Act and rule utilitarianism are both forms of utilitarianism, a philosophical approach to morality that states an action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
- Act utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of individual actions and assesses them based on their expected utility or benefit. It evaluates actions separately, considering each one in terms of its effect on happiness or pleasure. Act utilitarianism means an act may be considered morally right even if it violates traditional notions of justice or individual rights.
- Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, considers larger sets of actions rather than just individual acts. It looks at how certain rules or norms can maximize utility for society when followed by everyone. This approach considers justice and individual rights, as it promotes rules that benefit everyone in the long run without disadvantaging certain groups more than others.
While both approaches seek to optimize overall utility, they consider different aspects when assessing ethical decisions.
Definition of Act Utilitarianism
Act utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that evaluates individual actions based on their expected utility or benefit.
It states that an act is morally right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people, disregarding considerations such as justice or individual rights.
As stated by Jenkins (2003),
“…according to act utilitarians, the principle of utility must be directly applied to each situation – it is the value of the consequences of the particular act that counts when determining whether the act is right” (p. 90).
For example, an individual may lie to avoid causing harm to another, which would be seen as a morally right act according to act utilitarianism.
In such a situation, the expected good or pleasure from preserving someone’s feelings would be seen as outweighing the bad or harm caused by lying.
Simply, act utilitarianism seeks to pick the best action in any given situation.
10 Examples of Act Utilitarianism
- A doctor performs a medical procedure intending to save a life, even if it violates certain ethical codes.
- A nurse administering painkilling medication to an injured patient, even if it violates safety regulations.
- An engineer designing a bridge that reduces traffic congestion in an area, even if it goes over budget or causes noise pollution.
- A mayor granting permission to build apartments in an area with low housing availability, even if it increases local crime rates and decreases property values in the short term.
- A factory manager allows for the hiring of additional workers to reduce wait times for customers, even if it drives up labor costs slightly.
- An entrepreneur starts a business that would bring new jobs to the community but only yields a small profit margin for themselves personally.
- A student chooses to study for an exam instead of going out with friends, despite it being more pleasant at the moment to socialize than studying for hours on end.
- An employee spending extra time at work voluntarily to help out another colleague complete her project on time and prevent the downsizing of staff at their company due to budget constraints elsewhere in the company structure.
- A parent sacrifices his own comfort so his children can have better educational opportunities abroad or access higher quality medical care closer to home.
- A teacher invests extra effort into educating students from disadvantaged backgrounds so they can have better chances of success later on in life.
Definition of Rule Utilitarianism
Rule utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that evaluates moral actions based on their expected utility or benefit over a while.
It states that an act is morally right if it would lead to the most desirable consequences in the long term for everyone rather than focusing on short-term benefits to only some people.
This form of utilitarianism considers factors such as justice and individual rights, so it generally emphasizes following established guidelines or rules, even if they don’t always offer the ideal solution in each situation (Mokriski, 2019).
According to Copp (2007),
“…rule utilitarianism claims that an action is right just in case it conforms to a rule the general acceptance of which by humanity would have consequences at least as good for humanity as any alternative rule” (p. 384).
For instance, an individual may choose not to lie even if it means causing harm to someone else, as the expected good or pleasure from honesty for most people in society is seen as outweighing the harm caused by a single lie.
Rule utilitarianism promotes following rules that are expected to lead to the greatest good for most people in any situation.
10 Examples of Rule Utilitarianism
- A police officer arrests a criminal according to the local laws, despite there being a minor chance of justice being served in that particular situation.
- An employee follows the company’s rules and regulations even though it may seem inconvenient at the moment.
- An elected official voting according to their party’s platform, even if it goes against their own personal view on certain issues.
- A judge decides a case based on existing precedents rather than attempting to find a new solution for the individual case.
- A state passing legislation that prevents discrimination and unfair treatment of citizens based on race or gender to create an equal playing field within its borders.
- A store manager enforces store policies to treat all customers fairly and respectfully, regardless of their background or economic status.
- A student is adhering to school rules such as attendance policies and academic integrity guidelines even when they sometimes conflict with their interests or beliefs.
- The government introduces programs that help the poor and needy while allowing citizens to express their opinions freely without fear of retribution or violence used against them by authorities.
- Companies offer fair wages and benefits for workers instead of exploiting them for maximum profit margins only.
- Employees complying with safety regulations, even if cutting corners, could bring more immediate benefits like reducing expenses or speeding up processes temporarily.
Similarities between Act and Rule Utilitarianism
Act and rule utilitarianism share many similarities, aiming to achieve the greatest good for most people. They both evaluate moral actions based on their expected utility or benefit over time and consider factors such as justice and individual rights (Crimmins, 2017).
