Rule-Utilitarianism: Objections and Replies Keith Burgess-Jackson 16 February 2016

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1 Rule-Utilitarianism: Objections and Replies Keith Burgess-Jackson 16 February 2016 Rule-Utilitarianism (RU): 1 For all acts x, x is right iff x conforms to the optimal set of rules. 2 Commentary: The optimal set of rules is that set which, if generally accepted (and followed), would maximize happiness. An act conforms to a set of rules when it complies (i.e., is in accordance) with one of the rules in that set. For example, if one of the rules in the optimal set is If you have made a promise, then keep it, then my act of keeping a promise on a given occasion conforms to that set, and is, therefore, according to RU, right, while my act of breaking a promise on a given occasion does not conform to that set, and is, therefore, according to RU, wrong (since wrong means not right ). The Extensional-Equivalence Objection: 1. If (any) two normative ethical theories are extensionally equivalent, 3 then either (a) both theories are acceptable or (b) both theories are unacceptable. 2. AU and RU are normative ethical theories. 3. If AU and RU are extensionally equivalent, then either (a) both AU and RU are acceptable or (b) both AU and RU are unacceptable (from 1 and 2). 4. AU and RU are extensionally equivalent. 1 Also known as Indirect Utilitarianism and Restricted Utilitarianism. The contrasts are with Direct Utilitarianism and Extreme Utilitarianism, respectively. 2 Here is William H. Shaw s statement of the theory: an action is morally right if and only if it accords with that set of rules, the general acceptance of which would result in more happiness than any alternative set of rules. William H. Shaw, Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), To say that two normative theories are extensionally equivalent is to say that they generate exactly the same normative judgments. Any act judged to be right according to one theory is judged to be right according to the other. In itself, extensional equivalence is neither good nor bad. But if it can be shown that a given theory is extensionally equivalent to another theory that is known to be unacceptable, then we have a refutation of the given theory. For in any case in which the unacceptable theory implies an incorrect normative judgment, the new theory must have the same unacceptable implication. Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978), 65. 1

2 5. Either (a) both AU and RU are acceptable or (b) both AU and RU are unacceptable (from 3 and 4, modus ponens). 6. AU is unacceptable. 7. It is not the case that both AU and RU are acceptable (from 6). 8. Both AU and RU are unacceptable (from 5 and 7, disjunctive syllogism). 9. RU is unacceptable (from 8, simplification). accepts premises 1, 2, and 6, but rejects premise 4. AU and RU are extensionally equivalent only if it doesn t matter how teachable, learnable, memorable, and usable the rules are. But these things matter. The rule If you have made a promise, then keep it is teachable, learnable, memorable, and usable (in the sense of being easy to apply), but the rule If you have made a promise, then do whatever maximizes utility is none of these things. If we place restrictions on what counts as a rule, as the rule-utilitarian insists that we do, then AU and RU are not extensionally equivalent. 4 Commentary: The objection says, in effect, that RU is not a distinct normative ethical theory. It is said to collapse into, or be reducible to, AU. The reply is that it is distinct because not just anything counts as a rule. The No-Improvement Objection: 1. If (any) two normative ethical theories are extensionally equivalent, then neither is an improvement on the other. 2. AU and RU are normative ethical theories. 3. If AU and RU are extensionally equivalent, then neither is an improvement on the other (from 1 and 2). 4. AU and RU are extensionally equivalent. 5. Neither AU nor RU is an improvement on the other (from 3 4 According to William H. Shaw, the rules need to be simple enough that people can learn them and guide their conduct by them for otherwise the rules will not maximize happiness. Shaw, Contemporary Ethics,

3 and 4). 6. RU is not an improvement on AU (from 5). 7. RU is acceptable only if it is an improvement on AU. 8. RU is unacceptable (from 6 and 7). accepts premises 1 and 2, but rejects premises 4 and 7. Premise 4 is rejected because AU and RU are not extensionally equivalent (see the reply to the Extensional-Equivalence Objection). Premise 7 is rejected because it is question-begging. 5 One might just as well say that AU is acceptable only if it is an improvement on RU (and then infer that AU is unacceptable). Commentary: This objection differs from the Extensional-Equivalence Objection in the following way. In the former, RU is said to be just as bad as AU, which is claimed to be unacceptable. In the latter, RU is said to be no better than AU, which is not claimed to be unacceptable. The Rule-Worshipping Objection: 1. A normative ethical theory is unacceptable if it is irrational. 2. A normative ethical theory is irrational if it endorses means that are inappropriate to its end. 3. A normative ethical theory is unacceptable if it endorses means that are inappropriate to its end (from 1 and 2). 4. RU is a normative ethical theory. 5. RU is unacceptable if it endorses means that are inappropriate to its end (from 3 and 4). 6. RU endorses means that are inappropriate to its end. 6 5 To beg the question is to assume as a premise precisely what one is supposed to establish. The classic example goes as follows. Suppose I am trying to persuade you that God exists. I cite the Bible in support of my conclusion. You ask me why you should accept what the Bible says. I reply, Because it s the authoritative word of God. I cannot assume that God exists in the course of arguing that God exists! 6 The end of any form of utilitarianism, including RU, is the maximization of utility. As a means to this end, RU endorses rule-following even when one believes, or suspects, that rule-breaking will maximize utility. According to J. J. C. Smart, this is irrational; 3

