Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Utility or Futility?

Briefly explain the difference between act and rule utilitarianism as discussed in Lee Anne Peck's article. Your explanation should be clear enough for someone unfamiliar with philosophy -- a lay person -- to understand. Due Tuesday before start of class.


Natalka T. said...

I found that act and rule utilitarianism are fairly similar to the concepts of situational and universal ethics discussed during class.

The idea of situational ethics states that right and wrong are dependent upon the circumstances of a situation. When looking at the implementation of this idea, the rules become vague and ambiguous, leaving room for moral relativism to increase. In other words, an ethical bias may exist, but there may be situations where it can be justified.

Universal ethics is more of the cut-and-dry approach to what is right and wrong. This idea states that right is right and wrong is wrong despite the circumstances, such as time or place, or the possibility of a “wrong” act producing a “right” result or consequence. Universal ethics mocks the idea of exceptions to a moral set of rules.

Act and rule utilitarianism borrow the notions of exceptions and consequences and mold them into a unique understanding. Act utilitarianism is applied directly to the selection of certain actions under certain conditions. By this concept, people must perform only those acts that will result in the greatest good for the greatest number; how beneficial the act is to the rest of man serves as the only measure of what makes a certain action right.

Rule utilitarianism is applied to the selection of a set of rules which, if everyone abided by accordingly, would result in the greatest good for the greatest number. These set of rules are used to measure what a person should do in a certain situation. However, in some cases, following the exceptions to a set of rules may actually produce a higher consequential utility than following the actual rules blindly.

Anonymous said...

Act utilitarianism can be described as a thought process that directs one to handle an action by starting from the finish of the action and moving towards the beginning. In other words, thinking about what will result from the action first, not about how to follow through with the action. If it ends well, it is well.

Rule utilitarianism is based on a larger scale, like a society, rather than the need to fulfill just a personal goal. One who follows rule utilitarianism resorts back to or uses a past event/situation to develop a layout for going through with an action.

prgirl7 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
prgirl7 said...

I found with act and rule utilitarianism although they have the same base as universal ethics and the golden rule.

Act utilitarianism that the act is right if it maxamizes the greater good. That the moral worth is baised on the outcome.

rule utilitarianism is applied to a set of rules which should result in the greatest good for the greatest number depending on the situation. These rules are set to measure what a person should do in that situation.


jlandy said...

Rule utilitarianism is based upon the belief that moral actions should comply with specific rules that benefit the greatest good. This is based upon the majority and what is good for a society rather than an individual.

Act utilitarianism is a theory of ethics which says that the action is right if it benefits the greatest number of people. This differs from rule utilitarianism because right and wrong is not guided by a set of general rules. Instead it is based on the individual’s circumstances used in order to foresee the consequences of the action.

Justin F. said...

The basic difference between act and rule utilitarianism is that act only bears in mind the result of a solitary act, that in turn is much less long term yet reaches the greater good. Rule utilitarian on the other hand takes into account
the cost that result in abiding by a rule of appropriate manner, which serves to better society.

Example for act utilitarianism would be a doctor not telling his patient that his newly discovered disease will kill him in five weeks, and instead explains he is unaware of how much time is left, so that his patient can enjoy the rest of his short life. By doing this the greater good is achieved

In rule utilitarianism the doctor would tell his patient the truth, that he would only live for another five weeks to serve a greater utility and is truthful to his profession, that betters society.

Eric said...

Utilitarianism means the greatest good for the greatest number. The idea of utilitarianism is much broader then that. It can be divided into two categories, act and rule utilitarianism.

Act Utilitarianism looks at every aspect of a situation and relates it to an individual outcome. For example, which specific act will achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest number based on that exact situation. It does not take into account a general rule that society follows, but instead looks at the individual situation.

Rule utilitarianism uses moral rules in order to justify it being the best action. It takes a general viewpoint, which is supposed to lead to the greatest utility. The more good that a general rule brings, the more likely it will increase utility, therefore making it a better rule. The rule adopted by society would need to create the greatest good for the greatest number, without looking at it from an individual viewpoint.

Jessica Krollage said...

