Utilitarianism: Critical Comparison of Bentham's Act and Mill's Rule

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About this sample


Words: 1122 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Jul 3, 2023

Words: 1122|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Jul 3, 2023

The aim of this essay is to critically compare Jeremy Bentham's production of Act Utilitarianism, which states that we should live our lives in a way that would achieve the greatest amount of happiness possible with John Mill's Rule Utilitarianism. This is to say that we should follow the best set of rules that would ultimately lead to the greatest possible happiness. This composition will begin by touching on why the agreed validity shared by Bentham and Mill is that utility should be understood hedonistically, it will then explore the major problems and connections with consequentialism and Rule Utilitarianism by using the Great fire of in 1666 with a hypothetical thought experiment from 1973, to show that although Act and Rule Utilitarianism have their positives, they both incur problems that are difficult to solve with the features of utilitarianism. Ultimately, this essay will show that the main problem in any cases is morality.

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Complexity of Similarities and Differences Between Act and Rule of Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism is a theory of morality and a combination of consequentialism and hedonism. This is to say that we are morally obliged to live our lives in a way that would create the greatest possible happiness, if one situation were better than another was which would result in the overall happiness and the absence of pain for all humans. However, although Bentham and Mill had different ideas on the nature of pleasure and pain, they agreed and that moral and political justification should be fairly judged. They also agreed that focus should be the gains and losses to utility. Consequently, as it is possible to integrate both qualitative and quantitative hedonism into Act and Rule Utilitarianism, Bentham and Mill established that utility should be implied in a hedonistic approach. This is not to say that hedonism is without flaws since it is selfish in nature. For example, Barber explains that a Christian martyr thrown to the lions in the Roman Colosseum may have suffered ten thousand times the agony of anyone in the crowd, but if there were eighty thousand spectators, the agony of the victim would be cancelled out. The utility of society outweighs that of the individual.

Bentham sought to bring science to bear on moral questions, converting them into empirical ones and conceptualising pleasure and pain solely by reference of intensity and duration. Although Bentham's Act Utilitarian has its advantages such as being able to give a solution in difficult situations and produced to extend to all beings that are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, Bentham states that firstly what all laws 'ought to have in common' is to discourage negative behaviour. He says this will result in a happier society overall. The problem we have with consequentialism is that it conflicts with our every day morals. Consequentialism tells us that in any situation the right thing to do is the action that is most likely to produce the best consequences. This presents many problems and Bentham seems to contradict himself a fair bit as he states that although punishment is inherently evil, resulting in pain, it should only be used to 'exclude some greater evil'. Most importantly, it is necessary in order to discourage society from disorderly conduct and reprimand the guilty for their wrong doings. Using the Great Fire of in 1666 as an example, Alex Barber proved that regardless of the fact that there was no evidence to prove who or what started the fire, the public wanted someone to be held accountable for the devastating impact it had caused. Ultimately, Robert Hubert, an innocent, 'simple', Catholic man was coerced into confession and sentenced to death. Those who were in charge of implementing the laws were more concerned with the potential violent consequences from an angry mob rather than doing what is morally and legally right. Instead, they chose to make things easier for themselves because they rarely face the consequences for their own moral misdeed when applying the law, which is a problem that Mill seems to imply. It is evident that utility of the public superseded that of the individual. Questions of innocence and guilt are extremely important and morally relevant and yet they are completely ignored. Nevertheless, according to Bentham's theory, this was acceptable because Act Utilitarianism says that an act is right if it maximises overall utility.

Rule Utilitarianism is just as problematic. On the contrary, to Act Utilitarianism, Professor Brad Hooker highlights that by society accepting the law that killing an innocent person is forbidden, as does Rule Utilitarianism, which this would in fact maximise overall utility.

One problem this incurs is that the law was not applied lawfully or morally which can render rule utilitarianism as incompetent. Mill also points out that there are some possible exceptions to be made with some rules, such as do not lie, but this is asking too much from society. Furthermore, in contrast to sticking to the tried and tested rules, it is impossible to calculate utility consequences individually. Rule utilitarianism is not any better if it requires us to follow the best set of rules as we can see in the incompetence of the judges, that the lawful rules were not followed but still resulted in greater overall happiness. The straightforward fictional thought experiment of Jim in the jungle illustrates he contrast between consequentialist thinking and the typical way we make moral judgements. An authoritative figure gives Jim a choice between killing one man to save 19 otherwise all 20 will die.

If you emphasize the fact that the men against the wall and the other villagers begged Jim to sacrifice one individual, it could be argued that Rule Utilitarianism might apply here, as well. It is clear that Morality is subject to change and not something that can necessarily be controlled.

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To conclude it has been shown that although act and rule utilitarianism has their pros and cons, the main hurdles we face is with our own morals and applying and enforcing rules. It is evident that a major problem we face is if we cannot trust the lawful system to convict the right person, we could not to trust them to calculate and decide utility consequences. Evidentially as we can see, it is not always possible for humans to put their personal feelings or opinions aside when it comes to making the laws and passing that judgment in court. Professor Brad Hooker confirms that in the end, how much pleasure and pain we experience comes down to the individual to know what is best for them. The prevention of the potential deaths of people in the riot, handing out the appropriate punishment, or maintaining a system that does not become anarchic every time someone does something wrong, is the greater good.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

Utilitarianism: Critical Comparison of Bentham’s Act and Mill’s Rule. (2023, July 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“Utilitarianism: Critical Comparison of Bentham’s Act and Mill’s Rule.” GradesFixer, 03 Jul. 2023,
Utilitarianism: Critical Comparison of Bentham’s Act and Mill’s Rule. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
Utilitarianism: Critical Comparison of Bentham’s Act and Mill’s Rule [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2023 Jul 03 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from:
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