Guide A Theory of Human Action

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Utilitarianism , in normative ethics , a tradition stemming from the late 18th- and 19th-century English philosophers and economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill according to which an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce the reverse of happiness—not just the happiness of the performer of the action but also that of everyone affected by it. Such a theory is in opposition to egoism , the view that a person should pursue his own self-interest, even at the expense of others, and to any ethical theory that regards some acts or types of acts as right or wrong independently of their consequences see deontological ethics.

Utilitarianism also differs from ethical theories that make the rightness or wrongness of an act dependent upon the motive of the agent, for, according to the utilitarian, it is possible for the right thing to be done from a bad motive.

Theory of Human Action and Interaction (THAI)

Utilitarians may, however, distinguish the aptness of praising or blaming an agent from whether the act was right. In the notion of consequences the utilitarian includes all of the good and bad produced by the act, whether arising after the act has been performed or during its performance. If the difference in the consequences of alternative acts is not great, some utilitarians do not regard the choice between them as a moral issue.

According to Mill, acts should be classified as morally right or wrong only if the consequences are of such significance that a person would wish to see the agent compelled, not merely persuaded and exhorted, to act in the preferred manner. In assessing the consequences of actions, utilitarianism relies upon some theory of intrinsic value : something is held to be good in itself, apart from further consequences, and all other values are believed to derive their worth from their relation to this intrinsic good as a means to an end. Bentham and Mill were hedonists ; i.

Utilitarians also assume that it is possible to compare the intrinsic values produced by two alternative actions and to estimate which would have better consequences.


  • Human Action: A Treatise on Economics.
  • Action (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy);
  • Human Actions and Aquinas's Moral Theory.
  • Introduction.
  • The nature of utilitarianism.
  • Modern harmony: its explanation and application.
  • Abstracting and Indexing?

Bentham believed that a hedonic calculus is theoretically possible. A moralist, he maintained, could sum up the units of pleasure and the units of pain for everyone likely to be affected, immediately and in the future, and could take the balance as a measure of the overall good or evil tendency of an action.

Such precise measurement as Bentham envisioned is perhaps not essential, but it is nonetheless necessary for the utilitarian to make some interpersonal comparisons of the values of the effects of alternative courses of action. As a normative system providing a standard by which an individual ought to act and by which the existing practices of society, including its moral code, ought to be evaluated and improved, utilitarianism cannot be verified or confirmed in the way in which a descriptive theory can, but it is not regarded by its exponents as simply arbitrary.

Bentham and Mill both believed that human actions are motivated entirely by pleasure and pain, and Mill saw that motivation as a basis for the argument that, since happiness is the sole end of human action, the promotion of happiness is the test by which to judge all human conduct. In addition, he reasoned that utilitarianism could solve the difficulties and perplexities that arise from the vagueness and inconsistencies of commonsense doctrines.

Most opponents of utilitarianism have held that it has implications contrary to their moral intuitions—that considerations of utility, for example, might sometimes sanction the breaking of a promise.

Human Action: A Chapter-by-Chapter Summary | Mises Institute

Some utilitarians, however, have sought to modify the utilitarian theory to account for the objections. One such criticism is that, although the widespread practice of lying and stealing would have bad consequences, resulting in a loss of trustworthiness and security, it is not certain that an occasional lie to avoid embarrassment or an occasional theft from a rich person would not have good consequences and thus be permissible or even required by utilitarianism.


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But the utilitarian readily answers that the widespread practice of such acts would result in a loss of trustworthiness and security. I Ought, Therefore I Can. Peter B. Vranas - - Philosophical Studies 2 Goldman, a Theory of Human Action. Joseph Margolis - - Metaphilosophy 5 4 — David-Hillel Ruben - - In J. Buckareff eds.

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