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Philosophy-Is Consequentialism a Defensible Theory of Ethics? Essay

Is consequentialism a defensible theory of ethics? Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with morals and the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, vice and virtue. Consequentialism is a complex theory of ethics which states that the consequences of an action are the only criteria which determine its moral correctness. Utilitarianism is an extension of consequentialism in that it says that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its usefulness in maximising utility and minimising negative utility of the party performing it.

This essay aims to decide whether or not consequentialism can be justified as a plausible theory of ethics. However, I will be speaking about consequentialism in terms of utilitarianism because philosophers have found that the best known version of consequentialism is utilitarianism. This statement in particular refers to the modern theory of utilitarianism associated to John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873) which states:”Actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number. [1] As stated before, people who support consequentialism believe that an action is correct as long as it has positive consequences. A very distinguished supporter of consequentialism is the philosopher JJC Smart. In his book An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics he states that a decision made under deontological ethics will always lead to misery that could have been avoided by utilitarianism.

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He supports this theory by the desert promises example which states that he promised a dying man on an island from which only he was rescued to give all the deceased’s gold to a Jockey club but ended up giving it to a hospital as that seemed morally correct. He feels that he did the right thing as he put the money to better use and perhaps earned blessings for the man who died. However, I think that this theory is refutable as according to basic moral values, it is never justifiable to break a promise one has made because that puts ones credibility into question.

Coming to the philosophers who are against consequentialism, the name John Rawls comes to mind. In the book A theory of Justice Pages 26-27, he brings into focus that aspect of consequentialism where it adopts the principles and decisions of one man and applies them to the whole community. This can result in many inaccuracies as a community is made up of many different kinds of people and even though the person being used to establish the principles is impartial, he is one person and thus not an effective representation off all the people in the community.

Not only that but the concept of the “the greatest good for the greatest number” can be misused as a tyrannical ruler may justify any unfair measures he might be taking against his people by saying that they are correct according to utilitarianism. The mistreatment of the Jews by Nazi Germany is an effective example of such a situation. As Rawls very appropriately states: ’Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons. ’[2]

Apart from that, the example of Jim and the Indians by Bernard Williams is an excellent anecdote which can be used to refute the theory of consequentialism. This is because it correctly highlights that utilitarianism doesn’t realize that apart from maximizing happiness a person may have other reasons for performing an action. The incident relates that Jim accidentally finds himself in a small town where 20 Indians are being punished for protesting by being shot down.

As he is an esteemed visitor (being from another land), the captain in charge offers him the privilege of killing any one Indian after which the rest will be free to go. Now utilitarianism demands that Jim accepts this offer and kills the one Indian. Thus as Bernard Williams correctly points out, utilitarianism overlooks the integrity of a person in favor of the greater good which I think is inexcusable. As mentioned above, over here utilitarianism is blatantly ignoring that a person might have some other motive apart from the greater good in performing this action.

Not only that but in this case for example, utilitarianism does not take into account the uncertainty in performing an action based only on its consequences because what happens if things don’t turn out as predicted and even though he kills the Indian, the other protestors are also shot and Jim ends up getting killed himself. After research on the topic and reading what various philosophers had to say about it, I think that consequentialist reasoning does not provide a coherent and univocal basis for choice[3] of whether an action should be erformed or not. We can thus conclude that the arguments against consequentialism definitely overpower those for it and thus consequentialism is not a defensible theory of ethics.

Citations: [1] http://webs. wofford. edu/kaycd/ethics/util. htm date visited: 28/11/2010 [2] http://www. ohio. edu/people/piccard/entropy/rawls. html date visited: 28/11/2010 [3] http://libarts. wsu. edu/philo/faculty-staff/silverstein/Ref%20of%20Cons-Short. pdf date visited: 28/11/2010

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