Telling right from wrong – 2

In my column of October 24 I listed the major ways in which we might distinguish right from wrong. The first was deontology, or the law-based approach, which the column outlined. The second was a judgment of the consequences of our action, and the third, virtue ethics, which focuses not on the action but on the quality of the actor. On this occasion I want to look at judgment by consequence – which is traditionally known as utilitarianism.

Most of our everyday moral decisions involve judgments about consequences. The school we choose for our children or how much overtime we decide to do will take them into account. We might be considering our willingness to donate a kidney or whether to place an aged relative in a home, and this would require us, among other issues, to consider the consequences. But utilitarianism must be distinguished from this because it is presented as a formal principle which holds that consequence alone is the criterion of moral judgment.

Francis Hutcheson first enunciated this in 1720 as “that action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers”. We associate its more formal development with the philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. And, at first sight, it sounds a most attractive and Christian principle.
At second sight we begin to ask some questions. Is happiness necessarily a comprehensive moral criterion when we might decide that self-sacrifice, or Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul, more worthy? What is meant by the “greatest numbers”? Does this include the whole population of the world, or should it include the future population, and, indeed, sentient non-humans? No distinction between persons is made, so our obligation to our family is no greater than to remote strangers. How would it be possible to make such an all-embracing and far-sighted judgment with any hope of success?

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with the principle is that it can require us to do something which we believe, on other grounds, to be wrong. Suppose that granny has become crotchety and discontented in her old age. She needs the constant care of her family who must provide this at great difficulty to themselves. One might judge that greater happiness for the greatest number of people, including granny herself, would be achieved by wafting her as quickly as possible to her grave.

Such difficulties are of course recognised by utilitarians themselves. The result has been the development of various schools. Schools inevitably proliferate when moralists who are using an unsound foundational principle strive to maintain it while retaining common sense. In fact almost any version of the theory (or nuance of any version) is likely to be a matter of dispute among philosophers.

The attempt to judge the balance of good and bad consequences, which Bentham called the “felicific calculation”, is too complex to be of practical use. And so the most that many expect is that one should simply do one’s best in any specific decision. In one variation, the preferences of those reasonably touched by the decision are substituted for happiness of the greatest number. In another, a distinction is made between the higher pleasures such as friendship or poetry, and the lower pleasures of sexuality or trivial pursuits – even though the individual’s actual experience of pleasure may be the same or greater.

A distinction is made between “act” utiltarianism, and “agent-relative” utilitarianism. In the first, an act is regarded as wrong if the outcome happens to be bad, irrespective of the intentions of the agent. In the second, it is the prudent intention of the agent which counts.

There is also an indirect form, known as “rule” utilitarianism. This argues that human experience has taught us that the observation of certain principles is necessary for human happiness or welfare, as a whole – and should therefore be followed. This form is necessarily agent-relative since no rule will invariably lead to good consequences. The rules are claimed to conform to our moral intuitions and, unsurprisingly, often resemble deontology – although the supporting philosophy is different. But “act” utilitarians would see all this as a slack betrayal of the overarching principle.

If you find this a mite confusing you are not alone. Indeed, the multiplicity of versions in itself constitutes a practical reason for questioning the approach. But we need to remind ourselves of our essential bearings.

The late Elizabeth Anscombe was first to use the term “consequentialism” to cover the family of approaches which bases the moral judgment of an act in terms of consequences rather than, as deontology does, in terms of the moral character of the act. Consequences are, as I suggested in my introduction, an important tool in our moral evaluation of acts which are not intrinsically wrong. But they do so, not as criteria for morality in themselves, but in light of the law of the Gospel which requires us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Indeed Anscombe’s general objection to modern secular moral philosophy is that it debates about laws and obligatory principles while denying the need for a lawgiver. Our foundation is, I am glad to say, rather more secure.

Consequentialism has teeth once we take it from the philosopher’s study and put it into practice. Many issues – individual rights versus community security, abortion, assisted dying, destruction or experimentation with embryos – are all debated in terms of consequences. Indeed even Catholic arguments may need to be presented as a matter of consequences in order to gain a hearing in the public forum. And it is certainly true that the consequences of behaving in conformity with our created natures will, at least in the long term, result in the best outcome.

My blog,, is ready for your comments and queries.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Telling right from wrong – 2

  1. Blue says:

    Quentin has worked us pretty hard this week. I had to read his piece 2 or 3 times, and even now I’m not sure I’ve got it all. I am certainly not going to try and argue with him. But I do have a question. I understand that the Vatican Choir used castrati to sing their beautiful music, and they argued that the mutilation was justified because of the consequences. These were street boys who had no future. They would have a much better life being taken from the Italian slums and becoming members of the choir, devoting their lives to singing to the greater glory of God.

    Isn’t this consequentialism in action? And how does it compare to sterilising a married woman who has strong health reasons for not having further children?

  2. Horace says:

    I think it was Cervantes who said “Experience is the best teacher – but he is apt to arrive late!”
    This seems to me to be the trouble with “consequentialism”.
    In its “act” utiltarian form there is no way of telling if an action is right or wrong until it is too late!
    While as for “agent-relative” utilitarianism there is always the well known Economist’s “Law of Unintended Consequences”.

