RULE-UTILITARIANISM

Utilitarianism
Act-utilitarianism
Rule-utilitarianism
Richard Brandt and rule-utilitarianism
Rule-utilitarianism: a way to avoid the problems of act utilitarianism
R. M. Hare’s two-tiered system                                 Return to contents

Utilitarianism

    Utilitarianism is thought of as a one-principle theory: that we should always act to produce the most good. As such it stands as the antithesis of both particularism and rule theory. The utilitarian principle is intended to guide all human action and to be used to make all moral evaluations. The dominant form of utilitarianism states that we are morally obligated to choose the action that will contribute the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. (See "Act-utilitarianism" in the links below.)
    Suppose we have only two choices: to lie or not to lie. Then the utilitarian would instruct us to lie if that action contributes, on balance, more happiness, and not to lie if avoiding the lie contributes, on balance, more happiness. In theory, every act should be evaluated to determine how much happiness is produced, and we should do the action that out of all our alternatives produces the most happiness. Furthermore, happiness is the only consideration that matters. If any instance of lying, breaking promises, killing, or any other apparently reprehensible action causes more happiness, on balance, it should be done.    Top

Act-utilitarianism

    Act-utilitarianism gets the first part of its name because every action is to be individually evaluated. Philosophers have frequently pointed out that act-utilitarianism has many serious weaknesses. For example, we may have difficulty in determining how much happiness an action will produce, and the burden of calculating happiness for each action would be enormous. Perhaps more importantly, act-utilitarianism is placed in the paradoxical position of recommending, as morally required, actions that almost all people would recognize as immoral, such as murder, when this is predicted to produce, on balance, more happiness.    Top

Rule-utilitarianism

    As a result of such problems, some utilitarians, chief among them the Oxford moral philosopher R. M. Hare, turned to a two-tiered theory called rule-utilitarianism. Although happiness is the ultimate moral value, the way to go after it may be indirect. A two-tiered theory would evaluate types of actions generally -- such as murder, telling the truth, breaking promises, remaining faithful in a marriage, caring for children, respecting parents, punishing the innocent -- to determine whether doing these types of actions produces the greatest happiness. Since types of actions are evaluated rather than individual actions, many people need to be considered in such calculations: should all in a society be allowed to cheat? If a general moral prohibition against cheating produces more happiness, than rule-utilitarians would support the moral rule "Don't cheat." If not, the rule would be rejected.  
    Rule-utilitarianism is a quasi-rule-oriented system: rules play a crucial role, but the system is based on a principle. The basic utilitarian principle is used, with facts about social interaction, to derive rules. Once the rules are in place, no direct calculation of utility is needed. The rule must be followed even if the individual actions produce more pain than pleasure.    Top

Richard Brandt and rule-utilitarianism

    In his recent work, the contemporary American philosopher Richard Brandt added a new twist to rule-utilitarianism. Rule-utilitarians hold that rules should be evaluated to determine whether they produce more happiness or more pain for the greatest number of people. But making such evaluations is a difficult thing to do, especially since judgments have to be made about the future: will this rule, as it is applied in the future, create more happiness or pain? Evaluations are about the future of a rule, but we need to look to the past to determine which types of actions will produce happiness. Assuming the future is like the past, which is always to some degree incorrect, we may with confidence predict that the same types of actions will produce similar results. Since the future may be quite unlike the past, the reliability of the past as a proper guide to action may be questioned.
    Brandt hopes to solve problems involved in selecting the proper rules by accepting current moral rules as a starting point. The current system of moral rules has, after all, survived many decades of social evaluation. The way things are done has a moral standing because people rely on such behavior. Brandt calls the current system of rules an Optimal Moral System. We are obliged to obey that system, but he adds that this system, though it is the best system we now have, may be made even better. Utilitarian goals are already achieved to some degree because the current moral system, to survive through social evolution, must be producing a good deal of human happiness. However, with the evaluation of the current system, the utilitarian principle comes into direct play. Reform comes from a direct application of the utilitarian standard to the current moral system. When the system is reformed, the new optimal moral system should be followed.
    It is unclear how the system gets reformed and by whom, but we may presume that however social rules are selected, the process may be speeded along by direct appeal to the utilitarian principle. When the principle is used successfully, the new moral code, now slightly changed, must be followed. As the system is increasingly modified, and taught to children and others, the moral code becomes progressively better; it should approach a list of rules that will actually produce the greatest happiness.     Top

