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The key difference between act and rule utilitarianism is that act utilitarians apply the utilitarian principle directly to the evaluation of individual actions while rule utilitarians apply the utilitarian principle directly to the evaluation of rules and then evaluate individual actions by seeing if they obey or disobey those rules whose acceptance will produce the most utility. The contrast between act and rule utilitarianism, was not sharply drawn until the late 1950s when Richard Brandt introduced this terminology. Because the contrast had not been sharply drawn, earlier utilitarians like Bentham and Mill sometimes apply the principle of utility to actions and sometimes apply it to the choice of rules for evaluating actions. This has led to scholarly debates about whether the classical utilitarians supported act utilitarians or rule utilitarians or some combination of these views. In this essay, I will argue that whilst rule utilitarianism is a genuine alternative to act utilitarianism, it is not a plausible one. 

Act utilitarians believe that whenever we are deciding what to do, we should perform the action that will create the greatest net utility. In their view, the principle of utility should be applied on a case by case basis. The right action in any situation is the one that yields more utility than other available actions. In order to maximise our overall utility then ever action we carry out must be the action which brings the most utility. If we sometimes choose an action that produces less utility than is possible, the total utility will not be maximised as there is a possible greater amount of goodness that could have been produced. So, act utilitarianism argues that we should apply the utilitarian principle to individual acts and not to classes of similar actions.

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One advantage of act utilitarianism is that it shows how moral questions can have objectively true answers. Some argue that morality is subjective and depends on people’s desires or beliefs. Act utilitarianism provides a method for showing which moral beliefs are true and which are false. From the utilitarian perspective, every decision about how we should act depends on the consequences of the available options. If we can predict the amount of utility that will be produced by various possible actions, then we can know which ones are right or wrong. Bentham is often consider an act utilitarian because he provided a model for this type of decision also know as the “hedonic calculus”, which considers  various factors in order to determine amounts of pleasure or pain resulting from a possible action.Using this information, Bentham thought would allow for making correct judgments of right or wrong. 

The most common argument against act utilitarianism is that it gives the wrong answers to moral questions. It is sometimes said that act utilitarianism leads to the permission of actions that most people would consider to be morally wrong. For example, if a judge can prevent riots that will cause many deaths only by convicting an innocent person of a crime and imposing a severe punishment on that person, act utilitarianism implies that the judge should convict and punish the innocent person or if a doctor can save five people from death by killing one healthy person and using that person’s organs for life-saving transplants, then act utilitarianism implies that the doctor should kill the one person to save the others. In each of these cases, act utilitarianism implies that a certain act is morally permissible. Therefore it can be argued that act utilitarianism is a false moral theory because it allows for actions that most would see as morally wrong.

Another disadvantage of act utilitarianism is that it undermines trust between people. If, in cases like the ones I have mentioned previously, judges and doctors are committed to doing whatever maximises well-being in a specific situation, then no one will be able to trust that judges will act according to the law and that doctors will not use the organs of one patient to benefit others. Therefore, if everyone believed that morality permitted lying, cheating, and violating the law whenever doing so led to maximised utility, then no one would be able to trust anyone to follow these rules. As a result, in an act utilitarian society, people would not be able to trust one another and generally could not count on people to act in accord with moral rules. As a result, people’s behaviour would lack the kind of predictability and consistency that are required to sustain trust and social stability.

There are two ways in which act utilitarians can defend their view against these criticisms. First, they can argue that critics misinterpret act utilitarianism and mistakenly claim that it is committed to supporting the wrong answer to various moral questions. This reply agrees that the “wrong answers” are genuinely wrong, but it denies that the “wrong answers” maximise utility. Because they do not maximise utility, these wrong answers would not be supported by act utilitarians and therefore, do nothing to weaken their theory. Second, act utilitarians can take a different approach by agreeing with the critics that act utilitarianism supports the views that critics label “wrong answers.”  Act utilitarians may reply that all this shows is that the views supported by act utilitarianism conflict with common sense morality. Unless critics can prove that common sense moral beliefs are correct the criticisms have no force. Act utilitarians claim that their theory provides good reasons to reject many ordinary moral claims and to replace them with moral views that are based on the effects of actions.

Rule utilitarians adopt a two part view that stresses the importance of moral rules. According to rule utilitarians, a) a specific action is morally justified if it conforms to a justified moral rule; and b) a moral rule is justified if its inclusion into our moral code would create more utility than other possible rules (or no rule at all). According to this perspective, we should judge the morality of individual actions by reference to general moral rules, and we should judge particular moral rules by seeing whether their acceptance into our moral code would produce more well-being than other possible rules. Defenders of rule utilitarianism claim that rule utilitarianism retains the virtues of a utilitarian moral theory but without the flaws of the act utilitarian version. 

