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Multi-dimensional consequentialism and degrees of rightness


In his recent book, The Dimensions of Consequentialism, Martin Peterson puts forward a new version of consequentialism that he dubs ‘multidimensional consequentialism’. The defining thesis of the new theory is that there are irreducible moral aspects that jointly determine the deontic status of an act. In defending his particular version of multidimensional consequentialism, Peterson advocates the thesis—he calls it DEGREE—that if two or more moral aspects clash, the act under consideration is right to some non-extreme degree. This goes against the orthodoxy according to which—Peterson calls this RESOLUTION—each act is always either entirely right or entirely wrong. The argument against RESOLUTION appeals to the existence of so-called deontic leaps: the idea is that endorsing RESOLUTION would not give each relevant moral aspect its due in the final analysis. Our paper argues that, contrary to Peterson, (1) all moral aspects remain visible in what can properly be called the final analysis of a moral theory that involves RESOLUTION, (2) moral aspects do not have to remain visible in judgements of all-things-considered rightness or wrongness, respectively, (3) introduction of what Peterson calls verdictive reasons does not change the overall picture in favour of DEGREE. We conclude that multi-dimensional consequentialists should accept RESOLUTION rather than DEGREE.

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  1. From now on, unless otherwise stated, all page references in brackets will be to this book.

  2. The clause ‘can be characterized’ in the definition of one-dimensional consequentialism is important because it makes the set of one-dimensional theories less restricted. For all it requires is that we find a moral aspect that makes it possible to characterize an act’s deontic status as a function of that one aspect; this does not rule out that another characterization exists that employs several moral aspects.

  3. There is a complication, though, that deserves mention. “A dimension”, Peterson explains, “can be conceived of as the conceptual space in which an aspect can be altered.” (4) This means, as Peterson subsequently admits, that a consequentialist theory that identifies several moral aspects as affecting the deontic status of an act need not be multi-dimensional because all these aspects might belong to the same dimension. However, for reasons of convenience and because his particular version identifies moral aspects that belong to different dimensions, Peterson keeps the label ‘multi-dimensional’ throughout the book and we will follow him on this.

  4. Peterson defines incomparability as the claim that “for some consequences, no pair-wise evaluative comparisons can be made”. As for the other notion, his definition is that “two elements are on a par if and only if they are comparable, although it is false that one is at least as good as the other” (9).

  5. As Peterson points out, these are pair-wise incompatible positions, but are not jointly exhaustive. Just like him, however, we will rest content with these three positions in what follows.

  6. Espinoza and Peterson (2012) also discuss deontic leaps in the medical ethics context, but we take it that what appears in the book is the definitive statement of the argument from deontic leaps. Peterson (2013: 24) actually introduces a case structurally similar to Well-Being versus Equality when putting forward the argument from deontic leaps (this is the case he refers to in the quoted passage). However, for ease of read and because nothing gets lost as a result of this move, we continue focusing on Well-Being versus Equality.

  7. We prefer the term ‘pro tanto’ to ‘prima facie’ because the latter suggests that the consideration in question is only apparent (as many have pointed about W. D. Ross’s use of the term, see e.g. Searle 1980 and Kagan 1989: 17n). Although in his discussion of Ross (27–29) he follows Ross in using the term prima facie, we take it that Peterson has no preferred label for these qualified moral judgments and feel at liberty to make a choice ourselves. We also assume that ‘pro tanto’ does not entail comparability.

  8. Although Peterson explicitly endorses this claim (2), there is some ground for hesitation for he also claims, as we saw in the previous section, that Level II judgments (which we take to be pro tanto moral judgments) are also non-binary.

  9. In particular, the so-called ‘small improvement argument’ by Chang (2002) that was designed to support the idea that there is a third sui generis value-relation, namely, ‘on a par’. For an overview of the debate, see Hsieh (2008).

  10. In fact, as we mentioned above, Peterson himself concedes that an advocate of RESOLUTION could even endorse a more committed analysis, namely: either Option 1 or Option 2 is all-things-considered right and the other is all-things-considered wrong. These verdicts, however, would commit RESOLUTIONists to the rejection of the second claim we suggested to them above.

  11. According to the decision-making procedure Peterson proposes for MDC, it is rational to choose each option with a probability that is directly proportional to its moral force (119). An option’s moral force is the sum total of all the products of degree and strength corresponding to each aspect (118). Obviously, then, since the data you feed into Peterson’s decision-making procedure do not stem from the all-things-considered but from the pro-tanto level, and since DEGREE and RESOLUTION do not contradict each other on the pro-tanto level, you do not need to accept DEGREE in order to apply Peterson’s decision-making procedure; you can apply it on our favoured version of RESOLUTION, too.

