Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) tends to arouse sharply divergent reactions among the philosophers who pick it up. Kant is said to have considered it his favorite among Scottish moral sense theories (Fleischacker 1991), but others have dismissed it as devoid of systematic argument, or derivative, in its theoretical aspirations, of Hume. What explains these disparate reactions is one and the same feature of the book: that it consists largely of what Smith himself calls “illustrations” of the workings of the moral sentiments (TMS, “Advertisement”)—short vignettes, elegantly described, that attempt to show what frightens us about death, what we find interesting and what dull or distasteful about other people’s love affairs, how moral luck factors into our assessment of various actions (Garrett 2005; Hankins 2016), or how and why we deceive ourselves. To some, this provides the detail and psychological acuity that they find lacking in most moral philosophy; to others, it seems something more properly taken up by novelists or empirical psychologists, not the business of a philosopher. Indeed, one prominent view of TMS is that it is a work in descriptive psychology or sociology, not a contribution to normative moral theory (Campbell 1971; Raphael 2007). It is hard to square this reading with the many normative judgments in TMS (see Hanley 2009, chapter 2 and Otteson 2002, chapter 6), and it misses the force of Smith’s insistence that the proper way to make normative judgments is to consider the details of a phenomenon from an impartial perspective. To judge the workings of our moral faculties, then, we need to consider them, and their uses, in appropriate detail. Laying out in detail how they work can help us see how they can be corrupted, and therefore to avoid that corruption, at least to some extent (see TMS 61–6, 92–104). If this was Smith’s goal—and it fits the text of TMS very well—then he was engaged not in the sociology or psychology but the phenomenology of morals, describing the workings of our modes of moral judgment as carefully as possible from within, and believing that the comprehensive view that results can itself help guide us in moral judgment. Moral phenomenology is normative moral theory, for him, and there is no more foundational theory—no set of general principles—of which we might avail ourselves. Justification for how we make moral judgments can only be found within the way we actually do make moral judgments; both moral justification and moral critique must be immanent to, not transcendent of, our moral practice (compare TMS 313–4).
A few implications of this approach. First, Smith is an anti-reductionist. He does not think morality can be reduced to a set of natural or divine laws, nor that it is simply a means for producing “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people,” in the phrase coined by his teacher, Frances Hutcheson. He indeed says explicitly, against the proto-utilitarianism of Hutcheson and Hume, that philosophers in his day have paid too much attention to the consequences of actions, and he wants to focus instead on their propriety: the relation they bear to the motive that inspires them (18–19). At the same time, he argues that the moral systems proposed by Samuel Clarke, William Wollaston, and Lord Shaftesbury overstress propriety, which is just one “essential ingredient” in virtuous action (294; see also 265 and 326). His own view attempts to take account of all the essential ingredients in virtue, and moral judgment, and to resist the temptation to reduce those ingredients to a single principle (see 326–7).
Second, and relatedly, Smith’s way of approaching virtue often resembles Aristotle’s—who has also sometimes been seen as too fond of the description of virtue, and who tried to acknowledge the many diverse elements of virtue, and the judgment of virtue, rather than to reduce them to a single principle. Smith says at the end of TMS that his system corresponds “pretty exactly” with Aristotle’s (271). The attentive reader of TMS will have noticed this earlier: when he characterizes propriety as lying between the excess and defect of passion (27), for instance, or when he distinguishes the restraint of appetite out of self-interest from the virtue of temperance (28), or when he emphasizes habit (152, 324), or the superiority of friendships of virtue over friendships of pleasure (224–5).
Finally, Smith’s phenomenological method is deeply interwoven with strong leanings toward particularism. He insists that general moral rules are “founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of” (159; see also 160 and 320), and that our notions of right and wrong bottom out in these reactions to particular cases (320; see also 187 and Gill 2014). His account of virtue as depending on our attempts to adjust ourselves as closely as possible to the feelings of the particular others we encounter also suggests that what is virtuous in one set of circumstances may not be so in different circumstances. These commitments entail that moral theorists will give us little moral guidance if they present just the general structure of right and wrong (Smith thinks moral theory should help guide moral practice: TMS 293, 315). A fine-grained phenomenology of how we carry out various kinds of moral judgment, and the errors or infelicities to which we are prone in this process, will be far more helpful.
2. Summary of Smith’s Moral Philosophy
With these methodological points in mind, let’s proceed to the contents of TMS. Smith begins the book with an account of sympathy, which he describes as arising when we imagine how we would feel in the circumstances of others. (A rich discussion of Smith on sympathy can be found in Griswold 1999, ch.2.) This is somewhat different from Hume’s account, on which sympathy normally consists in feeling what others actually feel in their circumstances—Hume’s may be called a “contagion” account of sympathy, while Smith’s is a “projective” account (see Fleischacker 2012)—and it opens up the possibility that our feelings on another person’s behalf may often not match the feelings she herself has. Indeed to some extent they will never match, since imagining oneself in a set of circumstances will always lack the intensity of actually experiencing those circumstances (TMS 21–2). This difference is of great importance to Smith, since he maintains that trying to share the feelings of others as closely as possible is one of our main drives in life. We make constant efforts to adjust our feelings, as spectators, to those of the people “principally concerned” in a set of circumstances (importantly, these include people acted upon as well as agents), and to adjust our feelings as people principally concerned to a level with which sympathetic spectators can go along (110–13, 135–6). It is this process of mutual emotional adjustment that gives rise to virtue: the “awful” virtues of self-restraint, insofar we keep ourselves, as people principally concerned, from feeling, or at least expressing, the full flood of our grief or joy, and the “amiable” virtues of compassion and humanity, insofar as we strive, as spectators, to participate in the joys and sufferings of others (23–5).
Ultimately, however, the feelings we seek to have, and the standards by which we judge feelings, need not be identical with the feelings and standards that are actually current in our society. We know that many actual spectators misjudge our situations out of ignorance or interest, so we seek to judge, and act on, just the feelings that a well-informed and impartial spectator would have (TMS 129, 135). Smith thinks that to sympathize with another’s feelings is to approve of those feelings (17), and to sympathize as we think an impartial spectator would is to bestow moral approval on those feelings. Moral norms thus express the feelings of an impartial spectator. A feeling, whether on the part of a person motivated to take an action or on the part of a person who has been acted upon by others, is worthy of moral approval if and only if an impartial spectator would sympathize with that feeling. (Again, people acted upon are subject to moral judgment as well as agents; reactions can be judged as well as actions.) When achieving a morally right feeling is difficult, we call that achievement “virtuous”; otherwise, we describe people as acting or failing to act within the bounds of “propriety” (25). Thus do moral norms and ideals, and the judgments by which we guide ourselves towards those norms and ideals, arise out of the process by which we try to achieve mutual sympathy.
Smith distinguishes two kinds of normative guides to action: rules and virtues. Moral rules, formed on the basis of our reactions to specific instances (we say to ourselves, “I’ll never do that”), bar certain especially egregious kinds of behavior—murder, rape, theft—and provide a framework of shared expectations for society (156–66). They are essential to justice, especially, without which societies could not survive. They also enable people who are not fully virtuous to behave with a minimum of decorum and decency (162–3), and help all of us cut through the “veil of self-delusion” (158) by which we misrepresent our situations to ourselves. Virtue requires more than simply following moral rules, however. Our emotional dispositions need to be re-configured so that we do not merely “affect” the sentiments of the impartial spectator but “adopt” those sentiments: identify ourselves with, become, the impartial spectator, insofar as that is possible (147). If we are truly virtuous, a submission to certain rules will constrain everything we do, but within that framework we will operate without rules, trying instead to mold ourselves with the know-how by which an artist molds his clay, such that we develop dispositions to proper gratitude, kindness, courage, patience, and endurance.
This is a picture that owes a great deal to Hume and Joseph Butler, but gets worked out by Smith in much greater detail. It has been hailed by some as an especially sensible recognition of the kind and degree of virtue appropriate to modern liberal politics and commercial society (Berry 1992; McCloskey 2006). Others see a darker, more pessimistic attitude towards virtue in Smith, echoing the kinds of worries to be found in Rousseau about the corruption wrought by commerce (Dwyer 1987, chapter 7). Still others argue that Smith’s account of virtue re-works but to a remarkable degree also retains the highest ideals of both the Christian and the ancient Greco-Roman traditions, suggesting that his willingness to uphold such an ideal of character even in modern commercial societies should be understand as a critique rather than an endorsement of Rousseau (Hanley 2009).
In any case, Smith gives us more a virtue ethics than the rule-based moral systems we identify with Kant and the utilitarians. Nevertheless, he also tries to incorporate some of the intuitions that generated these other systems. As we have seen, he thinks that we need to submit to general rules, and his reasons for supposing that relying on sentiment alone can feed our self-deceit anticipate Kant’s critique of moral sentimentalism in the Groundwork (see Fleischacker 1991). Smith also acknowledges that we in fact judge actions by their effects as well as their intentions, and thinks this sort of judgment is appropriate as long as we look at effects as they are intended, and not just as they happen to occur. The “merit” of actions, he says in Book II of TMS, depends on their consequences, even if their propriety is independent of consequences; the point, for him, is just that these are two different elements of moral judgment and the first is of greater importance than the second (188). Having insisted on this, he grants that in some cases the consequences of an action—where they threaten the very survival of our society, for instance—may trump all other considerations (90–91).
In line with his concern for accurate moral phenomenology, Smith also tries to make sense of the role that religion and culture play in our moral lives. He handles the first of these by explaining why people who come to believe in higher powers will naturally attribute virtues, and a concern for our virtue, to those powers (163–6). He also says that it adds to the sacredness we attribute to moral rules to see them as laws of the Deity, and to the importance of morality as a whole to see it as a way of “co-operat[ing] with the Deity” in the governance of the universe (166). And he shows how a belief in an afterlife may be necessary if we are to see the universe as just, which in turn is important if we are to maintain our commitment to the value of acting morally (168–70). In all these ways, but especially the last, he anticipates Kant’s moral argument for belief in God, without ever quite insisting that there is a God. At the same time, he makes clear that any religion that gives priority to ritual or creed over morality is baleful, and poses one of the greatest dangers to a decent and peaceful society (TMS 176–7; cf. WN 802–3).
Smith handles the importance of culture under the heading of “custom and fashion.” Book V of TMS takes up this topic, acknowledging the influence of prevailing opinions in each society over all sorts of value judgments, and granting that what is regarded as virtuous will vary to some extent in accordance with this influence. The French value politeness more than the Russians, and the Dutch value frugality more than the Poles (TMS 204). The leisured classes in every country tend to be less strict about sexual mores than the working classes (WN 794). These are easily explicable differences, and not worrisome ones: they are matters of emphasis, and cannot affect “the general style of conduct or behaviour” of a society. That general style of conduct cannot vary in its essentials. No society could survive otherwise (TMS 209, 211).
Part VI of TMS, added in the last edition, presents the virtues of prudence, benevolence and self-command by way of a series of elegant character portraits, and part VII offers a short history of moral philosophy, which stresses the contributions of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. This way of concluding the book reinforces the emphasis on virtuous character, as opposed to a decision-procedure for specific actions, and indicates that we might gain by returning to the ancient schools of moral philosophy that shared this emphasis. Smith does not endorse any ancient moral theorist uncritically, but—like Shaftesbury and Hume—he seems to look forward to a revival of ancient Greek ethics, a modern retrieval and re-working of the character ideals on which those schools had focused.
