Question Quentin Social Sciences

Act and rule consequentialism

What is the difference between act consequentialism and rule consequentialism?

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Answer Internal Staff

'Consequentialism' is a term which encapsulates a range of moral theories with one thing in common: that moral decisions should be made primarily on the basis of outcomes or consequences. The criterion on which these outcomes are measured differs between theories (for example, welfare, interests or pleasure/pain). In its simplest formation (referred to as ‘act consequentialism’), consequentialism requires moral agents to weigh up the consequences of their individual actions.

However, this approach faces a number of issues. For example, it may be unrealistic to expect a person to calculate the outcomes of a range of alternatives every time a morally relevant decision arises. This approach also seems to run counter to our intuitions where, in certain extreme cases, it may greatly benefit a number of people to murder one innocent person.

In order to resolve these issues, some consequentialists have argued that it is better to treat consequentialism as process by which to generate and justify moral rules (called ‘rule consequentialism’). This approach provides economy of application, as the agent need only apply the rule, and allows us to reject outside cases of murder on the grounds that, as a rule, murder does not promote good consequences.