Difference Wiki

Act Utilitarianism vs. Rule Utilitarianism: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on December 7, 2023
Act utilitarianism evaluates each action based on its consequences, whereas rule utilitarianism adheres to rules that maximize overall happiness.

Key Differences

Act utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of individual actions to maximize happiness or utility. Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, emphasizes following rules that, if universally adopted, would lead to the greatest good.
In act utilitarianism, the rightness of an action is determined case-by-case based on its specific outcomes. Rule utilitarianism advocates for actions that conform to rules leading to the greatest collective happiness.
Act utilitarianism allows for flexibility and consideration of unique circumstances in ethical decision-making. Conversely, rule utilitarianism promotes consistency and adherence to established rules for overall well-being.
Act utilitarianism can lead to more direct assessments of actions, it may also result in more unpredictability and variability. While, rule utilitarianism seeks a more stable and predictable ethical framework by following established rules.
Act utilitarianism's focus on individual actions can sometimes clash with societal norms or rules. Rule utilitarianism aligns individual actions with broader societal rules aimed at maximizing happiness.

Comparison Chart

Basis of Judgment

Individual actions and their specific consequences
Adherence to rules that maximize happiness

Flexibility vs. Consistency

More flexible, situational assessment
Consistent application of rules


Consequences of each specific action
Actions that conform to happiness-maximizing rules

Decision-Making Process

Evaluates actions on a case-by-case basis
Follows established rules regardless of specific cases

Alignment with Societal Norms

May vary from societal norms
Generally aligns with societal norms

Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism Definitions

Act Utilitarianism

Ethical theory focusing on the consequences of individual actions for utility.
Act utilitarianism would justify breaking a promise if it leads to greater good.

Rule Utilitarianism

Perspective where the moral rightness of actions aligns with happiness-maximizing rules.
Rule utilitarianism supports social norms that enhance collective well-being.

Act Utilitarianism

Ethical framework where actions are independently evaluated for utility maximization.
Act utilitarianism might support a controversial policy if it benefits the majority.

Rule Utilitarianism

Approach focusing on the collective outcome of following certain rules.
Rule utilitarianism would advocate for traffic laws that prevent accidents and save lives.

Act Utilitarianism

A form of utilitarianism where each action is assessed based on its outcomes.
Under act utilitarianism, giving money to a beggar is right if it maximizes happiness.

Rule Utilitarianism

Framework prioritizing rules that, if generally followed, lead to maximum utility.
Rule utilitarianism upholds principles that, on balance, benefit the most people.

Act Utilitarianism

A perspective in ethics where actions are judged by their direct results.
In act utilitarianism, telling a white lie is acceptable if it creates more happiness.

Rule Utilitarianism

A form of utilitarianism that emphasizes following rules for the greatest happiness.
Rule utilitarianism would endorse laws that, overall, increase societal happiness.

Act Utilitarianism

Approach assessing each decision based on its specific consequences.
Act utilitarianism considers the immediate impact of actions on overall well-being.

Rule Utilitarianism

Ethical theory based on adherence to rules that maximize utility.
In rule utilitarianism, lying is wrong if honesty generally leads to greater happiness.


How do act and rule utilitarianism differ?

Act utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of individual actions, while rule utilitarianism considers the consequences of following general rules.

What is rule utilitarianism?

Rule utilitarianism is an ethical theory that emphasizes following rules that lead to the greatest good or utility for the most people.

Who is associated with act utilitarianism?

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are often associated with act utilitarianism.

What is act utilitarianism?

Act utilitarianism is a theory in ethics which posits that the morality of an action is determined by its contribution to overall utility, maximizing happiness or pleasure.

Does rule utilitarianism align more closely with societal laws?

Often, yes, as it emphasizes following rules that are similar to societal laws.

Who developed rule utilitarianism?

Rule utilitarianism was developed by philosophers like R. M. Hare and John Rawls, building upon classical utilitarianism.

Is act utilitarianism more flexible than rule utilitarianism?

Yes, act utilitarianism is more flexible as it assesses each action individually.

Does rule utilitarianism provide more consistency?

Yes, by focusing on rules, it offers more consistency and predictability in moral judgments.

What is a key criticism of rule utilitarianism?

It can be rigid, sometimes failing to allow morally preferable exceptions to rules.

Does rule utilitarianism avoid extreme actions better than act utilitarianism?

Generally, yes, since it adheres to rules that typically prevent harmful actions.

Can rule utilitarianism be seen as a response to the flaws in act utilitarianism?

Yes, it's often viewed as a modification to address issues like justice and rights, which act utilitarianism can overlook.

Can act utilitarianism lead to justifying harmful actions?

Yes, if such actions maximize overall happiness, act utilitarianism might justify them, which is a common criticism.

How does rule utilitarianism view individual rights?

It often upholds individual rights if doing so maximizes overall utility.

What is a key criticism of act utilitarianism?

It can be unpredictable and may justify morally questionable actions.

Are both forms of utilitarianism influential in modern ethics?

Yes, both have significantly influenced contemporary ethical discussions and policy-making.

Do both theories prioritize the greater good?

Yes, both aim to maximize happiness or utility for the greatest number.

Is act utilitarianism simpler to apply than rule utilitarianism?

In some cases, yes, because it deals with specific actions rather than complex rules.

Can act utilitarianism be impractical in complex situations?

Yes, because calculating the outcomes of every possible action can be challenging.

How do act and rule utilitarianism approach personal relationships?

Act utilitarianism might undervalue personal relationships if they conflict with the greater good, whereas rule utilitarianism might protect them through general rules.

How does act utilitarianism view justice?

Act utilitarianism may overlook justice if injustice leads to greater overall happiness.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

Trending Comparisons

Popular Comparisons

New Comparisons