ACT UTILITARIANISM VERSUS RULE UTILITARIANISM

 

Example of Act Utilitarianism

 

The Ethical Question:  Should we (i.e., George and I) hack into Danny’s computer, just to see if we can do it (i.e., but not harm Danny’s computer)?

 

Step 1:  List everyone affected by the action.

Step 2:  Find out (either by directly asking someone or by using your moral imagination) how much pleasure and/or pain will be involved for every person affected by the action.

Step 3:  Do that action that maximizes happiness for the persons affected by the action.

 

YES

Me

George

Danny

Total

Grand Total

Amount of Pleasure

+8

0

0

+8

 

Amount of Pain

0

-6

0

-6

 

 

 

 

 

 

YES:  +2

NO

 

 

 

 

 

Amount of Pleasure

0

+2

0

+2

 

Amount of Pain

-4

0

0

-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

NO:  -2

 

Result:  More pleasure results from doing the action; therefore, we should do the action.

 

 


Examples of RULE Utilitarianism

 

The Ethical Question (Simple Example):  I have made a promise to meet a friend who is on his deathbed; should I keep my promise?

 

Step 1:  Think about the KIND or type of action that the action is.

Step 2:  Ponder different rules, considering whether they maximize happiness in general.

Step 3:  Do that action based on a rule that maximizes happiness in general (not necessarily for this action right now).

 

This action involves promise keeping, and the rule of keeping promises in general maximizes happiness.

 

Result:  Since the rule of keeping promises IN GENERAL maximizes happiness (whether or not it does do that today in this action), I should keep my promise.

 

The Ethical Question (Complex Example):  I have made a promise to meet a friend who is on his deathbed; on my way to meet him, I find a woman who is wounded (but curable) and needs my help (no one else is around).  Should I keep my promise?

 

These actions involve either promise keeping or helping others, and both keeping promises and helping others maximize happiness in general.  Thus, we are faced with a dilemma (see below).

 

Result:  EITHER:  One can argue that, since helping the woman is an immediate matter of life and death, and the rule of helping others maximizes happiness IN GENERAL, I should help the woman.  OR:  One could argue that the rule of keeping promises maximizes happiness, and keep his or her promise.  Problem:  If we pick the action that maximizes happiness IN THIS CASE, aren't we back to Act Utilitarianism, which makes Rule Utilitarianism pointless?  And if we can just pick either rule and be a rule utilitarian, then Rule Utilitarianism is arbitrary - it allows you to do whatever action you wish, as long as you can come up with a rule that seems to maximize happiness in general.