In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethical Consequentialism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Arguments for Consequentialism
  • Forms of Consequentialism
  • Rule Consequentialism
  • Hybrid Views, Agent-Neutrality, and Agent-Relativity
  • Consequentialist Political Theory
  • Future People

Philosophy Ethical Consequentialism
Tim Mulgan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0026


Consequentialism ties moral evaluation to the value of consequences or outcomes. In contemporary moral philosophy, consequentialism is typically contrasted with deontology and virtue ethics. Different consequentialists offer different accounts of value, but all give a prominent place to the promotion of human well-being. Consequentialism can evaluate acts, rules, motives, or political institutions. This entry focuses on contemporary consequentialism, but also explores its roots in classical utilitarianism.

General Overviews

There are a number of good overviews of consequentialism. Sinnott-Armstrong 2019 offers a balanced and sympathetic introduction to the main themes of contemporary consequentialism. A regularly updated online resource, this is likely to remain the best place to begin. Pettit 1991 and Goodin 1991 together provide an authoritative, if very brief, introduction. Pettit 1997 offers a more systematic interpretation of the consequentialist perspective. Pettit’s “Reply to Baron and Stote” in the same volume sets out the consequentialist response to the competing accounts offered by Kantians and virtue theorists. Part 1 of Parfit 1984, the most influential recent consequentialist work, introduces the different forms of consequentialism. The rest of the book introduces many of the dominant themes of recent debate. Smart 1973 and Williams 1973 represent a classic debate between a defender of straightforward act consequentialism and one of its most penetrating recent critics.

  • Goodin, Robert. “Utility and the Good.” In A Companion to Ethics. Edited by Peter Singer, 241–248. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

    Brief outline of the standard accounts of value, focusing on utilitarianism. Argues that the utility principle is a sound basis for public rather than private choice. Together with Pettit 1991, an ideal brief introduction.

  • Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

    The seminal text in late-twentieth-century consequentialist literature. Crisply written, with an abundance of provocative thought experiments and ingenious arguments. Part 1 outlines the different forms of consequentialism, focusing especially on the contrast between individual and collective. Other parts explore rationality and time, personal identity, and future people, providing the background for subsequent debates.

  • Pettit, Philip. “Consequentialism.” In A Companion to Ethics. Edited by Peter Singer, 230–240. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

    Brief outline, including main arguments for and against consequentialism. Introduces the now-standard distinction between promoting and honoring value. Together with Goodin 1991, an ideal brief introduction.

  • Pettit, Philip. “The Consequentialist Perspective.” In Three Methods of Ethics. By Marcia Baron, Philip Pettit, and Michael Slote, 92–174. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

    Systematic presentation of consequentialism, focusing on moral psychology and the question of rightness. Responds to many familiar objections by sketching a consequentialist moral psychology. Ideal advanced introduction.

  • Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. “Consequentialism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019.

    A balanced, insightful, accessible overview of contemporary consequentialism, written by a sympathetic critic. Updated regularly, and thus likely to remain the best first port of call for both students and scholars.

  • Smart, J. J. C. “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics.” In Utilitarianism: For and Against. Edited by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, 3–74. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

    Clear defense of act utilitarianism. Superseded by subsequent debate in many details, but still a useful introduction to the consequentialist worldview. The context for the critique in Williams 1973. Read together, the two offer a good taste of the issues that have traditionally divided consequentialists and their opponents.

  • Williams, Bernard. “A Critique of Utilitarianism.” In Utilitarianism: For and Against. By J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, 77–150. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

    Highly influential critique of utilitarianism, and especially impartial consequentialism. Introduces the “integrity” objection that utilitarianism is inconsistent with genuine personal commitments. Engaging and forceful style. Although Williams’s arguments have been developed more clearly and systematically by others, there is still much to be gained by reading them in the original.

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