According to the Greatest Happiness Principle […] the ultimate end […] is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; […]. This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.

– John Stuart Mill, 1879. Utilitarianism.

It seems quite clear to me, from a literal interpretation of Mill, that utilitarianism has always been intended as rule utilitarianism. Richard Brandt's distinction between rule and act utilitarianism is quite recent, and as far as I can see it is not a distinction between two widely accepted versions of utilitarianism, but between the standard interpretation of the theory (rule utilitarianism), and a straw man used by critics resulting from a naive and poorly informed interpretation of it. Could I be wrong? Are there actual act utilitarians out there?

  • 1
    As Peirce said about Mill, "what this elusive writer really meant, if he precisely meant anything, about any difficult point, is utterly impossible to determine". Reading of Mill is controversial, many read him as an act utilitarian, see SEP. The same goes for Bentham, they apply sometimes one sometimes the other. Brandt made the distinction exactly to sort out the muddle that Bentham and Mill left.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 12:36

1 Answer 1


The act- and rule-utiitarian distinction

It does not follow, because Richard Brandt first formulated the distinction, that therefore utilitarian philosophers had not recognised a distinction long before. Their recognition can be shown by their general discussion of ethical matters. Such is precisely the case with John Stuart Mill. He very evidently possessed the concept of a distinction between act- and rule-utilitarianism. Mill, I suggest and argue, regarded act-utilitarianism as providing the theoretical moral standard.

John Stuart Mill ethical theory

Take Mill's criterion of morally right action as given in Utilitarianism (1862), ch. 2. Utilitarianism is introduced as :

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle...

This creed

holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. (https://www.utilitarianism.com/mill2.htm.)

Unless one has already decided otherwise, Mill's idea here appears to be that we should evaluate - morally assess - every possible action in terms of its (probable or foreseeable) consequences and in our final deliberation do that action which is most likely to produce the greatest happiness or maximise what he elsewhere in the same chapter terms 'the sum total of happiness'.

Mill's theoretical standard was almost certainly one of act-utilitarianism. Evidence for this is provided his letter to the Cambridge logician, John Venn, in 1872, in which he states:

I agree with you that the right way of testing actions by their consequences, is to test them by the natural consequences of the particular actions, and not by those which would follow if every one did the same. But, for the most part, considerations of what would happen if every one did the same, is the only means we have of discovering the tendency of the act in the particular case. (Italics added.) (J.S. Mill, Later Letters of John Stuart Mill 1849-1873, ed. F. Mineka & D. Lindley, in J.M. Robson (ed.) Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Toronot: Toronto University Press: 1881.)

In other words, while the theoretical standard is furnished by act-utilitarianism, we have to rely on rule-utilitarianism for our practical moral criterion. As if the quotation above were not enough to make the point, the utility of following rules, and the practical necessity for doing so, is present by the strongest implication when Mill considers an objection to utilitarian deliberation based on consideration of time:

Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this - that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent. People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness. (Italics added.) Utilitarianism, ch 2: https://www.utilitarianism.com/mill2.htm.

This passage is reinforced by another:

In the case of ... things which people forbear to do from moral considerations, though the consequences in the particular case might be beneficial - it would be unworthy of an intelligent agent not to be consciously aware that the action is of a class which, if practised generally, would be generally injurious, and that this is the ground of the obligation to abstain from it. (Italics added.)(https://www.utilitarianism.com/mill2.htm)

Even these practical concessions to rule-utilitarianism, through the references to what we have learnt 'by experience' of 'the tendencies of actions' and 'if practised generally', is qualified by an acknowledgement of the inherent inadequacy of rules to apply without exception:

It is not the fault of any creed, but of the complicated nature of human affairs, that rules of conduct cannot be so framed as to require no exceptions, and that hardly any kind of action can safely be laid down as either always obligatory or always condemnable. There is no ethical creed which does not temper the rigidity of its laws, by giving a certain latitude, under the moral responsibility of the agent, for accommodation to peculiarities of circumstances (Utilitarianism, ch 2: https://www.utilitarianism.com/mill2.htm.)

What must be accommodated but an act-utilitarian decision?

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty

It is plain that the liberty and the harm principles in 'On Liberty' (1859) are rules. Mill defends, for instance, a rule of free expression. He definitely does not want us to examine opinions one by one and decide whether to allow their free expression.

'On Liberty' is, then, heavily weighted towards rule-utilitarianism but even here he acknowledges the above 'peculiarities of circumstances' by virtue of which his rules might cease to apply. The 'bridge' example in ch. 5 ('Applications') is a case in point.

J.J.C. Smart

In more recent times, on the evidence of "Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism", The Philosophical Quarterly, Oct. 1956, pages 344–354, J.J.C. Smart defended specifically act-utilitarianism. See also his essay in Utilitarianism : For and Against (co-authored with Bernard Williams; 1973).


J.S. Mill On Liberty (1859)

J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)

A.E. Fuchs, 'Mill's Theory of Morally Correct Action, The Blackwell Guide to Mill's Utilitatianism, ed. H.R. West, Oxford: Blackwell, 2006: 139-158.

  • I vaguely remember reading that some early act utilitarians, maybe Mill, were act utilitarians but allowed that rules could be useful heuristics given the difficulty of calculating utility for individual acts...but this is years ago and hazily recalled so I’m not terribly sure if I’m recalling correctly.
    – Dennis
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 3:19
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    Dennis. The quotation from the letter to Venn shows that in the abstract Mill did prefer act-utilitarianism but that he came to regard rule-utilitarianism as for the most part the only practicable option. The liberty and the harm principles in On Liberty are definite rules and defended as such; Mill does not attempt an act-utilitarian defence of them.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 10:12
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    Answer revised to align it more closely to the question.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 15:14
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    Ah, nice, your edit clarified what I was hazy on I think. Rule utilitarianism takes pride of place with respect to ethical decision making, but only for practical reasons as opposed to theoretical ones, but the evaluation of an act as good/bad by an omniscient judger would proceed according to act utilitarians consideration: you determine what to do by appeal to a rule but the ultimate status of the act as good/bad is solely a matter of the consequences of that particular action.
    – Dennis
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 15:21
  • Dennis - Thanks - comment much appreciated. You stimulated me to corrective action! Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 15:24

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