According to the article, act utalitarianism is a way of making an ethical decision by evaluating and weighing the consequences. An act is the right thing to do when the consequences of that act are better than any other act. I was interested in the part of the article that discussed habit. Act Utalitarianism would not be a process that was habitual. It would be a more thought out desicion.
Rule Utalitarianism would be a form of decision making that would envoke habit. It dictates that an act is right when it follows a set of rules or guidelines that is universal. I interpreted this as a moral code or a code of ethics in a profession. Rule utalitarianism is more habitual because it expects a set right and wrong that you know or that is instilled in you before a situation occurs so that you can act accordingly.
I can conclude that in the battle between act utalitarianism(or situational ethics) and rule utalitarianism (or universal ethics) the solution is not a simple one. I believe that there should be some sort of guideline but in the end nothing is black and white. So, in the sea of gray one should decide an ethical dilemma based on the on the individual situation.

ESousa said...

Act Utilitarianism is basically the idea that says that the morally right action is the one which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. It also makes no appeals to general rules, but instead demands that the agent evaluate individual circumstances.

Rule Utilitarianism states that moral actions are that conform to the rules which lead to the greatest good, or that rightness or wrongness of particular action is a function of the corrections of the rule of which it is an instance. Also that the correctness of a rule is determined by the amount of good it brings about when it is followed.

michelle said...

Act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism are not opposing principles, seeing that they both are found in Mill's explanation of utilitarianism. It's just that it can be applied in two different ways and it’s important to understand that the principle goes beyond "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Act utilitarianism is when you look at the alternatives and consequences of an act before you decide if you should do it or not. For instance, let’s say that Stop and Shop is ripping off customers and no employees are talking. I know that if I go undercover then I’ll expose them and people will save money and ultimately be helped. If I stick with traditional methods, the argument won’t be as strong, and less people will notice the story. So, going undercover is the alternative that will help the most people.

However, rule utilitarianism looks at the larger consequence of that action, and similar actions, by seeing which rule does the most good. So in the Stop and Shop case, the rule “don’t lie” is broken if I go undercover. (Yes, “don’t do harm” is another rule and certainly I don’t want people to be robbed of their hard earned money. But if traditional reporting is used then I’d still be reducing harm, just not as affectively.) If I go undercover then the consequence of lying will be worse than the consequence of people not being helped. For instance, some people might accuse the paper of entrapment. Maybe with story after story like this, the public will begin to think we’re abusing our power and the government will step in to regulate the media. In an even bigger sense, perhaps the act of lying will create a snowball-effect in which people won’t be able to trust one another, for fear of deception. If we can’t trust one another, if we’re expecting everyone around us to lie to us, then we won’t learn or build relationships or grow. A rule utilitarian would see that breaking the “don’t lie” rule will cause much more damage to society than if people don’t notice a story about Stop and Shop ripping you off. However, if it was a life-or-death situation and a mass-number of people’s lives would be saved by the story, then perhaps applying the “don’t do harm” rule over the “don’t lie” rule would be more beneficial.

TylerT said...

In act utilitarianism every action should be analyzed and evaluated in reference to its consequences. When doing a story you have to think morally and try to do the right thing. Like in the reading it is truly not right to hide cameras, or act like a customer in the carpet cleaning scam. That could have been done in a much more effective way. When doing a story their has to be good to come from it.

Rule utilitarianism is invloved with the consequences of broad performances of similiar actions. A rule utiliarian wants to maximize utility to his/her best ability. Rule utilitarianism seems to be more of a long run aspect, or even a guideline.

These two forms differ mostly because of the amount of detail. Act utilitarianism is more about one specific story, where as Rule utilitarianism is used in the long run. Rule utilitarianism is the way you should go about a situation, it is the style of a story.

Adam Engel said...

This article overall seemed to stress that the ends justifying the means can be somewhat open ended and not absolute. In doing the best for the most there are a variety of angles and ways to go about many decisions.
Within the article the idea of using lies and deception is brought into question and when certain methods are used or needed. Is this the last option and will the quality of the outcome justify the means?
In its simplest for it seems, to me, that act utilitarianism is for more basic and less important decisions. Act utilitarianism is focused on doing what is right for the most no matter what the cost or means.
Rule utilitarianism seems to be following the same guides as act; do the most good for the most people, although rule utilitarianism must be conducted within the rules that are found to be socially acceptable. An example of this would be trying to get in depth in a story without breaking any sort of law or social norm.
The article wraps up explaining that utilitarianism is not absolute and must be practiced to be improved.

