IV. Teleological Ethical Theory

President Harry Truman had a difficult decision to make in 1945, near the close of World War II. The Japanese military refused to surrender even though it was quite clear that their defeat was inevitable. Truman's military advisors, however, were estimating that a land invasion of Japan might result in the deaths of as upwards of 1,000,000 American service men and prisoners of war, as well as many thousands of Japanese casualties, both civilian and military. There was another option: drop the atomic bomb on a Japanese city. Estimates of the deaths and injuries for such a drop were high, but not as high as the the estimates for land invasion. Truman, of course, made the choice to drop the bomb, first on Hiroshima, and then, when an offer of surrender did not materialize, a second bomb on Nagasaki. The gamble worked: the Japanese surrendered. But the cost was indeed horrific: two populous Japanese cities destroyed, with upwards of 200,000 Japanese civilians killed either immediately or by radiation poisoning.
      It is not difficult to understand Truman's thinking. Dropping the bomb had the potential to save lives. Thus, although dropping the bomb would certainly cause widespread death and destruction, and although it was far from certain that a land invasion would cause as many deaths as estimated, there was still a high probability, in Truman's view, that lives would be saved. Truman's decision remains one of the most controversial political decisions of recent times. Could further diplomatic efforts have brought about an offer of unconditional surrender without further bloodshed? Could a drop of the atomic bomb off the coast of Japan, or on an isolated military target, have convinced the Japanese of the futility of continuing the war without the horrible loss of life caused by the drops over Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What about the longer range risks of the nuclear arms race, that did eventually put the entire world at risk of nuclear holocaust? The issues are complex. But despite this, the principle behind the complexities of this ethical debate is quite straightforward: which alternative would bring about the end of the war in the least costly manner?
 

Teleological (Consequentialist) Ethics

The case of Truman's difficult decision reveals something important about the manner in which we make moral judgments in many situations: our judgments often boil down to thinking through the consequences of our actions, and doing what in the end we believe will bring about the greater good. Ethicists commonly call this approach to moral judgment "teleological ethics" (from the Greek roots telos = end or aim + logos = reason), or "consequentialism." The basic intuition behind teleological ethics is that the purpose of moral judgment is to bring about what is good in the world, and avoid what is bad or evil. The task of teleological ethical theory is to define in explicit terms the principle behind consequentialist moral judgment, and resolve some fundamental issues concerning its application.
      In this course, we will consider two consequentialist ethical theories: ethical egoism and utilitarianism. We will find that these two theories represent consequentialist moral judgment in quite distinct ways. The common ground of these theories, however, is the view that in moral judgment, the consequences are what matter, and are all that matter.
 

Ethical Egoism

Only a small minority of ethicists have considered ethical egoism to be a viable normative theory, and very often ethicists who on first glance appear to be offering an ethical egoist position turn out to be offering a version of rule utilitarianism instead (a theory we will be discussing below). Nonetheless, at times people do make decisions that are best represented by ethical egoist reasoning, and so it is worthwhile to consider the theory, if only as a way of understanding a common error of ethical reasoning.
      The ethical egoist makes this fundamental normative claim: all moral decisions should be made on the basis of a consideration of what serves the interests of the moral agent him or herself, that is, the person who is making the decision. Accordingly, the proper basis for moral judgment, for the ethical egoist, can be accurately expressed in the form of the following normative principle:
 
