Systems of Ethics: Consequentialism


Consequentialism’s Roots

Consequentialism is derived from classic utilitarianism and its main advocates were Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the best actions resulted in the most happiness for the largest number of people; John Stuart Mill, a student of Bentham that argued that there is a hierarchy of happiness to take into consideration when considering the optimality of actions; and Henry Sidgwick, who argued that one’s own happiness cannot be valued more highly than the suffering of others (Sinnott-Armstrong).

Theoretical & Practical Applications

Consequentialism focuses on optimality. Its followers believe that people should act accordingly to what will produce the greatest amount of positive consequences. In theory, it sounds perfect– why wouldn’t you want the greatest amount of good to come from your actions? However, this theory requires you to consider all of the outcomes of every decision you make, which is impossible in most situations. Even tackling simple problems like deciding what to eat become really complicated – does buying white bread over wheat result in the most happiness for the most people?

Where the System Works & Where it Fails

The strengths of consequentialism are that it promotes conscientiousness and an awareness of how one person’s action can affect the world. On a theoretical level, it seems flawless. Considering all of the possibilities of one’s actions and trying to make a choice that is optimal for everyone is a good approach to problem solving. However, since “trying” to do what’s best doesn’t count as success in consequentialism, that’s ultimately where its weakness lies. In order to take into account every possibility and every consequence of even simple every day actions, you’d need a super computer – and even if you had one, in all likelihood, you’d be forced to make a decision before it could return the optimal solution. On the other hand, it might come up with an answer that promotes the most happiness, but it might require you to do something that would normally be considered horrible. If harvesting organs of children to give to others in need, like in Unwind by Neal Shusterman, brought the most good, would that truly make it ethical?


Works Cited

“Consequentialism.” Ethics Unwrapped,

Heydt, Colin. “John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

“Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Consequentialism.” WikiJournal of Medicine/Medical Gallery of Blausen Medical 2014 – Wikiversity, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.,

Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. “Consequentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 May 2003,

Sweet, William. “Jeremy Bentham (1748—1832).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

“Unwind (Novel).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Dec. 2018,