The Evil Outcomes of Consequentialism

justice statue
justice statue

Consequentialism came into the conversation at my debate with David Smalley (Sunday, August 9). Only a short critique of this theory was possible at that time. I want to express more clearly what this theory is and why it’s a terrible option.

Consequentialism is a broad term for any ethical system that judges the morality of actions solely by their consequences. The term was first coined by Elizabeth Anscombe in “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) as a catch-all for the different brands of utilitarianism such as Jeremy Bentham’s quantitative model, J.S. Mill’s qualitative model, and G.E. Moore’s rule utilitarianism. Anscombe, at the time, was criticizing consequentialism and Kantian alternatives for being too action-based and impersonal–as opposed to character based, and personal. She is considered a herald of the oncoming Virtue Ethics revival signaled in large part by Alisdair Macintyre’s After Virtue (1981). All of these broad categories for ethics, still apply today: consequentialism, Kantianism (Kantian Ethics), and Virtue Ethics–the latter of these being, in many ways, a critique of consequentialism.

But why would Kantian ethics and Virtue ethics arise as critiques of consequentialism? What’s wrong with consequentialism?

With some nods to Kantian ethics, and some nods to Virtue ethics, the following critique of consequentialism is still, largely, an independent attack on this deeply flawed system. One need not ascribe to Kantian ethics, or Virtue ethics, or any other particular system to be able to accept the critique that follows. But first, some positives should be noted, lest we err in special pleading.

The Good

  1. Consequentialism allows for a relatively simple, largely practical model of ethics–rather than ascribing, for example, to a religious ethical system which has different laws for different eras (Old Testament and New Testament), different and conflicting accounts for ethical grounding (Divine Command Theory vs. Ethical Essentialism), different epistemologies (Natural law vs. Special Revelation).
  2. Consequentialism does not specify or explicitly require any God or supernature.
  3. Consequentialism, in the form of utilitarianism, treats people as broadly equal
  4. The ends do seem to possess some moral weight.
  5. Consequentialism, in the form of utilitarianism, identifies pleasure within goodness so that even animals can be ethically valuable since they can feel pleasure and pain.
  6. In some cases, the ends do seem to justify the means–such as torturing prisoners to avert a terrorist strike.

The Bad

Now, there may be other benefits not named here that should be included in this list. But this sample should suffice to show how consequentialism can be attractive to novice and advanced ethicists. However, when the drawbacks are also weighed, it should be obvious whether consequentialism is found wanting. Mene mene tekel upharsin.

