If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Ethics: Consequentialism

In this video, Julia Driver (Washington University in St. Louis) introduces us to the ethical theory of consequentialism. Help us caption & translate this video!

Speaker: Dr. Julia Driver, Professor of Philosophy, Washington University at St. Louis.

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot donald style avatar for user Eli
    If consequences are not what matter then what could matter more? Whatever you choose to say, would only matter more because it would have better consequences. To say that something would be more valuable is to say that it would improve the situation, resulting only in better consequences. If you say that you have something that would be better despite lacking improvements to consequence, then why should it be valued? Take the example used in the video about breaking a promise: to maximize positive moral consequences would almost always result in keeping the promise regardless of it's relation to a shallow hedonism. The consequences of breaking the promise would not be "slightly better" because the negative moral implications that come with breaking it constitute moral and consequential wrongs. Consequentialism may seem demanding but what in life is easy to do well? We do not live perfect lives; even in situations where we know we could do better, we choose not to. This says nothing about the validity of the concept, rather it speaks about the nature of humans.
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user Tomasz Stachowiak
    It is so strange to me that whenever consequentialism is criticized, it is always by in fact using consequentialism itself, but simply changing what counts as good, and/or what consequences we take into account.

    In the promise example, it is still one of the consequences, that a) the promise is broken, b) moral code to which we agreed is broken c) the friend is displeased. Why only include a subset of consequences and insist it is exhaustive?

    Can you give an example, however abstract, where you actually show something other than consequences matters? I think it is impossible by definition, but I'd really like to see a more elaborate argument to the contrary.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf red style avatar for user Noble Mushtak
    At around , J. Driver argues that maximizing forms of consequentialism such as utilitarianism imply that not producing enough pleasure for society is ethically wrong. However, why is there even a notion of ethically good or ethically bad in the first place? Under a maximizing form of consequentialism, why can't we simply compare ethical actions relative to each other and call some ethical actions better than others? This gives us much more choice in how we view our actions.

    I think it is desirable to have ethics that say that giving money to charity while buying food is better than simply buying food, but I don't agree with ethics that have a moral obligation to do the ethically better thing. Moral obligation such as ethical good and ethical bad often ignores the situation of people such as their mental health, willpower, perspective, etc.. The good/bad dichotomy helps us to understand actions better, but when one becomes philosophically rigorous and intellectually genuine, such a binary opposition (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary_opposition) really breaks down. At the very least, I think it can easily be seen that maximizing forms of consequentialism does not require or imply any moral obligation, even if such moral obligation is desirable in some cases.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user José Capablanca
      Consequentialism is a theory about action rightness according to which an action is right if and only if it maximizes valuable states of affairs from the most impartial perspective, so some actions will have the property of being right and others wrong. What you are suggesting: That we should have a theory which allows us to produce an ordering relation on our actions without classifying actions as right or wrong may be defensible or not but such a theory isn't consequentialism, because it isn't a theory of action rightness. Besides, I take it that most philosophers would regard with dispensing with moral obligation altogether a pretty radical and implausible move (surely, Hitler's actions are impermissible if anything is) and if we allow that some moral obligations exist then we have to have a theory explaining them and consequentialism is one such theory.
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Christian Laube
    I can see that consequentalism would be quite demanding, but is not the bigger problem that you would have to think through every action in your life to all it's possible consequences, in an extremely complex system?
    Also some actions may bring more pleasure in the short term but be more harmfull in he long run, like some company's who maximize profits at all cost and end up destroying the company over the long run because what they do is not sustainable.
    I do like to play chess but if i would have to think through every action in my life to all possible outcomes i would hardly do anything, and that would probably be worse than doing something that is not producing the maximum good but still is producing good results.
    So does anyone think we can actually know what would produce the maximum good in any action without getting totaly paralised by the thinking through of the consequences?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Barbara Lis
    If you promised Steve you'll steal the medicine from Martha, the fact it is a promise or the fact anyone's feelings would be hurt seems almost completely morally irrelevant. It's still very wrong to keep that promise. Why is keeping a promise assumed to be good here?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user aharrell648
    So is a consequentialist theory

