Act utilitarianism is a moral theory stating that the right action is the one that produces the best overall consequences. So, an individual should choose to do an act if it provides the most benefit, or “utility,” for everyone affected.
Unlike rule-based utilitarianism, it evaluates each case individually rather than relying on generalizable rules.
With act utilitarianism, individuals are encouraged to use reason and critical thinking when making their decisions to ensure the best possible decision.
For example, if a person is considering whether or not to donate to charity, they must weigh up the potential benefits against the costs. If it would help more people overall to donate, then donating is considered the right one.
So, when faced with making a decision and different possible outcomes, act utilitarianism encourages individuals to consider all of the potential impacts on everyone affected by each action.
Definition of Act Utilitarianism
Act utilitarianism is a moral theory stating that the correct action is the one that has the best overall outcomes and an individual must act to create the greatest utility, or well-being, for all those who are affected by it.
Act utilitarianism emphasizes reason and critical thinking when making decisions and requires knowledge of how each particular decision will affect everyone involved.
According to Brubaker (2022),
“…act utilitarianism is a utilitarian theory of ethics that states that a person’s act is morally right if and only if it produces the best possible results in that specific situation” (p. 121).
According to adherents of act utilitarianism, when making decisions about actions and behavior, people must ensure that the outcome maximizes overall happiness for all those affected by it.
Saad (2020) states that:
“…in their view, the principle of utility—do whatever will produce the best overall results—should be applied on a case-by-case basis” (p. 53).
For instance, a doctor may be presented with two treatments for a patient, but one treatment has significantly worse side effects than the other.
In this case, act utilitarianism would suggest that the doctor choose the treatment with the fewest side effects as this will likely provide a better overall outcome.
Simply, act utilitarianism states that individuals should always choose the action with the best outcomes for everyone affected by it.
Zoom Out: What is Utilitarianism?
Act Utilitarianism Examples
- Voting on a new law: When voting on a new law, an individual should consider what would have the greatest benefit for all people affected by it rather than just oneself or their immediate circle of family and friends.
- Refraining from gossiping: Refraining from gossiping is an example of act utilitarianism since it prevents any negative consequences from spreading false information about others.
- Medical research: Conducting medical research, such as studying the effects of different treatments and drugs, is an example of act utilitarianism because it helps ensure that all patients receive the best medical care possible regardless of their financial situation.
- Donating money to charity: Donating money to charity is an example of act utilitarianism because it helps those in need and can improve the overall quality of life in communities with poverty and suffering.
- Sharing knowledge: Sharing knowledge with others so that everyone can benefit from collective wisdom is an example of act utilitarianism because it increases access to resources for those who might not otherwise be able to obtain them easily.
- Going vegetarian: Going vegetarian is an example of act utilitarianism since it reduces animal suffering by lowering demand for meat products while helping to protect the environment through reduced carbon emissions and land use required for livestock production.
- Refusing bribes: By refusing bribes, individuals act according to the principles of act utilitarianism. They are preventing any potential damage which could be caused if bribery was allowed to become widespread or institutionalized within a society.
- Refraining from revenge: Taking revenge on someone can often have long-term negative effects on both parties involved. Therefore, refraining from revenge is an example of act utilitarianism since it prevents further harm and allows both sides to focus on resolving issues peacefully instead.
- Investing in renewable energy sources: Investing in renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines has great potential benefits for humanity, including reducing dependency on fossil fuels and creating jobs in the green energy sector. Therefore, it is an example of act utilitarianism that simultaneously promotes sustainable development and environmental protection.
- Promoting kindness: Promoting kindness amongst neighbors, friends, family members, and colleagues can lead to greater communal unity and collaboration. It is also an example of act utilitarianism since it helps to create a better environment for everyone.
- Supporting education: Supporting education, whether by volunteering at local schools, donating to educational organizations, or advocating for increased funding, is an example of act utilitarianism. Education is vital for personal growth and societal development, and investing in it benefits the entire community by promoting greater knowledge, skills, and opportunities.
- Using public transportation: Choosing to use public transportation over driving a private vehicle reduces traffic congestion, lowers carbon emissions, and can help improve air quality. This act of utilitarianism prioritizes the greater good of society and the environment over personal convenience.
- Recycling and reducing waste: Recycling and reducing waste is an example of act utilitarianism because it minimizes the negative impact on the environment and helps conserve resources for future generations. By taking these actions, individuals contribute to the overall well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.
- Paying taxes: Paying taxes is an example of act utilitarianism as it helps fund essential services such as healthcare, education, and infrastructure. By contributing to these services, individuals are working towards the greater good of society by ensuring everyone has access to resources they need for a better quality of life.
- Volunteering in the community: Volunteering in the community, whether it be at a local food bank, homeless shelter, or participating in neighborhood cleanups, is an example of act utilitarianism. These acts of service help improve the overall well-being of the community by addressing immediate needs and fostering a sense of unity and collaboration among its members.
