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3.1 What Is Consequentialism?

Learning Objective

  1. Define consequentialism in ethics.

Consequentialism Defined

What’s more important in ethics—what you do or what happens afterward because of what you did? People who believe ethics should be about what happens afterward are labeled consequentialistsAn ethics focused on the results of actions, not the actions themselves.. They don’t care so much about your act; they want to know about the consequences.

If someone asks, “Should I lie?,” one answer is, “No, lying’s wrong. We all have a duty not to lie and therefore you shouldn’t do it, no matter what.” That’s not the consequentialist answer, though. Consequentialists will want to know about the effects. If the lie is about Bernie Madoff assuring everyone that he’s investing clients’ money in stocks when really he plans to steal it, that’s wrong. But if a defrauded, livid, and pistol-waving client tracks Madoff down on a crowded street and demands to know whether he’s Bernie Madoff, the ethically recommendable response might be, “People say I look like him, but really I’m Bill Martin.” The question, finally, for a consequentialist isn’t whether or not I should lie, it’s what happens if I do and if I don’t?

Since consequentialists are more worried about the outcome than the action, the central ethical concern is what kind of outcome should I want? Traditionally, there are three kinds of answers: the utilitarian, the altruist, and the egoist. Each one will be considered in this chapter.

Key Takeaway

  • Consequentialist ethicists focus on the results of what you do, not what you do.

Review Questions

  1. Under what scenario could a consequentialist defend the act of stealing?
  2. Could a consequentialist recommend that a toy company lie about the age level a toy is designed for? What would be an example?