Act Vs. Rule Utilitarian: Comparison of Mill’s Adopted Stances

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Words: 2114 |

Pages: 4.5|

11 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 2114|Pages: 4.5|11 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

It is widely accepted that Utilitarianism, as a discipline, is not as unifying or as straightforward a moral theory as it might at first appear; as Crisp highlights, there are, in fact, 'many variations, some of them subtle, others quite radical, between different forms of utilitarianism[1]'; representing two of these various forms are 'Act' and 'Rule' Utilitarianism. In this essay, I will aim to discuss the efficacy of the Act and Rule Utilitarian stances respectively, ultimately concluding that Act Utilitarianism, the stance I believe Mill himself adopts, is the better of the two and promotes the most coherent and valuable interpretation of the Utilitarian principle. Prior to engaging in an exploration of the relative successfulness of Act and Rule Utilitarianism, it is perhaps worth outlining the distinction between them.

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At a basic level, Act (sometimes referred to as 'direct') Utilitarianism can be defined as the moral theory which advocates that 'an act is right insofar as its consequences for the general happiness are at least as good as any alternative available to the agent[2].' For the Act Utilitarian, as Crisp more concisely states, 'the right action is that which maximizes happiness[3].' For the Rule (or indirect) Utilitarian, the rightness or wrongness of an act is determined not necessarily by whether it promotes the greatest happiness but whether it complies with certain rules which, if everyone were to follow them, would result in the greatest amount of happiness; 'An act is right insofar as it conforms to a rule whose acceptance value for the general happiness is at least as great as any alternative rule available to the agent[4].'

Undeniably, if one were to adopt the Act Utilitarian stance, one would be met with numerous points of contention which would require careful thought if one were to defend the chosen viewpoint coherently. Perhaps one of the most apparent issues is that of time-wasting. Act Utilitarianism requires an agent to consider, at the point of being presented with any dilemma, which of a series of potential actions, would result in the greatest happiness and the least amount of pain. For anyone, this would be a long and complex process and would not lend itself to making decisions at a pace which would then allow time for actual action. A moral dilemma, for example, which involved saving lives in a burning house would not be best approached using such a long-winded decision making process; it 'lays an impossible burden of calculation on the moral agent[5].' Secondly, I think the spontaneity problem is one which should be taken seriously with regards to Act Utilitarianism; many would acknowledge spontaneity as one of life's great pleasures; if we were to analyse to such an extent, every action, life would become over-planned and over-examined and, in turn, decrease the general happiness. This is obviously not what any Utilitarian would be inclined to encourage.

In addition, we might consider what is sometimes referred to as the 'precedent effect'; if an Act Utilitarian deems an action to be correct in a given set of circumstances (theft, for example), he might set a precedent for himself or for others around him encouraging similar behaviour in a set of circumstances which are not exactly the same. Due to the obliviousness of the Act Utilitarian principle to moral laws, it is entirely likely that in certain situations the methodology would lead one to commit actions which he/she would deem morally repugnant by normal standards. Crisp alludes to this idea when he argues that if we were to live in a world of what he refers to as 'single-level[6]' Act Utilitarians, 'though presumably you could, being human, not help enjoying certain experiences, such as eating tasty food, you and everybody else would adopt no aim other than to maximize welfare. You would have no qualms about such actions as killing, hurting or lying to others[7].' I do think, however, that Crisp's distinction is an important one; 'single-level' act utilitarianism is arguably the type from which these numerous problems would stem. He certainly voices my own opinion in maintaining that a society which centred around this moral theory would be highly dysfunctional.

Thus far, then, we can see that there are numerous points at which the effectiveness of the Act Utilitarian principle on a one-dimensional, simplistic level might be called into question. However, I am unconvinced by the ability of the Rule Utilitarian stance to solve any of the issues explored above. Regarding the time-wasting objection, it does not seem that adopting Rule Utilitarianism could save any significant amount of time when making moral decisions; there cannot possibly be a list of rules so long they cover any possible dilemma (if there were, this would present a problem in itself as time would be wasted trying to remember such an extraordinary number of rules) and if the list of rules were only limited then time would be wasted attempting to choose the appropriate rule for the situation in hand.

The spontaneity objection still remains; the addition of a series of rules to life would certainly suppress impulsiveness. Rule Utilitarianism might arguably rid one of the burden of the precedent effect but, in my opinion, it would replace it with a problem of greater proportions, namely, the worship of rules, potentially to an extent which is simply no longer Utilitarian. For example, if breaking a rule would undoubtedly lead to the greatest happiness and the least amount of pain, then surely it is the Utilitarian duty to disregard the rule? In the case of a rule, the precedent is already permanently set and it might be the wrong one in a given situation. Not only does rule utilitarianism not resolve many of the issues presented by act utilitarianism, it also carries with it numerous other problems. For example, the range of potential moral dilemmas is entirely too wide for a set of rules to cover all bases, so to speak; a number of questions would remain unanswered. In addition, rules often give guidance as to what not to do but might not shed any light on what to do instead.

