Sample Essay on Act and Rule Utilitarianism

The following essay was written by an AS students in 30 minutes. It shows a number of deficiencies in technique, so it has been marked in the hope you can do better.

Q: Explain the difference between act and rule utilitarianism.

A: The two concepts of Act and Rule Utilitarianism were first conceived by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Both followed the basic principles of utilitarianism, which focuses on the pursuit of happiness, which is the morally superior act to follow. You mean morally good principle, or sole intrinsic good. This makes it almost completely opposite to the Kantian view of Ethics, where moral obligations should be completed because of their moral worth rather than the pleasure you receive out of this.

You aren’t being asked to evaluate so this final comment is irrelevant. This is a poor opening paragraph – the first sentence is redundant, as you should go straight to the point, the second unclear and the third irrelevant.

Bentham added to this concept of Utilitarianism by introducing his concept of Act Utilitarianism. This meant that we are all free to pursue what we gain pleasure from (or as Bentham coined it, Utility, as pleasure and happiness are both separate and hard to measure) in the way which society dictates. This allows us to persue what we find pleasurable, for example, motor racing or drinking coffee, and removes the less morally acceptable factors, such as murder or adultery.

The point again is that Bentham argues pleasure is the sole intrinsic good, and as “everyone to count as one and no-one as more than one” we can add up the total of pelasure minus pain and thereby service an idea of the good act.

The Utility gained from each act and what would be accepted by society is calculated by what Benthan called the Hedonic Calculus. This values a score of what people think of certain acts, (for example 10 for pleasurable, 1 for not pleasurable) and therefore lets society know which are the more worthwhile pursuits. This also allows individuals to know how low their scores are, for example if you have a low score then statistically you should drink more coffee etc.

The essay at last gets on track, but what does the final sentence mean? Bentham’s argument is that we should be free to choose the pleasure maximising outcome, as long as we are not having negative effects on other people’s pleasure.

On the other hand Mill disagreed with Benthans Act Utilitarianism and put forward the notion of weak rule Utilitarianism. This argued that the Hedonic Calculus was an absurd way to govern a society and therefore it needed rules. The hedonic calculus isn’t a way of governing society but of explaining rational choice.For example, meeting up with your friend for coffee would both maximise your and their happiness, whereas breaking that promise would not. How does this example fit in with your analysis? However, this is by no means an absolute theory and Mill argued that it was perfectly acceptable to miss an appointment to meet your friend if, for example, you witnessed a fatal car accident and had to make a statement etc.

The last point is a good one, and could be developed into the idea of a multi-level utilitarianism where geenrally you keep a rule, except where there is a moral dilemma, when you revert to act utilitarian calculations. This was Mill’s argument.

Mill also broke pleasure down into two categories of higher and lower pleasures. He found it absurd that, for example, sitting at home watching the TV all day was arguably just as worthwhile as listening to Mozart. Therefore his higher and more worthy pleasure consisted of educational activities and his lower, less worthy pleasure consisted of mundane activities, such as gluttony or watching sport.

This is also a valid point, and points ot a key distinction between Bentham and Mill. Why not bring Bentham in here, and say “in contrast, Bentham believed pushpin was as good as poetry”.

  1. This student needs to work on essay technique:
  2. The opening paragraph is weak.
  3. The connection phrases between paragraphs are poor. Why not use words or phrases like “furthermore”, “moreover”, “in contrast”?
  4. Some sentences are very unclear. The key to good philosophy writing is to develop a very clear style, wehre the meaning is obvious and technical vocabulary is used appropriately.
  5. I would like to see a paragraph on justice and rights. Mill was worried about the objections to utilitarian ethics that it overrides individual rights. There is no mention of this here.
  6. The key distinction, between an act and a rule, hasn’t been properly explained here. By “rule” Mill means a “rule of thumb representing the past wisdom of society” and his argument goes – we should follow these generally as they will very likely maximise our happiness.

This was a part a. question, marked out of 25 marks, and received 15/25 or 60%, C grade.







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