Word for Wednesday: Rule-Consequentialism definition
This is a followup to my earlier posts on consequentialism/utilitarianism. A notable debate in the literature on this topic is on whether, from a consequentialist or utilitarian perspective, it is best to try always to choose the action with the best consequences (act-consequentialism) or whether to try to find those general rules which, on average, yield the best consequences, and follow those rules even when in particular cases, they yield bad consequences (rule-consequentialism).
In the consideration of consequentialism as an ethical philosophy for individuals, rule-consequentialism is often used a device to get around ‘hard cases’ for utilitarianism like the ‘organ-transplant’ example I discussed (and debunked) a few days ago.
This gambit clearly fails. Any proposed general rule is dominated by the rule “Do whatever action yields the best consequences” and any specific rule yielding bad consequences in some particular situation can always be modified to specify a better action in that situation.
But the situation is totally different when we consider utilitarianism/consequentialism as a public philosophy (which I’ve argued is the only sensible role for utilitarianism). The example of speeding, which has been debated in recent posts, is an ideal illustration. Given the complexity of road situations, the prefect policy would be for every driver to drive in a way that yielded the socially optimal tradeoff between travel time and safety.
But as the discussion has revealed
(a) Many people are going to put more weight on their own convenience than on the safety of others
(b) Most people overestimate their own competence
(c) Safety is enhanced if everyone travels at the same speed
What this means is that, with some exceptions (medical emergencies etc) it is best to settle on a fixed speed limit and enforce it than to allow drivers to make their own judgements. These problems (self-interest, cognitive biases and co-ordination problems) are ubiquitous in public policy problems, and imply that there is frequently a strong case for rules rather than discretion [in Milton Friedman's phrase].
Does this argument force consequentialists into the position of accepting Kant’s categorical imperative “”Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”? Only in the trivial sense that utilitarianism and related forms of consequentialism treat all people equally “each to count for one, and none to count for more than one” in Bentham’s phrase. Hence, considered as a general rule, utilitarianism is consistent with the categorical imperative.
At the level of specifics, though, it is sometimes desirable to have rules and co-ordination, and sometimes desirable to have discretion and diversity. The only sensible way to decide which case is which is on the basis of consequences.
Consider the proposed rules
“Drive on the left-hand side of the road”
“Go to work at precisely 8:00 AM”
In the first case, we’d better hope that everyone follows the same rule (there’s a nice joke about a country -insert your favorite dumb country here- converting to right-hand drive on a staged basis, trucks first). In the second case, any rule of this kind would be a recipe for chaos.
I should mention that there’s more on this over at Catallaxy. Jason Soon, a fellow-economist, supports rule-consequentialism as a basis for public policy. Meanwhile Jack Strocchi’s Machiavellian/Hobbesian position is an extreme form of act-consequentialism.