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Act Utilitarianism versus Rule Utilitarianism

Updated on February 17, 2011
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill | Source
Jerermy Bentham
Jerermy Bentham | Source

Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill?

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is sometimes cited as the slogan of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism can be considered a type of welfarist consequentialism that requires all actions provide the greatest happiness. Utilitarians are hard universalists that believe in the principle of utility as the one universal moral code. This principle of utility is also known as the greatest happiness principle, and it states that when choosing a course of action an individual should always choose the action that will maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness for the greatest number of people. Within the ethical ideology of utilitarianism, however, different formulations do exist. One formulation of utilitarianism is act-utilitarianism and another is rule-utilitarianism. While these different formulations contain some similarities, rule-utilitarianism provides a better framework for making ethical decisions.

Both act-utilitarians and rule-utilitarians, nonetheless, believe when making ethical decisions that an action is wrong if it produces bad consequences and right if it produces good consequences. Consequences are deemed morally wrong if they minimize utility, thereby imparting an undesirable state of affairs recognized as unhappiness. Conversely, consequences are deemed morally right if they maximize utility, thereby imparting a desirable state of affairs recognized as happiness; however, if two different courses of action yield good consequences, by choosing the one that produces fewer good consequences, a person would be morally wrong. In addition, both act-utilitarians and rule-utilitarians also demand that an individual strives to maximize the happiness of the group as a whole, not just to maximize the utility of the self. This demands that an individual must be unbiased between the interests of the self and the interests of all; therefore, it is necessary for an individual to regard the maximization of utility from the third person point of view, not from the first person, singular “I,” point of view. If an individual maximizes his/her own happiness it must result in the maximization of the group’s happiness as well. This demand of impartiality creates universality among utilitarians by destroying egoism and thus asserting that all individuals aim at the same goal: the maximization of the group’s happiness as a whole.

Act-utilitarianism nonetheless, in regards to maximization of the group’s happiness as a whole, provides the most straightforward version of utilitarianism by maintaining that the principle of utility entails that an individual always do whatever act will create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Each act is considered only by its own consequences, thus emphasizing only a singular situation. In each situation, therefore, the only criterion of an action’s rightness is that it maximizes utility. The person accredited with this formulation of act-utilitarianism is Jeremy Bentham. Bentham believed that what is pleasurable is good and what is painful is bad; therefore, his moral theory is based on hedonism. Not only did Bentham believe what is pleasurable is good, but also he contested that pleasure or happiness is the ultimate intrinsic value, and anything that helps attain happiness or evade pain is of instrumental value. Bentham argues this pleasure can be both intrinsic and instrumental.

In addition, Bentham also declared that each person decides what is good or bad and thus his principle becomes egalitarian. Bentham’s principle is considered egalitarian because each individual ascertains what is his/her greatest pleasure; however, no person has the right to determine what should be pleasurable for another individual. To determine how an individual must act in order to maximize utility, Bentham created a hedonistic calculus. In this calculation, an individual must assign numerical values to the seven proposed consequences: intensity, duration, certain or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness, fecundity, purity, and extent. Once an individual examines these aspects, he/she must total all the values of all the pleasures on one side and those of all the pains on another side. The individual must take the balance, which if is on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act. Bentham believed the calculation was an infallible system for rational choice; however, not all utilitarians accepted this calculation as being foolproof. Some utilitarians argued that Bentham’s hedonistic calculation did not actually provide for overall happiness in the future, as the consequences being evaluated are hypothetical and have yet to transpire. Not only are the consequences hypothetical, but also it is unclear how long an individual must wait to determine whether or not his/her actions were morally right. The problems presented by the hedonistic calculus thus directed a second formulation of utilitarianism: rule-utilitarianism.

While rule-utilitarianism still accepts the creed that maintains that actions are right if they tend to promote happiness and wrong if they tend to produce the reverse of happiness, it distinguishes between the type of act and the context in which the act occurs. Not only does rule utilitarianism distinguish between the type of act and the context in which it occurs, but also it distinguishes between the types of pleasures, high and low, and their relation to happiness; thus, happiness and pleasure cease to be synonyms as they are in act-utilitarianism. Rule-utilitarianism also considers more than just a singular situation and maintains that the principle of utility asserts that an individual should always do whatever type of act will create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Rule-utilitarianism, by considering the type of situation that could possibly recur, sets up rules for types of situations, and a right action therefore must be in accord with these rules that maximize utility. This allows for focusing on the good consequences of a certain type of act rather than the singular act itself, and the concept that grounds the place of rules is the principle of harm. John Stuart Mill is accredited with determining this principle of harm in his philosophical work On Liberty:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others…The only part of conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Not only does rule-utilitarianism set up rules through the grounding of the harm principle, but also it fortifies the Golden Rule by affirming that an individual should not do something if [he/she] can’t imagine it as a rule for everybody, because a rule not suited for everyone simply cannot have good overall consequences. The validity of a rule, thereby, is dependent on the specificity of similar circumstances and exceptions. By specifying the necessary conditions and acceptable exceptions in a rule, the utilitarian ideal is sustained, because the rule will maximize utility for the greater number of people.

Mill, unlike Bentham, did not believe people were content with basic pleasures. Mill contends that pleasures can differ in quality and quantity and that certain kinds of pleasures are more desirable and ultimately more valuable than other pleasures. Mill consequently constructed a hierarchy of pleasures, with the higher pleasures appealing to higher faculties. Mill argues that those most competent to judge a pleasure’s quality must possess knowledge of both higher and lower pleasures, and that accordingly their judgment be deemed final. Mill also declares that the standard for judging an act is not the individual’s own happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness in sum; therefore, Mill, similar to Bentham, believes it is imperative that an individual does not value his/her own happiness over others.

Although both act and rule-utilitarianism are two formulations of the same ethical theory, rule utilitarianism provides the stronger framework for reaching ethical decisions. Rule-utilitarianism provides the stronger framework for reaching ethical decisions, because it implements rules for types of situations while demanding that a right action be in accord with these rules. By implementing rules, rule-utilitarianism overcomes one problem that faces act-utilitarianism, because it considers more than a singular act itself, and therefore accounts for the possibility of an action occurring again at a later date with negative consequences. Act-utilitarianism, nonetheless, fails in this regard, because it only is concerned with a singular action rather than the type and context in which the action occurs, thereby disregarding the possibility of an action occurring again with negative consequences. Rule-utilitarianism thus is not only concerned with present actions and the present situation, but also it is concerned with future actions and the future situation. Through the concern with possible reoccurrence, through the concern with the type of situation and context in which the situation occurs, and through the specification of circumstance and exception, rule-utilitarianism appropriately allows for the possibility to adjust rules so they will maximize utility for the greatest number of people, and thus maintains the utilitarian ideal of the greatest happiness principle.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      we like JOHN suart MILLS and bentham jeremy

    • PhilosopherPrince profile image

      Elliott Ploutz 

      6 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      I think this is a very technical hub that can be a challenge to a newcomer looking for the basics of the theory. For example, I imagine that "welfarist consequentialism" would stop the average reader in their tracks. Maybe you could give a few big road signs when you explain consequentialism and how it relates to utilitarianism further down. Along with these impediments, I think your hub could be more reader friendly with a few more sections and headlines.

      I only bother to say this because you clearly have a thorough understanding of the subject, I'm sure this was an A paper. I think you can easily retool this to be more approachable and do it very well. I hope you continue to write!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very informative and thought provoking

    • Plarson profile image


      7 years ago from Alabama

      While these are not my style of political views, was definitely an informative and interesting read. -Paul


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