Act vs. Rule Utilitarianism

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  • 0:04 Utilitarianism
  • 1:49 Rule Utilitarianism
  • 3:28 Act Utilitarianism
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

The general belief of utilitarians is that actions should lead to good consequences. Let's take a moment to review the two categories of utilitarianism while using examples to illustrate their similarities and differences.


What is right? What is wrong? Is there really a right, moral way to behave? Does it even matter?

Utilitarianism is a way of living that emphasizes end results over methods. The ultimate goal of utilitarianism is to better humanity and create increased levels of happiness with each action. It helps to break down the word to remember its meaning. Utilitarianism comes from the root word utility, which means useful; so, in utilitarianism, morality is centered on useful actions.

You may have heard the phrase ''It doesn't matter if you win or lose; it's how you play the game that counts.'' A utilitarian might rebut that with the phrase: it depends! For example, they could ask questions such as the following:

  • Did everyone have fun while they played? Did winning and losing result in the same consequence for each person? Was the amount of happiness equal for all regardless of the outcome of the game? If the answer to these questions is 'yes,' then a utilitarian would agree with this statement.

However, they could also ask questions such as:

  • Did the winners have more fun? Did the winners enjoy themselves more than the losers? Did the outcome result in increased opportunities for the winners but not the losers? If the answers to these questions is yes, then a utilitarian would say that it does matter if you won or lost, and the way you played is irrelevant.

There are two main schools of utilitarianism: rule and act utilitarianism. Let's explore these two categories with the help of a single scenario. Let's think about how each type of utilitarian would feel about the prospect of going back in time and murdering Adolf Hitler before he had a chance to rise to power.

Rule Utilitarianism

Rule utilitarianism claims that the most efficient means of creating the greater good for humanity is to have a moral code with rules of conduct clearly understood. These moral rules must lead to the maximum amount of happiness, productivity, and utility for a maximum number of people, but once decided upon, the rules apply in every scenario without exception.

Consider our example scenario. Rule utilitarians would say that murder is morally wrong because it leads to reduced utility and reduced happiness in society. Thus, the individual scenario of murdering Hitler in his young adulthood would be seen as wrong. Rule utilitarians would not do it.

Stability is key for rule utilitarians. There may be some cases in which different actions may have served a better purpose than the standing rule. It is overall a more stable and productive choice to live by the rule of ''murder is wrong'' rather than allow people to make the decision for themselves in each individual case as to whether the action of murder is wrong or not wrong.

In less severe terms, road rules are an example of rule utilitarianism. While it is true that sometimes a person can drive safely even when not following a marked speed limit, it is preferable for all people to follow a standard set of road rules regardless of individual scenarios. We certainly wouldn't want everyone making up their own minds as to how fast to drive or when to slow or stop at intersections.

Rule utilitarians believe that humans are not good at making decisions that will benefit the greater good in individual situations; thus they see the moral code as a method to counter-balance poor decision making.

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