  1. Consequentialism allows people to be treated as “means to an end.”
    This was a key critique from Immanuel Kant. Kant’s deontological ethic proposed that people are ethical subjects–ends in themselves–not to be treated as objects which some social engineer can rightly manipulate for the “greater good.” Consequentialism, at least in it’s figurehead system of utilitarianism, locates “the good” not in people, or life, or or human nature, but in pleasure. Since people are distinct from and separable from pleasure, people are not intrinsically valuable. People can be means or ends. When people are treated as means some horrible stuff can happen. Consequentialism was a key component in justifying the U.S. eugenics legislation at the turn of the 20th century, and in the 3rd Reich in Germany in WWII, and again in Apartheid South Africa.
  2. The ends do not justify the means.
    As David Smalley admitted in the course of the debate last Sunday, the ends do not justify the means. There is a qualification to be made here. Consequentialism does not require dilemma contexts before using something (including people) as a “means” to an end. If one man is having some low-level of pleasure but is otherwise pretty sad and boring but dozens of people can experience great pleasure over that person’s death, then consequentialism can be used to justify killing him. The ethically exalted “ends,” in this case, greater pleasure for the most people, can lord over anyone who is standing in the way of that greater good. Remember that consequentialism does not explicitly require dilemma contexts, where the only options available are, for example murder vs. assault-and-battery. One need not be pitted between two apparent evils before having ethical permission to do what would otherwise seem to be “evil” (like assault-and-battery). For example, a man is attempting murder but will cease and desist if a passerby were to punch him a few times. Both the consequentialist, and non-consequentialist can agree that this thug should get punched. But the consequentialist can go much further and affirm that another assault when there’s no pressing evil to prevent but just some wildly entertaing fun for the masses. Greater good was had by many, so the means was justified–right?!
  3. Too few “good” elements
    Consequentialism suffers from too scarce a diet of goods. Besides the “ends” (consequences, results, outcomes, etc.) there are also motives, agents, character, virtue, actions, means, manner, and circumstances that can all lend goodness to a moral event.
  4. Its general norms admit too many exceptions and conflicts to be effective as norms.
    Consequentialism is what some have called a “generalist” theory, identifying ethical goods by a “general rule/norm.” Bentham called this rule the “rule of utility,” i.e., “act so as to achieve the greatest pleasure for the most people.” Now one does not have to run this rule across too many scenarios before finding some hard cases which reveal that “pleasure” is only sometimes closely identified with “good,” and people can enjoy things which intuitively or by common consensus are deemed evil. The many exceptions to this general rule compromise its force as a rule.
  5. Utilitarian acts have no intrinsic value
    Another strange consequence of consequentialism is that actions have no intrinsic value so failed attempts and inconsequential acts are not good, hollow. Yet we know that a failed attempt to rescue someone from drowning is still a good thing.
  6. It’s too Impersonal
    Utilitarianism, the sole example of consequentialism to achieve notoriety, was first formulated for political applications by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. He seemed to have in mind a strong sense of justice, and that tends to mean equal treatment before the law. Stated another way, the effort is to be impersonal and unbiased. In some ways this effort to treat everyone equally makes great sense, especially when the context is jury trials for example. However, there is an odd drawback to this model which has proven to be a painful failing for utilitarianism. Ethics demands some level of personal preference, or subjective and unequal treatment. In other words, a parent should give priority to his own child. You or I would never be able to go out to a movie, or go to a concert, since that money or time could have been used serving in a soup kitchen somewhere or donating to starving children in a 3rd world country. I should not feed my kids 3 square meals, but instead my kids and I should all split 1 meal a day so that the money saved can be used for children who wouldn’t get any meals today. Now, I’m all for charity and self-sacrifice. But consequentialism has no built-in rubric for identifying rightful levels of duty to different kinds of people–my family first, friends second, strangers third, etc.–since all people are to be treated equal. That equality makes great sense politically, but would be horribly ill-suited on smaller scale. Yet even at the political level, there can be rightful demarcations between which people a government should care for most–namely, it’s own citizens. If the U.S. government protects it’s own citizens by military and police forces, but don’t owe the same manner or degree of protection to non-citizens. It’s not that the Government should treat non-citizens as if they have no value, but rather that there are practical limits to what time, energy, and resources can be spent and a government’s duty (i.e., akin to Kantian deontology) is to it’s own citizens first.
  7. Consequentialism Fails to Avoid Absolutism
    David Smalley makes clear in his book, Baptized Atheist, that he (at the time of writing) rejects absolutist ethical systems. And it seems that consequentialism offers an escape from “absolutism.” Unfortunately, consequentialism still ends up introducing an ethical foundation, an “absolute” rule that ends up determining all the ethical choices. Consequentialism avoids some kinds of absolutism, for example, Kantian ethics or Divine Command Theory, but it fails to distinguish itself from absolutism generally since it effectively replaces one set of rules for another. Absolutes abound in consequentialism such as the rule of utility, the Bentham’s felicity calculus, hedonism (pleasure-focus), or the “ends justify the means.” And when we consider G.E. Moore’s rule utilitarianism, a bevy of duties and absolutes are introduced.
  8. Discriminates Against Minorities
    Since the rule for consequentialism (at least in it’s utilitarian forms) is to generate the “greatest good for the most people,” it inherently discriminates against minority groups. For example, one can justify oppressing or killing minority groups, or dissenters so long there are more people experiencing pleasure than are not.
  9. Absolutes are needed to discern “better” and “worse” ethical options.
