Appeal to consequences is a very popular method of moral reasoning. The basic idea is that moral assessment is done in terms of weighing harms and benefits. It is generally accepted that harming people and things is morally bad and benefiting them is good. Not surprisingly, if something is more beneficial than harmful it is good; if something is more harmful than beneficial it is bad.
Basis & Method
The theory behind this method is consequentialism-the view that the value of actions is to be assessed in terms of their consequences. There are many types of consequentialist theories and not all of them are moral theories. Because of this it is important to present an appeal to consequences as a moral argument and not just a cost-benefit analysis. Though this method is generally accepted, there is philosophical debate over the underlying theories.
The method involves the following steps:
Step 1: Show that action, policy, etc. X creates Y harms and Z benefits.
Step 2: Weigh and assess Y and Z.
Step 3: Argue that moral assessment is based on the consequences of actions.
Step 4A: If Y outweighs Z, then conclude that X is morally unacceptable.
Step 4B: If Z outweighs Y, then conclude that X is morally acceptable.
Step 3 is a critical step. Without an argument that moral assessment should be based on consequences, there would be no reason for the reader to accept a moral conclusion based simply on an assessments and benefits. People often leave out this step when attempting to present a moral argument. Instead, they often end up providing practical advice instead of presenting a moral argument. This is discussed in greater detail, below.
As an example, this method could be used to provide a moral argument in favor of censorship of violent movies. The first step would be presenting the harms and benefits of these movies. This could be done by using an argument from authority to present data from various studies that contend that exposure to such violent movies causes people to become violent (such as shooting people in schools). This would be a harmful consequence of such movies. The beneficial consequences would be the entertainment provided to the audience as well as the profits to the media industry. The second step would be to weigh these harms and benefits. One could argued that while there are some benefits from violent media, such as large profits, one cannot weigh money more than human suffering and death. The third step would be to argue that moral assessment should be based on assessing consequences. This could be done by using an argument from authority (appealing to, for example, the authority of philosophers such as John Stuart Mill) or by another sort of argument. The final step would be to draw the appropriate conclusion. In this case the argument would lead to the conclusion that such censorship is morally acceptable and hence violence in the media should be eliminated or at least curtailed.
Moral versus Practical
A common mistake when using this method is to simply weigh harms and benefits without including a moral element. This approach can be used to provide a practical argument for or against something but obviously does not provide a moral argument. For example, when some argues against cheating in a relationship s/he might present practical reasons as to why someone should not cheat. In doing so they might begin by presenting potential harms such as disease, pregnancy, divorce, damage to one’s reputation and physical injury. The potential benefits would include such factors as pleasure and companionship. If the person concludes that a person should not cheat because of these practical concerns (like avoiding disease and harm) then s/he would be presenting a practical argument and not a moral argument: if you do not want to be harmed, then do not cheat. While this is good practical advice, it does not show that cheating is immoral or morally acceptable.
In order to properly use the method to make a moral argument, the moral element needs to be included. The object of this argument is to show that the morality of something (such as an action) can be determined by assessing its harms and benefits. One way to do this is to use an argument from authority. For example, you might use John Stuart Mill as an authority and cite his view of ethics (specifically utilitarianism). This would make the connection between consequences and morality. While this is a legitimate argument, it is rather weak because there other equally authoritative philosophers who argue against consequentialism. A second approach is to use the method of applying moral theories and state that you are arguing within the context of a consequentialist ethical theory (such as Mill’s). While this is a legitimate approach it does have the weakness of simply assuming the correctness of the theory-thus making the argument conditional upon how appealing the theory is to the reader. A third approach is to develop an argument from intuition to argue that creating positive value is good and creating negative value is wrong. It could then be argued that more positive value is better than more negative value (this could be done by using an analogy, perhaps to something like profit and loss). The appropriate conclusion could then be drawn based on the assessment of the relative weight of harms and benefits. There are also other ways to bring in the moral element.
Since this method is commonly used, you might have to argue against someone employing it. One way to respond to this method is to accept the method but offer an alternative assessment. This can be done by presenting an alternative set of harms of benefits or by arguing for a different assessment of their relative weight.
For example, a person might present the following counter to the example given above.
While violent media might produce such harms, it also produces benefits. Violent films, shows and video games are very popular, generating large profits. People also enjoy violent media. If we weigh the small number of deaths and injuries against the massive profits and enjoyment, it is clear that the benefits of violent media outweigh the harms. Therefore, violent media is morally acceptable. Naturally, a proper argument would need to be developed more, but the example provides the generally idea of how this sort of thing can be done.
A second way to respond is to reject the method and argue using another method (this would be to argue by counter method). It can be argued that some factor other than consequences should be used when assessing the situation. This can be done by using another method, such as appealing to rights or rules, to counter the original argument. To continue with the example of censorship of violent movies, the following illustrates this approach. While violence in the media might lead to harms, people have a moral right to free expression. This moral right overrides the consideration of harms. Therefore, violence in the media should not be censored. Naturally, this sort of argument would need to be fully developed. In this example, the right to free expression would need to be supported by an argument.