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The Dimensions of Consequentialism

Ethics, Equality, and Risk


Martin Peterson

Texas A&M University



This book articulates and explores a distinction between one- and multidimensional accounts of consequentialism. Multidimensional consequentialts believe that an act’s rightness or wrongness depends on several irreducible moral aspects. If no act is optimal with respect to all aspects, then no act is entirely right. On the multidimensional view, moral rightness and wrongness literally come in degrees. An act is right to the highest degree if and only if it is optimal with respect to all applicable aspects, meaning that if two or more aspects clash even the best alternative is somewhat wrong.


Total hedonistic act utilitarianism is an example of a one-dimensional view. According to this theory, the only aspect that determines an act’s deontic status is whether it maximizes happiness. The fact that both the intensity and duration of a pleasurable experience matter (as well as the intensity and duration of painful ones) does not make the theory multidimensional. These factors can be reduced to a single aspect: the total amount of happiness brought about by the act. What matters for the classification of a theory as multidimensional is whether it is possible to characterize an act’s deontic status as a function of a single aspect.


In the example sketched in Figure 1, alternative A maximizes wellbeing. Hedonistic act utilitarians therefore believe that A is right and that B and C are wrong. Strict egalitarians, if they exist, believe that only C is right, while prioritarians would typically claim that B is the only right alternative. Multidimensional consequentialists may believe that wellbeing and equality are two irreducible moral aspects. If so, they will conclude that while A is optimal with respect to total wellbeing it scores poorly with respect to equality. The opposite is true of C, and while B is not optimal with respect to any of the two aspects, it scores pretty well with respect to both of them. Therefore, none of the three alternatives is entirely right. All three alternatives are somewhat right and somewhat wrong. Perhaps B is almost entirely right (right to degree .99 on a scale from 0 to 1) while A and C are, roughly speaking, half right and half wrong (right to degree .5).


Act                  Alice’s wellbeing                   Bob’s wellbeing

A                     99                                      1

B                     50                                      49

C                     0                                        0


Figure 1. A canonical example.



Reviews, Comments and Criticism

The book has been reviewed in the following journals: Ethics, Journal of Moral Philosophy, Utilitas, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Dialouge, and Dialectica (the latter led to this response) In November 2013 the book was discussed at a two-day conference in Konstanz, Germany. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice published a special issue based on the symposium in 2016 with contributions by:


1) Thomas Schmidt: Accounting for Moral Conflicts


2) Campbell Brown: The Rightest Theory of Degrees of Rightness


3) Frances Howard-Snyder: Degrees and Dimensions of Rightness: Reflections on Martin Peterson’s Dimensions of Consequentialism


4) Roger Crisp: Rightness, Parsimony, and Consequentialism: A Response to Peterson 


5) Vuko Andric and Attila Tanyi: Multi-Dimensional Consequentialism and Risk


6) Jan Gertken: Mixed Feelings About Mixed Solutions


.......and here is my reply:


7) Martin Peterson: The Dimensions of Consequentialism: Reply to Schmidt, Brown, Howard-Snyder, Crisp, Andric and Tanyi, and Gertken




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