1. Mill on Bentham

Acts, rules and psychology

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4. Acts, rules and psychology

Utilitarianism singles out happiness as the only value. Its concern, then, should be the design of a moral code which does not itself, paradoxically, undermine happiness. Yet just this charge has been repeatedly levelled against act utilitarianism. Here are three forms of the charge:

  1. Act utilitarianism implies that the best world is one in which right action is maximized. And yet this may be false, for a person who doesn’t always do the ‘right’ action, according to act utilitarianism, may be happier and produce more happiness. Utilitarianism should be concerned with the happiness in life (or the world) as a whole, and its criterion of rightness (not just of deliberation) should reflect this.

  2. If the gap between justification and deliberation becomes too large, we will become psychologically ‘split’. The good moral life is one in which we are motivated by what we value, i.e. that our reasons (justification) and motives (deliberations) form a harmony. But according to indirect act utilitarianism, in many cases, to do the right thing I must not consider what would make it the right thing to do.

  3. Act utilitarianism requires us not to consider our own special relation to our actions and our lives. It is too demanding – I could not be happy constantly promoting the happiness of others, and so others’ promotion of my happiness would fail. And it is alienating – I am not more concerned with my own life than with others, except as an impersonal means of generating the greatest overall happiness.

Rule utilitarianism offers solutions to each of these problems, by allowing deliberation and justification to be unified, and by considering the costs of living according to the rules in designing the rules themselves. Brad Hooker suggests the following criterion: “An act is wrong if and only if it is forbidden by the code of rules whose internalization by the overwhelming majority of everyone everywhere in each new generation has maximum expected value in terms of well-being… The calculation of a code’s expected value includes all costs of getting the code internalized.” This formulation also avoids the collapse of rule utilitarianism into act utilitarianism, or the repeated qualification of rules; for both would lead to a break down in trust.

Further reading

Mill, Utilitarianism, Ch. 2; ‘Bentham’

Smart & Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against

R Crisp, Mill on Utilitarianism, Ch. 2, 3, 5

B Hooker, “Rule-consequentialism”, Mind 1990

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