Based on the definitions given by Wikipedia , Rule Utilitarianism and Act Utilitarianism both seems to imply the same meaning

Rule Utilitarianism

Action is right as it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good, or that "the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance."

Act Utilitarianism

Person's act is morally right if and only if it produces at least as much happiness as any other act that the person could perform at that time

The supposed difference between Rule Utilitarianism and Act Utilitarianism

For rule utilitarians, the correctness of a rule is determined by the amount of good it brings about when followed. In contrast, act utilitarians judge an act in terms of the consequences of that act alone

The justification of action for the above rule mentioned are about the greater good of the society , How are Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism different from each other ???

6 Answers 6


A rule utilitarian thinks, before acting, about the consequences of people following that rule. If the outcome is regarded as positive, she might decide that it's good to follow that rule in general, and will apply it in future.

An act utilitarian doesn't generalise the act, but regards it as a single action with a single outcome. She will have to weigh the possible consequences each and every time she acts.

Therefore, rule utilitarianism is considered to be more practicable, countering the anti-utilitarian argument that weighing each and every possible outcome each and every time is just not the way we want to (or can) spend our time.

On the other hand, act utilitarians consider rule utilitarians somewhat dull-witted, for a smart person might think of herself to be able to decide what to do without just applying rules time and time again. Also, blindly applying rules to specific situations can have unforeseen negative consequences that might have been averted by somebody who paid more attention instead of executing a programme.

At the same time, act utilitarians are criticised for their double standards, for they think it is useful if everybody follows "good" rules while they take for themselves the right to decide whether or not it is clever to stick to those rules in a specific situation.

An example: A rule utilitarian drives at night and sees a red intersection light. Thinking "it would have good consequences if people would stick to the rule and not cross red lights, so everyone is safe while waiting for a short while", she would apply that rule to herself and wait for it to turn green. Meanwhile, the act utilitarian might think "well, I certainly hope that people, who aren't me, in general follow that rule and stay put, but as there's no one around who might get influenced by my act, since there's no police around to fine me, and since I would see an approaching car as it's dark, I might as well cross right now."

Sources: There is a paper by Smart which you can find here; I'm pretty sure that's what we read in the seminar where I learned what I wrote. Smart's the act utilitarian.

  • Your example of the street light perfectly illustrates the difference(s) for me. Thank you for such an intelligible response. With there now being over 100k views of this post, I'm quite surprised you've only received [a net of] 10 upvotes (mine now included)!
    – user19439
    Sep 6, 2017 at 19:05
  • Hi there, thanks! But the link seems to be broken, any chance you could update it, or tell us the title of the paper? Jan 22, 2018 at 6:27
  • Here's a paper by Smart that is linked on the Rule Utilitarianism wikipedia article Jan 23, 2018 at 2:57

Originally, I was going to comment on iphigenie's answer, but I decided there were enough parts I wanted to comment on that it's worth supplying a second answer -- even though the other one is good as it is.

John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness (something he inherits from Jeremy Bentham and his father). Contemporary versions are usually a bit more nuanced in what they are trying to do and are probably better called consequentialism. There are several flaws in Mill's original idea for utilitarianism which center on two pairs of epistemic concerns.

First, there's a question about whether we are to do what we expect would maximize happiness or whether we are to in fact maximize happiness. If we are expected to really maximize happiness, we face an impossible task, because we can get it completely wrong (maybe the cake I baked for your birthday contains an allergen that kills you and depresseds thousands of people). But then if we are just maximizing what we expect will make people happy, then we need to have some rules in place to balance how hard we need to be learning about this or else its just as good to cut off your hand (if I mistakenly believe this will make you happy) as it is to sing you a song. To some extent, rule utilitarians and act utilitarians disagree about the degree to which we need rules to overcome this problem with Mill's approach.

Second, there's a worry about how adaptive our ethical theory should be. Do we adopt principles that would maximize happiness (e.g. R.M. Hare) or do we adjust continuously towards what will maximize happiness? If you answer the former, then it is rule utilitarianism. Otherwise, it is act utilitarianism. I take it the two worries that need to be balanced here are this. On the one hand, if you wind up with rules and complex considerations of when you can amend them, you sound a lot like like a deontologist -- something other than utility by itself is guiding you. On the other hand is the worry you raise about the concerns of calculation joined with an anti-theory position and a haphazard reality.


utilitarianism is an ethical theory that holds the belief that all moral actions should be decided on the basis that they cause "the greater happiness for the greater number". A teleological approach is one which is based on consequences, and deontological approach is based on a set of rules or absolutes.

utilitarianism can be divided into two classes: Act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.

