On Utilitarianism

An interview I recently did on the podcast Trolling With Logic provided me a question about utilitarianism: is rule utilitarianism, roughly speaking, what Rational Morality is all about?

At the time I noted that whilst Rational Morality couldn’t be described as rule utilitarianism per se (indeed it is a form of moral theory in itself, and not characterised by any classical approach to ethics) I did admit that rule utilitarianism was “in the right area.”

Utilitarianism itself is the idea that we should judge an action right or wrong by virtue of how well it minimises suffering or maximises pleasure. It is, in my opinion, deeply flawed by the fact that it both supposes a time when we will all be perfect judges of the future outcomes of our actions, but also as it proposes that the only moral concern of an action is the ability it has to maximise pleasure and minimise suffering. Disagreement with the latter is perhaps a more contentious opinion for me to hold, but I do believe that pleasure and suffering exist on a continuum whereby it is nonsensical to talk specifically and completely about morality as being about nothing other than lowering suffering and heightening pleasure. I do not agree that morality need to necessarily define itself any more narrowly than for it to be merely about maximising well being.

Rule utilitarianism overcomes the first problem of utilitarianism, by stating that we are not perfect judges of our actions, and so we should create and live by more general moral rules. By doing this it becomes a more rational theory; more able to take on board the logic which flaws the more narrow forms of utilitarianism. However I do not deem it as a rational theory altogether, as it is still utilitarianism: it still wants to measure morality in terms of pleasure and suffering, for which there is no need to ever specify.

To elaborate further, we can use the pain-pleasure continuum problem in an example. We may deem act X as morally wrong as it causes great pain. However some people lie on a scale whereby act X doesn’t cause pain to them, it causes pleasure, however they will forever be forbidden from experiencing act X due to our rule that it is wrong. Act utilitarianism – where actions are morally judged based on individual outcomes – shows the strength of utilitarianism by allowing for act x to be considered morally neutral in some cases, and morally abhorrent in others. Rule utilitarianism loses this by requiring an adherence to the rule forbidding act X.

Rule utilitarians may argue that they can merge the two forms of utilitarianism for the best outcome; creating rules which will allow for act X under certain circumstances, but that outlaw it in others. But then we have what I define as Rational Morality, not utilitarianism. This kind of pragmatic rule-making is neither act utilitarianism nor rule utilitarianism, it is a rational moral code whereby we roughly follow the guide of rational moral rules but continue to amend them based on maximising the well being of stakeholders in any individual action. We need not define morality as being about pain and pleasure, and then scratch around to find the exact figure for the subjective pain or pleasure which is being stimulated, in order to compare it with an ever more abstract ‘scale’ of pain and pleasure. This is what utilitarianism needlessly asks us to do. Rational Morality needs us only to argue and decide based on the well being of the individuals involved.

I hope this helps to clarify why I believe rule utilitarianism to be skirting around the right areas but yet not quite what rational morality is about.