Objective Prescriptions, and Other Essays

By R. M. Hare | Go to book overview

13
A UTILITARIAN APPROACH TO ETHICS

13. 1. THE main constituents of any utilitarian theory may be called 'consequentialism', 'welfarism' ( Sen and Williams 1982: 3), and 'aggregationism'. Consequentialism can be defined, roughly at first, as the view that the consequences of an act are what make it right or wrong. But this by itself is unclear. There is one sense of 'consequences' in which nobody who thinks carefully about the question can help being a consequentialist. That is the sense used here. But there are other senses in which consequentialism is clearly an inadequate theory. We must first explain the sense in which everybody has to be a consequentialist.

A consequentialist is somebody who thinks that what determine the moral quality of an action (that is, determine whether it is right or wrong) are its consequences. An action is the making of some difference to what happens--to the history of the world. If I make no difference to what happens, I have done no action. In the widest sense, even if I do nothing (do not move a finger), I have done an action (what is sometimes called an act of omission). It made a difference to the history of the world that I did nothing. We are, in other words, responsible for what we fail to do as well as for what we actively do. I can of course be blamed for doing nothing: someone might say 'You were to blame for not saving the life of the patient when you could have'.

Suppose, then, that my gun is pointing at somebody and I pull the trigger, and he dies. We say 'I have killed him'. Killing him was what I did--my act. If I did wrong, what made it wrong was the consequence of my pulling the trigger, namely that I killed him. In the light of this example, it is hard to see how people can deny that consequences, in this sense, are relevant to moral judgements about actions. So, in this sense, consequentialism is hard to reject. The people who reject it no

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'A Utilitarian Approach to Ethics.' Expanded version of an article with the same title in H. Kuhse and Peter Singer, eds., A Companion to Bioethics ( Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

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