Consequentialism is an ethical theory which holds that we can evaluate the value our actions entirely by weighing their consequences. Different forms of consequentialism describe different standards and methods for weighing those consequences. A popular form of consequentialism is called “utilitarianism”, and weighs consequences in terms of their “utility”, or the “happiness” they cause. The utilitarian argues that for any creature that can feel pleasure or pain (the so-called “sentient creatures”), happiness represents an intrinsic good, and suffering an intrinsic bad. Therefore, the ethical thing to do is to always try to maximize happiness for the greatest number of sentient creatures. Utilitarians believe that our primary ethical obligation is to increase the overall happiness, and that we should act in a way that maximizes “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”.
Consider various cases or examples described below, and how a consequentialist might reason about the case. Do you agree or disagree with the consequentialist evaluation of the case? This week also introduces the controversial Ford Pinto case, which we will continue to explore for the next several weeks, so no matter what you write about this week try to familiarize yourself with this case.
- Consequentialism: wiki, SEP
- SEP: Doing vs allowing harm
- Singer (1972) Famine, affluence, and morality
- Rosenblatt (1994) How do tobacco executives live with themselves?