4 7. RU is unacceptable (from 5 and 6). accepts premises 1, 2, and 4, but rejects premise 6. As G. E. Moore ( ) observes, though we may be sure that there are cases where the rule should be broken, we can never know which those cases are, and ought, therefore, never to break it. 7 In other words, given our (inevitable) ignorance, the means endorsed by RU following rules are not inappropriate to its end, which is the maximization of utility. This is true even when one believes, or suspects, that rule-breaking will maximize utility. 8 Commentary: The objector says that it is irrational to worship rules. The rule-utilitarian replies that he or she is not worshipping rules but following them. The Dilemma Objection: 9 1. Either (a) RU is extensionally equivalent to AU or (b) RU is not extensionally equivalent to AU. 2. If RU is extensionally equivalent to AU, then RU is no better than AU. 10 it constitutes superstitious rule-worship... and not the rational thought of a philosopher. J. J. C. Smart, Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism, The Philosophical Quarterly 6 (October 1956): , at 349 (ellipsis added). 7 George Edward Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903 [1966 reprint]), Smart asks: [I]s it not monstrous to suppose that if we have worked out the consequences and if we have perfect faith in the impartiality of our calculations, and if we know that in this instance to break R will have better results than to keep it, we should nevertheless obey the rule? Is it not to erect R into a sort of idol if we keep it when breaking it will prevent, say, some avoidable misery? Smart, Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism, (italics in original). Moore s reply to Smart would be that we can never know whether the case before us is one in which breaking the rule (as opposed to following it) will maximize utility. Smart thinks we sometimes know this and are therefore irrational in following the rule; Moore thinks we never know this and are therefore not irrational in following the rule. 9 The objection takes the form of a constructive dilemma, which is a valid argument form. To say that an argument form is valid is to say that it is impossible for its premises to be true while its conclusion is false. In other words, the premises logically imply the conclusion. The form is: Either p or q; if p, then r; if q, then s; therefore, either r or s. Any argument that has a valid form is a valid argument, so this argument is valid. 10 See, e.g., Smart, Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism,

5 3. If RU is not extensionally equivalent to AU, then RU implies either that some optimific 11 acts are not right or that some right acts are not optimific in which case endorsing RU amounts to irrational rule worship Either (a) RU is no better than AU or (b) RU implies either that some optimific acts are not right or that some right acts are not optimific in which case endorsing RU amounts to irrational rule worship (from 1, 2, and 3, constructive dilemma). Reply: The rule-utilitarian accepts the validity of the argument and accepts premises 1 and 2, but rejects premise 3. Premise 1 is true by virtue of its form ( p or not-p ). Premise 2 is true but question-begging, since only someone who believes that AU is true (and RU, therefore, false) would think that RU is no better than AU. 13 Premise 3 is both false and question-begging. It is false because there are good reasons to follow rules even in those cases in which breaking the rules would maximize utility (see the reply to the Rule-Worshipping Objection). It is question-begging because only someone who believes that AU is true (and RU, therefore, false) would think that endorsing RU amounts to irrational rule worship. 14 Commentary: This objection differs from the No-Improvement Objection and the Rule-Worshipping Objection in that it has a disjunctive ( either-or ) conclusion. It says, in effect, that RU has at least one serious problem. The rule-utilitarian replies that both problems have been solved, separately. 11 Act x is optimific iff x maximizes utility. 12 See, e.g., Smart, Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism, One might just as well say that RU is no worse than (or just as good as) AU. 14 One might just as well say that endorsing AU amounts to act worship. As Shelly Kagan puts it: In effect, the charge of rule worship implicitly presumes that it is acts rather than rules that are to be directly evaluated by appeal to the overall good; thus, it simply begs the question against the rule consequentialist. Shelly Kagan, Normative Ethics, Dimensions of Philosophy Series, ed. Norman Daniels and Keith Lehrer (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998),

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