Peter Singer

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Peter Singer
Full name Peter Singer
Born 6 July 1946 (1946-07-06) (age 63)
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Analytic · Utilitarianism
Main interests Ethics

Peter Albert David Singer (born 6 July 1946) is an Australian philosopher. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), University of Melbourne. He specialises in applied ethics, approaching ethical issues from a secular preference utilitarian perspective.

He has served, on two occasions, as chair of philosophy at Monash University, where he founded its Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1996, he ran unsuccessfully as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate. In 2004, he was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. He has been voted one of Australia's ten most influential public intellectuals.[1]

Outside academic circles, Singer is best known for his book Animal Liberation, widely regarded as the touchstone of the animal liberation movement. Not all members of the animal liberation movement share this view, and Singer himself has said the media overstates his status.[citation needed] His views on that and other issues in bioethics have attracted attention and a degree of controversy.



Life and career

Singer's parents were Viennese Jews who escaped the German annexation of Austria and fled to Australia in 1938. They settled in Melbourne, where Singer was born. His grandparents were less fortunate: his paternal grandparents were taken by the Nazis to Łódź, and were never heard from again; his maternal grandfather died in Theresienstadt.[2] He has a sister, Joan (now Joan Dwyer). Singer's father imported tea and coffee, while his mother practiced medicine. He attended Preshil[3] and later Scotch College. After leaving school, Singer studied law, history and philosophy at the University of Melbourne, gaining his degree in 1967. He received an MA for a thesis entitled Why should I be moral? in 1969. He was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Oxford, obtaining a B.Phil in 1971 with a thesis on civil disobedience, supervised by R. M. Hare, and subsequently published as a book in 1973.[4] Singer names Hare and Australian philosopher H. D. McCloskey as his two most important mentors.[5]

After spending two years as a Radcliffe lecturer at University College, Oxford, he was a visiting professor at New York University for 16 months. He returned to Melbourne in 1977, where he spent most of his career, apart from many visiting positions internationally, until his move to Princeton in 1999.[6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15]

Animal Liberation

Published in 1975, Animal Liberation[16] has been cited as a formative influence on leaders of the modern animal liberation movement.[17] Although Singer rejects rights as a moral ideal independent from his utilitarianism based on interests, he accepts rights as derived from utilitarian principles, particularly the principle of minimising suffering.[18] Singer allows that animal rights are not the same as human rights, writing in Animal Liberation that "there are obviously important differences between human and other animals, and these differences must give rise to some differences in the rights that each have."[19] He began his book by defending Mary Wollstonecraft's 18th-century critic Thomas Taylor, who argued that if Wollstonecraft's reasoning in defense of women's rights were correct, then "brutes" would have rights too. Taylor thought he had produced a reductio ad absurdum of Wollstonecraft's view; Singer regards it as a sound logical implication.

In Animal Liberation, Singer argues against what he calls speciesism: discrimination on the grounds that a being belongs to a certain species. He holds the interests of all beings capable of suffering to be worthy of equal consideration, and that giving lesser consideration to beings based on their species is no more justified than discrimination based on skin color. He argues that animals should have rights based on their ability to feel pain more than their intelligence. In particular, he argues that while animals show lower intelligence than the average human, many severely retarded humans show equally diminished, if not lower, mental capacity, and that some animals have displayed signs of intelligence (for example, primates learning elements of American sign language and other symbolic languages) sometimes on par with that of human children, and that therefore intelligence does not provide a basis for providing nonhuman animals any less consideration than such retarded humans. Singer does not specifically contend that we ought not use animals for food insofar as they are raised and killed in a way that actively avoids the inflicting of pain, but as such farms are uncommon, he concludes that the most practical solution is to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. Singer also condemns vivisection except where the benefit (in terms of improved medical treatment, etc.) outweighs the harm done to the animals used.[20]

Since the publication of Animal Liberation, Singer has received a wide-range of philosophical challenges to his formulation of animal rights. In a lengthy debate in Slate Magazine, Richard Posner challenged that Singer failed to see the "radicalism of the ethical vision that powers [his] view on animals, an ethical vision that finds greater value in a healthy pig than in a profoundly retarded child, that commands inflicting a lesser pain on a human being to avert a greater pain to a dog, and that, provided only that a chimpanzee has 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being, would require the sacrifice of the human being to save 101 chimpanzees."[21]

In addition, Martha Nussbaum has argued that the Capability Approach provides a more adequate foundation of justice than Utilitarianism can supply. Utilitarianism, Nussbaum argues, ignores adaptive preferences, elides the separateness of distinct persons, misidentifies valuable human/non-human emotions such as grief, and calculates according to "sum-rankings" rather than inviolable protection of intrinsic entitlements.[22] Singer replied to this critique.[23]

Applied ethics

The Utilitarianism series
part of the Politics series
Utilitarian Thinkers
Key concepts
See also
Portal: Politics

His most comprehensive work, Practical Ethics (1979),[24] analyses in detail why and how beings' interests should be weighed. His principle of equal consideration of interests does not dictate equal treatment of all those with interests, since different interests warrant different treatment. All have an interest in avoiding pain, for instance, but relatively few have an interest in cultivating their abilities. Not only does his principle justify different treatment for different interests, but it allows different treatment for the same interest when diminishing marginal utility is a factor, favoring, for instance, a starving person's interest in food over the same interest of someone who is only slightly hungry.

Among the more important human interests are those in avoiding pain, in developing one's abilities, in satisfying basic needs for food and shelter, in enjoying warm personal relationships, in being free to pursue one's projects without interference, "and many others". The fundamental interest that entitles a being to equal consideration is the capacity for "suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness". He holds that a being's interests should always be weighed according to that being's concrete properties. He favors a 'journey' model of life, which measures the wrongness of taking a life by the degree to which doing so frustrates a life journey's goals. The journey model is tolerant of some frustrated desire and explains why persons who have embarked on their journeys are not replaceable. Only a personal interest in continuing to live brings the journey model into play. This model also explains the priority that Singer attaches to interests over trivial desires and pleasures.

He requires the idea of an impartial standpoint from which to compare interests. He has wavered about whether the precise aim is the total amount of satisfied interests or the most satisfied interests among those beings who already exist prior to the decision one is making. The second edition of Practical Ethics disavows the first edition's suggestion that the total and prior-existence views should be combined. The second edition asserts that preference-satisfaction utilitarianism, incorporating the 'journey' model, applies without invoking the first edition's suggestion about the total view. But the details are fuzzy and Singer admits that he is "not entirely satisfied" with his treatment.[25]

Ethical conduct is justifiable by reasons that go beyond prudence to "something bigger than the individual," addressing a larger audience. Singer thinks this going-beyond identifies moral reasons as "somehow universal", specifically in the injunction to 'love thy neighbor as thyself', interpreted by him as demanding that one give the same weight to the interests of others as one gives to one's own interests. This universalising step, which Singer traces from Kant to Hare,[26] is crucial and sets him apart from those moral theorists from Hobbes to David Gauthier, who tie reasons to prudence. Universalisation leads directly to utilitarianism, Singer argues, on the strength of the thought that one's own interests cannot count for more than the interests of others. Taking these into account, one must weigh them up and adopt the course of action that is most likely to maximise the interests of those affected; utilitarianism has been arrived at. Singer's universalising step applies to interests without reference to who has them, whereas a Kantian's applies to the judgments of rational agents (in Kant's kingdom of ends, or Rawls's Original Position, etc.). Singer regards Kantian universalization as unjust to animals.[27] As for the Hobbesians, Singer attempts a response in the final chapter of Practical Ethics, arguing that self-interested reasons support adoption of the moral point of view, such as 'the paradox of hedonism', which counsels that happiness is best found by not looking for it, and the need most people feel to relate to something larger than their own concerns.