3. Advantages of Smith’s Moral Philosophy
Smith’s version of moral sentimentalism has a number of advantages over those of his contemporaries. His approach yields moral judgments closer to those we already normally make, and makes better sense of the complexity and richness of both virtue and the judgment of virtue. He is expressly concerned to do justice to this complexity, criticizing Hutcheson for reducing virtue too single-mindedly to benevolence, and Hume for putting too much emphasis on utility.
In addition, none of Smith’s predecessors had developed such an essentially social conception of the self. Hutcheson and Hume both see human beings as having a natural disposition to care about the good of their society, but for Smith, all our feelings, whether self-interested or benevolent, are constitutedby a process of socialization. Smith conceives of humanity as less capable of solipsism than Hume does, less capable of the thoroughgoing egoism that Hume, in his famous discussion of the sensible knave, finds it so difficult to refute (Hume 1777, 81–2). At the same time, Smith reconciles his social conception of the self with a deep respect for the importance of each individual self, and the capacity of each self for independent choice. Ethical self-transformation, for Smith, is inspired and guided by social pressures but ultimately carried out by the individual for him or herself. The “impartial spectator” begins as a product and expression of society, but becomes, once internalized, a source of moral evaluation that enables the individual to stand apart from, and criticize, his or her society. Individually free action and the social construction of the self are compatible, for Smith, even dependent on one another.
We can more fully appreciate what is distinctive in Smith by comparing him with Hume. Smith’s thought circles around Hume’s: there is virtually nothing in either TMS or WN without some sort of source or anticipation in Hume, although there is also almost no respect in which Smith agrees entirely with Hume. Take their accounts of sympathy, for example. When Hume describes the workings of sympathy, he says that emotions “readily pass from one person to another,” like the motion of a string equally wound up with other strings, “communicat[ing] itself to the rest” (Hume 1739–40, p. 576; see also pp. 317, 605). He then explains that we obtain our idea of the other person’s feelings by inference—from the effects (smiles, frowns) or causes of those feelings. In both cases, the other’s feeling, once inferred, communicates itself directly to us, and our imaginations only intensify our idea of that feeling so as to raise it to the level of an impression (Hume 1739–40, pp. 576, 319–20). For Smith, by contrast, we place ourselves in the other’s situation and imagine what we would feel if we were there. Imagination is essential to the production even of the “idea” of another’s feelings, and sympathetic feelings are no longer ones that the other person need actually have. (Smith points out that this explains how we sympathize with some people, like gravely ill infants or the insane, who do not actually experience the suffering we feel on their behalf [TMS 12–13]). This account allows for us to judge other people’s feelings against the background of our sympathetic feelings for them. Sympathy is thus not just a way of sharing feelings with others; it also opens a gap between their feelings and ours. And that gap gives us a grip on the notion—crucial to Smith’s theory—that certain feelings are appropriate to a situation, while others are not.
These seemingly slight shifts from Hume—understanding sympathy as 1) produced by the imagination and 2) a response to situations rather than something passed on, causally, from one person to another—have immense implications for the shape of Smith’s thought. The first of them leads him to give a central place to works of the imagination in moral development. He frequently brings in examples from poetry and drama to explain or give evidence for his points (e.g., TMS 30, 32–3, 34, 177, 227), twice recommends writers like Voltaire as great “instructors” in certain virtues (TMS 143, 177), and seems to see moral philosophy itself as a work of the imagination, a project that needs to draw on imaginative resources and that properly aims at extending and enriching the moral imaginations of its readers (compare Griswold 1999, chapter 1). It is therefore for him a project to which clarity, vivacity and elegance are as important as good argument, and Smith was in fact very concerned with finding the appropriate rhetoric—the appropriate appeal to the imagination—for his works (see Griswold 1999; Muller 1993; Brown 1994). Both of his books are beautifully written, and filled with vivid, memorable examples.
The second of the shifts enables Smith to be more of a moral realist than Hume. Smith finds an ingenious way of importing Samuel Clarke’s concern with “fitnesses” (Clarke 1703) into moral sentimentalism. On his view, we aim to have, and act on, just those feelings that an impartial spectator would have in our situations; the feelings we attribute to such a spectator are then the ones fitted to that situation. So our feelings have something to aim at, by which they can be judged or measured. This allows Smith to talk, as he does throughout TMS, of “fitness” (e.g., 149, 159, 165, 305, 311), of feelings being “suitable to their objects” (16–20, 40, 70, 73, 102), and, by extension, of people being suited to the approval or disapproval bestowed upon them (58, 114, 118, 126). He thereby restores a meaning to our ordinary view of value judgments as correct or incorrect, and not merely as fostering or discouraging actions and qualities that may be useful to society. Relatedly, he sees our sentiments as more flexible than Hume does, and more responsive to criticism. As socialized human beings, we do not simply desire certain objects but desire to have just those desires of which an impartial spectator would approve. What are today called “second-order desires” accompany and shape all our first-order desires (110-11; compare Frankfurt 1971). This gives our emotions the internal structure they need to be able to change in response to norms.
Accordingly, it makes much more sense for Smith than for Hume that we ought to assess our sentiments critically. Hume grants that we correct our sympathy for partiality by adopting in imagination a “steady and general point of view” (Hume 1739–40, p. 581), but for Smith this concession comes too late. Smith sees sympathy as building an aspiration to make one’s sentiments harmonize with the sentiments of others into those sentiments themselves. If they did not already have such an aspiration, we would have neither motivation nor reason to take up the “steady and general point of view.” It makes little sense to treat our sentiments as baldly given natural reactions, impervious to reason, but then add that they may need “correction.” If sentiments are bald natural reactions, they can be neither correct nor incorrect; if they are impervious to reason, then we can have reason, at most, to appear to have sentiments other than the ones we happen to have, not truly to change those sentiments. For Smith, the aspiration to be worthy of approval belongs to our sentiments from the beginning, and we have, accordingly, both motivation and reason to change our sentiments if they keep us from this aspiration.
Relatedly, for Smith but not for Hume there is a lot to learn about what sentiments we should have. In neither the Treatise nor the second Enquiry does Hume spend any significant time on how we might learn to acquire new sentiments or alter the ones we have. By contrast, the first five parts of TMS—almost two-thirds of the text—are devoted to a delineation of the various ways in which we learn to assess our sentiments, and in which learning to assess them enables us both to express them with propriety, and to change them.
There is also for Smith, far more than for Hume, a place for moral history. Smith’s deep interweaving of individuals with their society, and of socialization with moral development, alerts him to the many ways in which moral norms and ideals are indexed to historical circumstances (see Schliesser 2006). This comes out in the detailed accounts he gives, in his lectures on jurisprudence, of how notions of property, contract, marriage, and punishment have arisen and changed in various societies. The idea of a history of morals opens up here, and Smith—via his student John Millar, who attended the lectures on jurisprudence—was an important source of later sociological and anthropological accounts of normative change.
Finally, Smith is further from utilitarianism than Hume. Both the notion of sentiments as having or lacking an intrinsic propriety independently of their effects, and the arguments, in Books II and IV, against reducing our interest in justice and beauty to our interest in their useful effects, are meant to counteract the utilitarian tendencies in Hume. Smith’s particularist conception of moral judgment, and his playing down of the effects of actions in favor of their motivations, keep him far from consequentialism. He believes that our faculties of moral evaluation are always directed toward the motivations and well-being of particular individuals in particular situations, not to goods that might be possessed jointly by groups of human beings, and he rejects the idea that our assessments or decisions should aim at the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (TMS 237). In addition, he sees happiness as so shaped by the possession of morally appropriate dispositions that it cannot serve as a nonmoral goal that might help us define those dispositions. It is essential to the hedonic calculus that happiness be defined independently of morality, so that it can bestow content on moral claims (see McDowell 1998a). That is impossible, for Smith. Smith sees meeting the demands of the impartial spectator as intrinsic to happiness; there is no happiness independent of morality.
4. Objections to Smith’s Moral Philosophy
Smith’s moral theory has been accused of three major failings. First, it offers us no clear procedure for deciding which actions we should take in specific circumstances, no guidelines for how we can tell, in specific cases, what the impartial spectator has to say. Second, the impartial spectator seems too enmeshed in the attitudes and interests of the society in which it develops for it to be free of that society’s biases, or to help us care impartially for all human beings. And third, even if Smith’s analysis of moral claims is correct, even if it is true that moral judgments in ordinary life consist in attempts to express how an impartial spectator would feel about our conduct, it remains unclear what justifies these judgments. Why should we heed the demands of the impartial spectator?
Smith would probably dismiss the first of these objections, as based on an erroneous notion of what moral philosophy ought to do. Moral philosophy can deepen our love for virtue, refine our understanding of the virtues, and enrich our understanding of ourselves, all of which can conduce to a firmer moral disposition and to a wiser, more careful approach to moral decisions, but it cannot and should not replace the common-life processes by which we actually make those decisions. Philosophy is an abstract, intellectual, and solitary activity, while moral decision-making is and should be concrete, driven by emotion as much as by the intellect, and shaped by our interactions with the people affected by our actions.
The second and third objections constitute what we might call a tribalist or relativist and a skeptical challenge. The tribalist sees no reason to extend moral sentiments or modes of judgment to people outside his society, and no reason to criticize the basic structures of moral sentiment in his society. He thereby seems to miss a basic feature of moral demands. But where is the room for a universalist morality in Smith’s account? Since we construct the impartial spectator within us out of attitudes in the society around us, how can that spectator reach beyond our society sufficiently to achieve a sensitive and impartial concern for members of other societies, and to recognize where our society’s sentiments are biased or corrupt?
The skeptic represents a yet deeper problem. Smith says that when we issue a moral judgment, of others or of ourselves, we express the relationship of one set of sentiments—the cooler, more reflective sentiments characteristic of a spectator—to another. This seems a plausible account of what we actually do, when judging morally; it captures nicely the “feel” of ordinary moral judgments. But does it give us reason to heed such judgments? Does it explain the normativity of moral judgments, our sense that we ought to listen to them?
Smith clearly rejects any tribal limit to the reach of moral demands. He adopts the Stoic view that each person is “first and principally recommended [by nature] to his own care” (TMS 219), and that we similarly care more about members of our own society than about people far away from us (139–40, 227–8). At the same time, however—also like the Stoics—he thinks that our moral feelings extend, if to a lesser degree, to all rational and sensible beings: “our good-will is circumscribed by no boundary, but may embrace the immensity of the universe” (235). Indeed, he regards accepting harm to one’s local community, if that is necessary for the good of the universe, as a mark of the highest wisdom and virtue (235–6). As Amartya Sen has stressed, Smith also wants us to evaluate our conduct from the perspective of any human being anywhere, not just a member of our own society. Sen quotes a passage in TMS in which Smith says that we “endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would imagine it” (110), arguing that it implies we should seek to be informed by the views of people far outside our cultural communities. “The need to invoke how things would look to ‘any other fair and impartial spectator,’” says Sen, “is a requirement that can bring in judgments that would be made by disinterested people from other societies as well” (Sen 2009: 125). And Smith certainly did aspire to provide such a standard of moral judgment, a structure for morality that reaches out across national and cultural borders.
But is Smith’s impartial spectator capable of doing this? Consider two of its features. First, it uses sentiments rather than reason as the basis of its judgments. It is not like Roderick Firth’s ideal observer, dispassionately watching people from above the emotional fray (Firth 1952). Rather, Smith follows Hutcheson and Hume in tracing moral judgment, ultimately, to feelings. The impartial spectator is supposed to be free of partial feelings—feelings that depend on a stake it might have in a dispute, or on blind favoritism or dislike for one party or the other—but it is not supposed to be free of feelings altogether, nor to reach for a principle it might derive from reason alone, independent of feeling (see Raphael 2007, chapter 6). But our feelings are notoriously shaped by our societies, and it is not clear how a device that depends on feelings could correct for biases built into them.
