Consequentialism is a moral theory which is founded on the premise that an action is morally right if the outcomes of such actions maximize the good and minimize the bad. In contrast, Non-consequentialism is derived from the premise that some actions are inherently right or wrong. As these theories can derive either identical or varied conclusions in morally ambiguous situations, the conclusions in themselves, while important, can not be considered evidence for the theory’s value. Hence, as we can only judge a theories value by its premise, I will argue that consequentialism is derived from a sound premise, while non-consequentialism is based on an unfounded assertion.
Before we consider specific situations, it is important to understand fully the stance of non-consequentialism and consequentialism. Non-consequentialism suggests that there are certain actions that are inherently wrong, and should always be prohibited, regardless of situational consequences. These prohibitions take the form of uncompromising rules, such as ‘do not steal’, ‘do not lie’, ‘do not break promises’ and ‘do not murder innocent people’. I will refer to this set of rules as principles.
Consequentialism, by definition, rejects the notion that these principles are inherently right. The action the consequentialist considers ‘right’, is the one whose outcome will maximize the good, and minimize the bad. A judicious consequentialist would not only consider immediate or obvious outcomes, but also broad or long-term consequences such as the future well-being of society.
Disparity between these moral theories means that what is considered the right action varies in situations, such as Bernard William’s thought experiment ‘Jim and the Indians’ . A non-consequentialist would argue from the premise that some actions are wrong and unwaveringly prohibited. As the murder of an innocent person is such an action, it follows that the moral response for Jim is to not accept Pedro’s proposition. A non-consequentialist would reason that regardless of the death of 19 Indians, Jim has made the best moral choice and it is Pedro who had made an immoral decision.
Emmanuel Kant, a non-consequentialist philosopher, would argue this in terms of ‘perfect duties’, which are actions we are bound to perform, and ‘imperfect duties’, which are actions we are obligated to perform only if we do not break a perfect duty in doing so. It would be said in this case that to not kill an innocent person is a perfect duty, but to keep a person from dying is an imperfect duty, and hence while we are compelled to not allow death, we are bound first to not kill.
Conversely, a consequentialist would regard this decision as highly immoral as it allows 19 people to unnecessarily die. From the premise ‘the right action is that which minimizes the bad’, the consequentialist is seemingly bound to sacrifice one life, minimizing possible death. Consider though a slight variation of this case, in which...