7 Consequentialism

The first approach to ethical decision-making that we are going to consider is consequentialism.  This approach focuses on the consequences of the actions that we are considering and whether they are good or bad. As we shall see, consequentialists can have very different views of what counts as good or bad consequences. Also, they may think about consequences in quite different ways, with some focusing first on individuals and other more interested in the group. They also differ in how they factor moral status into decision-making; that is, figuring out who counts. Some consequentialists consider humans alone while others extend their ethical gaze to nonhuman animals also.

7.1. Mohism

Written consequentialist theories go back to the work of Mozi (mentioned above in  2.6) and those who followed his work, the Mohists. This philosophical approach saw its zenith during the Warring States era in China (479–221 BCE), a time of political chaos that brought considerable misery and hardship to ordinary people.[1] The right thing to do, according to the Mohists, is simply to try to alleviate harms done to people and promote what is beneficial to them.  Mozi wrote:

Now at the present time, what brings the greatest harm to the world? Great states attacking small ones, great families overthrowing small ones, the strong oppressing the weak, the many harrying the few, the cunning deceiving the stupid, the eminent lording it over the humble—these are harmful to the world.[2]

Mozi thought that the underlying cause of this misery is that people are partial, meaning that they don’t love everyone equally but instead put the interests of particular people—typically, themselves and their loved ones—before everyone else. In the dominant approach to ethics in China at the time, love of one’s family, especially one’s parents (sometimes called filial piety) played a central role. Mozi argued that if one really wants to benefit and protect the interests of one’s parents, the best way to achieve this is to make sure that everyone else wants it too. The question is how does one secure this goal? He explains, “Obviously, I must make it a point to love and benefit other [people’s] parents, so that they in return will love and benefit my parents. So, if all of us are to be filial [children], can we set about it any other way than by first making a point of loving and benefiting other [people’s] parents?”[3]

Mozi’s point is that everyone will be better off if we all follow a practice of universal, impartial love.  It’s worth noting here that Mozi is not saying that universal love is intrinsically good. It is, instead, a means for bringing about the good. As he explains:

Now if we seek to benefit the world by taking universality as our standard, those with sharp ears and clear eyes will see and hear for others, those with sturdy limbs will work for others….Those who are old and without [family] will find means of support and be able to live out their days; the young and orphaned who have no parents will find someone to care for them and look after their needs.[4]

This passage suggests the benefits that Mohists sought to advance—namely, life, wealth, and social order—and the harms they wished to avoid—namely, death, poverty, and disorder or conflict.[5] Although we might disagree about the goals that Mohists value, the important point here is that in order to assess what we should do they direct us to look at the consequences. They believe that we should make decisions about what to do based on how our actions will affect society as a whole.

7.2. Utilitarianism

In the 18th century an English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, came up with a similar idea, which he dubbed “Utilitarianism.” Bentham was scientifically minded, which one can see in the way he approached ethics. He noticed that we all pursue pleasure and avoided pain. This provided him with what he called a principle of utility, which is, in effect, a theory of the good. In brief, Bentham thought it is good to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.[6]

He suggested we should do a kind of calculus when we are trying to figure out what will maximize utility. We should identify the likely outcomes of different possible actions, consider who is affected by those actions and consider the intensity, duration, and immediacy of the pleasures and pains that would be produced by for each individual as well as the degree of certainty we have that they would be brought about.[7] As with Mohism, everyone counts equally. We are not allowed to weigh our own pleasures and pains more heavily in this calculation.

While this view is often identified with the slogan ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, this isn’t quite right. It is possible that one could achieve ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ by inflicting abject misery on a few. This might add up to less utility than a situation where there is rather less good outcomes for slightly fewer people that ensured abject misery for none. In other words, the utilitarian calculus needs to take into consideration negative utility (for Bentham, pain) as well as positive utility (for Bentham, pleasure).

Later thinkers have modified utilitarianism in various ways. Some have suggested that the principle of utility needed revision, suggesting that happiness and suffering are much richer and more morally nuanced ideas than mere pleasure and pain. This was the view of John Stewart Mill, another English thinker, who developed and refined Bentham’s theory. Mill thought that many of the experiences that individuals value the most aren’t those that simply bring them pleasure. Moreover, he thought that even among pleasurable experiences we might want to differentially rank pleasures. He famously wrote, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”[8] It is not clear that Bentham would have agreed with this. He extended his theory to all sentient beings, remarking, “the question is not, Can they reason? or Can they talk? but Can they suffer?[9]

Some utilitarians have suggested that we need to consider something more easily countable than pleasures, pains, happiness, and suffering and so use preference satisfaction as the principle of utility. Due to the tendency for humans to have wholly irrational preferences—for instance, frequently choosing to do things that harm them— other thinkers have suggested that we define utility in terms of the preferences that humans would have if we were perfectly rational beings. One can often see something like this approach in economics and rational decision theory.

