Consequentialism is a family of theories that takes the consequences of actions to be the location of the right-making or good-making features of those actions. For the sake of simplicity, let’s work with a very basic consequentialist view, which is that ought to maximize the good. The good is identified with happiness. So, we ought to maximize happiness with our actions.
The problem with this view is that it says the right thing to do, what we ought to do, is maximize happiness. However, intuitively, there are situations where maximizing happiness is not what we ought to do. For instance, nobody but the most committed act utilitarian would say that it’s ok to kill a homeless person to supply his organs to five needy recipients, even if nobody would ever find out.
So, this simple consequentialism fails to give a satisfying analysis of deontic concepts, like RIGHT and WRONG. In other words, it gives the wrong application conditions for RIGHT and WRONG, because it entails that certain actions which fall within the extension of WRONG actually fall within the extension of RIGHT.
What could we do to revise our simple consequentialism? Well, we could try not giving an analysis of deontic concepts. So, we could become scalar utilitarians, which is to say we could be people who think actions are ranked on a scale from best to worst. Maybe moral judgments that involve deontic concepts are just wrongheaded. We could just do without concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, let’s just talk about better or worse actions; actions which we have more or less reason to do.
This just isn’t satisfying, though. Clearly torturing children for fun isn’t just worse than not torturing them for fun, it’s wrong. We ought not to torture children for fun. There’s nothing wrongheaded about that moral judgment. So, we need to give an account of deontic concepts if we want a theory that captures what we do when we engage in moral discourse and deliberation.
Here is what I take to be the best way to deal with this problem. If we try to give a consequentialist analysis of deontic concepts, we get the extensions of those concepts wrong. If we try to avoid giving an analysis, then we exclude a large portion of our moral discourse from our theory. So, we should analyze deontic concepts as conventions based on contingent social arrangements. We still should employ deontic concepts in moral judgment, and they play an indispensable role in our moral lives. But they do not reflect some fundamental structure of the moral world; rather, they reflect contingent social arrangements.
The role that consequentialism can play in this theory is as a means by which we can critique these contingent social arrangements. So, we could give consequentialist critiques of the ways in which deontic concepts are deployed in specific classes of moral judgments. For instance, if the concept RIGHT once had within its extension returning escaped slaves to their so-called owners, then that deontic concept could be revised according to a consequentialist critique of the institution of slavery. Our deontic moral judgments, judgments of right and wrong, permissibility and impermissibility, are ultimately subject to a consequentialist evaluation if the need arises.
Is this just rule utilitarianism? I don’t think so. Typically, rule utilitarians think we ought to obey a certain idealized set of rules which pass the consequentialist test of goodness-maximization. What I’m proposing is that we work with the rules we already have, and revise as the need arises, rather than reason according to an idealized set of good-maximizing rules. Besides, a rule utilitarian analysis of deontic concepts will probably fall victim to the extension problem I raised above against our simple consequentialist analysis.
Check out Brian McElwee's paper on consequentialism for a similar account of non-deontic consequentialism that I based this post on.