Monday, July 16, 2012

Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism

To act in a way which produces the most happiness, or “good,” for the greatest number of people has often been considered tricky business. For one, the definition of “good” is often questioned and debated. We can comprise a list of possible definitions, but we seem to not be able to agree on one. Second, it can be difficult to calculate exactly, or even remotely, how much good and happiness can be properly predicted given the uncertainty of the future. We simply cannot know whether the drowning child we saved will turn out to be a mass murderer. Finally, given the utilitarian goal of producing the most good and happiness in a given situation, the action determined to best accommodate this can sometimes violate laws, or human rights. To use an example from a Philosophy Experiments and Interactions website, throwing the innocent fatman in front of a speeding train loaded with more innocent people, would stop the train and save the most lives. Act Utilitarianism would require that we do this. However, this action certainly constitutes murder and most would agree that The Fatman’s basic human right to life had been violated.
Utilitarianism is often split into two categories: Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Of the two forms, Act Utilitarianism is frequently considered to be the more dubious of them. It holds the we individually evaluate every action and each action is, in itself, morally judged based upon whether it will produce the most good. Again, this is the version of Utility that would require that we kill the fat man to save the trainload of people. Rule Utilitarianism takes a more Kantian approach. It holds that in determining an action’s morality, we must determine whether, as a rule, this action, generally, produces more good and happiness than not performing this action or vice versa. By this, murder is considered morally wrong because, generally speaking, murdering someone produces more unhappiness than happiness.
I have always felt that there is some merit to the work of Immanuel Kant and his Categorical Imperative. Intuitively, acting only in such a way that you could “universalize” feels like the bases for, at least partially, fairly sound moral reasoning. Kant has not been without his critics. Many find it difficult to follow his rigid description of ethics. The complaint, perhaps the biggest, is that Kant allows no room to maneuver. If I approach a situation where my options for action are to, either, tell a lie or not tell a lie, and I must only act in such a way that I could will it to be a universal law of action, then I must choose to not lie.  If I were to lie, I would then have to will that everyone must always lie (universalizing the action). As that would be a self defeating law, I could not, ever, then, be acting morally if I lied. Since most folks would be willing to say that there are some situations where lying would, in fact, be a permissible thing to do, they have to, then, dismiss the Categorical Imperative.
Fortunately, I am not married to the Categorical Imperative, although I do find it a stimulating partner. I would like to take this time to suggest my own version of Utilitarianism which espouses traditional Kantian Ethics: Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism. The theory is stated as thus: Given a specific circumstance, act only in such a way that you would will that action to become a universal law of action for that specific circumstance. To elucidate, say I approach a situation where if I tell a lie, it may save a life or prevent an amount of suffering. I could ethically tell the lie, since I would will, in this specific circumstance of having the ability to save a life, that it become a universal law of action. According to Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism, I would not have to broadly allow that any and all lying is bad. Because of the theory’s nature, no such broad statements are made.


