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Consequences & Morality

Updated on April 1, 2015




I will attempt to address the moral status of consequentialism. As consequentialism contains multiple and various sub-philosophies, I will focus on utilitarianism, specifically act-utilitarianism. Consequentialism is a collection of various ethical theories, the most well-know being Act-Utilitarianism, which concentrates on the consequences of actions and whether they maximize goodness and minimize badness. Act utilitarians follow the principle of utility, which states that actions or behaviors are morally right as long as they produce goodness and are wrong if they produce badness, i.e. the actions must be optimific. Ursula LeGuin argues against consequentialism in her story. “Those who walk away from Omelas” but I will argue that consequences are all that matter when it comes to morality because the consequences of actions are the only elements, which physically affect our lives, future and environment. If a goal is morally important enough and has the expected goal of increasing goodness then any method of achieving it is acceptable. Furthermore, I believe that many objections against consequentialism can be dismissed to show that act-utilitarianism is a very reasonable moral theory.

LeGuins story


LeGuin & Omelas

Ursula LeGuin provides us with an extraordinary example of a situation where consequentialist thought is prevalent. In her short novella “Those who walk away from Omelas” she describes a utopian city – everybody is happy and cheerful; there is no misery and no war. Nothing bad exists in this city, except one small thing. A child is being held in a small, dark and damp basement with no windows and receives neither comfort or warmth from any of the residing people for one simple reason – the happiness of the city relies entirely on the abominable suffering of this child. And every citizen in Omelas is aware of this fact. Some choose to forget, other prefer to be conscious about it and a third type of people simply start walking until they leave Omelas, never to return. Through this fantastical story LeGuin addresses the negative aspects of consequentialism, especially the issues of injustice, moral flexibility and quantifying goodness. The author may argue that it is unjust (unfair) for the child to be treated as such due to the fact that it was, and most probably still is, an innocent child. Furthermore she might claim that such inhumane behavior towards any living being is unacceptable as it causes an amount of suffering.

The novella also addresses the consequentialist issue of moral flexibility, i.e. the fact that consequentialist morality does not believe in any intrinsic rightness or wrongness. This is to say that consequentialism allows any action to take place as long as the consequences of that action maximize or increase overall goodness. In the case of Omelas, a consequentialist moral philosopher would see the imprisonment of the child as morally reasonable or even necessary as it maximizes goodness, regardless of the suffering it imposes on the child. The author most probably opposes this belief of consequentialism as she incorporates the fact that some people walk away from Omelas as they are not able to be truly happy knowing about the child’s pain.

In LeGuin’s story the problem of measuring goodness also arises. Despite the fact that we are clearly able to see that the well being of an entire city amounts to more than that of a single child, the issue of measuring well-being still exists. LeGuin would argue that there is no way to quantify goodness, as it cannot have a specific numerical value and can be seen as mental or emotional state of well being not a quantifiable material object, i.e. what constitutes good is abstract, as goodness is an ethical concept. In other terms, she refers to the ambiguous nature of what constitutes “good”, which is intrinsic to human nature. This is to say that “goodness” is a concept, which differs between groups and individuals and has not specific definition. Furthermore, the issue of double-effect reasoning arises within her story – the citizens of the utopian city are happy, yet this well-being also causes negative effects – people leaving the city and essentially the suffering of the child. According to the doctrine of double effect sometimes it is permissible to cause harm as a side effect of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such harm as a means to bringing about the same good end, such as in LeGuin’s story.

In “Those who walked away from Omelas” the issue of the moral flexibility of consequentialism is well described. Despite being a very unrealistic example it serves to perfectly illustrate how consequentialists believe there is no intrinsic rightness or wrongness. This claim is perhaps the most controversial argument in favor of consequentialism. A similar example can be seen if a terrorist must be tortured to exact information about a terror plot. By torturing him, many lives would be saved, thus this action is morally justified, according to consequentialists. Both of these examples also support the argument referring to the attempt to maximize goodness.

Consequences Matter


Scarre & Bentham

Besides the above arguments, another very supportive claim in favor of the consequentialist moral view is that consequentialism justifies conventional moral wisdom and follows common sense. This idea is clarified by the moral philosopher Geoffrey Scarre, who states, “By permitting, in extraordinary instances some relaxation of the usual conventions of behavior, utilitarianism is really close to common sense…” Since extreme situations often require extreme measures, consequentialism (act-utilitarianism) offers morally justified and flexible ways to solve conflicts, which are in line with customary behavior.

