I've noticed that when I read about ethics, "consequentialism" is sometimes described as a broader category of which utilitarianism is only an example, but sometimes the word seems to be used simply as a synonym for utilitarianism. I have never heard of any consequentialist moral theory that is not utilitarianism. Is there any other example of consequentialist moral theory?

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    There are plenty, see SEP Consequentialism and Rule Consequentialism for a survey and comparisons to utilitarianism. Consequentialism only says that moral judgments should take into account consequences of actions, there is nothing in that about maximizing utility. One can have a consequentialist deontology, for example.
    – Conifold
    Oct 6 '20 at 20:00

Yes, there are several extant such theories and an infinity of possible ones. In fact, just about any ethical theory can be recast as a consequentialist theory. This is because consequentialism is a fairly schematic theory. It basically says:

Act Consequentialism: an action X is right provided that X maximizes Y, where Y is the fundamental good.

Rule Consequentialism: an action X is right provided that X is recommended by a general rule, following of which maximizes Y, where Y is the fundamental good.

Now what is the "fundamental good"? That comes from axiology, from your theory of value. Traditional consequentialists were hedonists and thought it was pleasure that had to be maximized.

If, however, you are a virtue theorists you think that the "fundamental good" is something like "the cultivation of virtue", where a lot of discussion centers around the definition of "virtue". So you could frame it as something like this:

Virtue (Act) Consequentialism: an action X is right provided that X maximizes the cultivation of virtue in the subject.

The last major cluster of theories are the deontological ones. These are a bit more difficult to fit in the consequentialist mold. Deontologists hold that the right action is the one which conforms to some set of rules/duties. The consequences don't really matter at all. For instance, if it's wrong to lie then it is wrong to lie no matter what might result from telling the truth -- even if, e.g., telling the truth would get a lot of people hurt. But, it is possible to give it a (somewhat tortured) consequentialist rendering roughly along the following lines:

Deontological (Act) Consequentialism: an action X is right provided that X maximizes the satisfaction of duties.

It is also worth noting that some variants of consequentialism ditch the "maximizing" requirement in favor of a "satisficing" requirement:

Satisficing (Act) Consequentialism: an action X is right provided that X brings about a sufficient large amount of Y, where Y is the fundamental good.

So, it should be clear by now that "consequentialism" isn't much of a constraint on your theory. A lot of the heavy lifting is done by the theory of value. Some existing consequentialist theories are as follows:

  • Hedonism: the ultimate good is pleasure; the right action is that which maximizes pleasure/minimizes pain.
  • Pluralism: the ultimate good is some complex cluster of things like pleasure and virtue; the right action is the one that maximizes these values.
  • Preference: the ultimate good is the satisfaction of preferences/desires; the right action is the one that satisfies the most preferences/desires.

The list could go on. Good resources are the SEP article on consequentialism as well as the entry on value theory/axiology.

The main take-away:

Ethical theories can typically be broken into a theory of right action, which specifies the relationship an action must bear to "the good" for it to be the right action, and a theory of value that specifies what "the good" is. Consequentialism is a theory of right action and does not place constraints on your theory of value. So, you can hold the consequentialist portion fixed and vary the value theoretical component to generate any number of alternatives.

(Note: what I've laid out, the view that any theory can be "consequentialized" is a popular view but not without its detractors. See "Consequentialize This" by Campbell Brown for an example of the competing view.)

  • This is one of the best, most prolific though succinct, answers that I have had the pleasure of perusing in quite some time. Kudos, sir. Thank you for so adeptly unpacking and laying bare the faux categorical complexity of the issue.
    – gonzo
    Oct 7 '20 at 0:09
  • @gonzo Thanks! I added a few points that just occurred to me, summarizing the situation and linking to an article that takes issue with my contention that all ethical theories can be "consequentialized".
    – Dennis
    Oct 7 '20 at 0:41
  • Thanks for the elaborate answer! I had checked the SEP article though and what I found a bit unsatisfying about it is also what I find is lacking in your answer… a "real world" example of a non-utilitarian moral theory. I understand that there are many "imaginable" theories, but has any one of these theories actually been endorsed by any philosopher? Because I find utilitarian and deontological views "in the wild" all the time, but I have never found a non-utilitarian consequentialist person.
    – Ariel
    Oct 7 '20 at 8:41
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    @Ariel Section 3 of the SEP article on consequentialism discusses the varieties in detail and gives a number of references. You can also scan the references section, the titles should be transparent enough. A number of papers are also referenced in the summary of the PhilPapers page for the varieties of consequentialism.
    – Dennis
    Oct 7 '20 at 10:59
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    @Ariel To be fair...no such theory is "real world". Utilitarianism is practically impossible because empirical preferences lack certain properties (transitivity, for example). So if you say, for example, that as a rule of thumb one is to act so that a maximum number of people cry, that is consequentialist. But it is not utilitarian, since utilitarianism is about "good", where "good" classically is understood as "pleasure". The problems indeed begin when we are speaking of "moral consequentialism" since this implies "good" consequences, which is a broad definition of utilitarianism.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 7 '20 at 14:07

Good question, and not sure of a proper or complete answer. But utilitarianism is, generally speaking, a modern, strictly secular development and usually contrasted with "deontic" moral theories based in reason, preeminently Kant. Both are modern attempts to rescue morality from the collapse of moral traditions following the bourgeois revolutions and the Enlightenment.

To categorize other theories as "consequentialist" may be anachronistic, but certainly there are Christian moral theories, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Buddhism, the "moral sympathies" of Hume or Adam Smith, and revivals of virtue theory, notably MacIntyre's "After Virtue." Stoicism also seems to be having a revival.

Since virtually all such moral theories deal with "consequences" and predate Kant, you might say that "utility calculus," is the exception rather than the rule, a mechanical workaround for breakdowns of divine authority. Be advised this is a "jotting-on-cocktail-napkin" answer only. Perhaps others can provide a fuller typology of moral theories.

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