Contemporary utilitarians are sometimes referred to as consequentialists so as to distinguish them from their predecessors. Today, utilitarianism is fascinating, not only because of its diversity, but aslo because it challenges our intuitions of reality. Let's look at a concrete example. Imagine there is an oubreak of measles in your town, and it turns out the reason is that parents are increasingly reluctant to have their children vaccinated. This gives rise to a public debate: should the authorities make the administration of measles vaccines mandatory? One side argues that doing so will help put a quick end to the outbreak and prevent complications, which, though rare, can be very severe for affected children. On the other end of the spectrum, some people contend that making vaccination mandatory is a violation of parents' freedom to decide whether or not they want to have their children vaccinated. How might a consequentialist -- a modern-day utilitarian -- weigh in? One of the tenets of classical utilitarianism is that any normative judgement of an action depends exclusively on its consequences. This is an important idea, yet believing that outcomes matter is not enough to make you a consequentialist. You have to believe that <i>only</i> the outcome, or the consequences, matter. At first glance, this seems a very simple approach, not very demanding, since the basis for judgement excludes any rules, obligations, promises, and so on -- all the things typically found in other philosophies. There's also something frightening about the idea of no rules, about a society with no obligations, no responsibilities and no accountability. Yet when you look at today's consequentialist theories, it turns out none of this is valid. Perhaps the best way to approach modern-day consequentialism is to compare it with classical utilitarianism, which can be characterized as a hedonistic consequentialism. This is important because it frames the contrast of classical and contemporary utilitarianism. So, for a consequentialist, which are the consequences that actually matter? This question has been at the center of a very interesting and fruitful debate. Consequentialism, since its origins, has maintained that the consequences that matter are those that affect everyone. Every individual, myself included, counts as one. We've covered this is previous lessons; it's a very altruistic position. I do not allow myself to give myself any priority or precedence over others. A parent does not have precedence over her children; a doctor has no priority over her patients. This position is controversial, because many feel that it's overly altruistic and fails to give proper importance to the obligations and accountability that go with such roles. Imagine you're a physician and five of your patients are gravely ill -- each of them has a different vital organ that is failing. For a consequentialist, if you have another patient who's in perfect health, it's perfectly ethical to sedate that patient without asking them first, remove their organs and transplant them into each of your five ailing patients, since doing so means saving five lives at a cost of only one. So is that what you should do? Clearly there's a problem with this rationale. Today's consequentialists have proposed various ways for utilitarianism to avoid coming to this kind of conclusion. Earlier, I said that classical utilitarianism/consequentialism can be characterized as a hedonistic doctrine. This means that its criterion for judgement is the sum-total of pleasures and pains, which is viewed as the only type of consequence that matters when evaluating the ethicality of any act or decision. This position has raised many objections. The first argues that when you look a little closer at pleasure and pain, you quickly realize that the values of various pleasures and pains are not necessarily equivalent. Another response is to challenge the very idea that the sum-total of pleasures and pains should be the only criterion for judgement. Some have argued that we should find a way to take individual preferences into account, since we all have very different preferences and conceptions of the pleasures we want and the pains we wish to avoid. Of course, our preferences can be ill-informed, or noxious, or trivial -- so this raises a new set of issues. A third approach to the problem is to advocate the establishment of a list detailing the various goods a person might accrue or experience. Beyond mere pleasure and pain, some contemporary consequentialists, such as G.E. Moore in the early 20th century, want include things like beauty, truth, and knowledge. Others, like Amartya Sen, have suggested we broaden the concept of well-being to better reflect the diversity of ways in which people define and experience their well-being. Finally, some have argued that there are certain states of being that make life enjoyable and worthwhile, regardless of whether or not they are conducive to well-being. This kind of perfectionistic standpoint represents a confluence of contemporary consequentialism and the eudemonism characteristic of Aristotelian ethics. Now, what of the consequences themselves? Should we simply tally up all the consequences we define as positive? Or perhaps we should only consider negative consequences? Or perhaps those in the middle: the average, the mean? Let's say someone wants to create a system designed to massively increase the number of births, but the cost is that everyone born will be less healthy than those already living. If you add up the consequences, clearly you're going to create a lot of happiness in the world. At the same time, you'll also be increasing the amount of suffering in the world. And if you look at it from the standpoint of the average outcome, a massive population increase is likely to negatively affect the average well-being of the group. So there are different ways of considering an action's outcome. A hedonist will look at pleasure and pain. Others point to the satisfaction of preferences. And some will want to use an objective list