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consequentialism

PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 13:54:39

consequentialism (teleological ethics) The theory that we should judge *moral desirability by the good consequences (however these are conceived), which we should usually maximize (though it is not logically entailed that more is always better), rather than the types of behavior involved (which is deontologism: observing specific *duties). In practice, we are almost bound to choose by reference to both.

An immediate problem is how far this distinction is coherent. For if we ought to do what maximizes some good end then that is itself a kind of duty that we must obey irrespective of any other, supposedly morally irrelevant, consequences. And all normal supposed duties have some prima facie good consequences involved. It is not arbitrary that theft and murder are generally thought wrong: they are believed to do overwhelmingly more harm than good. In any case, it is certainly compatible with consequentialism that there be general moral rules as these are needed to avoid uncertainty, *corruption and *moral hazard.

Consequentialism, as such, leaves open which consequences are good in themselves. Logically, virtually anything (and not just one thing) might be judged so, but prime contenders include varying conceptions of *utility. A less mental-state version of this (more conducive to both *libertarianism and *economics) would allow people to maximize the satisfaction of their wants irrespective of how this made them feel: why be forced to have more *happiness when you would rather achieve some other end? And some would restrict these consequences to *persons as relevantly superior to mere beasts (see *animal welfare).

A much-discussed problem is how much sense it makes to sum different people’s *welfare outcomes. Many deny that this can be ‘scientific’ or *objective so opt for strict *Paretianism. But with strict Pareto comparisons we could never even say that the abolition of the worst kinds of *slavery improved general welfare, because of the slave-owner’s supposedly completely incommensurable loss. So some rough and ready comparisons seem to make intuitive sense and are sometimes sufficient to show that certain rule-systems promote more welfare than others for the *populations that have to live by them. This argument does not entail, as is sometimes alleged, that 1) detailed comparisons must be possible, or 2) even if they were that they could overcome the problem of *economic calculation and so allow *state planning.

Libertarians tend to argue that there is a *right to *liberty, hence a duty to respect it, and that liberty has the most desirable consequences in terms of want-satisfaction (though some do opt strictly for one side or the other). Do they want to have their cake and eat it? No. The traditional conception of rights is that they arise and are defensible only in terms of their being the best general rules for promoting good consequences. What would be the point of a right that was generally damaging? And how could some good end be defended practically but by some general rule about behavior? Thus libertarianism can even be viewed as a form of rule-consequentialism (though this act-rule distinction is also of dubious coherence: if rules work best then the best act is to follow them; or if we see when it is best to break a general rule, then that can be put into a new rule). That libertarian rules maximize welfare cannot be demonstrated; it is a conjecture that invites *criticism.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism


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