Consequentialism has been criticized on several counts. For Moore, in Principia Ethica, consequentialism, or at least classical utilitarianism (which, let us recall, defines the moral good as the maximum of pleasures associated with the minimum of pains), falls into naturalistic error by supposing that the good can be defined by a “natural” property or a set of natural properties. He claims to demonstrate its error in the following way: whatever quality X a consequentialist proposes as being primordially good, one can always ask, “But is X really a good quality?”. Thus we must have an implicit idea of the moral good which is different from any natural property or conjunction of such properties. But then, Moore argues, most consequentialisms are incoherent, because this innate sense of moral goodness is all that can be referred to.
More radically, William Gass asserts that moral theories such as consequentialism are incapable of correctly explaining why a wrong action is wrong. Gass gives the example of the “obliging stranger”, who is so obliging that he is ready to be baked in an oven. Gass asserts that the reason that a moral theory can give to justify the immorality of the act of cooking it, for example the reason “it does not lead to good results”, is absurd. According to Gass, it is immoral to cook a stranger, however obliging, and it is neither possible nor necessary to say anything else to justify it.
In Theory of Justice, Rawls asserts that if people were asked their opinion, they would prefer Kantian principles over the consequentialism of utilitarianism. By way of argument, he constructs a thought experiment in which an imaginary person is placed in an original position outside the society he is about to integrate. This person does not know what talents and beliefs they will have, whether they will be poor or rich, and whether society will adhere to their beliefs or whether they will be outvoted. Rawls asserts that in this position, anyone would choose an ethical system based on values such as freedom of expression and basic rights in society. Fearing the risk of an uncomfortable position, people would rather have minority and human rights protections than a strictly consequentialist society.
The historicist critique: it is enough to reread the history of men to understand that the definition of good and evil always remains relative to our desires and whims, even to the time or the situation. Murder, sacrifice, rape, genocide will always be considered by their perpetrators as “good for them”, God often serving as justification for all these horrors. However pragmatism, utilitarianism, consequentialism, not determining any law a priori, the final judgment of any man will be made according to his interests, or those of his people or his nation. It follows that, judging what is good for them, and estimating the consequences or usefulness of their actions, all the worst horrors of which history warns us “in wisdom,” can no longer be prevented either morally, nor legally, for each one judging for himself what is good and what is bad, will never act for the good of others, or rather “against himself”, but always for his benefit and against all which, according to his own strength, allows him to find his happiness to the detriment of any other, and that by all possible means, since in this philosophy, there is no general law constraining to act at the contrary to its own interests.
This philosophy cannot therefore really be considered as an ethics or as a morality, because precisely it gives everyone the leisure to act “according to their taste of the moment” so that the consequences of their action are always beneficial to them. But what is ethics, if not the fact of extending the right that one gives oneself to act to any other. It follows that consequentialism cannot be moral since it is far from any ethics, personal judgment (single judge, iniquitous judge) ultimately leading only to the opposite of what one seeks who only gives himself a law that which always happens to be has its benefit (the good consequence of my acts).
Another criticism of consequentialism and its lack of definition of what is good or bad for all at all times, is that no one can “really” foresee the actual consequences of their actions (unless he is a diviner). We cannot be sure that even acting for the benefit of others will not have unfortunate consequences in return, just as acting badly against others will not have beneficial consequences for oneself. Therefore, wanting to estimate the consequences of one’s actions is more a matter of belief than of philosophy, therefore of the fact of not being able to pose an ethics or a philosophy based on what one does not know a priori (the consequences), which would go against any desire for ethics or morals linked to an epistemology.
Criticisms based on neglect of character
As previously mentioned, G.E.M. Anscombe introduced the term “consequentialism” as part of a critique of this theory. According to her, consequentialist theories hold moral agents responsible for the consequences of unintended actions and therefore ignore the moral character of the agent involved. For many consequentialists, this criticism is not valid: after all, consequentialism places the highest value on consequences.
In the same vein, Bernard Williams has found consequentialism alienating insofar as it requires agents to put too much distance between themselves and their own projects and commitments. He asserts that consequentialism requires moral agents to adopt a strictly impersonal view of all actions, since only the consequences matter and not those who produce them. He asserts that it is too much to ask of moral agents since it is to require them to sacrifice any personal project or commitment, whatever the circumstances, in pursuit of the most beneficial course of possible action. He adds that consequentialism fails to account for the intuition that it “may” matter, whether or not someone is “personally” the doer of a particular consequence. For example, that having “dirty hands” while participating in a crime matters, even if the crime would have been committed anyway, or even would have been worse, without the officer’s involvement. Note all the same here that the psychological consequences are also consequences, which should not be forgotten if one adopts a consequentialist point of view.
Some consequentialists, notably Peter Railton, wanted to develop a form of consequentialism that would recognize and avoid the objections raised by Williams. Railton argues that Williams’ criticisms can be avoided by embracing a form of consequentialism in which moral decisions are to be determined by the “kind of life” they express. According to his point of view, the agent should choose the kind of life which will have, in the long run, the best effects overall.
However, more recently, consequentialism has come under attack of a similar kind. For example, Thomas Nagel argues that consequentialism fails to appropriately take into account the individuals affected by a given action. He asserts that a consequentialist cannot criticize human rights abuses in war, if such abuses ultimately result in a better state of affairs.
(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)