According to the theory of utilitarianism, actions ought to maximize the good – which takes the form of things like pleasure or absence of pain or welfare or happiness – as the ultimate end. For whom the good ought to be maximized, whether for human or merely sentient beings, and to what extent, whether for all individuals equally or to greater or lesser degrees, is debatable (Mackie ch. 6 §2, Smart §4). Indeed, the very premises of utilitarianism are open to critique, for it is unclear how goodness is to be measured, if it can be measured at all; it makes assumptions about human nature, in particular that individuals are able to objectively concern themselves with the good of others; and it supposes that pleasure is the only good to take into account, rather than possibly separate notions like justice (Mackie ch. 6 §1, 2, Mill ch. 5).
For my present purpose, I will take utilitarianism to refer to the measurable maximization of welfare for all human beings, lay these debates about utilitarianism more generally aside, and instead look closely at the mechanisms within the utilitarian theory that delineate between right and wrong actions. Act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism offer two different approaches to understanding this delineation. The direct method of distinguishing between a right action and a wrong action is act-utilitarianism, by which an action is deemed right as long as it maximizes welfare. The indirect theory, by contrast, is rule-utilitarianism, by which an action is deemed right if a rule that actions of the same kind were to be widely accepted and produce good consequences.
In this paper, I argue that as long as rule-utilitarianism is not extensionally equivalent to act-utilitarianism, it is a better alternative to act-utilitarianism because of the expediency and objectivity provided by its rules, as well as its freedom from the commitment to maximizing welfare absolutely. I begin by discussing act-utilitarianism in detail, addressing its flaws and whether or not it successfully accounts for them. I then subject rule-utilitarianism to a similar treatment. Finally, I consider whether act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism are legitimate alternatives to one another, and whether rule-utilitarianism is in fact the better of those alternatives.
According to act-utilitarianism, in any given situation, the right action will yield the most welfare for humanity. If the total welfare caused by a given act outweighs the total harm it might yield, then the act is considered right. The single right act in a situation is the one with the largest positive mathematical difference between probable welfare and probable harm. In cases where that mathematical difference is equal, there are two right courses of action.
The act-utilitarian is bound to maximize welfare in all situations and for all actions, but this overestimates the abilities of the human individual. Act-utilitarianism functions on a case-by-case basis; the individual, as the moral actor, is paramount. This flexibility does allow one person to go about some act in the way best for them, which is more likely to yield maximum welfare than is a one-size-fits-all methodology where all individuals must follow the same protocol, regardless of individual aptitude or particular circumstances. Yet this emphasis on the individual might be too demanding in the sense that it optimistically overlooks our imperfect human nature. “Selfishness,” as Mackie sees it, “is a quite ineradicable part of human nature” (ch. 6 sec. 2). For a moral theory bent on maximizing the good not only of the individual, but of the community and even humanity as a whole, human selfishness is problematic, especially because individuals are the ones responsible for acting in whatever selfless way utilitarianism requires. Such selflessness might even push the boundaries of duty by requiring that individuals give to charity rather than take care of their own pursuits. Mackie goes further by citing Bernard Williams as saying that “in becoming capable of acting out of universal concern, people would have to be stripped of the motives on which most of what is of value in human life is based” (ch. 6, sec. 2). It almost seems that in order to successfully carry out act-utilitarianism, humans would have to stop being human. Ceasing to be human also includes ceasing to be spontaneous or prone to habit because every action would require acute deliberation. To this accusation, Smart replies that actions arising from spontaneity or habit are still legitimate under act-utilitarianism, since act-utilitarianism only applies to deliberate actions, and spontaneity and habit involve no rational calculation (sec. 7). Yet if this is so, then an individual could lead a completely impulsive or brainwashed life and never concern herself with morality.
Furthermore, human beings are not only selfish but prone to error. We can never know all the possible consequences of our actions in order to calculate what would yield the most welfare. Mistakes in judgment are inevitable, and even if an individual were to successfully weigh every option, she would never be able to do so in the time frame required by the situation at hand, least of all in emergencies or circumstances with deadlines. Those for and against act-utilitarianism both point to the inefficiency of deliberating over every action (Smart sec. 7, Quinton 47).
To the charge of inefficiency, proponents of act-utilitarianism like Smart respond that rules of thumb are perfectly acceptable (sec. 7). Even Mill establishes secondary principles like “do not lie” to follow in everyday life (ch. 1). While Smart allows rules of thumb on the grounds that they guide non-deliberative actions, Mill allows secondary principles as long as the first principle – that actions and character should produce the greatest happiness overall – is the priority. Act-utilitarians seem to admit that rules are necessary.
Yet in addition to the dangers of focusing on individual human beings, act-utilitarianism also runs the risk of clashing with normal moral intuitions. Killing one individual, for example, might be permitted if doing so preserves the lives of ten other individuals, since happiness is in this way maximized. Yet few would consider this situation to increase welfare but rather to encourage immorality at the dangerous discretion of the individual. Because act-utilitarianism cannot avoid this type of amorality, an alternative is necessary.