  12. It can be argued that an exhaustive description also has to mention other moral facts: evaluative facts, the explanatory relations between pro tanto and all-things-considered judgements, etc. But this isn’t a problem for us to admit, as we only want to show that the final analysis, contrary to Peterson, does not only include all-things-considered but at least also pro tanto judgments.

  13. Note that the action-guiding function also explains why RESOLUTION is preferable to DILEMMA.

  14. Intuitively, it would be unfair if you became blameworthy whatever you did. Morality would seem to be incoherent.

  15. The idea, as Peterson later explains (70), is that those who donate excessively damage their own as well as their loved ones’ well-being. Since, according to Peterson, persons’ well-being count separately (‘persons’ is a separate moral aspect that Peterson uses to answer the separateness of persons charge), this influences the calculation of all-things-considered rightness by making excessive donations less right and more wrong.

  16. Peterson could try to get around this problem by holding that the thing to do is not what is most right to do in the given situation but what is sufficiently right to do. Besides that this raises the question of where we draw the line (what is sufficiently right?), we also end up with the mirror of the debate about satisficing consequentialism. Another possible way-out for Peterson would be to adopt agent-relative theories of value—or maybe a person-relative dimension of value. Again, this would leave us with the mirror version of an on-going debate. In general, arguments based on satisficing, agent-relative value, etc., would be disappointing in the present context, for the hope was for MDC to escape the demandingness objection in virtue of multi-dimensionality.

  17. There is an underlying strand in Peterson’s discussion of verdictive reasons in which Stratton-Lake’s article also appears that we do not discuss in this paper and to which the quote Peterson uses refers. It concerns W. D. Ross’s distinction between prima facie duties and duties proper. Although it is an interesting question how Ross’s theory relates to Peterson’s and whether Peterson’s treatment of Ross is correct, dealing with these questions would bring unnecessary complications into this paper.

  18. Peterson discusses four basic cases: when an act is entirely right (there is a verdictive reason in favour of and no verdictive reason against the act), when it is neutral (there is no verdictive reason either for or against the act), entirely wrong (there is verdictive reason against the act, and no verdictive reason for it), and to some non-extreme degree right (there is a verdictive reason both in favour and against the act). Of course, several gaps still need to be filled in. In particular, the exact calculation of degrees still requires a technically well worked out aggregation mechanism.

  19. Of the three responses we give there, the last might be less applicable insofar as Peterson repeatedly denies that the weight of verdictive reasons would be what determines the degree to which an act is right; it is instead the content of these reasons that does so (37–39). This claim is then supported by examples that should trigger intuitions in favour of Peterson’s thesis (37, 93, 117). We are not so sure that the examples indeed work in Peterson’s favour but, in absence of space, we let this go. What instead we would like to point out is that, as we noted in our original response, it is not clear that RESOLUTION would have to be committed to any direct weighing of verdictive reasons (since it accepts C2 that rules out any such weighing).

  20. In fact, the situation is more peculiar since Peterson cites Dancy in support of the distinction between evidential and verdictive reasons (29, fn. 10) and hence in support of the argument from deontic leaps. This, as the quote in the text shows, is clearly a mistake.

  21. This is not the same problem as the alleged vacuity of the consequentializing project that Peterson spends a separate chapter on justifying (Chapter 8). The vacuity objection says that if consequentialism builds everything into itself, it will no longer be making any practical recommendations (since everything will be fine with it). What we are saying now is that even if there is no problem with the project of consequentializing, there is still the question how this accommodation is to be carried out on MDC without encountering the charge that its moves are ad hoc.

  22. There is a clear (and intended) parallel here with Murphy’s (2000) criticism of Scheffler’s (1994) attempt to build prerogatives into consequentialism.

  23. An appeal to reflective equilibrium could offer the right way forward but this is also a long and complicated way that cannot be got for free. To compare: the most famous example of reflective equilibrium is that of Rawls, but, in addition to considered judgments (‘intuitions’), he brings in several levels of background theories and other aspects of our moral thought (see Daniels 1996 for an excellent account of the Rawlsian method). Not even traces of this idea could, however, be found in Peterson’s book.


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We would like to thank the participants of the workshop “The Dimensions of Consequentialism”, which took place at Konstanz University in November 2013. Special thanks go to Martin Peterson, who provided detailed comments on the entire paper. We are also very grateful for the comments received from Sebastian Köhler, David Sobel, an anonymous reviewer for the journal as well as audiences in Liverpool and Bern (special thanks to Julian Fink for organizing the workshop in Bern). This research was supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation (Grant Number TA 820/1-1).

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Correspondence to Attila Tanyi.

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Andrić, V., Tanyi, A. Multi-dimensional consequentialism and degrees of rightness. Philos Stud 173, 711–731 (2016).

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  • Moral dimensions
  • Moral reasons
  • Moral rightness
  • Consequentialism
  • Martin Peterson