Practical Ethics includes a chapter arguing for the redistribution of wealth to ameliorate absolute poverty (Chapter 8, "Rich and Poor"), and another making a case for resettlement of refugees on a large scale in industrialised countries (Chapter 9, "Insiders and Outsiders"). Although the natural, non-sentient environment has no intrinsic value for a utilitarian like Singer, environmental degradation is a profound threat to sentient life, and for this reason environmentalists are right to speak of wilderness as a 'world heritage'.[28]

Abortion, euthanasia and infanticide

Consistent with his general ethical theory, Singer holds that the right to life is intrinsically tied to a being's capacity to hold preferences, which in turn is intrinsically tied to a being's capacity to feel pain and pleasure. In his view, the central argument against abortion is equivalent to the following logical syllogism:

First premise: It is wrong to take innocent human life.
Second premise: From conception onwards, the embryo or fetus is innocent, human and alive.
Conclusion: It is wrong to take the life of the embryo or fetus.[29]

In his book Rethinking Life and Death Singer asserts that, if we take the premises at face value, the argument is deductively valid. Singer comments that those who do not generally think abortion is wrong attack the second premise, suggesting that the fetus becomes a "human" or "alive" at some point after conception; however, Singer argues that human development is a gradual process, that it is nearly impossible to mark a particular moment in time as the moment at which human life begins.

Singer at MIT.

Singer's argument for abortion differs from many other proponents of abortion; rather than attacking the second premise of the anti-abortion argument, Singer attacks the first premise, denying that it is wrong to take innocent human life:

[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being's life.[30]

Singer states that arguments for or against abortion should be based on utilitarian calculation which weighs the preferences of a mother against the preferences of the fetus. In his view a preference is anything sought to be obtained or avoided; all forms of benefit or harm caused to a being correspond directly with the satisfaction or frustration of one or more of its preferences. Since a capacity to experience the sensations of suffering or satisfaction is a prerequisite to having any preferences at all, and a fetus, at least up to around eighteen weeks, says Singer, has no capacity to suffer or feel satisfaction, it is not possible for such a fetus to hold any preferences at all. In a utilitarian calculation, there is nothing to weigh against a mother's preferences to have an abortion, therefore abortion is morally permissible.

Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues that newborns similarly lack the essential characteristics of personhood — "rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness"[31] — and therefore "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living."[32]

Singer classifies euthanasia as voluntary, involuntary, or non-voluntary. Voluntary euthanasia is that with the consent of the subject.

Singer's book Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics offers further examination of the ethical dilemmas concerning the advances of medicine. He covers the value of human life and quality of life ethics in addition to abortion and other controversial ethical questions.

World poverty

In "Famine, Affluence, and Morality",[33] one of Singer's best-known philosophical essays, he argues that the injustice of some people living in abundance while others starve is morally indefensible. Singer proposes that anyone able to help the poor should donate part of their income to aid poverty relief and similar efforts. Singer reasons that, when one is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase comfort will lack the same moral importance as saving another person's life.[34] Singer himself reports that he donates 25 percent of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF.[35] In "Rich and Poor", the version of the aforementioned article that appears in the second edition of Practical Ethics,[36] his main argument is presented as follows:

If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it; absolute poverty is bad; there is some poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance; therefore we ought to prevent some absolute poverty.

Singer's most recent book, The Life You Can Save, makes the argument that it is a clear-cut moral imperative for citizens of developed countries to give more to charitable causes that help the poor. While Singer acknowledges the problems inherent in aid and charity of ensuring that money goes where it is most needed and used effectively, his original premise (that people should give more) is not reconciled with these problems in mind.[37]

Other views


In a 2001 review of Midas Dekker's Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, Singer argues that sexual activities between humans and animals that result in harm to the animal should remain illegal, but that "sex with animals does not always involve cruelty" and that "mutually satisfying activities" of a sexual nature may sometimes occur between humans and animals, and that writer Otto Soyka would condone such activities.[38] The position was countered by fellow philosopher Tom Regan, who writes that the same argument could be used to justify having sex with children. Regan writes that Singer's position is a consequence of his adapting a utilitarian, or consequentialist, approach to animal rights, rather than a strictly rights-based one, and argues that the rights-based position distances itself from non-consensual sex.[39] The Humane Society of the United States takes the position that all sexual molestation of animals by humans is abusive, whether it involves physical injury or not.[40]

Commenting on Singer's article "Heavy Petting,"[41] in which he argues that zoosexual activity need not be abusive, and that relationships could form which were mutually enjoyed, Ingrid Newkirk, president of the animal rights group PETA, argued that, "If a girl gets sexual pleasure from riding a horse, does the horse suffer? If not, who cares? If you French kiss your dog and he or she thinks it's great, is it wrong? We believe all exploitation and abuse is wrong. If it isn't exploitation and abuse, [then] it may not be wrong." A few years later, Newkirk clarified in a letter to the Canada Free Press that she was strongly opposed to any exploitation of, and all sexual activity with, animals.[42]

Singer believes that although sex between species is not normal or natural,[43] it does not constitute a transgression of our status as human beings, because human beings are animals or, more specifically, "we are great apes".

Singer lecturing at Oxford University.

Social psychology

Singer also works in the field of social psychology. Singer's writing appeared in Greater Good magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center of the University of California, Berkeley. Singer's contributions include the interpretation of scientific research into the roots of compassion, altruism, and peaceful human relationships. Singer's article, "Can You Do Good by Eating Well?" examines the ethics of eating locally grown food.

Evolutionary biology and leftist politics

In A Darwinian Left,[44] Singer outlines a plan for the political left to adapt to the lessons of evolutionary biology. He says that evolutionary psychology suggests that humans naturally tend to be self-interested. He further argues that the evidence that selfish tendencies are natural must not be taken as evidence that selfishness is right. He concludes that game theory (the mathematical study of strategy) and experiments in psychology offer hope that self-interested people will make short-term sacrifices for the good of others, if society provides the right conditions. Essentially Singer claims that although humans possess selfish, competitive tendencies naturally, they have a substantial capacity for cooperation that has also been selected for during human evolution.


In an article for the online publication chinadialogue Singer called Western-style meat production cruel, unhealthy and damaging to the ecology.[45] He rejected the idea that the method was necessary to meet the population’s increasing demand, explaining that animals in factory farms have to eat food grown explicitly for them, and they burn up most of the food’s energy just to breathe and keep their bodies warm. That loss of total energy has been verified in multiple studies, and the November 2006 UN FAO Report states as much.

