Explain the difference between act and rule Utilitarianism.

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Explain the difference between act and rule Utilitarianism. (33 marks)

        Utilitarianism, in its most basic form is ‘ the greatest happiness for the greatest number’.  Coming from the Latin word, ‘utilis’, which means useful.  Jeremy Bentham wrote, in one of his books in 1789, that utility is,

‘a property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness…or… to prevent the happenings of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness’.

 It is easy to assume that utilitarianism is based on the fact that if something is useful, then it is moral.  However, this is very wrong, the theory is much more complex than this, being involved in decisions, actions and consequences.

        The theory of Utilitarianism was developed by Jeremy Bentham, in his work, ‘The principles of morals and legislation’, which was a mix of ethics and politics, both of which he was very interested in.  Bentham was hedonist, and felt that happiness and pleasure was the main ethical measure.  He believed that if an action is pleasant, bringing about happiness for the individual and others, then it is morally right.  Bentham attempted to better the ‘Golden rule’ taught by Jesus, which was to love out neighbour as ourselves.  He wanted to better this as he felt that in loving our neighbour, and in a moral situation, resolving a problem by loving a neighbour could leave to harm to a minority. He attempted to solve this dilemma with the ‘Hedonic Calculus’ This would be useful in deciding upon the most correct form of action by calculating how much happiness and pleasure would come out of the options, and at the same time reduce the amount of unhappiness.  Seven factors were to be considered in the calculus,

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  • Intensity of the pleasure
  • duration of the pleasure
  • certainty of pleasure
  • ‘propinquity’ of the pleasure happening
  • ‘Fecundity’, or chance of a repeat of the pleasure
  • Purity of the pleasure and the chance of any pain
  • Extent of the pleasure or number of people involved.

A huge weakness of this theory is that if one were to take the example of ten rapists, raping the same person, it would, according to the Hedonic Calculus, be perfectly alright.  This is because the pleasure of the ten rapists would outweigh the pain of the one victim of the rapes.  


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