Bertrand Russell is a consequentialist (see here [1] and here [2]: “ Russell, like Moore was what is nowadays known as a consequentialist. He believed that the rightness or otherwise of an act is “in some way, dependent on consequences””).

Consequentialism is defined as:

Consequentialism is an ethical theory that judges whether or not something is right by what its consequences are.


Yet, Russell made this famous statement:

When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy. Ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth to the facts bear out? Never let yourself be diverted either by what you would wish to believe or by what you think could have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But, look only and surely. And what are the facts?

Wouldn’t this statement contradict Russell’s consequentialism? I mean, if a consequentialist judges the moral legitimacy of actions by their consequences, then it is ok to judge things according to “what you think could have beneficent social effects if it were believed”.

NB: As of the kind of consequentialism, Russell was utilitarian, at least at the beginning of his life (Russell cited here: “ [Unlike the] utilitarian… I judge pleasure and pain to be of small importance compared to knowledge, the appreciation and contemplation of beauty, and a certain intrinsic excellence of mind which, apart from its practical effects, appears to me to deserve the name of virtue”). Then he turned contemplative (which I don’t whether it is compatible with consequentialism).

  • 2
    How does it contradict consequentialism? Ethics is about what is morally right, not what is factually true. Twisting the facts for "beneficent social effects" is not consequentialism, it is the "post-truth" of pop-postmodernism. Russell also criticized James for "truth is what works" motto, and that did not contradict consequentialism either.
    – Conifold
    Feb 26, 2023 at 7:58
  • @Conifold What is “ it is the "post-truth" of pop-postmodernism”? To what did Russell refer in this famous quote about what is factually true?
    – Starckman
    Feb 26, 2023 at 8:10
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    INSS, Philosophy of Post-Truth. The quote is from Russell's 1959 BBC interview. The immediately preceding sentences are "I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this:" This quote is not about morality.
    – Conifold
    Feb 26, 2023 at 8:23
  • @Conifold But the post-truth idea didn’t exist when Russell made this statement. So to what was he referring?
    – Starckman
    Feb 26, 2023 at 8:26
  • 2
    The name was not around, biases, wishful thinking and manipulation for this or that purpose are as old as sin. Tacitus, for example, wrote c. 100 AD:"The histories of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred. Hence my purpose is to relate a few facts... without anger or passion (sine ira et studio)". The maxim of intellectual honesty in pursuit of truth is also classical, as one can see from Plato's dialogs.
    – Conifold
    Feb 26, 2023 at 8:42

1 Answer 1


There is no necessary contradiction between both positions, since one is about ethics whereas the other is about the philosophical method for the pursuit of truth. In fact, they are pretty related, more details below.

Russell made seminal work in both mathemathical logic and analytic philosophy, therefore eventually he embedded both in his own philosophical method, called Theory of Definite Descriptions:

Russell’s philosophical method has at its core the making and testing of hypotheses through the weighing of evidence. Hence Russell’s comment that he wished to emphasize the “scientific method” in philosophy. His method also requires the rigorous analysis of problematic propositions using the machinery of first-order logic. It was Russell’s belief that by using the new logic of his day, philosophers would be able to exhibit the underlying “logical form” of natural-language statements. A statement’s logical form, in turn, would help resolve various problems of reference associated with the ambiguity and vagueness of natural language.

Therefore, the quote in your question is a "common language" translation of his own preferred philosophical method: don't get distracted from the vagueness and subjectivity of mind and language, just focus on the cold facts for truth judgements.

The above critic, analytical thinking, also inevitably lead him to consequentialism, instead of a normative position, so rather than a contradiction, I would see here a natural application of his philosophical method on ethics and moral. In fact, from Russell's Moral Philosophy you can see that he changed his mind throughout his life and even held contradictory opinions about the same matter, because of the difficulties which arised when applying his method (italic mine because it's a direct quote):

Russell’s dissatisfaction with his writings on ethical theory did not extend to his writings on social and political topics. I have no difficulty in practical moral judgments, which I find I make on a roughly hedonistic [i.e., utilitarian] basis, but, when it comes to the philosophy of moral judgments, I am impelled in two opposite directions and remain perplexed. (RoE: 165–6/Papers 11: 311) His perplexity, however, was theoretical rather than practical. He was pretty clear about what we ought to do (work for world government, for example), but “perplexed” about what he meant when he said that we ought to do it.

Finally, you can see throughout the whole entry how he applied his above outlined method for many different ethical problems, in his personal scientific-philosophical pursue of ethical truth:

One point to stress, before we go on. Russell took a pride in his willingness to change his mind. Obstinacy in the face of counter-arguments was not, in his opinion, a virtue in a scientifically-minded philosopher.

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