here are a lot of differences and similarities between act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarian supports the principle of utility must be applied to each individual situation. The rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its usefulness. This was Bentham’s idea when he established that pleasure and pain was important qualities for determining what was morally right or wrong. With Act Utilitarianism, you must decide what action will bring the greatest good for the greatest number in the circumstance. For example, if you are in situation where lying would bring about the greatest good then, you should lie. This supports that the value of the consequence is in the particular act that would lead to the greatest good for the majority even it is was breaking the law.
One of the benefits of Act Utilitarianism is that it is very flexible unlike Rule Utilitarianism. With Rule Utilitarianism, you are not comparing situations to see which one is for the best. With Act Utilitarianism, they go by individual situations and which action brings forth the greatest amount of happiness. Act Utilitarianism means determining the amount of pleasure or pain that is derived from an action. However, a flaw from this principle makes it very impractical to establish what is the best course to take in situations. Now Rule Utilitarianism focuses on a different set of rules. These rules consist of everyone following the same set of rules to bring about the greatest good. Unlike Act Utilitarianism, this principle states that you must follow the rules even if it doesn’t lead to the greatest pleasure of the individual at that time.
It focuses solely on the idea that you should follow the rule that will bring out the greatest good within the community. For example, if rule utilitarianism decides that doctors should not be able to end human life. A rule utilitarian would have killed Mary to save Jodie’s life. If it was agreed that allowing euthanasia would be a bad rule as it would lead to people who are old or ill being scared or worried about being pressured into dying. A rule utilitarian would break these rules such as in the Dianne Pretty case. There has to be boundaries and rules to keep the society tolerable. In all cases the rule would take priority over the immediate situation. The rules established would be followed universally and would apply in all situations.
With Rule Utilitarianism however, you can also understand that there is some leeway, when faced with strong and weak utilitarian’s. In the UK the law does distinguish a difference between self-defense and murder. This would a criticism that Kant, who is trying to find absolute universal laws, but is a not a problem for rule utilitarianism. Weak or soft, Rule Utilitarianism say that sometimes you can break the rules if doing so leads to the greater good. This is totally unlike our legal system. You can’ break the law in the UK. So this sort of Rule Utilitarianism, where you can break the rules if it leads to the greater good is really like Act Utilitarianism.
It is difficult to argue the difference between the two sometimes. Critics would use this to suggest a flaw in Rule Utilitarianism because you are looking at the individual case. Strong Utilitarian’s would however persist with the rules, for example the Diana Pretty case, even though in this case the greater happiness for the individual would have been seen by allowing euthanasia, it would lead to further conflict and debate about under what circumstances are you allowed to use Euthanasia. Strong Rule Utilitarianism leaves no potential leeway or flexibility.
Munson, Ronald. “Act and Rule Utilitarianism.” Outcome Uncertain: Cases and Contexts in Bioethics. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003. 360-369. Print.