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Philosophers of different eras had various points of view on happiness, the meaning of life, morality, and justice. Their concepts were formulated under the influence of general moral principles and traditions of their time; nevertheless, sometimes even philosophical theories with a common underlying idea were divided into several branches. Utilitarianism is one such concept, since it includes several forms that differ from each other significantly, such as act, rule, and general utilitarianism, where the last one lies in between two others (Mondal, p. 15). However, the main difference between act and rule utilitarianism is that the first allows ignoring the rules for the common good, and the second prohibits any violation of them.
Many philosophers have created various concepts on morality and rightfulness for people trying to understand the truth, and utilitarianism is one of them. Utilitarianism emerged as a systematic theory at the end of the eighteenth century with the philosophical works of Jeremy Bentham, who created the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” formulation of the principle of utilitarianism (Lazari-Radek and Singer, p. 4). This phrase means that sense of any person’s life is actions that can bring the most significant benefit and joy to the most considerable number of people. For example, a man can spend a huge fortune himself and bring joy only for one person, but it is better if he donates it to charity and brings happiness to many people in need. Scientists such as John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and others also discussed supplemented this concept in their way (Lazari-Radek and Singer, p. 13). However, the principal basis of utilitarianism expresses itself in the statement that if everyone lives by this rule, then the whole humanity will be happy.
Nevertheless, the formulation has several flaws that cause disputes and controversy, for example, methods of achieving happiness. The main question of utilitarianism is whether a person could violate general principles and laws to bring the greatest benefit to more people. As an answer to this question, philosophers created three forms of utilitarianism with a different attitude to the rules, morality, and their violation (Mondal, p. 15). Act and rule utilitarianism have opposite views on this issue, while general utilitarianism can be called an intermediate link between the two forms. General utilitarianism claims that if some action is right for one person in a particular situation, then it will be right for everyone else in the same condition (Mondal 15). For this reason, one can see that general utilitarianism permits a violation of the rules but also asks whether such an act may have good consequences.
Act utilitarianism is a more extreme manifestation of breaking the rules for the common good. The followers of this principle are sure that ultimately, only the consequences that actions brought to society can classify them as moral or immoral (Mondal, p. 15). Even if the act was wrong from universal laws, but eventually it benefited a large number of people, then it can be classified as the moral and right one. For example, killing is unacceptable in most religions and cultures; however, the elimination of a dangerous criminal or dictator who kills innocent people is the right thing to do, since this act saves thousands of lives.
Rule utilitarianism expresses the reverse understanding of evaluating the correctness of actions. According to Lazari-Radek and Singer, the main difference of rule utilitarianism is that “it sometimes prohibits what will have the best consequences” (p. 89). The most crucial thing in this form is following the rules, and breaking them is unacceptable. This idea is based on the belief that the use of the regulations, in any case, will lead to better results, but their violation will harm someone inevitably (Lazari-Radek and Singer, p. 89). At the same time, it does not matter whether following the rules will bring the greatest benefit as the main thing is that the rules are created to lead to positive consequences.
However, both act and rule utilitarianism have their drawbacks, which erase their advantages. The main problem of act utilitarianism is the relativity and inaccuracy of measuring the size of the benefit and consequences of rule-breaking. For example, a revolution in the country led to a change of power, but hundreds of people died during the uprisings. In this case, the real consequences are difficult to assess, and it is impossible to accurately answer whether such a violation of the rule was correct. Some part of the population found happiness in the revolution, but another could face the tragedy.
The main drawback of rule utilitarianism is that the principles themselves are most often not universal. Typically, the rules are generalized and cover the broadest range of standard situations. However, in the event of an emergency, these regulations may not be valid, and there will not be enough time to wait for their adaptation and adjustment. Lazari-Radek and Singer give an example in which a terrorist knows the location of a nuclear bomb, but according to the law on the prohibition of torture, police cannot harm him or her (p. 91). Following the law, in this case, can lead to the death of thousands of people; however, it is a necessary measure according to rule utilitarianism. Thus, this contradiction is the main problem of such a philosophical concept in the current circumstances.
It is difficult to define a preferable form of utilitarianism, considering the realities of the world. This uncertainty exists because, in the current time, there is no universal central philosophy in society, and people do not use the principle in which the common good is superior. There are too many variables and ambiguous points to understand which kind of utilitarianism is ideal since too many people commit crimes and violate moral laws. However, if one considers precisely the basic principles of the forms themselves, then it is possible to single out one of them as more universal.
In most cases, a person can predict or anticipate the consequences of his or her actions by following the logic and personal life experience. Based on them, he or she understands whether the violation or following the rules will be more beneficial or harmful. For example, a medical student who will get a license in a month sees that a man is suffocating, and the intern needs to make a hole in his throat to give him access to oxygen. According to rule-utilitarianism, the student has to wait for the arrival of a licensed doctor, but during this time, the man may already be dead. In this case, act utilitarianism is the best alternative, since the student will save the person’s life by breaking the rule and possibly bring happiness to his family, friends, and colleagues. The same choice applies to the murder of a terrorist or self-defense. However, rule utilitarianism would be an ideal philosophical concept in a perfect world where everyone voluntarily follows and obeys generally accepted moral laws.
Therefore, the main difference between act and rule utilitarianism is the way to determine the usefulness and morality of actions. The first form evaluates the act by the result, and the second by following the rules that lead to the best consequences. Both understandings of utilitarianism are viable; however, rule utilitarianism needs specific conditions for its successful practice, while act utilitarianism more often works in the real world.
- Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna, and Peter Singer. Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2017.
- Mondal, Abdul Latif. “Mill’s Critique of Bentham’s Utilitarianism.” International Journal of Philosophy Study, vol. 4, 2016, pp. 13–21.