Consequentialism

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Consequentialism is an array of ethical theories which hold that the goodness or rightness of an action is to be measured by its outcomes. One can identify two current prominent strands on contemporary ethics: consequentialism and deontologicalism. The consequentialist ethics define the morality or goodness of an action based solely upon its outcomes; the moral standards are seen as means to the desired consequences. The deontological perspective measure the morality of an action by how much it complies to given rules and moral precepts, that must be followed above all else.

The consequentialist analysis can take the form of a utility function, where the expected utility of an action is determined by the sum of the utility of each of its possible consequences, individually weighted by their respective probability of occurrence. Therefore, the correct action is always the one which maximizes o total value of positive consequences, even if it violates some established moral rule. Consequentialism is based on a cost and benefits analysis and measure goodness by calculating the total expected good. In this manner, opposing to deontological theories, there is no action good in itself or bad in itself, they have to be judged by its results.

One common tool for detecting a person way of thinking about morality is the use of moral dilemmas, in special the trolley’s problems. Those problems have generated a vast array of moral dilemmas of hard resolution and justification. They usually follow a general schema: “Person A can take an action which will benefit a great number of people, but that also violates moral rule X or person’s B individual rights. What should person A do?” Taking the action reveals a consequentialist thinking, whereas holding to the moral rule reveals a deontological thinking.

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References

  • Jeremy Bentham (1907). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Library of Economics and Liberty. 
  • Perter Fishburn (1970). Utility Theory for Decision Making. Huntington, NY.