University of Kansas, Fall 2002
Philosophy 880: Topics in Ethics

Contemporary Consequentialism

Description: This course will be an examination of contemporary consequentialism, with attention to both current consequentialist theories and the most influential objections they face. We will take the theory of R. M. Hare (as expressed in Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point and related papers) to represent orthodox act-consequentialism, with the view of Brad Hooker (as found in Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-consequentialist Theory of Morality) representing the leading revisionist approach. Objections to be considered primarily concern the psychology of the consequentialist agent, raising questions such as (1) whether such an agent could truly be happy or effectively promote the happiness of others (the alleged self-defeat of consequentialism) and (2) whether such an agent could have integrity or exhibit other virtues. A provisional list of authors to be considered in this connection would include Michael Stocker, Gregory Kavka, Bernard Williams, Susan Wolf, Derek Parfit, and Peter Railton.

Class Schedule: Mondays, 2:30–4:20, in 3097 Wescoe Hall.


Here are the factors that will determine your overall grade, and their weights:

Your written work can take any of several forms, but in any case will add up to about 20 pages. You may write

The papers referred to in the first two options (i.e., the papers of more than 10 pages) should be on topics that you propose to me and that I approve. You are not required to consult me about your plans for a book review or for 10-page papers (except to get me to approve your choice of a book to review), though you are certainly welcome, indeed encouraged, to do so. Following are some books of the kind that I would approve for reviewing; note that these are just examples and that you should explore the literature yourself in order to find something that meshes nicely with your interests.

If you have a disability for which you may be requesting special services or accommodations for this course, be sure to contact Disability Resources (22 Strong Hall / 864-2620 (V/TTY)), if you have not already done so, and have that office send me a letter documenting the accommodations to which you are entitled. Please also see me privately, at your earliest convenience, so that I can be aware of your situation and can begin to prepare the appropriate accommodations in advance of receiving the letter from Disability Resources.

In addition, I should note here that I take academic misconduct, especially cheating on tests and plagiarizing papers, extremely seriously, and am generally disposed to impose the harshest permissible penalties when it occurs. To enable you to meet my expectations in this regard and to do so without fear of inadvertently falling short of them, I will provide clear and specific guidance as to what does and does not constitute academic misconduct in advance of tests and when papers are assigned. Meanwhile, you may consult article 2, section 6 of the University Senate Rules and Regulations for university policy in regard to this matter.

Finally, you should feel free to come by my office (3070 Wescoe Hall) at any time. I have office hours on Fridays from 1:30 to 2:20, but you are also welcome to stop by at other times, either with an appointment or without. I spend most of the work week in and around my office, so your chances of finding me should be reasonably high; and although in rare cases I may have to ask you to come back at another time, in general I will be happy to speak to you at your convenience.

Books to buy:
Background reading:
Using J-Stor:

Some of the hyperlinks in the schedule below are to articles that are available electronically from the J-Stor online journal archive. J-Stor’s home page——can be accessed by anyone, but the contents of its archives cannot be legitimately accessed without a subscription. KU has a subscription, and you can use this subscription to access the J-Stor archive in either of two ways:

  1. While using a computer with a KU IP address (which I imagine would be any of the on-campus computers—e.g., in the computer labs, in the libraries, etc.), just click on the link for the article you’re interested in. It should appear with no problem.
  2. While using a non-KU computer, follow these steps:
    1. Go to
    2. Unless you are already logged into the KU libraries’ server, you will be confronted with a log-in screen. Log in with your KU username and password.
    3. When the J-Stor screen appears, use “Search” or “Browse” to find the article, based on the bibliographic information supplied below.

Once you have the article on the screen, you will probably want to print it. Look for the gray “PRINT” link at the top of the page you’re viewing, and click on it. You’ll then be given further instructions and links. In order to print J-Stor articles, the computer you’re using needs to have installed on it either (1) the Adobe Acrobat Reader (installed on most or all campus computers, and downloadable free from Adobe; see the link on my home page) or (2) J-Stor’s own printing application (details available with J-Stor’s instructions for printing; click on “Set your printing preferences” after clicking on the “PRINT” link).


August 26:

September 2:

September 9:

The readings for today—all fairly well-known papers—raise the first of the two objections to consequentialism mentioned above (in the course description): that is, that consequentialism is self-defeating in the sense that agents who subscribe to consequentialist moral theories tend to bring about worse outcomes than agents who subscribe to non-consequentialist theories do.

September 16:

Williams’s essay has been very influential in the debate over utilitarianism; it is the locus classicus for the second of the two objections to consequentialism mentioned above: that is, that consequentialist agents cannot have integrity or exhibit other virtues. If you have time, you might benefit from reading the whole of Williams’s critique (it goes through p. 150).

Also, if you’re particularly engaged by the issues found in Harris’s paper, you might want to look at Arthur M. Wheeler’s “On Moral Nose” (Philosophical Quarterly vol. 27, no. 108 [July 1977], pp. 249–253).

September 23:

With the two main objections that concern us now in view, we turn to the consequentialist theory developed by R. M. Hare. This theory, though firmly in the orthodox act-consequentialist tradition, is more sophisticated than its most prominent predecessors, and offers responses (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly) to the foregoing objections.

I strongly suggest that, before getting into Moral Thinking, you read Hare’s 1989 essay “The Structure of Ethics and Morals,” in Hare’s Essays in Ethical Theory (Oxford University Press, 1989, but possibly out of print; also on reserve in Watson library [as of 9/12/02, at least]—ask for call no. BJ1012.H2925 1989), pp. 175–190, a brief and very clear introduction to his approach to moral philosophy.

Hare died earlier this year; here are links to the obituaries of him published in the The New York Times (log-in required), the (London) Independent, and the (London) Guardian. Each offers a brief account of Hare’s thought. (Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily for these links.)

September 30:

October 7:

October 14:

October 21:

Before leaving Hare’s theory we turn to an objection to it offered by Williams—one closely related to his integrity objection, in being concerned in a certain way with the psychology of the consequentialist agent—and Hare’s response. The gist of Williams’s paper finds briefer expression in his earlier Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1985; also on reserve in Watson library in connection with my course Philosophy 672 [as of 9/12/02]—ask for call no. BJ1012.W52); see pp. 106–110. It finds even earlier, and briefer, expression in the last two paragraphs of section 6, “The indirect pursuit of utility,” of Williams’s “A Critique of Utilitarianism.”

October 28:

In the decades since the publication of Moral Thinking, there have been published many papers on the integrity objection to consequentialism and on related issues, such as the possibility of consequentialist agents’ exhibiting other virtues, such as friendship. We’ll spend the next two meetings discussing some of these papers.

November 4:

November 11:

So far we’ve considered orthodox act consequentialism and its relation to objections having to do with self-defeat, integrity, and other virtues such as friendship. We now turn to a type of consequentialist theory that tends to appear much less vulnerable to such objections, because of the way in which the practical prescriptions of theories of this type tend to differ from the practical prescriptions of act-consequentialist theories. Brad Hooker’s rule-consequentialist theory is currently the most prominent of these revisionist consequentialist theories.

November 18:

November 25:

December 2:

The differences between Hooker’s theory and Hare’s can be traced back to questions of method and of criteria of adequacy for moral theories. Hooker is a devoted follower of reflective equilibrium, whereas Hare was always one of its staunchest critics. The method itself has been considered in depth in multiple papers by Norman Daniels and Michael DePaul.

December 9:

Although the act/rule divide has been regarded as pretty fundamental in consequentialism since (at the latest) the middle of the last century, some recent work suggests some limitations inherent in this way of thinking. Our final two papers are of this kind.