Principles of Act Utilitarianism
The main principles of act utilitarianism include the greatest happiness principle, the importance of impartiality, and the consequentialist nature of act utilitarianism.
1. Greatest Happiness Principle
The greatest happiness principle is based on the belief that pleasure or positive utility, such as improving well-being, should be maximized when making an ethical decision (Law & Burns, 2006).
It emphasizes that decisions should not favor only some people over others but aim for the greatest happiness for society.
The importance of impartiality is also central to act utilitarianism since it requires individuals to assess each situation objectively to reach an ethically responsible outcome.
It means evaluating each action without bias or prejudice towards any individual or group (Law & Burns, 2006).
Finally, act utilitarianism is renowned for its consequentialist nature, which views actions in light of their outcomes and encourages individuals to look beyond their own interests to benefit the most number of people possible (Eggleston, 2019).
Benefits of Act Utilitarianism
Act utilitarianism has many advantages since it advocates for individuals to contemplate the longer-term consequences of their decisions and think past personal advantages while considering what will benefit society the most.
Act utilitarianism aims to maximize pleasure and happiness for all parties involved in a given situation. By considering the consequences of each potential action, this approach ensures that the greatest amount of overall happiness is achieved.
Besides, this moral theory emphasizes the importance of thinking critically about one’s actions and consequences.
By weighing the potential outcomes, individuals are encouraged to make more informed and thoughtful decisions that consider the well-being of others.
Importantly, it acknowledges that moral decisions are often context-dependent. This flexibility allows for different interpretations of what constitutes “right” and “wrong” depending on the specific situation, avoiding dogmatic or one-size-fits-all rules.
What is more, act utilitarianism supports a democratic approach to moral decision-making, as it values everyone’s input and interests equally. So, ethical decisions are more equitable and consider the perspectives and well-being of all those affected.
Critique of Act Utilitarianism
Despite its potential benefits, act utilitarianism also has some drawbacks due to its focus on maximizing pleasure regardless of the means.
One common criticism is that act utilitarianism can lead to unjust outcomes, as it does not consider justice or individual rights.
For example, a doctor might be justified in killing one person to save five others, even though this would go against traditional notions of justice and individual rights.
Another criticism is that act utilitarianism can be difficult to apply in practice, as it requires calculating each action’s potential benefits and harms.
It can be challenging to do accurately, as it involves quantifying happiness or other subjective experiences which are hard to measure objectively.
Besides, act utilitarianism ignores distributional aspects when assessing the morality of an action. It means an action may be considered morally right even if its benefits are not evenly distributed among all affected parties.
For example, a policy might benefit many people overall but still cause harm to certain individuals or groups disproportionately affected by it.
Act Utilitarianism vs. Rule Utilitarianism
Act and rule utilitarianism are action-oriented moral theories that aim to assess the morality of an individual’s actions. However, act utilitarianism evaluates each case on its merits, while rule utilitarianism embraces generalizable rules for all ethical considerations (Hooker & Perry, 2012).
- Act utilitarianism evaluates each case independently, without relying on generalizable rules (Brubaker, 2022). It considers the well-being of all those affected by a particular decision, advocating for the action that will bring about the greatest utility or well-being for society.
- Rule utilitarianism is based on the idea that the right action is whichever one follows an established moral rule or principle (Hooker & Perry, 2012). It looks at what would be most beneficial for society if everybody followed this rule in similar situations and promotes adherence to these pre-set guidelines even if it may not yield the best outcome in an individual case.
So, in act utilitarianism, the focus is on determining the best action for each particular case. In rule utilitarianism, there is a strong conviction that the same action should be taken in each similar situation, regardless of the outcome of a single case.
Read More: Act Utilitarianism vs Rule Utilitarianism
Act utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory that focuses on the overall consequences of individual actions. It encourages rational decision-making and impartial consideration of all parties affected by an action.
With flexibility and emphasis on maximizing the overall good, act utilitarianism offers a practical approach to ethical decision-making in various situations.
However, it is important to recognize the criticisms of act utilitarianism, such as its potential to justify immoral actions, its difficulty in predicting consequences, and its occasional disregard for individual rights and justice.
Ultimately, act utilitarianism can be useful when making ethical decisions but should not be relied on exclusively. It is wise to consider other ethical theories and the perspectives of those affected by an action before making a final decision.
Brubaker, D. (2022). Psychosocial political dysfunction of the Republican party. New York: Archway Publishing.
Eggleston, B. (2019). Consequentialism and respect: Two strategies for justifying act utilitarianism. Utilitas, 32(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0953820819000086
Hooker, B. (2012). Acts or rules? God, the Good, and Utilitarianism, 125–138. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781107279629.009
Law, S., & Burns, E. (2006). Philosophy for AS and A2. New York: Routledge.
Saad, H. B. M. (2020). The theories of legal philosophy. Pena Hijrah Resourses.