Rule Utilitarianism—Objections

11.10.2017 |

Episode #9 of the course Thinking morally: An introduction to utilitarianism by Jack Coulson


Rule Utilitarianism arguably solves some of the problems of Act Utilitarianism, but it also opens itself up to a whole new set of objections. Today, we will consider a few of the most notable ones.

The most obvious objection to Rule Utilitarianism is that it is not utilitarianism. Rule Utilitarianism does not use utility as its way of assessing actions. I might refrain from killing someone because, in general, killing is bad for utility. In this case, Rule Utilitarianism says I am doing the right thing because I am following the right rule. However, there clearly are times when I could create more utility: If I am being asked to a shoot a suicide bomber before they cause an explosion killings dozens more, utility demands I shoot. If utility demands it, so should utilitarianism, but Rule Utilitarianism does not.

This criticism is only a problem if you care about whether Rule Utilitarianism is utilitarianism. One might be perfectly happy to agree that it isn’t, but still say it is right. However, we should be careful about saying this. A key reason we might want to believe in utilitarianism is to get ourselves away from other systems, which merely command we follow rules (rule worship). Utilitarianism wanted to free us from oppressive moral codes that sometimes asked us to make the world a worse place in the name of some nebulous idea. Anyone who is appalled by religious zealots harming others or who cannot understand why their overly honest friend keeps upsetting people understands why “following the rules” is not always right.

Rule worship is a serious concern for Rule Utilitarianism. However, the most pressing objection to Rule Utilitarianism is that it is, on closer inspection, indistinguishable from Act Utilitarianism. Another way to put this is that Rule Utilitarianism “collapses” into Act Utilitarianism.

The argument for collapse is most obviously seen in a circumstance where a moral choice is presented that calls two important rules into play. Imagine you can spare your friend’s feelings from significant hurt by lying to them. Naturally, if they discover your lie, you’ll harm some trust you share and also somewhat hurt their feelings. It’s unclear what the expected utility of each action is. You now have two rules you could follow: Don’t lie, or don’t hurt your friend’s feelings unnecessarily. Add a third dimension to this: Your friend is asking you what another friend has said about them. Now you also have to consider the rules of, ‘“Don’t gossip,” and two conflicting examples of, “Support your friend.”

How does someone who believes in Rule Utilitarianism resolve these dilemmas? Obviously, they can try and work out which option will be utility maximizing. However, that is just Act Utilitarianism. Is there an alternative? They could pick the rule that, all things being equal, is most important to stick to in order to generally maximize utility. For example, it is more important to not murder than to not cheat at Scrabble. However, that rather glib example aside, it is extremely difficult to work out what this might actually be.

In our final lesson tomorrow, we will talk about Rule Utilitarianism’s potential to escape the problem of collapse.


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Recommended reading

Utilitarianism, Act and Rule by Stephen Nathanson


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