Beyond Action: Applying consequentialism to decision making and motivation

My DPhil thesis, Beyond Action, was written at the University of Oxford from 2005–9, under the supervision of John Broome and Derek Parfit. Unfortunately, since I am currently considering publishing it as a monograph, I am unable to have a copy on this website.

If you would like to read it, then please send me an email.



It is often said that there are three great traditions of normative ethics: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Each is based around a compelling intuition about the nature of ethics: that what is ultimately important is that we produce the best possible outcome, that ethics is a system of rules which govern our behaviour, and that ethics is about living a life that instantiates the virtues, such as honesty, compassion and loyalty. This essay is about how best to interpret consequentialism. I show that if we take consequentialism beyond the assessment of acts, using a consequentialist criterion to assess decision making, motivation, and character, then the resulting theory can also capture many of the intuitions about systems of moral rules and excellences of character that lead people to deontology and virtue ethics.

I begin by considering the argument that consequentialism is self-defeating because its adoption would produce bad outcomes. I take up the response offered by the classical utilitarians: when properly construed, consequentialism does not require us to make our decisions by a form of naïve calculation, or to be motivated purely by universal benevolence. Instead it requires us to use the decision procedure that will produce the best outcome and to have the motives that lead to the best outcome. I take this idea as my starting point, and spend the thesis developing it and considering its implications.

I demonstrate that neither act-consequentialism nor rule-consequentialism has the resources to adequately assess decision making and motivation. I therefore turn to the idea of global consequentialism, which assesses everything in terms of its consequences. I then spend the greater part of the essay exploring how best to set up such a theory and how best to apply it to decision making and motivation. I overcome some important objections to the approach, and conclude by showing how the resulting approach to consequentialism helps to bridge the divide between the three traditions.