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Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify the different ways to interpret the utility principle along the axis of Act and Rule Utilitarianism

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Hello. I'm Glenn. And this is the ethics tutorial on act and rule utilitarianism. Before we look at the content for the tutorial, keep a couple of things in mind such as the definition of utilitarianism and the principle of utility.

In this tutorial, we'll be covering a lot of material including how even though all utilitarians operate under the same principle, there may be different applications and methods of engaging it. We will look at the difference between rule and act utilitarianism and explore the similarities and differences between them. And then we're also going to consider the advantages and disadvantages of both rule and act utilitarianism.

So moving into rule and act utilitarianism, it is first important to remember that, while all utilitarians do uphold and abide by the utility principle two maximize happiness and decrease unhappiness, it is nevertheless implemented or engaged in different ways. We could think of this as analogous to vegetarianism. All vegetarians abide by the same basic principle of not eating meat or some sort of animal product. However, it's engaged in different ways.

Some people are pescatarians. They don't eat beef, but they'll eat fish. Others are lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who will not eat meat but will eat dairy products. And others are vegans, who will not eat anything that comes from an animal in any way. So this is similar to rule and act utilitarianism, abiding by the same principle but engaging it in different ways.

So let's consider the primary distinction between act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism focuses on the action and only the action, the specifics of an individual action. That is what is considered and evaluated.

For rule utilitarianism, we look at the principle that is being applied. That is the motivation for the action-- in other words, the rule that we're acting upon. It takes the form of a principle in terms of, if I want X, I will do Y in order to get Z. It's a method of approximating based upon a principle.

A couple of examples of operating under a rule in this sense would be that, well, let's say I'm in a hurry. Whenever I'm in a hurry and there are no other drivers visible, I'm going to run through stop signs. That's operating under a rule. Or another one would be when the opportunity presents itself to be polite to someone by opening a door for them, I will do that. Again, the action is based upon a general rule.

Act and rule utilitarianism tend to agree and coincide with the lot of day-to-day activities. And in general, they really do follow a similar path. Where they often disagree has to do with specific situations that have considerations, which show an action to be impermissible. Here is a couple of examples to help illustrate that.

In general, they will both agree that cheating on a test is wrong. It should not be done because it causes direct harm and decreases overall utility. However, what if we modify the situation to say that I'm going to cheat on a test in order to save myself from a dismal GPA which would most certainly result in suspension or academic probation which would therefore place my funding at risk and lead to further complications and perhaps being suspended from a team or another activity. It could have great ramifications. So in this one instance, I might be sorely tempted to cheat on a test.

Well, act utilitarianism, which only considers this one specific act, probably will say, yeah, go for it. Rule utilitarianism, however, says, no, don't do it, because of the following. If you operate under this rule, you're implying that it's applicable in general as a rule, not just for you but for everyone. And that just won't do as a principle. We can't endorse cheating in order to save your butt.

So another example would be going back to the steak. Let's say a steak falls on the floor in my kitchen and I decide to eat it. Well, both rule and act utilitarianism would agree that, if I'm willing to take the risk, then I could rinse it off and maybe cook it a little bit more. This would probably remove all the particulate contaminants and also the bacterial contaminants that could result from it landing on the floor. And if I'm willing to take the risk, OK.

But if I'm working in a restaurant where I'm going to serve this to a patron, then it's going to probably differ a little bit act utilitarianism said, well, if I'm not going to get caught, maybe I should do it. Maybe I could because I can be reasonably sure that it's going to be safe to eat. After all, I might eat it myself and probably nothing will happen.

However, according to rule utilitarianism, definitely this is impermissible because acting upon the rule that, if I want to serve is steak that hits the floor and clean it off and hope that it's OK, I can't abide by this rule. I can't expect other people to abide by this rule the majority of the time. So in these two instances, we can see that in general they might agree. But if we tweak the situation just a little bit, they will definitely come down on different verdicts.

There are, of course, both advantages and disadvantages to both act and rule utilitarianism. For act utilitarianism, an advantage is that we look at all the specific circumstances and conditions that go into a particular situation, and all we have to consider is that one specific situation. So in the example of me dropping a steak on the floor in my own kitchen, that's all I have to consider.

Am I willing to eat it still if I wash it off and cook it just a little bit more? Is it a good thing to do? Yeah? OK.

However, its disadvantage is that it only operates in that specific situation. So if we stick to that, we can be seen as being rather limited and also inconsistent because it might be OK to eat that steak one time, not OK to eat it another time, OK then not OK, and back and forth. And so we lose a sense of consistency if we are strictly act utilitarian.

Now, rule utilitarianism has the distinct advantage of allowing us to do ethics in advance so to speak. We can consider the rules that we want to live by and abide by and all the possible consequences that could happen from actions resulting from that rule and so have a really good preconception of how we wish to behave in a given set of circumstances when they do come up. If I ever drop a steak on the floor in a restaurant, I have this rule in the back of my head that says, don't serve it.

Just don't do that. OK. And if I abide by that, then I'll be consistent.

Where rule utilitarianism may have a disadvantage-- you may agree with this or not-- is that it does not generally take into consideration, like act utilitarianism does, the specifics of a situation. Rule utilitarianism does not generally therefore like exceptions. It likes to abide by the rule, the general principle. So there's benefits and drawbacks to each of them.

In summary, we have looked at the different types of utilitarianism. And although they have the same source and motive for action, they are applied differently. And they come down in terms of act and rule utilitarianism. We've also looked at the similarities and differences between rule and act utilitarianism and the advantages and disadvantages of each.