Here are some general similarities between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism:
1. Utilitarian Roots
Both act and rule utilitarianism is derived from the broader utilitarian ethical framework, which is based on the principle of maximizing utility or well-being for the largest number of people.
Both theories aim to promote happiness and minimize suffering in moral decision-making (Crimmins, 2017).
2. Consequentialist Nature
Both act and rule utilitarianism is consequentialist theories, meaning they evaluate the morality of an action based on its outcomes or consequences.
They emphasize that the right action is the one that leads to the best overall results, whether on a case-by-case basis (act utilitarianism) or by following general rules (rule utilitarianism).
3. The Greatest Happiness Principle
Both theories are guided by the Greatest Happiness Principle, which seeks to maximize overall happiness and minimize suffering.
Therefore, they prioritize promoting well-being and reducing pain and unhappiness in their ethical considerations (Crimmins, 2017).
Both act and rule utilitarianism requires impartiality in decision-making, meaning that the interests and well-being of all affected individuals should be considered equally, without favoritism or bias.
This impartiality ensures that ethical decisions do not unfairly benefit or harm certain individuals or groups over others.
5. Focus on Practical Decision-making
Both act and rule utilitarianism emphasizes the importance of making practical and real-world ethical decisions.
They both provide a framework for individuals to consider the consequences of their actions and make choices that aim to benefit (Crimmins, 2017).
Go Deeper: Decision-Making Examples
Differences between Act and Rule Utilitarianism
While act and rule utilitarianism share some general similarities, there are also several important differences between the two theories focused on how they evaluate moral decisions (Crimmins, 2017).
Here are the main differences between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism:
1. Evaluation of Individual Actions vs. General Rules
Act utilitarianism evaluates each action based on the specific situation and its consequences.
In contrast, rule utilitarianism emphasizes establishing and adhering to general moral rules, which are expected to produce the best overall outcomes when consistently followed (Crimmins, 2017).
2. Flexibility vs. Consistency
Act utilitarianism allows for greater flexibility in decision-making, as it requires assessing each situation independently without relying on pre-established rules. In addition, this approach can accommodate varying contexts and unique circumstances.
Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, values consistency and the application of the same moral principles across similar situations, even if it may not lead to the best outcome in a particular case (Crimmins, 2017).
3. Decision-Making Process
In act utilitarianism, individuals must carefully consider the specific consequences of each potential action and choose the one that leads to the greatest overall utility.
Rule utilitarianism simplifies this process by providing general guidelines, making decision-making quicker and more straightforward in many cases.
4. Potential for Conflicting Outcomes
Act utilitarianism may sometimes lead to decisions that conflict with commonly accepted moral rules or principles, as it focuses solely on maximizing overall utility.
Rule utilitarianism is less likely to result in such conflicts, as it adheres to established moral guidelines even if they do not yield the best outcome in a specific case.
5. Long-Term vs. Short-Term Consequences
Rule utilitarianism emphasizes the long-term consequences of following moral rules, as it assumes that consistent adherence to these rules will lead to the best overall results over time.
In contrast, act utilitarianism focuses on each action’s immediate consequences, which may not always align with long-term goals or considerations.
So, while act and rule utilitarianism share a common goal of maximizing overall utility, there are some key differences between the two in evaluating moral decisions and prioritizing certain consequences over others (Crimmins, 2017).
Act and rule utilitarianism are two distinct approaches to the utilitarian ethical framework, seeking to maximize overall happiness and minimize suffering.
While act utilitarianism focuses on evaluating individual actions based on their specific consequences, rule utilitarianism emphasizes establishing and adhering to general moral rules that consistently produce the best outcomes.
Both theories share similarities, such as their consequentialist nature, impartiality, and focus on practical decision-making.
However, they also differ in their flexibility, decision-making process, and consideration of long-term versus short-term consequences.
Understanding the nuances between act and rule utilitarianism allows us to appreciate the complexities of ethical decision-making and the various factors that can influence our choices.
Ultimately, both approaches strive to achieve the same goal: promoting the greatest good for many people.
Copp, D. (2007). The Oxford handbook of ethical theory. Oxford University Press.
Crimmins, J. E. (2017). The Bloomsbury encyclopedia of utilitarianism. Bloomsbury Academic.
Jenkins, J. (2003). Ethics and religion. Heinemann Educational.
Mokriski, D. (2019). The eligibility of rule utilitarianism. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 17(3). https://doi.org/10.26556/jesp.v17i3.792