One ought to do whatever is in one's own best interests.
It is important to be clear about what the ethical egoism is not saying. First, the ethical egoist is not saying that we, as moral agents, ought to act selfishly, that is, that we should never promote the interests of others. Acting in the interests of others is quite consistent with ethical egoism, so long as acting in other people's interests is at the same time acting in one's own interests. Given the fact that very often what is good for others is also good for ourselves, it is a fair bet that an ethical egoist would do things in many circumstances that promote the interests of others.
      Second, an ethical egoist is not saying that a moral agent should do what he or she wants to do. Our desires are often inconsistent with our best interests, as is clear from the fact, for example, that many people desire to smoke even though they understand that smoking is not in their long-term interests with regard to their health. Rather, the proposed criterion for moral judgment for the ethical egoist is what is sometimes called "enlightened self-interest": the most reasonable judgment, in light of all available evidence, concerning what in fact will promote one's interests, both physically and psychologically.
      As we noted earlier, it is not enough simply to propose an ethical viewpoint; one must also offer an argument for why the ethical view should be accepted. So, why should we accept ethical egoism? The argument for ethical egoism is typically based on a factual theory of human motivation, sometimes called psychological egoism: the claim that in fact all voluntary action is motivated by the fundamental aim of achieving some good for oneself. According to psychological egoism, altruism is an illusion. We never truly act for the benefit of others. Those actions that appear to be altruistic always turn out, upon closer examination, to be motivated by self-interest. So the parent who suffers the economic burdens and the inevitable trials and tribulations of parenthood, in what appears to be a self-sacrificing manner, is really looking for their own self-satisfaction--such as the satisfaction of pride in the accomplishments of one's child. On the basis of this theory of human motivation, the ethical egoist concludes that we should, as a matter of moral obligation, seek our own interests.
      This argument for ethical egoism raises the issue of the naturalistic fallacy: isn't the ethical egoist fallaciously arguing for a normative claim on the basis of a descriptive claim? Clearly this is what the ethical egoist does. But against this charge, the ethical egoist might make this point: if it is true that we all in fact seek our own interests, it is unlikely that we could do anything else. Thus, even if one could reasonably suggest that we should seek some other aim as a basis for moral action, the suggestion would be pointless, since we simply could not follow it. Thus, the best we can do as moral agents is to seek to fulfill our own interests in the most reasonable and circumspect manner possible.
      This point is well taken only if psychological egoism is true. But there are good reasons to question whether it is true. One reason is the fact that there are countless cases on record of self-sacrifice: parents who sacrifice their well-being, at times their very lives, for the sake of their children; soldiers who in battle sacrifice themselves for the sake of their comrades in arms. These cases clearly suggest the implausibility of psychological egoism. Typically the psychological egoist will explain such cases by claiming that the aim of an apparent self-sacrifice is a feeling of satisfaction. as indicated above in regard to parenting. But in cases where someone sacrifices their life for the sake of others, we must conclude, if the psychological egoist is right, that the satisfaction that the person receives briefly before their death outweighs the satisfactions of living out their natural lives--a rather far-fetched idea.
      The error behind psychological egoism seems to be a confusion of wants and interests. It does appear to be true that we always do what we want to do in some sense of the word "want." When we claim that we do what we do not want to do, typically this refers to an unpleasant means that we utilize to achieve a wanted end. I might not want to go to the dentist, considering the experience in its own right. But I do want healthy teeth, and in the light of my understanding that the unpleasant experience of going to the dentist is necessary for dental health, I want to go to the dentist for the sake of the end. The same might be said of the self-sacrificing act. The self-sacrificing altruist does not want to die, but in light of the fact that one's own death is necessary to save others, the altruist might be said to want to sacrifice his or her own life for the sake of others. But now, psychological egoism fallaciously infers from the fact that we can understand all acts as proceeding from personal wants to the conclusion that all acts proceed from an assessment of personal interests. This inference is invalid deductively, and inductively there is little evidence to support it. People who sacrifice themselves for others may want, in the sense explained above, to sacrifice themselves, but this in no way implies that they have a personal interest in the sacrifice, or that they act from a perceived personal interest. The most straightforward way of interpreting such actions is that they are instances where people sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others. The psychological egoist, because of the confusion of wants and interests, searches for some manner of understanding the motives of such acts in terms of self-interest, and is led by faulty logic to the implausible explanations of self-satisfaction considered above.
      Ethical egoism, then, is based on a theory of human motivations that is quite implausible, and thus the theory itself has little to recommend its adoption. We should also note that if ethical egoism is not a viable ethical theory, then collective ethical egoism is equally unacceptable. Such a collective form of egoism would say that one ought simply to serve the common interests of one's social group, whether that group is one's community, one's religious denomination, or one's nation, irrespective of how one's actions affect people outside one's social group. If psychological egoism is false, then we can act for the interests of people outside our social group, and there is no basis for the claim that we ought not do so when the effects of our acts on those interests are significant. This leads us to the normative theory of utilitarianism.
 