Singer calls himself a vegetarian and a "flexible vegan". In his May 2006 interview in Mother Jones, he states:

I don't eat meat. I've been a vegetarian since 1971. I've gradually become increasingly vegan. I am largely vegan but I'm a flexible vegan. I don't go to the supermarket and buy non-vegan stuff for myself. But when I'm traveling or going to other people's places I will be quite happy to eat vegetarian rather than vegan.[46]

Criticism of Singer

Singer's positions have been criticised by groups concerned with what they see as his attack upon human dignity, such as advocates for disabled people and right-to-life supporters. Singer has replied that many people judge him based on secondhand summaries and short quotations taken out of context, not his books or articles.[47]

Some claim that Singer's utilitarian ideas lead to eugenics.[48] American economist Steve Forbes ceased his donations to Princeton University in 1999 because of Singer's appointment to a prestigious professorship.[49] Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal wrote to organisers of a Swedish book fair to which Singer was invited that "A professor of morals ... who justifies the right to kill handicapped newborns ... is in my opinion unacceptable for representation at your level."[50] Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, criticised Singer's appointment to the Princeton Faculty in a banquet speech at the organisation's national convention in July 2001, claiming that Singer's support for euthanizing disabled babies could lead to disabled older children and adults being valued less as well.[51]

In 1989, when Peter Singer attempted to speak during a lecture at Saarbrucken, he was interrupted by a group of protesters including advocates for the handicapped. He offered the protesters the opportunity to explain why he should not be allowed to speak. The protesters indicated that they believed he was opposed to all rights for the handicapped. They were unaware that, although Singer believed that some lives were so blighted from the beginning that their parents may decide their lives are not worth living, in other cases, once the decision is made to keep them alive, everything that could be done to improve the quality of their life should, to Singer's mind, be done. The following discussion revealed that there were many misconceptions about his positions, but the revelation did not end the controversy. One of the protesters made it clear that to enter the discussions was a tactical error.[52]

The same year, Peter Singer was invited to speak in Marburg at a European symposium on "Bioengineering, Ethics and Mental Disability." The invitation was brutally attacked by leading intellectuals and organizations in German media, with an article in Der Spiegel comparing Singer's positions to Nazism. The symposium was eventually cancelled and Singer's invitation consequently withdrawn.[53]

A lecture at the Zoological Institute of the University of Zurich was also interrupted by two groups of protesters. The first group was a group of disabled people who staged a brief protest at the beginning of the lecture. They objected to inviting an advocate of euthanasia to speak. At the end of this protest, when Singer attempted to address their concerns, a second group of protesters rose and began chanting "Singer raus! Singer raus!" ("get out".) When Singer attempted to respond, a protester jumped on stage and grabbed his glasses, the host ended the lecture. The first group was distressed at what happened afterward. It did not intend to halt the lecture and had questions to ask Singer afterward.[54]

Singer has experienced the complexities of some of these questions in his own life. His mother had Alzheimer's disease. He said, "I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult".[55] In an interview with Ronald Bailey, published in December 2000, he explained that his sister shares the responsibility of making decisions about his mother. He did say that, if he were solely responsible, his mother might not continue to live.[56]

Meta-ethics and foundational issues

Though Singer focuses more than many philosophers on applied ethical questions, he has also written in depth on foundational issues in meta-ethics, including why one ethical system should be chosen over others. In The Expanding Circle,[57] he argues that the evolution of human society provides support for the utilitarian point of view. On his account, ethical reasoning has existed from the time primitive foraging bands had to cooperate, compromise, and make group decisions to survive. He elaborates: "In a dispute between members of a cohesive group of reasoning beings, the demand for a reason is a demand for a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole."[58] Thus, consideration of others' interests has long been a necessary part of the human experience. Singer believes that contemplative analysis may now guide one to accept a broader utilitarianism:

"If I have seen that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies... Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.

Singer elaborates that viewing oneself as equal to others in one's society and at the same time viewing one's society as fundamentally superior to other societies may cause an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. This is the sense in which he means that reason may push people to accept a broader utilitarian stance.[59] Critics like Ken Binmore say that this cognitive dissonance is apparently not very strong, since people often knowingly ignore the interests of faraway societies quite similar to their own, and that the "ought" above only applies if one already accepts Singer's basic premises about the equality of various interests.[60]

An alternative line taken by Singer about the need for ethics[61] is that living the ethical life may be, on the whole, more satisfying than seeking only material gain. He invokes the hedonistic paradox, noting that those who pursue material gain seldom find the happiness they seek. Having a broader purpose in life may lead to more long-term happiness. On this account, impartial (self-sacrificing) behavior in particular matters may be motivated by self-interested considerations from a broader perspective.

Singer has also implicitly argued that an airtight defense of utilitarianism is not crucial to his work. In "Famine, Affluence, and Morality", he begins by saying that he would like to see how far a seemingly innocuous and widely endorsed principle can take us; the principle is that one is morally required to forgo a small pleasure to relieve someone else's immense pain. He then argues that this principle entails radical conclusions — for example, that affluent people are very immoral if they do not give up some luxury goods in order to donate the money for famine relief. If his reasoning is valid, he goes on to argue, either it is not very immoral to value small luxuries over saving many lives, or such affluent people are very immoral. As Singer argues in the same essay, regardless of the soundness of his fundamental defense of utilitarianism, his argument has value in that it exposes conflicts between many people's stated beliefs and their actions.


Singer is one of the most prolific writers in philosophy, sometimes publishing several books a year as well as public engagement. His books include:

Interviews with Singer

See also

Cognitive dissonance

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Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The "ideas" or "cognitions" in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one's behavior, and facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.[1] Cognitive dissonance theory is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.

Dissonance normally occurs when a person perceives a logical inconsistency among his or her cognitions. This happens when one idea implies the opposite of another. For example, a belief in animal rights could be interpreted as inconsistent with eating meat or wearing fur. Noticing the contradiction would lead to dissonance, which could be experienced as anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, embarrassment, stress, and other negative emotional states. When people's ideas are consistent with each other, they are in a state of harmony, or consonance. If cognitions are unrelated, they are categorized as irrelevant to each other and do not lead to dissonance.

A powerful cause of dissonance is an idea in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as "I am a good person" or "I made the right decision." The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one's choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would likely reduce dissonance and make the person feel better. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms.




The classical version of this idea is expressed in the Aesop fable, The Fox and the Grapes, in which a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. However, unable to think of a way to reach them, he surmises that the grapes are probably not worth eating anyway (that they are not yet ripe or that they are too sour). In the story, the dissonance of the desire for something unattainable (the desire versus the unfulfillment) is reduced by sentience — by irrationally deciding that which is desired must be flawed (sour grapes).

The most famous case in the early study of cognitive dissonance was described by Leon Festinger and others in the book When Prophecy Fails.[2] The authors infiltrated a group that was expecting the imminent end of the world on a certain date. When that prediction failed, the movement did not disintegrate, but grew instead, as members vied to prove their orthodoxy by recruiting converts (see further discussion below).

Smoking is often postulated as an example of cognitive dissonance because it is widely accepted that cigarettes cause lung cancer, yet virtually everyone wants to live a long and healthy life. In terms of the theory, the desire to live a long life is dissonant with the activity of doing something that will most likely shorten one's life. The tension produced by these contradictory ideas can be reduced by quitting smoking, denying the evidence of lung cancer, or justifying one's smoking.[3] For example, smokers could rationalize their behavior by concluding that only a few smokers become ill, that it only happens to very heavy smokers, or that if smoking does not kill them, something else will.[4] While chemical addiction may operate in addition to cognitive dissonance for existing smokers, new smokers may exhibit a simpler case of the latter.

This case of dissonance could also be interpreted in terms of a threat to the self-concept.[5] The thought, "I am increasing my risk of lung cancer" is dissonant with the self-related belief, "I am a smart, reasonable person who makes good decisions." Because it is often easier to make excuses than it is to change behavior, dissonance theory leads to the conclusion that humans are rationalizing and not always rational beings.

Theory and research

Most of the research on cognitive dissonance takes the form of "induced compliance without sufficient justification." In these studies, participants are asked to write an essay against their beliefs, or to do something unpleasant, without a sufficient justification or incentive. The vast majority of participants comply with these kinds of requests and subsequently experience dissonance. In another procedure, participants are offered a gift and asked to choose between two equally desirable items. Because the attractive characteristics of the rejected item are dissonant with the decision to accept the chosen item, participants tend to experience "postdecision dissonance."

