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This is a quick and highly selective summary of Toby Ord’s PhD thesis - Beyond Action. It can be downloaded freely from his website. I primarily wrote this for my own sake but upon completion, I realized that it may be useful to others too. :)




The thesis explores and strengthens global consequentialism and its six major forms. It attempts to address the major objections to act and rule-consequentialism and, somewhat, unifies the three major Western ethical theories.

In chapter 3, he thoroughly assesses the different accounts of global utilitarianism but I found those aspects to be relatively useless because they didn’t enrich my thinking at a sufficiently applied level. However, it did provide value to know that global consequentialism stands up to moral rigor and may be superior to other forms of consequentialism. Furthermore, it gave me insight into how certain moral theories are perpetually developed and how significant progress is being made and made me optimistic about “solving” moral philosophy (which I’m otherwise skeptical of).

When assessing what evaluative focal points to use (i.e., “things” that might be relevant to assess in terms of what outcomes they bring about), Ord focuses on the following:

  • Decision-procedures “what procedure should I follow when deciding what to do?”
  • Motivations and character. He proposes that we focus on these as they guide our actions (and thus are important for outcomes). I felt more drawn motivations and character and thus wrote a short section below.

Motivations and character

Ord proposes the following ontology for motivations (the things which guide our actions) and character:

Virtue, may be thought of as the character traits that tend to give rise to good outcomes.

Both Sidgwick and Julia Driver have spent a significant amount of time assessing virtues in terms of their consequences.

Interestingly, Ord notes that character can have consequences via other effects than the significant acts associated with it. He mentions that having a certain character could change your subconscious reactions such as how much you blush or the facial expressions you may have in response to hearing something.

Conclusion: A diagram of different moral theories and how global utilitarianism captures some of all of them

Note, the arrows can be read roughly as “justifies” (e.g., in deontology, the rules justifies the acts) and symbols and words in gray signify that only some of the theories mention this (e.g., in virtue ethics character only justify acts in some versions).

Similarly, a quote from Mill summarizes the complementarity and tension between ethical schools well:

Mill (1838), p. 111

‘Those who adopt utility as a standard can seldom apply it truly except through the secondary principles; those who reject it, generally do no more than erect those secondary principles into first principles. It is when two or more of the secondary principles conflict, that a direct appeal to some first principle becomes necessary … for the sake of the systematic unity and coherency of ethical philosophy.’

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