The Principle of Utility, ILS Rules, and Pragmatism

For present purposes, I will stress just three things about Harean two-level utilitarianism. (For a more detailed treatment, see Varner 2012.) The first is that it does endorse “the greatest happiness principle” as its ultimate ethical principle. But the second is that a utilitarian needs a system of rules for the conduct of everyday life, a system of rules many of which will be decidedly non-utilitarian. One reason that a utilitarian needs such a system of non-utilitarian rules is that a world full of people whose relationships were at every moment mediated by conscious calculations about what would maximize aggregate happiness would be a world without the selfless love that most people find to be one of the greatest sources of human happiness. So although it sounds ironic, a utilitarian—who thinks that ultimately the right thing to do is to maximize aggregate happiness—has good reason to train herself and others not to think like a utilitarian all of the time.

Something like this is what Mill had in mind when he said that a utilitarian needs “secondary principles” or “corollaries from the principle of utility” that “admit of indefinite improvement” ([1861] 1957, 31). In his capstone work, Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point (1981), Hare called these “intuitive level rules,” and he gave several more reasons that a utilitarian would need to rely on them. One is that extremely detailed information would often be needed to fully work out the utility calculus, and real-world humans usually do not have all of the relevant information. A related reason is that real-world humans have limited data-processing abilities and make mistakes. A third is that humans are inclined, as Hare put it, to “cook the data” in favor of self-i nterest; that is, to fool themselves into thinking that what they happen to want to do is what will also maximize aggregate happiness (38). The fourth and final reason that Hare mentioned for a utilitarian needing “secondary principles” is for use in the moral education of young children (35).

Hare argued that the rules in this system must have certain features. First, for purposes of early moral education, some of them need to be relatively simple to formulate in words. And to combat our tendency—even as adults—to “cook the data” in favor of self-interest, many of these rules must be learned in a way that produces both a habitual disposition to judge in accordance with them, and also diffidence, hesitance, or wariness about violating them. For these reasons, Hare spoke interchangeably of intuitive level “principles” or “rules” on the one hand, and “habits of thought,” “dispositions,” or “motivations” on the other, and he spoke of all those as being “absorbed” or “inculcated” as much as being “taught.” In that vein, I refer to intuitive level rules as being “internalized” rather than “learned” or “accepted.”

I use the expression “ILS rules” to refer to the rules in such an intuitive level system. The acronym seems appropriate because in aviation it stands for the “instrument landing system” that pilots use to approach a runway when weather prevents them from seeing it, and for a Harean utilitarian, the intuitive level system of rules functions as a kind of “moral autopilot.” In the same way that an instrument landing system has to be reprogrammed to find runways as some airports are closed and new ones are built, ILS rules must be updated over time, as our understanding of the world we live in changes. And, Hare emphasized, since people in modern societies play various different roles in which they face different kinds of moral challenges, ILS rules will be clustered in several different subsystems.

One subsystem of ILS rules I refer to as “common morality,” by which I mean a community’s shared system of moral commitments. Some authors use the term “common morality” more narrowly, to refer to a smaller number of moral commitments that are found in all human societies, but Hare described what I am calling common morality as changing across generations. As such, it must consist of a larger number of moral commitments that are generally shared by the members of a given society at a given time in its history. Obviously there are issues associated with individuating societies and their corresponding common moralities, and with just how universal agreement about a norm has to be within a society for it to count as part of the common morality. For present purposes, however, I will not pursue those issues here.

From a Harean perspective, statute laws and other legally binding standards are another type of ILS rules that also reflect shared normative commitments, but laws contrast with common morality in important ways. Laws are normally written down in documents that are agreed to be their official repositories, while the common morality of a modern society typically has no canonical statement. And while there are official, formal processes for working out ambiguities in legal standards and amending them over time, there typically are no such processes for interpreting the standards of common morality and amending them over time. Indeed, of the rules of common morality, Hare said that one may have internalized ILS rules that one cannot adequately formulate in words. I would add that it is hard to say exactly how the rules of common morality change over time. This is because there is no formal process for amending them, and a wide range of factors contributes to changes in common morality over time: popular literature, film, television, and art; political discussions in the press, on radio and television, and around dinner tables; church authorities’, celebrities’, and public intellectuals’ pontifications; blog posts, viral videos, iconic posters, and photographs; and on and on.

Another important category of ILS rules is codes of professional ethics. These differ from both common morality and statute laws in that they are seen as binding only on a proper subset of a community, namely members of the profession in question. From a Harean perspective, this narrower focus is required because people in different roles face different kinds of moral challenges in the normal course of their lives, and this is why codes of professional ethics both differ in substantial ways and have some overlap. For instance, many codes of professional ethics discuss things like plagiarism, co-authorship, and so on, because many different professions engage in scholarship. On the other hand, most codes of professional ethics say nothing about non-combatant immunity and the conduct of high-speed chases, because professionals other than soldiers and police do not normally engage in combat and high-speed chases. Like laws, however, codes of professional ethics are normally written down in canonical form, and there are formal processes that professional organizations use for interpreting them and amending them across time.

For a Harean two-level utilitarian, there are still some roles that explicitly utilitarian thinking (which Hare referred to as “critical level” moral thinking) should play in our lives. One is to guide the interpretation and amendment of ILS rules over time. For a set of ILS rules is better to the extent that it would increase aggregate happiness if internalized by “the target population” (be that all the members of a society or some subset of professionals), so in interpreting and amending ILS rules, a Harean utilitarian engages in explicitly utilitarian reasoning. Hare said that explicitly utilitarian moral thinking is also required in new or very unusual cases that ILS rules cannot be designed to cover, and when ILS rules conflict, although there are reasons to believe that such cases will be rarer than might first appear. Hare also recognized that in some cases that existing ILS rules are designed to cover, there may be times when one should, after some careful and explicitly utilitarian thinking, act contrary to those rules because both (a) it is clear that doing so will maximize aggregate happiness under the circumstances, and (b) the person justifiably believes that he or she can trust their judgment that (a) is true. Hare emphasized that in such cases, one has not properly internalized the ILS rule in question unless one feels some guilt or at least disquiet about acting contrary to it. Critics have thought that this “self-effacing” quality of the principle of utility raises serious questions about the coherence and plausibility of two-level utilitarianism, but any thorough treatment of that issue is beyond the scope of this essay, so suffice it to say that here again, there are reasons to believe that such cases will be rarer than might first appear (for more, see Varner 2012,


The third thing I want to stress about Harean two-level utilitarianism is that it has a pragmatic bent. For each generation finds itself immersed in a society with a set of institutions and practices defined by the system of laws, codes of professional ethics, and common morality that it has inherited from previous generations. The questions for each generation are, What changes to those sets of ILS rules would improve things, and which changes can we effect in our lifetimes? A Harean utilitarian advocates changes in ILS rules on the grounds that the changes will help increase aggregate happiness of all those affected, but the starting place is the system of rules that we have collectively inherited from the previous generation.

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