When Prophecy Fails

An early version of cognitive dissonance theory appeared in Leon Festinger's 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails. This book gave an inside account of belief persistence in members of a UFO doomsday cult, and documented the increased proselytization they exhibited after the leader's "end of the world" prophecy failed to come true. The prediction of the Earth's destruction, supposedly sent by aliens to the leader of the group, became a disconfirmed expectancy that caused dissonance between the cognitions, "the world is going to end" and "the world did not end." Although some members abandoned the group when the prophecy failed, most of the members lessened their dissonance by accepting a new belief, that the planet was spared because of the faith of the group.[6]

Boring task experiment

In Festinger and Carlsmith's classic 1959 experiment, students were asked to spend an hour on boring and tedious tasks (e.g. turning pegs a quarter turn, over and over again). The tasks were designed to generate a strong, negative attitude. Once the subjects had done this, the experimenters asked some of them to do a simple favour. They were asked to talk to another subject (actually an actor) and persuade them that the tasks were interesting and engaging. Some participants were paid $20 (inflation adjusted to 2009, this equates to $148.40) for this favor, another group was paid $1 (or $7.42 in '2009 dollars'), and a control group was not asked to perform the favour.

When asked to rate the boring tasks at the conclusion of the study (not in the presence of the other "subject"), those in the $1 group rated them more positively than those in the $20 and control groups. This was explained by Festinger and Carlsmith as evidence for cognitive dissonance. The researchers theorized that people experienced dissonance between the conflicting cognitions, "I told someone that the task was interesting", and "I actually found it boring." When paid only $1, students were forced to internalize the attitude they were induced to express, because they had no other justification. Those in the $20 condition, however, had an obvious external justification for their behaviour, and thus experienced less dissonance.[7]

In subsequent experiments, an alternative method of "inducing dissonance" has become common. In this research, experimenters use counter-attitudinal essay-writing, in which people are paid varying amounts of money (e.g. one or ten dollars) for writing essays expressing opinions contrary to their own. People paid only a small amount of money have less justification for their inconsistency and tend to experience more dissonance.

Forbidden toy experiment

An experiment by Aronson and Carlsmith in 1963 examined self-justification in children[8]. In this experiment, children were left in a room with a variety of toys, including a highly desirable toy steam-shovel (or other toy). Upon leaving the room, the experimenter told half the children that there would be a severe punishment if they played with that particular toy and told the other half that there would be a mild punishment. All of the children in the study refrained from playing with the toy. Later, when the children were told that they could freely play with whatever toy they wanted, the ones in the mild punishment condition were less likely to play with the toy, even though the threat had been removed.

This is another example of insufficient justification. The children who were only mildly threatened had to justify to themselves why they did not play with the toy. The degree of punishment by itself was not strong enough, so the children had to convince themselves that the toy was not worth playing with in order to resolve their dissonance.[8]

Postdecision dissonance

In a different type of experiment conducted by Jack Brehm, 225 female students rated a series of common appliances and were then allowed to choose one of two appliances to take home as a gift. A second round of ratings showed that the participants increased their ratings of the item they chose, and lowered their ratings of the rejected item.[9] This can be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance. When making a difficult decision, there are always aspects of the rejected choice that one finds appealing and these features are dissonant with choosing something else. In other words, the cognition, "I chose X" is dissonant with the cognition, "There are some things I like about Y." More recent research has found similar results in four-year-old children and capuchin monkeys.[10]

Challenges and qualifications

Daryl Bem was an early critic of cognitive dissonance theory. He proposed self-perception theory as a more parsimonious alternative explanation of the experimental results. According to Bem, people do not think much about their attitudes, let alone whether they are in conflict. Bem interpreted people in the Festinger and Carlsmith study as inferring their attitudes from their behavior. Thus, when asked "Did you find the task interesting?" they decided that they must have found it interesting because that is what they told someone. Bem suggested that people paid $20 had a salient, external incentive for their behavior and were likely to perceive the money as their reason for saying the task was interesting, rather than concluding that they actually found it interesting.[11][12]

In many experimental situations, Bem's theory and Festinger's theory make identical predictions, but only dissonance theory predicts the presence of unpleasant tension or arousal. Lab experiments have verified the presence of arousal in dissonance situations.[13][14] This provides support for cognitive dissonance theory and makes it unlikely that self-perception by itself can account for all the laboratory findings.

In 1969, Elliot Aronson reformulated the basic theory by linking it to the self-concept. According to this new interpretation, cognitive dissonance does not arise because people experience dissonance between conflicting cognitions. Instead, it occurs when people see their actions as conflicting with their normally positive view of themselves. Thus, in the original Festinger and Carlsmith study, Aronson stated that the dissonance was between the cognition, "I am an honest person" and the cognition, "I lied to someone about finding the task interesting."[5] Other psychologists have argued that maintaining cognitive consistency is a way to protect public self-image, rather than private self-concept.[15]

During the 1980s, Cooper and Fazio argued that dissonance was caused by aversive consequences, rather than inconsistency. According to this interpretation, the fact that lying is wrong and hurtful, not the inconsistency between cognitions, is what makes people feel bad.[16] Subsequent research, however, found that people experience dissonance even when they feel they have not done anything wrong.[17]

Modelling in neural networks

Neural network models of cognition have provided the necessary framework to integrate the empirical research done on cognitive dissonance and attitudes into one model of explanation of attitude formation and change.[18]

Various neural network models have been developed to predict how cognitive dissonance will influence an individual's attitude and behaviour. These include:

See also

Paradox of hedonism

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The paradox of hedonism, also called the pleasure paradox, is the idea in the study of ethics which points out that pleasure and happiness are strange phenomena that do not obey normal principles. First explicitly noted by the philosopher Henry Sidgwick in The Methods of Ethics, the paradox of hedonism points out that pleasure cannot be acquired directly, it can only be acquired indirectly.




It is often said that we fail to attain pleasures if we deliberately seek them. This has been described variously, by many:

"But I now thought that this end [one's happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness[....] Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way[....] Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." [1]

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. [2]

Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.[3]

The love of praise, howe'er concealed by art,
Reigns more or less supreme in every heart;
The Proud to gain it, toils on toils endure;
The modest shun it, but to make it sure![4]

"Happiness is like a cat, If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you'll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap."


Suppose John likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behavior, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behavior, it is believed that John likes collecting stamps because he gets pleasure from collecting stamps. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell John this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He just likes collecting stamps.

This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.

The hedonistic paradox would probably mean that if one sets the goal to please oneself too highly then the mechanism would in fact jam itself.

Suggested explanations

Happiness is often imprecisely equated with pleasure. If, for whatever reason, one does equate happiness with pleasure, then the paradox of hedonism arises. When one aims solely towards pleasure itself, one's aim is frustrated. Henry Sidgwick comments on such frustration after a discussion of self-love in the above-mentioned work:

"I should not, however, infer from this that the pursuit of pleasure is necessarily self-defeating and futile; but merely that the principle of Egoistic Hedonism, when applied with a due knowledge of the laws of human nature, is practically self-limiting; i.e., that a rational method of attaining the end at which it aims requires that we should to some extent put it out of sight and not directly aim at it."[5]

While not addressing the paradox directly, Aristotle commented on the futility of pursuing pleasure. Human beings are actors whose endeavors bring about consequences, and among these are pleasure. Aristotle then argues as follows:

"How, then, is it that no one is continuously pleased? Is it that we grow weary? Certainly all human things are incapable of continuous activity. Therefore pleasure also is not continuous; for it accompanies activity."[citation needed]

Sooner or later, finite beings will be unable to acquire and expend the resources necessary to maintain their sole goal of pleasure; thus, they find themselves in the company of misery. On the other hand, David Pearce argues in his treatise The Hedonistic Imperative that humans might be able to use genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and neuroscience to eliminate suffering in all sentient life.