of what constitutes the good for people. The diversity of contemporary consequentialism doesn't stop there. Classical utilitarianism says we must look at the consequences of each of our actions to determine whether they are good or bad. The reason it's acceptable for the physician in my earlier example to go ahead with the organ transplants is that such an action rests on a completely neutral assessment of the situation. Some thinkers object that, rather than embrace a neutral point of view, we should look at the situation from the standpoint of the agent, in this case the physician. From the physician's point of view, the outcome of his act may not be so positive, since he'll be killing someone and removing their organs without permission. So it can no longer be considered a good decision: the negative consequences carry much more weight from the agent's standpoint. Another, more indirect, approach consists in saying: rather than considering only an act's consequences, shouldn't we also specifically cultivate those character traits, or virtues, that generate positive outcomes in the world? Aren't such traits virtues precisely <i>because</i> they bring good into the world? This position is known as indirect consequentialism or virtue consequentialism. A related variant is rule consequentialism, which holds that a rule is a good rule, and should be followed, if it promotes positive outcomes in the world. A rule consequentialist says that ethical judgement should be applied to rules rather than to individual actions or decisions. Now, these various consequentialist currents have received their share of criticism. One objection is that asking humans to consider their actions strictly from a group perspective, without giving oneself any precedence whatsoever, is asking too much; such altruism exceeds our capacities. Others say we should simply admit that we don't behave morally most of the time. And the fact that we don't is no reason to punish us, unless it can be established that punishing people for being insufficiently moral would have better consequences than simply accepting that we are flawed and far from perfect. Other critics have pointed out that consequentialism's narrow impartiality neglects certain aspects that are essential to a good life, such as the mutual obligations associated with various types of relationships: friendships, family, romantic relationships, and so on. One particularly interesting argument against contemporary consequentialism is the idea that constantly calculating the outcomes of actions is in itself undesirable, i.e., a negative consequence. Who wants to live in a world where everyone is weighing and evaluating the possible outcomes of their decisions before taking any kind of action? In actuality, however, this objection is not valid. All the different versions of contemporary consequentialism have one thing in common: they posit an objective criterion, an action's consequences, for determining what is ethical. Yet a criterion for judgement is not the same as a decision-making procedure or protocol. What consequentialism provides is a diagnosis after the fact. So nothing says a person has to proceed by calculation in order to be a consequentialist, or for consequentialism to be true. Let's look at an example, which I hope will make this clearer. If you're riding a bike and a car suddenly comes towards you, the best maneuver for you is the one that will avoid a collision. You might calculate such a maneuver using the laws of physics and analysis of the variables involved, but obviously that would be a poor choice in the situation. It's clearly a much better idea to rely on your reflexes and poise to make an evasive maneuver. Yet nothing prevents you, after the fact, from determining, using the laws of physics, whether you took the best trajectory. That's consequentialism: a method for evaluating whether an act was good, but not necessarily a decision-making tool. If everyone were to go through a series of calculations before acting, this would be a negative consequence -- one a consequentialist would reject. Now, does this lead to a certain skepticism, to the idea that maybe we should just be moral agnostics, given the complexity and difficulties associated with measuring and appraising not only actions, but also rules, character traits, etc.? Not necessarily. As many thinkers have pointed out, there are lots of situations where we have very solid grounds for believing someone's actions, or a certain character trait or rule, will have important consequences -- whether positive or negative -- and should therefore be taken into consideration. In fact, contemporary consequentialists are responsible for developing two important social movements. The first is known as "animal pathocentrism," and argues that we should include all "interest bearers" in our tally of consequences, that is, all beings capable of feeling pain and whose lives can be made either better or worse -- a definition that extends beyond humans only. This idea has had an important influence in society, as it serves as the basis for many types of activism aiming to improve the way animals are treated in various contexts (farming, animal testing, etc.). The second important contemporary movement with consequentialist roots is called "effective altruism." The idea is that if you want to improve the world, you must not base your action only on feelings of goodwill but must also recognize that your responsibilities to people far away are just as concrete and valid as to those close to you. Moreover, anyone endeavoring to help people must make sure their efforts will be effective. This has led to more NGOs making their finances public; NGOs auditing other NGOs, etc. -- the goal being to ensure that initiatives professedly reflecting benevolent or charitable intentions do in fact create measurable improvements. This requires paying closer attention to the actual lives of those one wishes to help and using factual, evidence-based criteria to genuinely determine the effectiveness of any program or policy.