John Rawls: Two Concepts of Rules

2. Problems with Utilitarianism

Book cover: Practical Ethics by Peter Singer

In moral theory, I'm very partial to utilitarianism. However, I find two aspects of act utilitarianism highly problematic. And this is where I found Rawls's essay, 'Two Concepts of Rules', very influential in my own thinking. The two problems that I think Rawls's analysis solves are that, first, act utilitarianism seems to countenance some actions that common-sense morality and our reflective intuitions consider highly unjust and unfair. And, second, that act utilitarianism seems to require utilitarians to be two-faced in their public pronouncements. Let me outline each problem in turn.

Act utilitarianism seems to require in some special circumstances that the moral agent trade off the misery of one person for the greater happiness of many others in a way that leads to a great injustice. This case is just one such example:

Imagine that each of five patients in a hospital will die without an organ transplant. The patient in Room 1 needs a heart, the patient in Room 2 needs a liver, the patient in Room 3 needs a kidney, and so on. The person in Room 6 is in the hospital for routine tests. Luckily (for them, not for him!), his tissue is compatible with the other five patients, and a specialist is available to transplant his organs into the other five. This operation would save all five of their lives, while killing the "donor". There is no other way to save any of the other five patients

[Sinnott-Armstrong 2019]

Not only is the action one of committing a grave injustice, it also requires that the surgeon keep her intentions and reasoning secret. This illustrates the second problem with act utilitarianism. It requires moral agents to keep their motivations private. What I mean by this is that adopting act utilitarianism as a guide to action seems to require a utilitarian to:

  1. advocate publicly some moral principles that they themselves do not accept as guiding their own actions
  2. praise people publicly for some actions that they do not regard as morally right and punish people publicly for some actions that they do not regard as morally wrong
Book cover: The Methods of Ethics by Henry Sidgwick

The classical utilitarian, Henry Sidgwick, argued for this 'esoteric morality' of utilitarianism to be kept secret from the general public lest it lead to bad consequences. As he put it:

Thus, on Utilitarian principles, it may be right to do and privately recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly; it may be right to teach openly to one set of persons what it would be wrong to teach to others; it may be conceivably right to do, if it can be done with comparative secrecy, what it would be wrong to do in the face of the world; and even, if perfect secrecy can be reasonably expected, what it would be wrong to recommend by private advice or example.

[Sidgwick 1874 (1907): 489]

In relating his defence of a professor who deliberately misgrades a student, contemporary act utilitarian, Peter Singer, defends Sidgwick and this duplicity:

It may be right for a professor to give a student a higher grade than his work merits, on the grounds that the student is so depressed over his work that one more poor grade will lead him to abandon his studies altogether, whereas if he can pull out of his depression he will be capable of reaching a satisfactory standard. It would not, however, be right for a professor to advocate this publicly, since then the student would know that the higher grade was undeserved and—quite apart from encouraging other students to feign depression—the higher grade might cheer the student only if he believes that it is merited.

[Singer 1981: 166]

Book cover: Utilitarianism: For and Against by J. J. C. Smart and B. Williams

A second example is Jack Smart's response to Richard Brandt's case of a utilitarian Frenchman living in wartime England who must decide whether to comply with a government-directed rationing of gas and electricity. As Smart recognizes, with the vast majority of citizens complying, a few citizens using more gas and electricity to raise their comfort level will result in an increase in the general level of happiness [Smart and Williams 1973: 57]. So, in the usual case where the other citizens are predominantly non-utilitarians, Smart concludes that:

The act-utilitarian will have to agree that if the Frenchman's behaviour could be kept secret then he ought in this case to use the electricity and gas. But the Frenchman should also agree that he should be condemned and punished if he were found out.

[Smart and Williams 1973: 58]

These two cases (misgrading a student and breaking a ration) not only offend our basic sense of justice, they require us to be duplicitous in our public-facing statements. The great worth of Rawls's essay, I think, is in articulating clearly how a more insightful version of utilitarianism avoids this kind of duplicity and the stark clash with common-sense morality on questions of justice. In the next section, I will walk you through Rawls's essay, and then in the final section I will review what we have learned from Rawls's analysis and the benefits it brings to utilitarian theory.

Copyright © 2020

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