Difference Between Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: April 30, 2023


Difference Between Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism

Why read @ Diffzy

Our articles are well-researched

We make unbiased comparisons

Our content is free to access

We are a one-stop platform for finding differences and comparisons

We compare similar terms in both tabular forms as well as in points


Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that the right action, or the right rule, in any given case, is the one that maximizes the greatest good of all people affected by that action or rule. Broadly speaking, utilitarianism can be broken down into two categories: act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism focuses on making each decision based on what will produce the most overall good in all cases; rule utilitarianism focuses on creating general rules that will always produce the most overall good in all cases.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that states that an action is right if it increases pleasure or happiness. It was introduced by Jeremy Bentham in 1789 but refined by John Stuart Mill in his 1863 book Utilitarianism. Since then, utilitarian ethical theories have been criticized because they allow actions to be acceptable even when they violate moral rules. To answer such criticism, J.J.C Smart proposed a refinement of utilitarian ethics: rule utilitarianism (Smart 1963). Rule utilitarianism asserts that an action is right only if it conforms to certain moral rules; a new action can be made acceptable only if it does not violate any existing moral rule or establish a new one. However, there are two versions of rule utilitarianism: act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. For an action to be justified under act utilitarianism, it must maximize utility; however, under rule utilitarianism, it must conform to a pre-established set of rules. This essay will compare these two forms of rule utilitarianism by analyzing their differences and similarities. Then, I will argue that rule-utilitarianism is superior to act-utilitarianism because it provides more moral guidance than its counterpart. Finally, I will suggest how both rule-utilitarianism and act-utilitarianism could be applied to solve practical problems.

In brief, we may say that Act utilitarianism means acting to bring about what would produce at least as much good as any available alternative action. Rule utilitarianism means acting according to principles whose general observance would produce at least as much good as any available alternative set of principles. (Kagan 1992) The first distinction between these two forms of rule utilitarianism lies in whether you should base your decision on individual cases or create general guidelines based on past experiences. Under act utilitarianism, each case is judged independently; however, under rule utilitarianism, all similar cases are treated similarly. For example, when a student is late for class because his bus was delayed by traffic congestion caused by an accident on another road; he is excused for being late because it was not his fault. But if a student is late for class because he slept in after staying up all night playing video games with friends; he will be punished because tardiness cannot be tolerated under normal circumstances.

The first step in deciding how to resolve a moral dilemma with rule utilitarianism is to identify whether one has made a mistake by failing to follow some rule (called a violation) or whether one has followed all relevant rules but still ends up with two equally morally good options (called a dilemma). In either case, one then follows these steps: One checks if there's an option that violates fewer rules than another. If so, choose that option; otherwise, go on. One check if there's an option that creates more happiness than another. If so, choose that option; otherwise, go on. One check if there's an option that creates less unhappiness than another. If so, choose that option; otherwise, go on. If no option satisfies 1-3, one may proceed with whichever option makes them happiest. This approach was developed by John Harsanyi and James Griffin in 1977 and it has been used ever since in applied ethics. A disadvantage of using rule utilitarianism is that it doesn't always produce optimal results - particularly when there are many agents involved whose interests conflict with each other. For example, imagine you're at a party where your friend needs help moving their furniture into their new house across town while your neighbor needs help moving theirs into their new house across town - both houses being equidistant from you.

Act Utilitarianism vs Rule Utilitarianism

Which Is Right for You? When it comes to making choices, most people rely on some type of principle when deciding what is right or wrong. This approach is known as ethics. A subset of ethics, utilitarianism, argues that you should choose whichever course of action will result in the best. There are two main types of utilitarianism: act and rule. Which do you use? Check out our guide to learn more about act vs rule utilitarianism. We’ll also share tips on how to make decisions if you can’t decide which route to take. ... It's a question we're all familiar with. If I had one life to live, what would I want to do with it? - What If? movie trailer. Utilitarianism has been called the greatest happiness principle. The idea behind it is simple enough—the best way to live your life is by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain (which can be accomplished by maximizing happiness). But, at its core, utilitarianism isn't just an idea—it's a philosophy. And like any philosophy worth its salt, there are plenty of variations on what constitutes utopia. There are two major schools of thought: act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. While both forms of utilitarianism attempt to maximize utility (or happiness), they differ in their approaches. Let's take a look at each school of thought and then see how they stack up against each other.

As we mentioned above, act utilitarianism deals with individual cases while rule utilitarianism focuses on general rules. To put it another way, act utilitarianism looks at specific actions while rule utilitarianism looks at broader concepts and ideas. One might think of them as opposite sides of a coin. On one side, you have a detailed look at actions taken; on the other side, there's broad information about overarching goals and ideals. So why does this matter? Here's where things get tricky. According to proponents of these two schools of thought, different situations call for different approaches to decision-making because each method will yield different results... To learn more about how these two philosophies measure up against each other, read through our breakdown below!