Utilitarianism

The utilitarian, like the ethical egoist or the collective egoist, is a teleologist in approach: the utilitarian will claim that the moral status of what we do is determined by the consequences of what we do. But unlike the ethical egoist or collective egoist, the utilitarian will insist that the principle of equality should be applied to the interests of objects of moral concern. In other words, the interests of all objects of moral concern must be considered on an equal basis in all ethical deliberation. One's own interests, or the interests of people within one's own social group, should not be given a favored status over the interests of others. This is not to say that these interests are irrelevant to moral judgment. It would be as illegitimate to disregard one's own interests in moral judgment as it is to disregard the interests of others. The claim of the utilitarian is simply that the weight given to the personal or group interests of the moral agent in moral deliberation ought to be a function of the degree to which those interests are affected by the action under evaluation, not on the basis of who has those interests. Thus, if I am attempting to determine the moral status of my actions, and my interests will be affected by my actions to the same degree that the interests of each of nine other people are affected, then I ought to give my interests no greater weight in moral deliberation than the interests of any one of these other nine people.
      Why should we accept this view? Perhaps the best argument for utilitarianism is, simply, the failure of ethical egoism and collective egoism as viable ethical theories. If there is no basis, and as we saw there appears to be none, to claim within a teleological framework that we ought morally to favor our own interests or those of one's social group in moral judgment, then the correct moral viewpoint is that all interests should be treated with equal weight. Thus, the nonmoral value of the consequences of action for anyone who is affected by an action must be taken into account in moral judgment.
      The next step in the development of utilitarian theory is to consider what sorts of nonmoral values define our interests as objects of moral concern. In other words, what sorts of consequences provide the criterion by which we can decide the amount of good or evil that is produced by our actions. Classical utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham (1782-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-73) argued that the proper moral criterion was happiness, and that happiness can be understood as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. This view is sometimes called "hedonic utilitarianism" (from the Greek word hedone = pleasure). We should note that Bentham's and Mill's understanding of pleasure was quite broad. Any experience that we would call "pleasant" was considered pleasurable: listening to music, reading good literature, achieving success and satisfaction in one's career. Similarly, "pain" was used to describe any disagreeable experience, whether it involved physical pain or psychological pain, such as emotional anguish and disappointment. According to this view, then, a moral agent ought to aim at the production of pleasures and the alleviation of pains of whatever sort for anyone affected by the moral agent's actions.
      There are a number of problems with hedonic utilitarianism. One problem is that the view interprets pleasure and pain so broadly that the terms lose any meaningful reference to a specific aspect of experience that could be used to determine the value of our experience. The terms "pleasure" and "pain" are used meaningfully when they point to specific feelings within experience, such as physical pleasure and pain, that can be distinguished from other sorts of feelings. But when used as broadly as Bentham and Mill used them, the terms simply become synonyms for good and bad experience, and it becomes useless to employ them.
      G.E. Moore (1873-1958) argued that any attempt to define what constitutes good and bad experience commits the naturalistic fallacy, and is therefore pointless. The best that we can say with respect to the moral criterion for judgment under a utilitarian perspective is that moral agents should aim at the production of good experience, and the avoidance of bad experiences. This more recent viewpoint is often called "ideal utilitarianism," and it is currently the accepted viewpoint among most working utilitarian ethicists.
      We have considered an issue concerning the correct moral criterion for judgment within utilitarianism. There is another issue concerning how this criterion should be applied in moral judgment, an issue that has given rise to two distinct versions of utilitarian theory, commonly called act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism was the common approach among utilitarians up until the 1950s (although there is reason to believe that John Stuart Mill argued at times from a rule utilitarian perspective). Since then, rule utilitarianism has been adopted by some ethical theorists, so that today both theories are used in ethical discussions.
 