Theories of action should answer the question 'what should I do?' and it doesn't seem as if these rules would be extensive enough to answer that question. It seems, then, as if neither 'single-level' act utilitarianism nor rule utilitarianism are really sufficient. However, what I would consider to be Mill's own interpretation of act utilitarianism, which Crisp terms a 'multi-level' view, seems a more moderate and workable stance. Mill maintains that society should continue to abide by the 'customary morality[8]' which it has cultivated since those rules have proved historically to contribute to the general happiness. As Crisp maintains: 'Mill thinks that customary morality...has emerged 'due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognised' (1.4).

Human beings are by nature concerned with their own happiness, and this concern, extended to others, has led, without our fully being aware of it, to the development of a customary morality founded in large part on the principle of utility[9].' These general principles of morality Mill believes should be put into practice until a situation arises in which these principles conflict; at this point the principle of utility should come into play. This adherence to supposed 'rules' or generally accepted moral principles, some have seen as a sign of Mill's adoption of a rule utilitarian stance. But it seems that this is not the case since Mill simply maintains that we should follow these rules because, historically, they have proved to promote the most happiness after consideration via act utilitarian methodology.

Adhering to these general principles is simply skipping a step already completed throughout history. Mill uses an analogy of navigation to illustrate his relationship to the rules of morality; they are guidelines for achieving the ultimate utilitarian end: 'It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones. To inform a traveller respecting the place of his ultimate destination, is not to forbid the use of landmarks and direction-posts on the way. The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another[10].'

This view definitely seems to be a less extreme 'one or the other' approach to Utilitarianism than single-level act or rule utilitarianism and seems to avoid many of the pitfalls. This stance does not wed an agent to a particular set of rules which might, ultimately, lead to a non-utilitarian act being committed, yet it also saves time through the acceptance of generally accepted happiness-inducing principles. The evidence with Utilitarianism does seem to be consistent with the act utilitarianism viewpoint. Some, however, seem to identify Mill's stance more with that of the rule utilitarian; Urmson holds such a view. It is not within the scope of this enquiry to examine Urmson's viewpoint extensively but I shall attempt to mention a couple of his main arguments. He claims the correct interpretation of what Mill is saying in Utilitarianism is that: 'A particular action is justified as being right by showing that it is in accord with some moral rule.

It is shown to be wrong by showing that it trangresses some moral rule[11].' He claims substantial textual support for this claim; for example, 'But to consider the rules of morality as improvable is one thing; to pass over the intermediate generalisations entirely, and endeavour to test each individual action directly, is another[12]' This doesn't however, wed Mill to the Rule Utilitarian view. Indeed, he does acknowledge moral rules which should be generally accepted but the fact is is that these moral laws have been previously crafted via the methods of act utilitarianism; only through discovering which moral rules tend to produce the greatest happiness, have these laws been adopted. Mill is not blindly following a set of rules, but is simply acknowledging that these rules enable one to skip a step which has already been completed; since it has already been decided which actions would benefit society as a whole if society, on the whole, were to adopt them, the act utilitarian can rest safe in the knowledge that they have acted in the most moral way.

According to Urmson, the use of the term 'tendency' seems to be acknowledging an adherence to Rule Utilitarianism. Quinton summarises why this might be the case: 'An individual action cannot have a tendency. Producing certain effects more often than not cannot be characteristic of an individual action which occurs once and once only and has one and only one set of effects. Only a kind or class of actions can have a tendency to promote happiness or anything else[13].' However, this doesn't necessarily lend itself to the adoption of rules and only rules; we might follow moral laws because they have a tendency to promote happiness because this is what we have historically found. Why would we act alternatively to what has historically encouraged happiness? In addition, Crisp notes that 'it was standard in the utilitarian tradition to refer to the tendencies of individual acts[14].' The word has no bearing on Mill's understanding of the definition of utilitarianism and should perhaps just be accepted as a linguistic point as opposed to philosophical.

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It seems apparent that neither a simplistic act utilitarianism nor rule utilitarianism can provide a fully comprehensive moral view. However, an act utilitarianism which accepts certain basic moral generalisations (founded via the methods of act utilitarianism) seems to achieve more success and avoids many of the common pitfalls. Within the text, it is clear that this is the interpretation Mill himself adopted.


  1. Crisp. Mill on Utilitarianism. Chapter 5, P.97
  2. Brink, David, "Mill's Moral and Political Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
  3. Crisp. Mill on Utilitarianism. Chapter 5, P.102
  4. Brink, David, "Mill's Moral and Political Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
  5. [ Anthony Quinton, Utilitarian Ethics, p.47
  6. Crisp. Mill on Utilitarianism. Chapter 5, P.106
  7. Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 3, p.27
  8. Crisp. Mill on Utilitarianism. Chapter 5, P.108
  9. Mill, Utilitarianism, 2.24
  10. J.O Urmson, The Interpretation of the Moral Philosophy of J.S. Mill, The Philosophical Quarterly, p.35
  11. J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, cited in J.O Urmson, The Interpretation of the Moral Philosophy of J.S. Mill, The Philosophical Quarterly, p.35
  12. Anthony Quinton, Utilitarian Ethics, p.48 [14] Crisp. Mill on Utilitarianism. Chapter 5, P.104
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Act Vs. Rule Utilitarian: Comparison of Mill’s Adopted Stances. (2018, May 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 19, 2024, from
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