Strengths and limits Consequentialism is certainly a tried-and-true approach to ethics: it’s at least as old as Crito’s efforts in the dialogue named after him to persuade Socrates to break out of jail and thereby avoid execution by the Athenians. And especially in its utilitarian form – i.e., as developed in the modern era by Jeremy Bentham and further elaborated by John Stuart Mill, both of whom argued that we must pursue those acts that bring about the greatest positive consequences (pleasure) for the
greatest number – the consequentialist approach has come to dominate ethical decision-making and is especially characteristic of especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. Certainly, there are many cases in which consequentialism will do what we want an ethical theory to do – i.e., to help us determine which is the better choice of two (or more) possible actions.
But, as this example also suggests, consequentialist approaches face serious limitations. (We will also see this to be true of every other theory we examine: after we have reviewed all the theories under discussion here, one of our questions will be to see whether we can discern which theory – or, perhaps, which combination of theories – seems more sound, useful, justifiable, etc., than its competitors.) In my view, there are three important such limitations.
(a)How do we numerically evaluate the possible consequences of our acts? In simple cases, this is not a problem. Either I go to get a new bus pass or I face walking to school on a cold winter day. Either I pay my phone bill or I find myself out of touch with friends and family, along with the loss of internet access more generally.
But the hard cases are hard in part as it’s not always clear how we are to weigh the possible outcomes of one act against another.
Bentham famously thought that all possible consequences, as some form of pleasure or pain, could be evaluated in terms of their intensity and duration – for example, as part of a “hedonic calculus” (Sinnott- Armstrong 2015). Several nineteenth-century economists attempted to develop this calculus into a strictly quantitative one by introducing the notion of a “util” as a unit for measuring pleasure or pain (e.g., Sigot 2002). Ethical decision-making would then be a strictly arithmetic matter of adding up positive and negative utils.
But what if not everything can be measured solely in terms of pleasure or pain? What number of utils do we assign to an evening with friends, enhanced by the pleasures of food and drink? What number of utils do we assign to breaking a promise to a friend, coupled with the knowledge that our breaking that promise may lead to further, perhaps very serious, consequences (= negative utils) for our friend?
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