Consequentialist Ethical Theory Explained


Consequentialist ethical theory is considered to be a normative ethical theory. It states that the consequences of a person’s conduct are the basis of any judgment regarding whether that conduct was right or wrong. This means a good decision produces a good result, while a bad decision produces a bad result. Many of the decisions of conduct are represented by an interpretation of personal morality.

This means the consequence, or the outcome, of the conduct is analyzed instead of the thought processes that initiated the conduct in the first place. If the outcome creates a positive moral outcome, then it creates a result that is “right” in the consequentialist ethical theory. This means that the “ends can justify the means” should a positive outcome be achieved.

How Can Moral Judgments Be Made on Individualistic Levels?

The issue with the consequentialist ethical theory is the fact that a person can judge any behavior to be morally correct. This would include conduct that would generally be considered morally wrong, such as murder. To prevent individualistic moral conclusions from conduct outcomes, an observer must be available to make the determination of morality instead.

In this theory, there are three types of observers that can provide action guidance whenever an outcome needs to be judged.

1. The Ideal Observer.
This observer is neutral, offering a moral judgment based on a logical argument that comes from their direct observations. The characteristics of this observer may vary, but their conclusions are consistent based on what all perceived consequences could be. If this observer believes an action is right, then it becomes right for society as a whole.

2. The Real Observer.
This observer would observe the conduct as it is occurring, thus providing guidance toward what the outcome should be. It is a way of directing the conduct of an individual toward the outcome that can bring the most positivity in response, avoiding moral judgments. These observers can only make a judgment on the morality of a decision based on their interpretation of all possible information that is available. Better information, therefore, creates better moral outcomes.

3. The Supernatural Observer.
This observer is real in the mind of the person creating conduct, but does not exist in a tangible form that we would recognize today. It’s the idea that God is in control of morality, so the outcome of a moral decision is judged based on the omniscient observer and their supernatural declarations of right and wrong.

When Moral Actions Have Tangible Consequences

Today we often see consequentialist ethical theory played out in the conservative evangelical Christian society. Take the example of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a bakery in Oregon.

Oregon law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The owners of the bakery had to agree to follow this law in order to obtain their business license. Then, when a same-gender couple approached the business in order to purchase a cake for their wedding, the owners of the bakery refused to provide services.

Under “normal” circumstances, the action of lying would be considered to be a “bad” decision, creating “bad” results. From their interpretation of the supernatural observer, however, it was a “good” decision that produced “good” results. The owners of the bakery, in their view, were not promoting “sin.”

And the conservative evangelical church agreed with this moral outcome. The act of lying to the state to obtain the business license was ignored in favor of a “superior” moral outcome.

Yet the outcomes still had tangible consequences. The bakery was forced to pay a fine. They faced bankruptcy. They had to change the way that they did business. These were tangible outcomes because one independent observer deemed the decision to be “bad,” with a bad outcome.

Many came to the bakery’s defense, including Franklin Graham from Samaritan’s purse – the son of evangelist Billy Graham. Money was raised through crowdfunding to support the bakery. This was because another independent observer was deemed to have judged the outcome to be morally “good,” so the community of those who agreed worked together to offset the “bad” outcome.

So what does this mean for the consequentialist ethical theory?There are three levels to consider. We choose our conduct based on our own moral conduct. That conduct is judge by the morality of independent observers and may not agree with our own judgments. The independent observers are then judged based on their moral decisions regarding the outcome being judged, effectively creating another judgment.

And it is all based on who is perceived to be doing the observation. This is why to some, an outcome is morally good, while to others, an outcome is morally bad.