Philosophers and ethicists distinguish among three types of ethical reasoning: deontological, or rules-based reasoning; virtue ethics; and consequential reasoning. Consequential reasoning involves looking at the consequences of an action or decision to determine its moral value. This type of reasoning has application in making moral judgments in personal decisions as well as the fields of political, business, medical and engineering ethics.
In the history of philosophy, the main type of consequential reasoning is called utilitarianism. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham first put forth this line of thinking in the late 1800s, and it became popular due to the expanded work in utilitarian ethics carried out by Bentham’s protégé John Stuart Mill. Bentham considered utilitarianism doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people affected by a decision, while minimizing any possible harm. Mill elaborated this theory further by arguing that a decision or action is right if it provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number while causing the least amount of unhappiness.
Consequential reasoning involves several steps to arrive at a morally right or just decision or action. The first step involves specifying the action under consideration. The second step identifies all those affected by an action. Step three determines the benefits and harm produced by the action. The fourth step weighs the amount of good, or happiness, brought about by the decision. If the good achieved by an action outweighs any harm that may result, utilitarian theory considers the action a morally right one.
In business ethics, a chief executive officer might ask whether it's morally justifiable for her business to lower its environmental standards to save money. She would then determine the individuals affected, which would include the workers in the company, the company’s shareholders, the local ecology and any inhabitants that might incur harm from the pollution. The CEO must then identify the benefits or harm that each affected party would receive or suffer. Benefits may include increased profits by saving money, which could lead to better wages and larger dividends for the workers and shareholders, respectively. Harmful effects may consist of damage to the local ecosystem and possible health problems for residents living near the company. The CEO would also need to consider any potential jail time she might receive if she broke environmental laws. According to utilitarian theory, the correct decision is the one that maximizes benefits while minimizing harm or costs.
Ethical thinkers have criticized consequential ethical reasoning for ignoring fundamental moral categories. In the above example about industrial pollution, consequential analysis does not take into account that people have rights, such as the right not to be harmed, and that these rights entail duties, such as the “duty not to harm others unjustly.” A utilitarian could potentially argue that a corporate strategy that saves a company a great deal of money could offset the problems associated with pollution that harms very few people to a very small degree. Critics of utilitarian theory would argue that no amount of good offsets any harm intentionally inflicted on others.