Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Not the Idea of Bullshit but the Thing Itself

My mind has been in turmoil since I made my last foray into the dark, vaguely alimentary passages of normative philosophy. [Is this a gay joke or a normative-philosophy-is-shit joke? -Ed. Why can't it be both?]

Here's the problem. Once you embrace rule utilitarianism, it seems as though you have abandoned consequentialism. And so it has become nearly impossible for me to draw a line between rule utilitarianism and other non-consequentialist normative philosophies. I mean, sure, the literal distinction is that those philosophies don't purport to maximize utility on average, though many of them may beat act utilitarianism when it comes to utility-maximization.

But so imagine that you are trying to use rule utilitarianism to convince someone to keep a promise when the consequences will be unobservable (and therefore will have no impact on future promise-making and -keeping). Try it! I, for one, almost immediately start invoking words like "fairness" and "duty" and "advantage-taking."

But it doesn't stop there. Rule utilitarianism must take into account the world inhabited by the moral actor. [Paul Newman? -Ed.] Lots of moral rules are utility-maximizing only if everyone else is doing them. Should you keep promises when no one else does? Or imagine a world in which everyone keeps promises made on the 5th day of each month, but otherwise cheats with abandon (it's kind of fun to imagine a world like that, actually - busy day for lawyers I think). You probably shouldn't take advantage by keeping only promises made on the 10th, even though a priori that would be just as good a moral rule.

And but so! Rule utilitarianism now has to deal with the interaction between ideal, a priori utility-maximizing rules and the real world. Whereas act utilitarianism merely has to take laws and social customs into account, rule utilitarianism has to re-run the whole simulation. And I'm pretty sure you get a coastline-length problem - you have to decide the scope of your analysis before you can ask meaningful questions about the ideal rules.

Luckily this can all be safely ignored because it is bullshit. Interesting to think about, though.


Anonymous St. Oat said...

You seem to be retreading Part 1 of "Raisins and Parsons."

10:47 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

If you're going to go spelunking, you should at least bring a headlamp. If you're really in turmoil, I cannot solve your problems, sir; only you can. But you might want to read something such as this: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism-rule/ Your cave is not exactly an unexplored one.

9:17 AM  
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