Act Utilitarianism

Act utilitarianism offers the most straightforward way of applying the utilitarian criterion of moral judgment. According to this view, the criterion should be applied to each individual action of a moral agent when determining the action's moral value (that is, whether the action is right or wrong, permissible or impermissible). This procedure of moral judgment can be expressed in what is commonly called the principle of utility, the basic normative principle of utilitarianism. This principle has been expressed in a number of different ways by utilitarian ethicists, but we might settle upon an expression of the principle that is consistent with ideal utilitarianism as follows.
One ought to seek to produce the greatest possible balance of good over evil, or the least possible balance of evil over good, for all who will be affected by one's actions.
     "Utility" is the technical term used by utilitarians to refer to the degree to which an action produces good and/or avoids evil. Thus if action A is productive of a greater good than action B, A is said to have a greater utility than B. Likewise, if A and B both produce evil, but A produces a lesser evil then B, then A is said again to have greater utility than B. Thus, returning to the example of Truman's dilemma, if it is the case that dropping the bomb cost fewer lives than a land invasion would have, dropping the bomb would be said to have had a greater utility than a land invasion.
      According to act utilitarianism, then, the moral value of an action is determined by, or is a function of, the nonmoral value that will be produced by the action for all parties affected in comparison with the nonmoral value that is produced by all alternative actions that a moral agent might take in a given moral situation. It is important to stress, here, that determining the moral value of an action according to act utilitarianism requires a consideration of all available alternatives. An action is not right or obligatory simply because it produces good consequences. Nor is an action necessarily wrong if it produces bad consequences. The key to moral judgment is to weigh the relative utility of alternatives. Thus, an action that produces good consequences can, upon examination, be morally wrong or impermissible if there is some alternative that produces a greater good; and, as in the example of Truman's decision, an action that produces evil consequences can be morally right or obligatory if it produces the lesser evil of all alternatives available to a moral agent.
 

Applying Act Utilitarianism

To avoid confusion, it is important to sort out a couple of different issues that can be addressed from a utilitarian perspective. One issue, the issue that is our primary focus in this course, is the reasonable determination of the moral value of an action in a moral situation. This is the question of moral obligation that is pertinent in deliberation: What among all alternative actions is the right action to perform in a moral situation? The answer, from the perspective of act utilitarianism, is that the right, or obligatory, action is the one that will produce the best possible consequences, as we have seen.
      Another somewhat different question that can be addressed from an act utilitarian perspective is the question of moral responsibility: Is a moral agent who has already performed an action morally responsible for the action, that is, is it reasonable to blame, or praise, the agent for their action. We will consider in some greater detail the basis for such judgments later on in the course. We should note here, however, that it is fallacious, from an act utilitarian perspective, to determine the moral responsibility of an agent based on information that was unavailable to the agent at the time they made their decision. The crucial point is summed up in the traditional proverb "Hindsight is 20/20." An action that a given moral agent reasonably believes will produce the best possible consequences could very well turn out to have disastrous consequences. It would be unjust, however, to blame a moral agent for an action the consequences of which the agent could not possibly foresee. Consequently, in determining moral responsibility from an act utilitarian perspective it is important that a judgment be made in light of the information available at the time, and such a judgment might be quite different from the one that we would make from the privileged standpoint of hindsight of what action was actually the right one to take. For example, considering Harry Truman's dilemma, it would be quite consistent upon act utilitarianism to make the judgment on hindsight that it was wrong to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, but that Truman should not be blamed for taking the wrong action since he could not have foreseen the ultimate consequences of his action.
      Returning, now, to the issue of moral deliberation, what should a moral agent do when faced with a moral dilemma? The answer of act utilitarianism is that the moral agent should do that which, in light of all available evidence and information, the moral agent determines, in their best judgment, is the morally right action--the action that will produce the best consequences for all concerned. Moral judgment, then, is a risky business. We can never be certain, given our less than perfect foresight, of what the consequences of our actions will be. Still, we do constantly predict the consequences of our actions, and we do believe that these predictions can be made reasonably in light of past experience. When I go to the store, I predict that there will be food available there to purchase for my dinner. When I decide to go to college, I predict based on available statistics that over the course of my working life the choice is the right one to make from the standpoint of future earnings. The act utilitarian will argue that in moral judgment as well, reasonable predictions can be made, and thus although such judgments always will be uncertain, they can still be reasonable.
      Invariably, because of the relative uncertainty of prediction, moral judgment from an act utilitarian perspective involves considering the relative probabilities of the consequences of our actions. In some cases, when accurate statistics are available, the mathematics of probability can provide a precise way of dealing with these issues. Thus if a state legislature is considering whether to raise the speed limit on highways by five miles per hour, statistics showing death rates from automobile accidents as a function of the legal speed limit can be used to determine the probability that the death rate in accidents will rise by a certain amount if the speed limit is raised.
      In most moral situations, accurate statistics will not be available, in which case a moral agent will need to rely on a less precise, intuitive sense of probabilities. Though intuitive assessments of probabilities are imprecise, they still can be reasonably made based on the available evidence of past experience. It is reasonable to judge, for example, that there is a greater probability that the grocery store I go to will have lettuce available for purchase than, say, imported Camembert cheese. Likewise, in moral judgment, it is far more likely that an accident victim will survive an accident if I call for help and render what first aid I can than if I simply ignore the victim and hope that a police officer notices him soon. Thus act utilitarianism would justify the guidance of the principle of beneficence in such an instance.
      Whether or not precise calculations of probability are possible, act utilitarianism places upon any moral agent the derivative obligation to seek any and all available evidence or information that is relevant to determining the probable consequences of one's action, and consider in a serious and conscientious manner, in light of this information, what the probable consequences of one's actions will be. To do anything less would constitute a forfeiture of one's obligations as a moral agent to make the best judgment possible. Thus, if Truman had failed to seek the best expert advice concerning the probable consequences of dropping the atomic bomb as opposed to ground invasion--if he decided on a whim to drop the bomb--he could be blamed for moral negligence based on act utilitarian principles, even if his action turned out to be the right one.
 

