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Philosophy Topics: Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Updated on July 11, 2012

Utilitarianism tells us that the course of action that should always be taken in a morally questionable situation is the one that maximizes happiness. The two conflicting sides of this theory are act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act tells us to look first at the consequences of our actions and break society’s laws if it seems morally correct. Rule tells us our conduct ought to be guided by society’s guidelines on morality. It tells us to choose the rule we think will produce the greater good, but not to break any of them. Both prove convincing, but I think neither is perfect in theoretical correctness.

Act Utilitarianism

Suppose that a bus full of twenty prisoners all convicted of murder crashes with a bus of ten children on a highway far from any emergency services. Both buses are laying sideways on the road in a way that has trapped both groups inside. The collision was bad and suddenly both buses catch fire. It is only a matter of time before one or the other explodes in flames and all passengers on board perishing. A man drives by and sees the chaos. He knows there is limited time and will only being able to break into one bus and save only one group with the time he does have. What is he to do? The act utilitarian would say that because there are more passengers on the bus of prisoners, he ought to save that party. Act utilitarianism thinks in terms of not necessarily following moral laws or standards, but rather doing whatever we can to promote a maximum amount of happiness for as many people as possible. The obvious pro of this justification is that it indeed does promote genuine happiness for a greater number of people. It is also unbiased and does not act according to anything other than numerical logic. The obvious flaw is that it leaves no room for moral justification. It does not have any room for those who would argue that children ought to be saved based on some sort of illogical, non-analytical rationality.

Rule Utilitarianism

The fact that act utilitarianism refuses to acknowledge any justification for actions aside from the idea of maximizing happiness for the most people makes it hard for me to accept. Rule utilitarianism seems more plausible to me. It suggests that actions we take should be based on some sort of law or standard that society follows. In the previous example, a rule utilitarian would have more than likely saved the children because of their innocence or some other immeasurable factor. Moral standards or laws are like a rulebook to this person. The major pro with rule utilitarianism is the fact that it takes things a bit further. It assumes that laws and morals are more important than numbers. Anything outside of a law such as this will be considered barbaric or medieval. The con may be the fact that it leaves room for bias and unfair judgment. Laws are not always agreed upon or considered good laws. I do think rule utilitarianism is more ethical simply because it takes more factors into consideration than maximizing numbers of those who are happy. If this were not true, we would have to believe that an outnumbered army should always surrender to a larger army. That way, more people would be satisfied with the outcome. It starts to sound like nonsense in some regards.

Act, Rule, or Neither?

I believe there is a certain law and order to things which all people in one way or another adhere to and that we all have somewhat of an obligation to follow that law. Sure, other cultures have significantly different standards on certain issues; but indeed no sane culture has ever found it morally acceptable to throw their living offspring into a fire as a means to keep the rest of the village warm. I believe when we look deeper than the surface of our own particular cultures practices, we find a similarity in ourselves that cannot be denied. How else would a country like the U.S been able to sustain itself with such immense cultural diversity? So I do think we ought to aim to make as many people as happy as we possibly can, but not at the expense of another undeserving individual. Rule utilitarianism seems more logical to me. I strongly feel that act utilitarianism misses the point to a degree. It tells us to maximize happiness according to numbers and that if we do this we will be acting ethically. Yet it fails to answer the question of which individual will really obtain more happiness from the act based on the situation at hand. It also fails to acknowledge who will suffer the most. To me, these are the important points. If my choices or actions inevitably produce pain or suffering to even one person, my decision should not be a mathematical equation.


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    • jadesmg profile image

      jadesmg 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Honestly, i don't fal for either. Utilitarianism at it's core is one of the better meta-ethical ideas. However, it's specifics do have problems, happiness of the greatestnumber clearly could result in injustice for the minority in favor of the majority. Yet rule utilitarianism fails to accoun for individual situations maybe calling for breaking these rules, murder for protection of your own or anothers life fo example. I think anyway...

      Point is though that these rules for behaviour and attempts to rationalise your ethics and morals is a little misguided. If you are to truly take these on board as a rule for your life and behaviour then it is sure to fail common morality (or your own morality) eventually, the mild justification you could gain by placing blame on the ethical rules you are following would be of little consequence, it is all down to you.

      Good hub though.

    • Sethughes profile image

      Sethughes 4 years ago

      Thanks for the comments and insight.

      I think I tend to agree with you. I certainly do see flaws in both of the concepts of utilitarianism. I do not think that either is a good standard to live by. I like to take all theories of ethics and morality into consideration as many cultures may have somewhat different opinions of ethical correctness.

      I personally do not justify any decision I make on the idea of utilitarianism. I see fit that we make our decisions solely on our individual conscience. As flawed as particular cultures or societies may make us, at the deepest level we still possess a knowledge of moral principles. Either way, making our decisions on rationality in numbers or rules doesn't seem the most logical approach.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Great hub. I attended a philosophy meetup once in which "punishment" was discussed and your hub reminded me of that workshop. I like philosophy very much as you'll see from my hubs; I'll be reading more of you hubs in the near future.

      Voted up


    • Sethughes profile image

      Sethughes 4 years ago

      Thank you. I enjoy philosophy as well so I'll be checking out some of your hubs. Thanks again.

    • profile image

      Jake 2 years ago

      Rule utilitarianism does not base rules on pre-existing moral standards or laws, but on the outcome of adhering to rules by the majority of society with respect to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Simply because a rule utilitarian holds the "maxim" that murder is wrong does not mean they do so because it adheres to some pre-existing law or can be universalised. They do so because by following such a rule it will produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people in most situations. The argument that Rule utilitarianism can produce morally wrong outcomes is it's greatest criticism as it suffers from the equally morally objective issues as Kant's Categorical Imperative. However sub rules can be created that allow flexibility in certain circumstance although this could be said to devolve Rule utilitarianism into act utilitarianism. Despite this counterargument sub rules can be made without so much flexibility or complexity so as to provide an understandable moral framework.

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