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Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism

It is widely known that the aim of ethics is to explain the principles of doing certain acts in a right or wrong way. The theory of utilitarianism, which was first presented by such philosophers as Benthan and Mill, is one of the most influential contributions to ethics. It emphasizes the results of the actions as more important than the steps taken to reach the aim. The main idea that maximization of the total benefit leads to the reduction in the negatives is common for both act and rule utilitarianism. However, this paper will focus on the features of these two theories to show how, bringing the same idea, they oppose one another.

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Consequentialism offers the idea that “overall consequences” of the actions are the main essence regardless some negative results they can bring (Haines, 2006). Utilitarianism is a good example of such view while respecting one’s the rights and duties, obeying one’s heart or God and not interfering with others’ affairs are examples of opposition to it (Haines, 2006). Act utilitarianism focuses on the values presented in consequentialism as it explains the perception of right and wrong on the basis of the consequences the actions bring. Regarding happiness and satisfaction as the final necessary effect, this theory can be defined as a result-oriented one. In contrast to the above-mentined, rule utilitarianism considers the conduct rules and principles as crucial in defining the deed as good or bad. According to this theory, the right decision is following the rules as it will bring the positive long-term effect. At the same time, act utilitarianism explains the positive short-term effect that can neglect the rules as the right decision.

The objection that is most often connected with the notions and values offered in act utilitarianism is that the positive results of the actions should be higher than the negative ones, but no matter for whom and regardless the rules that were broken. As a result, it can be estimated as “too permissive” (Utilitarianism, 2012). Following such a model, one can justify many immoral deeds or even crimes and explain some examples of antisocial behavior as “morally obligatory” if their consequences are enough valuable and good for somebody (Utilitarianism, 2012). Furthermore, it can justify breaking many other generally accepted moral norms, for example, telling the truth, respecting the others’ rights, etc. Additionally, it is quite difficult to estimate the value of the possible alternative actions as it neglect the subject to whom the right actions should bring happiness or satisfaction. Therefore, the absence of the rules is defined as a weak point of the theory.

Rule utilitarianism implies that one can estimate the benefit only with regard to some definite rules that should be followed. Rules of conduct that should be observed are necessary to estimate the real long-term effect of the decisions. However, with such approach, a situation can be analyzed on the basis of only one “optimal rule” that should be generally followed (Utilitarianism, 2012).  The best chosen rule is not appropriate in all situations and can lead to erroneous judgments and assessments. Therefore, there are the exceptions to all rules, which weaken even the “best chosen” ones (Utilitarianism, 2012). In such a way, the theory is brought closer to the act utilitarianism and offers numerous aspects of how the rules can be altered with regard to different attendant circumstances.

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Act utilitarianism is different from the rule one because it emphasizes effects of the actions as the priority whereas the rule one considers actions as a manifestation of the rules that are constantly repeated in some periods of time. In such a way, it regards the consequences of following the rule as the crucial driving force for decision-making. However, deeper analysis of the two forms of utilitarianism shows that ultimately they both consider the acts if the only proper rule is rarely effective and the circumstances demand exceptions to the rules.

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