Arnold Kling  

Soft Rule-Utilitarianism

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In my follow-up to James Manzi's manifesto, I brought up a notion that I call soft rule-utilitarianism. In the comments, Manzi interpreted this as being close to what I would call hard rule-utilitarianism.

Suppose we are soldiers on patrol and a grenade lands in the middle of us. If I dive away from the grenade, I will avoid major injuries, but many of my fellow soldiers will die. If I dive onto the grenade, everyone else will be saved but I will die. A hard rule-utilitarian would say that I should dive onto the grenade. What I am calling a soft rule-utilitarian would dive away.

X is a soft rule-utilitarian if X is willing to make a small sacrifice in a situation where similar sacrifices by everyone can benefit X. Diving on the grenade is too much of a sacrifice.

A soft rule-utilitarian might refrain from donating to help the people suffering in a distant country. A hard utilitarian would make the donation. A soft rule-utilitarian says, "Even if a lot of people donate to the distant sufferers, that will not benefit me, so I will not do it."

My point is not to hold up the soft rule-utilitarian as a paragon of virtue. On the contrary, my point is to say that soft rule-utilitarianism can be a realistic expectation. On the other hand, as Manzi suggests, assuming that individuals are as virtuous as what I call hard utilitarians amounts to assuming away the problem of social cohesion.

My soft rule-utilitarian might be called self-interested with an understanding that following rules can be a good idea. Perhaps rule-self-interested would be a more informative label.

To take another example, my daughter who was in Tanzania last summer made the observation that when an African on his way to some destination bumps into a friend, the African is much more likely than an American to interrupt his errand and spend hours talking with the friend. On the one hand, that is charming. On the other hand, this makes Africans relatively unreliable in terms of showing up on time, and that in turn creates problems for efficiency and productivity, because timeliness is a basic element of coordination. The rule "show up on time" is consistent with soft rule-utilitarianism. It involves a relatively small sacrifice, and having everyone follow it makes me better off.

The example I gave in the earlier entry of not pulling onto the shoulder to gain an advantage in a traffic jam has the same properties. I do not sacrifice very much by staying in my lane, and I definitely benefit if everyone does the same.

I am dwelling on this issue because I think it helps to pin down the notion of social cohesion. We have social cohesion when people follow rules that produce large benefits when they are widely followed, even though following the rules can involve minor short-term sacrifices . We have a loss of social cohesion when people lose their willingness to follow such rules.

For example, I believe that following the rule of not using four-letter words has some advantages. Restraining oneself from cursing helps to show respect for others, and if everyone exercises such restraint, then everyone feels more respected. This rule has broken down over the past several decades. I do not think that this breakdown is a major tragedy, but I think it represents a small reduction in social cohesion. Note that I do not think that anything would be gained by government coercing people into restraining their use of four-letter words. But I am sympathetic to enforcement in other contexts, such as parents enforcing rules against cursing by their children.

Other rules are clearly more important. If people stop believing in showing up on time, that would represent a big drop in social cohesion. If people decide to practice ethnic discrimination in their everyday economic transactions, that would represent a big drop in social cohesion. Incidentally, by the same token, "buy local" represents a drop in social cohesion.

What I want to get away from is idle speculation of the sort, "If we allow economic inequality to grow, we will lose social cohesion." Instead, I want pundits to have to specifiy the types of rules that people are likely to stop following if economic inequality increases, and to provide evidence for the belief that those rules will break down.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
pamela jsw writes:

I understand why you're calling this moral theory of yours "rule utilitarianism," but I feel the need to point out that it bears very little resemblance to the academic philosophy of "rule utilitarianism."

Your position:
"X is a soft rule-utilitarian if X is willing to make a small sacrifice in a situation where similar sacrifices by everyone can benefit X. Diving on the grenade is too much of a sacrifice... My soft rule-utilitarian might be called self-interested with an understanding that following rules can be a good idea. Perhaps rule-self-interested would be a more informative label."

Rule utilitarianism:
An act is permissible/obligatory if and only if it is permitted/required by the set of rules which, when internalized and followed by all or almost all people, would produce the greatest net happiness.

Soft rule-utilitarianism should therefore perhaps be renamed. Actually, the description of your view is, as given here, apparently compatible with plain old ethical egoism, which is itself fully consistent with rule following in the pursuit of self-interest.

John Jenkins writes:

It's been a long time for me, but I don't believe that any species of utilitarianism admits the existence of supererogatory acts: an act is either required or prohibited.

As noted, however, this isn't any species of utilitarianism at all, so it doesn't matter.

Even if you tried to save it by having X's action, when taken by everyone, would benefit everyone, it ends up more Kantian than utilitarian.

I agree with pamela that Prof. Kling is describing egoism, but I think he is taking the position that psychological egoism is true, not that ethical egoism is right.

pamela jsw writes:

This is a good distinction (from John Jenkins above):

"I think he is taking the position that psychological egoism is true, not that ethical egoism is right."

I think there are interpretations of the post on which he makes both claims.

The comment that a soft rule utilitarian is not the paragon of virtue suggests that, as a general rule, people are in fact soft rule utilitarians (or, psychological egoism is true), imperfect though that standard may be.

The parts about social cohesion (which is presumably a value often worth pursuing) suggest that it is morally required or morally praiseworthy to act in accordance with soft rule utilitarianism (by refraining from swearing, or by upholding norms about timeliness).

Perhaps we just need to hear more about to what extent soft rule utilitarianism (or rule following egoism) is descriptive and to what extent it is prescriptive.

pamela jsw writes:

PS to John -

Just FYI, there are some new arguments that utilitarianism does/can permit a category of supererogatory acts. See especially the papers of Douglas Portmore, especially Dual-Ranking Act Consequentialism:

http://www.public.asu.edu/~dportmor/papers.htm

This work is controversial, however.

fundamentalist writes:

I think it's interesting that those who fear loss of social cohesion are completely unaware of the historical fact that socialism, not inequality, caused all of the breakdown in social cohesion in the 20th century

Kamry writes:

It seems like quite often the self-interested thing to do would be to free ride on existing social cohesion while disobeying inconvenient rules whenever one can avoid stigmatization for doing so.

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