Against Consequentialism

In this essay I will argue against consequentialism as an adequate theory of ethics. Though space does not permit me to enumerate all of my objections, nor to respond to every conceivable variant of consequentialism, I will sketch three general objections that seem to strike at the heart of the theory. I will conclude that consequentialism is a deeply flawed and incomplete theory and should therefore be abandoned. I am under no illusions that what I have to say will be convincing to the committed consequentialist. Nevertheless, in bringing to the surface some of the counterintuitive and uncomfortable implications of consequentialism I hope to show why I and many others reject it.

Before laying out my objections, I must define what I will be criticizing. Consequentialism is the theory that the criterion of the rightness and wrongness of actions is whether they maximize good consequences. Consequentialists disagree among themselves over what exactly constitutes a good consequence and therefore warrants maximization, but they are united in affirming the maximization maxim–namely, that the supreme principle of morality is to maximize value, however value is defined. It follows that all agents have a duty to perform the action, in a given situation, that produces the best overall state of affairs–that is, the state containing the most overall value.

The imperative to maximize entails that particular actions are never intrinsically right or wrong; rather, their rightness or wrongness is situational–purely a function of whether they happen to maximize value in a given circumstance. The situational character of consequentialism prompts my first objection: the human rights objection. If human rights are to be more than a convenient fiction they must find expression in absolute prohibitions on certain actions–prohibitions that cannot be overridden regardless of the consequences. Human rights entail, at a minimum, correlative duties never to deliberately kill the innocent, rape, or enslave.

But respect for human rights is in tension with the maximization maxim. For instance, suppose that a violent mob poses a grave threat to the stability and peace of a society. The only way to placate the mob’s fury is to execute an innocent man. If he is executed, the mob will disband; if he is allowed to live, the mob will go on a rampage and kill ten people. On a consequentialist calculus, it would seem that the right thing to do is to execute the innocent man–one death is preferable to ten deaths.

Or, to take a situation both more fanciful and more disturbing, imagine that a society is on the brink of a destructive war in which thousands will die. For whatever reason, the one thing that will avert the war is the torture and dismemberment of a three-year-old in front of her parents–perhaps the antagonist society believes that only the torturous death of an enemy child can satiate the wrath of their war deity. It seems that a consequentialist would have to endorse this unspeakable act in order to avoid calamity on a much greater scale. Yet it is difficult to shake the conviction that deliberately killing the innocent is always an atrocious injustice, irrespective of its potential to maximize value. No plausible theory of ethics could sanction such injustice.

Rule-consequentialists would respond to these hypotheticals by arguing that a society that sanctions rights violations would not maximize good consequences in the long run; a society that respects human rights would ultimately produce more value than a society that frequently contravenes them for the greater good. Perhaps so. But they make room for human rights in their theories only by redefining them in a way that incorporates consequentialist assumptions. This is mere sleight of hand. They cannot get around the fact that, in any consequentialist system of morality, rights will be, at bottom, contingent–that is, not really rights at all. And rule-consequentialism has a tendency to collapse into act-consequentialism (Rudolph 75). We know from sad experience that when human rights are watered down, the powerless inevitably will be exploited by the powerful.

My second objection pertains to the impartial, view-from-nowhere stance in the world that consequentialism seems to demand. A consequentialist cannot consistently prioritize the needs of her own family and community, for the preferences and interests of those close to one count for no more in the overall consequentialist calculus than those of people living on the other side of the world. This aspect of consequentialism seems to rest on a fundamentally flawed anthropology. We human beings are finite creatures, embedded in relationships that are partially constitutive of our very identity. We are rooted in particularity, and our rootedness has moral significance. I call this the communitarian objection.

Now it is certainly the case that all human beings have equal dignity and rights (indeed, the human rights objection presupposes this), but consequentialism arguably places far too much emphasis on the universal at the expense of the particular. For instance, if one’s spouse and a stranger were both in equal danger, it seems clear that the right thing to do is to save one’s spouse. Plainly, one shouldn’t be faulted for saving one’s spouse over a stranger. However, from a consequentialist perspective, it seems that the proper thing to do may actually be to flip a coin to decide whom to save, for one life is as good as any other. And if the stranger happens to be a scientist engaged in important research, then the consequentialist case for withholding aid from one’s spouse becomes even stronger.

Alternatively, suppose one’s child was born with a rare medical condition that restricts the range of activities available to her and necessitates ongoing medical treatment to preserve her life. If the money expended on her medical treatment were instead donated to charity, it could save many more lives–the consequentialist case for withholding medical treatment from her in order to maximize value in the world seems strong. But can privileging the interests of one’s child in this way really be said to constitute a moral failing? If anything, it seems that the parent is in fact fulfilling one of her most primal, preeminent moral duties. We recognize at a deep level that particular and local attachments matter. That consequentialism has no place for such commitments is a problem.

Consequentialism also seems to clash with a plausible understanding of friendship. Friendship by its nature requires that one value the friendship for its own sake. But since, on consequentialism, all actions should aim at value maximization, one’s friendships are in reality devoid of intrinsic value. They are valuable only insofar as and for as long as they contribute to value maximization. As Neera Badhwar Kapur explains, “the problematic feature of C (consequentialism) is not that it sometimes calls for a renunciation of friendship on account of its consequences but that it sees the moral worth of friendship as entirely dependent on its total consequences, with no independent moral weight assigned to its worth for the individuals involved” (Kapur 498). The consequentialist thus seems to misunderstand what friendship is. True friendship ought to endure regardless of how useful our friend is to us in achieving certain ulterior ends. I call this the genuine friendship objection.

Some consequentialists would try to preempt this criticism by arguing that a society where people value friendship for its own sake rather than simply for the greater good that it produces is preferable to one where people operate based upon a more explicit consequentialist calculation (note how this parallels their response to the human rights objection). All the same, to maintain the pretense that one’s friendships have intrinsic value because it will lead to the greatest good in the long run is inherently self-defeating. Even if they decide to pretend otherwise for prudential reasons, consequentialists are fundamentally committed to viewing friendship from the perspective of the consequences it can generate. It follows that only inconsistent consequentialists can enter into genuine friendships.

In conclusion, consequentialism is unsound, not because it is entirely devoid of truth, but because it inordinately inflates a partial truth. It is sometimes the case that moral agents should try to maximize value; even so, value maximization is not the whole of morality. There are times when it must give way to considerations of justice, community, and friendship. To insist otherwise is to affirm an impoverished conception of the moral life–and a potentially dangerous one.


Works Cited

Kapur, Neera Badhwar. “Why it is Wrong to be Always Guided by the Best: Consequentialism and Friendship.” Ethics 101:3 (1991): 483-504. Print.

Rudolph, Jared. “Consequences and Limits: A Critique of Consequentialism.” Manchester Journal of Philosophy 17:1 (2008): 64-76. Print.


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