This is cited as one of the first objection to consequentialism here (https://www.britannica.com/topic/ethics-philosophy/Objections-to-consequentialism):

"It is also claimed that, because consequentialists must always aim at the good, impartially conceived, they cannot place adequate value on—or even enter into—the most basic human relationships, such as love and friendship, because these relationships require that one be partial to certain other people, preferring their interests to those of strangers."

However, it seems easily "fixable" to take into account the fact that people care more about (derive more pleasure or pain from) the experience of their family/friends than strangers?

  • 2
    Britannica is not a very good source on philosophy. "Must always aim at the good, impartially conceived" does not describe consequentialism at all, not even all forms of utilitarianism. It is specific to classical utilitarianism with its "common good" utility, and the objection, accordingly, only applies to it. For a better account see SEP, Consequentialism. What characterizes consequentialism is that morality of an action is judged based on its consequences, not that there is a utility, let alone an impartial one.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 2, 2021 at 20:19
  • @Conifold thanks much for the clarification. This largely addresses my question. A big part of my training is in economics where there are very easy and formal ways to incorporate these human relationships into a utilitarian view of welfare, so I was really perplexed when I saw this objection (and thus raised the question).
    – J Li
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 5:47

1 Answer 1


The quote seems to contradict itself, suggesting that the good "impartially conceived" will always be partial. While this may be a real problem in practice it is less so in theory. The "good" in consequentailist thinking can be any goal of a rational will, including the inclination to charity or even the desire for self-sacrifice.

Some theorists, Kant for example, would add that the greater problem with consequentialism is that consequences cannot be reliably predicted. Human history is indeed beset with disastrously unintended consequences. That said, the problems of kinship and natural limits to universal sympathy are addressed by many philosophers. J.S. Mill, for one, attempted to expand the concept of the good in utilitarianism to encompass higher motives.

Plato's Republic argues for the dissolution of families. The guardians of the polis and "the good" must reproduce and be educated outside of families to avoid such ties. And in fact similar plans are often put in to effect, as when Solon and Pisistratus reformed the political order to break up clans and reform them as "demos."

So, kinship biases are certainly "fixable," in theory, and this is compatible with consequentialist thinking.

  • I think the OP suggested fixing consequentialism instead of adjusting humans to fit the theory? It would be good if there were less problems in practice than in theory. "When your map doesn't match the terrain, trust the terrain."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 0:49

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