How did Act of Utilitarianism Appear

Within this paper I shall be explaining the act form of utilitarianism. I will present and evaluate two objections to act utilitarianism based upon how act utilitarianism appears to give the wrong results in certain cases involving rights, criminal justice and distributive justice. These cases being that of framing an innocent and the case of the organ harvest.

The two cases deal with the consequentialism and individual rights respectively in order to create an objection to act utilitarianism. I, personally, do not find these two cases and the objections to act utilitarianism that they raise to be highly convincing and will give my reasoning from the perspective of a utilitarian as to why I believe that these arguments lack appeal.

Act utilitarianism states that a token-action is morally right if it produces at least as great a balance of pleasure over pain as any alternative to said action, where a token-action is a particular, non-repeatable and concrete action that has some form of spatial or temporal location. Act utilitarianism defines pleasure and pain as episodic, introspectively available mental events. Additionally, all episodes of pleasure and pain that would result from a token-action, or its alternatives, are relevant to the moral normative status of said action. The balance of total amounts of pleasure and pain stemming from an action is what matters, regardless of whose pleasures and pains they are.

The balance of pleasure and pain can be measured through Bentham’s hedonic calculus. The hedonic value of any episode of pleasure is formed from some measure of the intensity and the duration of the episode. The doloric value of any episode of pain is formed from the measure of the intensity and duration of any episode of pain. The hedonic rating of a token-act is the sum of all the hedonic values of all episodes of pleasure that would result if that action were to be performed. The agent-doloric rating of a token act is the sum of doloric values of all episodes of pain that result from said token action being performed. The utility of a token act is the agent-doloric rating subtracted from the hedonic rating. The utility of action is supposed to be a measure of the balance of total pleasure and pain that would result from said action being performed.

The objection to act utilitarianism based on the case of framing the innocent goes as follows. Suppose that a number of similar crimes have been committed in a small town over the last few months. The sheriff knows that the local people are becoming harmfully hysterical and are demanding that something be done. He realizes that if he does not act fast there will a terrible riot in which there is sure to be extensive property damage and probably the loss of several lives. Looking out of his window he spies Ol’ Jim, a recently arrived drifter and down-and-out who arouses deep suspicion in the local population The sheriff knows that Jim could not be responsible for the crimes and he also has reason to believe that the real culprits have fled. He could prevent the riot by simply framing Ol’ Jim as no one but he and Ol’ Jim would know the truth of the matter. It seems that act utilitarianism entails that he should frame Ol’ Jim and prevent the riot. This is where the objection stems from. It seems quite unacceptable to frame innocent people because of what other people might do if you don’t.

This objection seems to stem from a viewpoint of distastefulness in that the result of the scenario does not suit one’s way of thinking. One example of this is with the trolley problem, I would rather have the multitude of people on the main track die so that my mother may live. Through this it is shown that utilitarianism has issues dealing with sentiment. However this objection to utilitarianism does not find issue with utility itself, the problem occurs when one’s personal moral standards expect theirs’ to be held by all others as I am certain some people would frame Ol’ Jim and would allow their mother to die. To some Utilitarianism is found unjustifiable since it forces us to think about our actions, without regard to any potentially distasteful notions of our results. For them some potential actions are morally incomprehensible.

Utilitarian rationality, has no such limitations trying to improve bad situations for everyone is part of its core and will attempt to choose the option that will provide even the slightest bit more happiness between even the death of ten people and the death of eleven. As a virtueof utility, this additional life does not discount the hedonic value as depending on the details of the situation, the interests and pleasures of all are taken into account. Since objectors to utilitarianism state that they will not even consider taking a certain action in some situations seems to be indicative of their general irrationality on ethical matters.

The objection to act utilitarianism from the case of the organ harvest goes as follows. Jim he a drifter who has no friends. But he learns that a long-lost relative in hospital and travels to Shelbyville intending to visit her. In fact, Jim has the wrong town; it turns out that the relative is miles away in Springfield. So Jim gives up and falls asleep on the lawn outside the Shelbyville General Hospital. Inside a desperate doctor is struggling with four seriously ill patients. Patient #1 urgently needs a new heart or he will die. Patient #2 needs a new liver. Patient #3 needs a new kidney and Patient #4 needs new lungs. The doctor spies Jim asleep on the lawn. Glancing at his medicine cabinet, he knows that it would be a simple matter to kill Jim off without anyone ever knowing. He is faced with a choice: kill Jim and harvest his organs, and by doing so saving four upstanding citizens; or leave Jim alone, in which case they will all surely die. A good thing the doctor is no utilitarian. This case makes the objection that utilitarianism does not support individual rights, such as Jim’s right to ownership of his own body which in the objector’s mindset should be upheld.

This objection also can be seen as falling under the viewpoint of distastefulness as the objector finds the disrespect to human right’s distasteful. But what is a right and what justifies it? If a right is justified by its likelihood of increasing happiness and preventing pain, then the use of utility and utilitarianism by extension would make these rights completely redundant. The objection that utilitarianism does not support individual rights falls somewhat flat, since through utilitarianism rights lose their reason to exist and as such the concept the utilitarianism does not support rights is entirely unimportant.

To conclude, act utilitarianism’s claim that token-action is morally right if it produces at least as great a balance of pleasure over pain as any alternative to said action seems to be quite sound. Both the cases forming the objections stem from a viewpoint of distaste with the principle of utility allowing certain actions, this distaste is not universal and shows biases in people’s morals. Furthermore, utilizing cases with controversial solutions to attack utilitarianism is an unwise decision as a true utilitarian would simply tell you to bite the bullet. A better way to attack act utilitarianism would be to attack its premise that moral right stems from the greatest pleasure or happiness. While I, personally, am not a utilitarian I can understand the appeal of the theory as it gives us a method of figuring out which choices to make in difficult situations.

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How Did Act Of Utilitarianism Appear. (2019, Jul 31). Retrieved December 7, 2021 , from

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