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Consequentialism and other moral theories

Although many philosophers regard consequentialism as the quintessential moral theory, it is not the only moral theory. Criticisms leveled at it by proponents of other moral theories may have helped shape the forms consequentialism has taken in recent work.


Consequentialism is often contrasted with deontology. Deontological theories focus on types of actions rather than the particular consequences of those actions. Thus, according to deontological theories, certain actions are inherently immoral. A deontologist therefore asserts that we should follow our moral rules regardless of the consequences. Kant, for example, is the author of the famous affirmation according to which we have a moral duty to always tell the truth, even to an assassin who asks where his future victim is hiding.

Some theorists try to combine consequentialism and deontology. Thus Robert Nozick defends an essentially consequentialist theory, but which incorporates conditions with inviolable edges which restrict the types of actions which are permitted to agents.

Moreover, certain rules proposed by deontologists fit very well into a consequentialist perspective. T. M. Scanlon, for example, puts forward the idea that human rights, which are commonly considered a deontological concept, can only be justified by the consequences of establishing and maintaining these rights.

Morality of virtue

Consequentialism can also be contrasted with moral theories of virtue or moral greatness. In fact, Anscombe’s paper which introduced the term consequentialism is also the origin of the discussion of character-based moral theories in modern philosophy.

While consequentialism postulates, by definition, that it is the consequences of an act (which can, among other things, be the establishment of a rule) which must be the primary object of study of moral theories, moral theories of virtue postulate that it is the character of the agent rather than the consequences of the act that must be considered. According to some virtue moralists, consequentialist theories totally neglect the development and importance of moral character. Philippa Foot affirms that the consequences have no moral content in themselves, that they have no possible moral content except that with which a virtue, for example benevolence, has possibly charged them.

However, consequentialism and virtue morality are not necessarily to be seen as diametrically opposed. Consequentialisms can consider character in a variety of ways. For example, the effects on the character of the agent or any other person involved in an action must be considered among the consequences. On the other hand, a consequentialist theory may have as its goal the maximization of a particular virtue or a given set of virtues. Finally, according to Foot, virtuous behavior ultimately produces the best consequences.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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