Rule Utilitarianism

11.10.2017 |

Episode #8 of the course Thinking morally: An introduction to utilitarianism by Jack Coulson


Rule Utilitarianism is a more systematic attempt to make utilitarianism palatable. Let’s introduce the model by comparing it to Act Utilitarianism.

Act Utilitarianism: “Do what will maximize utility.”

Rule Utilitarianism: “Follow the rule that, to the best of your understanding, will lead to maximum utility overall.”

(Ignore non-maximizing forms of utilitarianism for a moment.)

Rule Utilitarianism agrees with Act Utilitarianism that our aim is maximizing utility, but it recognizes that we rarely know how to do that. Instead, it suggests we should live by a set of rules that tend to create the most utility. Consider the sheriff again. They are not certain whether killing the innocent will be better because it saves lives or worse because (when the truth is revealed) it will ruin social cohesion and still cost a life. The sheriff therefore needs some rules to help come to a conclusion about what to do. There are a few obvious ones: Don’t kill, be just, respect the law, etc. So, the sheriff can stop trying to better calculate utility and just follow the rules that usually have better outcomes.

Neither Act Utilitarianism or Rule Utilitarianism think ideas like justice matter in and of themselves (“inherently”). The sheriff following the rule, “be just,” is not accepting that “justice” matters but is accepting that “justice” tends to maximize utility. Rule Utilitarianism merely takes them more seriously because they are built into the rules and so are less easily overruled by the needs of the moment. Act Utilitarianism might suggest to steal a chocolate bar if you won’t be caught; Rule Utilitarianism says don’t.

Naturally, these rules will need to be ranked in some way. “Don’t kill” is clearly more important than “don’t cheat at Monopoly.” The most important rule, “maximize utility,” (or something similar) must be at the top of this list, but the order after that is open to debate and is probably determined by where and when one is. A modern industrial society will likely have a strict rule against leaving babies outside to die, but a nomadic tribe in difficult conditions might, by necessity, need to consider such actions as acceptable. We will come onto the problem of “which order is best” in the form of a collapse argument in Lesson 9.

So, Rule Utilitarianism is an indirect form of utilitarianism, while Act Utilitarianism is a direct form. Being indirect confers several advantages. First, it partially fixes the problem of our not really knowing how to maximize utility. For a proponent of Rule Utilitarianism, an accurate way of calculating utility would certainly be very useful, but not having one does not undo many of the basic rules of the theory. I don’t need to calculate exactly the utility effect of murder, because it is pretty obvious that murder being accepted by society tends to the bad. Indeed, Rule Utilitarianism can draw on the wisdom not merely of each individual trying to calculate the utility of their actions but on the collective wisdom of society and history as well.

Some laws could be said to fit into this model; I hesitate to write this, as all examples have their controversy, but we might take a prohibition on guns, which harms the utility of a few responsible users, as an example of something tending toward greater utility. For evidence, just consider the US gun crime rate compared to other developed nations, especially those that have banned guns and seen dramatic decreases in gun violence. To be clear, though, Rule Utilitarianism is not synonymous with following the law. Indeed, rigid attachment to a set of rules is a concern for Rule Utilitarianism and one of the objections we will consider tomorrow.


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Recommended book

Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism by William H. Shaw


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