Consequentialist & Non-Consequentialist Views of Morality

Micah Pollens-Dempsey, Christopher Muscato, Sasha Blakeley
  • Author
    Micah Pollens-Dempsey

    Micah Pollens-Dempsey has a bachelor's degree in English and philosophy from the University of Michigan.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

  • Expert Contributor
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

Define consequentialism. Compare and contrast the consequentialist approach vs the non-consequentialist theory. Discover consequentialist ethics and consequentialist moral reasoning. Updated: 10/25/2021

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What is Consequentialism?

Consequentialism is a philosophical claim that the morality of an action is judged by whether it results in right or wrong consequences. Consequentialism falls under the field of normative ethics, which is a branch of philosophy that investigates and theorizes about which actions are morally right or wrong, which actions should or should not be taken. There are different perspectives on what makes an action right or wrong; consequentialism is just one. The definition of consequentialism, therefore, is the position within normative ethics determining if an action is right or wrong depending on whether it brings about a good or bad consequences.

Consequentialist Theory

Consequentialist theory claims morally good actions are those with good consequences. Consequentialists can have different views on what makes a consequence good, or how people should think about consequences, so the consequentialist approach can lead to different philosophical positions. The following table defines several important forms of consequentialist theory.

Term Definition
Utilitarianism The view that the moral worth of an action is determined by how much happiness or suffering it brings to the world, and therefore people should always do whatever will bring the most happiness to the most people.
Hedonism The view that we should judge actions based on how much pleasure or pain they produce.
Pluralism The view that actions should be judged by the consequences they bring about, such as justice, love, or knowledge.
Actual consequentialism The view that actions are right or wrong depending on the consequences they actually bring about.
Subjective consequentialism The view that a person's actions are right or wrong depending on what they thought the consequences would be.
Motive consequentialism The view that a person's action should be judged by determining their motivation for doing that action and examining the consequences the motive brings about.
Actualism The view that when a person is deciding which action would be best, they should weigh the consequences of actions based on what their actual choices will be in the future.
Possibilism The view that when a person is deciding which action would be best, they should weigh the consequences of actions based on what the possible actions they would be capable of taking in the future.
Rule consequentialism The view that the morality of an action depends on the consequences brought about by the principle that a person acted on when taking the action.
Act consequentialism The view that the morality of an action depends on the consequences brought about by the action a person took.

John Stuart Mill was a prominent philosopher who advocated utilitarianism, which is a form of consequentialism.

John Stuart Mill, one of the most famous utilitarian philosophers.

Consequentialist Ethics

Consequentialist ethics claims that morality is about the consequences our choices bring about. Consequentialist moral reasoning generally focuses on how these consequences affect everyone, not just the person taking the action. This means that in order to act morally, people have to act in ways that benefit the most possible people. The claim of people having a moral duty to help others is called ethical altruism. In contrast, the claim that moral actions are those that benefit themselves is called ethical egoism.

Suppose someone has more money than they need and is deciding between two options: spending the money on something that will make them happy, like buying a new car, or spending the money on something that will help others, like donating to a charity. Consequentialism would likely dictate what this person will donate the money because the overall benefit of donating to charity is greater than that of buying a new car. In this way, consequentialism leads to the position of ethical altruism. Ethical egoism, on the other hand, would result in the person doing whatever makes them happy. If they want to donate the money, they should donate it, but if they want to get a new car, they will get a new car.

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Non-Consequentialist Theory

In contrast to consequentialist views of morality, there are also non-consequentialist views, which claim that morality depends on aspects of an action beyond just consequences. One common non-consequentialist theory is deontological ethics, or deontology. Deontology claims that good consequences aren't the morally deciding factor: rather, actions themselves are good or bad based on whether they obey or violate moral rules or duties. If one person steals from another, a consequentialist would judge the action based on whether it caused good or bad consequences; a deontologist would judge it based on whether it broke a moral rule against stealing.

Immanuel Kant was a philosopher who advocated deontology, a non-consequentialist position.

Immanuel Kant, a prominent deontological philosopher.