Harm/benefit analyses invariably take up a kind of consequentialist lens. After all, harms are typically nothing other than bad consequences and benefits are typically good consequences. The challenge with harm/benefit analyses, just as with consequentialism more generally, is figuring out what counts—pleasure, happiness, preferences, social order, life, wealth—who counts—only humans or some nonhuman animals too—and how to weigh what are often very different kinds of consequences against each other.

7.2.1. Act Utilitarianism

While all utilitarians value consequences, they may differ in how they do this. One option is to employ a utilitarian calculus for each action. This approach, Act Utilitarianism, provides us with the following principle, quoting Boetzkes and Waluchow:

An act is right if and only if there is no other action I could have done instead which either (a) would have produced a greater balance of utility over disutility; or (b) would have produced a smaller balance of disutility over utility.[10]

This is all a bit abstract, so it is useful to try it out in some imaginary scenarios.

Suppose you have the choice of three different actions (A, B, and C) and you reasonably believe that whichever you do will affect three different people (Xena, Yasaar, and Zhu). You take into consideration the intensity, duration, immediacy and degree of certainty of the positive and negative consequences of each possible action for each individual. On the basis of your principle of utility, you assign utility values to each person given each possible action. Then you just do the math. In the table below we can see that action C is the right thing to do, according to act utilitarianism.

Action Xena’s utility Yasaar’s utility Zhu’s utility Utility of the action
A -10 +3 +5 -2
B -3 +2 +3 +2
C +10 -2 -4 +4

Notice that even though action C makes two of three people worse off than any other possible action it is still the right thing to do because their additive disutility is considerably less than the positive utility of the third person. This could even be true if there were another possible action that had positive utility for everyone. (Suppose there were a fourth possible action, D that had a value of +1 for each person. This would still only add up to +3 and thus provide less total utility than action C in this scenario.)

We can make this a little more tangible still. Imagine you’re Yassar and you own an apartment that you are currently renting to Xena. Xena lost her job a few months ago and, even with government assistance, she is now two months behind on rent. She is looking for a job but you don’t expect she will be able to find one. Zhu is looking for an apartment and would like to rent the apartment that Xena currently occupies. You consider things and judge that you have three options: (A) you could evict Xena immediately and immediately rent the apartment to Zhu; (B) you could give Xena until the end of the month to find the money to pay her back rent and then evict her and rent it to Zhu if she fails (as I expect she will); and (C) you can just tell Xena that you are confident she will be able to pay her back rent eventually and tell Zhu that they will have to find another apartment.

Notice that even though it’s the worst option for you (Yassar), action C is still the right thing to do. Even if Zhou was your best friend and Xena was the biggest jerk you’d ever met, if the calculus above is correct, option C is the right thing to do. Again, for utilitarians all individuals count equally and all that matters is the total utility produced, whether we judge that in terms of pleasures (and pains), happiness (and suffering) or preferences. Also, notice how sensitive the consequences are to the situation of the individuals involved. It is easy to imagine all kinds of different circumstances that would influence the utility of each action for each individual, from whether Xena has other realistic living options, to Yassar’s wealth, to Zhu’s psychological capacity to deal with uncertainty (each of these considerations could change the utility value assigned to each individual).


Are there any moral considerations in this situation that aren’t captured if we just think about the consequences?

What are they?

There are several objections that people have raised to act utilitarianism. First, many people think that there are particular types of action or special relationships that matter, which are irrelevant from a utilitarian perspective. (We’ll consider these ethical lenses in sections 3.8 and 3.10.1, respectively.) For instance, suppose I have already promised the apartment to Zhou when I’m trying to decide what to do. An act utilitarian will only value keeping this promise insofar as it affects the utility of the possible actions. To be sure, often breaking promises can cause the promise-breaker shame, anguish and anxiety (disutility, on pretty much any principle of utility) and have real negative consequences for the person to whom the promise was made. However, if I have no scruples about breaking promises and Zhou’s disutility isn’t increased by the additional harm of having a promise broken, then the fact a promise was made is irrelevant to what the right thing to do is for an act utilitarian. If we think that promises matter morally then this appears to be a serious problem for this theory. Similarly, we may think that we have particular obligations to family and friends to watch out for their interests and that these cannot fully be captured simply by thinking about consequences in a totally impartial way.

Another type of objection concerns matters of justice. Imagine the following scenario. Suppose you are a police superintendent in a town where a terrible violent crime has been committed and the perpetrator is still at large. The general populace of the community is not only terrified, but they are also very angry at what they consider to be the failure of the police and there are nightly protests that are getting increasingly violent. Although you have no leads, you do a utilitarian calculus where you consider framing one person for the crime. You reason as follows. If no arrest is made thousands of people will suffer in the following ways: many people will continue to live in terror; the riots will continue and many people will be hurt, some even killed; many people’s property will be damaged and some of their livelihoods ruined. If I frame a person who has no alibi, then these terrible consequences will be avoided. To be sure, one person will suffer terribly, but this is outweighed by the thousands of people who will be spared any disutility. If the numbers work out, this means that the right thing to do is to frame the innocent person. Also, notice that if I want to harm as few people as possible then I will target someone who is socially isolated and marginalized in the community, someone who likely already experiences significant forms of social injustice. Most people think this is clearly wrong. It is simply unjust to frame an innocent person and even worse if you choose them because they are oppressed. If you are not so sure, imagine that you are the innocent person who is framed—after all, utilitarianism is impartial.

