As already noted, traditional deontological morals assign
values to actions, whereas consequentialism evaluates the outcomes of
actions, not the actions themselves. The reasoning for this is that,
under some circumstances, a supposed virtue can have overriding harmful
effects, or a supposed vice can yield enough benefit to nullify any
harm. Put another way, consequentialist values do not derive from a
list of dos and don’ts, but from an overall objective, which (if well
considered) can be applied to the results of all voluntary human actions
in all situations.
A consequentialist ethic’s core value expresses its overall
objective. It serves as a steady yet adjustable reference to guide
behavior and to assess its effects. We consider the possible and
probable consequences of any behavior we have in mind under the
circumstances at hand, and judge whether this behavior in this situation
would promote, detract from, or have no effect upon, whatever values we
hold, with our core value as tie-breaker in case of conflict.
Now, if our core value is something very direct, narrow, and simple,
such as to serve our own immediate pleasure, then all we have to do is
decide which available activity seems most appealing at the moment. Go
to church or go to the races, play music or play golf, eat an apple or
eat ice cream, get drunk or get laid, shoot pool or shoot the neighbor’s
dog, work for money or steal it—whatever comes to mind. However, such a lax and narrow value offers little
constructive guidance, and thus tends to promote degeneration of self and
deterioration of prospects, rather than ability, advancement, and
long-term happiness. This is why we’ve chosen instead a more
purposefully directed core value for this exercise.
As a guide, human well-being is more demanding and more complex than
self-indulgence, in that it requires
thought and self-discipline, and can be broadened or narrowed to fit many contexts. In
consideration of this, it might at first seem to present a hopelessly
unmanageable array of factors to track in dealing with day-to-day
problems. Yet these factors exist, whether we choose to ignore them or
to consider them intelligently. A decision made in ignorance requires
less time to make, but often more time to fix the problems that result.
In most cases, a bit of intelligent consideration can save far more
time—not to mention frustration, misery, and expense—than it costs.
The very purpose of adaptive context is to help us quickly identify
which factors are important and relevant to any particular decision.
We can then set irrelevant issues aside and thereby simplify the
problem, without losing sight of significant contingencies. We already
do this more or less instinctively. For example, we might consider the
lunchtime choice between a salad or a cheeseburger a moral decision for
reasons of personal health, but we needn't worry that our decision might
significantly affect the national economy or the monsoons in southern
Asia. However, the instinctive process is often impulsive and haphazard
rather than methodical, and thus sometimes either overlooks key
considerations, or else leads to needless worry over unrelated trifles.
Here’s how the task can be managed effectively.
For any action we might be contemplating, let’s first consider the
broadest level of human well-being’s range of interests—from self and
family to species and planet—that might plausibly be affected by that
If we’re working on a
major scientific breakthrough or something potentially cataclysmic,
we’d first consider all conceivable global implications, present and
future, of our action on our planet and species.
If none of our
action’s implications are globe-girdling, we can consider that level
irrelevant, and move on to consider the national consequences in cases
involving national security, the economy, the legal system, the
electoral process, interstate commerce, public safety and health, and
If there’s no reason
to think there might be a significant effect at the national level, we
can progressively limit our concerns to narrower levels of
community—neighbors, friends, colleagues, clients, townsfolk,
businesses, schools, and others with whom we routinely come into
contact, whether face-to-face or via mail, phone, Internet, or other
If there are no public
implications of our intended action, then we can narrow the scope even
further, to family and self.
Still, it’s wise to bear in mind that even individual actions
can sometimes have global implications—Isaac Newton’s applications of
mathematics to physical science, Charles Darwin’s insight into the
evolutionary nature of life, or Henry Ford’s use of an assembly line to
mass-produce generally affordable automobiles, for example. But unless
we’re world leaders, major power brokers, or cutting-edge research
scientists, in most instances our scope of personal moral concern
rapidly reduces to these narrower levels of community, family, and
self. At these levels, we must ask ourselves how our behavior might
affect others in these groups. For example:
Would it create a public benefit or a public nuisance?
Would it be good or bad for local business and jobs?
Would it be a source of delight, disgust, or danger to our
Would it set a good or bad example for impressionable children
Would it be a source of pride and advantage, or of
embarrassment and hardship, to our family? And if the latter, would
our action serve the greater, long-term good despite personal
Finally, if we’re thorough, we’ll even consider how our action
might benefit or harm posterity. After all, the well-being of our own
generation has been strongly influenced, for better or for worse, by our
predecessors (for instance, Carnegie’s philanthropy, the courage of
civil rights activists and the determination of their opponents, or even
Grandma’s fabulous recipe for rhubarb pie). We should assume that our
own actions might similarly affect future generations who must deal with
the long-term consequences, good or bad. Note that we needn’t critique
each kind of behavior against the entire range of our core value, but
only against the levels relevant to the behavior in question. In most
cases, this streamlines the assessment process considerably.
Once we’ve discovered the appropriate levels on
which to address an ethical problem and identified the possible and
probable consequences of a specific action, we can concentrate on
whether the action’s benefits to well-being at these levels of society
outweigh any harmful or threatening effects. We’re thus in a position
to formulate a realistically informed and reasoned conclusion about
whether we should consider the action in question “good” (mostly
beneficial), “bad” (mostly harmful), or “neutral” (having no significant
net effect), and thus whether or not we ought to go through with it, all
pertinent factors considered. Learning to do this consistently well
requires practice. But once we’ve gotten into the habit of glimpsing
“the big picture” and reducing it to its essentials, in most instances
this requires only a few moments’ thought. Still, we shouldn’t be
dismayed if a complex or unusual problem occasionally takes longer to
work through. As long as it isn’t a matter of extreme urgency, we can
think of the time and effort required as a small investment that might
possibly spare us (or others) a lifetime of regret.
So, what if there’s a life-and-death situation,
and there isn’t time for thoughtful consideration? This is indeed an
important issue, which we’ll address when we get to the “simplifying”
stage. But we have a bit more to do first, so we can understand exactly
what it is that’s being simplified and how.