What is the difference between a ‘bonific’ act and an ‘optimific’ one?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Philosopher W.D. Ross, in "What Makes Right Acts, Right?" offers a number of definitions related to actions often chosen by individuals.

Among other behaviors, Ross focuses on altruism, hedonism, ethical altruism, ethical egoism, and hedonistic, ideal, and pluralistic utilitarianism.

The point of examining these behavioral choices is to determine whether the action itself and its consequences, has more moral and ethical value than the intention to conduct the action. In other words, what is the point of going to volunteer in a soup kitchen, and feed hundreds of homeless people if you are doing it against your will?

Or rather, does feeding hundreds of homeless people by volunteering in a soup kitchen supersede the fact that you are not happy to do it...then again, you are doing it anyways, doesn't that make you a highly ethical person? To what extent is willfulness really as important as the action itself?

As with every philosophical issue, there is no concise answer. It is all in the hands of what the majority could consider proper or improper; good or bad; correct or incorrect. For this reason, Ross offers two types of actions: bonific and optimific.

A bonific action is one that produces a least a small amount of "goodness". The soup kitchen scenario could be condoned by a bonific perspective if we consider that, whether the volunteer wants to be there or not, at least "some good" came out of the action; homeless people were fed.

An optimific action is one that causes as much good as any other action. The contrast between bonific and optimific is that bonific refer to "least amount of good", while optimific refers to "maximum amount of good".

The soup kitchen scenario could be seen from an optimific perspective when we apply quantitative data to the actions of the unsympathetic volunteer. Regardless of his attitude, his actions may be seen as optimific because he served an X (high) amount of homeless people. Who cares if he wanted to do it or not? His actions were beneficial, in the end.

The use of bonific and optimific perspectives when judging action is particularly good for criminal cases and civil cases when the state of mind of a defendant is in question. Since judgement/state of mind itself cannot be quantified, the extent to which the state of mind affects the outcomes of an action are contrasted: if anything bonific, or better yet optimific, is achieved, then the state of mind, whether agreeable or disagreeable, can be dismissed as inconsequential.