Joseph Raz's argument against strict consequentialism



What is strict consequentialism?

Raz defines strict consequentialism as follows:

The only reasons for or against the performance of any action are the consequences that its performance or non-performance will or may have. The weight of reasons for and against an action is a function of the value of its consequences. (1986: 268)


What is Razís argument?

The argument, in broad outline, is that strict consequentialism is false because it entails a certain thesis and there is an objection to that thesis and the only way in which the strict consequentialist can attempt to defend against this objection is by adopting a false conception of what can count as a possible action (1986: 269). Note: although I refer to the argument as Razís, it is not entirely clear, from his text, if this is an argument he devised or an argument devised by someone else, which he is summarising.


What thesis does strict consequentialism entail?

According to Raz, strict consequentialism entails the following thesis:

No action or omission can be intrinsically good or bad, unless it is the consequence of some other action or omission.

Consequences of actions or consequences of omissions are the only kinds of things that can be intrinsically good or bad, so if an action is intrinsically bad, say, it is intrinsically bad because it is such a consequence.


What is Razís objection to this thesis?

Raz objects to this thesis by claiming that the action of destroying humanity is intrinsically bad, even if this action is not the consequence of some other action or of an omission.


What is the attempted defence against this objection?

The strict consequentialist must ensure that the entailments of their doctrine are defensible or else their doctrine is not defensible. So they must reply to Razís effort to identify an entailment and then object to it. The only way in which they can try to defend themselves, Raz believes, is by denying an assumption of his objection: that destroying humanity is a possible action.


Here are some suggestions Raz makes for how the strict consequentialist will try to conceive of possible actions, in order to pursue this defence:

Only things like pressing buttons, or perhaps only moving muscles, or even only willing or forming intentions, will be allowed to count as possible actions. (1986: 269)


What is wrong with conceiving of possible actions like this?

Raz does not say why these conceptions are false, beyond saying that they distort our conception of agency. But the position that there is something wrong with them is attractive.



Raz, J. 1986. The Morality of Freedom. Oxford: Clarendon Press.