Rule utilitarianism is an ethical theory that proposes that an action should be considered morally right if it follows a rule leading to the best overall outcome for individuals in society.
Such a view of morality differs from traditional utilitarianism, suggesting that each action should be judged according to its consequences.
In contrast, rule utilitarianism emphasizes following certain rules or principles rather than calculating the consequences of every situation individually.
Rule utilitarians believe that by adhering to certain governing principles, individuals are more likely to reach a positive outcome than they would if they were making decisions based on their own preferences or desires.
Generally speaking, these rules or principles should lead to increased happiness or decreased suffering.
In other words, people should act in such a way as to bring about the greatest amount of good and minimize any potential harm.
Rule Utilitarianism Definition
Rule utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that advocates for using general rules in determining which actions are morally permissible and preferable.
It proposes that actions should be judged according to their consistency with general rules rather than focusing on the consequences of each case individually.
According to Murray (2018),
“…rule utilitarianism is a form of utilitarian ethics that says an action is right as it conforms to a rule (not just a discrete act) that leads to the greatest good, or that the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance” (p. 94).
This approach seeks to maximize the overall outcome for individuals by following certain governing principles or rules likely to lead to increased happiness or decreased suffering.
Nathanson (2011) states that:
“…according to rule utilitarians, we should judge the morality of individual actions by reference to general moral rules, and the correct moral rules are those rules whose general acceptance would maximize well-being” (p. 194).
For example, if a rule is established that stealing is wrong, then all instances of stealing should be judged according to this same rule, regardless of the individual case or context.
Simply, rule utilitarianism seeks to ensure that the greatest amount of good is being done for the most people possible.
Rule Utilitarianism Examples
- Refraining from lying: According to rule utilitarianism, lies should be avoided as a general rule because they can lead to mistrust and deception in society. Additionally, the consequences of a lie will often outweigh any benefit gained by telling it.
- Respect for property rights: Rule utilitarians believe that individuals should have the right to own and control their property so long as they are not violating the rights of others. It allows people to pursue their interests without fear of interference from others or government entities.
- Abide by laws and regulations: For society to function properly, individuals must abide by the laws and regulations set forth by governments and governing bodies to maintain social order and stability. This principle helps ensure fairness and justice for all members of society.
- Follow traffic rules: Driving is potentially dangerous, so following traffic rules can help reduce risk by ensuring drivers follow the same guidelines when operating a vehicle. Such actions reduce accidents and help keep roads safe for everyone who uses them.
- Adhere to workplace policies: Establishing clear rules and expectations at work can help create an environment where productivity is maximized while still respecting the rights of employees. For example, following attendance policies ensures that workers are held accountable for being on time while allowing them certain privileges, such as sick days and vacation days, that could be abused otherwise.
- Do not take a life: Taking someone’s life or causing them physical harm infringes on their rights in a way that cannot be reversed. Rule utilitarianism considers such acts immoral because, even if they might lead to greater happiness or less suffering for others in the future, the damage done is irreversible.
- Communicate respectively: Communication greatly impacts our relationships with other people, both professionally and personally. So having respectful conversations is essential to maintain stable, healthy relationships with those around us, even when disagreeing with them on certain matters.
- Live honestly: Rule utilitarians believe actions should be judged according to general principles rather than individual cases. It implies that individuals should always strive to live honestly instead of taking advantage of situations where dishonesty may yield short-term rewards but ultimately cause more harm than good over time.
- Be industrious: Staying true to commitments, giving your best effort even when it’s not recognized, and persisting towards goals, although challenges are examples of living by rule utilitarianism principles. Nevertheless, these principles suggest that striving for excellence helps us move closer to greater overall happiness.
- Appreciate natural resources: Natural resources should be appreciated since they are limited. Treating them respectfully allows us all to enjoy their beauty without compromising the environment or anyone’s right to access them.
- Practice equality and fairness: Rule utilitarians advocate for treating all individuals with equal respect and fairness, regardless of their background or social status. By doing so, society can create a more inclusive environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and contribute to the greater good.
- Prioritize self-care and mental health: Maintaining one’s mental and physical health should be considered a rule within utilitarianism, as it allows individuals to perform at their best and contribute positively to society. By taking care of oneself, individuals can better support others and promote overall happiness.
- Respect privacy: Respecting others’ privacy is an essential principle in rule utilitarianism. It helps maintain trust, dignity, and autonomy within relationships and society. By following this rule, individuals can foster a society where everyone’s personal boundaries are respected and valued.
- Encourage community involvement: Participating in community activities, such as neighborhood events, volunteering, or supporting local businesses, can strengthen social ties and contribute to the overall well-being of the community. Rule utilitarians would argue that engaging in such activities benefits the greater good by fostering collaboration, unity, and shared goals.