    We’ve already seen how utilitarians fail to escape absolutist rules, but they also fail to escape the need for absolute reference points besides their bevy or rules and principles. There’s no way to tell what is the “greater good” without knowing what is the greatest good, but a perfect standard of good would itself be an absolute.
  10. “End” is ambiguous
    Consequentialism treats ends with special interest, since those outcomes/results/effects are supposedly the good-making property for all of ethics. Yet this category of “ends” is woefully ambiguous. Suppose, for example, you were to help an old lady across the street. Normally we would consider that action “good.” It was pleasing to you for helping, to her for being helped, and to the drivers for having a capable assistant to keep feeble old ladies from causing car accidents. But you may have also served the “end” of achieving a merit badge in boy scouts–the “community service” merit badge. It may have also served a different end; she waits for young men to help her walk around because she likes to caress their arms as they walk; she gets a devilish little thrill out of it and most of her helpers don’t even realize it. Still another end was achieved; she survived another day and so her drug dealing nephew didn’t get discovered living in her basement where she has been aiding and abetting him so she can pay her rent. Now, when you help the lady cross the street, one may think that act was “good,” but it’s difficult to render a judgment since it’s results vary widely from a pleasant gesture, to a perverted pathology, and even contributing to criminal activity. Surely this odd example reveals how we need a wide range of discrminating criteria besides merely “outcomes,” since character, virtue, intention, foresight, knowledge, etc. are evidently good-making properties or good-making circumstances. Consequentialism has a difficult time expanding to include these other things (besides outcomes) since each concession beyond mere “outcomes” makes the system less and less consequentialist.
  11. How long is the long run?
    Further illustrating the ambiguity of “ends” is a temporal question: How long is the long run? Ethical events, for the consequentialist, are to be judged by their outcomes, but how far must one forecast into the future in judging the morality of an act? Helping that old lady across the street is “good” insofar as you have helped her avert a car-accident. But if she, as a results, survives for several more years.
  12. Suspended “good”
    Consequentialism also has the odd result of suspending ethical evaluations till the “ends” arrive. If you donate money to a reputable charity by sending the check in the mail, you may intend to achieve good, act to achieve good, and there are many people and circumstances participating incidentally to help accomplish that potentially good act–but that moral event is neither good nor evil unless and until the “results are in” (whatever that stopping point may be; see #11 above).
  13. Character Is Good
    One of the strengths of Virtue ethics is that it rightly challenges other systems which locate the good entirely in behaviors. Virtue ethics allows for some measure of goodness in behaviors but it goes far deeper to identify goodness, also, in the virtues and accumulated character which direct one’s actions.  Consequentialism has no robust or thoroughgoing categories to account for the goodness of character. Consequentialism treats ethics in terms of public actions. Consequentialists cannot, within their system, treat the intentions, virtues and character that motivate an action as “good” since intentions and virtues and character are causes but consequences are effects.
  14. Consequentialism puts the locus of ethics beyond our reach
    By locating goodness in the outcomes, consequentialism has set our ethical task in the future. Yet no matter how well we may plan, or how reasonable our estimations may be, there is always an element of mystery to the future. Unforeseeable events control the real ethics of any given situation, since we can plan, and work, and act with the best knowledge available, yet a hurricane or a traffic accident, or a death in the family, ruin it all for us. We do not hold the future, but we can live and act in the present and we can control our motivations, our thoughts, and our actions now. If we are to be ethically responsible for our actions it would only make sense for that ethical component to those actions to be at least somehow within our control. Every action eventuates a train of consequences, and we cannot fully predict where that train may lead, or what harm it might cause on the way. It would only make sense then to identify ethical duties to the extent that we have control over that train of actions.
  15. Pleasure can be bad and pain can be good.
    Utilitarianism ascribes goodness to pleasure, specifically, “the greatest pleasure for the most people.” Consequentialism could, potentially, expand or replace that hedonistic framing with other things like “justice,” or “love.” But so far, the only consequentialist schemas I’ve yet encountered are hedonistic, framing goodness strictly in terms of pleasure.
  16. The Utilitarian fallacy
    Perhaps the most glaring fault of utilitarianism is what’s called the “Utilitarian Fallacy.” Put simply, utilitarianism can (and has) been used to justify all sorts of known evils. Rather than using that calculus to “show” that those ends are good; those reprehensible ends can be used to show that the calculus is bad. Many comic book villains, or action hero villains, demonstrate the cold calculated logic of this fallacy–once people are means, instead of ends in themselves, a person can justify most any slaughter so long as some projected future goal is thought to be good enough to justify it.
  17. Consequentialism Struggles with Intrinsic goods
