"Consequentialism" refers to a class of normative moral theories which maintain that an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable. Thus, correct moral conduct is determined solely by a cost-benefit analysis of an action's consequences. Consequentialism requires that we first tally both the good and bad consequences of an action; we then determine whether the total good consequences outweigh the total bad consequences. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is morally proper. If the bad consequences are greater, then the action is morally improper. Consequentialist theories are also called teleological theories, from the Greek word telos, or end, since the end result of the action is the sole determining factor of its morality.
Most versions of consequentialism are more precisely formulated than the general principle above. In particular, contending consequentialist theories specify which consequences for affected groups of people are relevant. Three subdivisions of consequentialism emerge:
Unfortunately, all of these appeals to instinctive motives fail, for there is no way to empirically establish whether human nature is instinctively selfish, benevolent, or some mixture of the two. All three consequentialist theories can be evaluated from the standpoint of our common moral intuitions. Problems are immediately revealed with ethical egoism. According to ethical egoism, acts of lying, stealing, and even killing would be morally permissible so long as (1) the agent benefited, and (2) he was not caught. But, it is clearly contrary to our common notions of morality to call such acts "moral." Ethical altruism also clashes with our common moral intuitions since most believe that one's own interests should count for at least something. Finally, problems arise with utilitarianism because of its emphasis on public benefit. According to utilitarianism, it would be morally wrong to waste time on leisure activities such as watching television, since our time could be spent in ways which produced a greater social benefit, such as charity work.
Finally, all of the above versions of consequentialism leave open the possibility that a heinous action, such as torture or slavery, could be morally permissible if its benefits outweighed its disbenefits. However, our common moral intuitions tell us that such actions are unjust regardless of the beneficial consequences produced. Consequentialism, then, appears to be flawed at its very root since justice can be dispensed with if it produces the appropriate benefits. In view of the above problems, consequentialist principles have been modified to bring these theories more in line with our common moral intuitions. This is especially so with utilitarianism.