A Thought on Consequentialism

In a comment on Ben Bayer’s recent post about the NDPR review of Sanford’s Before Virtue, an anonymous person asks about the distinction between the consequentialist and teleological ethics.

In Ben’s response, he mentions how I differentiated Rand’s ethics from consequentialism in Ch. 6 of A Companion to Ayn Rand. I thought I’d take this opportunity to quote from that discussion:

Under the heading of “egoistic consequentialists,” I include Epicurus, Hobbes, and Chernyshevsky. Hobbes identified an individual’s interest with the satisfaction of her desires; the other two identified it with her pleasure. On either view, the individual’s interest is a psychological state that is valuable in itself, apart from any actions that may lead to it. These thinkers are consequentialists in that they maintain that the rightness of an action is determined wholly by consequences that are distinct from the action itself—specifically by the consequence of maximizing a psychological state that they regard as intrinsically good. Their consequentialism is egoistic in that it holds that one should maximize this intrinsically good state in (and for) oneself, rather than in all people impartially. […]

Rand was not a consequentialist. On her view, an individual’s welfare is not something that can be separated from his actions and evaluated apart from them. It consists, rather, in his
own rational achievement of a self-sustaining life. (A Companion to Ayn Rand, p. 134)

In the chapter, I go on to mention some respects in which Rand is, nonetheless, similar to the “egoistic consequentialists” and then I differentiate her position from eudaimonism, to which I think it is too closely assimilated by some scholars (e.g., Den Uyl, Rasmussen, Badhwar) who have (rightly) called attention to how much closer Rand is to Aristotle than to the consequentialists.

My treatment of consequentualism in the chapter differs from Ben’s comment in that I allow that there are egoistic forms of consequentialism, whereas he treats consequentialism as holding that the good is intrinsic and so impersonal. This last is surely the common form of the position. It’s the form we find in Mill (see section V of Geoff Sayre-McCord’s “More than Half-Hearted Defense” of Mill’s proof of the principle of utility) and Moore (see his argument that egoism is self-contradictory). I don’t think this is an accident: the logic of consequentialism leads to seeing goodness as impersonal, because it severs value from the all of the features that tie it essentially to particular agents. This disconnect opens the door to arguments like Moore’s that there is an incoherence very idea of an individual’s good.

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