Act utilitarianism is linked to Jeremy Bentham, moral decisions are decisions that are based upon consequences of each individual situation in relation to the total amount of happiness that they produce.

Rule utilitarianism is associated with Mill, example can be roads rules, you must drive on the left hand side of the road, this applies to everyone that drives and it is the rules and it must be or should be followed in all situation, even if we were stuck in traffic jam. This is because the rule is to keep order on the road

The main differences between act and rule utilitarianism is the fact that one is teleological and the other is mainly deontological. for example our world is governed by rules, either implied or implemented, and we are taught to live by the these rules. The society expects us to act in a such a way that will conform to these rules in order to live happy.

Act utilitarianism beliefs that an action becomes morally right when it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people, while Rule utilitarianism beliefs that the moral correctness of an action depends on the correctness of the rules that allows it to achieve the greatest good. Act utilitarianism is the belief that it is alright to break a rule as long as it brings greater good.


Act utilitarianism's main question, with a quote from https://www4.uwsp.edu/philosophy/dwarren/IntroBook/ValueTheory%5CConsequentialism%5CActVsRule%5CActVsRule.htm, is "does this specific action maximize happiness more than any other that could be performed at the time?" Act utilitarianism is basically a specific interest that is justifiable if, and only if, it makes others happy, too. Rule utilitarianism is a more general form. It's main question is "what general rule would this action follow, and would it maximize happiness if generally followed?" So if this action was made a universal law, would it create good? Such as lying; lying, under certain conditions, could be justifiable. However, the rule utilitarian would say that lying, if followed as a general law/rule, would not create good.

Act=specific interest that is able to be justified to maximize happiness.

Rule=general happiness that would be maximized and is able to create maximized happiness if followed as a general rule. :)


Rule utilitarianism looks at the consequences of actions on society, rather than the effects on just a subset.

Consider the following scenario. A surgeon has the option of saving one persons life, or the option of letting them die and saving the lives of seven people who all need organ transplants. By sacrificing one person, seven can live. Act utilitarianism says that you should do the action that leads to the most amount of good. The surgeon should sacrifice his patient. Murder is acceptable, as long as the outcome is positive for a greater number of people.

Rule based utilitarianism looks at the consequences of individual actions for everyone, all of society rather than just the group of people immediately affected. In the previous example, act utilitarianism tried to maximise the total good for the patient and the seven people needing organ transplants. If instead looking at the consequences for everyone, doctors killing patients to save lives would lead to a breakdown in trust between patients and doctors, patients would refuse to be operated on and more people would die of treatable conditions. The net outcome would be bad. Thus it would be preferable to have doctors follow a rule "Never sacrifice one patient to save many", rather than have them try to maximise utility on a case by case basis.

Of course there's nothing stopping an act based utilitarian from considering the consequences to all of society when trying to determine how to maximise total good. In which case their actions would be exactly the same as a rule based utilitarian. However act based utilitarianism doesn't explicitly say that they must, so it allows people to categorise certain actions as good which rule based utilitarians would categorise as bad.

  • 3
    Rule utilitarianism is similar to Kantian ethics seems like a bit of an overstatement or at least unclear in a rather infelicitous way. (1) there's nary a categorical imperative in sight. (2) Kantian ethics as normally formulated does not look at consequences.
    – virmaior
    Jul 5, 2016 at 4:31
  • Kantian ethics isn't categorised as consequentialist but at its core it is. The categorical imperative looks for a logical contradiction in a rule, it looks at the consequences of that rule when applied universally to see if a contradiction occurs (and if so it cannot be a moral law). What would be the result if everyone acted this way? Is the same question asked in rule based utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, although Kantian ethics is looking for a contradiction while rule based utilitarianism is trying to determine the net good or bad. So there are differences, which i should havementioned
    – user22244
    Jul 6, 2016 at 6:07
  • The contradictions the CI looks for are not in "consequences" as normally understood. Instead, it's looking for that which is either logical contradictory or that which would produce contradiction in conjunction with the "laws of nature" (which for Kant does not mean what it means for most other thinkers).
    – virmaior
    Jul 6, 2016 at 6:34
  • Traditional interpretations of Kant see him as squarely anti-consequentialist, squarely accepting that the moral course of action may produce very negative consequences but that it should be done because it is moral.
    – virmaior
    Jul 6, 2016 at 6:35
  • true, but only because he's looking at consequences on a large scale "What would occur if everyone did this?" rather than the consequences for the individual in their particular context.
    – user22244
    Jul 6, 2016 at 7:03

