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Types of consequentialism

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John Stuart Mill(John Stuart Mill)

Utilitarianism is, historically, the main consequentialist moral theory. He takes as right the action which generates the most happiness for all the agents, happiness being defined as the maximization of pleasures and the minimization of pains. Thus defined, utilitarianism affirms that what counts is the total sum of happiness, or aggregate happiness, the happiness of all and not the happiness of a few or the happiness of a particular person. John Stuart Mill, in his exposition of utilitarianism, proposed to prioritize pleasures, that is, to assign a higher value to the pursuit of certain types of pleasures than to the pursuit of certain others. However, some contemporary utilitarians such as Peter Singer prefer to take as their goal the maximization of preference satisfaction (“preference utilitarianism”). Various other current reshapings of utilitarianism may reflect the forms of consequentialism described below:


Selfishness, or egoism, as a morality, is a consequentialism, in which the only consequences that matter are the consequences for the acting agent. Selfishness therefore allows actions that are good for the agent, even if they are detrimental to general well-being. There are also defenders of selfishness, including Ayn Rand, who say that if each individual pursues selfish goals, ultimately the best consequences result for everyone.

Rule consequentialism

One can envisage a consequentialism focused on specific actions. But one can also consider a consequentialism centered on the establishment of rules of conduct: does the establishment of a given rule have good consequences? We sometimes speak of rule consequentialism to designate this last form of consequentialism, which is then seen as an attempt to reconcile consequentialism with deontology. Like deontology, consequentialism maintains that behaving morally involves observing rules. But contrary to what happens in deontology, it is according to their consequences that the rules are chosen here.

Theorists are divided on whether moral behavior should be determined by rules alone or not. For example, Robert Nozick argues that a handful of hard rules, which he calls “side-constraints”, are necessary to ensure proper actions. There are also differences as to the absolute nature of these rules (but making a rule an absolute rule amounts to reintroducing a deontological point of view). Thus, while Nozick’s “side-constraints” restrict behavior absolutely, Amartya Sen offers a theory that recognizes the special importance of certain rules without making them absolute. More precisely, these rules can be broken when their observance would lead to too negative consequences.

Negative consequentialism

It may seem that most consequentialisms primarily seek to promote good consequences. However, one can just as well consider a consequentialist theory concerned only with reducing bad consequences, for example negative utilitarianism, which seeks to minimize suffering rather than increase happiness.

One can think that a major difference between these two approaches relates to the responsibility of the agent. Positive consequentialism requires striving to achieve a positive state of affairs, while negative consequentialism only requires avoiding a negative state of affairs. The more vigorous (or less naive, depending on the point of view) versions of negative consequentialism nevertheless require the active intervention of the agent, but only to prevent the occurrence of harm.

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

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