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Consequentialism and Its Critics

PL72701 Fall 2013

Instructor: Micah Lott micahelias@gmail.com

Office hours: Wed 3-4pm; Thurs 2-3pm, and by appointment.

Course Time and Location: Tue/Thurs: 3pm. Stokes 201S. 

Course Description

This course examines utilitarian and, more broadly, consequentialist approaches to ethics. Our goals are (1) to understand the structure and appeal of consequentialist theories (2) to articulate the strongest versions of consequentialism and (3) to consider the strongest objections to consequentialism. We will begin with a major text of Western philosophy: John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism. We will read a 20th century classic, Utilitarianism: For & Against, by J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams. We will also examine a recent and highly-respected articulation of rule-consequentialism by Brad Hooker. In addition, we will read essays by critics of consequentialism, including Philippa Foot and Anselm Mueller.


The following texts are required and available in the BC bookstore. Please purchase the translations/editions available in the bookstore. Electronic devises are not allowed in class, so please do not rely upon electronic versions of the texts.

- MILL,  Utilitarianism

- DARWALL (ed.) Consequentialism (Blackwell: 2002)

- SMART and WILLIAMS, Utilitarianism: For & Against (Cambridge: 1971)

- HOOKER, Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford: 2000)

Shorter works will be make available by PDF or photocopy

Course Requirements

I) Attendance and Participation. This is a seminar. You are expected to attend every meeting, and to participate. I will often ask for questions/comments on the readings at the beginning of class.

II) Assignments:

  • Presentations: Each member of the seminar will be required to give two presentations on the day’s reading. These presentations will not be graded. They should be approximately 20 minutes long. They should (1) briefly summarize the text, (2) focus on one argument/idea that you take to be most important (3) offer some analysis or question of that argument/idea. Suggestion: make a handout!

  • Final Paper. This will be the basis of your grade. Approximately 20 pages.


You will receive both letter and numerical grades for final paper. The numerical grades will be used to calculate your final grade. Numerical and letter grades correspond as follows:

A 10.0-9.5 A/A- 9.4 A- 9.3-9.1 A-/B+ 9.0

B+ 8.9-8.8 B+/B 8.7 B 8.6-8.5 B- 8.3-8.0

C+ 7.9-7.7 C 7.6-7.3 C- 7.3-7.0

D 6.9-6.0 F 5.9 and below

Late papers will be deducted 5 points for each day after the deadline that they are received.


Plagiarism is forbidden. Plagiarism undermines the enterprise of learning. It is dishonest. It is disrespectful to your fellow students, to your instructor, and to yourself. Do not plagiarize. For penalties and guidelines, please see the BC website.


All electronic devices should be switched to silent mode before coming to class. Because laptops, tablets, and smart phones tend to be a distraction and an impediment to discussion, their use is strictly prohibited. Bring your text, your mind, and a pencil and paper!

Special Concerns

If you have any questions or concerns – including any concerns related to a disability or special need – please feel free to speak with me or email me. I am happy to make accommodations. I want all of you to be able to learn in a safe, comfortable environment. If you require any accommodation, speak to me at the beginning of the term. Do not wait till assignments are due to bring this to my attention.

If you are an athlete who needs to miss class in order to play in games, you must give me your game schedule at the beginning of the term. Based on the number of classes you will miss, we can then decide if this class is a good option for you. As always at Boston College, athletic practices are not an acceptable reason for missing class.
Schedule of Meetings

NB: the reading is to be completed before class on the day the Assignment is Listed.

Part I: Mill’s Utilitarianism



Introduction. Discussion of the goals and methods of the course.



Mill: Utilitarianism

Chapters I and II

Goal of the book – “the criterion of right and wrong”

The utilitarian account of the criterion.

What kind of ‘proof’ or ‘argument’ is available?



Mill: Utilitarianism

Chapters II cont.

Spelling out the utilitarian position. Happiness and hedonism. Responding to a series of objections – e.g. not practicable, not demanding enough, too demanding.



Mill: Utilitarianism

Chapter III and IV

The “ultimate sanction” of the principle of utility, and the proof of the principle.



Mill: Utilitarianism

Chapter IV cont.

Sidgwick: “Philosophical Intuitionism” from Methods of Ethics (67-73 in Darwall)

Mill on happiness, desirability, and the end of action.
Sidgwick vs. Mill on proof of utilitarianism.



Mill: Utilitarianism

Chapter V

Justice as a major challenge for utilitarianism. Mill’s investigation of the concept of justice. Perfect vs. Imperfect duties.



Mill: Utilitarianism

Chapter V cont.

The utilitarian account of duty/rights/justice.
Is Mill a “rule-utilitarian” or an “act-utilitarian”?


No Class.

Part II: Smart and Williams – Utilitarianism, For & Against



Smart: sections 1 – 5

(pgs. 3-30)



Smart: sections 4 – 7

(pgs. 30-57)



Smart: sections 8 – 10

(pgs. 57-74)



Williams: sections 1 – 2

(pgs. 77-93)



Williams: sections 3 – 5

(pgs. 93-118)



Williams: section 6

(pgs. 118-135)



Williams: section 7

(pgs. 135-150)

John Rawls: “Classical Utilitarianism”

(253-258 in Darwall)

Part III: Replies, Developments, and Further Criticisms
NB: We will spend more than one day per essay. I have left open days to account for this, and to give us flexibility in how we focus our time.



Robert Adams: “Motive Utilitarianism”

(236-249 in Darwall)



Peter Railton: “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality”

(160-196 in Darwall)



Anselm Mueller: “Radical Subjectivity”



Philippa Foot: “Utilitarianism and the Virtues”
“Morality, Action, and Outcome”



Extra day for discussion



Extra day for discussion



Extra day for discussion

Part IV: Brad Hooker – Ideal Code, Real World



Hooker: Ideal Code, Real World

Chapter 1




Hooker: Ideal Code, Real World

Chapter 2

“What Are the Rules to Promote?”



Hooker: Ideal Code, Real World

Chapter 3

“Questions of Formulation”



Hooker: Ideal Code, Real World

Chapter 4

“Collapse or Incoherence?”



Hooker: Ideal Code, Real World

Chapter 6

“Prohibitions and Special Obligations”


No Class.



Hooker: Ideal Code, Real World

Chapter 7




Hooker: Ideal Code, Real World

Chapter 8

“Rule-Consequentialism and Doing Good for the World”

++ Final Papers Due: December 17th, noon ++

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