    I asked David at one point what he thought was “good.” This is both a simple and a hard question, since it can be answered either with examples of good things (as David did), and there are plenty of easily found examples of “good” that he and I agree on. Or it can be answered with a precising definition, seeking to get to the heart of this difficult topic. One of the more compelling answers to this sublime question is from Aristotle who says that “the good” is intrinsic value, that is, something to be sought for it’s own sake. We seek food for nourishment and flavor, we seek marriage for companionship and love, we seek a television for viewing pleasure–each of these things are sought for the sake of some other use they serve. But we seek goodness for no other reason than that it is good. Goodness is it’s own value. Value is not extrinsically imposed on goodness, goodness is intrinsically valuable in it’s own right. It does not drawit’s worth from how useful it is for some other purpose. No, goodness is itself the end to which all other things are “aimed.” Consequentialism struggles in this regard because it’s operating categories of “utility,” “usefulness,” and “consequences,” expose it’s extrinsic approach to goodness. Consequentialism is metaphysically weak, lacking any robust built-in justification for why any particular thing is ultimately good. It’s goods are only extrinsic, where the “goodness” is it’s usefulness toward some other goal. Sure, it has an operating rule–the rule of utility–and that lends some sense of grounding and reliability, but that rule deals only in instrumental/extrinsic values; “X is good if it achieves pleasurable outcomes”–but what then makes pleasure good? As we said above, some pleasures can be bad (such as “enjoying the torture of babies”) and some pains can be good (such as painful alerts warning of danger). Here, Utilitarianism dwindles down to old-fashioned hedonism, and hedonism has been soundly rebuked as early as Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. In summary, utilitarianism is too extrinsic, treating all goods like they are only extrinsically traced to the various ways people experience pleasure, when instead there are many “goods” abiding at the level of character and beneath any public actions.
  18. Consequentialism Suffers Logical contradictions
    The same event can be “good” and “bad” in the same sense depending on whether the immediate results or the distant results are considered. It does not make sense for the same historical event to be equally good and bad, overall, and change back and forth between “good” and “bad” as different and distal effects occur.
  19. Maximizing the pleasure for the most people is overly demanding.
    Besides the “impersonal” problem above (#6), the rubric of consequentialism loses simplicity when faced with real world decisions. One could never go to a movie or eat out because that money could always have gone to meet someone else’s more basic needs. Applied consistently, one can hardly enjoy a single day since someone else is hurting worse than you, and he or she needs your resources more than you do. One cannot rightly prize family above strangers, since feeding 12 children in New Guinea might be cheaper than feeding two of your own children here. Unless some qualifications are added, utilitarianism demands we feed the twelve instead.
  20. Consequentialism Suffers the Naturalistic Fallacy
    Consequentialism, to the extent that it is a naturalistic approach to ethics, suffers the yet unresolved “is-ought” problem, AKA: the naturalistic fallacy. In short, we cannot assume that natural facts give rise to moral facts, “Is” can generate “oughts.” Now both categories do seem to exist, natural and moral facts. But naturalists have a bridging problem since nature is ultimately non-mental and even human minds would, at best, give rise to culture-relative ethics (i.e., conventionalism). Meanwhile, we take it that it is a fact (not just a preference, or convention) that “rape is evil.” There does not yet seem to be a sound solution to how one bridges from non-mental, undesigned, naturalistically-defined “nature” into the transcendent realm of “morality.”
  21. Consequentialism has no real metaethic
    Consequentialism is, in some ways, only the veneer of an ethical system. This is not an island, cropping  up from miles of grounding underneath. Consequentialism is a dingy on the ethical ocean. In many cases, if not most cases, consequentialists cannot espouse consequentialism as the deep or complete summary of their ethics. To do that one must presume a definition of “good” from the outset, usually hedonism (“good is pleasure”) yet that very admission reveals that there’s another whole ethical system underneath consequentialism. And to the extent that that system is flawed or inadequate, consequentialism may likewise suffer. Hedonism, for example, suffers the glaring problem of how some pleasure are manifestly evil, and some pains do not seem closely tied to suffering or evil. This problem can, potentially, be averted if one supplements consequentialism with a more robust metaethic from some other system, but so far, whenever that supplement is naturalistic it suffers from the naturalistic fallacy and other problems mentioned above.
  22. In consequentialism one can’t do “goodness for goodness’ sake” since good’s are accidental not intrinsic.
    Because of the extrinsic-intrinsic problem above, utilitarianism, if true, would make it impossible to do “good for goodness’ sake.” All goods are found in the outcomes not in anything intrinsically. For consequentialists (and against, utilitarianism is the only example yet presented of consequentialism), goodness is always only an accident of outcome never an intrinsic property of any character trait, or action. One cannot do justice because justice is good, one can only do justice–which is, at the time, neutral–because it might bring about some foreseen pleasure in the future.
  23. Utilitarianism is Relativistic
    Because of the extrinsic manner, and the subjectivity of pleasure, utilitarianism comingles with relativism. In at least some cases, utilitarianism is nothing but a form of relativism. But there’s a reason that the majority of atheists in philosophical ethics are not relativists. It’s because relativism is pretty abhorrent when pressed to its logical extremes. cultural relativism discriminates against minority ethical systems and against moral revolutionaries like Martin Luther King or Ghandi. Relativism trivializes all morality, taking it out of the realm of objective knowledge and factual stuff, and placing it instead into the category of opinions, instincts, and sentiments. Individualistic forms of relativism have no ultimate arbiters between people who morally disagree. And cultural relativism can’t help arbitrate between feuding cultures either. Relativism also attempts to prove a negative, claiming to know (within a reasoanble estimation) that there are no absolutes even though no relativist alive has studied every single claimed “moral absolute.” cultural relativism ends up making “the good” into a “might makes rightt” or “group vote,” despite the fact that we know, from history and experience, that the majority can be wrong, and the stronger party can be evil. Relativism can also be used to justify most anything. And lastly, we know better than relativism. We know that some things are just plain wrong, no matter what the consequentialist or relativistic rubric may have us think.


Phew! It feels good to get all that off my chest. Ethics is messy stuff and there is no ethical system out there that is free of problems. But hopefully you can see from this list that consequentialism is a deeply problematic system that looks like it would need too much “patching up” to be worth our purchase.


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