Philosophy- essay Q3 Example

  • Category:
  • Document type:
  • Level:
  • Page:
  • Words:

Act Consequentialism 9

Act Consequentialism

Question 3. In “Alienation, Consequentialism, and Morality” Peter Railton sets out to defend act consequentialism against the objections that it is a cold and unfeeling doctrine and that it is too demanding. Briefly explain Railton’s rejoinder (response) to these objections. Does it succeed? Why or why not?


Act consequentialism is defined as;

The assertion that an act/action is considered to be morally right when and only when that action serves to maximize the good.

The action amounts to total good even when considering the bad outcome that may possibly have occurred.

Act consequentialism is a theory that was defended by Railton (1984). Even if other researchers like Bernard William may claim the theory to be demanding, Railton viewed act consequentialism as a possible and leads to good results. Railton (1984, p.160) views act consequentialism in terms of actions that serves to maximize contributions to the good. For a person failing to act on his or her best, then one is considered as negatively responsible for the consequences of their actions. However, researchers like Bernard Williams content that accepting this type of responsibility is a burden and would lead people being forced to leave many of their most important commitments that are most meaningful to them. Sidgwick (1966, p.492) states that people are seen choosing to act contrary to maximizing their happiness when it is done for personal commitments.

This essay will be explaining the response of Railton on his defense of act consequentialism against the objections that it is a cold and unfeeling doctrine and that it is too demanding. The essay will also explain whether the response of Railton succeeds or not.

Bernard denoted that objective act consequentialism is a type of morality that is demanding as well as disruptive (Williams 1973, sec 3). Even after making allowances to the psychological phenomena there is a difference between an action that is right and wrong instead of saying that one should be blamed for the consequences of their actions. In his response to these objections, Railton (1984, p.161) explained about objective act consequentialism based on the contention that the extend the extend of disruption or demanding of an action depends on the world’s state, how other people usually act, the institutions that exist as well as the capability of that person. Railton explained that the extent of demanding to be defined in terms of availability of resources to people. He explained that;

If wealth were more equitably distributed, if political systems were less repressive and more responsive to the needs of their citizens, and if people were more generally prepared to accept certain responsibilities, then individuals’ everyday lives would not have to be constantly disrupted for the sake of the good” (p.161).

In his example of the society having forms of disaster relief that are organized, Railton expressed that if there were no such systems or organizations, then when disaster occurs, everyone in the country would take the responsibility of giving aid to the disaster stricken people. But when there is an organized system of providing relief to the disaster stricken people, then the intervention of individual people in the assistance with relief will be considered an idea that is poor. They would be interfering with the work of relief that is already occupied by skilled organization system. In such a scenario, people do not need to interrupt their normal lives economically or in any other way. The reason is that their efforts may be ill-formed, uncoordinated, interfering and may lead to damaging the ability of the society of paying for the relief effort.

Railton was more interested in justifying the need for coming into terms with the problems of alienation as a matter that is based on social and individual psychology. To reduce demands and disruptions in people’s lives, individuals as well as the society social as well as political arrangements need to be altered. This will help in achieving better results in the long run instead of freelance of doing good (p.161).

Railton was more concerned with virtue of moral theory that is flexible and can be bend without breaking (p.155) than a self defeating theory. He used the consequentialist paradox of hedonism. In his discussion of this paradox, Railton explains that when a person adopts the ultimate end of his or her life to pursue happiness, there may be a possibility of preventing that person for experiencing relationships that are known to be the greatest sources of happiness (p.140). He argues that the hedonist who is more concerned with the maximization of happiness have a possibility of not achieving happiness like the one who is less concerned with the maximization of their happiness. Railton distinguished between two types of hedonism known as subjective hedonism as well as objective hedonism (p.142). Subjective hedonism is the view that a person should pursue an action that has a possibility giving the result of optimum happiness while behaving accordingly (p.143). The objective hedonism argues that a person must follow the course of action that has a likeliness of contributing to a person’s happiness even if the hedonistic view is not followed in action (p.143). The defense of Railton has a basis on hedonism whereby he believed that in subjective consequentialist, among the actions available a person must select a choice that attempts to promote good while acting accordingly (p.152). This is not a demanding, cold and unfeeling doctrine because a person is only required to consider a procedure when making a decision known as utility calculus. This means that the person is only required to perform acts that are maximizing the good.

