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For a concise definition of Rule Utilitarianism

The detractors of utilitarianism are very good at presenting endless cases and situations, wherein the path of greatest apparent utility is clearly contrary to the intuitive judgment of most well meaning, moral human beings. Indeed, such situations arise frequently. These situations often involve sacrificing the most sacred rights of the individual for what appears to be a greater good. Rule utilitarianism competently deals with these situations. Rule utilitarianism is the best version of utilitarian theory because it allows for the establishment of a system of basic individual rights and freedoms whose preservation takes precedence over utility.

With act utilitarianism, the moral rightness of every action and every decision is based solely one factor: That it results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and the least pain. When a choice arises, both the quality and quantity of pleasure are weighed against the quality and quantity of pain for each possible course of action, and inevitably a single choice stands out as 'best'. Take the following example from Ayn Rand, arguing for Libertarianism: "Human beings who lose an eyeball lose much less happiness than the total happiness obtained by a human being without eyeballs who receives a new eyeball. Therefore, the state should redistribute eyeballs." Within the strict confines of act utilitarianism this is the only acceptable path. It is most likely, however, that the majority of people would find the proposition utterly repulsive.

Rule utilitarianism offers a rational solution to this and other similar dilemmas, which preserves utility and agrees with our intuitive moral sense. Rule utilitarianism is based primarily on one assumption. The assumption that in order for a society to function, it’s citizens must all obey a universal set of laws. These laws must be obeyed without exception or the system doesn’t work (there are, of course, avenues for adding, removing or modifying the laws, but only through the proper processes). Therefore, in any situation where the course of action providing the greatest immediate utility runs counter to the law, the law must still be obeyed to achieve the greatest overall utility. The most important interpretation of this allowance is that it permits the establishment of a system of basic, immutable human rights and freedoms, whose preservation always takes precedence over utility. The specific definition of these rights is, naturally, beyond the scope of this essay. One basic property should be mentioned, however. In no way can the rights of one individual or group, permit them to infringe upon the rights of another individual or group. Therefore external preferences cases (Whereby an action might be considered wrong solely because the thought of someone committing it might cause someone else mental anguish) are invalid.

In this way rule utilitarianism refines utilitarian moral theory, humanizes it. Let us, for instance, apply rule utilitarianism to the aforementioned example. In most societies, individuals are guaranteed a right to health, and to infringe on someone else's health, without their consent, is unlawful. Therefore, an eyeball redistribution program, even if it produced greater immediate utility, could not be rightly implemented, unless every donor agreed to it.

At this point, objections may be forming in the skeptical mind. Chief among them is doubtless the issue of complexity. Some will say that the system of rules necessary to deal with every possible situation where rule utilitarianism might need to be applied in an individuals regular existence would be far too great for that individual to retain, and too complex to be applied in an efficient manner. For instance, police have found themselves on several occasions required to deal with a single person threatening a group of people. Sometimes the most reliable option available for dealing with this person involves physically harming them. To incorporate the rights of the person threatening, and the necessity to protect those being threatened, into a conclusion which adheres strictly to the principles of rule utilitarianism could be time consuming and impractical, given the immediacy of the situation.

Rule utilitarianism is, in any case, a vast improvement over the terrible bluntness of strict act utilitarianism. It easily tackles the greatest problem with act utilitarianism. That is, the way in which it often seems to trample blindly over the rights of individuals; Something we are naturally inclined to object to, being individuals ourselves. It does so by easily incorporating a respect for those rights into itself.


Please bear in mind I've argued in this node that rule utilitarianism is the best form of utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is still, I believe, fundamentally flawed, for the same reason all totally rational approaches to moral theory are. They leave no room for our intuitive sense of what is right.

A counter-argument:

(Note that this isn't quite a counter-argument on the same terms. CalmSea's write-up seems to work within the idea of picking a version utilitarianism if one is required to choose utilitarianism but doesn't necessarily agree with its basic argument of always optimizing happiness for any given choice. This write-up will assume somewhat the opposite, i.e. it's an argument against rule-based utilitarianism assuming that the basic idea of utilitarianism is agreeable.)

The reason that act utilitarianism is better than rule utilitarianism is that rule utilitarianism falls into the same trap that original act utilitarianism attempts to avoid: rules that don't actually benefit people in all cases and the blind following of rules in specific cases where they wouldn't actually be beneficial. In a way, rule utilitarianism is watered down in such a way that I'd hesitate to actually call it utilitarianism. All actual laws are pragmatic to at least some extent. Therefore, it seems that the only thing utilitarian about rule utilitarianism is the degree to which pragmatism factors into the ostensible justifications for the actual rules. But in the end, rule utilitarianism will lead to instances of the very problems that the original act utilitarianism originally sought to avoid, because the general rules will not be able to maximize happiness in all cases.

Note, I'm not a utilitarian. After certain untouchable moral rules are set (e.g., no murder, no theft, etc), I'd say that rule utilitarianism is great for filling in the rest of the more mundane stuff. There seems to be a history of "utilitarians" trying to come up with modified versions of utilitarianism so as to make it more agreeable to their own intuitions or to the intuitions of the greater population. I'd suggest that those people should actually drop the label utilitarian and just incorporate utilitarian elements into their chosen moral system as they see fit. E.g., the copyright system, as it was originally conceived, seems to be fairly utilitarian in structure, but that doesn't mean the entire justice system of the United States is or has to be utilitarian (Sandra Day O'Connor has a quote, the full text of which is at the end of this write-up, explaining that copyright was primarily intended to benefit the public good by spurring progress in science and the arts, not to provide a perpetual income stream for the copyright holder via a monopoly on a work and all of its derivatives).

Note also that some rule utilitarians argue that because of human nature, rules are necessary for order and happiness, and thus, long-term happiness is maximized by rule utilitarianism even if it dictates certain acts that don't provide the highest immediate return of happiness. Fair enough, but this is still essentially an act utilitarian argument, just with a longer than usual time frame. There's also the argument that society is made happy by doing things that seem to be intuitively moral. Again, fair enough, but this is still an argument for maximizing happiness, not an argument fundamentally against the idea that maximizing happiness should be the greatest moral imperative.



The actual text of the above mentioned quote:

The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.... This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art.

-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 US 340, 349 (1991))

(The quote was pulled from the URL http://www.ntf.flinders.edu.au/TEXT/copyright.html. Thanks Chase. And thanks to rootbeer277 for catching a couple of typos.)

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