Act vs Rule Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that judges whether an action is right or wrong based on the consequences of that action.   In this essay I will discuss the Act and Rule forms of utilitarianism.   Specifically, the definitions of Act and Rule, what I believe to be the main point of contention between them, and why Rule is proposed as an alternative to Act based theory.   I intend to illustrate my opinion that neither moral theory is to be preferred over the other, but rather certain parts of each could be used to reach an acceptable ethical judgement.

Utilitarianism is based on the theory that all of mankind is driven by pleasure and pain; pleasure being good or right, pain being bad or wrong.   As a consequentialist theory, it makes the statement that we can calculate whether an action is right or wrong by judging the effects of that action.   To take the concept further, it also states that using the principle of utility requires measuring the effect of an action on all people involved, or likely to be affected.   The right action will be that which will bring happiness, or pleasure, to the greatest number of people.   (Singer, 1994, p. 307)   The difference between Act and Rule Utilitarianism, as I will show next, lies in the calculations of deciphering right and wrong through action.

Act and Rule are both based on the idea, as mentioned previously, that the moral disposition of any action can be determined by its end result.   However, that is where the two part company.   Act utilitarianism is the study of a specific situation and its immediate consequences.   The action that is deemed as being right will amount to being the action that achieves the greatest good for the greatest number.   Each circumstance is judged singularly, and it is possible to have a different action for similar circumstances.   On the other hand, Rule utilitarianism, as the name suggests, relies on rules to define what the right action will be.   It can be calculated thus:   If the action...