The response provided by Railton seems to gain more strength by way of allowing strange possibilities. Therefore, it seems difficult to succeed due to the following reasons. The claim that act consequentialism theory recommends the acceptance of negative responsibility is flawed. There is no way which certain social and political arrangements can be set out without the involvement of individuals. Therefore, individuals work together in organizations so as to save the world.

All ethical and moral theories are found to proclaim different methods as well as different justifications. Any moral theory should guide people on ways that they should follow to live their lives well. Every moral theory sets up specific goals that should be achieved as well as the ways that people should use to achieve those goals. When a theory does not meet this perspective it should be abandoned and considered as ineffective and counterproductive. It is important for people to maintain the original theory and adopt a method that would achieve the goals in a better way. It is not possible to separate the goals of a theory and the method of achieving the goals contented in that theory. I think Railton deviated from this requirement of ethical or moral theories. He argued that the act consequentialism ethical theories no not require being joined with the specific methods of achieving the goals.

The ethical theories of act consequentialism are seen to be self defeating because Railton avoids one type of paradox and leading to another. For him to allow the separation of goals and methods of achieving these goals is a way of complicating the scenario. It could lead to prescribing the goals as something impossible, morally requiring as well as becoming self defeating. Therefore, one can still argue that act consequentialism is cold and unfeeling as well as demanding.

The hedonism paradox is demanding in its sense. Subjective hedonist requires the use of calculus in determining the course of acting. It also guarantees that all actions maximize the best results of all actions. This does not happen in reality and to happen, a person must work through many methods with the hedonistic calculus which may render the process impossible. Railton also contradicts himself by contenting that in objective hedonism; one can follow an action that leads to his or her happiness even if that action does not adopt the hedonistic view point of action (p.143). This is an argument by Railton that allows people who live as per objective hedonism to escape the paradox of hedonism while the subjective hedonist cannot. Following this argument may be unfeeling for the subjective hedonist who cannot escape the hedonism paradox.

In subjective and objective consequentialism, the rightness as well as wrongness of an action usually remains the same for both. However, arguing that objective consequentialism permits committing wrongs given the condition that the reason of committing the action was as a result of specific traits that was necessary in attaining the objective outcome is a cold argument. Holding this solution will mean that people must deviate from ethical virtues when habits conflict with the requirement of utility calculus. For example, if a person’s virtue theory fits in their initial consequentialist purpose, then one is allowed to do wrong. This is argument does not go with the expectation of a valid ethical or moral theory (Wood 2015, p.1).

In relation to subjective consequentialism, when a person commits him or herself in maximizing the achievement of happiness, that person will miss out specific sources of happiness that are not compatible with the utility calculus in every action they perform. I can say that this is an unfeeling argument of Railton’s act consequentialism theory because, if a person is aimed at maximizing happiness, then losing some of the happiness may mean that a person is gaining and losing at the same time. Then, the major question is, what should a person do so as to achieve the most happiness without losing some actions that are sources of happiness? Railton did not answer this question and those following the subjective consequentialism may face difficulties in trying to maximize the achievement of their happiness. Therefore, it becomes difficult to achieve an un alienated life. It is also an unfeeling contention that may not be successful in the sense that subjective consequentialists must suffer an alienated life in spite of maximizing their happiness.


All in all, Railton did try to defend the objections of act consequentialism as a cold, unfeeling and a demanding theory. However, our discussion seems to find the response of Railton as to sufficient to warrant its success. It becomes difficult for a person to use the act consequentialism theories that allow deviation of methods from the intended goals. The theories of act consequentialism give a limit to the person on achieving their happiness. The strange possibilities provided by his response presents an evil spirit that threatens the possibility of punishment for people is all of us do not become Kantians. It is difficult not to act according to the principles of act consequentialism and also expect to achieve maximization of happiness. The needs of the society cannot be segregated from the needs of the individuals. Therefore, saying that social and political arrangements should be separated from individual matters may be a huge task and thereby unachievable. I believe that the act consequentialism theory of Railton is still cold, unfeeling and demanding and much needs to be done in making people come out these contentions and follow ethical theories that are successfully like the deontologist theory. Such successful ethical/moral theories do not separate goals and the methods of achieving these goals.


Railton, P, 1984, Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp.134-171.

Sidgwick, H, 1966, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed, New York: Dover.

William, K, 1973, Ethics, 2d ed, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Wood, N, 2015, The Curious Case of Consequentialism, Academia.