Consequential Ethics (UPSC Notes)

Last Updated: June 2023 (Consequential Ethics (UPSC Notes))

Consequential Ethics (UPSC Notes)

This article deals with the topic titled ‘Consequential Ethics (UPSC Notes).’ This is part of our series on ‘Ethics’. For more articles, you can click here.

What is Consequential or Teleological Ethics?

  • Consequential Ethics focuses on the “End/Outcome/Consequences” of action to check their morality. It is also known as teleological ethics (from ancient Greek telos, “end”; logos, “reason”)
  • Under this category, the philosophy of various philosophers can be characterized. E.g., Bentham‘s Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill (1806–73), and Henry Sidgwick (1838– 1900), with its formula the “greatest happiness [pleasure] of the greatest number.”
  • Teleological ethics focuses on the idea that the ends justify the means. Hence, by using this theory, even robbing a bank can be justified if it is used for charity (hence promoting Social Banditry and Robinhood Methods).
  • Additionally, it may lead to overlooking the rights and interests of minority groups or individuals.


  • Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher known for his philosophy called Epicureanism. 
  • According to Epicurus, pleasure is the end (telos) of life. By pleasure, Epicurus meant the lack of pain.
  • But Epicurus distinguished between higher and lower pleasures (an influence on J.S. Mill), and the main emphasis was on Higher Pleasures.
    • Higher or Katastematic pleasures: pleasures of the mind
    • Lower or Kinetic Pleasures: pleasures of food, drink and sex.
  • Epicurus considered ataraxia, or tranquillity of the soul, as a central component of a happy and fulfilled life. He believed that by eliminating physical and mental disturbances and achieving a state of inner calm, individuals could experience lasting pleasure and serenity.
  • Epicurus advocated for a simple and modest lifestyle. He believed that excessive desires and material possessions create unnecessary sources of worry and unrest. 
  • Epicurus proposed a hedonistic calculus, which involves evaluating actions based on their long-term consequences. He argued that some pleasures may lead to greater pain in the long run, while some temporary discomforts may result in greater pleasure and overall well-being. The broader and long-term impact of choices should be considered.


Machiavelli was an Italian Renaissance philosopher, is known for his work “The Prince,” Machiavelli’s ethical philosophy, known as Machiavellianism, is characterized by a pragmatic and realistic approach to politics and power.

The main principles of Machiavellian Ethics include 

Machiavellian Ethics
  1. Amorality of Politics: The ends of maintaining power and stability justify the means employed by rulers, even if those means are morally questionable.
  2. Rulers should act in their own self-interest and take whatever measures are necessary to secure and consolidate their rule. 
  3. Concept of Virtù: Machiavelli introduced the concept of virtù, which he defined as the strength, skill, and capacity for action exhibited by successful rulers. Virtù involves the ability to adapt, make bold decisions, and effectively navigate the complexities of politics. It is a quality valued by Machiavelli for political leaders rather than traditional notions of moral virtue.

Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism

Consequential Ethics (UPSC Notes)
  • Jeremy Bentham was the propounder of the theory named Gross Hedonism. According to Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism, 
    1. Nature has placed humankind under the governance of two Sovereign Masters viz Pleasure and Pain. Anything that increases pleasure & reduces pain has utility and brings a sense of happiness.
    2. The criteria to judge righteousness and wrongness of any action is ‘Greatest Happiness of Greatest Number
  • Bentham’s happiness is more materialistic in nature. Bentham believed that all pleasures are alike. The pleasures do not have qualitative differences but only quantitative differences. Bentham argued that with the quantity of pleasure remaining the same, pushpin (a game) is as good as poetry. 
  • It is a Consequentialist approach because we will disregard what we will do to achieve that goal and look into the merits of the end goal only, and that too in terms of the number of people getting happiness out of it. E.g., A lynch mob kills a person believing he committed a crime.
    • In this, 100 people are getting pleasure, and 1 person who is killed/lynched is getting pain. 
    • According to Utilitarian thought, this action will be seen as ethical.
    • Hence, Classical Utilitarianism is also called Social Hedonism.

Merits of Bentham’s Utilitarianism

  • It is a democratic way of decision-making.  

Demerits Bentham’s Utilitarianism

  • Minority voice is not considered. It is concerned with benefits to the majority.
  • Progressive voices are crushed, and orthodox views are legitimized. E.g. According to this theory, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was doing an unethical action by championing the cause of the abolition of Sati because most of the people were in favour of the practice.
  • Utilitarianism fails to adequately account for individual rights and justice.
  • Happiness, in many cases, cannot be quantified as it is not measurable. Thus it is often challenging to apply the test of happiness.
  • Bentham’s Utilitarianism tends to prioritize short-term happiness and pleasure without giving sufficient consideration to long-term consequences or the potential for unforeseen harm.