1. When I first proposed a version of this theory in 2009, a fellow classmate had a question/concern that was something to the effect of: There would seem to be a near infinite number of possible specific situations which require moral action. Consequently, that would imply that a near infinite number of moral rules also existed. Is the existence of that many different rules in any way detrimental to Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism as a theory?
The answer is no, it is not destructive in any way. This is for a couple of reasons. First, unless one rule directly affects or contradicts another, its existence, in and of itself, is insignificant to another rule. This would be true if there were five total rules or five hundred thousand. In Baseball, the fact that it is “three strikes and you’re out” does not affect whether “a ball is considered fair if it hits the foul line.” However, it’s not necessarily “three strikes you’re out” if “the third strike is dropped by the catcher and you reach first base safely.” However, even in the second case where one rule does affect another, that is simply an example of a specific circumstance,in effect, the theory at work.
Second, the theory does not require that we have all of the rules on hand, ready to pull out at the drop of a morally significant dime. There is nothing to memorize, it is not like a football playbook. We may develop a rule and never use it again. A more appropriate analogue is that it is like solving a math problem. The results may vary depending on the numbers and the functions used. There are an infinite number of math problems to solve but none of the results have any effect on math as a system or any other solution in particular. So the existence of the rules do not supersaturate the theory, they are the result of the theory and therefore do nothing to diminish it.
2. Another concern is how this theory interacts with, contradicts or upholds the law. It would appear prima facie that this theory is at odds with the law. After all, if your circumstantial rule violates a law, you will still be punished for violating this law even if you were ethically correct for breaking it. I would argue that the law already takes this theory into account. Although it is against the law to murder someone, there are varying degrees to which we are punished for committing this crime. For instance, you will go to prison longer if you kill 3 people instead of 1. If you premeditated the murder, your sentence will be harsher than if it was a spontaneous lapse in judgment. If we do it in self defense, we can get off very lightly even completely in some cases. Similarly, the punishment for Marijuana possession is much less severe if you are found with an 1/8 ounce on your person verses 10 ounces.
3. Along a similar vein, I argue my theory with the basis of hyper-specifizing situations in order to deduce the proper moral action. Moreover, that it eliminates broadly stroked rules. Such rules as “lying is bad.” However, the laws from which we live by, are very often, broad. They have to be. For example, very broadly, murder is against the law. This is at odds with my theory which suggests that there should not, and cannot, be such broad rules for behavior. What is important to note, is the difference between moral rules and federal or state laws. Moral rules guide our day to day actions and give us a foundation for evaluating our lives. Laws, however, are necessary for the function of society. In fact, their existence is dependent on society. They are collectively derived as a consensus between citizens and an ideologue which provides the groundwork for the citizens of a society to live by. They are, at their core, basic and it is essential that they are. What I’m suggesting is that because they are two different sorts of things entirely, they are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist and be successful while doing so. As I mentioned in the previous section, the law already recognizes this distinction and works within the system accordingly.
4. The most powerful argument against Utilitarianism is the argument that abiding by this theory can sometimes result in someone’s rights being violated. i.e. the fatman. Arguably, this is still the case for Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism. But if we apply the theory to this situation, we end up with a rule something to the effect of: “Given the circumstance of my ability to save X+1 amount of innocent lives by pushing 1 innocent man in front of a train, could I universalize that everyone must push an innocent man in front of this train in the same circumstance?” A rule of this nature would, however, be self-defeating. If this action were to be universalized, then we would have to allow that someone else, in this same situation, would be forced to kill an innocent man as well. Given all of the possibilities of innocent men to consider, this man could easily end up being our brother, our father or ourselves for that matter. So even though the man we may intend to push in front of a train is a stranger to us, we must also essentially be willing to sacrifice our brother or ourselves just as readily. As a result, no one would ever develop such a rule. It likewise applies to right violations in general because, again, we would have to be willing to sacrifice our own rights as well in the situation. This is a consequence of universalizing the rule. Therefore, no such rules would exist.

Final Thoughts

Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism is not only a practical tool for action, it is also intuitive by nature. Most of us already act according to it in some fashion or another. We base our judgments of others according to it. When our neighbors are gossiping about how wrong it was for us to kick our significant other out of the house, the second one may respond “well he was cheating on her.” Much like it is represented in our legal system, in everyday society there is a hierarchical groundwork that drives our judgments and rulings of others that is completely based upon the circumstances. So much so that we will even forgive murdering someone if the right circumstances surrounded it. i.e. if it was in self defense or protection.
So what’s the point of this theory if it simply reflects how we already live our lives? The purpose of a theory is to discover how something works or why certain effects are linked to certain causes. However, the goal of a theory is not always to revolutionize our lives or our world, it is sometimes simply to explain. For instance, the Theory of Relativity didn’t change how relativity worked, it simply showed us how it worked. Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism doesn’t need to transform the moral community and it certainly won't change how ethics work. But it is a tool to help us understand why we do the things we do and provide a way to guide, and to understand, our actions in the future.

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