Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Rule (of thumb) Utilitarianism

I'm not a political philosopher. I'm interested in the subject mainly because you need to know a bit about it when you start to confront the 'what is good?', 'why is it good?' types of questions associated with international development.

Not being a political philosopher, I'm always slightly nervous writing about issues of political philosophy either because I'll make some sort of glaring error, or because I'll present something as my own that was long ago thought up by someone else.

Nevertheless, having explained in some detail what I'm against I thought I'd better at least sketch what I'm for - as a reference point if nothing else.

I am, at least for the time being, an adherent of some form of Utilitarianism: that is, the right course of action is that which leads to the greatest good (well being, happiness, something like that) for the greatest number of people.

The main reason for my position is because I simply can't think of any deontological principal that I wouldn't be willing to break if not breaking it lead to horrific consequences (i.e. absolute property rights in a situation where maintaining them for a few led to a famine for the many).

So to me Utilitarianism is the least worst political philosophy*.

Humans aren't Delphic though; we can't necessarily tell when we make certain choices what will lead to the greatest good. For this reason I'm not an act utilitarian.

Instead my beliefs map to some form of rule-utilitarianism. We need to devise rules which we ought not break; these rules should be based on what we think is mostly likely to maximise wellbeing.

For this reason I support human rights. Not because I believe that such rights are absolute and inalienable but because all the evidence of history shows us that when a core set of rights are violated on a large scale significant suffering results.

At the same time I can't think of any set of rules which I wouldn't want to modify when more information came to light or which I wouldn't want the flexibility to break in extreme circumstances. (For example, if depriving one person of their human rights were necessary to save the lives of hundreds of others I would be in favour of this).

For this reason I think the best name for my own half-baked preferred political philosophy is 'rule of thumb utilitarianism'.

The one final point I wanted to note here is that, while I am not an negative utilitarian, I do think that it is worth focusing on reducing suffering rather than increasing happiness per se simply because, in a practical sense, suffering is much easier to identify and quantify.

* That I have any real understanding of.

[Update: Argh! withing 1 minute of posting this I've just read on the wikipedia that believing in rles of thumb makes me an act utilitarian - oh well]

1 comment:

Matt Nolan said...


I agree with what you have to say, I just wanted to suggest one thing.

Ohhh I just read the update, and that was what I was going to say :) . I think that we follow rules as we are bounded rational implying that there are transaction costs from making a decision. It is only when we are made to question the rules we follow that many of us realise we are doing something silly.