Rule Utilitarianism

What is wrong with act utilitarianism? A number of problems with the view have been cited by supporters of rule utilitarianism, but one of the most serious charges cited is that in certain situations act utilitarianism justifies actions that from an ordinary, commonsensical perspective are typically regarded as immoral. The reason for this is simply that such actions, under certain circumstances, can turn out to have the best consequences. Consider, for example, a person who enjoys the music of Beethoven and decides to shoplift a CD of Beethoven's music from a large and prosperous record store. He takes the CD home, plays it for hours and hours, which provides him pure enjoyment. He also plays it for the Beethoven Society, of which he is a member, which delights the members of the Society. The store, of course, has lost the ten dollars they would have received for the goods. The owners can recover their loss by raising prices, and if we distribute the lost revenue of the one stolen CD over the thousands of customers that buy CDs at the store, the rise in price required to recoup the loss from this one instance of shoplifting is minuscule. It's quite arguable, then, from an act utilitarian perspective not only to conclude that this act of shoplifting was permissible, but that it was morally obligatory in light of the great pleasure it provided the shoplifter and his friends.
      This conclusion is clearly not in accord with common moral viewpoints. Most people regard shoplifting as not only illegal, but morally wrong. Does this mean that utilitarianism is fundamentally flawed? The rule utilitarian will say no. The point we should make in this case, according to this revised form of utilitarianism, is that even though the consequences of this individual act of shoplifting may be favorable, the overall consequences of the practice of shoplifting are not at all favorable. Returning to our example, the cost of recouping the loss of revenue of the one CD to each of the thousands of customers of the CD store might indeed be quite small. But what if everyone stole their CDs? Then the store would fold, the music companies who produce CDs would go out of business, and no recorded music would be available to anyone. Not a pleasant prospect for the music lover. Thus if shoplifting were common, the consequences would be quite unacceptable, which justifies the claim that any given act of shoplifting CDs is morally unacceptable.
      Now, general practices within society are governed and controlled by the means of rules. Some such rules are codified into law. The rules of the road, for example, govern the general practice of driving. Other rules that govern general practices are informally adopted by people within society. There are no laws against rude behavior, but it is generally accepted that one should not be rude to others. Still other rules are adopted formally within some specific social group to govern the practices of the members of the group. For example, many professional organizations have adopted codes of ethics that govern the general practice of people working within those professions.
      Since general practices are governed by rules, and their consequences determine the moral value of actions, for a rule utilitarian, then the consequences of the general adoption and observance of certain rules must be considered to determine the moral status of actions. We can modify the principle of utility to express this procedure of moral deliberation as follows.
One ought to act according to those rules of action which, if generally adopted, will produce the greatest possible balance of good over evil, or the least balance of evil over good.
     A couple of points should be made here to avoid misunderstanding. First, the rule utilitarian is not claiming that the existing rules adopted within society determine the moral status of actions. There is no guarantee that the rules that are currently in place will produce the best consequences for all, and considering the suffering that has been caused by tyrannical governments historically, it is quite clear that mistakes can be made in the social adoption of rules. Rather, what we need to consider in moral judgment is what rules or sets of rules would produce the best outcomes. If such rules are not in place, this is a justifiable basis for an ethical indictment of present society based on rule utilitarian principles. Secondly, the rule utilitarian is not claiming that the ethical status of actions are dependent upon the accepted practices within a society. This would be moral conventionalism, a fallacy that the rule utilitarian would avoid as any other ethicist. An action that violates accepted forms of practice is morally justified, under rule utilitarianism, if the rule governing that action would lead to better consequences, if adopted, than currently accepted practices.
 