See also


  1. ^ John Stuart Mill, Autobiography in The Harvard Classics, Vol. 25, Charles Eliot Norton, ed. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son Company, 1909 (p. 94)
  2. ^ Viktor Frankl. Man's Search for Meaning.
  3. ^ Søren Kierkegaard. Either/Or. Diapsalmata
  4. ^ Geoffrey Brennan. The Esteem Engine: A Resource for Institutional Design
  5. ^ Henry Sidgwick. The Methods of Ethics. BookSurge Publishing (1 Mar 2001) (p. 3)

Further reading

The Demandingness Objection

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The Demandingness Objection is a common objection raised against consequentialist ethical theories. The consequentialist requirement that we maximise utility impartially seems to this objection to require us to perform acts that we would normally consider optional. If our resources maximise utility more efficiently when we donate them to charity rather than spending them on ourselves, we are, according to consequentialism, morally required to do so. The objection holds that this clashes with our intuitions about morality, since we would normally consider such acts supererogatory, and that, because consequentialism appears to demand more than common-sense morality, it ought to be revised or rejected.



Singer's Reply

Peter Singer[1] famously made the case for his demanding form of consequentialism in "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" (1972). Here is the thrust of Singer's argument:

Since it is in our power to prevent suffering without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, and because the third and fourth premises reject two commonly-held intuitions about our moral obligations, we are morally required to prevent suffering in any form. Morality as Singer understands it (that is, from a Consequentialist perspective) really is (and should be) this demanding.

Corbett's Reply to Singer

Bob Corbett[6] replies to Singer's third point on the Kantian grounds that "ought" implies "can": "the practical necessity of having a moral obligation which we can keep requires us to be limited in obligation to those cases that we experience directly in the chances of living, and not to the entire world of suffering which we can know”. For Corbett, having a moral obligation to people thousands of miles away “is psychologically too strong [a requirement] for anyone to achieve”; therefore they cannot be moral obligations.

Pettit's Reply to Singer

Philip Pettit[7] replies to Singer's fourth point. For Pettit, there is a distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position. He argues that "There is a distinction between what it is best to do and what you cannot reasonably be denounced for doing" (p.165). For Pettit, this depends on a question of justification. If I am the only person who can possibly save someone's life and I am able to do it at relatively little cost to myself but fail to do so, I have no way of justifying my behaviour to others. If I am one among millions who can save the life a Bengali orphan by giving to charity, then I only have a limited obligation to that child compatible with others having a similar obligation. That is, I need not reduce myself to the level of marginal utility to help that child: all I need to do is my fair share. If the child dies because others have failed to do their fair share then the onus falls on those others, not me. For Pettit, the fact that I have done my fair share is enough of a justification for having let the child die; thus, I cannot reasonably be denounced for having acted in this way.

Nagel's Reply

According to Thomas Nagel[8], Consequentialism need not be too demanding since it is possible to distinguish between 'agent-neutral' reasons and 'agent-relative' reasons. An agent-neutral reason is a reason that applies to anybody, regardless of their particular circumstances: thus, anybody has a reason to want any pain to stop, regardless of whether it is his. An agent relative reason is a reason that applies only to particular individuals: thus, not everybody has a reason to want me to study every day, however, I have a reason to want to study every day, namely, because I want to pass my exams. Since my projects depend on my interests and desires, and since my interests and desires don't seem to generate agent-neutral reasons, then the reasons in question must be agent-relative. Having established that there are genuine agent-relative reasons, Nagel concludes that it must sometimes be possible to pursue our own interests instead of the overall good, since agent-relative reasons will sometimes outweigh agent-neutral reasons. This appears both to account for the fact that there are moral requirements and the fact that we are sometimes allowed to promote our own projects.

Kagan's Reply to Nagel

Shelly Kagan[9] argues that although Nagel's account establishes the existence of agent-relative reasons it doesn’t explain them. It therefore does little to vindicate the intuition that Nagel seeks to defend, namely, that we can promote our own projects without doing something that is wrong. Further, as Kagan points out, Nagel’s argument may justify our acting to promote our own projects but it doesn’t appear to account for the fact that we are free to sacrifice our own interests if we choose to do so. Nagel’s argument implies that such a sacrifice must always be irrational when I have conflicting agent-relative reasons. Since it isn’t irrational, his account is not clearly compatible with the idea that we have moral requirements in the first place.

Utilitarian bioethics

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Utilitarian bioethics is a branch of utilitarian ethics and bioethics that recommends directing medical resources where they will have most long-term effect for good.

It is implicitly used in some healthcare planning decisions, such as the use of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) and the concept of triage, but is controversial in many other cases.

Economic argument

Utilitarian bioethics is based on the premise that the distribution of resources is a zero-sum game, and that it therefore medical decisions should logically be made on the basis of each person's total future productive value and happiness, their chance of survival from the present, and the resources required for treatment.

For those whose cost of medical treatment or maintenance outweighs their total future economic value (because they are terminally ill, are no longer productive, and have no reasonable chance of becoming productive or happy in the foreseeable future), it is economically efficient to free up medical resources by not treating them.

As an example of this logic, every nurse who cares for a terminally ill Alzheimer's or cancer patient, a comatose individual, or an individual in a vegetative state, is one less nurse to take care of a sick baby or a 12-year-old gunshot victim. See opportunity cost.

Therefore, the benefits utilitarian bioethics include increased medical expenditure on other patients with a higher chance of survival and return to a productive and/or happy status. This would ideally lead to an overall net increase in wealth and happiness.

The perceived downsides of utilitarian bioethics include : potential justifications for physicians to kill patients, a gravitation towards acceptance of mortality and death, lack of medical progress (as the treatment of severe injuries would not be explored), the uncertainty in measuring 'happiness', and the possibility of classification of many disabled or old people as "nonpersons".

See also

Further reading

In favor of forms of Utilitarian Bioethics:



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Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action (or create a structure for judgment, see rule consequentialism). Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism "The ends justify the means".

Consequentialism is usually understood as distinct from deontology, in that deontology derives the rightness or wrongness of an act from the character of the act itself rather than the outcomes of the action, and from virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the agent rather than on the nature or consequences of the action itself. The difference between these three approaches to morality tends to lie more in the way moral dilemmas are approached than in the moral conclusions reached. For example, a consequentialist may argue that lying is wrong because of the negative consequences produced by lying — though a consequentialist may allow that certain foreseeable consequences might make lying acceptable. A deontologist might argue that lying is always wrong, regardless of any potential "good" that might come from lying. A virtue ethicist, however, would focus less on lying in any particular instance and instead consider what a decision to tell a lie or not tell a lie said about one's character and moral behavior.




The term "consequentialism" was coined by G.E.M. Anscombe in her essay "Modern Moral Philosophy" in 1958, to describe what she saw as the central error of certain moral theories, such as those propounded by Mill and Sidgwick.[1] Since then, the term has become common in English-language ethical theory.

