Good and bad actions

Philosophical Review 106 (1):1-34 (1997)
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It is usually assumed to be possible, and sometimes even desirable, for consequentialists to make judgments about both the rightness and the goodness of actions. Whether a particular action is right or wrong is one question addressed by a consequentialist theory such as utilitarianism. Whether the action is good or bad, and how good or bad it is, are two others. I will argue in this paper that consequentialism cannot provide a satisfactory account of the goodness of actions, on the most natural approach to the question. I will also argue that, strictly speaking, a consequentialist cannot judge one action to be better or worse than another action performed at a different time or by a different person. Even if such theories are thought to be primarily concerned with rightness, this would be surprising, but in the light of recent work challenging the place of rightness in consequentialism1, it seems particularly disturbing. If actions are neither right (or wrong) nor good (or bad), what moral judgments do apply to them? Doesn't the rejection of both rightness and goodness, as applied to actions, leave consequentialism unacceptably impoverished? On the contrary, I will argue that consequentialism is actually strengthened by the realization that actions can only be judged as better or worse than possible alternatives.



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Alastair Norcross
University of Colorado, Boulder

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