Rule-utilitarianism differs from act-utilitarianism in that acceptance of certain rules, rather than the desirable consequence of an action itself, is the criterion for rightful acting. An act can be expected to have a certain consequence if acts of the same kind generally have consequences of the same kind. Rules spell out which kinds of acts are right, and an individual acts rightly if she acts in accordance with such rules. According to Mackie, these rules are themselves endowed with intrinsic merit, and this quality distinguishes the rules of rule-utilitarianism from the rules of act-utilitarianism, which are merely tools for efficiency (sec 4).
In advocating for rule-utilitarianism, Quinton points out that having rules shortens the time it takes to calculate what action to pursue, especially because successful “action very often needs to be swift” and “opportunities pass” (48). He even suggests that the process of rule creation should be undertaken by “specially qualified people, that is to say moralists,” at times when the need for carefully deliberated actions is low (48). Quinton envisions “a stock of ready-made rules” at the disposal of all agents (48).
The importance of rules to this understanding of utilitarianism certainly distinguishes it from act-utilitarianism, but it also raises the question of how strictly or absolutely rules are to be enforced. Smart accuses rule-utilitarians of “law worship,” for the rule-utilitarian “would say that we ought to keep to a rule that is the most generally optimific, even though we knew that obeying it in this particular instance would have bad consequences” (sec 7). According to Smart, rule-utilitarianism has no tolerance for exceptions. If taken in this way, rule-utilitarianism would miss many opportunities to maximize welfare.
Advocates of rule-utilitarianism, however, might not take the rules so strictly. Especially in cases where breaking a rule would definitely produce the highest amount of welfare, exceptions seem valuable. So exceptions, the rule-utilitarian might say, can be granted as long as rule-utilitarianism remains distinct from act-utilitarianism. For the danger in granting rule-utilitarianism the flexibility of making exceptions to rules under particular circumstances is that in practice it ends up being equivalent to act-utilitarianism. Both forms of utilitarianism would involve the agent making a decision to act based on amount of welfare he expected to produce. This, of course, would be redundant, and act-utilitarianism would become the better choice by virtue of its being a simpler way of understanding what constitutes right and wrong.
To avoid the potential for rule-utilitarianism to collapse into act-utilitarianism, rule-utilitarianism must allow that a rule need not be successfully followed in every situation, but merely accepted and attempted to be followed. This way, failure to follow the rule is acceptable. Even a morally wrong act can still contribute to the greater good. And an act that contributes to the greater good can be forbidden. The acts of rule-utilitarianism are wrong if they are prohibited by rules that maximize welfare. This set of acts is not quite the same as that of act-utilitarianism. If killing one to save ten is acceptable in act-utilitarianism, then with a rule stating that killing one to save ten does not maximize welfare in the long run, the same act is unacceptable in rule-utilitarianism. If individuals are allowed to pursue maximum welfare with lesser expectations of success, then the long-term goal of rule-utilitarianism is not necessarily the straightforward maximization of the good, as it is with act-utilitarianism, but simply an objectively justifiable moral lifestyle in which a broader range of intuitively right actions can be defended.
RULE-UTILITARIANISM AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO ACT-UTILITARIANISM
Because rule-utilitarianism, understood as such, stands as a coherent moral theory, it can be thought of as an alternative to act-utilitarianism. Yet the question remains as to whether or not it is a better alternative. If rule-utilitarianism is preferable to act-utilitarianism, it must provide solutions for overcoming the weaknesses of act-utilitarianism.
Rule-utilitarianism certainly overcomes the issue of individual faults and subjectivities because of its focus on broad rules that apply to society as a whole. Rule-utilitarianism is in this way more objective than act-utilitarianism, since the system of rules – which applies to a number of individuals – carries more of the burden to distinguish right and wrong than does the individual. The individual is left only to live accordingly to the rules. According to CI Lewis, as interpreted by Quinton, actions that can be reasonably expected to have the best consequences are objectively right (49). Objectively right actions are compared with absolutely right actions, which have the best actual consequences, and subjectively right actions, which the agent thinks will have the best consequences. Absolutely right actions only exist upon looking back in time, with the gift of hindsight. Subjectively right actions run the risk of being wrong, thanks to the individual’s own mistakes. Act-utilitarianism runs the same risk. Objectively right actions, then, are those that ought to be aimed for, and these are made possible by rule-utilitarianism, which pays more attention to broader tendencies of actions.
The rules of thumb included as an afterthought in act-utilitarianism make up the foundation of rule-utilitarianism. Because the type of act-utilitarianism that allows for rules of thumb gambles with self-contradiction, rule-utilitarianism is preferable.
With the issue of clashing moral intuitions in act-utilitarianism, rule-utilitarianism at least avoids the act-utilitarian case of potentially killing one individual in order to save many others. A rule-utilitarian would not be obliged in any way to sacrifice someone for the community in the name of maximizing welfare, since rule-utilitarianism is more concerned with living morally.
Although rule-utilitarianism itself faces the challenge of not collapsing into act-utilitarianism, as long as it can maintain its practical independence from act-utilitarianism, it is a viable alternative to act-utilitarianism. And because rule-utilitarianism seems for the most part to improve upon the flaws of act-utilitarianism, it proves to be the better alternative.
Mackie, J.L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. London: Penguin Group, 1977.
Mill, J.S. “Utilitarianism.” Utilitarianism and Other Essays. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
Quinton, Anthony. Utilitarian Ethics. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1989.
Smart, J.C.C., and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1973.