Second, the impartial spectator develops within us as part of our efforts to align our feelings with those of the people immediately around us. The “chief part of human happiness,” for Smith, comes from the consciousness that we are “beloved” (TMS 41), but that is not possible unless our feelings, and the actions we take on those feelings, meet with other people’s approval. The search for feelings we can share—for mutual sympathy—is a basic human drive, and it leads among other things to the rise of morality. Of course, that eventually means that we correct the modes of approval of people around us for bias and misinformation; we seek the judgment of an impartial spectator within rather than partial spectators without. But Smith never suggests that this impartial spectator uses different methods of judging, appeals to different sorts of norms, than our neighbors do. It arises out of the actual process of moral judgment around us, and we heed it as part of our drive to find a harmony of feelings with our actual neighbors. It is very unlikely, then, to use a method of judging radically unlike those of our actual neighbors, or perceive, let alone correct for, a systematic bias in the sentiments of our society. If sentiments of condescension or dislike toward poor people, or black people, or gay people, pervade our society, then there is every reason to expect that many of us, especially in privileged groups, will build an impartial spectator within ourselves that shares those biases rather than rising above them.
These are the sorts of considerations that led Smith himself to worry about the danger that “established custom” can distort moral judgment (TMS 210), and that nature may lead people, foolishly and unjustly, to admire the rich and despise the poor (50–62). Smith also worried that political faction and religious fanaticism can “pervert” our moral feelings (155–6, 176–7), and did not suggest ways to correct for that danger. It is unclear how his moral theory might supply such a corrective.
Moreover, much that is attractive about Smith’s theory is bound up with this limitation; his relativistic tendencies are not a mere mistake but a consequence of the structure of his theory. The absence of transcendental principles in favor of judgments rooted in our everyday sentiments, the view of individuals as aiming, by way of morality, for emotional harmony with their neighbors, the psychological insight of his view of moral development—all these things go together with a picture on which we are deeply shaped by our local societies in the way we make moral judgments, and can turn those judgments on our society only with difficulty. It has been suggested that Smith thought better information about the lives of poor people could help well-off people judge the poor more favorably (Fleischacker 2004, chapter 10), and perhaps he thought that slavery and other injustices could likewise be overturned by better information: information enabling people to project themselves into the lives of slaves, and other victims of injustice, and thereby to sympathize with them. Sometimes Smith also drops proto-Kantian hints that a concern for the equal worth of every human being lies at the basis of all moral sentiments (TMS 90, 107, 137), and Stephen Darwall and Remy Debes have brought out a latent egalitarianism in the structure of Smith’s moral theory that could be turned against inegalitarian social institutions (Darwall 1999; Debes 2012). But even a commitment to the equal worth of every human being can be interpreted in ways that support local biases—Kant, notoriously, maintained racist and sexist views long after coming up with his arguments for equal worth—and Smith in any case says little to justify his egalitarian tendencies. So it must be admitted that the tribalist challenge brings out a weakness in Smith’s theory, and cannot easily be answered without sacrificing some of its central elements. (For more on these issues, see Forman-Barzilai 2010 and Sayre-McCord 2010).
Smith does better with the skeptical challenge. To the person who asks, “why be moral?,” Smith essentially provides what Christine Korsgaard calls a “reflective endorsement” argument (Korsgaard 1996: 19, 49–89). Reflective endorsement theorists—Korsgaard gives Hume and Butler as examples—substitute the question, “are the claims of our moral nature good for human life?” for the question, “are moral claims true?” They identify a certain faculty for approval or disapproval as giving force to moral claims, and then ask whether, on reflection, we can approve of that faculty of approval itself. This test requires in the first instance that the faculty of moral approval approve of its own workings. It then looks to whether our other faculties of approval can approve of the moral one: we seek a comprehensive endorsement, by all our modes of approval, of moral approval in particular. The second part of the test asks above all whether the faculty for prudential approval—the faculty by which we applaud or condemn things in accordance with self-interest—can applaud the moral faculty, since the latter often requires us to override our self-interest.
We should not assume that the first part of the test is trivial. Korsgaard quotes Hume’s declaration that our sense for morals
must certainly acquire new force, when reflecting on itself, it approves of those principles, from whence it is deriv’d, and finds nothing but what is great and good in its rise and origin, (Hume 1739–40, pp. 267–8)
and contrasts this with Hume’s earlier demonstration that the understanding, when reflecting on its own procedures, undermines itself (Korsgaard 1996, p. 62). So a faculty can fail a purely reflexive test: it can fail to live up to its own standards for evaluation. But the moral sense, for Hume, and the impartial spectator, for Smith, pass their own tests. Indeed, a good way to read TMS is to see Smith as demonstrating, to an impartial spectator in a moment of reflection, that the impartial spectator we use in the course of action operates in a reasonable and noble way—that, in particular, it is not just a tool of our self-interest.
At the same time, to meet the full reflective endorsement test, Smith needs to show that heeding the impartial spectator does not, overall, conflict with our self-interest. In order to show this he tries, like many ancient ethicists, to get us to re-think the nature of self-interest. If we consider our real interests, Smith maintains, we will see that the very question, “why should I be moral?,” with its implicit supposition that being moral is something I might want to avoid, is based on a misconception of self-interest. “The chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved” (TMS 41), Smith says, and being beloved normally requires acting in accordance with the demands of the impartial spectator. Violating those demands will also normally bring on internal unease—fear of discovery, pangs of conscience, and other disturbances—making it difficult to achieve the tranquility that Smith takes to be a prime component of happiness (TMS 149). Finally, if one fully incorporates the impartial spectator into oneself, one will discover that moral self-approbation is itself a great source of happiness. But if happiness consists so centrally in the approbation of others, and in self-approbation, there can be no reasonable conflict between pursuing happiness and pursuing morality. So the demands of our moral sentiments are justified, capable both of endorsing themselves and of being endorsed by our nonmoral sentiments.
It should be clear that this argument does not involve any reduction of morality to self-interest. For Smith, the agent who supposes that self-interest can be defined independently of morality, and morality then reduced to it, misunderstands the nature of self-interest. Such an agent lacks a well-developed impartial spectator within herself, and therefore fails to realize that acting in accordance with moral demands is essential to her own happiness. She will gain a better understanding of happiness only once she starts to engage in the pursuit of virtue. Smith explicitly says that the virtuous agent sees things that others do not (TMS 115–7, 146–8). Like the contemporary philosopher John McDowell, he thus suggests that the virtuous agent can properly see the point of virtue, and how virtue helps constitute happiness, only from a perspective within the actual practice of virtue. But, as McDowell says, there is no reason to think one can find better arguments, or indeed any arguments, for seeking virtue from a perspective outside of such practice (McDowell 1998a,b). There may therefore be a certain circularity to Smith’s defense of morality, as some of his critics have alleged, but the circularity is not a vicious one, and an entirely nonmoral defense of morality, which the critics seem to want, may be impossible.
Smith himself does not clearly spell out the responses proposed here to the philosophical problems that his theory raises. His strengths as a moral philosopher lie elsewhere. Moral philosophers need not be concerned solely with the grounds of morality. Displaying, clarifying, and showing the internal connections in the way we think about virtue is already a philosophical task, even if we set aside the question of whether that way of thinking is justified. There are indeed philosophers who reject the idea that philosophy is well-suited to offer justifications. Smith’s work fits in with the view of Iris Murdoch, who understood moral philosophy as consisting in the attempt “to fill in a systematic explanatory background to our ordinary moral life” (Murdoch 1970, p. 45). His astute and nuanced analysis of what goes into moral approval—of the sorts of factors the impartial spectator considers, of how it can deceive itself or otherwise go wrong, of how it develops and how it judges different virtues in different ways—is accomplishment enough, regardless of whether he adequately justifies the fact that we engage in such approval at all.
5. Smith’s Political Philosophy
It is clear from the end of TMS that Smith intended to complement it with a system of political philosophy, and it is clear from the Advertisement to the last edition of TMS that WN represents the partial but not complete fulfillment of that plan. Strikingly, what got left out was the part of political philosophy that most concerned Smith at the end of TMS, and that has most concerned other moral philosophers who turn to politics: a systematic account of justice. Smith’s lectures on jurisprudence dealt with this topic, and from the notes we have on those lectures, he seems to have hoped to build a comprehensive, universally-applicable theory of justice out of impartial-spectator judgments about property, contract, punishment, etc. But the manuscript drawn from these lectures was never finished, and he had it burned at his death. Some scholars speculate that the failure of this project was fore-ordained: the moral theory of TMS is too particularist to sustain a universally-applicable theory of justice (see Griswold 1999, pp. 256–8 and Fleischacker 2004, chapter 8). Others have tried to re-construct such a theory for Smith (see Haakonssen 1981 and 1996).
In any case, Smith concluded his lectures on jurisprudence with some extended remarks on “police”—public policy —and this he did, of course, work up into a book of its own. It is unclear, however, how much WN has to do with his philosophical concerns. Smith became increasingly interested in political economy after completing TMS, and WN can be seen as the fruition simply of a new direction in his research, unconnected to his moral system. He did come to a comprehensive, one might say philosophical, view of political economy: from his understanding of the workings of economics, he thought that states could foster the productiveness of their economies only by the rule of law, accompanied by a few limitations on banking practices, and should otherwise lift measures that restrict or encourage particular enterprises. The practical point of his treatise on economics was to urge this restrained, modest approach to economic intervention on governing officials. Smith did not favor as hands-off an approach as some of his self-proclaimed followers do today—he believed that states could and should re-distribute wealth to some degree, and defend the poor and disadvantaged against those who wield power over them in the private sector (see Fleischacker 2004, § 57)—but he certainly wanted the state to end all policies, common in his mercantilist day, designed to favor industry over agriculture, or some industries over others. Smith believed strongly in the importance of local knowledge to economic decision-making, and consequently thought that business should be left to businesspeople, who understand the particular situations in which they work far better than any government official (on this Hayek understood Smith well: see Hayek 1978  and C. Smith 2013). By the same token, governance should be kept out of the hands of businesspeople, since they are likely to use it to promote their particular interests, and not be concerned for the well-being of the citizenry as a whole: Smith’s opposition to the East India Company is based on this principle (see Muthu 2008).
Smith’s political views tend more generally towards a minimalist state. He did not want the state to micro-manage the economy, and he also did not want it to promote religion or virtue. He was suspicious of the motives and skills of politicians, and their ability, even when well-meaning, to change society (see Fleischacker 2004, chapter 11). And he did not believe that the political life was the crown of the moral life, or that law or political institutions can help people develop virtue.
One might therefore wonder whether there is any connection between his politics and his moral philosophy. Aside from the construction of theories of justice—which, as we have noted, Smith wound up not doing—there are three main reasons why moral philosophers write political theories. Some, like Aristotle, see morality as the cultivation of virtuous character and believe that the state can help people with this cultivation. Others, like Jeremy Bentham, see morality as maximizing human pleasure and believe that legal and political reform can contribute significantly toward that end. And still others, like Hegel, see morality as the expression of freedom and believe that states can embody the highest expression of freedom. But Smith believes none of these things. His conception of morality is quite Aristotelian, but for him the state can do little to help people achieve virtuous character. He shares neither Bentham’s reduction of the good life to the pleasurable life nor Bentham’s optimism about the likely effectiveness, for moral or hedonic purposes, of even much-reformed governments. And he never describes the state as an expression of freedom.
