Julia Driver, Ethics: the Fundamentals
Chapter 4: Contemporary Consequentialism, pp. 61 – 79
Contemporary consequentialism mostly deals with problems arising from classical utilitarianism.
1 – Justice.
Classical utilitarianism seems incompatible with 2 justice institutions:
● Distributive justice: distribution of benefits and burdens (health care and taxation)
● Retributive justice: distribution of rewards and punishments (criminal prosecution and
good citizen’s award)
Utilitarians argue against an egalitarian society if the amount of happiness units is higher in an
unequal society than in an egalitarian society. Rawls notes this problem:
“The principle of utility presumably requires some to forgo greater life prospects for the
sake of others.”
He argues that this fails to treat persons as individuals, as ends in themselves. Furthermore,
Rawls states in his theory of justice that inequalities can only be justified if they benefit the
worse-off in society. This problem of how to account for the value of equality in distribution is
just more evidence that utilitarianism doesn’t respect the distinctness of persons, and the fact
that they have rights and duties that don’t depend on calculations of utility. To bypass this,
Mill would appeal to a kind of perfectionist notion of human well-being that is being violated by
this unequal distribution – it is not benefitting us to take advantage of others for the sake of our
Another response is “diminishing marginal utility”. Peter Singer:
“When compared with giving resources to meet someone’s core needs, giving
further resources “at the margin” to someone else whose core needs have already
been satisfied will lead to diminished utility. Hence a utilitarian will generally
favor the worst-off when it comes to distributing resources.”
Utilitarians favor equal distribution of goods because that is really what makes people happier
– it provides the most efficient distribution scheme. Rawls, on the other hand, states that
equality is to be favored and inequality is only justified if it benefits the worst-off – no matter
the aggregate utility. Utilitarianism is usually incompatible with justice because it requires to satisfy the happiness of
the majority – thus making it necessary, at times, to sacrifice innocents (which is unjust). And it
is usually said that if a moral theory requires what is unjust, it cannot be the correct moral
theory. To avoid this, some utilitarians noted there is a distinction between act-utilitarianism
Act-utilitarianism: whenever we decide to act, we must choose the act that leads to the best
Rule-utilitarianism: the right action is that action which is performed in accordance with a rule,
a set of rules, the following of which maximizes utility.
DIFFERENCE → for act-utilitarians, there are rules as well, BUT they are rules of thumb, and
act-utilitarians believe they can be overridden by a consideration of consequences, when
those are clear.
Roger Crisp designates Mill’s utilitarianism as a multi-level act-utilitarian view. It means that
the rightness of an action is determined by whether or not it maximizes utility – however, in
some cases, one may simply follow the “customary morality”, which are rules of thumb, instead
of following the principle. The principle of utility is a criterion to evaluate actions.
Rule-utilitarians, however, see rules as being absolute. This poses a problem: this view is
absolutist and if the rules are changed to include cases where the rules of thumb need to be
overridden in order to maximize utility, then the rule-utilitarian becomes an act-utilitarian.
Brad Hooker developed a kind of rule-consequentialism to respond to this problem:
“An act is wrong if and only if it is forbidden by the code of rules whose
internalization by the overwhelming majority of everyone everywhere in each
new generation has maximum expected value in terms of well-being. […] The
calculation of a code’s expected value includes all costs of getting the code
Rule-consequentialism is indirect – actions are evaluated in terms of compliance with ideal
rules. Those ideal rules are those that have been internalized by a majority of people. This
version allows an appeal to disaster avoidance to override the rules if doing so allows major
gains (e.g. saving a whole country’s population). It doesn’t collapse in act-utilitarianism
because it won’t allow exceptions for small gains in utility, whilst avoiding the absolutist
problem by allowing that a “disaster-avoidance” rule can override the others. 2 – Demandingness.
Lady Holland claimed that utilitarianism is too demanding. Giving, and acting to benefit the
worst-off (in order to get to the best possible outcome) is not considered by consequentialist as
being supererogatory, but rather as being necessary and morally required.