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Original text: Consequentializing

Summarized: 5 minute read

1. How Consequentializing Differs from Other Attempts to Reconcile Utilitarianism with Common Moral Opinion

There are at least two ways of trying to modify utilitarianism in the hopes of reconciling some portion of it with common moral opinion. One is to keep its act-consequentialism but trade in its simplistic ranking of outcomes for a more sophisticated one.

There are many ways to reconcile some portion of utilitarianism with common moral opinion, but many believe that when we move away from utilitarianism’s act-consequentialism, we give up the very thing that we found most compelling about it in the first place.

2. Consequentializing Commonsense Deontic Verdicts

Act-consequentialism goes back to John Stuart Mill’s development of qualitative hedonism, which argues that there are certain kinds of pleasures that human beings are capable of, but not swine, and that no quantity of lower pleasures can ever be as good as a sufficient quantity of higher pleasures.

A consequentialist view of an act includes everything that would be the case if the act were performed, including things such as whether the act is an instance of keeping a promise, whether the agent’s motive in performing the act was virtuous, and whether there is a victim of injustice.

The act-consequentialist can hold that certain types of actions are intrinsically bad, and that breaking a promise is one of them. This is because the outcomes of breaking a promise are worse than those of keeping one.

Commonsense holds that it is wrong to break a promise, even if breaking it would produce just as much good as keeping it. The consequentializer must take into account any intrinsic badness in the act itself.

Consequentializers have typically appealed to an evaluator-relative ranking of outcomes, where the agent’s ranking differs from that of a bystander. This allows the consequentialist to accommodate the intuition that breaking a promise is wrong even if breaking it would produce just as much good as keeping it.

Commonsense morality differs from utilitarianism in that it takes into account agent-centered restrictions and takes into account options either to bring about the overall best outcome or to refrain from doing so. Self/other utilitarianism accommodates this intuition by appealing to a dual ranking of outcomes.

Self/other utilitarianism accommodates only agent-sacrificing options, and not agent-favoring options, such as taking two tablets of an opioid drug to alleviate moderate pain or giving one tablet to two strangers who are also in moderate pain.

As consequentializers have shown, other act-consequentialist theories can accommodate commonsense deontic verdicts, and Schefflerian utilitarianism is one such theory. Still, it is a rather simplistic theory, and consequentializers have tried to come up with ever more sophisticated consequentialist theories that seek to address these issues.

3. Three Motives for, and Types of, Consequentializing

3.1 Earnest Consequentializing

To consequentialize, we need to opt for a theory that explains the given set of deontic verdicts in act-consequentialist terms, rather than in utilitarian theological voluntarism or utilitarian act-consequentialism.

The fact that data underdetermines theory selection also makes Kantianizing possible. For instance, we can Kantianize utilitarianism by combining Kantianism’s view that the ultimate right-making feature of an act is that it shows the proper respect for humanity.

3.2 Notational Consequentializing

Every plausible non-consequentialist theory has an act-consequentialist counterpart theory, and if these two theories are necessarily co-extensive in their deontic verdicts, then they are equivalent in the strong sense of being mere notational variants of each other.

The notational consequentializer thinks that the first premise is true because they believe that the Footian Procedure will generate an act-consequentialist counterpart theory for any plausible target non-consequentialist theory. This procedure guarantees that the resulting theory will yield the same deontic verdicts as the target theory.

Notational consequentializing aims to show that every plausible non-consequentialist theory has an extensionally equivalent act-consequentialist counterpart theory, and that the consequentialist/non-consequentialist distinction is unimportant and empty.

3.3 Pragmatic Consequentializing

Those with a pragmatic motive for consequentializing give what’s known as the pragmatic argument for consequentializing.

A pragmatic consequentialist uses the Footian Procedure to consequentialize some plausible non-consequentialist theory, and then uses decision theory to determine what deontic verdicts the resulting act-consequentialist theory yields in situations involving imperfect information.

4. Objections to Consequentializing

Some deny that it’s possible to consequentialize every plausible non-consequentialist theory, while others consider it possible but consider the resulting act-consequentialist counterpart theories to be explanatorily inadequate.

4.1 There Is Nothing Uniquely Compelling about Act-Consequentialism

Even those who refuse to accept utilitarianism find that there is something quite compelling about it: its act-consequentialism. The earnest consequentializer must look elsewhere for the Compelling Idea, and perhaps it concerns the best outcome as opposed to the best option.

This idea is unique to act-consequentialism, but some argue that it isn’t compelling – or, at least, not uncontroversially so. They argue that the Compelling Idea should appeal to the Best-Relative-to principle instead, which is that an act is morally permissible if it brings about the best outcome.

Most Reason to Desire: It is morally permissible to perform the option that would bring about the outcome that you most desire.

The ethical egoist and the utilitarian theory share a commitment to Most Reason to Desire, and both hold that agents ought always to prefer that there is more hedonic utility overall.

Act-consequentialism is not a theory about what it is right to prefer, but rather a theory about what it is right to do. Foot sought to debunk the idea that it is always morally permissible to bring about the best outcome.