That leaves us with the possibility that Smith tries in WN precisely to try to cure his readers of the illusion that states have a moral function. There is a strong Stoic component to TMS, and we might say, in Stoic vein, that in WN Smith wants to help us see how much the society around us is out of our control. WN shows us the great degree to which social institutions and policies have unintended consequences, the central role, in particular, of unforeseeable factors in the workings of the market, and the fact that uncontrolled markets on the whole do well by all their participants. This allows us to become reconciled to allowing markets, and other social institutions, to run unfettered.
Smith is more of an Enlightenment progressive than this reading suggests, more of a believer that an enlightened understanding of their circumstances can help people improve those circumstances, but he had less faith in this notion than did most of his contemporaries. There are deep roots in his thought for a sceptical attitude towards progressivism. His belief in local knowledge leads him to be suspicious of large-scale plans for the reform of society. He also provides a number of reasons for doubting whether we can successfully set for ourselves clear goals for such reform. For most enlightenment thinkers, including Smith’s predecessors Hutcheson and Hume, what human beings desire seemed fairly obvious. For Smith, this is not so obvious. Smith believes that it is very difficult for us to know our true intentions (TMS 156–9), and that our desires are heavily shaped by social interaction. He also casts doubt on the degree to which we seek things that are truly useful to our ends. In a famous passage, he says that we are more interested in a thing’s apparent conduciveness to utility than in its actual utility (179–80). This observation serves as the jumping-off point for his first foray into economics. The “poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition” pursues wealth without knowing what it is really like, because it seems—falsely—to be useful (181–3). In several ways, then, Smith pictures human desires and aims as more opaque than do most other Enlightenment thinkers. This picture informs his distinctive account of society and history, moreover, according to which unintended consequences tend to be more important than intended ones and the course of history is correspondingly unknowable in advance. On such a view, it is futile for politicians to try to determine the future development of their societies. They do better restricting their activities to protecting individual liberty against violence—to defense and the administration of justice.
We might call this the libertarian reading of Smith, and it certainly captures an important element of his political philosophy. Smith gives justice priority over the other virtues in TMS (86), he begins his lectures on jurisprudence by saying that the maintenance of justice is “the first and chief design of every system of government” (Smith 1978, p. 5), and he brings in justice as a constraint on economic activity many times in WN (e.g., WN 157, 539, 687). But he does not say that the enforcement of justice is the sole job of government. The third of the tasks he gives to government in WN consists in “maintaining and erecting” a broad range of “publick works and … publick institutions” for the good of the whole society (WN 687–8). In TMS, the chapter often quoted as claiming that justice is the only virtue that may be enforced actually maintains only that “kindness or beneficence, … cannot, among equals, be extorted by force” (TMS 81). In a state “antecedent to the institution of civil government,” Smith says, no impartial spectator would approve of one person’s using force to make another act beneficently. But once civil government has been established, people may legitimately be forced to carry out at least the greatest and most obvious duties of beneficence. Smith says that
[t]he civil magistrate is entrusted with the power not only of … restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth, by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree. (81, emphasis added)
Smith warns against taking this license for a general promotion of virtue too far—that, he says, would be “destructive of all liberty, security, and justice”—but he also says that neglecting it will lead “to many gross disorders and shocking enormities” (TMS 81). These enormities may well include the misery of the poor, a central concern of Smith’s in WN. Smith had no principled objections to government power being used to help the poor, and indeed proposed a number of policies with that in mind. It should be remembered that the idea that governments might massively re-distribute wealth out of fairness to the poor was not on the agenda in Smith’s time. Only in the 1790s, after Smith died, did Jeremy Bentham and Tom Paine offer their groundbreaking poverty programs; the socialism of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier lay another generation in the future. Until the late eighteenth century, most writers on the role of government vis-à-vis the poor maintained that governments should keep the poor in poverty, so that they show proper respect to their superiors and not waste money on drink. Smith had more influence than anyone else in changing this attitude—he was one of the earliest and most fervent champions of the rights and virtues of the poor, arguing against wage caps and other constraints that kept the poor from rising socially and economically (see Baugh 1983 and Fleischacker 2004, chapter 10).
Smith also had a more restricted conception of individual rights than do contemporary libertarians. Taxation does not count as any sort of threat to property rights, for him—he indeed describes paying taxes as “a badge … of liberty” (WN 857)—nor does the government’s mere support for certain ideas and values count as an infringement of the right to conscience. Although it may be inefficient and otherwise unwise, it is not unjust for the government to intervene in the economy on behalf of one or another commercial interest, to spread propaganda for one or another conception of virtue, or even to establish a religion. Smith of course opposes economic intervention of this kind and thinks it better if governments do not establish religions, but his views on these issues stem from concerns other than justice. Moreover, he favors militia training to instill courage in people, state incentives urging people to study science and philosophy, and state encouragement for secular amusements—the latter two as an “antidote to the poison of [religious] enthusiasm and superstition.” (WN 796) So Smith’s state is not a neutral one, in the modern sense, and it is not wholly uninterested in the promotion of virtue.
Why, then, does Smith recommend such a minimal state? The interventions just listed are practically the only ones he urges in WN, and even in those cases, Smith calls for limited state action. Why allow governments to go so far, and no farther?
The first answer to that is that Smith did not think government officials were competent to handle much beside the needs of defense and the administration of justice. Smith’s writings are permeated by a lack of respect for the sorts of people who go into politics: for the vanity that leads them to seek fame and power, for the presumption by which they regard themselves as morally superior to others, and for the arrogance by which they think they know the people’s interests and needs better than the people do themselves. He also believes that politicians tend to be manipulated by the preaching of merchants who do not have the good of the nation as a whole at heart (WN 266–7), and that they can rarely know enough to guide large numbers of people. Correlatively, Smith has a great respect for the competence and virtue of common people. He shows no trace of the thought, common at the time and strongly held by Hutcheson, that a class of wise and virtuous people ought to rule over the common herd.
In addition, Smith holds that social sanctions can do a better job at many tasks that other thinkers expected of political sanctions. His rich account in TMS of the way that spectators around us subtly and unconsciously shape us morally enables him to hold that governments need not teach virtue. Society, independent of governmental power, will do that on its own. Thus sumptuary laws are unnecessary because the desire to maintain or increase one’s social status will keep most people prudent and frugal (WN 341–6). Thus religious groups that spontaneously arise without government assistance do a better job of inculcating virtues than their government-supported counterparts (WN 792–6). And thus—implicitly—the civic republican obsession with a citizen militia is overwrought because the habits of self-command inculcated by military service can also be achieved, for most people, by the social interactions of the market (see Fleischacker 1999, pp. 153–6, 169–72).
Finally, Smith limits the activities of governments because he considers it crucial to the development of virtue that people have plenty of room to act, and shape their feelings, on their own. Becoming a good human being is ultimately a task that each individual must take up for him or herself. People develop better moral judgment by actually making moral judgments (WN 782–3, 788), and virtue requires the practice of virtue (TMS 324); we cannot achieve these things simply by following the say-so of an authority. So exercises of power tend to be inimical to moral development, and governments should use their power mostly to minimize the degree to which power gets exercised elsewhere.
Indeed, for Smith, governments can best encourage virtue precisely by refraining from encouraging virtue. In TMS, the person who merely tries to appear virtuous, whether out of fear of the law or out of fear of social disapproval, is not really virtuous. But there is a sliding scale here. One who acts virtuously out of concern for the praise and blame of her neighbors is not as virtuous as one who is concerned to be praise-worthy in the eyes of an impartial spectator, but one who acts virtuously out of concern for legal sanctions is worse than either of the other two. As long as neighbors know each other reasonably well, their approval and disapproval will normally take into account the particular circumstances, the peculiar history and psychology, of the individuals they judge—their judgments will reflect, say, the difference in gratitude due to a loudly self-pitying parent as opposed to a truly long-suffering one. Legal sanctions are blunt instruments that cannot attend to such subtleties. So social approval is more likely than legal approval to pick out the right sort of actions to mark for moral worth. Furthermore, since social sanctions are milder than legal sanctions—it is much easier to ignore a neighbor’s disapproval than a threat of imprisonment—people who care about social sanctions display better character than people who can be motivated to good action only by the law. The pressure of social sanctions is more like, and more likely to draw one towards, the pressure of conscience. Even if concern for social approval is not the ideal motivation for moral action, therefore, it is at least some sign of good character, and a step along the way to the motivations of the fully virtuous person. Legal sanctions by contrast affect our physical well-being and social standing so severely that they drive out all thought of the sanctions of conscience. A government concerned to foster virtue in its citizens should therefore aim as much as possible to remove its own sanctions from the pursuit of virtue. Governments foster virtue best where they refuse, directly, to foster virtue at all: just as they protect economic development best where they refuse, directly, to protect development. This ironic conception of government power runs through all of Smith’s political thinking. Accordingly, his main political object in writing WN is to instill modesty in policy-makers, to urge them to take on only very limited, well-defined tasks, and to recognize that the flourishing of their society does not, on the whole, much depend on them.
In sum, if Smith’s political philosophy looks like libertarianism, it is a libertarianism aimed at different ends, and grounded in different moral views, than that of most contemporary libertarians. Today, many libertarians are suspicious of the notion that individuals ought to develop virtues expected of them by others: beyond, at least, those virtues that are needed for the functioning of the market and the liberal state themselves. Smith does not share this attitude. He is far from an agnostic about what a good human life looks like, let alone an enthusiast for a conception of the good life that eschews virtue in favor of preference-satisfaction. He is not a positivist sceptical of the significance of moral argument, like Milton Friedman, nor a hedonist, like Bentham and his followers, nor a radical individualist, like the followers of Ayn Rand. Any decent human life, he believes, requires certain virtues, and depends on a respect and love of individuals for the people around them. If he encourages governments, nevertheless, to refrain from promoting virtue, that is because he thinks that social forces can effectively achieve that end without government help, and that legal sanctions are in any case useless or counter-productive for the promotion of virtue. So he may arrive at some libertarian conclusions, but not in the way that most libertarians do.
Smith has an account of the nature of moral judgment, and its development, that is richer and subtler than Hume’s; he offers a prototype for modern Aristotelianism in morality; he brings out the importance of the imagination to moral development as few other philosophers have done; he is an early and forceful promoter of the notion that history is guided largely by unintended consequences; and he derives from these views an unusual variant of liberal politics. Few of these contributions are spelled out with the clarity and tight argumentation that contemporary philosophers demand of their canonical figures, but Smith compensates for this weakness by the humanity and thoughtfulness of his views, by their detachment from metaphysical commitments, and by an abundance of historical and imaginative detail. The richness of his ideas, and their quiet plausibility, earn him a place among the most important of modern moral and political philosophers.
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Consequentialism is the view that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences. Here the phrase “overall consequences” of an action means everything the action brings about, including the action itself. For example, if you think that the whole point of morality is (a) to spread happiness and relieve suffering, or (b) to create as much freedom as possible in the world, or (c) to promote the survival of our species, then you accept consequentialism. Although those three views disagree about which kinds of consequences matter, they agree that consequences are all that matters. So, they agree that consequentialism is true. The utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham is a well known example of consequentialism. By contrast, the deontological theories of John Locke and Immanuel Kant are nonconsequentialist.
