Here is a good example a what an “A” paper should look like. The paper’s strengths are its focus, clarity, and organization. This paper could have been a bit more ambitious as it doesn’t do much more than explain the difference between act and rule utilitarianism and Smart’s argument against rule utilitarianism. But what it does it does really well and this is sufficient at this level for an A, as these are the basic skills that you are supposed to be developing at this level. What it does do, beyond merely summarizing Smart, is offer a supporting example and considering a possible objection, which together make the paper an A paper. If it didn’t do those things it would only be a high B paper. One very nice thing about this paper is how well everything is referenced.

A Defense of Smart’s Critique of Rule Utilitarianism

I intend to argue that J.J.C. Smart’s criticism of rule utilitarianism is correct because, as he argues, there are clearly some cases where it is optimific to break a generally optimific rule. I will show this by first explaining rule utilitarianism. Then, I will explain J.J.C. Smart’s critique of rule utilitarianism, including the hypothetical example of “the dying promise,” and provide explanations as to why his criticisms are correct. Finally, I will provide another hypothetical example, one that Smart did not use, in support of Smart’s argument.

I will begin by explaining rule utilitarianism and how it differs from act utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism is the process by which one judges the morality of a given action based on the net positive utility gained by that particular action’s consequences. This is a troubling ethical theory due in part to the daunting nature of attempting to ascertain all the consequences of any given action, something which can not realistically be done. Because of this, the act utilitarian must make estimations to the best of his/her ability, never truly knowing how far off he/she is from having acted on the most optimific choice. As an answer to this problem, a related theory called rule utilitarianism was put forth. Rule utilitarianism is the process by which one judges the morality of a given action based on whether or not it follows a generally optimific rule. In “The Fundamentals Of Ethics,” Russ Shafer-Landau describes rule consequentialism as “the view that an action is morally right just because it is required by an optimific social rule. An optimific social rule is a rule that meets the following condition: if (nearly) everyone in a society where to accept it, then the results would be optimific.” (Shafer-Landau, Page 149). In rule utilitarianism, moral agents are obligated to follow these generally optimific rules.

I will now explain J.J.C. Smart’s objection to rule utilitariansim. Smart believes that generally optimific rules are useful “rules of thumb” for act utilitarians, as they will often allow us to act in optimific ways when there is not time available to carefully weigh out the consequences of a particular action (Smart,94). Smart believes that rule utilitarianism simply takes these common sense guidelines too far, and that doing so can have disastrous results (Shafer-Landau, The Ethical Life, 96). Smart provides an example of a hypothetic rule entitled “R” (Smart, 96). 99% of the time, following R will produce optimific results, while 1% of the time it will not; Rule utilitarianism states that all moral agents are required to follow R, even if they know with complete certainty that doing so will not produce optimific results (Smart, 96). Smart said of such a scenario that it would be “monstrous to suppose that if we have worked out the consequences and if we have perfect faith in the impartiality of our calculations, and if we know that in this instance to break R will have better results than to keep it, we should nevertheless obey the rule” (Smart, 96). As Smart suggested, it is completely irrational to believe in an ethical theory meant to promote overall net happiness, and then to choose to follow through on an action that you know will decrease said happiness, simply for the sake of following a rule that will usually promote happiness. It is a clear sign of a flawed ethical theory when following its guidelines of morality actually contradicts its intended results.

Smart provides another hypothetical example commonly referred to as “the dying promise.” I will now present Smart’s dying promise example from my perspective. Imagine that I am on a desert island, and the only other person on this island is my dying friend, to whom I promise that, should he die, I will donate his entire fortune (which I control) to a jockey club if I am rescued (Smart, 98). When I am rescued, though, I decide that more good can be done by giving his fortune to a hospital instead of to a jockey club (Smart, 98). The idea of giving this money to a hospital, though it will most likely produce the greatest amount of net happiness over unhappiness, will most likely conflict with one or more generally optimific rules. For example, there could be a generally optimific rule that it is never morally permissible to tell a lie; or that it is never morally permissible to deny a dying man his last request, so long as no one will be harmed in following through with it; or that it is never morally permissible to spend the wealth of others in a way that contrasts with their wishes. All of these potentially generally optimific rules would prevent a rule utilitarian from donating the money to the hospital. They would be morally obligated to donate it to the jockey club, despite the fact that this would certainly be the less optimific of the two options. Once again, rule utilitarianism is proven to be flawed, as its generally optimific rules prevent moral agents from acting to produce the intended consequences of the theory itself, maximum utility.

Another example that supports Smart’s argument against rule utilitarianism, but that he did not use himself, is the hypothetical situation known as “the inquiring murderer.” This hypothetical is often used to discredit Kantian ethics and other ethical systems that employ absolute moral laws. I will present this example from my perspective. Imagine that a murderer knocks on my door and asks if I know the location of a man that he is bent on murdering; further imagine that I do know the location of the intended victim and that I must decide whether to lie in order to save the life of an innocent man or tell the truth and aid in an innocent man being murdered (Shafer-Landau, 166). One could easily imagine that a rule which stated that it is never morally permissible to tell a lie would be generally optimific; or an even more extreme rule which stated that it is never morally permissible to withhold the truth, which would also be optimific in a majority of cases. In the case of the inquiring murderer, however, such rules would oblige the rule utilitarian to divulge the location of the murderer’s intended victim, aiding in his demise.

I will now point out a reasonable argument against my use of the inquiring murderer and will go on to prove the validity of the example. There is certainly an argument against this example in that a generally optimific rule which stated the following could exist: It is never morally permissible to aid in the murder of an innocent man. If such a rule did exist, it would lead to a conflict of two rules, in which case the rule utilitarian would be expected to judge his action based solely on its consequences. While it is true that this specific example can be accounted for within the guidelines of rule utilitarianism, we can not assume that a rule will be in place to conflict with every rule that ends up requiring a moral agent to act in a way which produces less than optimific results. It is likely that a majority of moral rules, if thought through to conclusion, would end up having exceptions that would require a conflicting rule to be made. Additionally, every instance that presents a conflict of two moral rules and requires the rule utilitarian to essentially be an act utilitarian further discredits rule utilitarianism. These instances discredit rule utilitarianism because its entire purpose is to not have to judge each action on its own consequences, and so each instance in which a rule utilitarian must act as an act utilitarian discredits rule utilitarianism.

I have argued that J.J.C. Smart’s criticisms of rule utilitarianism are correct. There are certainly many cases where, as Smart argues, it is optimific to not follow a generally optimific rule. This simple truth makes rule utilitarianism self-defeating as its guidelines do not consistently produce, and will sometimes even specifically hinder, its intended results.

Works Cited

Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University      Press, 2012. Print

Smart, J.J.C., “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism” The Ethical Life. 2nd ed. Ed. Russ Shaffer-Landau. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.


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