British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, served many years as a member of parliament and worked diligently to bring forth liberal ideas. Amongst these ideas was the distinction of utilitarianism, or the act of doing what is right for the greatest number of people. Yet, just discussing the idea of right versus wrong for the masses was not enough, Mill’s determined there were two forms of utilitarianism; act, the direct form, or sanction, the indirect form. Much like formal logic with deductive and inductive reasoning, act and sanction utilitarianism strive for the same goal but have different ways of reaching it.
Both forms of utilitarianism are seeking to find the best possible outcome for the largest number of people and using that as a measure of right versus wrong, yet by examining the differences of act utilitarianism and sanction utilitarianism, it will become clear that sanction utilitarianism is superior and more easily attainable. Focusing on act utilitarianism, this direct form works in maxims, expanding the contrast between right and wrong. “An act is right and just in its consequences for human happiness are at least good as any alternative available to the agent” (9).
Since it began, there have been two main exponents of Utilitarianism. They are Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill, and both of them base their own individual theories on the principle of utility, which defines something (an act, etc) dependent on if it achieves “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. This makes Utilitarianism a relativistic and consequentialist argument, as it takes ...
Thus, it is your duty to do the optimal act in a situation because anything other than the best act is a wrong act. Furthermore, Mills also comments that it is considered a “righteous” act if the consequences are just as good or better than any other action. Staying within the ideas of right or wrong, or when decisions seem to commonly be referred to as “black or white,” there is also an ideal of proportions to consider. Remember that the act is right is if brings happiness to the most people, but one is incapable of pleasing every person in every situation.
Thus, Mills refers to the “Proportionality Doctrine” to tell what makes an act right or wrong. The Proportionality Doctrine states that acts are right if they promote happiness, or acts are wrong if they promote sadness. In act utilitarianism, each person is held to a duty to always make the best choices and perform the best actions. What that does though is “imply that I do wrong every time I fail to do the very best action, even when the suboptimal act that I perform is a very good deed.
That may seem harsh and overly demanding” (11).
Act utilitarianism is very demanding, having to always do the best thing all the time. What direct, or act utilitarianism implies is that if you fail to do the most optimal act then what you did was wrong, which is not always the case.
In contrast to act utilitarianism, sanction utilitarianism allows gray space in between the black and white ultimatums. Mill’s writes: “because it makes the rightness and wrongness of conduct depend upon the utility of sanctioning that conduct in some way, we might call it sanction utilitarianism” (11).
Here, Mill’s almost accepts that there are situations that will never be distinguished as exactly right and exactly wrong.
Yet, Mill’s also struggles to let got of act utilitarianism since there usually are only two options. Thus, indirectly, an act is right if and only if its optimal to apply sanctions to its omission, whereas applying sanctions is right if and only if it is optimal is a direct action. “The only difference is that whereas sanction utilitarianism ties rightness and wrongness to praise and blame, act utilitarianism does not” (12).
There are four kind acts that fall under sanction utilitarianism: 1. Wrong of forbidden acts are those whose performance it is optimal to blame 2.
Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes overall happiness. It is now generally taken to be a form of consequentialism, although when Anscombe first introduced that term it was to distinguish between “old-fashioned Utilitarianism” and consequentialism.  According to utilitarianism the moral worth of an action ...
Permissible acts are those whose performance it is not optimal to blame 3. Obligatory acts are those whose omission it is optimal to blame 4. Supererogatory acts are permissible acts that are especially expedient (11) Here, these four actions seem to take on new meanings: while of course forbidden acts are optimal to blame negative reactions on (they are forbidden for a reason), it is now possible to see that the blame has a purpose behind it since the act caused proportionally the most damage. Unlike act utilitarianism, sanction utilitarianism is clear about which acts are sanctioned and which ones are not.
In comparison, both forms of utilitarianism tend to seek the best possible outcome for he highest number of people, yet they have varying degrees of severity. People feel that when it comes to act utilitarianism, if you are not doing the best action each end every second, then whatever else you do is considered wrong. Living with the constant fear that your every action is scrutinized leaves those who practice act utilitarianism demoralized and deflated. It is also exhausting to have to be doing the best thing all the time and society does not naturally possess the ability to be a “hero” every waking moment.
It would seem that sanction utilitarianism is more probable because it promotes a more feel good way of life. Your actions are all driven by a desire to do the right thing, but if you fail from time to time, as long as the intention was there, you are doing all right. “In arguing sanction utilitarianism, Mill’s claims that it allows him to distinguish duty and expediency and claim that not all inexpedient acts are wrong; inexpedient acts are only wrong when it is good or optimal to sanction them” (11).
This means that sanction utilitarianism is more preferable and attainable than act utilitarianism when it comes to acts of duty. Therefore, a person would see this flexibility in sanction utilitarianism as a way to be seeking the righteous actions while being less demanding than act utilitarianism. Sanction utilitarianism is a superior alternative to act utilitarianism because it is flexible, forgiving and attainable. Humans are one of the most imperfect species on the planet and with highly evolved social politics; it is completely impossible to please everyone at the same time.
Take into consideration the very foundation of democracy, selecting the best candidate for the job based on a populous vote. If everyone were voting under the basis of selecting the best person for the most number of people, then they would all vote for the same person. There has never been an election where a single candidate won every vote, and thus it proves that humans are incapable of behaving under complete act utilitarianism. On the other hand, it is good to hold yourself to the highest standards and expect the most out of yourself and think that you should always be doing the best thing.
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The flexibility of sanction utilitarianism is that individual morals and ethics come into play for each person, allowing them to wander between right and wrong finding the best outcome that may be a blend of the two. Take for instance the selection of which college to go to: your personality, likes, dislikes and more come into consideration and while the student wants to find a reputable school, they also have to find a place to call home for four years. If the student chooses the wrong location, it makes their lives miserable, their roommate’s life unbearable, and the family’s life saddened.
Thus, the student had to balance every option and maybe give in on reputation for the best social fit, whereas under act utilitarianism, they would have picked a school solely on reputation alone since theoretically, that would lead them to the best possible outcome. Also, under sanction utilitarianism, if a choice is made and it turns out to be wrong, a new choice can be made to counteract the first giving sanction utilitarianism a sense of forgiveness. Combining these two ideals, flexibility and forgiveness, sanction utilitarianism reins superior over act utilitarianism because it is attainable.
While both forms of utilitarianism are seeking to find the best possible outcome for the largest number of people, through examining the differences of act utilitarianism and sanction utilitarianism, it became clear that sanction utilitarianism is superior through its attainable qualities. In act utilitarianism the path for right over wrong is very demanding, requiring someone to always do the best thing all of the time. Ultimately, what direct utilitarianism implies is that you fail when what you did was wrong, which may not always be the case.
Unlike act utilitarianism, sanction utilitarianism is clear about which acts are sanctioned and which ones are not, which allows someone to strive for their best but not harm them if they fail. Sanction utilitarianism is more preferable and attainable than act utilitarianism when it comes to acts of duty because a person would see the flexibility in sanction utilitarianism as a way to be seeking the righteous actions while being less demanding than act utilitarianism.
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While humanity is incapable of following act utilitarianism, the forgiveness built into sanction utilitarianism is preferred, since if the choice made turns out to be wrong, a new choice can be made to counteract the first. Combining these two ideals, flexibility and forgiveness, sanction utilitarianism becomes attainable for humanity and it rises in superiority over act utilitarianism.