Consequential or teleological ethics passes by the criterion of intent and focuses attention on the outcomes of actions. If the outcome is good the related actions are likely to be good – regardless of the motive of the individual actor.
So a consequentialist would ex post judge the wisdom of the War in Iraq, for example, not on the basis of the motive of the decision-makers but on the basis of the results. A well-meaning person can make decisions that have bad consequences. A malevolent person can initiate policies that have good consequences.
Utilitarians are that large group of articulate consequentialists who take the further step of arguing that the outcomes of government and business policies can be predicted and measured ex ante. John Stuart Mill followed Jeremy Bentham in arguing that public policies should be judged by their consequences. Actions are right as they tend to promote happiness – the greatest good of the greatest number – and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. The utilitarian viewpoint generated activity among economists like David Ricardo – a contemporary of John Stuart Mill’s father James Mill - to show how public policies may produce “unintended consequences” that are bad and could produce outcomes that are the reverse of those intended.
The fact that someone's motives for an act are good, or that the person has many good qualities, is not enough to ensure that it is ethically good. (By the same token, a person who is lacking in many qualities may act in an ethically good way.)
"It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathising; that it chills their moral feelings towards individuals; that it makes them regard only the dry and hard consideration of the consequences of actions, not taking into their moral estimate the qualities from which those actions emanate. If the assertion means that they do not allow their judgment respecting the rightness or wrongness of an action to be influenced by their opinion of the qualities of the person who does it, this is a complaint not against utilitarianism, but against having any standard of morality at all; for certainly no known ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad because it is done by a good or a bad man, still less because done by an amiable, a brave, or a benevolent man, or the contrary. These considerations are relevant, not to the estimation ofactions, but of persons; and there is nothing in the utilitarian theory inconsistent with the fact that there are other things which interest us in persons besides the rightness and wrongness of their actions. (Utilitarianism, Book 2. [full text])"
But utilitarians are split over the issue of who is to decide what the greatest good is. Those who seek to use government power to give people what they ought to want whether or not they realize that it is good for them are called managerial liberals. Those who are more interested in addressing what people actually do want – whether or not obtaining this will, objectively speaking, turn out to be good for them – are called subjectivists. One could loosely associate managerial liberals with a permanent administrative class and subjectivists with elected officials (or the king in Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince [full text]).
In the business context, those who believe that businesses should respond without question to NGOs or lobbyists that are active on behalf of consumers or investors might be described as subjectivists. Those who believe that hired hands who run big corporations should be left alone without interference should be the ones to decide how businesses respond might be managerial liberals.
Utilitarians disagree about how to behave in practice, because so much depends on the situation and how it is defined. But utilitarians tend to agree that people should keep their promises because society works better if they do. The utilitarian might be a little more flexible than a duty-based ethicist (certainly more flexible than Kant!) when it turns out that the best consequence might flow from ignoring the contract (i.e., the overall good would be maximized by not fulfilling the obligation). Rule-utilitarians would be more rigid than act-utilitarians in individual cases. Even a duty-bound ethicist must think twice in the classic example in Plato’s Republic in which a man leaves weapons with you for safe-keeping, and then wants them back when he is in a drunken state and seems ready to kill himself or someone else.
Socrates to Cephalus: “ Suppose, for example, I have a friend who leaves weapons with me, when he is of sound mind, and then asks for them back after he has gone insane. Should I give this madman his weapons? No one would say that was the right thing to do…[or that] you should always speak the truth to someone in such a seriously disturbed frame of mind.” Plato, The Republic, Book I.
The point of this example is that ethical issues can be complex, which is why they occupied so much of the attention of the Greeks during the Golden Age. Mill is aware both of the complexity of some moral issues and the fact that motivations are usually personal and are only rarely based on conscious concern for society at large:
"The objectors to utilitarianism cannot always be charged with representing it in a discreditable light. On the contrary, those among them who entertain anything like a just idea of its disinterested character, sometimes find fault with its standard as being too high for humanity. They say it is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of society. But this is to mistake the very meaning of a standard of morals, and confound the rule of action with the motive of it. It is the business of ethics to tell us what are our duties, or by what test we may know them; but no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so done, if the rule of duty does not condemn them. It is the more unjust to utilitarianism that this particular misapprehension should be made a ground of objection to it, inasmuch as utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for his trouble; he who betrays the friend that trusts him, is guilty of a crime, even if his object be to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations." (Utilitarianism, Book 2 [full text].) So from a utilitarian perspective an act is anti-social and immoral if its consequences are measurably bad.
Mill Distinguishes between Motive and Intention
A critic of utilitarianism is cited by Mill in Note 2 to Chapter 2 as arguing that motives do matter because someone might save a drowning man with the motive of torturing him. Mill responds: "[H]e who saves another from drowning in order to kill him by torture afterwards, does not differ only in motive from him who does the same thing from duty or benevolnece; the act itself is different. The rescue of the man is ... only the necessary first step of an act far more atrocious,,,"
"The morality of the action depends entirely upon the intention -- that is, upon what the agent wills to do. But the motive, that is, the feeling which makes him will so to do, when it makes no difference in the act, makes none in the morality ..."