Action Consequences

William Shaw, “The Consequentialist Perspective,” in Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory, James Dreier, editor (Blackwell Publishing: Malden, 2006), 5-20.


Shaw, not a professing Christian as far as I know, approaches ethics from a consequentialist perspective.  The consequentialist views rightness or wrongness as a consequence of action.  If you choose to swerve your car so as to miss hitting a child, then you have chosen to do the right thing.  The consequence of your action was good; therefore, it was right.  As Shaw views it, right action is the action with the best consequences.


This ordering of the definition for right action is very important.  Shaw is maintaining a distinction between what is right and what is best.  Secular ethicists do not believe ultimately in a “right” and “wrong” framework and prefer rather to say what is better or best in a given circumstance.  There are differing shades of consequentialism, and the difference in some way involves the interplay between what is right and what is best.  If you want a technical, ethical framework for the distinction between what it right and what is best, then consider the discussion of what is right to be a deontological discussion and what is best to be a teleological discussion.


For Shaw, the issue is teleological.  He wants to work on what produces the best consequences.  The obvious problem is that we don’t know—until the very end—what is ultimately going to be the best consequence.  We may swerve to miss a child in the street, only to hit an on-coming car filled with two children and the woman researcher who was on her way to the lab where her cure for cancer was almost complete.  We simply cannot know the consequences of our actions ahead of time.


Shaw understands this criticism.  Indeed, this understanding explains why Shaw insists on saying “best” instead of “right.”  Moreover, Shaw asserts that the action should be the “best action reasonably considered.”  In other words, one should do what will most likely produce the best results, granting that one cannot always know for sure what the results will be.  Not knowing right and wrong for sure, one ought to take the action he believes will produce the best results.


Still, there remains what Shaw refers to as the no-time-to-calculate problem and the future-consequences-are-hard-to-foresee problem.  How does one know all the potential outcomes of a given action?  Do we really calculate our actions and decisions with a view to the common good of all mankind?  We make thousands of decisions everyday.  How could we possibly ever calculate their effects upon others before the time for action? 


Shaw believes we all generally use secondary rules as well as the overarching rule of consequentialism to make our decisions.  Secondary rules—like truth-telling—are essential to ethics, even a consequentialist ethic.  For consequentialism to work, there must already be in place a system of rules which are adhered to without regard to consequences. This seems a remarkable admission for Shaw to make, but he must make it.  Otherwise, each person would be a law unto himself, and there would be no order. 


Even if, for instance, every citizen were concerned to drive his car in such a way that it would maximize the well-being for all drivers, still, he would need to have some basic rules in place—like driving on the right side of the road—before it would be safe for him to take to the streets in an automobile.   Likewise, there must be some basic rules in place before we can make decisions to maximize the good for all people.  Shaw admits these rules must be in place, but he will not admit that they are actually morally fixed rules.  He says we should use them and live by them as though they were hard facts, but he believes in the end that they are not.  Act like they are real facts, even though they are not, and do your best to bring about the most good you can imagine by your actions.  This seems to be Shaw’s basic ethical position. 


Questions: Why should I bother following the rules?  If my actions benefit me, then what do I care if others are harmed or helped by them?  What is it that compels me to seek greatest good for the greatest number?  Do I always have to seek the greatest good for the greatest number, even when I am making decisions about my own children or my wife?

2 thoughts on “Action Consequences

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  1. I would like to raise a question of my own. For Shaw, how do you define what is best? It appears he wants to hold on to (rather arbitrarily?) secondary rules, but do those secondary rules also provide defintion to what is “good”? After all, without a clear definition of “good” there is no definition of “best”. The terms of the debate change from what is right to what is best, but we’re still left with having to decide what is best – which seems to require an ethical standard. After all, who is Shaw to say that avoiding hitting a child is best? Better than what? Says who? One less child would be better for the food supply and pollution, right? Maybe this is an absurd extreme, but I think it highlights the problem of merely shifting the discussion from what is right to what is best.


  2. Great point. Actually, Shaw discusses the very example you mention, torturing a child. He says, “True, if placed in the imaginary world where torturing the child maximizes good, such people will do the wrong thing [as judged by the consequentialist standard] by refraining from torturing the child. But the real world in which we live is certainly better the more widespread the inhibition on harming children is and the more deeply entrenched it is in people’s psychology. Consequentialists prefer people to have the moral motivations that bring the best results in the everyday world, even if these motivations might lead them to behave suboptimally in fanciful situations.”
    Your actual question is spot on and, for the most part, left unanswered. Part of the reason, of course, is that consequentialists view the “good” as after the fact (teleologically). There is no fixed point of goodness (deontological).


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