Act and Rule Utilitarianism

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  • Created by: mb109068
  • Created on: 23-10-13 13:58



Two important types of types of utilitarianism are Act utilitarianism and Rule utilitarianism.

Act utilitarianism maintains that, whenever possible, the principle of utility and use of the hedonic calculus must be applied to each individual situation. This gives it a benefit of flexibility, being able to take into account individual situations for what they are.

The Hedonic Calculus was proposed by Jeremy Bentham as a method of calculating the action that results in the greatest overall happiness. It weighs up the pain and pleasure generated from an action, taking a number of things into account.

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The Hedonic Calculus factors the following into account for each action:

-1) The intensity of the pleasure/pain.

-2) The duration of the pleasure/pain.

-3) The certainty or uncertainty of pleasure/pain.

-4) The closeness or remoteness of the pleasure/pain.

-5) The fecundity, or the odds of being followed by more pleasure/pain

-6) The purity, or the odds of being followed by the opposite sensation.

-7) The extent, or the number of people affected by the action.

The action that leads to the best consequences after considering these is the morally correct one.

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One criticism Act utilitarianism receives is that it has the potential to justify theoretically any act, as long as it generates happiness; acts such as murder, or even genocide, cannot 8e completely ruled out.

It also has the issue of impracticality. The idea of having to calculate each and every moral choice at a given moment is clearly beyond the capacity of nearly everyone.

And not to mention, the logical extreme of this is that leisure time would disappear, as that time could always be better expended on other matters.

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Rule utilitarianism addresses this difficulty. It focuses on a set of general principles which should always, as a rule, be followed for the good of the community. One must obey the rule even if it doesn’t lead to the greatest overall happiness in a given situation. For example, obedience of the laws would usually come under this heading; while some may be prone to abuse in certain cases, typically the majority will be happier as long as every citizen obeys them.

Rule utilitarianism has its own problems too of course. As mentioned, it may lead to situations where one must forfeit happiness in one scenario for the greatest happiness overall on the part of society, because though not lying is for the benefit of everyone, in the event of being asked where the scared girl is hiding by a psycho with a knife, telling the truth becomes less of a boon.

It also has some of its own issues to work out with regards to the moral event horizon. It has the potential to completely justify the slavery of a minority group, so long as it achieves greater happiness overall from the majority group.

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