Rule-utilitarianism: a way to avoid the problems of act utilitarianism

    Rule-utilitarians believe that they can avoid the basic problems in act-utilitarianism. Individual calculations of each act are no longer needed; by following rules one is relieved of the burden of constant evaluation. Also counterexamples are avoided. We no longer need to decide whether an individual murder will produce more happiness; the rule against murdering is firm because murder, generally speaking, produces much unhappiness. Some rules that we now accept, like old-fashioned views on sexual morality, may be rejected by the utilitarian calculation. But rule-utilitarians seem to believe that most rules we inherit are likely to produce more happiness. So rule-utilitarians believe that if a two-tiered theory is followed, a set of rules could be developed that avoids key utilitarian problems and produces, in the long run, the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
    Rule-utilitarianism is often thought of as a compromise. We would prefer to have each action produce as much happiness as possible, but that is not feasible because it involves herculean knowledge and effort. So we settle for the evaluation of imposed rules albeit rules imposed by the utilitarian principle. A rule cannot be broken for the sake of more happiness because the only acceptable utilitarian calculations are about rules.    Top

R M. Hare’s two-tiered system

    Though R. M. Hare argues in favor of a two-tiered system, he does not believe it should impose a set of moral rules because in any application a rule might not be properly followed. He recognizes that because of lack of time, ignorance of circumstances, or inability to make proper moral calculations, people may need to follow proper rules, rules which do tend to produce more happiness than pain. But ideally one would make all moral choices by putting oneself in the place of all concerned, and then making moral decisions in a way that optimizes everyone's satisfaction by taking into account the strength of each person's preferences. Putting oneself into everyone's place is required, Hare believes, by the logic of moral statements; if something is obligatory, it is obligatory for everyone in similar circumstances. Thus he introduces a Kantian note into what otherwise appears to be a utilitarian theory. If we do not take all people into account, we are not using moral terms correctly; we are engaged not in moral thinking, but perhaps instead in prudential or self-interested thinking. Hare believes that by appreciating the perspective of each person involved, he meets the universality required in moral theory, and by optimizing the satisfaction of preferences by taking into account the weight of each, he meets utilitarian demands.
    Direct calculation, without using moral rules, is especially appropriate when rules conflict. For example, I may find that I have good reasons not to keep a promise made to my children -- for instance, to take them to the zoo. To keep my promise may mean that I cannot keep another moral commitment, say visiting a sick relative. To decide what to do, according to Hare, I place myself in the position of each person involved and decide to do what optimally satisfies preferences. Normally, without conflict, I simply keep the promise, staying on the lower level of moral reasoning, even though, ideally, I would calculate the satisfaction involved in all moral decisions.
    Hare's position is a compromise; he recognizes that we cannot always make proper moral calculations. But he does not attempt to impose a system of rules, allowing that rules may always be violated. Hare's position, leaving the possibility of direct calculation of happiness in each act, may avoid many of the problems of rule- and act-utilitarianism. Although Hare insists that we take every person's preferences into account, his view depends on the strength of overall preferences. These preference might end up supporting the use of some people for the improper gain of others. This leads to counterexamples. In effect, Hare's position might not allow rules a firm enough standing.
    A stronger role for rules is more of a compromise. Compromises often seem unsatisfactory from every point of view. Many utilitarians find a strict rule perspective to be basically flawed and present the following dilemma to show why. Suppose we know that a lie would produce more pleasure than pain. We cannot argue that making an exception does not produce more happiness. The rule-utilitarian must claim that by generally following rules, without exceptions, more happiness is produced, on balance. But by hypothesis, we now are asking what we should do when we know that, all things considered, an action that goes against a rule will produce more happiness. The act-utilitarian cannot understand how a rule-utilitarian can insist on following the rule, in such a case. After all, both act- and rule-utilitarians want more happiness. Allowing clear exceptions, against the rule-utilitarian's view, seems to permit increased happiness.
    In effect, this criticism makes the claim that an exceptionless system is plainly too rigid. Exceptional cases do occur, and, morally speaking, we should be allowed to use discretion in dealing with them. On the other side, rule theorists, such as Bernard Gert (a direct link to Gert's rule system is found below), reject the evaluation of moral rules on the basis of happiness. Moral rules do not serve the interests of the sum of happiness; they are partly meant to control how we act even when in the name of happiness.     Top

See also:

    ACT-UTILITARIANISM
    COUNTEREXAMPLES AND MORAL THEORY
    PRIMA FACIE DUTIES
    RULES: BERNARD GERT
    TWO CONCEPTS OF RULES: JOHN RAWLS