Rule Utilitarianism—Rebuttals

11.10.2017 |

Episode #10 of the course Thinking morally: An introduction to utilitarianism by Jack Coulson


Yesterday, we learned that Rule Utilitarianism arguably suffers from a problem of collapse, meaning it is indistinguishable from Act Utilitarianism.

There is a recourse for Rule Utilitarianism. It hinges on the practical limitations of our ability to calculate utility and the idea of “two levels” of moral thinking. The two levels idea in particular is the work of R. M. Hare, whose book, Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point, I recommend.

Rule Utilitarianism seems to collapse into Act Utilitarianism because in situations where two rules conflict, we must choose between them by referring to the number-one rule, “maximize utility” (or similar). However, supporters of Rule Utilitarianism can point out that we actually very rarely know what the utility outcomes of our actions will be. Indeed, we know for sure that often trying to maximize utility can lead us down paths that are ultimately self-defeating—just consider how unhappy people who spend their lives aiming just for happiness often are. So, trying to choose between our rules using utility, during any given moral decision-making process, is likely to be fruitless. Instead, we should decide on our rules ahead of these moments. In Hare’s language, we use an “intuitive level” of thinking when dealing with the majority of moral questions we encounter, and sometimes employ a “critical level” of deeper thought when we come across hard cases.

The two levels are particularly useful because most of the time, a utilitarian need not think in the often confusing terms of utility. They need only, at critical moments, rationally engage in moral thinking. Consider utilitarianism and its relation to children: It would be very difficult indeed to cultivate a strong moral code in a young child if we relied upon them quickly grasping a fleshed-out theory of utility, but we find it quite easy to teach them many rules of thumb (“intuitive” level) before they become old enough to engage in the complicated “critical” level thinking we occasionally demand of adults. Rule Utilitarianism doesn’t collapse into Act Utilitarianism, because most of the time, we lack the ability to actually follow Act Utilitarianism’s direction—one might even say Act Utilitarianism collapses into Rule Utilitarianism, because when faced with moral uncertainty, we generally have no choice but to fall back on the rules that have previously served us well.

This is all we have time for in this series. As should be obvious from past lessons and this one, there’s much more to be said about virtually every argument and counterargument that we’ve covered. I hope that for those of you with an interest in the idea, this has given you a sense of what you would like to go on and learn more about. I also hope that this serves as a good foundation from which to consider utilitarianism and how it compares to other moral theories available.

We will end on a slight word of caution: Utilitarianism is a theory that centers its idea on morality very firmly on the good of individuals and people as a whole. However, it is, through its ideas of calculus and the rejection of intentions and any idea of inviolable moral rights, capable of justifying some quite extreme behavior. Utilitarianism has been used by many to give moral credence to actions most of us—and indeed, most sane utilitarians—would reject as evil. If you are convinced by utilitarianism, be careful to keep a close eye on exactly what it is you find yourself justifying for the “greater good.”


Recommended book

The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory by David Copp


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