Consequentialism is controversial. Various nonconsequentialist views are that morality is all about doing one's duty, respecting rights, obeying nature, obeying God, obeying one’s own heart, actualizing one’s own potential, being reasonable, respecting all people, or not interfering with others—no matter the consequences.
This article describes different versions of consequentialism. It also sketches several of the most popular reasons to believe consequentialism, along with objections to those reasons, and several of the most popular reasons to disbelieve it, along with objections to those reasons.
Table of Contents
- Basic Issues and Simple Versions
- Introduction to Plain Consequentialism
- What is a "Consequence"?
- Plain Scalar Consequentialism
- Expectable Consequentialism and Reasonable Consequentialism
- Dual Consequentialism
- Rule Consequentialism
- Two Simple Arguments for Consequentialism
- Only Results Remain
- Arguments Against Consequentialism
- Personal Rights
- Human Thinking
- Further Arguments for Consequentialism
- Reasons for Action
- It is Wrong to Choose the Worse Over the Better
- The Ideal Spectator
- What is Desirable
- Common Sense
- References and Further Reading
- Classic Works
- Recommended Collections
- Other Recommended Works
1. Basic Issues and Simple Versions
a. Introduction to Plain Consequentialism
There is disagreement about how consequentialism can best be formulated as a precise theory, and so there are various versions of consequentialism. Almost all lack standard names, so the names used here are mostly invented here. Perhaps the most standard precise version of consequentialism is Plain Consequentialism.
Plain Consequentialism: Of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences. (If there is no one best action because several actions are tied for best consequences, then of course any of those several actions would be right.)
Other versions of consequentialism may be generated by making small changes in this theory, as we shall see, so long as the new theory stays faithful to the broad idea that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences.
Consequentialism does not itself say what kinds of consequences are good. Hence people can agree on consequentialism while disagreeing about what kind of outcome is good or bad. If you happen to be in charge of setting speed limits, you might be thinking that a bad result is a death: the fewer deaths, the better. But the people who die in accidents were all going to die eventually anyway, so a fatal accident does not mean there are more deaths than there otherwise would have been. Perhaps, then, what counts as a good result is the amount of life that the action adds or subtracts in the world? That would explain why fatal accidents are bad, since an early death means less life. But if quantity of life were the only kind of good result, then a long happy life would be no better than a long unhappy life.
The most traditional view among Consequentialists is that the only kind of result that is good in itself is happiness. The picture is roughly as follows. Suppose you are on average just as happy as I am, but you live twice as long. Then you will have had twice as much happiness as I had. So the total happiness we had is three times the happiness I had. Or suppose you are on average twice as happy as I am, and we live equally long. Here too you end up having had twice as much happiness as I had, so the total happiness we had is three times the happiness I had. Or suppose you are unhappy instead: on average just as unhappy as I am happy and for the same amount of time. Unhappiness can be thought of as negative happiness, so that the total happiness we two have in this third case is zero. Now, to find the goodness of the consequences of an action, simply take the total amount of happiness in those consequences. The more happiness there is, the better. Note that if what matters is the total amount, then it does not matter whether the happiness belongs to you or your friend or a stranger—or even a dog, if dogs can have happiness. And it does not matter whether the happiness will happen today or next year. See Bentham (1789); Den Uyl & Machan (1983).
If we take the above view that the good is happiness, and plug it into Plain Consequentialism, we get the view that the right action is the one that causes the most happiness—more than would have been caused by any of the available alternative actions.
On this view, a problem with setting a very high speed limit is that it causes early deaths, which reduce the amount of life and thus reduce the amount of happiness there will be. But a problem with setting a very low speed limit is that driving very slowly takes up time. If people can get where they are going more quickly, they will probably use the time they saved to do things that will add happiness to their lives or the lives of others. Consequentialism suggests that to set a speed limit rightly, you must balance such considerations accurately.
b. What is a "Consequence"?
As mentioned above, in consequentialism the “consequences” of an action are everything the action brings about, including the action itself. In consequentialism, the “consequences” of an action include (a) the action itself, and (b) everything the action causes. What then, do these two kinds of consequence have in common, that makes them both “consequences”? If there is an answer, perhaps it is something like this: both A itself and the things A causes are things that happen if you do A rather than the alternatives to A.
Another important point about “consequences” is that the actual “consequences” of an action, beyond the action itself, need not be actual outcomes. (Before explaining this point, we should note that consequentialism on most versions is a theory about the moral quality of actions. And it is commonly thought that the main kinds of actions that can be morally right or wrong are intentional actions—things we do deliberately, not things like hiccups or small twitches. Hence in the context of consequentialism, perhaps “actions” should normally be understood to mean “intentional actions.”) Suppose I will bake a cake if you win a coin toss, and you are now deciding whether to toss the coin or just walk away. Eventually you decide to toss the coin, you win, and I bake the cake. Was the cake a consequence of your action of tossing the coin? Arguably it was not. For you could have tossed the coin in many slightly different ways, and in many slightly different positions. Your intentional action was to toss the coin, not to toss the coin in the precise manner and position in which you ended up tossing it. But it was the precise manner and position that made you win. Therefore, your intentional action of tossing did not make you win. (But see Tännsjö (1988), 41ff.) Hence, arguably, the consequence of your intentional action was a 50% chance of a cake—not a cake, not half a cake, but a 50% chance of a cake. Perhaps most consequences of most actions we decide on are like that: not actual outcomes, but only probabilities of outcomes.
The usual Consequentialist view is that a 50% chance of a certain good outcome is half as good as that good outcome itself, and a 10% chance is one tenth as good.
Hence it would be misleading to say that consequentialism is the view that morality is all about results. When your boss says she cares only about “results,” that commonly means she does not care whether your gamble had a 1% or a 99% chance of succeeding. She cares only about whether it actually succeeded—even though, as explained above, the success, when it happens, is arguably not a “consequence” of your intentional action at all.
c. Plain Scalar Consequentialism
Plain Consequentialism is a theory about which actions are right. Its standard is high. It says that among all the very many things we could do at any given time, only one or a very few of them are right. The implication is that the rest of them are wrong. So if your action does vastly more good than what most other people would do in similar circumstances, but you could have chosen an action that would have done even a little more, Plain Consequentialism says that what you did was morally wrong. Plain Scalar Consequentialism is different.
Plain Scalar Consequentialism: Of any two things a person might do at any given moment, one is better than another to the extent that its overall consequences are better than the other’s overall consequences.
That is, if A’s consequences are a little better than B’s, then A is morally a little better than B; and if A’s consequences are much better than C’s, then A is morally much better than C. This theory implies that the actions with the best consequences are morally best, but it does not say that if you do the second-best you are doing something morally wrong. It says nothing about right and wrong. See Singer (1977); Norcross (1997).
d. Expectable Consequentialism and Reasonable Consequentialism
Of course, we cannot know the overall consequences of our actions. For example, the setting of a speed limit will help some people and hurt others, but there is no way to know in advance who the people will be, what projects will be helped or hindered, and how the further effects of all these things will play out over the centuries. You cannot know all that before you act (or after).
Is that point an objection to consequentialism? On the one hand, one might think it is an objection, since we are responsible for doing what is morally right and so we must be able to know what is morally right. On the other hand, one might think it is impossible to know what is morally right; morality seems permanently controversial and mysterious. It is unclear, then, whether the standard to which we should hold theories of morality is that they must explain why morality is easy to know about or why morality is terribly hard to know about!
The fact that we do not know the overall consequences of our actions makes room for further versions of consequentialism. Suppose I donate $100 to Malaria Aid, but it turns out this group aids malaria and I have funded an outbreak. Now, Plain Consequentialism implies that what I did is morally wrong, and Plain Scalar Consequentialism implies that it is morally very bad. But you might think that whether my action was morally wrong depends on what consequences it would have been reasonable for me to expect, not on the actual consequences. If the evil group was so cleverly deceptive that even the Better Business Bureau’s web site said they do good work fighting malaria, then you may think the damage done by my money was not my fault. So you may prefer a different version of consequentialism.
Expectable Consequentialism: The morally right action is the action whose reasonably expectable consequences are best. (There can also be a scalar version of this view and of the others introduced below.)
Reasonable estimates of consequences seem to involve a different kind of probability from that discussed in 1.b above. For example, suppose there is a machine that tosses a fair coin with such precision that whenever you press the Toss button, the coin always comes up heads. Now, suppose that you do not happen to know whether this machine always yields heads or always tails. (Or perhaps you do not even know that it is a precision machine.) When you press Toss, your action will have heads as a consequence, but you do not know that. So far as you can tell, heads and tails are equally likely, even if objectively there is a 100% chance of heads. This point can be expressed by saying that there is a 50% epistemic probability of heads, or that the reasonably expectable consequences of pushing the Toss button include a 50% epistemic chance of heads. For purposes of Expectable Consequentialism, a 50% epistemic chance of a good result is half as good as a 100% probability of that same result.
But Expectable Consequentialism has a strange implication. Suppose someone from Tuberculosis Aid comes to my door, says only, “Would you give to Tuberculosis Aid?” and hands me a pamphlet, which explains their evil plans on page 2. The reasonable way to estimate consequences would involve at least glancing through the pamphlet, but I am not interested. I simply assume that this group fights tuberculosis, and I do not look at the pamphlet because I do not care. I do not donate. Thus, without reasonably thinking about my choice, I have done what it would have been reasonable to estimate would have the best results. So Expectable Consequentialism says my thoughtless selfish action was morally right. If you do not want to praise my conduct, you might prefer a new version of consequentialism:
Reasonable Consequentialism: An action is morally right if and only if it has the best reasonably expected consequences.
Reasonable Consequentialism says that for an action of mine to be right, I must actually come to a reasonable conclusion beforehand about the consequences. Expectable Consequentialism says that an action can be right even if I do not think reasonably about it at all, so long as it is the action I would have estimated to have the best consequences if I had done a reasonable job of making an estimate. See Smart (1961).
e. Dual Consequentialism
Reasonable Consequentialism may be too simple. There was something right about my not donating. You might want to say that I fortunately did the right thing, but that my action was morally wrong. For another example, suppose I am sick and you are a doctor. You do a thorough and brilliant job of diagnosis and end up giving me the pill any responsible doctor would have to choose for the symptoms I display. But the pill turns out to harm me, because I have a rare and previously unknown virus. Now in one sense your prescription was wrong, but in another sense it was morally right. Dual Consequentialism can say both of those things. See Sidgwick (1907); Brink (1986).
Dual Consequentialism: The word "right" is ambiguous. It has a moral sense and an objective sense. (i) The objectively right action is the action with the best consequences, and (ii) the morally right action is any action with the best reasonably expected consequences.
f. Rule Consequentialism
If most people who live along a short river toss their garbage in the river, so that it is always full of garbage, then your tossing your own garbage in the river makes no difference to the river, and it saves the inconvenience of driving a few miles to the dump. So consequentialism would seem to support your tossing your garbage in the river. But if everyone hauled their garbage a few miles to the dump instead, in a year or two everyone would have a nice river, which is much more valuable to each person than the minor convenience of not having to haul one’s garbage to the dump. In this case, if each person follows consequentialism, the results are predictably worse than if everyone does something else instead. Thus consequentialism seems to defeat its own purpose.
Hence another kind of theory has been suggested, which might or might not be regarded as a version of consequentialism.
Rule Consequentialism: An action is morally right if and only if it does not violate the set of rules of behavior whose general acceptance in the community would have the best consequences—that is, at least as good as any rival set of rules or no rules at all.
