases for holding people responsible. (This is the watered-down naturalistic form of the Kantian argument mentioned by @PhilipKlöcking.)

The remainder of the original post remains as a detailed path to that answer:

At the most basic level, expected consequences are not the same as actual consequences. If the actual consequences of mass murder happen to be a great life for everyone who survives, but this comes about by sheer chance, rather than being intended by the murderer, a true consequentialist would obviously retroactively declare the action moral. And no one wants to do that. We still want to punish that person, regardless of the actual effects of their act. Because luck does not hold, and their next act might be equally heinous without the lucky side-effects.

Utilitarianism is therefore not really consequentialism, and the lack of perfect information makes utilitarianism a more honest morality. But even the predicted consequences are not an adequate basis for morality. First of all we want moral decisions to be tractable most of the time, and predicting the future is something that is done well only by a very small subset of the population. So the rest of us become immoral by default, just for not being geniuses.

But even if you had the ability to predict the future, there are always effects on multiple people. Combining the positive and negative aspects that affect different people, with varying preferences, is pointless: Such computations are too subjective. How does one weigh two lives against one another? Much less seven poor lives against one decent one?

Without some objective standard, actually combining multiple consequences is just an exercise in hiding one's self-interest and one's lack of ability to value those who enjoy things differently from yourself in nostrums about the common good. No such objective standard exists. This is pretend math, based on nothing, and everyone knows it. It is better to have an arbitrary standard than one that is simply a comforting lie.

So this entire direction leads into the dust. If part of the moral good is meant to be peace between individuals, then you need to find a criterion for moral judgement that is possible for ordinary individuals to use, and that allows us to reasonably respect others' use of it, rather than second-guessing it as unconsciously self-serving delusion.

  • well i don't agree that consequentialism in particular is egotistic. also think that we don't need to be certain that our actions are the right ones, though obviously this is highly desirable
    – user6917
    Jun 4, 2016 at 7:15
  • anyway no references and i disagree with the reasoning, so i downvoted
    – user6917
    Jun 4, 2016 at 7:20
  • Nowhere in this is there a concern for certainty.
    – user9166
    Jun 4, 2016 at 16:35
  • Nor is there a statement that consequentialism is particularly egoistic. Outcome comparisons are subjective. Subjectivity, unchecked by objective measures becomes egoistic. So all subjective moralities are egoistic, and consequentialism is not particularly so. Stop warping my words.
    – user9166
    Jun 4, 2016 at 16:43
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    But if you were smarter, maybe you could 'read' her better... Basically, it is not about certainty or omniscience. it would be unfair to make something as important as morality depend too much on something as unequally-distributed as intelligence. (It is hubris to assume we can see the future. But it is equally hubris to assume that good is mostly about what we are good at.)
    – user9166
    Jun 7, 2016 at 15:26

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