…on utilitarianism

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Then we need to be careful with our definition of utilitarianism. Recall that utilitarianism is consequential. In other words, a consequentialist pays attention to the results of the actions as the indicator of morality. If the resulting consequences on an action create the most happiness for the most amount of people, the consequences of the action are considered good by utilitarian standards (& are considered bad if the actions do not). Yes, we need to think of the consequences of our actions in advance, yet the focus is more on the end results. The action is morally useful if it produces the pleasure for most.


Action  → consequences  → moral value (or not).

Compare with:

Moral value → action → consequences. (This is non-consequentialism)

Furthermore, let’s get clear on the differences between act & rule utilitarianism. The easiest way to think of this would be to consider the difference between a utilitarian rule and a utilitarian act.

A utilitarian rule is such that a utilitarian has a rule to be followed in all situations, e.g. our rule could be: ‘it is wrong to cheat on exams’. As a utilitarian rule this implies that cheating lowers the quality of our learning (now & into the future), and it also undermines the all others who are not cheating. In addition, cheating also has the risk of getting caught which will not increase the happiness for the most amount of people. Add to this, cheating itself does not increase happiness for most (even if we are not found out), i.e. if the cheater gets away with it, only their happiness is minimally increased (while their knowledge is explicitly compromised &/or decreased all the same).

With act utilitarianism, we think about the value of the consequence per situation. In the case of cheating, we might indicate that the (dishonest) act cheating is wrong simply for the risks we take to compromise our learning & while we undermine the integrity of the others who are not cheating in a given situation—not necessarily as a rule. Nobody’s happiness is increased as a consequence whether our dishonesty gets exposed or not (as is also the case with the application of rule utilitarianism to not cheat). In other words, we might allow for dishonesty, white-lies in conversation, lying about our age, or exaggerating a story we’re telling our friends, or other so-called ‘harmless’ dishonesty, where these lies are not necessarily compromising our integrity. Here we do not have a general rule, we simply apply the utilitarian principle of maximizing happiness per situation. In the situation of cheating on exams, we chose to not cheat, because the consequences will not increase the happiness for most. Whereas, to be minimally dishonest in telling an anecdote of our fascinating trip to California is perhaps increasing the happiness of our friends who are interested enough to care.