(The name ‘Rule Consequentialism’ is an established term for many variant theories similar to the above). On this theory, an action is not right or wrong because of its own consequences; rather, it is right or wrong depending on whether it violates the collective rules that would have the best consequences. According to Rule Consequentialism, the right thing for each person in the community near the river to do is to follow the rule, “Throw garbage in the dump, not in the river.” Even if nobody else is going to the dump, and your going to the dump causes only inconvenience and no benefit, Rule Consequentialism says to take your garbage to the dump because that is what the best set of community rules would require.
Rule Consequentialism in one or another form has received a great deal of discussion. But since many people regard it as not quite in the spirit of consequentialism and many of the issues surrounding Rule Consequentialism are unique to it, we shall say little more about it here. See Brandt (1979); Hooker et al (2000).
There are more versions of consequentialism than are presented above. See Adams (1976); Railton (1988); Goodin (1995); Mulgan (1997); Murphy (1997). Some others are presented below, and anyone can invent new ones by following the instructions given in section 1a.
2. Two Simple Arguments for Consequentialism
In Section 2 we shall look at two initial reasons to think consequentialism is true and some worries about those reasons. In Section 3 we shall discuss reasons to think consequentialism is false and some worries about those reasons. In Section 4 we shall return to more complex reasons to think consequentialism is true and some worries about those reasons.
a. Only Results Remain
Actions are transient things, soon gone forever. Hence, one might think, in the long run only the results remain, so the only thing that really matters about an action is its results. So consequentialism must be true.
But this reason for favoring consequentialism seems confused. For one thing, consequentialism holds that actions do matter, because they are among their own consequences. More importantly, in the long run no result remains, or at least no earthly result. Pleasures pass by as quickly as actions. People too pass away, and planets evaporate. If only permanent things mattered, then your happiness and misery in this life would not matter at all; but surely they do matter.
Arguably consequentialism is implicit in the very familiar conception of morality, shared by many cultures and traditions, which holds that moral perfection means loving all people, loving others as we love ourselves. For what is meant by “love” here? Forming many romantic attachments hardly seems like the path toward perfection; nor perhaps does the widespread spiritual exercise of focusing on wishing people well without actually helping them. If there is truth in the saying that we should “love all people,” perhaps it is simply that we should actively do what is good for people and not bad for them, as much as possible. If we try to produce the greatest total benefit, then we are loving “all people” in the sense that we are being impartial, caring for people in general, promoting each person’s well-being insofar as that is at stake in our actions and insofar as our helping one does not hurt others more.
A similar line of thought starts from the idea that morality is at bottom two things. First, abstractly, to be moral is to do one’s rational best to do what is objectively right. Second, more concretely, to be moral is to care about people. Now, rationality and objectivity are impartial; they do not favor one person over another. Hence to be moral is to care about people equally or impartially, so far as one can, which means trying to benefit people as much as one can. So consequentialism is correct.
One worry about these arguments is that if it happens that the most efficient way for you to help people is to send as much money as possible to help desperately poor people you do not know, then your following consequentialism may involve thinking of the people you know mainly as potential sources of money. And if someone thinks of the people she knows that way, it seems a stretch to call her a “loving” or even a “caring” person.
3. Arguments Against Consequentialism
We turn now to some of the most popular reasons to think consequentialism is false and some possible replies to these attacks
It is in the spirit of consequentialism to look at goodness ultimately from an impartial, impersonal point of view. For example, a Consequentialist who thinks the kind of consequence that matters is happiness is unlikely to think that one person’s happiness is more important than another’s (so long as the amounts of happiness in question are the same). Hence consequentialism tends to hold that in deciding what to do, you ought to give just as much weight to the needs of total strangers as to the needs of your friends, your family, and even yourself. And since your dollar can usually do more good for desperate refugees than for yourself or your friends, consequentialism seems to hold that you ought to spend most of your dollars on strangers. But when you are deciding whom to spend your money on, common sense seems to hold that you are normally morally permitted to favor yourself over strangers and often morally required to favor your children over strangers. Hence consequentialism conflicts with common sense.
One reply to this objection is that since you know better how to help yourself and those near to you, you will get better results if you focus on them rather than people strange to you or out of view. Further, it is more natural for you to want to help those closer to you, so if you start projects to help your own rather than strangers, you are more likely to follow through and less likely to burn out or lose track of your purpose. Hence the consequences will probably be better. Further, those near to you are counting on your help, so that if you stop helping them their plans will be disrupted, while strangers will not be hurt in that way if you do not spend money on them. Further, your ability to think well and act effectively depends in many ways on your having strong relationships with a few people near to you, so that your spending a bit of time or money on these people not only gives them directly a bit of help or happiness, it also indirectly supports all your other projects now and in the future. For all these reasons it would seem that even a consequentialism that impartially counts each person’s happiness or well-being as being of equal value would advise each of us to be somewhat partial to herself and those near to her, because in that way she can produce the best impartial results. And perhaps that is why common sense favors some partiality. See Singer (1972); Jackson (1991); Kidder (2003).
A different kind of reply to the objection is to adjust consequentialism itself so that it is no longer impartial. Here are two simple examples of such theories:
Egoistic Consequentialism: Of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one that has the best consequences for that person.
Friendly Consequentialism: Of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one that has the best consequences for that person and her friends.
Theories like these that count the same kinds of consequence differently for each person acting, are sometimes called “agent-relative” forms of consequentialism, though one might wonder whether they are in the spirit of consequentialism at all. See Sen (1982), Nagel (1986), Scheffler (1994), Bennett (1989), Scheffler (1989), Brink (1986), and Skorupski (1995).
For consequentialism, the simplest way to conceive of the goodness of consequences is in terms of how much they contain of something that is considered good, such as happiness or personal well-being, regardless of who gets it. What matters is the total amount, not who gets what. Such a conception is egalitarian in the sense that it counts every bit of your happiness as being just as important as the same sized bits of my happiness. But one could object that in another sense, such a conception is not egalitarian because it does not care whether happiness is distributed equally or unequally among people. If the greatest total can be created only by exploiting the miserable to make the happy even happier, then such consequentialism would seem to say that you should do it. But common sense may rebel against that idea as being unfair or unjust. Hence consequentialism is wrong. See Le Guin (1973); Rawls (1999); Harsanyi (1977).
One reply to this objection is that our intuitive sense of fairness is not mainly concerned with distributions of ultimate goods like happiness or well-being. Rather, fairness is traditionally concerned with distributions of what we might call “external goods” – goods such as money, status, power, and political rights. These are good because of the further goods that they tend to produce. Now, serious inequality in external goods tends to reduce the total happiness. One reason is that, in general, external goods tend to produce more happiness or well-being when they go to people who have less of these goods than when they go to people who have more. For example, an extra dollar does more good for a poor person than for a rich person. That is a reason to think that promoting equality in external goods will tend to do more total good than promoting inequality. Another reason is that when there is more equality in the main external goods, the basic conditions of people’s lives will be more similar and people will find it easier to understand and sympathize with each other. Hence actions and policies that promote equality in external goods will cause more happiness by promoting a sense of community. Further, institutions that secure basic external equalities, or that aim to protect whoever is poorest and weakest, tend to give everyone more security. This makes life nicer and helps people be concerned for each other rather than fearful of each other, and they will therefore do more good for each other. Actions that promote egalitarian institutions, then, would tend to do the most good overall. Perhaps these points are the basis of our sense of the importance of equality.
A different kind of reply to the objection is to propose that one of the ultimate standards for goodness of consequences should be equality. One might propose, for example, that the consequences of an action are good insofar as they promote the total happiness and promote equality of happiness or of other goods. See Sidgwick (1907). However, once one introduces such a complex standard of goodness for consequences, questions arise as to how to rate the relative importance of the parts of the standard and about how such a view can be given theoretical elegance.
c. Personal Rights
Consequentialism may ask us to meddle too much into other people’s business. For example, perhaps we can do the most good overall if we forcibly stop people from wasting their time and energy on pointless or harmful things like driving SUVs, watching television, eating meat, following sports, and so on. See Frey (1984).
For a more extreme example of meddling, suppose that by using your grandmother’s pension to contribute to efficient and thoughtful charities you can develop permanent clean water supplies for many distant villages, thus saving hundreds of people from painful early deaths and permitting economic development to begin. You need only keep her bound and gagged in the cellar and force her to sign the checks. Consequentialism would seem to say that you should do this, but moral common sense says that you should not. Hence consequentialism is opposed to common sense and is probably wrong.
For another example, suppose you are a surgeon with five patients, each about to die for lack of a certain medicine that you can obtain (in sufficient quantity) only by killing and grinding up a sixth patient. Should you do it? Consequentialism says you should do this; but moral common sense says that you should not. Hence consequentialism is opposed to common sense and so is probably wrong. Foot (1967).
Now, one reply to the extreme examples is that such opportunities are extremely unusual. (At least that is true of the surgery example.) Moral common sense is shaped by and for the demands of ordinary moral life and so common sense may not be very reliable in odd cases. Hence the fact that consequentialism disagrees with common sense about odd cases is no disproof of consequentialism.
Another reply to the extreme examples is to point out that although they rely on secrecy, they overlook secrecy’s consequential drawbacks. To keep a big secret, you must actively mislead and deceive people and keep them at a distance. Continued deception about a serious matter is difficult, so at the outset you must take into account the chance that you will fail or give up. See Jackson (1991). Continued difficult deception uses up mental resources. Hence if you have such a secret, your further projects will be more poorly chosen, designed, and carried out. Also, if you have important secrets, you may find it hard to have ordinary trust for others; you may become somewhat paranoid and ineffective. Further, if you have a big secret that would repel nice honest people, any nice honest person who learns your secret will not want to be your friend. Anyone who does not know your secret will not really know you and hence cannot be your real friend. But we need nice honest friends if we are to be effective doers of good in the long run. We need them for practical help, for mental health, and to help us see ourselves clearly. We need to see ourselves clearly in order to do good effectively in the long run. Now, if you are the sort of person who actually would send money to save distant strangers, anything that cripples your efforts will hurt many people. Hence the reasonable expectation is that embezzling your grandmother’s checks would have terrible consequences. And if you are a skilled surgeon, anything that hampers your operations will hurt people. Hence the reasonable expectation is that harvesting the healthy patient would have bad consequences. A similar argument might be made regarding almost any scheme that would horrify nice honest people.
A more general reply to the claim that consequentialism advises us to meddle in other people’s business is that even where secrecy would not be involved, there are Consequentialist reasons for you to avoid direct meddling with others’ private spheres and personal affairs. For one thing, each of us is in a better position to understand her own affairs than you are and more naturally and reliably concerned than you are to make sure that her own affairs are carried out well. If you get involved in meddling, can you trust yourself to meddle in the right direction and with adequate care? If you want to do good for me, doing the sorts of things that are normally thought of as violating my personal rights is probably a bad bet. That does not mean consequentialism tells you to leave me entirely alone. Consequentialism can still tell you to give me resources or opportunities, or to help me with my projects, or to help improve the laws of our community.
Further, it is important that people be free to make decisions for themselves, even poor decisions, because that is the only way that people develop strength of character and because constant experimentation is the only way humanity learns about the various possibilities of life. Hence consequentialism would seem to ask us to support laws that protect personal freedom against excessive interference by our neighbors or our government. See Mill (1859).
