Understanding ethical systems: Consequentialism

February 16, 2021

In the final three articles in this series, we’re comparing and contrasting the most dominant ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the standard of biblical ethics. In the first article we defined biblical ethics as the process of assigning moral praise or blame, and considering moral events in terms of conduct (that is, the what), character (the who), and goals (the why). As we’ll see, the problem with each of these other approaches is not that they are necessarily wrong, but that they are incomplete. 

A concise, though admittedly simplistic formulation, would be that deontology is concerned with the “what,” virtue ethics with the “who,” and consequentialism with the “why.” Because all three of these elements—the what, who, and why—are essential to biblical ethics, we can learn from each of these ethical systems. But while they have much to offer, we should always keep in mind that on their own they are incomplete.

What is consequentialism?

Consequentialism is a general approach to moral reasoning which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act for the person involved and/or all those directly affected by the act. If we ask, “Why should we choose a particular moral act or behavior?” the consequentialist would answer, “Because what is moral is what results in the best moral consequences.”

All ethical theories, of course, are concerned about moral consequences, and most have as their teleological emphasis (i.e., end goal) a moral outcome. But advocates of consequentialism would say that certain normative properties depend only on consequences. For them, it doesn’t matter if you are a moral person (as in virtue ethics) or followed moral rules (as in deontology), if an act has an outcome that is morally worse than an available alternative, then the action itself was immoral. Under this view, sometimes known as act consequentialism, an act is morally right when that act maximizes the good, that is, when the total amount of good-for-all minus the total amount of bad-for-all is greater than this net amount compared to the available alternatives.

Who decides whether the consequences were good or bad? Historically, consequentialists have measured the outcome based on a standard of hedonism, which holds that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad. If the consequences are narrow and limited in who they affect, then it is the individual who determines the moral calculus based on their own self-interests. If the consequences are broader and can affect a larger number of individuals, then some collective group, such as society (or at least those within society who wield power) determines whether the act was moral.

The most famous form of consequentialism is classic utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham, the father of modern utilitarianism, wrote in 1789 that,

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. . . .

Bentham even proposed a mathematical model for ranking 14 pleasures and 12 pains, weighing pains by various factors to calculate the “happiness factor.” His disciple, John Stuart Mill, later refined this into “preference satisfaction,” in which what was good was having one’s desires fulfilled and what was bad was to have one’s desire frustrated.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of consequentialism?

There are many reasons consequentialism has maintained a broad appeal for the past three hundred years. A primary reason is that it is intuitively simple. It seems rather obvious that if given a choice between acts, we should choose the one that seems to provide the most moral outcome. We also do not need to rely on such metaphysical speculations as whether a divine being actually handed down rules that all humans must follow. Instead, we can rely on our own internal guidance system that tells us to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. What works for individuals must also work for society, so consequentialism promotes equality and liberty. Consequentialism is thus particularly appealing to liberal democracies, such as the United States.

The appeal of consequentialism for Americans is especially strong since we are pragmatic people who favor individual autonomy. We have a bias toward “whatever works” which emphasizes the consequences over the process. We also believe that individuals should determine for themselves what constitutes human flourishing, and so we believe we should be free to maximize our pleasures and minimize our pains.

The biggest weakness, at least for Christians, is that of the three theories under consideration, consequentialism is the least compatible with biblical ethics. In Romans 3:8, Paul clearly condemns the idea that Christians can “do evil that good may result.” Yet consequentialism proposes that we can commit any number of evil and unbiblical actions if the result leads to what we would consider a moral consequence.

Consequentialism has also resulted in the reduction of what counts as moral conduct. All sexual ethics, for instance, are reduced to consent, since anything else is determined by individual preference. When the individual becomes the primary decider of whether the consequence are justified, then we must allow for such choices as abortion or euthanasia since those may maximize the “pleasure” of the individual. It can even lead to the diminishment of the human person.

An example of an influential consequentialist is Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. Singer has served as editor for prestigious philosophy journals, appeared on numerous television programs, and even penned the entry on “Ethics” for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He has argued, based on utilitarian grounds, that we have no reason not to experiment on babies or the mentaly disabled—“human infants—orphans perhaps—or retarded human beings” rather than animals since that is a form of “specieism.” (Singer has also compared the animal liberation movement to the “underground railroad” that freed human slaves in America.) He has also endorsed interspecies sex and the right of parents to kill their child not only within the womb but also up to the age of two years old.

The result of following the consequentialist logic of Singer is that it reduces the inherent dignity of human life. Rather than leading to a more moral society, pure consequentialism leads to the dystopia of an era when “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) because of the lack of a coherent and transcendent foundation for ethical decision making.

In the last article in this series, we’ll consider virtue ethics, and compare and contrast it to the biblical standard.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More