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Act and Rule Utilitarianism Moral Decisions Essay (AS)

Updated on June 7, 2013
The embalmed Jeremy Bentham at UCL!
The embalmed Jeremy Bentham at UCL! | Source

January 2011 Question A (30 Marks)

The crucial difference between Jeremy Bentham's Act and John Stuart Mill's Rule Utilitarianism is their usage of the hedonic calculus. Bentham's Act Utilitarianism requires the use of the calculus in every single situation whilst Mill abandons it altogether. For example, a true Act Utilitarian would use the hedonic calculus to decide whether he should eat scrambled eggs, waffles or both for breakfast. He would need to input figures for each of the 7 criteria (duration, intensity, certainty, extent, fecundity, purity and propinquity) for each of the three options and then choose the one that has the highest total value of arbitrary calculus points. This means that Act Utilitarianism takes a lot longer and requires more energy on the part of the ethicist to do what's right. The silver lining to this negative point however is that the decision is more likely to be the right one than Rule Utilitarianism, and since even something as mundane as breakfast could lead to an important consequence, the added effort might be worth it (waffles might provide the extra energy that day for an important life changing decision).

Rule Utilitarianism as stated does not use the hedonic calculus but instead focusses around rules that generally lead to the greatest good. Part of Mill's changes to Bentham's work however include the addition of quality to pleasure, as Mill famously put it: "it is better to be an unsatisfied socrates than a satisfied pig'. In the case of the breakfast dilemma, a Rule Utilitarian may decide that although he likes the taste of waffles more, the added culinary satisfaction of making scrambled eggs (a higher pleasure due to the intellectual requirement) overrules the primitive pleasure of taste. Rule Utilitarianism therefore saves a lot of time for the decision maker since he only needs to remember general rules for different situations. A criticism of this is however that the general rules may not facilitate the best answer because the specifics of situations are not taken into account e.g. if a person is allergic to scrambled eggs he would still be obligated to eating them because of the culinary higher pleasure - the displeasure of an allergic reaction is primitive and so would also be overruled like the pleasure from waffles.
Another difference between the two types of Utilitarianism is that Mill said "children and savages" should not be considered when making moral decisions with Rule Utilitarianism. This is because both children and 'savages' cannot make informed and educated decisions and so do not really know what they want. Act Utilitarianism on the other hand does not take into account people's abilities to decide (unless it will affect purity) and treats all people as equals - each person's happiness is as valuable as any other's. This can be seen as a strong point to Act Utilitarianism but at the same time a weak point, because it ignores the fact that some members in society truly do not know what they want and will regret their desires later in life. For example, a severely drunk person may want to burgle a local store so much so that it will bring him more pleasure than the shop owner's displeasure, at least initially. Afterwards however, the now sober burglar could be very ashamed of what he did and the prison sentence he would face would bring him and his family sorrow. Rule Utilitarianism would not have allowed for this because a) a drunk person cannot make an informed decision and b) not committing theft is a general rule. Act Utilitarians could justify it on the grounds of it bringing the most pleasure. The last statement can be criticised however, because a good Utilitarian would have considered the after effects of the robbery in the 'purity' section of the hedonic calculus - although even then the 'purity' might not overrule the high 'intensity' number chosen and the theft would have happened anyway. This highlights the subjectivity of Act Utilitarianism as well as the need for omniscience to use it effectively. Rule Utilitarianism at least does not require so much thought on how a situation will turn out, speculating on something that can never be known for certain.
The two forms of Utilitarianism do both share some of the same criticisms. For example, both are subjective by nature - Act is so because it requires us to put numbers to things that cannot be measured i.e. intensity, fecundity (there is no scale of measurement for happiness) whilst Rule Utilitarianism attempts to apply 'quality' to pleasure (which is impossible to do objectively).
To conclude, Act Utilitarianism uses the hedonic calculus and its criteria to make moral decisions whilst Rule Utilitarianism uses general rules formed over time through an overall accepted view of the 'best' decision in that general case. Both types have different criticisms as well as sharing some with each other: Act Utilitarianism is more accurate but less practical whilst Rule Utilitarianism is the opposite.

(B) 'Utilitarianism is only concerned with the happiness of the community, not the happiness of the individual.' How far do you agree? (15 marks)

If the term 'Utilitarianism' is restricted to just Jeremy Bentham and Mill's forms of Utilitarianism then I would have agreed outright with the statement in question. As the deep subject of philosophy progresses however, so does the definitions of its important terms - one such term is Utilitarianism.
Bentham's Act and Mill's Rule Utilitarianism both work off the principle that the greatest amount of happiness must be maximised from a decision (Rule Utilitarianism makes rules that strive for this), and, although it is hypothetically possible for an individual's intense pleasure to outweigh a community of people who gain minor pleasure from a decision, it is realistically very unlikely. This is due to the nature of the human being, who can only be so happy or sad at any one time, consequently limiting the amount of value given to an individual. Compare this to the unlimited happiness potential of a community (since there is no limit to how many people are considered in a calculation) and it's clear that both forms favour the community over individuals in their decision making process. This is met with much criticism, since it means a small minority can be tyrannised by a majority and allow atrocious acts to be justified (gang rape, gang murder etc. can be justified under Act Utilitarianism but not Rule Utilitarianism which prioritises 'higher' pleasures and would not allow sadistic pleasure to overrule terror).
When you consider Preference Utilitarianism however, you can see that the minority is given as much value as the majority - since if the anyone affected in a decision is against that decision then it is considered moral not to do it. This prevents any tyranny of the individual but puts the community at a big disadvantage (not getting what would benefit them most). This type of Utilitarianism comes under great criticism for not being at all practical - since in most real life decisions there is always at least one person who is against the motion (otherwise it was not really a problem in the first place).
Motive Utilitarianism, which although still consequential requires us to judge the motive of a person when he makes a decision, could also be said to favour the individual as much as the community. This is because it can be considered that if a decision is made with the motive of harming an individual in order to please the community, it is an immoral decision. Equally however, you could argue that because the motive is an overall positive one (since a community is more valuable than an individual) it is actually a sound and moral decision. This highlights the problem of subjectivity in Motive Utilitarianism, which does not strongly outline exactly what is a moral motive or not.


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