Difference Between Act Utilitarianism And Rule Utilitarianism In Tabular Form

Basic Act Utilitarianism Rule Utilitarianism
Define If your action is successful in bringing about more happiness than suffering—for everyone involved—then that’s all there is to it Rule-utilitarianism, an action is morally acceptable if it satisfies certain moral rules.
Rules   This will require a rule that will help others everytime it is being implemented. For example, providing food for people who want it This will require a more particular rule. For example, “always provide food for people who want it.”

What is Act Utilitarianism?

For those who are unfamiliar with utilitarianism, it is a moral theory that judges actions by their consequences. To put it another way, actions are considered right or wrong based on how well they bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. The basic idea behind utilitarianism is that we should always act in such a way as to create as much happiness as possible while minimizing suffering. However, philosophers disagree on how best to implement it. Different theorists have suggested using different standards of evaluation, some focusing on specific acts (act utilitarianism) and others looking at general rules (rule utilitarianism). How do these two approaches differ? What do they have in common? And which one is better? Read on to find out!

According to act utilitarianism, a given action can be judged by its consequences alone. In other words, if your action is successful in bringing about more happiness than suffering—for everyone involved—then that’s all there is to it. This approach takes an even-handed approach and does not hold any standard or action in particular esteem above any other: no matter what you choose to do, so long as it results in good outcomes overall then it cannot be said to be bad from a utilitarian perspective. The main point here is that regardless of whether you want most people’s lives to improve slightly or just a few people’s live to improve greatly; if you wind up increasing overall welfare then your chosen course of action was correct according to classical utilitarianism.

What is Rule Utilitarianism?

According to rule-utilitarianism, an action is morally acceptable if it satisfies certain moral rules. More specifically, an action can be justified if it follows a set of guidelines that have been identified as morally justifiable. Like all forms of utilitarian ethics, rule utilitarianism puts a great deal of emphasis on maximizing overall happiness in society. Instead of focusing on individual instances, however, rule utilitarians seek to look at long-term trends. The result is a system that emphasizes consistency above all else, with any sacrifice or compromise warranted if doing so will benefit society over time. Because it places such importance on moral rules, rule utilitarianism often comes into conflict with other ethical theories. For example, according to act-utilitarianism, any given act must stand up on its own merits rather than being judged based on its adherence to some overarching standard. By contrast, those who follow rule utilitarianism believe that there are specific actions we should always take—regardless of whether they lead to greater happiness—and others we should never take regardless of how beneficial they might seem in particular situations. For example: If I were asked by my neighbors to go next door and shoot their noisy dog (because they’re old and don’t want to do it themselves), an act utilitarian would say I shouldn’t do it because killing dogs does not maximize utility.

The Main Difference Between Act Utilitarianism And Rule Utilitarianism in Points

  • The most important difference between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism is that in act utilitarianism it is not necessary to follow general rules of action, but only look at each particular case, while in rule utilitarianism you have to follow certain general rules of action.
  • The way we learn about rightness and wrongness is also very different. The right thing to do can be seen directly in a given situation; there are no moral laws like Thou shalt not kill or Do unto others as you would have them do unto you from which one can derive what to do in a situation, but just see what one should do.
  • So, under act utilitarianism, an individual has to judge every single situation on its own merits. But under rule utilitarianism, an individual need not judge every single situation on its own merits because he/she has ready-made principles (rules) according to which he/she can decide what is right and wrong in any given situation without having to re-examine it.
  • Thus, for example, if someone says Do unto others as you would have them do unto you then I know immediately that I must help anyone who needs my help whenever I can help him/her without thereby violating anyone else’s rights.
  • And so on for other such principles like Thou shalt not kill etc. Under act utilitarianism, however, there are no such pre-made principles and hence I have to examine every single situation on its own merits.
  • This does not mean that under act utilitarianism one cannot draw up some general guidelines for action which may be useful in many situations, but these will only apply when certain conditions obtain (e.g. when all involved parties consent).
  • Under rule utilitarianism, however, individuals can rely upon pre-made rules even when they don't apply in some cases because they are still better than nothing – they serve as guides even though they may not always give correct answers in all cases. Also, it is worth noting that both theories require us to take into account everyone's happiness equally.
  • Utilitarianism must consider all other possible options open to an agent to work out which is best; however, there are an infinite number of possible future actions so it would be impossible to do so completely.
  • Therefore only rule utilitarianism can determine what acts are good or bad for society in total. Thus rules are essential to ethical decision-making because they guide us on how we should make decisions when we have a moral dilemma (the process is called resolving a moral dilemma).


When it comes to important ethical decisions, utilitarianism says that actions with consequences for others (or even just weighing in on someone else’s decision) ought to be judged based on their overall utility — or how much good or harm they cause. You can take a closer look at utilitarianism by thinking about a single situation that both utilitarians and non-utilization-utilitarians deal with. Say you’re judging whether to join a hunger strike. Most people would say that it is wrong not only because you are endangering your health, but also because you are causing harm to other people who will care for you should something go wrong.


Cite this article

Use the citation below to add this article to your bibliography:



MLA Style Citation

"Difference Between Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism." Diffzy.com, 2024. Wed. 10 Apr. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-act-utilitarianism-and-rule-utilitarianism-434>.

Edited by

Share this article