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  • Gijs Kruijtzer

Moral Decisions and Desired Outcomes: The Diverse Histories of Consequentialism

Gijs Kruijtzer Reviews Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them and Ryan Darr's The Best Effect: Theology and the Origins of Consequentialism

More than ever before, people in today’s West look for good outcomes when faced with moral decisions. Instead of considering certain acts good or evil in themselves, they prefer to look at the consequences of acts. In other words: their focus is more on the ends than on the means. Once considered radical, such “consequentialism” is now an everyday ethic. But where did it come from? Does it have a single history or multiple histories? And should its historical trajectory or trajectories affect how we use it as a tool to resolve moral dilemmas today?  

To begin, let’s take all this to the imperial court of Ghazan Khan, the Mongol ruler of Iran at the end of the thirteenth century. When he took the throne, Ghazan converted to Islam and over the following years he issued ordinances to enforce several aspects of sharia. One of these ordinances proscribed lending money at interest. But soon enough people came to the imperial court with all sorts of reasonings about why borrowing or lending at interest was a necessity for them and for society in general. Some courtiers simply objected that the measure would put a stop to all transactions, others argued that the governors of the provinces needed access to credit to pay their dues, and still others argued that there were people with needs who had to arrange matters of grave importance who needed access to credit. The ruler scoffed at how people who supposedly had no money, did have the funds to travel to the imperial court to make their case. But he also addressed the theoretical underpinnings of these arguments, namely that in applying a sharia injunction one should take into account its underlying general good. He turned this reasoning on its head. He argued:

“Do God most high and the messenger…know the general goods of the world better or do we? With certainty it must be said: they!... God most high and the Messenger have commanded thus and we will not hear any talk to the contrary, and thus is the ordinance.”

Ghazan’s courtiers and other subjects looked at good outcomes for individuals and society: people in need needed loans for emergencies, the economy should be kept going and the governors needed to be able to make their transfers. In their view the outcome of lending at interest trumped the evil inherent in it, at least for the cases they brought forward. Ghazan, however, argued that God and Muhammad had already foreseen all possible consequences in dispensing sharia and therefore it should be followed for its own sake. This altercation reflects centuries of debate among Muslim theologians about the relation between good and evil and the divine commands. Had God proscribed certain things because they were evil or were certain things evil because God had proscribed them?

Somewhat reminiscent of the age-old debate among theologians of all faiths over the origin of evil, is the current debate among scholars over the origin of consequentialism. Joshua Greene’s 2011 Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them argues (among many other things) that consequentialism is a nearly universal and timeless rational approach. As an experimental psychologist he does not bring any historical evidence, however. In The Best Effect: Theology and the Origins of Consequentialism (2023) Ryan Darr argues against the view expounded by Joshua Greene. Darr also argues against the related view that consequentialism is simply what is left when stripping away the religious and cultural prohibitions which long propped up a sense that certain acts are evil in themselves. He argues that we can pinpoint the origin of consequentialism very precisely and that the religious context was important to its invention. Two seventeenth-century English theologians, Henry More and Richard Cumberland, invented it in his view.

Ryan Darr. The Best Effect: Theology and the Origins of Consequentialism. University of Chicago Press, 2023. Pp. 329. $34.90 paperback

Darr shows that these theologians did much to make large-scale impersonal calculations of good and evil outcomes acceptable, helping to pave the way for the emergence of a particular form of consequentialism, utilitarianism, in eighteenth-century England. Utilitarianism sets as its desired outcome the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. But there have been many other forms of reasoning about outcomes working with a less expansive set of goods to maximize and evils to minimize. In the discussion at the Mongol court we saw examples of the different scales at which such reasoning could be applied: some people argued that not allowing interest would damage the whole economy, while others were concerned with the outcomes for individuals in need.

In Darr’s definition, a view counts as consequentialist if it evaluates an act, rule, law, or character trait on the basis of the state of affairs resulting from it (so not on the basis of, for instance, the level of virtue or devotion it displays). More precisely, such a view assesses an outcome in terms of its value: good, bad, best, worst, or anything in between. The value of an outcome should also be applicable to everyone in a given situation. Darr therefore excludes purely egoistic goals but he does include variations of the view that an ultimate common good can be achieved through individual egoistic choices. The kind of good that a consequentialist view values remains variable in this and other definitions. This ultimate good can be happiness, neighborly love, avoiding harm, the welfare of the state, etcetera. The views expressed at the Mongol court fit this definition, as do many other views that came well before More and Cumberland.

A fundamental strand of consequentialism was developed by the Iranian theologian Fakhr al-Din Razi already around 1200. Razi’s reasoning in his later work is very much in line with More and Cumberland’s thinking five centuries later. He argued that God had made certain things pleasurable and others painful so that humans might pursue or abstain from them. For additional guidance towards the general goods of the world, God had imposed certain commands. For instance, God had made intercourse pleasurable so that people would procreate, but also proscribed one form of intercourse that did not lead to procreation. A man wanting to engage in such intercourse would have to calculate the immediate benefit against the afterlife harm to himself, while God had precalculated the benefits for this world. A reflection of this sort of thinking we saw in the debate over interest at the court of Ghazan Khan.

