Is rule-utilitarianism a genuine alternative to act-utilitarianism? If so, does it have any advantages over act-utilitarianism?

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                Jessica Marlborough

Is rule-utilitarianism a genuine alternative to act-utilitarianism? If so, does it have any advantages over act-utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism itself is the idea that the values of all actions are evaluated by the total utility that they provide. It is a principle which defines the ‘morally right act’ as the act with the best overall consequences, fundamentally providing the greatest overall happiness. J. S. Mill himself defines utilitarianism as ‘the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.’  It is commonly thought that utilitarianism can be broken down into rule-utilitarianism and act-utilitarianism. Over the course of this essay I will attempt to explain the relationship between these two forms, constructing arguments for and against both types of utilitarianism. I also wish to demonstrate why I personally do not believe that rule-utilitarianism is a genuine alternative to act-utilitarianism.

Rule-utilitarianism is defined by J.J.C. Smart as ‘the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be judged by the goodness and badness of the consequences of a rule that everyone should perform the action in like circumstances.’ Conversely, ‘act-utilitarianism is the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be judged by the consequences, good or bad, of the action itself.’ In simpler terms, act-utilitarianism is concerned with the consequences of an individual action, which J.D. Mabbott described as ‘actual’ consequences. On the other hand, rule-utilitarianism is primarily concerned with the consequences arising from the application of a general moral rule to a certain similar situation. Mabbott termed this as ‘hypothetical’ consequences.

A vital distinction between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism is that, with act-utilitarianism, an action would never be right if an alternative action consequently resulted in greater happiness. However, for a rule-utilitarian, there would be instances where, in order to abide by the most morally correct rule, one would have to carry out an action that does not result in the greatest possible happiness, or the best possible consequences. Smart raises the question ‘why should [a rule-utilitarian] advocate abiding by a rule when he knows that it will not in the present case be most beneficial to abide by it?’ I would be inclined to agree with Smart’s view as I feel it is irrational for a rule-utilitarian to refuse to break a ‘generally beneficial rule’, when the outcome will not promote the greatest utility. Surely we should always have the option to take a different course of action in order to maximize utility? A rule-utilitarian may counter this argument by suggesting that ‘if an exception to a rule, R, produces the best possible consequences,’ then the rule can be adapted to include this exception, for example, ‘do R except in circumstances of the sort C.’ I am of the opinion that once a rule-utilitarian begins to modify general moral rules to cater for any exceptional circumstances that may arise, he is edging closer and closer to becoming an act-utilitarian. If you can adapt a rule for every alternative situation, then surely the two forms of utilitarianism will overlap until eventually they become equivalent. According to D. Lyons, in the end, rule-utilitarianism ‘would in fact consist of one rule only, the act-utilitarian one; maximize probable benefit.’ Any rule must be able to work for an infinite number of exceptions to the original rule if it is going to maximize utility. Smart clarified this by saying that ‘any rule must be able to deal with an indefinite number of unforeseen types of contingency.’  Surely, if this is the case, this suggests that rule-utilitarianism becomes indistinguishable to act-utilitarianism. According to Smart, ‘in the most cases, the difference between the two types of utilitarianism will not lead to disagreement in practice. For in most cases the most effective way to increase the total happiness is to increase the average happiness and vice versa.’ On the grounds of the above discussed dilution of the distinction between these two forms of utilitarianism, I would be inclined to believe that rule-utilitarianism is not a genuine alternative to act-utilitarianism, for the simple reason that when examined closely, rule-utilitarianism appears to collapse into act-utilitarianism.

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Contrary to my findings, D. Lyons also puts forward alternative views, explaining that ‘cautionary rules…are practical aids that are that are recommended or adopted for the purpose of most efficiently and correctly applying and acting upon a given moral principle when the principle could theoretically be applied directly to determine the rightness or wrongness of acts.’ He also says that in the case of Act-Utilitarianism, ‘by contract, rules can be theoretically dispensed with’. What this means is that for rule-utilitarianism, the rightness or wrongness of and act is ‘dependent upon some utilitarian characteristic of the set of rules under ...

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