ACT UTILITARIANISM VERSUS RULE UTILITARIANISM

Example of Act Utilitarianism

Definition of Act Utilitarianism: One ought to do that action that maximizes happiness in a particular situation for the people affected by the action.

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 and consider all reasonable options for the issue.

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

Definition of Rule Utilitarianism: One ought to do an action based on a rule that maximizes happiness in general (i.e., whether or not that action maximizes happiness in the particular situation one finds oneself in).

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.