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Consequentialism and Maximization

March 12, 2011

Consequentialism requires the maximization of some singular good – pleasure or preferences are frequently cited as being the singular good.

Ben Mackay asked me to consider two people A and B. A is very rich and gives, for example, 500,000 pounds to charity. B has an average income and gives 1000 pounds to charity. In addition, it is assumed that A is rich enough that the remaining disposable income he still has available after his generous donation is sufficient for him to have a millionaire’s lifestyle.

Ben argues that because the consequences of A’s actions will produce more happiness (or some other good), then A is a morally better person than B. (The underlying assumption here and in the foregoing is that giving more money will produce more good).

What we seek, however, is the maximization of the good in question – not simply the increase of it. When A donates his money, while he donates significantly more than B, the amount that he could have donated but did not, is far larger than the amount that B could have donated, but did not. As such, A fell far shorter of maximizing the good than B did.

Now, it may be argued that without the incentive to have his millionaire’s lifestyle, the rich man, A, will not continue to earn as much, and hence will produce no additional good over the average person, B, if he gives nearly all his earning. This may be the case, but there are counter-examples (some of which are detailed in Peter Singer’s ‘The Life You Can Save‘). Even if this is practically the case, for A to act in this way is to act in a way that explicitly fails to maximize the good, and hence his actions are even less moral than B’s.

There is a corrolary question of whether holding people to this high moral standard publicly will actually produce the results that we want – and the answer is probably not – but that does not mean that the actual moral value of their actions is any different, rather that in the face of practical concerns we should moderate the actual blame and praise we apportion in order to maximize the good.


From → Philosophy

One Comment
  1. Thanks for taking a look at my question and points.

    Firstly I’m not sure whether I believe that person A is a morally better person than person B. Person A may have inherited most of his money and B may work hard all his life to get to a wealthier state but is unable too. Thus of course A is in a situation where he can give alot more to charity regardless of his own personal choices and actions. If we take the view – as I do – that society is not meritocratic in the way envisaged by free market fundamentalists then I’m not sure whether we can rate A as morally better than B as persons.

    I still think however that in terms of overall good it is better to be A than to B. I agree he is not doing all he can do to fulfill maximum happiness but what he is doing is alot greater than B. I think that the best way to look at them both is in terms of who generates the overall better consequences and this is A.

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