John Stuart Mill’s Refined Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill also believed in the ‘Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number (GHGN)’, but to correct the anomalies of Bentham’s theory, he applied some conditions. 

These conditions were

John Stuart Mill's Refined Utilitarianism
  • Mill was also concerned with protecting individual rights and promoting individual liberty. The liberty of every individual is important, and liberty can’t be negotiated (if making a dam will help 1000 families, and we have to uproot 20 tribal families, this theory says that although in this case, too, GHGN is important. But the liberty of 20 families to decide whether they want to be uprooted or not is more important. Government should go for negotiation with these 20 families and give them a deal that they vacate the area on their own without coercion) 
  • Happiness differs in quality and not just in quantity.: Mill argued that not all pleasures are of equal value. He distinguished between higher pleasures, which involve the faculties of the mind (such as intellectual pursuits and moral contemplation), and lower pleasures, which are more sensory or physical in nature. The theory says, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” 
  • Rule Utilitarianism: While Bentham’s Utilitarianism focused on evaluating individual actions, Mill introduced the idea of rule utilitarianism. It suggests that instead of assessing each individual action based on its specific consequences, we should follow general rules or principles that, in the long run, tend to produce the greatest overall happiness. Such rules can serve as useful heuristics for guiding ethical behaviour. For example, let’s consider the rule “Do not steal.” Rule utilitarianism would argue that this rule is generally beneficial because it promotes trust, security, and overall happiness in society. Even if there may be instances where stealing could lead to some short-term happiness, following the rule consistently brings about greater happiness in the long term.


  • Hedonism believes in maximizing one’s own pleasure/happiness.
  • According to hedonism, pleasure is the highest good, and actions should be judged based on their ability to produce pleasure or happiness. Pleasurable experiences can vary from person to person, but they generally include things like eating delicious food, spending time with loved ones, engaging in enjoyable activities, and experiencing physical or emotional sensations that bring joy.
  • Charvaka School of Philosophy of Indian thought propounds it. (‘Rather a pigeon today than a peacock tomorrow’ or ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’)

Merits of Hedonism

  • Promotes consumerism: It can give a boost to the economy & can help in employment generation. 

Demerits of Hedonism

  • Hedonism justifies drug abuse because it gives pleasure.
  • Hedonism oversimplifies moral decision-making and neglects other important values, such as justice, fairness, and the well-being of others.


  • Egoism propounds maximizing one’s own self-interest (not happiness)
  • It is different from hedonism. For example, in hedonism, eating whatever gives a person maximum pleasure is acceptable. But in egoism, a person aiming to become a fashion model should follow a strict diet plan to remain in proper shape and deny the pleasure of good food.
  • Now the question arises, is maximizing one’s own self-interest bad? The answer to this is given by Ayn Rand’s Theory of Ethical Egoism.

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Ayn Rand's Ethical Egoism

Ethical Egoism: Selfishness is a Virtue

  • According to ethical egoism, individuals have a moral obligation to prioritize their own self-interest.
  • Rand speaks about three modes of living. They are:
    • Plant model: Plants don’t have to move to get their life-supporting elements. They get them from the soil in which they grow. 
    • Animal model: Animals and birds have to seek their food and water. Even the lion, the king of the jungle, has to seek his food. 
    • Human model: Man does not merely seek food. He has to do productive work. For that purpose, he has to choose actions. He has to think. He has to seek knowledge. He needs knowledge in order to live. 
  • Hence, she argued selfishness is a virtue. According to Rand, Selfishness means the pursuit of one’s rational self-interest. Concern with one’s own interests is not evil. ‘Selfishness’ is also not to be identified with evil.
  • At the same time, Rand was opposed to Altruistic Morality. Altruism orders man to sacrifice one’s interest for the good of others.

Voluntary Cooperation

  • While ethical egoism emphasizes the pursuit of self-interest, it acknowledges the value of voluntary cooperation with others. It recognizes that mutually beneficial interactions can contribute to individual well-being and encourages individuals to engage in relationships and interactions that are beneficial to their self-interest.

Individual Rights and Capitalism

  • Ayn Rand’s ethical egoism is closely tied to her political philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism and the protection of individual rights. She argued that individuals have a right to their own lives, liberty, and the pursuit of their own happiness. In her view, a society that respects individual rights and allows individuals to freely pursue their self-interest benefits everyone.

Critiques of Ethical Egoism

  • Lack of Consideration for Others: Critics argue that ethical egoism places excessive focus on self-interest and neglects the importance of altruism and concern for the well-being of others.
  • Inconsistency with Moral Intuitions: Ethical egoism is often seen as contradicting widely accepted moral intuitions, such as the duty to help others in need or the responsibility to contribute to the greater good
  • Conflict of Interests: Ethical egoism can create conflicts of interest when individuals pursue their own self-interest without consideration for the interests of others.

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