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Birks – consequentialism

A commentary on Methods of analysis

By Stuart Birks

Put simply, consequentialism could be described as “the ends justify the means”. The focus is on the end result where the best choice is the option which gives the best outcome. Examples in economics would include optimisation problems such as profit maximisation or utility maximisation. This is why an awareness of consequentialism is important. It emphasises that we may, in the real world, also be concerned about the means. Rather than just being concerned about the outcome that we achieve, we may also be concerned about how we achieve that outcome.

Note that an outcome such as an optimum point is a static concept. That is not the world in which we live. We are permanently on a journey through time. Where we are now is a point on the way to where we will be tomorrow, and the next day. How we got somewhere is also where we were yesterday. What we do today affects where we will be, or could be, tomorrow. The structures or processes that we follow also provide our lived experiences. A focus on static analysis suggests that some mythical end result should be the sole focus. It is implicitly assumed that this endpoint might be attained and sustained for a long time, whereas the journey there is just a short-term transient state that can be ignored.

A more historical perception of time might suggest that many things are changing. We are always adjusting and adapting, making mistakes, reversing directions, facing the unexpected and, through all this, living our lives.

Theoretical analyses are inevitably simplifications. Consequentialism highlights one form of simplification inherent in conventional mainstream economics.

[This is Pointer No.18 in Birks S (2015) 40 Critical Pointers for Students of Economics, Bristol: World Economics Association Press]

Commentary added 30th October 2015

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