A refutation of consequentialism

Metaphilosophy 36 (3):348-362 (2005)
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The thesis of this paper is that consequentialism does not work as a comprehensive theory of right action. This paper does not offer a typical refutation, in that I do not claim that consequentialism is self-contradictory. One can with perfect consistency claim that the good is prior to the right and that the right consists in maximizing the good. What I claim, however, is that it is senseless to make such a claim. In particular, I attempt to show that the notion of what course of action maximizes the good has no content within a consequentialist framework. Since the problem that I identify rests with maximization, this refutation does not cut across the act/rule distinction. If rule consequentialism holds that there are occasions on which one should follow a rule rather than violate the rule in an optimific way, then it is not maximizing and my arguments do not apply; if not, then it collapses into act consequentialism. I have nothing to say about nonmaximizing forms of consequentialism.1 This refutation does, however, cut across the direct/indirect distinction.2 It makes no difference whether we take consequentialism as offering a principle of decision, or a standard of right. Presumably the former would be parasitic upon the latter for its legitimacy



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Robert Guay
State University of New York at Binghamton

Citations of this work

The Harmful Influence of Decision Theory on Ethics.Sven Ove Hansson - 2010 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 13 (5):585-593.

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References found in this work

Utilitarianism: For and Against.J. J. C. Smart & Bernard Williams - 1973 - Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edited by Bernard Williams.
Alienation, consequentialism, and the demands of morality.Peter Railton - 1984 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (2):134-171.
The problem of action.Harry G. Frankfurt - 1997 - In Alfred R. Mele (ed.), The philosophy of action. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 157-62.
The act itself.Jonathan Bennett - 1995 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Forms and limits of utilitarianism.David Lyons - 1965 - Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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