The rule utilitarian approach to morality can be illustrated by considering the rules of the road. When considering drives’ code it obvious that there are two types of rule: open-ended rules like “drive safely” or specific rules like “stop at red lights,”. The rule “drive safely”, like the act utilitarian principle, is a very general rule that leaves it up to individuals to determine what the best way to drive in each circumstance is.  More specific rules that require stopping at lights, forbid going faster than 30 miles per hour do not give drivers the discretion to judge what is best to do. They simply tell drivers what to do or not do while driving. The reason why a more rigid rule-based system leads to greater overall utility is that people are bad at judging what is the best thing to do when driving. Having specific rules maximises utility by limiting drivers’ discretionary judgments and thereby decreasing the ways in which drivers may endanger themselves and others. A rule utilitarian can illustrate this by considering the difference between stop signs and yield signs. Stop signs forbid drivers to go through an intersection without stopping, no matter what the circumstances. A yield sign permits drivers to go through without stopping unless their judgement says so otherwise. The stop sign is like the rule utilitarian approach. It tells drivers to stop and does not allow them to calculate whether it would be better to stop or not. Due to the high-risk consequences of making a bad judgement at a yield sign, rule utilitarians support the use of stop signs and other non-discretionary rules under some circumstances. Rule utilitarians generalise from this type of case and claim that our knowledge of human behaviour shows that there are many cases in which general rules or practices are more likely to promote good effects than simply telling people to do whatever they think is best in each individual case. However, this does not mean that rule utilitarians always support rigid rules without exceptions. For example, in emergency medical situations a driver may justifiably go through a red light or stop sign based on the driver’s own assessment that a) this can be done safely and b) the situation is one in which even a short delay might cause dire harms. So the correct rule need not be “never go through a stop sign” but rather can be something like “never go through a stop sign except in cases that have properties a and b.” Overall then, rule utilitarians can allow departures from rules and will leave many choices up to individuals.

It can be argued that an advantage of rule utilitarianism is that it avoids the criticisms of act utilitarianism. Critics of act utilitarianism claim that it allows judges to sentence innocent people to severe punishments when doing so will maximise utility and allows doctors to kill healthy patients if by doing so, they can use the organs of one person to save more lives. Rule utilitarians say that they can avoid all these charges because they do not evaluate individual actions separately but instead support rules whose acceptance maximises utility. Although more good may be done by killing the healthy patient in an individual case, it is unlikely that more overall good will be done by having a rule that allows this practice. If a rule were adopted that allows doctors to kill healthy patients, less people would seek medical help as they would no longer trust their doctors. People who seek medical treatment must have a high degree of trust in doctors because if they had to worry that doctors might harvest their organs, they may not, for example, allow doctors to anaesthetise them for surgery due to worry of being rendered helpless. Thus, the rule that allows doctors to kill one patient to save five would not maximise utility. The same reasoning applies equally to the case of the judge. In each of these cases, rule utilitarians can agree with the critics of act utilitarianism that it is wrong to do case by case evaluations of such situations as it can result in wrongdoing. The rule utilitarian approach stresses the value of general rules and practices, and shows why compliance with rules often maximises overall utility even if in some individual cases, it requires doing what produces less utility. Furthermore, rule utilitarianism is able to maintain trust people people because the rules created generate a way of knowing how people are likely to behave. While there may be untrustworthy people in a society, rule utilitarianism allows for a moral code that generally condemns violations of trust as wrongful acts. 

However, there are a few disadvantages to the rule utilitarian approach. Act utilitarians criticise rule utilitarians for irrationally supporting rule-based actions in cases where more good could be done by violating the rule than obeying it. They see this as a form of “rule worship,” an irrational deference to rules that has no utilitarian justification (J. J. C. Smart). It can also be argued that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism. While the “rule worship” objection assumes that rule utilitarianism is different from act utilitarianism, some disagree. According to this criticism, although rule utilitarianism looks different from act utilitarianism, a careful examination shows that it collapses into act utilitarianism. In order to demonstrate this, I will consider Kant’s claim that lying is always morally wrong, even when it could save a life. Many people see this view as too rigid and claim that it fails to take into account the circumstances in which a lie is being told. A more plausible rule would say “do not lie except in circumstances where it may be justified”. For a utilitarian, it is natural to say that the correct rule is “do not lie except when it will generate more utility than telling the truth”. If a rule utilitarian were to adopt this approach, the rules would follow the general formula of “do x except when not doing x maximises utility” or vice versa. While this may sound plausible, it is easy to see that this version of rule utilitarianism is in fact identical with act utilitarianism. Whatever action x is, the moral requirement and the moral prohibition expressed in these rules collapses into the act utilitarian rules. These rules say exactly the same thing as the open-ended act utilitarian rule “Do whatever action maximises utility.”

The debate between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism highlights many important issues about how we should make moral judgments. Act utilitarianism stresses the specific context and the many individual features of the situations that pose moral problems whilst rule utilitarianism stresses the recurrent features of human life and the ways in which similar needs and problems arise over and over again. Although rule utilitarianism seems to be a genuine alternative to act utilitarianism, I would argue that as rule utilitarianism does not seem to be as rigid as it claims to be (following the argument that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism) it is not a plausible alternative. In other words, rule utilitarianism seems to be just another form of act utilitarianism.