What is more, people tied consequentialist reasoning to the golden rule well before the emergence of utilitarianism in eighteenth-century England. The golden rule is found in many cultures. It says: do as you would be done by, or, in a negative formulation: don’t do to others what you would not want done to you. Greene and others identify the link between the golden rule and consequentialist reasoning as a hallmark of utilitarianism and an important factor in utilitarianism’s universal appeal.      


To stay in the eastern part of the Muslim world for a moment more, the golden rule was attached to consequentialist reasoning there from at least the eleventh century. At that time the Iranian Sufi and jurist Ansari pithily put it thus: “whatever is not pleasing is not an act of devotion and whatever is not injury is not a sin.” Building on this tradition the enormously influential fourteenth-century Persian poet and thinker Hafiz applied consequentialist reasoning to many different acts considered sinful by strict sharia jurists. A nice example is his take on the consumption of alcohol: “What matters it if you and I drink some goblets of wine / wine is from the blood of grapes, not from your blood.” Abstaining from harm to others became a guiding principle for thinkers in this tradition.

As for the European great thinkers before More and Cumberland, consequentialism was certainly not their main thrust (as Darr notes), but the possibility of such reasoning was before their eyes and they even accepted it for some exceptional cases. “Charity” was the shorthand term for the golden rule in Europe and it was flung about all the time. In twelfth-century Europe some theologians started thinking of charity as a criterion to make forced choices between two acts considered evil in themselves. But weighing a “lesser evil” against a “greater evil” was a contentious topic. The thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas was wary of using charity as a way out of divine proscriptions. In his discussion of the sexual “sins against nature”, he could imagine the following objection to his thesis that they were among the gravest sins: “the more a sin is contrary to charity the graver it is. Now adultery, seduction and rape which are injurious to our neighbor are seemingly more contrary to the love of our neighbour, than the sins against nature, by which no other person is injured.” But Aquinas slammed this argument down with a reference to authority: the sins against nature might not injure any persons, but they injured God as the orderer of nature. However, Aquinas was prepared to allow another mortal sin, theft, on the basis of a consequentialist argument involving charity. In cases of a choice between letting oneself or one’s neighbor starve and stealing, one was allowed to do the latter.

More of a breakthrough came in the sixteenth century, when we find a surprising instance of consequentialism in the reformer Calvin’s writing on the topic of lending money at interest, arguably proscribed in the Old Testament. With reference to the golden rule as expressed by Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount, Calvin arrived at the consequentialist conclusion that taking interest “without doing injury to anyone” was not a sin. As long as no poor person was cruelly oppressed by it, lending at interest between well-to-do merchants was of no great concern. Building on the Reformation undermining of the authority of the Church, late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century libertines took consequentialism a step further. For example, some expressed the view that transgressive intercourse was fine as long as procreation was also assured. These early libertines are an often-overlooked link in the chain of the European history of ideas.

Joshua Greene. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Penguin Press, 2013. Pp. 423. $15.70 paperback

So far, this discussion has been limited to expressions of consequentialism in the part of the world dominated by the Abrahamic faiths. This is not a coincidence. The strong emphasis on the commands of divine law in that part of the world created the perfect conditions for consequentialism to come ever more strongly to the fore. Consequentialist views were formulated in ever more elaborate ways against the foil of opposite views. This especially after the revolutions that took place in the study and formulation of divine law in parts of both the Christian and Muslim worlds in the twelfth century. But other systems of transcendental norms have also given rise to consequentialist thinking. Acceptance of transcendental law necessitated some thinking about how it was to be interpreted and implemented, and looking at outcomes was one way to arrive at situation-specific judgements. To give an example famous in the Hindu world: in the ancient epic of the Mahabharata, a high-caste person facing starvation is allowed to commit the abhorrent act of eating dog’s meat he stole from the house of a low-caste person. This was abhorrent on many counts: it was theft, it was eating meat, it was dog’s meat, it was meat from the lower part of the dog’s body, it came from the house of a low-caste person. Most people today will recognize quite a few elements in this dilemma. The necessity brought on by starvation and the abhorrence of stealing in any case.

While it seems clear that consequentialism arose in the context of norms based in the authority of past commandments, it is not clear that it arose among theologians. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that lay persons first sought to limit the constraints imposed on them by the commandments. Everyday people desired and needed outcomes that would be off bounds if one saw acts as good or evil in themselves. It is important to look in more places than the great, or even the minor, treatises. As Ali Altaf Mian, historian of ideas and contributor to these pages, put it in a talk: decolonising philosophy means not ignoring everyday expressions of philosophy. This certainly applies to ethical philosophy because it touches on everyday dilemmas. Tracing expressions of ethical reasoning in all sorts of Western and non-Western sources will broaden our understanding of the history of consequentialism. Such expressions often leave much implicit since they are merely snippets of ethical outlooks, but we can try to piece them together.     

