What is the difference between Act and rule Utilitarianism?

This week, many of you have been asking me the difference between Act and Rule Utilitarianism. These are the two main types of utilitarianism that you need to be aware of in ethics. But first of all, what is Utilitarianism?

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism comes from the branch of ethics concerned with doing what is right for the majority of people. The main principle of classical utilitarianism that comes from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill is that we ought to maximize the good, that is, bring about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number‘.

What is the difference between Act and rule Utilitarianism?

Now, act utilitarians and rule utilitarians agree that the overall aim in evaluating actions should be to create the best results possible, i.e. the greatest good for the greatest number, but they differ in their approaches.

Looking at an Example – Murdering a Gunman

If you think about it, utilitarianism could be used as an excuse for bad actions such as killing. A classic utilitarianism scenario is a gunman walking into a classroom and making his intentions to kills everyone in the room (students and teacher) very clear. If the teacher then shot and killed the gunman before he shot at the students, this can be seen as a utilitarian act.

However, many people still see the actual act of killing itself as wrong, and some people will not be willing to break this rule. Therefore, they feel the need to put in place rules and then apply the utilitarian principle whilst following these rules.

The main difference between Act and Rule Utilitarianism – Utility and Moral Code

Therefore the difference between Act and rule Utilitarianism is central to the concept of utility and whether or not you believe that a moral code should still be applied.

Act utilitarians believe that whenever we are deciding what to do in a situation, we should do the action that will create the greatest ‘net utility’ – whatever causes more well being, despite what that action might be. There is no set of moral rules applied because the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Rule utilitarians differ to Act utilitarians in that they believe that a specific action is morally justified if it confirms to a moral rule, and that a moral rule is justified if including that rule in the moral code would create more utility than other possible rules or indeed no rule at all. That rule could include murder or stealing for example. You might want to read my discussion on Was Robin Hood a Utilitarian?

Overall, the key difference between act and rule utilitarian approaches is that an act utilitarian would apply the utilitarian principle directly to the evaluation of the action whereas a rule utilitarian would apply the action to a set of rules (moral code) and then evaluate individual actions by seeing if they obey those rules whose acceptance will produce the most utility.

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