A different kind of reply to the objection is to propose a new standard for the goodness of consequences. One might propose, for example, that an action is good insofar as it decreases the amount of meddling in the world. Or one might propose instead that an action is good insofar as it causes less meddling and more total happiness. Of course, once one introduces such a complex standard of goodness for consequences, questions arise about how to rate the relative importance of the parts of the standard and about how such a view can be given theoretical elegance. A further worry about this new proposal is that it still does not directly tell us not to meddle. For if we can minimize the total amount of meddling in the long run by meddling today (perhaps by spying on terrorism suspects or by privately bombing the citizens of aggressive countries), this new theory tells us to do so. See Sen (1982).
d. Human Thinking
Consequentialism seems to tell us to make all our decisions by thinking about overall consequences. But that way of thinking about life is, one might think, inhuman and immoral. When someone asks you a question, you should not stop to calculate the consequences before deciding whether to answer truthfully. If you decide by looking to the consequences, you are not really an honest person. Also, when you are about to follow through on a project you have started, you should not stop to calculate the overall consequences anew before you proceed. A sane person will decide on a project and then simply follow through, unless some new situation arises. Anyone who stops to calculate consequences before taking any step to fulfill a commitment is not a person of integrity. And what moves you to spend an hour with your friend or spouse or child should not be impartial calculations about the overall impact on the world at large. If you decide by looking to the overall consequences, you do not really love that person. Therefore consequentialism is an inhuman and immoral theory and must be wrong. See Williams (1973); Williams (1981); Stocker (1976).
Now, this objection does not directly apply to Plain Consequentialism or Plain Scalar Consequentialism, for these theories do not say that we should think about consequences. On the contrary, if you think in the inhuman way described in the objection, your plans and your relationships are unlikely to go well, so Plain versions of consequentialism tend to oppose that way of thinking. Such thinking would be action that has bad consequences. See Bales (1971), Railton (1994).
Nor does the objection apply to Rule Consequentialism. Rule Consequentialism suggests that we should evaluate rules of behavior by asking what the consequences would be if everyone accepted this or that rule, but does not say that the rightness of actions has anything to do with the consequences of those actions themselves. See Rawls (1955).
The objection does, however, directly attack Reasonable Consequentialism and Dual Consequentialism, because these theories say that an action is morally wrong unless we have a reasonable estimate of its consequences.
The defender of Reasonable or Dual Consequentialism might argue that the objection has misunderstood what it is to have a reasonable estimate of an action’s consequences. Perhaps it does not involve explicitly thinking about the consequences at all. As I proceed to feed my cat, I almost never think about the consequences of doing so versus not doing so, but surely it would be wrong to say that I have no view or that my view is not reasonable.
Another way of replying to the objection is to propose yet another version of consequentialism.
Double Consequentialism: The word "right" is ambiguous. It has a moral sense and an objective sense. (i) The objectively right action is the action with the best consequences, and (ii) the morally right action is any action one reasonably estimates to be objectively right.
This Double Consequentialism differs from the Dual Consequentialism of 1.e above only in point (ii), on the morally right action. Where Dual Consequentialism had said that the morally right action is “any action with the best reasonably expected consequences,” Double Consequentialism says the morally right action is the action one reasonably estimates to be objectively right. To see the difference in principle between these theories, suppose there is a somewhat reliable authority on what specific kinds of actions are objectively right. For example, suppose God, who knows all the consequences, has announced that certain kinds of things are right. Or suppose a society’s conventional views about what is right and wrong reflect centuries of experience about what tends to cause trouble. Or suppose the recommendation that comes from you friend, your mother, your heart, or your prior resolution, reflects insight into the implications of your action that would not be reflected in the conscious estimates of consequences you might be able to work up on the spur of the moment. Further, suppose that God, society, your friend or your heart has sufficient authority on the points it addresses that the most reasonable way for you to estimate which of your own options are objectively right is to trust that authority. If there is such an authority, then actions one chooses by deferring to the authority may be morally right according to Double Consequentialism even if they are morally wrong according to Dual Consequentialism.
For example, suppose Paul is considering stealing money from his grandmother to help the poor. So far as he can reasonably guess, that scheme would have the best overall consequences. But he remembers that stealing is generally regarded as wrong. He may or may not find consequentialism plausible, but in any case he knows he does not have a solid theoretical understanding of rightness; so he reasonably decides to trust his community’s confident view and does not pursue the scheme. Double Consequentialism says his choice is morally right, even though his decision was not based on estimates of consequences and went against his estimates.
One might object that if the objectively right action is the one whose consequences are best, then general social opinion cannot be an authority on objective rightness, even on those issues where the general opinion is clear. For general social opinion does not agree that the objectively right action is the one whose consequences are best.
But this objection assumes that an authority on the question whether an action is objectively right would have to know exactly what objective rightness is. That assumption may be mistaken, because it is not true that an authority on whether something has a certain feature has to know exactly what that feature is. For example, suppose that many years ago, before anyone knew that gold is made of atoms or that it is the element with atomic number 79, Jack and Jill were hiking in unclaimed land and came upon some heavy shiny lumps. Jack had no idea how to identify gold. But Jill had handled gold a few times before and could make a good guess about whether the lumps were really gold. For the moment, Jill was an authority for Jack on whether these lumps were gold. It was reasonable for him to rely on her imperfect judgment, even though neither of them knew quite what gold is.
Since Double Consequentialism does not imply that you should estimate the consequences of your everyday actions, it seems to escape the objection that consequentialism requires inhuman and immoral thinking.
4. Further Arguments for Consequentialism
a. Reasons for Action
One argument for consequentialism begins from the premise that whatever a person does, she does in order to produce some sort of good result. It may be a benefit to herself or to someone else. It may be a short-run benefit or a long-run benefit. It may be a benefit of a particular kind: a financial benefit, a heath benefit, entertainment or knowledge. It may be the prevention of some harm. But whatever a person does, she does in order to produce some sort of benefit. Her expectation that it will produce or promote that good outcome is her reason for performing the action. Now, different kinds of benefits yield different kinds of reasons. For example, if a certain action would be good for the bank account but bad for the health, there is a financial reason for it and a health reason against it. Similarly, if a certain action would be good for me but bad for you, there is a reason for it and a reason against it. To find out whether the action is rationally justifiable overall, one must look beyond these specific kinds of reason to find what overall reason there is. That is, one must look to see whether financial benefit outweighs the health drawback, and whether the benefit to me outweighs the harm to you. In other words, one must ask whether the action promotes benefit overall. Therefore, an action is rationally justifiable insofar as it does good overall. And since we ought to do what is rationally justifiable, we ought to do whatever does the most good overall. Hence Consequentialism is true.
One worry about the above argument is that its initial premise may be false. We may sometimes act not to produce a benefit, but in order to obey a principle we accept. For example, you may do something simply because you have promised or because it is required by law, without looking to the consequences. Even if every action does aim at some benefit, this does not show that the benefit is the whole reason for each action. Perhaps our reason for each action is a combination of two things: the idea that the action will produce benefits and the idea that the action is morally permissible—that it would not violate any principles of morality. If every action is taken to produce some benefit, that shows only that the benefit is part of the reason for every action, not that the benefit is the whole reason.
Another worry about the above argument is that it presupposes that the notion of overall benefit makes sense. To see how someone might question that, think about skills and skill. Many of our actions are aimed at developing skill. But skill is not one thing. Many of our actions are aimed at developing a skil. To practice one skill, one must neglect or even undermine another skill. (Boxing makes me worse at the piano.) But that does not imply that there is a kind of skill that is neither boxing nor piano but simply “overall skill,” nor does it imply that my training actions are irrational unless I think they will promote overall skill. See Foot (1985); Scanlon (1998).
b. It Is Wrong to Choose the Worse Over the Better
Consider the following argument for consequentialism adapted from Foot (1985).
- The whole of an action’s consequences has no further consequences. (Premise)
- When we are choosing among such wholes, nothing else is at stake. (From 1)
- It can never be right to choose something worse over something better, when nothing else is at stake. (Premise)
- It can never be right to choose a worse whole set of consequences over a better. (From 2 and 3)
- In choosing an action, one is choosing its whole set of consequences. (Premise)
- One ought always to choose an action whose overall consequences are at least as good as the overall consequences of any of the alternative actions; in other words, consequentialism is true. (From 4 and 5)
A worry about the argument is that premise (5) may not be true. In choosing an action, one is normally not choosing its whole set of consequences, because one cannot know what most of the consequences are. One is normally not even choosing the reasonably expectable consequences, because one has not formed any expectation about the action’s likely overall consequences.
A second worry is that premise (1) may not support statement (2). Even though a whole set of consequences has no further consequences, it might have further implications. For not all implications are consequences. For example, one important implication of the fact that my speedometer’s hand is below the ‘55’ is that I am going slower than 55. That is why the position of the hand matters to me. But of course I know that the position of the hand has no effect on my speed. For another example, one important implication of an action I take may be that I (already) am a certain kind of person. An action can show what kind of person I am even if it does not make me be that kind of person. See Campbell and Sowden (1985).
A third worry about the above argument begins from a view about the adjective ‘good’. What we are saying about a knife when we say that it is a “good” one is very different from what we are saying about a painting when we say that it is a “good” one; and similarly the import of ‘good’ seems to differ in the phrases ‘good mathematician’, ‘good liar’, ‘good father’, and ‘good batch of crack’. Thus it would seem that the standards of goodness vary with the kind of thing we are talking about. Now, some kinds of thing do not suggest any standards of goodness: consider ‘good pebble’. If I point to a pebble and say that it is a “good pebble,” you will not know what I mean. Hence ‘good’ seems not to have a meaning in that context. To say that a certain pebble is good is meaningless. Similarly, there are no general standards of goodness for whole sets of consequences in genera. The phrase ‘good whole set of consequences’ is no more communicative or meaningful than the phrase 'good pebble'. If that is right, then consequentialism itself must be wrong because consequentialism is at root the idea that we ought to bring about good consequences. See Geach (1956); Foot (1985); Thomson (1993).
This controversial line of thought is not only an objection to the above argument for consequentialism, it is also an argument against consequentialism. For if 'good consequences' is meaningless, then it cannot be correct to define right action in terms of good consequences, as consequentialism normally does.
One possible reply to this argument against consequentialism is that even if ‘good overall consequences’ turns out to be meaningless, one might still think, for example, that the right action is the one that causes the most happiness. One could phrase consequentialism in general terms as, for example, the theory that “there is some feature of consequences of actions such that the right action is the one whose consequences have that feature to the greatest degree.”
The remaining arguments for consequentialism given here, like the argument from love, do not speak merely of “good consequences overall.” Rather they defend consequentialism by defending the importance of some particular kind of consequence, such as happiness, the satisfaction of desire, or the well-being of people.
c. The Ideal Spectator
Consider the following argument for consequentialism.
- What objectively ought to happen, what is objectively desirable, is whatever would be wished for by a spectator with full knowledge and no bias; that is, someone who knows everything and is equally sympathetic with everyone. (Premise)
- An impartially sympathetic being who knows everyone’s desires would share everyone’s desires in proportion to their strength. (Premise)
- An all-knowing impartial being would, overall, wish for the greatest possible balance of satisfaction of the desires of all people. (From 2)
- What objectively ought to happen is whatever would promote the greatest possible balance of satisfaction of the desires of all people. (From 1 and 3)
- The right action is the one that objectively ought to happen. (Premise)
- The right action is whatever would promote the greatest possible balance of satisfaction of the desires of all people. (From 4 and 5)
- Consequentialism is true. (From 6)
One worry about the above argument is that it is not clear why we should think Premise 1 is true. Why would the absence of bias mean being equally sympathetic with everyone? Perhaps an easier way to be free of bias is to have no sympathy for anyone.
