Distinguishing between Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism

Act Utilitarianism vs Rule Utilitarianism

In the study of ethics two terms keep coming up – Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a theory that deals with the concept of acting in a way that is good or bad OR right or wrong. The concept is based in acting in a way that benefits a large number of people.

These two types of utilitarianism in ethics are different from each other. Act utilitarianism deals with the action and the consequences of the action will determine whether it was good or bad. Therefore the consequences of the action are the most important aspects of this concept. It is more concerned with the person or group of people who benefitted from the action. In this way, it is result oriented because the effectiveness depends on the results and the benefits that were realized from the action.

Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, is more concerned with rules. The rules of conduct that we follow in society are part of rule utilitarianism. First of all a rule has to be developed and the action follows the rule. The action is either good or bad. For example, there are speed limits on highways. The rule of how fast one could drive was developed first and those who agree that this is the right action follow the rule. Those who do not agree speed and therefore when they are caught, they are punished for not following the rule.

Those who strictly follow rule utilitarianism refuse to break the rules no matter what the situation may be. They believe that the rules were put in place for a reason and everyone should always obey them.

The main difference between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism lies in the way in which the action is viewed.  An illustration of this difference can be seen in the following scenario. Suppose that the parents of your best friend are blind and live in a different part of the country. Your friend is killed in an accident and it is your responsibility to inform the parents. If you adhere to act utilitarianism you may pretend to be your friend so that the parents do not have to suffer. If you adhere to rule utilitarianism, you would deliver the news that their son/daughter has been killed.