just to help thought I would upload an essay which isn't perfect but offers a comparative over rule and act utilitarianism and evaluative for those who are stuck, if anyone can suggests some improvements please say so .... The two types of theory: rule utilitarianism(mill) and act utilitarianism (Bentham)come under the same ethical theory of utilitarianism which questions the rights of individuals or a minority to a majority, using the justification of ‘the greater good’ or ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’. It is strictly a teleogical theory concerned with the outcome as the deciding factor over an actions’ ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’. It seeks to create the greatest well being produced. It opposes all deontological theories that concentrate on moral rules like natural moral law or Kantian ethics, it aligns quite similarly to Fletcher’s situation ethics. Bentham’s act utilitarianism also referred to as hedonic utilitarianism, can ne seen through important parts. Motivation (for Bentham it was either pleasure or pain), principle of utility (the usefulness of the right/wrong action). Whilst mills rule utilitarianism, came after Bentham’s as a backlash from the problems within the theory. It rejects the hedonic calculus, creates a new understanding of happiness (state of mind from the application of principles: liberty and freedom). States that humans must constantly be progressing to be truly happy, but not all pleasures are of equal value and that happiness is not just based hedonistic desires. Mills theory also questioned the intrinsic part of utilitarian with the concept being purely quantative, he asked what would stop one a single person being destroyed by the majority. Overall, I agree that rule utilitarianism is an improvement on act utilitarianism as it is far more progressive to a more equal society. Act utilitarianism judges every situation individually and in isolation from the community, Bentham and others applying it would ask: what action would bring about the greatest good. Looks at the consequences of each individual act and calculates utility each time the act is performed. rule utilitarianism attempted to re-define utilitarianism in a way that made it practical to use when creating rules for society. Mill argued there needed to be generally agreed rules in order for a happy society to function. Looks at the consequences of having everyone follow a particular rule and calculates the overall utility of accepting or rejecting the rule.

The individual theories have their own problems as highlighted by either side, act utilitarianism doesn’t accommodate to real life problems with the inconvenient time-consuming hedonic calculus. Also in particular cases, act utilitarianism can justify disobeying important moral rules and violating individual rights. When referring to levels of higher and lower pleasures rule utilitarianism becomes socially exclusive to those who cannot experience higher pleasures. It is argued that rule utilitarianism becomes rule-worship when they refuse to break a rule : If the consequences demand it, we should violate the rule. One of the reasons I find rule utilitarianism an improvement to act utilitarianism is because I believe it has higher social benefit to moral decision making, mill aimed to Mill’s offer more protection towards minorities passed over by the masses, and less subject to abuse. Whilst Bentham’s seems to only enable unethical behaviour and allow society to be complacent with the discrimination over minorities. Although the idea over higher and lower pleasures can be elitist as the higher pleases are only available to a select, but it could be argued that mill here was advocating cultural reform to make them available to others. Mill made his point of higher and lower pleasures in the quote “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” , higher pleasures being :literature, theatre, reading and lower :sleeping, eating. For this point I find Bentham’s level ground over pleasure levels being non-existent and any happiness is valid I find a strength in act utilitarianism. The problem with act utilitarianism in terms of social benefit in moral decision making is that, Bentham’s hedonic approach clearly is overly more self-serving. For him it is about the individual’s search for pleasure, not the greatest good for the advancement of society and all members of society. It can easily be twisted to serve whatever desire the person making the decision decides. For example a serial killer could use this to argue that is alright for him to kill specific people who bring pain into the world (like a thief). The action and out come of death is wrong but the happiness of the killer and the happiness of potential future victims of theft overcomes the pain from his death.

Rule utilitarianism is an improvement with its practicality in application. act utilitarianisms’ hedonic calculus (the system used for calculating the amount of pain or pleasure created) is overly cumbersome and make rule utilitarianism’s generalised rules far superior and easy to apply. The Hedonic Calculus takes all available options in a scenario then weighs up the pain and pleasure generated by each in order to decide which option to follow. These are purity, remoteness, extent, duration, intensity, certainty. This drawn out process becomes frivolous the extent it goes to doesn’t make it realistic for everyday use in situations In conclusion although rule Utilitarian appears to be rather discriminatory in relation to the level of pleasures I see it more as mill highlighting this so that a better more free society could sustain itself making the higher pleasures available to all. And similar to Mill himself I see Bentham’s approach to be too rigid for everyday life, and too self-serving with its hedonistic.

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