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  Consequentialism is the doctrine that we ought to do whatever will have the best consequences. We are morally responsible for all of the foreseeable consequences of our actions and should take all foreseeable consequences into account when deciding how to act. So when deciding whether to give money to a beggar, I must weigh the increase in the well-being of the beggar against the possible costs, such as encouraging vagrancy. Consequentialists differ as to how to evaluate the consequences of actions. Some hold that we ought to do whatever will create the greatest amount of pleasure for humanity taken as a whole, while others emphasize different values (such as beauty, well-being or equality). But they all agree that the right thing to do is whatever will create the most desirable state of affairs.

There are two main kinds of objection to consequentialism. First, we are sometimes obliged to bring about a very undesirable state of affairs even when we could bring about a better one. I may be obliged to spend my dead father\'s money on an expensive gravestone because of a deathbed promise I made to him, even though the money would be far better spent helping his grandchildren. Actions may be intrinsically right even if they have bad consequences (like my keeping my promise) and intrinsically wrong even if they would have good consequences (like breaking my promise).

The other main objection to consequentialism is that it is too demanding. There are many starving people in the world and my money would be of far more use to them than it is to me. Am I obliged to give my salary to the starving, retaining only enough of it to prevent my starving? The trouble here, some say, is that consequentialists fail to respect the common-sense distinction between acts and omissions.

Many philosophers and lawyers distinguish cases in which one allows a bad thing to happen from cases in which one brings that bad thing about, claiming that allowing a bad thing to happen is less blameworthy than bringing that bad thing about. Suppose I hear of a starving family who will die within a week if I do not send a food parcel. If I do not send them anything, I am allowing the family to die. Such indolence may well be reprehensible but it is not as bad as murder. On the other hand, I may send them a poisoned food parcel that will kill them in a week\'s time. Here the end result is the same—the family dies a painful death in a week\'s time. But in the second case I am guilty of murder since I have actively killed the family and not merely allowed them to die. The consequentialist would see no difference here—the family\'s death is a foreseeable consequence of both my action and of my inaction. So if I am a murderer in the one instance, I am as bad as a murderer in the other as well. AJ

See also deontology; double effect, doctrine of; utilitarianism.Further reading S. Scheffler (ed.), Consequentialism and its Critics; , B. Steinbock (ed.), Killing and Letting Die.



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