Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

A Commonly Accepted Flaw in Consequentialism, and Why It’s Wrong

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 25, 2009

Consequentialism is the moral philosophy that morality should be judged solely based on consequences. One widely observed flaw in this philosophy is that a person’s intentions do not matter; as long as there is a generally good outcome, a person with evil intentions is considered in the right. And someone with good intentions who causes a bad outcome is in the wrong. Most people see this as counter-intuitive. However, even under Consequentialism, it is not necessarily true.

If someone has good intentions, it is fairly likely that the outcome of their actions will be good. Likewise, if they have bad intentions, it is likely that the outcome will be bad. In real life, it does not always work out that way. But those actions can still be good or evil, independent of the outcome. How? Think about it this way. Someone with good intentions may accidentally harm some people, but is not so likely to cause harm in the future since he or she will be actively trying to avoid harming others. This person is more likely to do good in the future, even if he or she hasn’t yet. Therefore, according to Consequentialism, this person is a good person. The same logic applies for bad or selfish intentions.

Let’s look at a similar problem. What if someone wants to do good, but is just really bad at it? What if this person is very clumsy or naive? Doesn’t Consequentialism deem this person evil? In fact, no. Given the opportunity, this person could become empowered to do good in the world. This person just needs instruction, and would be all too willing to accept it. Someone who wants to do good but does not put forth the effort to find out how cannot truly be considered a good person.

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4 Responses to “A Commonly Accepted Flaw in Consequentialism, and Why It’s Wrong”

  1. phynnboi said

    Why should one limit oneself to judging morality based solely on consequences? Is there never any context in which considering other things would make for better moral judgments? I can easily think of some.

    • Like what?

      • phynnboi said

        Running over a man. In one case, you’re driving along with no intention of running anyone over, yet a man suddenly jumps in front of your car and you run over him and kill him. In the other case, you intentionally run over a man and kill him. In both cases, the outcome is the same: you run over a man and kill him. Are you as morally culpable in the former case as in the latter?

        The difference in my example is between manslaughter and first degree murder. I presume that the consequentialist would argue that there should be no such distinction, since, in either case, the outcome is that someone is murdered. Interestingly, I presume the deontologist would argue the same thing (assuming he believed murder to be inherently evil)!

      • Intention is important in that scenario, but what it really comes down to in the long run is consequences. If you had no intention of running the man over, and it was really his fault for jumping out in front of you, then it is less likely that you will do it again and therefore you can get off with a lesser charge. If you did it on purpose, though, it is more likely that you will try again, and society should be protected from you. So in fact, differentiating between manslaughter and murder is a very Consequentialist thing to do.

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