The defining feature of consequentialist moral theories is the weight given to the consequences in evaluating the rightness and wrongness of actions.[2] In consequentialist theories, the consequences of an action or rule generally outweigh other considerations. Apart from this basic outline, there is little else that can be unequivocally said about consequentialism as such. However, there are some questions that many consequentialist theories address:

Kinds of consequences

One way to divide various consequentialisms is by the types of consequences that are taken to matter most, that is, which consequences count as good states of affairs. According to hedonistic utilitarianism, a good action is one that results in an increase in pleasure, and the best action is one that results in the most pleasure for the greatest number. Closely related is eudaimonic consequentialism, according to which a full, flourishing life, which may or may not be the same as enjoying a great deal of pleasure, is the ultimate aim. Similarly, one might adopt an aesthetic consequentialism, in which the ultimate aim is to produce beauty. However, one might fix on non-psychological goods as the relevant effect. Thus, one might pursue an increase in material equality or political liberty instead of something like the more ephemeral "pleasure". Other theories adopt a package of several goods, all to be promoted equally. Whether a particular consequentialist theory focuses on a single good or many, conflicts and tensions between different good states of affairs are to be expected and must be adjudicated.

Consequences for whom

Moral action always has an effect on certain people or things, the consequences. Various kinds of consequentialism can be differentiated by beneficiary of the good consequences. That is, one might ask "Consequences for whom?"

Agent-focused or agent-neutral

A fundamental distinction can be drawn between theories that demand that agents act for ends in which they have some personal interest or motivation and theories that demand that agents act for ends perhaps disconnected from their own interests and drives. These are called "agent-focused" and "agent-neutral" theories respectively. Agent-neutral consequentialism ignores the specific value a state of affairs has for any particular agent. Thus, in an agent-neutral theory, an actor's personal goals do not count any more than anyone else's goals in evaluating what action the actor should take. Agent-focused consequentialism, on the other hand, focuses on the particular needs of the moral agent. Thus, in an agent-focused account, such as one that Peter Railton outlines, the actor might be concerned with the general welfare, but the actor is more concerned with the immediate welfare of herself and her friends and family[3]. These two approaches could be reconciled by acknowledging the tension between an agent's interests as an individual and as a member of various groups, and seeking to somehow optimize among all of these interests. For example, it may be meaningful to speak of an action as being good for someone as an individual but bad for them as a citizen of their town.


Many consequentialist theories may seem primarily concerned with human beings and their relationships with other human beings. However, some philosophers argue that we should not limit our ethical consideration to the interests of human beings alone. Jeremy Bentham, who is regarded as the founder of Utilitarianism, argues that animals can experience pleasure and pain, thus demanding that 'non-human animals' should be a serious object of moral concern[4]. More recently, Peter Singer has argued that it is unreasonable that we do not give equal consideration to the interests of animals as to those of human beings when we choose the way we are to treat them[5]. Such equal consideration does not necessarily imply identical treatment of humans and non-humans, any more than it necessarily implies identical treatment of all humans.

Action guidance

One important characteristic of many normative moral theories such as consequentialism is the ability to produce practical moral judgements. At the very least, any moral theory needs to define the standpoint from which the goodness of the consequences are to be determined. What is primarily at stake here is the responsibility of the agent.

The ideal observer

One common tactic among consequentialists, particularly those committed to an altruistic (selfless) account of consequentialism, is employ an ideal, neutral observer from which moral judgements can be made. John Rawls, a critic of utilitarianism, argues that utilitarianism, in common with other forms of consequentialism, relies on the perspective of such an ideal observer[3]. The particular characteristics of this ideal observer can vary from an omniscient observer, who would grasp all the consequences of any action, to an ideally informed observer, who knows as much as could reasonably be expected, but not necessarily all the circumstances or all the possible consequences. Consequentialist theories that adopt this paradigm hold that right action is the action that will bring about the best consequences from this ideal observer's perspective.

The real observer

In practice, it is very difficult, and at times arguably impossible, to adopt the point of view of an ideal observer. Individual moral agents do not know everything about their particular situations, and thus do not know all the possible consequences of their potential actions. For this reason, some theorists have argued that consequentialist theories can only require agents to choose the best action in line with what they know about the situation.[2] However, if this approach is naïvely adopted, then moral agents who, for example, recklessly fail to reflect on their situation, and act in a way that brings about terrible results, could be said to be acting in a morally justifiable way. Acting in a situation without first informing oneself of the circumstances of the situation can lead to even the most well-intended actions yielding miserable consequences. As a result, it could be argued that there is a moral imperative for an agent to inform himself as much as possible about a situation before judging the appropriate course of action. This imperative, of course, is derived from consequential thinking: a better informed agent is able to bring about better consequences.

Varieties of consequentialism


John Stuart Mill, an influential liberal thinker of the 19th century and a teacher of utilitarianism, albeit his teachings are a bit different from Jeremy Bentham's philosophy
Jeremy Bentham, best known for his advocacy of utilitarianism

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think...

— Jeremy Bentham , The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) Ch I, p 1

Summarily, Jeremy Bentham states that people are driven by their interests and their fears, but their interests take precedence over their fears, and their interests are carried out in accordance with how people view the consequences that might be involved with their interests. "Happiness" on this account is defined as the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain.

Historically, hedonistic utilitarianism is the paradigmatic example of a consequentialist moral theory. This form of utilitarianism holds that what matters is the aggregate happiness; the happiness of everyone and not the happiness of any particular person. John Stuart Mill, in his exposition of hedonistic utilitarianism, proposed a hierarchy of pleasures, meaning that the pursuit of certain kinds of pleasure is more highly valued than the pursuit of other pleasures.[6] However, some contemporary utilitarians, such as Peter Singer are concerned to maximize the satisfaction of preferences, hence "preference utilitarianism". Other contemporary forms of utilitarianism mirror the forms of consequentialism outlined below.

Ethical egoism and altruism

Ethical egoism can be understood as a consequentialist theory according to which the consequences for the individual agent are taken to matter more than any other result. Thus, egoism may license actions which are good for the agent, but it is generally seen as detrimental to general welfare. Some like Henry Sidgwick, however, argue that a certain degree of egoism promotes general welfare for two reasons: because individuals know how to please themselves best, and because if everyone were an austere altruist then general welfare would inevitably decrease.[7]

Ethical altruism can be seen as a consequentialist ethic which prescribes that an individual take actions that have the best consequences for everyone except for himself.[8] This was advocated by Auguste Comte, who coined the term "altruism," and whose ethics can be summed up in the phrase: Live for others.[9]

Rule consequentialism

In general, consequentialist theories focus on actions. However, this need not be the case. Rule consequentialism is a theory that is sometimes seen as an attempt to reconcile deontology and consequentialism - and in some cases, this is stated as a criticism of rule consequentialism [10]. Like deontology, rule consequentialism holds that moral behavior involves following certain rules. However, rule consequentialism chooses rules based on the consequences that the selection of those rules have.

Various theorists are split as to whether the rules are the only determinant of moral behavior or not. For example, Robert Nozick holds that a certain set of minimal rules, which he calls "side-constraints", are necessary to ensure appropriate actions.[3] There are also differences as to how absolute these moral rules are. Thus, while Nozick's side-constraints are absolute restrictions on behavior, Amartya Sen proposes a theory which recognizes the importance of certain rules, but these rules are not absolute.[3] That is, they may be violated if strict adherence to the rule would lead to much more undesirable consequences.

One of the most common objections to rule-consequentialism is that it is incoherent, because it is based on the consequentialist principle that what we should be concerned with is maximising the good, but then it tells us not to act to maximise the good, but to follow rules (even in cases where we know that breaking the rule could produce better results).