Applying Rule Utilitarianism

Rule utilitarianism broadens the focus of moral deliberation and ethical discussion considerably when compared to act utilitarianism. The central concern here is not the narrow consequences of the particular acts of individual moral agents, but the more encompassing and long-range consequences of social practices observed by all moral agents within society. Thus the issue is not what will happen if I do such and such, but what will happen if everyone as a rule did such and such, as compared to other forms of accepted practice.
      Consider an example. One current issue in biomedical ethics (the ethics of the medical sciences) that has arisen in recent decades concerns when it is morally permissible, if ever, to take a brain-dead patient off life-sustaining equipment. The issue gained notoriety in the early 1970s from the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, a woman who was in a persistent vegetative state as the result of an automobile accident, and whose family brought suit against her doctors to force them to take her off life-sustaining equipment, an action known as "passive euthanasia" in ethical discussion. How would a rule utilitarian address this issue? First, we should note again that the issue under rule utilitarianism is not about the probable consequences of any single case, such as the Karen Ann Quinlan case. Rather, the pertinent issue for ethical discussion concerns the probable consequences of alternative forms of general practice that might be adopted in all cases of patients who are in a persistent vegetative state. We could, then, couch the issue in these terms: Would it be better for society in the long run if patients in a persistent vegetative state were passively euthanized at the request of their families as opposed to outlawing this practice? Considering the question in this manner, we must take into account the grief that is often experienced by families who have essentially lost a loved one to severe brain damage, but where the body of the loved one is kept alive by artificial means. We also have to consider the potential risks that we take if we allow such patients to die: Could some patients whose cases are not hopeless, who might recover, be mistakenly allowed to die if passive euthanasia is allowed in cases of persistent vegetative state?
      Actually, the issues are not quite this simple. To fully address the question from a rule utilitarian perspective, we must consider not simply the alternatives of outlawing or allowing passive euthanasia in such cases, but all viable alternatives concerning different rule-governed procedures that might be utilized in handling such cases. We must consider, for example, the possibility of requiring that such cases be brought before a board of medical experts to assure that patients whose condition is not hopeless are not mistakenly euthanized. Perhaps the further safeguard of a hearing in a court of law should be required in such cases. Any and all viable alternatives must be considered if the ethical analysis of the issue is to be thorough based on a rule utilitarian approach.
      This moral issue raises another complication that might require consideration when applying rule utilitarianism. Many people in society today believe, on the basis of religious convictions or traditional ethical viewpoints, that human life is sacred. For such people the taking of any human life, even in cases of brain death, is morally wrong. People who have these views might be greatly distressed or aggrieved if passive euthanasia were allowed in such cases. Should the rule utilitarian take such moral sentiments into account as one possible negative consequence of permitting passive euthanasia in such cases? What is curious about this issue, of course, is that the sentiments at issue are ones that are a result of a moral viewpoint on precisely the ethical issue under consideration.
      A rule utilitarian cannot consistently rule out the consideration of any negative effects of the implementation of a certain rule or practice within society. Because of this, a rule utilitarian is bound by their position to consider even the moral sentiments of people who would be opposed to such implementation. The important point to consider, however, from a rule utilitarian perspective is that it is not only the immediate consequences of the implementation of a certain social practice that must be considered, but the long-range consequences as well. Moral sentiments do change over time, and often they change as a result of major changes in social policy and practice. Years ago, before the establishment of women's political and economic rights, many men, and indeed some women, believed that women should not be accorded equal rights in society as a matter of traditional practice and moral principle. No doubt such people were greatly disturbed by the gradual advancement of women's rights in society. But such attitudes have diminished considerably over time. Few believe today that it is morally objectionable for women to play an equal role in society--quite to the contrary, most people regard the denial of equal rights for women as a social injustice. And few would deny that the economic and social opportunities now open to women have benefited the lives of women generally, and society as a whole. Thus history gives us good reason to believe that when reasonable changes in social policies and practices are instituted, any negative feelings arising out of conservative moral viewpoints are relatively short-lived compared to the long-term benefits of these changes. In light of this, concerns regarding negative moral sentiments diminish quite significantly in rule utilitarian ethical evaluation.
      In closing our discussion of rule utilitarianism, we should note that many of the points we considered above pertaining to the application of act utilitarianism apply in a similar manner to the application of rule utilitarianism as well. Again, with rule utilitarianism, as with act, we inevitably must deal with the uncertainties of predictions, but in this case predictions concerning the effects of the social institution of rules. Again, as with act utilitarianism, we will need to deal with such uncertainties by weighing the relative probabilities of uncertain outcomes. The rule utilitarian again will presume that such assessments can be made reasonably--not in itself an unreasonable presumption, since lawmakers assess the probable outcomes of the institution of socially adopted rules, namely laws, all the time. In the application of rule utilitarianism, as with the act formulation of the theory, the aim of moral deliberation is to make the most informed and intelligent assessment of outcomes possible, and base moral decisions on this assessment.
 