Act utilitarianism faces another kind of challenge when we consider the problem of free riders. Imagine there is a water shortage in your town. The town council asks everyone to avoid watering their lawns (if they have them) and to take short showers only a few times a week. If most people do this, a catastrophic drought where there is not enough water to drink will be avoided. So, although everyone will experience some unpleasantness if they follow the council’s recommendation, it is considerably less unpleasant than what would happen under drought conditions. Suppose you know that your neighbours are very civic-minded and are likely to comply with the order, which means there will be more than enough water saved to avoid the catastrophic drought. Then it doesn’t really matter what you do, as the drought will be avoided. Indeed, because you will diminish your own utility by forgoing your two daily 20 minute showers (you don’t have a lawn) and because the right thing to do is to maximize utility, it seems you are morally obliged to keep up your high consumption of water, according to act utilitarianism. If people were to find out that you’re a free rider this might make them angry (an unpleasant emotion that diminishes their happiness), so to maximize the overall utility you might be required to cover up and lie about your own water consumption. It seems, once again, that an act utilitarian approach is requiring one to behave in ways that are fundamentally unfair and immoral. Notice that this is not the same as the because we are imagining that not everyone is acting in their own self-interest and attempting to free ride.[11] In other words, it’s only the right thing to do, from an act utilitarian perspective, because there is only one person doing it.

7.2.2. Rule Utilitarianism

Prompted by such concerns, some have proposed a rule-based approach to utilitarianism, Rule Utilitarianism. The basic idea is that we need to identify those rules that, if everybody followed them, would maximize utility. Thus, we get a principle like the following (quoting  Boetzkes and Waluchow):

An act is morally right if and only if it conforms with a set of rules whose general observance would maximize utility.[12]

At least initially, this version of utilitarianism seems able to address all three of the challenges to Act Utilitarianism outlined above. Obviously, it deals with the free rider problem, but it also seems to deal with the scenario where an innocent person is framed for a crime. After all, if law enforcement frequently framed innocent people they would produce considerable disutility, terrorizing the innocent and ignoring real criminals, letting crime escalate. Even special relationships seem to be saved. For instance, if every parent followed the rule that parents should take special care of their children this would probably maximize utility.

However, some critics have complained that Rule Utilitarianism gives up much of what was really useful about the consequentialist perspective. Consequentialism allows us to consider all the nuances and details of a particular situation. When we use the same set of rules to apply to a wide variety of situations, we may lose some valuable flexibility. Moreover, it becomes difficult to articulate when we should break a rule in order to maximize utility. The theory flirts with absurdity as soon as one tries to articulate rules for when to break rules in order to maximize utility.

7.3. Final Considerations about Consequentialism

While there are significant similarities between Mozi’s consequentialism and utilitarianism there are also some differences. Perhaps the most significant similarity, beyond consequentialism itself, is that they both emphasize impartiality—that one shouldn’t value one’s own well-being (or that of those close to us) more than anybody else’s. This means that Mozi’s consequentialism and utilitarianism suggest that everyone who counts enjoys equal moral status. The key difference is in what these theories value and how they think of the collective. Utilitarians think of the collective simply as the sum of individuals; you determine utility for each person and then add it all up. Mozi values wealth, social order, and community growth as properties of the collective. Consider social order. This is not the property of an individual and so it is not a possible principle of utility. Mozi can directly value social order in his system because the consequences he wants to bring about are the good of society as a whole, not the good of society understood as a collection of individuals.


What are the different strengths and weaknesses of the different theories that employ a consequentialist lens?

Do you think one is better than the others?


  1. Chris Fraser, "Mohism," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, (Fall 2020 Edition), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/mohism/.
  2. Mozi, quoted in JeeLoo Liu, An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy: From Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 110-1.
  3. Mozi, 114.
  4. Mozi, 116.
  5. Fraser, “Mohism,” §7.
  6. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, edited by Jonathan Bennett (Early Modern Texts, 2017), 6, https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/ assets/pdfs/bentham1780.pdf.
  7. Bentham, 22-3.
  8. John Stuart Mill, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Utilitarianism, 2004, chapter 2, para. 6, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11224/11224-h/11224-h.htm.
  9. Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation, 144.
  10. Elisabeth Boetzkes and Wilfrid Waluchow, Readings in Health Care Ethics (Peterborough: Broadview, 2002), 12-3.
  11. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj_gLquca7Q for more information on commons tragedies.
  12. Boetzkes and Waluchow, 16.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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