Although Most Reason to Desire is quite compelling, it is not unique to act-consequentialism. In fact, consequentializing can be used to render non-consequentialism compatible with commonsense deontic verdicts as well.

The earnest consequentializer can avoid Sachs’s objection by holding that the Compelling Idea is something like Most Reason to Desire.

Most Reason to Desire is a proposal for a theory of action that claims that the Compelling Idea is something that both utilitarianism and ethical egoism hold in common, and that one has most reason to act in whatever way will make the world go as one ought to prefer.

4.2 Some Key Features of Commonsense Morality Cannot Be Consequentialized

Some argue that it’s not possible to consequentialize every plausible non-consequentialist theory, but the Extensional Equivalence Thesis is a premise of both the notational consequentializer and the pragmatic consequentializer.

The Extensional Equivalence Thesis is controversial. For instance, Campbell Brown (2011) argues that the act-consequentialist cannot accommodate prohibition dilemmas, but Dreier (2011) argues that any non-consequentialist theory that includes such verdicts is implausible.

Earnest consequentializing can succeed even if the resulting act-consequentialist counterpart theory is not perfectly co-extensive with the target non-consequentialist theory, because it requires only that the resulting act-consequentialist counterpart theory be better overall than both utilitarianism and standard versions of non-consequentialism.

The earnest consequentializer adopts a different procedure for consequentializing than the target non-consequentialist: the Coherentist Procedure. This procedure involves revising pre-theoretical judgments about whether one outcome outranks another and whether the act that produces the one outcome is morally better than the other.

The earnest consequentializer holds that the judgment that one outcome outranks another is just the judgment that the agent ought to prefer the one to the other. And we clearly have judgments about both what an agent ought to prefer and what it would be fitting for them to prefer. In some instances, the Coherentist Procedure may call for revising pre-theoretical judgments, but even then, the resulting act-consequentialist counterpart theory may be more intuitively plausible than either utilitarianism or standard versions of non-consequentialialism.

Earnest consequentializers need to accommodate a good number of deontic verdicts, but they must do so without sacrificing the Compelling Idea. This is why they reject the idea of Best Outcome in favor of Best-Relative-to, Most Reason to Desire, or Reasons for Preferring Ground.

4.3 Act-Consequentialist Counterpart Theories Are Gimmicky

Philosophers who consequentialize a target non-consequentialist theory claim that the resulting act-consequentialist counterpart theory is gimmicky and implausible, but this claim is not made by pragmatic consequentializers who reject the resulting act-consequentialist counterpart theories as ad hoc.

The earnest consequentializer motivates his theory by claiming that agents bear a special responsibility for their own agency and, thus, for their own promises. This motivation should appeal even to non-consequentialists, who have powerfully argued that agents bear a special responsibility for their own actions.

Both notational consequentializing and pragmatic consequentializing produce gimmicky act-consequentialist counterpart theories by employing the Footian Procedure, but it is unclear why this should be objectionable.

4.4 Act-Consequentialist Counterpart Theories Are Explanatorily Inadequate

Some argue that the act-consequentialist counterpart theories of earnest consequentializers are explanatorily inadequate because they invert the true explanatory direction. They believe that the wrongness of promise-breakings explains their badness, not the other way around.

Stephen Emet (2010) and Christopher Howard (2021) argue that act-consequentialist counterpart theories are explanatorily inadequate for a different reason, namely that they force the earnest consequentialist to give up a plausible rationale for certain deontic verdicts.

Act consequentialists argue that the duty to respect persons gives rise to a duty to prefer not to treat them as mere means to an end, and that this duty explains why it is impermissible to kill one to prevent five others from being killed.

One may object that killing one to prevent five from being killed by the mafia is impermissible, but earnest consequentializers argue that this is a mistake and that the ultimate right-making feature of an act is instead that it does not outrank any available alternative.

The earnest consequentializer sees a difference between utilitarian theological voluntarism and act-consequentialism in that the former holds that the ultimate right-making feature of an act is that it accords with God’s will, while the latter holds that the ultimate rationale for an act’s being right or wrong lies with the victim.

There is more to say on this topic of explanatory adequacy, but the above should give the reader a sense of why non-consequentists might find act-consequentialist counterpart theories to be explanatorily inadequate.

4.5 “Has an Outcome that Outranks Every Available Alternative” Isn’t Equivalent to “Ought to Be Performed”

Notational consequentializers accept two controversial assumptions, and defend the second premise by claiming that act-consequentialist theories and non-consequentialist theories are equivalent.

Dreier claims that what makes an act one that ought to be performed is not the expression we use to label it, but the features of its outcome (which includes the act itself) that contribute to its deontic status.


Campbell Brown (2011) notes that arguing with an act-consequentialist can be frustrating because you have to presuppose a particular account of how outcomes rank, which the act-consequentialist needn’t accept. Therefore, you were wrong to conclude that act-consequentialism is false.

”’There are three types of consequentializing, each with a different motivation. There are also two different procedures for consequentializing a non-consequentialist theory, which means that we can’t just assess whether, in general, consequentializing produces a gimmicky theory.”’

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