Melissa said...

Act utilitarianism deals with effects of a decision or action more than the steps leading up to the effects. The individual questions which action, out of all the options, maximizes the amount of good that will come of it.

Rule utilitarianism deals less with the individual and more with society. It is about considering consequences for a larger scale. It doesn't put much emphasis on personal opinions or goals. It cares more about looking back and taking things from past events to develop a better system for the future.

Meghan said...

Act Utilitarianism considers the consequences of an action and makes an ethical decision. It is taken on a case by case basis and isn’t likely to form habit, because of the individual decision making process. Act Utilitarianism is doing what will do the most good for the greatest amount of people by considering each individual action. With this type of Utilitarianism, the action is considered.

Rule Utilitarianism takes a larger view of ethical issues. Rule Utilitarianism looks at the results that have yielded results in similar ethical issues. Unlike Act, Rule looks at the larger picture and considers more broad instances of ethics. Rule Utilitarianism is more of an outline then a defined action. Rule is the guideline that creates the best results while Act us the action that benefits the most people.

Natalie said...

The utilitarian view emphasizes the outcome of a situation in determining what is ethical. The greatest good for the greatest number of people is the bottom line in this principle.
In act utilitarianism, the focus is still on the outcome, but with a greater emphasis on the act itself. Every single act should be thought of in relation to the direct consequence. It should be weighed against all other possible actions to determine what the best possible action is.
Rule utilitarianism has a broader base of things to consider when determining what is ethical. Instead of considering only the act, one must look to the standard set of rules accepted in society. The rule that offers the most potential to maximize the good of society is ethical.

Lynn.S. said...

The principle of utility states that an ethical decision creates the greatest good for the greatest number. Act and rule utilitarianism are simply two different ways of applying this principle. In rule utilitarianism, the principle is not applied to an action but to a rule. If an action is required by a rule, which itself creates the greatest good, the action is ethical. However, in act utilitarianism, the principle of utility is applied to the action itself. If any singular action opposes the principle of utility, it is not ethical.

danielle said...

Act utilitarianism a person should not do something "for the good of the people" if the consequences are bad. A journalist should not break the law if it will benefit a large number of people.

Rule utilitarianism; A journalist should follow the "rules" to make the right decisions. They should think of each step of the action as a "whole" not in different parts. If they do one thing for the greater good, but it is unethical and the rest is ethical, the "whole" act will be considered unethical.

henzeg67 said...

After reading the article on act and rule utilitarianism, it is apparent that their is a set difference between the two. Utilitarianism can be defined as "doing the great good, for the great number of people". However, when you look more closely you can see that this can be further broken down into two sub catergories, act and rule.

Act utilitarianism is a lot more specific than rule. One who uses act utilitarianism looks at specific actions, and then decides it is right if it benefits the greatest number of people, in that specific area.

Rule utilitarianism is different because it follows a set of universal rules that can be applied in any circumstance. Therefore, the thinking behind this is that if everyone follows the universal rules, this will be effective. However, this is not always the case.

Anonymous said...

Utilitarianism essentially means the greatest good for the greatest number. It is measured in two ways, act and rule utilitarianism.

Act utilitarianism measures the greatest good for the greatest number through an individual's outcome of an action. It's what the individual thinks is right.

Rule utilitarianism is guide-lines based on what is morally right and wrong in society.

I feel that act is a piece of rule utilitarianism. Through the individual's outcomes forms the rules of society.

Both act and rule use the idea of moral obligation. It is in one's self that they are moral, and therefore, all of society's rules are moral. Yet, because act utilitarianism is situational and in the moment, one's outcome in act utilitarianism may conflict with rule utilitarianism since it is already pre-set to the situation.

ryan said...

act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism are different in the fact that act is more focused on an individual's decision for everyone rather than rule which is based on the society's moral rules.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates

The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.

Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.