Application Guidelines

Application Guidelines


  All versions of utilitarian theory are based on the idea that we ought to try bring about the best balance of good and evil. Act‑utilitarianism is the simplest version of utilitarian theory.   Utilitarians use a version of the "utilitarian principle" (or "principle of utility") to decide whether actions are ethically right or wrong. Here is a version of this principle:  

(AU) An act is morally right if and only if it maximizes social (total) utility (i.e. the utility of everyone affected by the act).

  An act "maximizes social utility" if it produces the best overall consequences compared to other alternatives (other acts that could be performed).   Utilitarian theory is different from other versions of consequentialism, e.g., ethical‑egoism or (extreme) ethical‑altruism, or the best interest principle. Utilitarians take into account interests of all affected by some action. Ethical egoists and altruists are concern with only some of those beings. Roughly speaking, egoists are concerned with themselves (but not others), altruists are concerned with others (but not with themselves). The best interest principle has a very limited scope; it applies to specific situations that may occur between professionals and their clients.   Steps to follow in order to ethically evaluate an act from a utilitarian perspective:   1) Identify the consequences of the act, taking into account

A) the consequences for everyone affected by the act;

B) both the positive and the negative consequences of the act; positive consequences are benefits (also known as "positive utility"); negative consequences are harms (a.k.a. "negative utility");

C) long‑term and short‑term consequences of the act.

  2) Compare the positive and negative consequences of the act to the consequences of alternative acts the person in question could perform in the given situation.   3) Make a judgment about the ethical rightness/wrongness of the act based on 1) and 2) above.   The act is right if it is the one (given the available alternatives) that produces the best balance of positive over negative consequences (in other words, it is right if it "maximizes utility").   Utility and Intrinsic Value: Classical utilitarians were hedonists. That is, they were focussed on pleasure and pain. Bentham and Mill used the term "happiness." However, they defined happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. That is, their theory of happiness was different than, e.g., the theory of eudaimonia‑happiness‑flourishing offered by Aristotle, Aquinas, and others.   Other utilitarians often consider other kinds of benefits and harms as well. "Intrinsic Value and the Isolation Test" provides a short summary of various view about what kind of things can be good or bad when taken in themselves.  

Possible harms:

  • Pain
  • Loss of pleasure
  • Death (losing consciousness)  
  • Loss of abilities
  • Loss of freedom

Possible benefits:

  • Reduction of pain

  • Pleasure

  • Conscious life

  • Gaining abilities

  • Gain of freedom (freedom)



Kant uses “categorical imperative(s)” to decide whether actions are ethically right or wrong. There are several versions or formulations of the categorical imperative. Two most frequently discussed (and covered in our book) are the formula of universal moral law and the formula of respect. The latter version is often considered the easiest to apply; it can be formulated as follows:

(KIr) An act is ethically right if and only if it does not involve treating a person merely as a means.

 Many people have presented different interpretations of the notion of “treating a person merely as a means.” Most agree, though, on at least this much: we treat someone merely as a means when we use them to achieve an end or purpose without respecting their autonomy in the process. For example, if a person uses trickery, manipulation, deception, or coercion then, most likely, he is violating someone’s autonomy

It is ethically permissible, according to Kant, to treat someone as a means to achieve an end or purpose (e.g., to use them as a means to get somewhere by asking them for a ride); but it is ethically wrong according to Kant to treat them merely as a means by using them to achieve an end or purpose without respecting their autonomy (e.g., to use them as a means to get somewhere by putting a gun to their head and hijacking their car).

In order to ethically evaluate an act using the second formulation of the categorical imperative, ask yourself whether the act would involve treating a person merely as a means. 

In other words, ask yourself whether the person performing the act would be using any person to achieve an end or purpose without respecting their autonomy in the process. If the act in question would involve treating someone merely as a means, then it is wrong.

Complications: What if every action affects someone’s autonomy?

Kant did not think it a real possibility. He is an absolutist about moral rules. For Kant, moral rules must be very simple; they admit to no exceptions. (Notice, Kant’s theory is different in this respect from utilitarian theory.) He also thinks that, no matter what, we can do something that does not violate anyone’s autonomy.

Contemporary Kantians (neo-Kantians) think that my choices (my rational will)sometimes clash with your choices. So, as a matter of life necessities, sometimes we have to infringe on someone’s autonomy. However, not every infringement is automatically the violation of autonomy.

When we infringe upon someone’s autonomy, we must have good reasons to do so (e.g., it prevents an even bigger infringement or, perhaps, some enormous harm). Furthermore, we must constrain someone’s autonomy as little as possible. Thus, some contemporary Kantians  postulate that an action is right if it limits someone’s autonomy less than other alternatives.