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Difference Between Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Act vs Rule Utilitarianism

Ethics is a field of study that will almost always seem very complicated for any beginner. It involves various theories that are grounded on principles on doing certain acts. It deals with acts that are either good or bad and right or wrong. One common example of such is the theory of utilitarianism. It simply states that the act that does the most number of good for the most number of people is generally good. The ‘good’ in this sense can be in the form of satisfaction, pleasure and happiness.

There are two forms of utilitarianism. The first is called act utilitarianism and the second is called rule utilitarianism. These two forms of utilitarianism oppose each other. The former leans more on consequentialism. What is believed to be right or wrong is based on the effect or consequence. The greatest good is depending on whomever or whatever will be benefited the most from the act. It is a more results-oriented theory.

Conversely, the other type of utilitarianism is based on rules. These rules can include rules of conduct and similar principles. It is a more idealistic and rigid theory wherein an act is interpreted to be either right or wrong depending on the result of the agreed rule. Believers of this form of utilitarianism don’t want to break the rules that are agreed upon by the majority.

Think about this situation ‘“ you are a doctor who have seen and examined a patient who did not know yet that he is having an incurable terminal illness. The dilemma you’ll face is if you’re going to inform this person that he is dying or not. If you observe the principles of the act utilitarian theory, you are going to lie and not tell your patient about his sickness. This is the right thing to do because telling the truth will immediately cause more pain and depression, not only to the patient but also to his family. Lying will give him more time to enjoy life until the symptoms become more and more noticeable.

However, if you are a believer of rule utilitarianism then you will not have any reservations in telling the patient immediately about his sickness. Rule utilitarianism thinks more of the long term and that it is your obligation to tell the truth to your patient no matter what the circumstance because it is your duty and it is a rule for you to be honest at all times.

Act utilitarianism sees the consequence of an action in itself (as one act) whereas rule utilitarianism sees the consequences as if it will be repeated all over again (for the long term).
Act utilitarianism first looks into the consequences of an act. The one with the better consequence is most likely the good choice. Rule utilitarianism looks first into the consequences of choosing what rule to follow. Following a rule that generates the greatest utility or happiness is the more correct choice.

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  1. Nice one – helped me decide whether or not to write on Utilitarianism (yes) for my philosophy essay at university. Thank you.

  2. Really nice explanations and examples. Helped me get rid of some confusion whilst writing up on business ethics

  3. Thanks! that was actually pretty helpful.

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