Consequentialist Theories: Ethical Egoism & Utilitarianism

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  • 00:00 Consequentialism
  • 1:21 Utilitarianism
  • 4:22 Ethical Egoism
  • 7:02 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.

Actions have consequences. We all know this, but did you know that there is an entire branch of philosophy devoted to this idea? Explore the consequentialist theories of ethical egoism and utilitarianism and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


When you were a child, your parents tried to teach you that your actions have consequences. Throw a tantrum, get sent to your room. Clean your room, get extra desserts. Stick your finger in a light socket… well, let's just avoid that one. Little did we know, it turns out that our parents were preparing us for intellectual philosophical debates. You see, among the many branches of philosophy to deal with morality, the distinction between right and wrong is one that ranks right up there with the lessons of our youth.

Consequentialism claims that the morality of an action is judged entirely by its consequences. This is an important claim to make. Think about it: how do you judge what is right and wrong? Some people say that you judge through intentions, others by actions. And if you judge through actions, what makes an action moral or immoral? According to consequentialists, the outcome of that action. In other words, the end justifies the means. But how do you decide if the consequence itself is good or bad, moral or immoral? Ah, for that, we're going to have to go a little bit deeper.


So, actions have consequences and according to consequentialism, those consequences determine the morality of that action. Now we just have to decide if that consequence was good or bad. In this field of consequentialism, there are two basic arguments about how to answer this question.

The first is utilitarianism. In this school of thought, actions are judged by how much they benefit the majority. This means that a moral consequence is one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people, or what philosophers call utility. So, a moral action is one that produces the most utility or is most beneficial.

Now, off the bat you may recognize that there are multiple ways to define this. Perhaps the greatest good could mean happiness or perhaps it means best chance at survival. The various possible ways to define 'greatest good' all should be taken into account with utilitarianism but in the end, that's what you're after: a moral action that benefits the most number of people.

Ok, let's look at an example. Say that you are walking down the street and you see an apartment building on fire. What's the right thing to do? What's moral? Well, since we're going with consequentialist ethics, we're going to judge you based on the results that come from your actions. And since this is utilitarianism, you need to find the action that will produce the greatest benefit.

So, option one: just keep walking. Consequence? People die, no one is saved, it's a tragedy. The consequence had a negative outcome for a majority of people, so the choice to ignore the fire was immoral. Option two: run into the burning building and try to rescue as many people as you can. Consequence? A few people are saved, so that was a moral action. Option three: call the fire department, then help out however you can. The fire department can save more people than you, so this action has the most positive consequence. Everyone lives, and you've made the most moral choice.

Now, obviously not every scenario is that simple. What if it's harder to predict how many people will be positively influenced? Or what if the action that produces the greatest good for the majority has a negative impact on you? Utilitarianism requires selflessness and foresight to figure out how your actions will affect the majority of the population, not just yourself.

Ethical Egoism

So utilitarianism was one way to determine if the consequences of an action are moral or immoral. But it's not the only way. The opposite viewpoint is ethical egoism, in which morality is defined by the impact of an action on yourself. In this branch of consequentialism, you're not worried about the greater good, you're worried about your own self-interest. In this theory, it's less moral to risk your own life than to get killed saving someone else.

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