Distinguish between utilitarianism and formalism.

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ac12 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This distinction is one found most commonly in business ethics.

Utilitarianism is an ethical doctrine that is based on the ethical theory of John Stuart Mill who, in turn, was influenced by the hedonistic ethics of Jeremy Bentham. According to utilitarianism, an action is good insofar as it maximizes good consequences or a good outcome. For example, if a utilitarian were asked to choose between an action that injured five people versus one that injured ten, the utilitarian would always choose the action that results in five people injured since this the best outcome. This, at least, is simple act utilitarianism.

Formalism, on the other hand, focuses on the rules that are right. Formalism is akin to deontological ethics associated with Immanuel Kant in that it places value on principles and rules rather than outcomes. If a wrong action results in fewer people being injured (to use the example from the previous paragraph), the formalist would not choose it. The outcome has no moral significance.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Formalism places emphasis on the act itself to determine whether it is right or wrong. Utilitarianism places emphasis on the situation arising from the act to determine whether the act is acceptable. Thus, utilitarianism is based on the maxim: "The end justifies the means."

Formalism is based on absolute values and dictates that for an action to be considered ethical it has to be morally sound or consistent. For instance, in the Bill of Rights, the rights of individuals are inalienable and should not be curtailed.

Utilitarianism is based on relative values assessed in situational contexts. Thus, the "wrong" thing can be done for the right reasons or if the typical "unethical" act results in higher benefits. For instance, one may be forced to lie in order to save a suspected thief from a lynch mob. In such a situation, the act of lying is considered unethical, but it might be the only way to save the suspect’s life and allow for due process.