Act Utilitarianism


Background:

Act Utilitarianism (AU) a form of the utilitarian theory proposed by Jeremy Bentham and his disciple, John Stuart Mill[1]. AU came into prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries, and has often been compared to its counterpart, Rule Utilitarianism[2]. Although AU is a straightforward as regards to concept, it has received various criticisms in regards to its actual use as a way to conduct everyday life.

Definition:


Act Utilitarianism is the view that an action is morally correct based on the rightness or wrongness of an act as determined by weighing its consequences[3]. AU is a forward-looking theory that aims to find the decision to a situation that will produce equal or increased utility (happiness) over the other potential decisions, to be determined as morally correct[4].


Challenges with Act Utilitarianism:

Act Utilitarianism is and has been the subject of criticism for a long time, and various scholars have taken issues with the theory. AU is often criticized for its impracticality regarding time to assess situations, specifically those that require immediate attention and emergencies—these scholars suggest there is not enough time to properly weigh the options to determine which will morally bring the most utility[5]. AU has also been analyzed as being too spontaneous (plans do not always go as planned), dangerous (if putting yourself or someone at risk for the greater good), and uncoordinated (some may not view decisions as the best for the situation and do the opposite)[6].

Scholars also argue that the relationship between the person determining the best option, and the other involved, makes it hard to remain impartial with regards to special relationships, such as family members and co-workers[7]. AU is forward-thinking theory, meaning decisions are based on what will maximize utility in the future. This can leave moral commitments unfulfilled and broken, resulting in problems with others[8].

Examples of Act Utilitarianism:

Decisions made using the AU theory can be applicable to both serious and non-serious situations. A serious example is taking car keys away from someone who has been drinking. By doing so, you are making the best possible decision for the greater good. In such a case, there is no other act that would produce a larger amount of utility over disutility.

Another example of AU is exemplified in the story Robin Hood. Robin Hood is known for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Although stealing is considered morally wrong, and stealing could cause Robin Hood to get in serious trouble, in the story the rich are fewer than the poor and the poor need the money.To Robin Hood, by applying an AU rationale the best, morally correct decision would be to steal from the rich in order for the good of the greater number.


Additional Information:

For more information on Act Utilitarianism and John Stuart Mills’ Utilitarianism follow these links:





[1] Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press Ltd.
[2] Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory.Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press Ltd.

[3] Smart, J.J.C., & Williams, B. (1973). Utilitarianism for and against. London: Cambridge University Press.
[4] Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory.Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press Ltd.

[5] Bales, R.E. (1971). Act-utilitarianism: Account of right-making characteristics or decision-making procedure? American Philosophical Quarterly, 8(3), 257-265. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org.www.msvu.ca:2048/stable/ 20009403?seq=2.

[6] Mulgan, T. (2007). Understanding utilitarianism. Stocksfield: Acumen.
[7] Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory.Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press Ltd.

[8] Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory.Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press Ltd.