This is extremely true in today’s developed societies, which strain to achieve social equality, and consequentialism offers the means to achieve such equality, as one of its main claims is that of impartiality. Consequentialists believe that all beings, which can suffer, are equal and should be treated in such a way. This is so as suffering, of all and any conscious beings, such as nonhuman animals, reduces the overall goodness. Furthermore in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Jeremy Bentham, who is regarded the founder of Utilitarianism, wrote "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" This emphasizes the trait of utilitarianism and consequentialism that they possess a large scope of the moral community and that all goodness and badness must be taken into account.

Another argument, I believe is in favor of consequentialism is that actions are the things that physically affect humanity and its future to the utmost extent. As actions translate into physical change only the consequences of our actions are able to produce any results that have a significant effect on our well being as such. If one were to differentiate between positive (increase in goodness) and negative (increase in badness) consequences, then the positive consequences would be desired and morally right. Further support for this claim comes from the principle of utility. If action X produces goodness then it is morally right, if it produces badness it is morally wrong. I believe this is an effective argument in favor of consequentialism and utilitarianism as we humans live in a physical world and are affected only by physical changes, which are the consequences of our actions. The previous argument is also supported by the view that consequentialism offers us easy conflict resolution – one must simply seek the consequence, which maximizes goodness. Although this may not be an easy task to perform every time a conflict arises, it gives us a goal to strive to and a direction, in which to attempt to solve the situation. Opponents to utilitarianism and consequentialism see the treatment of the child as a being morally wrong as a great injustice (unfairness) is being done. Despite this injustice consequentialists believe this action is morally correct as it increases overall goodness and realize that justice must sometimes be sacrificed to ensure for the greater good. This is to say that the moral theory of consequentialism does not disregard justice, but simply states that the ultimate moral goal is to increase overall goodness.

LeGuin may respond to my claims in several ways. For instance, she may argue against my claim that our physical world is not all that matters by arguing that living agents might have a metaphysical (metaphysics tries to explain the nature of being) and/or psychological component (mental functions and behavior) as well as a physical one and that there is not demonstrable correspondence between brain states, the physical component and psychological states. I should like to refute this claim with the counter claim that psychological changes are simple changes in the chemical composition of living being’s brain, making them a physical component of the physical world. As a metaphysical “other” is, of necessity, empirically unverifiable, at the risk of appearing a naïve realist, I can see no reason to support a metaphysical world exists. Therefore I would have the physical world and physical interaction as the only measures of any sort of morality. The claim regarding the potential of metaphysical elements existing, although more challenging, can be observed as implausible due to its complexity. In this case my argument against this claim is to follow the principle of Occam’s razor, i.e. the simplest explanation with the least assumptions is most probably correct. The possibility exists that this may change. It can also been said that a statement is meaningful only if there is empirical evidence for or against it.

Another way LeGuin might respond to my arguments regarding measuring goodness by stating that it is impossible to assess levels of goodness when well-being is neither objective nor quantifiable. Shafer-Landau also supports LeGuin by explaining that, there is no way to quantify goodness or well being, especially in very complicated situations, which do often arise in our world. However this objection fails as the value of goodness or badness can be approximated according to its duration, intensity, certainty and remoteness. Yes, it may be impossible to exactly measure goodness or badness but by assessing goodness according to the above-mentioned characteristics it is quite possible to compare multiple actions/consequences and thus choose the morally correct one.

The author of “Those who walk away from Omelas” may respond to my views in favor of consequentialism by stating that consequentialism is not morally permissible, as it does not allow for supererogation, yet walking away from Omelas may be seem as such a supererogatory action. Supererogation is the performance of more than what is asked for, i.e. being heroic. For instance running into a building on fire to save another person would not be seen as a heroic act by consequentialists as it is an act we all are morally required to do to. It would seem then that in a consequentialist world supererogation simply does not exist because it is our moral duty to do our best at all times. This response also fails in my eyes due to the fact that morality is demanding, being moral is challenging. It is simple to see, in this case, that the well-being of an entire city is greater than that of a single child. Consequentialists also believe the spending excessive time on deliberations defeats the purpose of doing good, as it can result in many missed opportunities to do good. Furthermore, I believe walking away is not supererogation as it does not actually stop the child’s suffering and is not above the call of duty.

A Short Movie about Omegas


In conclusion, I believe that the consequences of our actions are all that matter when it comes to being morally right or wrong. Despite the existence of some valid counter-arguments, I believe utilitarianism to be an extremely plausible moral theory as it offers simple conflict resolution, attempts to achieve equality and to maximize goodness. I believe utilitarianism is also a very practical theory as it is able to offer solutions to many real-life situations. Also the fact remains, as stated by Geoffry Scarre, “by permitting, in extraordinary instances, some relaxations of usual conventions of behavior, utilitarianism is really close to common sense” making it a functional moral theory.

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