Utilitarianism is, simply put, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. It is a consequentialist theory of ethics that has majorly impacted moral philosophy in modern times. It maximizes utility, the usefulness of an action, meaning how much pleasure and pain that action brings. There are two main types of utilitarianism that have their own version of doing this; act and rule, both of these perspectives agree that the main determinant of what is right/wrong is what we do and how much pleasure/pain is felt by the number of people affected by this action.
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Act utilitarianism states that a person’s act is morally right only if it produces the best possible results in that specific situation. The key word there is specific. The interesting thing about act utilitarianism is that it maximises utility. If we choose actions that produce less utility than is possible, the total utility of our actions will be less than the amount of goodness that we could have potentially produced. For that reason, according to act utilitarianism we should apply this principle to individual acts and not to classes of similar actions. It depends on the condition, so therefore we can see why we get the maximum utility of an action.
In addition, act utilitarianism offers more than categorical or deontological theories since it offers a more complex approach to complex issues that moral philosophy faces. It offers more because it includes aspects of conditionality that deontological theories do not consider. For example the bible has 10 commandments that have to be followed by people, however they do not consider the conditions of the action. It says ‘though shall not steal’, but what, in my opinion, it should say is ‘though shall not steal except in circumstances and contions a, b, c, d…’. If a starving man steals bread from a rich baker to feed his family, an act utilitarian would say that is morally acceptable.
Rule utilitarianism is different to act utilitarianism because it sets up a moral code that contains rules. Once we determine what these rules are, we can then judge individual actions by seeing if they conform to these rules. The principle of utility is used to evaluate rules and is not applied directly to individual actions. Something interesting about rule utilitarianism is that it avoids the criticisms of act utilitarianism and the doctor problem that we evaluated earlier, is not an issue at all. Rule utilitarians argue that their version of utilitarianism responds to all of the critiques of act utilitarianism, mainly the critique that it approves of actions that are clearly wrong and that it is [act utilitarianism] too demanding because it requires people to make excessive levels of sacrifice. Rule utilitarians can do this because they do not evaluate individual actions separately but instead support rules whose acceptance maximises utility.