‘act utilitarianism’ & ‘rule utilitarianism’

What are the difficulties facing ‘act utilitarianism’ that ‘rule utilitarianism’ is meant to avoid? Does it manage to do so without generating insuperable difficulties of its own?


Guidance note

This assignment asks two questions that, taken together, call on you to compare two versions of a view. To answer the first you must say what proponents of ‘rule’ versions think gives them an edge over ‘act’ versions. For the second you must say whether they are correct in thinking this.

The study materials include two defenders of the rule-based views, J.S. Mill and Brad Hooker.

As Book 3 explains, Mill does not call himself a rule utilitarian, any more than Bentham calls himself an act utilitarian. That said, these modern labels are useful for drawing out important ways in which Mill’s and Bentham’s views diverge, and a good place to begin is the second half of the selection from Mill in the set book (see the reading activity on pp. 81-2 of Book 3). Here, Mill tries to anticipate a number of possible objections to utilitarianism. He addresses these objections by moving away from what is in effect Bentham’s original view. That is, he adopts a version of, as we would now put it, rule utilitarianism instead of act utilitarianism.

Hooker, in the audio recording, answers the reservations many have had about rule utilitarianism, and is himself a defender of ‘rule’ rather than ‘act’ consequentialism (though to be strict, he is not a utilitarian, e.g. he rejects hedonism). The activity on pp. 83-4 in .Book 3 will help you to see how Hooker’s view relates to this assignment, and to the second question in particular.

Between them, Mill and Hooker make plenty of points. Do not assume that a good answer has to cover everything they say. You have limited space. In crafting your answer, you may find it more effective to focus on particular attractions or shortcomings of the rule- or act-based views.

You will find it helpful to review the following

Book 3, Chapter 2 (pp. 43–87), but with a focus on Sections 2.2 and 2.5

Reading 3 at the back of Book 3: ‘Bentham on utility, pleasure and pain’ (pp.183-6)

In the set book: Part VIII, Reading 6, ‘Happiness as the Foundation of Morality’,pp. 513–17 (but with a focus on the second half, as explained in the guidance note)

The audio recording, ‘Classical and modern utilitarianism’

The end-of-chapter quiz for Book 3, Chapter 2

Provide a final word count (including any quotations and footnotes but not your list of references) Provide a list of references at the end of your essay and check that you have included in-text citations where appropriate.

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