    Or am I just being cynical again?

  3. chauffer says:

    This is certainly an invaluable series and it’s a relief to encounter the science of human ethical application in plain English – even if most of us probably hit our ‘intellectual ceilings’ around the 6th paragraph, it’s still something to return to as a practical resource from time to time.

    Francis Hutcheson’s comment may be the ‘happiest’ balance for society’s leaders but society itself and the Christian participant, in particular, should take further stock of the situation to look out for the most vulnerable; forgotten and devalued who in turn become our priority.

    In that sense sentient non-humans deserve to have the vast scope of their misery within our moral midst taken into consideration and human ‘happiness’ with their current plight is of course far from unanimous.

    As you have similarly suggested; Hutcheson’s ‘happiness’ could all to easily become shorthand for mere or indeed endless gratification, as much as freedom from poverty, disease or political oppression. So something more than consequences in themselves is really required…

    In the case of the ‘crotchety granny’ scenario: consequentialism would ultimately need to consider the sense of guilt which would descend upon the family for bucking the invitation of Christ to take up their Cross and bear one another’s burdens.

    (That’s not to embark on guilt-tripping but to state what usually occurs when we break God’s laws; they tend to break us!)

    Perhaps certain family members could not give two-hoots but amorality is often beyond our control given that the Gospel can only exist for ‘those with ears’ to accept and attempt to embrace and apply. Tolstoy once spoke of a religion of ‘infinite perfecting’ which is really the challenge that ethical aspiration presents to anyone who turns their back on worldly standards in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

    So I suppose that consequentialism really relies on the rudder of conscience which enables us to arrive at the Christian benchmark: ‘By their fruits shall ye know them’.

  4. Horace says:

    In the 1970’s some colleagues of mine were experimenting with what they called “natural abortion”

    [ this interpolation is irrelevant to the problem but is included to explain what was happening:- A large number – perhaps the majority – of conceptuses are naturally rejected by the body (some as a spontaneous miscarriage others unnoticed as a ‘delayed period’). My colleagues were trying to produce an abortion ‘naturally’ by mimicking the hormonal balance observed in these cases – unsuccessfully in the event.]

    One of their early patients had an epileptic attack during the procedure.
    They came to me and asked if the next patient was likely to have a seizure as a result of the ‘treatment’.

    I replied, unsurprisingly, that I did not know
    BUT I AGREED TO MONITOR THE PATIENT THROUGHOUT THE PROCEDURE, if they would guarantee to stop treatment immediately should I detect any EEG abnormalities suggesting that an attack was imminent.

    What happened was . . nothing . . there were no EEG abnormalities, the patient did not have a seizure. (I do not know if the patient had an abortion as a result of this trial or not – I did not ask).

    Was my decision to try and prevent this young lady (and perhaps other subsequent patients) from having an epileptic attack ethically justified or not?

    Note that there were no actual consequences, only potential consequences.

  5. Horace has proposed the sort of problem that must make most of us very glad that we are not medical people, and so rarely faced by such dilemmas. It is also an excellent example of the complexity of real-life decisions, which don’t yield easily to the sort of analysis that the textbooks (or even newspaper columns!) tend to deal with.

    But I sometimes find it helpful to look at parallel problems since I find it easier to be objective. Let’s suppose that Jim is an American army psychologist. He is posted to an interrogation unit which carries out procedures he judges to be wrong because they amount to torture. His job is to assess general policy and particular cases in order to ensure that suspects do not suffer permanent psychological damage. If he refuses to participate the immediate consequence is that he will get a dishonourable discharge – damaging his career permanently, and another less “scrupulous” psychologist will be appointed. In this view he will have done no good and harm will result.

    If he participates he can hope to limit the extent of the torture (though not to the degree he would wish). But in doing so he has inevitably become part of the system. It is possible that his colleagues, knowing him to be a man of principle, will feel more justified in their practices. In any event he will provide cover, protecting the interrogators from being disciplined. A more subjective consequence arises if he feels that he has compromised his integrity. And a sense of loss of integrity can last a lifetime. So, in that light there are other consequences.

    I wonder what others think.

  6. Horace says:

    When I made my previous blog comment I was musing on my earlier remark “In its ‘act’ utiltarian form there is no way of telling if an action is right or wrong until it is too late!”.

    Quentin’s interpretation is rather like the situation immortalised by Shakespeare as
    “To be, or not to be. . . “.
    “If he refuses to participate . . . If he participates . . ”
    It is necessary to balance likely (or probable) consequences.
    I am unsure what I would have done in such a situation – ideally, I hope, refused to participate, although this would mean ignoring consequences.

    However my thinking was closer to an earlier, and less well known, quote from Hamlet:- ” . . Of thinking too precisely on th’ event . . Why yet I live to say this thing’s to do, sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do’t. ”

    “Consequence alone is the criterion of moral judgment”?
    As it happened the consequences were — zilch.

  7. Iona says:

    Maybe Jim should participate in the interrogation process, aiming to minimise trauma to the interrogees (if there is such a word), and meantime gathering information which he can later use to go public as a whistle-blower.

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