    - a theory assessing morality in terms of the overall outcomes of an action
    - the same as virtue theory
    - a theory assessing morality in terms of duty
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Aidan Mattingly
    How exactly does the idea of Karma relate to consequentialism?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user b3hr057
    The example also begs the question, "What if you believe saving more people is LESS good?" that is to say we have a population problem, so saving 5 people instead of one creates more people who have more children and then there are more starving and sick and dying and more carbon emissions causing global warming than ever? When we had 1 billion people on the planet it wasn't enough we had to have 6 billion and now even more but we are choking out all other life and even our own lives now are in jeopardy but having more people is so important we just gotta have billions more.

    Okay that was a little rant but seriously, we don't need more people, more people = BAD. So the point I'm making though is in other examples as well you are going to have different ideas about what is GOOD or even if GOOD is a real thing that exists or do we just make it up?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

(intro music) Hi! My name's Julia Driver, and I teach in the philosophy department at Washington University in St. Louis. Today, I'm going to introduce you to the theory of consequentialism. Consequentialism is a type of normative ethical theory. Such theories provide criteria for moral evaluation, and may also recommend rules or decision procedures for people to follow in acting morally. Consequentialism, in its most general form, holds that the moral quality of an action is completely determined by its consequences. There are variations on this theme. For example, we might be evaluating character traits instead of actions, or we might be evaluating actions in terms of the consequences of adopting a set of rules that prescribe those actions. The common thread, however, is that moral quality is a function of consequences and nothing else. Traditionally, consequentialist theories of moral evaluation have two parts. One part is an account of what is good, and the other part, an account of how to approach the good, which underlies the attribution of deontic properties to the action, such as the property of being right. For example, the most well-known version of consequentialism is hedonistic act utilitarianism, which holds that the right action is the action that maximizes pleasure, the action that has the best overall consequences in terms of the production of pleasure. Here, the theory of the good is hedonism, which is the view that pleasure is the one intrinsic good, and the approach to pleasure is to maximize it, or to produce as much of it as possible. Suppose a doctor, Martha, has a dose of medicine that is just enough to save the life of one person, Steve. To save Steve, she would need to use the entire dose of medicine. However, there are five other people who need much smaller doses in order to be saved. She could instead divide the medicine into five smaller doses and save them instead of Steve. The utilitarian would view the right action as the action with the best consequences, and so Martha should use the medicine to save five rather than just one. The guiding idea is that the point of morality is to make the world a better place. Consequentialism is contrasted with theories of moral evaluation that either hold that consequences are not relevant in determining the moral quality of one's actions; or that consequences are only partly relevant, and that other considerations matter in determinations of moral quality. Very few believe that consequences are not at all relevant. However, there are very many moral theorists who believe consequentialism is incorrect because it reduces the moral quality of an action to the goodness of its consequences. For example, I have moral reason to keep a promise, even if the promise does not promote the good. The reason is simply that I made the promise. If I break a promise, I have done something wrong, even if the consequences of breaking the promise are slightly better than the consequences of keeping the promise. Maximizing forms of consequentialism are thought to be overly demanding. If the right action for me to perform is the one among the options open to me that produces the most good, and if failure to produce the most good is therefore wrong, then many of our ordinary actions are wrong. For example, if I buy a bagel every morning for breakfast, rather than make my own toast at home, then I am spending money on a bagel that I could be spending to do something else that, morally speaking, is better. I could save my bagel money and send it to Oxfam, and use the money to save people's lives. And this is true for very many of the purchases that people in affluent countries make. Thus, maximizing forms of consequentialism, such as utilitarianism, seem to be morally very demanding. To avoid this problem, some consequentialists hold that the right action need not maximize the good. Instead, the right action is the action that produces enough good. This is called "satisficing consequentialism." However, this approach seems odd, since maximizing seems to be rationally required by the observation that more good is surely better than less good. Subtitles by the Amara.org community