The utilitarian ethical theory is founded on the ability to predict the consequences of an action. To a utilitarian, the choice that yields the greatest benefit to the most people is the choice that is ethically correct. One benefit of this ethical theory is that the utilitarian can compare similar predicted solutions and use a point system to determine which choice is more beneficial for more people. This point system provides a logical and rationale argument for each decision and allows a person to use it on a case-by-case context (1,2). There are two types of utilitarianism, act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism adheres exactly to the definition of utilitarianism as described in the above section. In act utilitarianism, a person performs the acts that benefit the most people, regardless of personal feelings or the societal constraints such as laws. Rule utilitarianism, however, takes into account the law and is concerned with fairness. A rule utilitarian seeks to benefit the most people but through the fairest and most just means available. Therefore, added benefits of rule utilitarianism are that it values justice and includes beneficence at the same time (1,2). As with all ethical theories, however, both act and rule utilitarianism contain numerous flaws. Inherent in both are the flaws associated with predicting the future. Although people can use their life experiences to attempt to predict outcomes, no human being can be certain that his predictions will be true. This uncertainty can lead to unexpected results making the utilitarian look unethical as time passes because his choice did not benefit the most people as he predicted (1,2). For example, if a person lights a fire in a fireplace in order to warm his friends, and then the fire burns down the house because the soot in the chimney caught on fire, then the utilitarian now seems to have chosen an unethical decision. The unexpected house fire is judged as unethical because it did not benefit his friends. Another assumption that a utilitarian must make is that he has the ability to compare the various types of consequences against each other on a similar scale. However, comparing material gains such as money against intangible gains such as happiness is impossible since their qualities differ to such a large extent (1). A third failing found in utilitarianism is that it does not allow for the existence of supererogation or heroes. In other words, people are obligated to constantly behave so that the most people benefit regardless of the danger associated with an act (1). For instance, a utilitarian who sacrifices her life to save a train full of people is actually fulfilling an obligation to society rather than performing a selfless and laudable act. As explained above, act utilitarianism is solely concerned with achieving the maximum good. According to this theory an individual's rights may be infringed upon in order to benefit a greater population. In other words, act utilitarianism is not always concerned with justice, beneficence or autonomy for an individual if oppressing the individual leads to the solution that benefits a majority of people. Another source of instability within act utilitarianism is apparent when a utilitarian faces one set of variable conditions and then suddenly experiences a change in those variables that causes her to change her original decision. This means that an act utilitarian could be nice to you one moment and then dislike you the next moment because the variables have changed, and you are no longer beneficial to the most people (1). Rule utilitarianism also contains a source of instability that inhibits its usefulness. In rule utilitarianism, there is the possibility of conflicting rules (1). Let us revisit the example of a person running late for his meeting. While a rule utilitarian who just happens to be a state governor may believe that it is ethically...
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