- Practice responsible consumption: Rule utilitarians believe that individuals should consume goods and services in a manner that is sustainable and mindful of the environment, as well as the well-being of others. By practicing responsible consumption, society can work towards preserving resources for future generations and minimizing negative impacts on the environment and vulnerable populations.
Strong Rule Utilitarianism (SRU) vs. Weak Rule Utilitarianism (WRU)
While both philosophies focus on creating general rules for people to follow to maximize overall utility, SRU and WRU differ in prioritizing the rules.
Here is how they differ:
1. Strong Rule Utilitarianism
Strong rule utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that advocates for following rules, even when the outcomes in individual cases do not appear to benefit the greater good (Thompson, 2017).
Such adherence to rules aims to produce more positive consequences for society over time.
An example of strong rule utilitarianism would be adhering to traffic regulations. People may think of situations where breaking the speed limit or running a red light could be faster.
However, they still follow traffic rules to respect other drivers and pedestrians. They trust that these laws help maintain order and safety on the roads.
2. Weak Rule Utilitarianism
Weak rule utilitarianism instead suggests that certain rules may be worth breaking to achieve better outcomes (Thompson, 2017).
Weak rule utilitarians believe that while general guidelines are important, they should also be flexible to accommodate results in individual cases when it would lead to an overall greater benefit than following the existing rule set.
For example, if lying could prevent harm, weak rule utilitarians might argue that it’s acceptable because avoiding harm would lead to greater happiness rather than strictly following the ethical rule against lying.
So, while strong rule utilitarianism focuses on adhering to rules to achieve utility, weak rule utilitarianism suggests that some flexibility is required when it comes to creating general rules and guidelines to maximize utility (Thompson, 2017).
Benefits of Rule Utilitarianism
Rule utilitarianism has several benefits that can be seen in terms of its ability to promote ethical behavior and social order.
By adhering to a set of rules, individuals can better understand the expected standards for their actions and those of others.
Such clarity enables people to make decisions confidently, which can lead to greater efficiency in how tasks are completed and improved trust between different members of society.
Additionally, rule utilitarianism allows for a more consistent approach to decision-making since every individual is expected to follow the same guiding principles, thus eliminating any potential bias or favoritism when judging right and wrong.
Criticism of Rule Utilitarianism
Rule utilitarianism has been criticized due to its emphasis on rigid rules and its potential for glossing over important ethical considerations.
One issue is its lack of flexibility, as certain first-order principles might be seen as overriding in certain circumstances despite any perceived long-term benefits.
Additionally, there can exist ambiguity when deciding whether a rule should be imposed due to the difficulty in assessing which outcomes would provide the greatest net positive benefit for society.
Another criticism of rule utilitarianism is that it may fail to appreciate individual autonomy since individuals are expected to conform to existing guidelines even when those actions do not align with their beliefs or values.
Act Utilitarianism vs. Rule Utilitarianism
While both philosophies strive to maximize utility, the main difference lies in their approach. Act utilitarians focus on individual cases, while rule utilitarians emphasize general principles (Hooker & Perry, 2012).
- Act utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory that states that an action should be judged by its consequences. It suggests that the most moral course of action involves focusing on the results of each situation and then choosing the one with the greatest overall net positive benefit.
- Rule utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory aiming to maximize the overall outcome for everyone by following certain governing principles or rules likely to lead to increased happiness or decreased suffering for individuals and society.
The main difference between act and rule utilitarianism is how they weigh the effects of action (Hooker & Perry, 2012).
While act utilitarians focus on the consequences of individual acts, rule utilitarians take a more general approach and consider how a given action would be affected by the rules and principles governing it.
Read More: Act Utilitarianism vs Rule Utilitarianism
Rule utilitarianism is an ethical theory that emphasizes following general rules or principles to achieve the best overall outcomes for individuals in society.
People can foster trust, promote social order, and ensure fairness by adhering to these guiding principles. However, this approach has faced criticism due to its rigidity and potential for overlooking individual autonomy.
Nonetheless, rule utilitarianism provides a framework for ethical decision-making that offers clarity and consistency and promotes the greater good.
By understanding and applying this ethical theory in various aspects of life, individuals can strive towards greater happiness and reduced suffering, ultimately benefiting society.
Hooker, B. (2012). Acts or rules? God, the Good, and Utilitarianism, 125–138. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781107279629.009
Murray, T. (2018). Identity, Islam and the twilight of liberal values. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Nathanson, S. (2011). Terrorism and the ethics of war. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, M. (2017). Philosophy for life: Teach yourself. Los Angeles: Teach Yourself.