Act or Rule Utilitarianism?

What is the better theory, act or rule utilitarianism? Teleological ethicists have debated this question, and no doubt this debate will continue. Resolving theoretical issues in ethics can be an extraordinarily complicated affair, as anyone who works within the field knows all too well. Theoretical discussion is indeed important (most of what I have said above is the product of long ethical discussion and debate within the field of ethics), but we need not resolve the theoretical issues once and for all to make use of these theories, since it is quite clear even from the rudimentary discussion of the theories offered above that both theories offer significant tools of ethical reasoning and analysis that enable us to articulate and justify moral positions on a great variety of ethical questions.
      Rule utilitarianism makes very good sense in addressing moral issues, such as the issue of shoplifting we considered earlier, where isolated individual actions might provide overall benefits for objects of moral concern, but where such actions, when generalized to socially acceptable practices, can have quite detrimental effects. On the other hand, act utilitarianism makes much better sense as the guiding basis of moral evaluation in cases where an action brought under moral evaluation is so unique, with respect to the nature of the action itself or the circumstances in which it would be taken, that it is difficult or impossible to articulate a rule that could apply over a sufficient number of cases so that the consequences of its implementation can be assessed. It might be the case, for example, that the historical circumstances under which Truman had to decide whether to drop the atomic bomb or not were so unprecedented and unique in character that there is little chance that a set of circumstances that are similar in a morally relevant sense will ever be encountered again. Historians have often argued that, although we can take many lessons from history, some historical situations are so unique that they cannot be considered or explained except on a case by case basis. If this is true of Truman's dilemma, then act utilitarianism is clearly the preferable theory for moral guidance.
      There are also those isolated cases where we believe that exceptions to generally acceptable and warranted rules are justified. In such cases, an act utilitarian approach provides a sensible direction to take in developing a moral argument for the exception. On the other hand, rule utilitarianism offers a potential basis for criticism of any justification of such an exception. The pertinent issue is whether such an exception, if allowed, would itself undermine the authority of a valuable social rule or policy. Recently, for example, some ethicists and legal scholars have argued that because of the solid and expanding evidence suggesting the existence of the so-called "battered wife syndrome" (where women who have been battered repeatedly by their husbands lose the ability to think sensibly about their relationship with their batterers and ways to end the relationship), leniency should be shown in cases where women have murdered their abusive husbands. If it is the case, as has been argued, that such women pose little if any danger to the public, and paroling them or offering them leniency initially upon conviction will enable these women to repair their emotional wounds and get on with life, then act utilitarianism can provide a basis for leniency offered on a case by case basis. But then, from a rule utilitarian perspective, one issue that should be considered is whether granting such leniency undermines or weakens the authority of the legal and moral condemnation of murder underwritten by the rule of law. If it can be reasonably argued that this might be the case, then this, at least to some degree, weakens the strength of the act utilitarian endorsement of leniency.
      No hard and fast rules can be offered, unfortunately, to determine when the use of one theory over another is warranted as the basis of moral deliberation. Moral issues can be complex, and novel moral situations arise that can require new and creative approaches to ethical deliberation, even to such basic questions as what normative ethical theory makes sense in a given moral situation. Thus the suggestions offered here as to when act vs. rule utilitarianism make sense can be only suggestions or at best rules of thumb. As with any complex set of issues, although rules of thumb are useful, and might hold true in most cases, we must always be open to the possibility that they may fail, in which case we have no choice but to remarshal the best of our creative energies to deal with the ever surprising, and at times troubling, contingencies and perplexities of human life. 

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