Consequentialist & Non-Consequentialist Views of Morality

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  • 0:00 Morality of Actions
  • 1:03 Consequentialism
  • 2:54 Non-Consequentialism
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

We all want to do the right thing, but how do we know if our actions are moral? Explore the competing theories of consequentialism and non-consequentialism, and then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Morality of Actions

Actions speak louder than words. Talk is cheap. Action is eloquence. We hear these sorts of proverbs all the time. Clearly, we put a lot of emphasis on how people act, and many of us judge right or wrong by actions as well.

Well, there's actually a deep philosophical precedent for this. The philosophy that morals are determined by actions is called normative ethics. This is actually pretty prevalent in our society - just look at the justice system. We judge actions, not intentions. So normative ethics evaluate the morality of actions, but there's more to it than that.

You didn't think we were just going to leave it at normative ethics, did you? No, this is philosophy; there's always another layer to explore. And it's time to take action, specifically, taking a look at the competing theories of consequentialism and non-consequentialism.


All right, we're entering one level within the normative ethics school of thought. While all normative ethics agree that morality is based in actions, there are different ways of viewing this. For example, how do you actually evaluate an action?

Well, here's one idea - how about judging morality of an action by the consequences it creates? We call this theory consequentialism. In this viewpoint, a moral action is one that produces a positive outcome, and an immoral action creates a negative outcome. A common way to express this is the end justifies the means, so if something will ultimately be beneficial, the action is moral.

Now, again, this is philosophy, so nothing's quite that simple. In consequentialism, the morality of an action is based on its consequence, but how do you define a consequence as negative or positive? There are a few basic divisions here. The first is personal. If an action is personally beneficial, some say that makes it moral. But what if that action hurts others? More commonly, consequentialism is judged by a larger consequence, sometimes by the impact on society, or the state, or the greater good in general.

One of the most common beliefs is in utilitarianism, or the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea recognizes that no action is universally beneficial, so the most moral action benefits the most number of people possible. But what if that action hurts the individual who has to make it? Is it still moral if there is a negative consequence for that person? And now, we're back where we started.


So how about we explore another side of this? The opposite of consequentialism is, unsurprisingly, non-consequentialism, although this could also be labeled as deontological ethics. From this viewpoint, the morality of an action is based on its adherence to accepted rules. So the outcome of the action doesn't really matter; what matters is, essentially, the intention.

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