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Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 759–766 | Cite as

The Unreliability of Foreseeable Consequences: A Return to the Epistemic Objection

  • Samuel Elgin
Article

Abstract

Consequentialists maintain that an act is morally right just in case it produces the best consequences of any available alternative. Because agents are ignorant about some of their acts’ consequences, they cannot be certain about which alternative is best. Kagan (1998) contends that it is reasonable to assume that unforeseen good and bad consequences roughly balance out and can be largely disregarded. A statistical argument demonstrates that Kagan’s assumption is almost always false. An act’s foreseeable consequences are an extremely poor indicator of the goodness of its overall consequences. Acting based on foreseeable consequences is barely more reliably good than acting completely at random.

Keywords

Consequentialism Epistemic objection Statistics 

Notes

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Shelly Kagan, Catherine Elgin and the attendees of the 2014 BSET conference for providing comments on earlier versions of this paper.

References

  1. Kagan S (1998) Normative ethics. Westview Press, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  2. Lenman J (2000) Consequentialism and cluelessness. Philosophy & Public Affairs 29:342–370CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Smart JJC (1973) An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics. In: Smart JJ, Williams B (eds) Utilitarianism—for and against. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Yale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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