Non-Consequentialist Ethics

While consequentialist accounts focus only on how much good or bad an action produces, non-consequentialist ethics often take other factors into account beyond consequences. For example, the consequentialist view generally holds that people should only weigh their own welfare as much as that of any other person. There are some situations where the consequentialist view would require a person to put their own welfare at risk or in harm's way in order to help others. A non-consequentialist might disagree and claim that people have a right to preserve their own basic safety rather than make such a great sacrifice for others. This right is called a prerogative.

Relatedly, consequentialist views may in some situations require one person to harm another in order to help others, as long as the overall good produced is greater than the overall harm. Non-consequentialists may argue certain acts are morally wrong no matter what good they produce. For instance, they might say it is always wrong to seriously harm an innocent person even if that harm leads to some other benefit. A moral rule banning harmful actions is called a constraint.

Another relevant concept to non-consequentialist theories is moral status. The fact people have moral status means that treating them morally requires considering their interests. An is how moral status gives people the right to not be seriously harmed by others. On the consequentialist view, people's interests are considered in terms of the total goodness or badness an action produces. On the non-consequentialist view, the moral status of a given individual might override the calculation of consequences. Meaning, an action that leads to many good things might be wrong because it violates someone's moral status by harming them in immoral ways. Such a case would be an example of inviolability, which is the idea that a person has a right to not be harmed no matter what other consequences the harm would bring about.

Since the non-consequentialist view focuses on factors beyond consequences, it holds that actions producing the same consequences might not be equally good or bad. Imagine a person choosing between two alternatives that will both lead to the same amount of total happiness and suffering, but one action involves harming people in ways that violate their rights, while the other does not. For the consequentialist these options are equivalent, but the non-consequentialist would argue the two cases are different because it would be wrong for the person to harm and violate others' rights.

Consequentialist and Non-Consequentialist Examples

Hypothetical situations can help clarify the differences between the consequentialist and non-consequentialist approach.

Suppose there are two friends. One is extremely excited about a new movie coming out soon, while the other is not interested in the movie but kindly promises the first they will go to the movie together on opening night. When the night of the movie arrives, the second friend decides on not seeing the movie, and wonders if it would be possible to just stay home and watch TV. However, the second friend already promised to accompany the first friend to the movie. Is it wrong to break the promise?

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Views of Morality: Explore Further

This lesson gave you an introduction to two schools of thought that fall under normative ethics: consequentialist and non-consequentialist morality. This can be a tricky subject, but you can use the following activities to learn more.

Be the Teacher

Consequentialist and non-consequentialist views of morality have different and complex definitions. Now that you have read this lesson, imagine that you are going to teach a class explaining these theories of morality. Write down in point-form what you will say to define each view of morality, making as little reference as possible to this lesson (come back if you get stuck!). For example, think about what questions your students might ask and how you would answer them.

Your Opinion

Now that you have heard about these two major schools of thought, which one do you think you agree with more? It's okay if you fall somewhere in between the two ideas, but give them both some thought. Think about some real life examples of each kind of morality in action. Write an essay explaining which view of morality you take and why.

Utilitarianism

This lesson briefly mentioned utilitarianism. Do some research on your own and see what more you can learn about this area of philosophy. Look up famous utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Write a paragraph summarizing your understanding of their ideas. For instance, how do you feel about utilitarianism? Do you think it is applicable to our society? Why or why not? Explain your answers in a second paragraph.

What is the difference between consequentialist and Nonconsequentialist?

Consequentialist and non-consequentialist views disagree about morality. Consequentialists say that moral goodness is about what effects an action brings about; non-consequentialists say that moral goodness is about whether an action follows certain duties or rules.

What is consequentialist theory?

Consequentialist theory is a way of thinking about whether certain actions are morally good or bad. Consequentialism says that we can tell if an action is good based on whether it leads to good consequences.

What is consequentialism example?

An example of consequentialism would be if someone were trying to figure out whether it was moral to lie, and they decided based on whether the lie would have overall good or bad consequences for those involved.

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