Brad Hooker avoided this objection by not basing his form of rule-consequentialism on the ideal of maximising the good. He writes:

"…the best argument for rule-consequentialism is not that it derives from an overarching commitment to maximise the good. The best argument for rule-consequentialism is that it does a better job than its rivals of matching and tying together our moral convictions, as well as offering us help with our moral disagreements and uncertainties" [11]

Derek Parfit described Brad Hooker's book on rule-consequentialism Ideal Code, Real World as the "best statement and defence, so far, of one of the most important moral theories." [12]

Rule consequentialism exists in the forms of rule utilitarianism and rule egoism.

Negative consequentialism

Most consequentialist theories focus on promoting some sort of good consequences. However, one could equally well lay out a consequentialist theory that focuses solely on minimizing bad consequences. (Negative utilitarianism is an actual example.) Of course, the maximization of good consequences could also involve the minimization of bad consequences, but the promotion of good consequences is usually of primary import.

One major difference between these two approaches is the agent's responsibility. Positive consequentialism demands that we bring about good states of affairs, whereas negative consequentialism may only require that we avoid bad ones. A more strenuous version of negative consequentialism may actually require active intervention, but only to prevent harm from being done. An alternative theory (using the example of negative utilitarianism) is that some consider the reduction of suffering (for the disadvantaged) to be more valuable than increased pleasure (for the affluent or luxurious).

Teleological ethics

Teleological ethics (Greek telos, “end”; logos, “science”) is an ethical theory that holds that the ends or consequences of an act determines whether an act is good or evil. Teleological theories are often discussed in opposition to deontological ethical theories, which hold that acts themselves are inherently good or evil, regardless of the consequences of acts.

Teleological theories differ on the nature of the end that actions ought to promote. Eudaemonist theories (Greek eudaimonia, "happiness") hold that ethics consists in some function or activity appropriate to man as a human being, and thus tend to emphasize the cultivation of virtue or excellence in the agent as the end of all action. These could be the classical virtues — courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom — that promoted the Greek ideal of man as the "rational animal", or the theological virtues — faith, hope, and love — that distinguished the Christian ideal of man as a being created in the image of God.

Utilitarian-type theories hold that the end consists in an experience or feeling produced by the action. Hedonism, for example, teaches that this feeling is pleasure — either one's own, as in egoism (the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes), or everyone's, as in universalistic hedonism, or utilitarianism (the 19th-century English philosophers Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick), with its formula of the "greatest pleasure of the greatest number."

Other utilitarian-type views include the claims that the end of action is survival and growth, as in evolutionary ethics (the 19th-century English philosopher Herbert Spencer); the experience of power, as in despotism (the 16th-century Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli and the 19th-century German Friedrich Nietzsche); satisfaction and adjustment, as in pragmatism (20th-century American philosophers Ralph Barton Perry and John Dewey); and freedom, as in existentialism (the 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre).

The chief problem for eudaemonist theories is to show that leading a life of virtue will also be attended by happiness — by the winning of the goods regarded as the chief end of action. That Job should suffer and Socrates and Jesus die while the wicked prosper, then seems unjust. Eudaemonists generally reply that the universe is moral and that, in Socrates' words, “No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death,” or, in Jesus' words, “But he who endures to the end will be saved.”

Utilitarian theories, on the other hand, must answer the charge that ends do not justify the means. The problem arises in these theories because they tend to separate the achieved ends from the action by which these ends were produced. One implication of utilitarianism is that one's intention in performing an act may include all of its foreseen consequences. The goodness of the intention then reflects the balance of the good and evil of these consequences, with no limits imposed upon it by the nature of the act itself — even if it be, say, the breaking of a promise or the execution of an innocent man. Utilitarianism, in answering this charge, must show either that what is apparently immoral is not really so or that, if it really is so, then closer examination of the consequences will bring this fact to light. Ideal utilitarianism (G.E. Moore and Hastings Rashdall) tries to meet the difficulty by advocating a plurality of ends and including among them the attainment of virtue itself, which, as John Stuart Mill affirmed, "may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as great intensity as any other good."

Consequentialism and other moral theories


Consequentialism is often contrasted with deontological moral theories. Deontological theories hold that we have a duty to perform or refrain from certain types of actions and that this duty derives from the nature of the act itself, rather than from the consequences produced by the action. Consequently, a deontologist might argue that we should stick to our duty regardless of the consequences. For example, Kant famously argued that we have a moral duty to always tell the truth, even to a murderer who asks where the would-be victim is.

However, consequentialist and deontological theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, T.M. Scanlon advances the idea that human rights, which are commonly considered a "deontological" concept, can only be justified with reference to the consequences of having those rights[3]. Similarly, Robert Nozick argues for a theory that is mostly consequentialist, but incorporates inviolable "side-constraints" which restrict the sort of actions agents are permitted to do[3].

Virtue ethics

Consequentialism can also be contrasted with aretaic moral theories such as virtue ethics. Whereas consequentialist theories posit that consequences of action should be the primary focus of our thinking about ethics, virtue ethics insists that it is the character rather than the consequences of actions that should be the focal point. Some virtue ethicists hold that consequentialist theories totally disregard the development and importance of moral character. For example, Philippa Foot argues that consequences in themselves have no ethical content, unless it has been provided by a virtue such as benevolence[3].

However, consequentialism and virtue ethics need not be understood to be entirely antagonistic. Consequentialist theories can consider character in several ways. For example, the effects on the character of the agent or any other people involved in an action may be regarded as a relevant consequence. Similarly, a consequentialist theory may aim at the maximization of a particular virtue or set of virtues. Finally, following Foot's lead, one might adopt a sort of consequentialism which argues that virtuous activity ultimately produces the best consequences.

Max Weber

Ultimate End

The Ultimate end is a concept in the moral philosophy of Max Weber, in which individuals act in a faithful, rather than rational, manner.

We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an "ethic of ultimate ends" or to an "ethic of responsibility." This is not to say that an ethic of ultimate ends is identical with irresponsibility, or that an ethic of responsibility is identical with unprincipled opportunism. Naturally nobody says that. However, there is an abysmal contract between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends—that, is in religious terms, "the Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord"—and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one's action."

—Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1918

Criticisms of consequentialism

General criticisms

William Gass argues that moral theories such as consequentialism are unable to adequately explain why a morally wrong action is morally wrong. Gass uses the example of an "obliging stranger" who agrees to be baked in an oven. Gass claims that the rationale that any moral theory might attempt to give for this wrongness, e.g. it does not bring about good results, is simply absurd. According to Gass, it is wrong to bake a stranger, however obliging, and nothing more can or need be said about it[13].

G. E. M. Anscombe, whose previously mentioned paper coined the term "consequentialism"[1], objects to consequentialism on the grounds that it does not provide guidance in what one ought to do, since the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined based on the consequences it produces. Furthermore, she argues that consequentialism since Henry Sidgwick denies that there is any distinction between consequences that are foreseen and those that are intended (see Principle of double effect). Finally, Anscombe objects to the very character of consequentialism itself insofar as it is concerned with determining the rightness and wrongness of actions. She argues that the distinction between right action and wrong action only makes sense within the framework of Judeo-Christian divine law—and, according to Anscombe, Judeo-Christian divine law is incompatible with consequentialism.

