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Act utilitarianism is a utilitarian theory of ethics which states that a person's act is morally right if and only if it produces at least as much happiness as any other act that the person could perform at that time. Classical utilitarians, including Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, define happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. To understand how act utilitarianism works, compare the consequences of your watching television all day tomorrow to the consequences of your doing charity work tomorrow. You could produce more overall happiness in the world by doing charity work tomorrow than by watching television all day tomorrow. According to act utilitarianism, then, the right thing for you to do tomorrow is to go out and do charity work; it is wrong for you to stay home and watch television all day tomorrow.
Critics sometimes cite such prohibitions on leisure activities as a problem for act utilitarianism. Critics also cite more significant problems, such as the fact that act utilitarianism seems to imply that specific acts of torture or enslavement would be morally permissible if they produced enough happiness.
Act utilitarianism is often contrasted with a different theory called rule utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism states that the morally right action is the one that is in accordance with a moral rule whose general observance would create the most happiness. Rule utilitarianism is sometimes thought to avoid the problems associated with act utilitarianism.
- Lyons, David. Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965, p. vii.
- Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. "Consequentialism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/#ClaUti.
- Fieser, J. (2009). Ethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/ethics/
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