Another worry is that 1 and 2 do not imply 3. For one thing, 1 and 2 do not tell us that the ideal spectator would have no concerns other than those she derives from sympathy, but 3 does make that assumption. For another thing, suppose this amazing being does lack all other concerns. Now, 2 tells us that she is full of desires that conflict with each other. 3 says that she has another desire—the desire that all her other desires be fulfilled as much as possible. Why would she have that additional desire? One might suppose that if a person has two conflicting desires, it is rational for her to replace them with a single compromise desire. But if the spectator replaces her conflicting desires, then according to 2 she no longer has the sympathy that makes her a reliable judge. See Firth (1952); Hare (1981), Seanor and Fotion (1988).
d. What is Desirable
Consider this argument for Plain Scalar Consequentialism, which is based on one proposed in Mill (1861):
- Desiring something is the same thing as thinking that it will increase one’s happiness or decrease one’s unhappiness. (Premise)
- What each person ultimately desires is only her own happiness. (From 1)
- What will satisfy each person’s desire is her own happiness—and whatever promotes that. (From 2)
- “X is desirable” means “If X occurs, X will help satisfy desire.” (Premise)
- What is ultimately desirable for each person is her own happiness—and whatever promotes that. (From 3 and 4)
- “Good” and “desirable” are synonyms. (Premise)
- What is good for you is happiness for you —and whatever promotes that. (From 5 and 6)
- 8. What is good is happiness—and whatever promotes that. (From 7, crossing ‘for you’ out of both sides of the equation)
- An action is good insofar as its overall consequences contain happiness. (From 8)
- Plain Scalar Consequentialism is true. (From 9)
One worry about this argument is that 1 seems false. For example, people often procrastinate from laziness or fear, knowing that they are hurting themselves in the long run. And even people who do not believe in a life after death often give their lives for larger causes.
Another worry is that it is unclear exactly how 7 is supposed to imply 8. Even in mathematics, crossing the same thing out of both sides of a true equation does not always yield a new true equation. If you cross out “+2” from both sides of “10+2 = 3(2+2),” you change a truth to a falsehood.
A shorter cousin of the above argument, focusing on the fulfillment of desire rather than on happiness, avoids those worries.
- “X is desirable” means “X will help satisfy desire if, X occurs.” (Premise)
- The words “good” and “desirable” are synonyms. (Premise)
- An action is good insofar as it helps to satisfy desire. (From 1 and 2)
- An action is good insofar as its consequences include the satisfaction of desire. (From 3)
- Consequentialism is true. (From 4)
One worry about this shorter argument is that Premise 2 may be false. For example, it sounds a bit odd to say that when you call someone a good person, you are calling her a desirable person.
Another worry is that it is obscure whether there is anything sensible that might be meant by a greater or lesser amount of “satisfaction of desire.” Are all desires to count or only those that exist at the time of the action or the decision (even if they disappear before most of the consequences arrive)? Presumably the stronger desires are to count for more. But if I desire something slightly and then intensely, which counts? Should a desire count for more if it is held for a longer time? Should it count if it is based on a factual mistake or if it is malicious? See Griffin (1986); Scanlon (1993).
e. Common Sense
There are many moral questions on which common sense is divided or simply stumped. People disagree with each other about the morality of using human embryos for stem cell research, downloading copyrighted music, giving little to the poor, eating animals, having certain kinds of sex, and many other things. One of the main reasons to investigate moral theory is to learn how to approach these questions reasonably.
But on many issues there is a broad range of solid agreement about what is morally obvious, at least in societies that have long permitted open discussion by all. We firmly agree, for example, that equality and rights are very important, that it is not wrong to favor our family and friends over strangers, that it is wrong to torture children, and so on. When we are thinking about morality, that is usually because we are puzzled about some hard question. At such times we might overlook the fact that the aspects of morality that we agree on as obvious cover so much territory that they sketch the basic shape of civilized life.
Yet there is not broad agreement on the abstract question, “What is morality all about? What is morality?” Consequentialism is, as we have seen, one of many different proposed answers to that question. The true answer would presumably have some sort of simplicity and would presumably support most of the concrete moral views that seem most obvious to our common sense. So if consequentialism agrees with common sense, that agreement is some reason to think that consequentialism is true.
Section 3 above presented several objections to consequentialism, arguing that consequentialism conflicts with one or another basic piece of common sense about morality. But in reply to most of these objections, Section 3 presented arguments to show that consequentialism supports those bits of common sense after all.
A worry about this line of thought is that if there were some simple theory like consequentialism that captured what morality is about, one might think that we would have recognized it long ago. But consequentialism is still controversial.
(For more discussion of consequentialism, see the consequentialism section of the article Ethics.)
5. References and Further Reading
a. Classic Works
- Bentham, Jeremy (J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart, eds.). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Mill, John Stuart (Roger Crisp, ed.), Utilitarianism . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Sidgwick, Henry. 1907. The Methods of Ethics, Seventh Edition . Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981.
- Moore, G. E. (Thomas Baldwin, ed.) Principia Ethica . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
b. Recommended Collections
Most of the best recent work on consequentialism is collected in the following anthologies. Any one of these collections provides an excellent introduction to consequentialism. In addition, the fine journal Utilitas is entirely devoted to the topic.
- Darwall, Stephen. Consequentialism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
- Gorovitz, Samuel, ed. John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism, With Critical Essays. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1971.
- Pettit, Philip, ed. Consequentialism (International Research Library of Philosophy, Vol. 6). Aldershot: Dartmouth Publishing Group, 1993.
- Scheffler, Samuel, ed. Consequentialism and Its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
c. Other Recommended Works
- Adams, Robert M. “Motive Utilitarianism.” Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976): 467-481.
- Bales, R. Eugene. “Act-Utilitarianism: Account of Right-Making Characteristics or Decision-Making Procedures?” American Philosophical Quarterly 8 (1971): 257-65.
- Bayles, Michael D., ed. Contemporary Utilitarianism.. Garden City: Doubleday, 1968.
- Bennett, Jonathan. “Two Departures from Consequentialism.” Ethics 100.1 (1989): 54-66.
- Brandt, Richard. B. A Theory of the Good and the Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
- Brandt, Richard B. Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
- Brink, David. “Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View.” Journal of Philosophy 83.8 (1986): 417-38.
- Brink, David. Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989
- Campbell, Richmond, and Sowden, Lanning, eds. Paradoxes of Rationality and Cooperation. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1985.
- Den Uyl, Douglas, & Machan, Tibor R. “Recent Work on the Concept of Happiness.” American Philosophical Quarterly 20.2 (1983): 115-134
- Driver, Julia, ed. Character and Consequentialism. Special Issue of Utilitas, 13.2 (2001).
- Feldman, Fred. Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Firth, Roderick. “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12 (1952): 317-345.
- Foot, Philippa. “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect.” Oxford Review 5 (1967): 28-41.
- Foot, Philippa. “Utilitarianism and the Virtues.” Mind 94 (1985): 196-209.
- Frey, Raymond. G. Utility and Rights. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
- Geach, Peter. “Good and Evil.” Analysis 17 (1956): 33-42.
- Goodin, Robert E. Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Griffin, James. Well-Being. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
- Hare, Richard M. Moral Thinking. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
- Harsanyi, John. C. “Morality and the Theory of Rational Behavior.” Social Research 44.4 (1977): 623-656.
- Hart, H. L. A. “Natural Rights: Bentham and John Stuart Mill.” In Essays on Bentham: Studies in Jurisprudence and Political Theory, by H. L. A. Hart. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
- Hooker, Brad, ed. Rationality, Rationality, Rules, and Utility: New Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Richard Brandt. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.
- Hooker, Brad. “Rule Consequentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Hooker, Brad; Mason, Elinor; and Miller, Dale E. Morality, Rules, and Consequences. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
- Jackson, Frank. “Decision-Theoretic Consequentialism and the Nearest and Dearest Objection.” Ethics 101 (1991): 461-82.
- Jackson, Frank, and Pargetter, Robert. “Oughts, Options, and Actualism.” Philosophical Review 95 (1986): 233-255.
- Kagan, Shelly. The Limits of Morality. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
- Kagan, Shelly. Normative Ethics. Boulder: Westview, 1998.
- Kidder, Tracy. Mountains Beyond Mountains. New York: Random House, 2003.
- Le Guin, Ursula K. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas . Mankato, MN: Creative Education, 1992.
- Lyons, David. Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.
- Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty  in John Gray and G. W. Smith, eds., J. S. Mill’s On Liberty in Focus. London: Routledge, 1991.
- Mulgan, Tim, “Two Conceptions of Benevolence.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 26.1 (1997):62-79.
- Mulgan, Tim. The Demands of Consequentialism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.
- Murphy, Liam B. “A Relatively Plausible Principle of Beneficence: Reply to Mulgan.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 26.1 (1997):80-86.
- Nagel, Thomas. The View From Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Norcross, Alastair. “Good and Bad Actions.” Philosophical Review 106.1(1997): 1-34.
- Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.
- Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.
- Pettit, Philip. “The Consequentialist Perspective.” In Three Methods of Ethics, by Marcia Baron, Philip Pettit, and Michael Slote. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997.
- Railton, Peter. “How Thinking about Character and Utilitarianism Might Lead to Rethinking the Character of Utilitarianism.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 13 (1988): 398-416.
- Railton, Peter. “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 13.2 (1994): 134-71.
- Rawls, John. “Two Concepts of Rules” Philosophical Review 64 (1955): 3-32.
- Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Scanlon, Thomas M. “Value, Desire, and Quality of Life.” In Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, eds., The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
- Scanlon, Thomas M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
- Scarre, Geoffrey. Utilitarianism. London: Routledge, 1996.
- Scheffler, Samuel. “Deontology and the Agent: A Reply to Bennett” Ethics 100.1 (1989): 67-76.
- Scheffler, Samuel. The Rejection of Consequentialism, Revised Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
- Seanor, Douglas, & Fotion, N. Hare and Critics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
- Sen, Amartya. “Rights and Agency.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 11.1 (1982): 3-39.
- Sen, Amartya, and Williams, Bernard, eds. Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
- Shaw, William. H. Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1999.
- Singer, Marcus G. “Actual Consequence Utilitarianism.” Mind 86 (1977): 67-77.
- Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1972): 229-243.
- Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics, Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. "Consequentialism." In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Skorupski, John. “Agent-Neutrality, Consequentialism, Utilitarianism: A Terminological Note.” Utilitas 7 (1995): 49-54.
- Slote, Michael. “Object Utilitarianism,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 66 (1985): 111-124.
- Slote, Michael. Common-Sense Morality and Consequentialism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.
- Slote, Michael. Beyond Optimizing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Smart, J. J. C., “Free Will, Praise, and Blame,” Mind 70.279 (1961): 291-306.
- Smart, J. J. C. “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics.” In Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
- Sprigge, T. L. S. The Rational Foundations of Ethics. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988.
- Stocker, Michael. “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories.” Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976): 453-466.
- Sumner, L. W. Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
- Tännsjö, Torbjörn. Hedonistic Utilitarianism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
- Taurek, John. “Should the Numbers Count?” Philosophy & Public Affairs 6 (1977): 293-316.
- Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “Goodness and Utilitarianism.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 67.2 (October 1993): 145-159.
- Williams, Bernard. “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” in Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
- Williams, Bernard. “Persons, Character, and Morality,” in Bernard Williams, Moral Luck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
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