Character-based criticisms

Bernard Williams has argued that consequentialism is alienating because it requires moral agents to put too much distance between themselves and their own projects and commitments. Williams argues that consequentialism requires moral agents to take a strictly impersonal view of all actions, since it is only the consequences, and not who produces them, that is said to matter. Williams argues that this demands too much of moral agents — since (he claims) consequentialism demands that they be willing to sacrifice any and all personal projects and commitments in any given circumstance in order to pursue the most beneficent course of action possible. He argues further that consequentialism fails to make sense of intuitions that it can matter whether or not someone is personally the author of a particular consequence. For example, that having "dirty hands" by participating in a crime can matter, even if the crime would have been committed anyway, or would even have been worse, without the agent's participation.

Some consequentialists — most notably Peter Railton — have attempted to develop a form of consequentialism that acknowledges and avoids the objections raised by Williams. Railton argues that Williams's criticisms can be avoided by adopting a form of consequentialism in which moral decisions are to be determined by the sort of life that they express. On his account, the agent should choose the sort of life that will, on the whole, produce the best overall effects[3].

However, more recently, there have been attacks upon consequentialism in a similar vein. For example, Thomas Nagel holds that consequentialism fails to appropriately take into account the people affected by a particular action. He argues that a consequentialist cannot really criticize human rights abuses in a war, for example, if they ultimately result in a better state of affairs[3].

Applications of Consequentialist Theory

Consequentialist theory has a number of potential applications. For instance, Richard Mullender sees consequentialist theory as providing a rationale and foundation for a new understanding of social democracy.[14] James Page sees consequentialist theory as providing a rationale and foundation for peace education.[15]

Notable consequentialists

See also

Further reading


  1. ^ a b Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). "Modern Moral Philosophy". Philosophy 33: 1–19. doi:10.1017/S0031819100037943. 
  2. ^ a b Mackie, J. L. (1990). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-013558-8. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Scheffler, Samuel (Ed.) (1988). Consequentialism and Its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-875073-4. 
  4. ^ Bentham, Jeremy (1996). An Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-820516-6. 
  5. ^ Singer, Peter (2002). Helga Kuhse, ed.. ed. Unsanctifying Human Life. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-22507-2. 
  6. ^ Mill, John Stuart (1998). Utilitarianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-875163-2. 
  7. ^ Sidgwick, Henry (1907). The Method of Ethics. NY: Dover (1981). ISBN 0915145286. 
  8. ^ "Ethics" by James Fisher and Bradley Dowdwen, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [1]
  9. ^ Moran, Gabriel Christian Religion and National Interests
  10. ^ Bernard Williams, "Utilitarianism" in his Morality, Cambridge University Press 1993
  11. ^ Brad Hooker, Ideal Code, Real World Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 101.
  12. ^ Brad Hooker, Ideal Code, Real World Oxford University Press, new edition 2002, back cover [2]
  13. ^ Gass, William H. (1957). "The Case of the Obliging Stranger". The Philosophical Review 66: 193–204. doi:10.2307/2182374. 
  14. ^ Mullender, Richard (2000) 'Theorizing the Third Way: Qualified Consequentialism, the Proportionalty Principle and the New Social Democracy', Journal of Law and Society 27(4):493-516.
  15. ^ Page, James S. (2008) Peace Education: Exploring Ethical and Philosophical Foundations. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing. ISBN 978-1-59311-889-1. [3][4]

External links

Outline of self

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  (Redirected from Self)
Jump to: navigation, search

The self is the individual person, from his or her own perspective. To you, self is you. To someone else, self is that person.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the self:



Essence of oneself

Main articles: Self (philosophy), Self (psychology), Self (sociology) and Self (spirituality)

Self constructs

Stages of life

1. Infancy
2. Childhood
3. Adolescence
4. Adulthood
5. Middle age
6. Old age

Major life events

1. Birth
2. Primary school
3. Graduation
4. Coming of age
5. Employment
6. Marriage
7. Parenthood
8. Retirement
9. Death

Individual rights

Main articles: Human rights, Individual rights, and Security of person

Much of the western world values the concept of individual rights. These rights vary from culture to culture, and by very definition, from person to person, and appear mainly in individualist societies.

In such cultures, it is generally considered that you have:

Personality traits

Main articles: Big Five personality traits and Trait theory

Personal values


See the list at Virtue#Virtues and values



Self management

Self-preservation and self-maintenance

Personal concepts

Harmful traits and practices

See also

Parallel Constraint Satisfaction Processes

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Parallel Constraint Satisfaction Processes(PCSP) is a model that integrates the fastest growing research areas in the study of the mind; Connectionism, neural networks, and parallel distributed processing models.[1]




Dynamic model of Attitude

This model integrates these three areas to propose a holistic explanation for an individual’s response to cognitive dissonance. It models an explanation of the dynamic structure of attitudes and the attitude change involved in cognitive dissonance theory. PCSP posits that beliefs impose constraints on other beliefs, and conditions can either constrain or make salient different aspects of one’s beliefs. Attitudes and beliefs are therefore changeable, due to trying to satisfactorily fit with the various constraints of circumstances as well as adapt to the constantly evolving truths in life. It is not an alternative to the theory but rather a model that incorporates the many facets of cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive dissonance theory centers mainly on:

Human beings may give greater importance to one of these areas but no single factor will be the sole influence. The different theories are probably all accurate given the right time, the right place, and the right individual, therefore an integrated more holistic model may better explain the reasons for attitude/behavior inconsistency and the change of attitude following cognitive dissonance.

Gestalt Psychology and Parallel Constraint Satisfaction Processes

Researchers (Read 1991) have found that within Gestalt psychology an integrated model of explaining attitude change that incorporates neuroscientific and social psychological concepts.[2] Theories of cognitive dissonance as well as its alternatives are based on the assumption that the attitudes and beliefs one holds are fixed entities. Recently psychologists have progressed from categorizing psychological phenomena as static, to recognizing the dynamic aspects that vary with different contexts. The concept of neural network models uses the Gestalt principle of totality to explain social, emotional and cognitive tendencies.

In a feedback or parallel constraint satisfaction network, activation passes around symmetrically connected nodes until the activation of all the nodes asymptotes or "relaxes" into a state that satisfies the constraints among the nodes. This process allows for the integration of a number of different sources of information in parallel.[3]

Social Psychology and Parallel Constraint Satisfaction Processes

Parallel Constraint Satisfaction Processes can be applied to three broad areas in social psychology:[2]

This approach revealed that some phenomena that seem unexpected or counterintuitive are in actuality due to the normal functioning of the cognitive system. For example, Shultz and Lepper (1996) noted that in thinking about cognitive dissonance in terms of parallel constraint satisfaction processes, it becomes clear that cognitive consistency phenomena—such as those studied by dissonance researchers—are not the result of atypical or unusual cognitive processes but rather are the direct result of normal cognitive functioning.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Read, S.J., Vanman, E.J. & Miller L.C. (1997). connectionism, parallel constraint satisfaction processes, and gestalt principles: (Re)Introducing cognitive dynamics to social psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1 (1), 26-53.
  2. ^ a b Read, S.J., Vanman, E.J. & Miller L.C. (1997). Connectionism, parallel constraint satisfaction processes, and gestalt principles: (Re)Introducing cognitive dynamics to social psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1 (1), 26-53.
  3. ^ Read, S.J., Snow, C.J. & Simon, D. (2003). Constraint Satisfaction Processes in Social Reasoning, In R. Alterman & D. Kirsch (Eds.), Proceedings of the 25th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society [CD-ROM]. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  4. ^ Shultz, T.R. & Lepper, M.R. (1996). Constraint satisfaction modeling of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological Review, 103, 219-240.

External links