1. Mill on Bentham

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3. Acts and rules

The simplest form of act utilitarianism claims that an action is right only if it leads to the greatest happiness of all those it affects, i.e. if it maximises happiness. The notions of ‘greatest’ and ‘maximise’ are comparative; so an action is right only if, out of all the actions you could have done at the time, this action leads to more (or equal) happiness than any other. Developments of act utilitarianism have taken two directions.

First, we may wish to say not that an action is right if it actually maximises happiness, but if it is most likely to (objective probability), or appears to the agent to be most likely to (subjective probability), or some other such formulation. Bentham himself doesn’t hold the simplest form given above, as he says an action is right according to ‘the tendency which it appears to have’ to maximise happiness. This introduces an ambiguity in the word ‘action’ – does this mean ‘action token’ (a particular action that is performed at a moment in time) or an ‘action type’? For it is difficult to see how an action token could have a tendency to maximise happiness, tendencies usually being something that require a number of instances to establish. However, if ‘action’ means ‘action type’, then we have rule utilitarianism, a rule being given for each type of action. It is possible, therefore, that Bentham (and Mill after him) meant something like ‘probability’ by ‘tendency’.
Second, the definition of right action is a criterion of justification – it tells us when an act is right; it is not necessarily a criterion for deliberation, i.e. attempting to work out whether an act is right by examining its consequences may be disastrous in actually producing the right action. Mill certainly thought so, and advised us to be guided by the rules of morality that humankind had developed over time. Consequentialist theories which separate criteria of deliberation from that of justification are known as ‘indirect’ theories, for one pursues the right indirectly.
Rule utilitarianism provides a different criterion of rightness: An act is right only if it is in accordance with a rule (or set of rules) that if generally accepted, would maximise happiness. An individual action may well, then, be right without its individual consequences maximising happiness. This criterion tends to be interpreted as deliberative as well as justificatory, i.e. we should consider what to do on the basis of following rules. Both rule utilitarianism and Bentham’s act utilitarianism are forms of ‘direct’ utilitarianism.
The traditional objection to rule utilitarianism takes the form of a dilemma: if I know that the action that accords with the rule will not maximise happiness, but another action will, it would be ‘rule-fetishism’ to follow the rule; if we amend the rule to take account of this exception, and this happens repeatedly, the rule dissolves in qualifications. In either case, we are back with act utilitarianism, at least as a criterion for justification, even if rule utilitarianism remains a better guide to deliberation.

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