The debate about interest at the Mongol court, for example, is found in a chronicle, not a treatise, and it took place among petitioners, courtiers, and the king. In the Muslim world as well as the Christian world, it was precisely on this topic of interest that both lenders and borrowers exerted a lot of pressure on theologians and jurists of divine law to arrive at workable solutions around the proscription. Evidently under such pressure, jurists in the eastern part of the Muslim world allowed the use of loophole constructions for the payment of interest. They justified these with reference to outcomes. They deemed the outcomes of not starving or going bankrupt sufficiently necessary to allow these legal loopholes. In Western Europe, Calvin arrived at his verdict on interest only after various merchants had written to him about the subject from all over Europe. Calvin ended up following the reasoning of one of these correspondents to a large extent. Similarly, we know that the objection to the prohibition of the sins against nature brought forward by Aquinas was also voiced by lay people who used this argument seriously and not facetiously. And at the turn of the seventeenth century, one could encounter libertine consequentialist reasoning on the street corners of small towns in Sicily.

Because consequentialism came up in so many places, its history is full of gaps. Any search for the origin must be self-defeating. In the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Chris Fraser advances the Mohist school of thought in ancient China as a candidate for the oldest expressions of consequentialism we still have access to. But for the moment, I am putting my cards on the even more ancient Rigveda laid down in South Asia. Some of its passages display consequentialist reasoning. In one such passage, a gambler laments his habit, calculating the benefits and harms that may result. The benefits are companionship and frail winnings. The harms are addiction, debt, fear, his wife wretched and rejecting him, his mother-in-law hating him. He concludes that it is best to be content with cultivating one’s land and the gains from that. Again, a recognizable quandary with a conclusion many today would endorse. But it is merely a tantalizing snippet we happen to have of one strand of Iron Age thought in a multilayered text.    

To be sure, we can trace the lineages of many of the specific forms consequentialism has taken. For instance, Ayman Shihadeh in his The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (2006) traces elements of Razi’s consequentialism to the “rudimentary consequentialism” of the influential theologian Ghazali, and even further back to the acrimonious debates about the origins of good and evil in the heydays of the Baghdad caliphate. Similarly, Darr takes us through the many often overlooked but significant shifts that took place between More and the Anglican utilitarians. Like Razi, these theologians were confronted with the problem of the origin of good and evil at every turn. Even while they may not have invented it, theologians played a role in developing the different forms of consequentialism.

Does the question of the origin of consequentialism matter to the question of how desirable a tool it is to us, in our present crisis? Both Greene and Darr tie these two questions closely together. Greene argues that because consequentialism is universal, it can be a sort of common currency for mankind to resolve clashes between world views with. Darr, however, building on the mid-twentieth century philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, would like to see less of it. He argues that because it came out of a specific Western context, we cannot simply apply it to every act everywhere. Both Greene and Darr bring up the trolley problem: a trolley is rushing down a track and is on course to hit ten people on the track. You have a chance to pull a switch and divert the trolley to another track where it will hit only one person. Many people today say they would pull the switch. In another scenario you have the chance to push one person off a footbridge over the track to divert the trolley so that it does not hit the ten people. An unlimited utilitarian calculation would tell us to push the one person to their death. But most people say no to this option. This unease with unlimited utilitarian calculations is the context in which Darr places his historical investigation. Darr argues that the ultimate source for our present unease is the loss of the religious context in which utilitarianism, and consequentialism more generally, arose.

With Greene, I am quite convinced that a fuller investigation of the history of consequentialism will continue to reveal that it was and is by no means an exclusively Western way of thinking. Yet Darr makes the important point that belief in divine law (or for that matter any system we use to establish what acts we find abhorrent in themselves) and consequentialism are not mutually exclusive. Many ways have been found to strike a balance between outcomes and respect for the boundaries of the abhorrent. The dilemmas for which these balances were struck in the past were often smaller in scale and less complex than our current global dilemmas. Consequentialism created exceptions in an otherwise overwhelming system of rules based on authority. Now, the balance has been reversed and anti-consequentialists feel that they are being overwhelmed by a consequentialist steamroller. In this context Darr attempts to rescue something from that balance struck in the past.   


Since obtaining a PhD in history from Leiden University, Gijs Kruijtzer has held postdocs at Yale University, Humboldt University, and the University of Vienna, and worked as a lecturer and archivist. His latest book is Justifying Transgression: Muslims, Christians, and the Law – 1200 to 1700 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2023). Some of the cases in this essay are drawn from that book.


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