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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 May 2011

Tyler Cowen
Economics, George Mason University


It is commonly claimed that rule consequentialism (utilitarianism) collapses into act consequentialism, because sometimes there are benefits from breaking the rules. I suggest this argument is less powerful than has been believed. The argument requires a commitment to a very particular (usually implicit) account of feasibility and constraints. It requires the presupposition that thinking of rules as the relevant constraint is incorrect. Supposedly we should look at a smaller unit of choice—the single act—as the relevant choice variable. But once we see feasibility as a matter of degree, there is no obvious cut-off point for how broadly we should think about the constraints on our choices. Treating “a bundle of choices” as a relevant free variable is no less defensible than treating “a single act” as the relevant free variable. Rule utilitarianism, rule consequentialism, and other rules-based approaches are stronger than their current reputation.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2011

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1 See Kydland, Finn and Prescott, Edward, “Rules Rather Than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans,” Journal of Political Economy 85, no. 3 (1977): 473–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar, among many others. Glazer, Amihai and Rothenberg, Lawrence S. outline policy issues involving time consistency issues in Why Government Succeeds and Why It Fails (Cambridge, CA: Harvard University Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

2 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987)Google Scholar.

3 Ibid., 67, provides a string of related examples and conundrums.

4 Some of these dilemmas resemble the Sorites problem, which typically involves nonlinear effects. A classic example of the Sorites problem is to ask how many stones constitute a pile. The contribution of any single stone to the “pileness” of the pile is zero or very small, yet the accretion of successive stones brings a pile into being. The analogy is not perfect, because our definition of “pile” is fuzzy, a complication which does not arise in the firing squad case (the death of the victim is unambiguous). Temkin, Larry S. considers how the Sorites problem differs from intransitivity and vagueness as issues in moral philosophy in “A Continuum Argument for Intransitivity,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 25, no. 3 (1996): 175210CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 An extensive literature covers the practical arguments in favor of rules. See Hayek, Friedrich A., The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)Google Scholar; Brennan, Geoffrey and Buchanan, James M., The Reason of Rules (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000)Google Scholar; and Epstein, Richard, Simple Rules for a Complex World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

6 The literature here is enormous. See, for instance, Brandt, Richard, “Toward a Credible Theory of Utilitarianism,” in Castaneda, Hector-Neri and Nakhnikian, George, eds., Morality and the Language of Conduct (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1963): 107–43Google Scholar; Lyons, David, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Regan, Donald H., Utilitarianism and Cooperation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Slote, Michael, From Morality to Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Hooker, Brad, Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-Consequentialist Theory of Morality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000): 93111Google Scholar; Mackie, John Leslie, Persons and Values: Selected Papers, Vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Scarre, Geoffrey, Utilitarianism (New York: Routledge, 1996)Google Scholar; and Feldman, Fred, Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, among many others. This problem has been present in rule utilitarianism since William Paley in the eighteenth century; see Schneewind, J. B., Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 125–27Google Scholar.

7 Friedman, Milton, “The Real Free Lunch: Markets and Private Property,” in Boaz, David, ed., Toward Liberty: The Idea That Is Changing the World (Washington DC: Cato Institute, 2002), 5562Google Scholar.

8 Demsetz, Harold, “Information and Efficiency: Another Viewpoint,” Journal of Law and Economics 12, no. 1 (1969): 122CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 This ranked example is drawn from Cowen, Tyler, “The Epistemic Problem Does Not Refute Consequentialism,” Utilitas 18, no. 4 (2006): 383–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the concept of utopianism in the economics literature, see Philbrook, Clarence, “'Realism' in Policy Espousal,” American Economic Review 43, no. 5 (1953): 846–59Google Scholar, reprinted in Klein, Daniel B., ed., What Do Economists Contribute? (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1999), 6986CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dahlman, Carl J., “The Problem of Externality,” Journal of Law and Economics 22, no. 1 (1979): 141–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brown, Pamela J., Deadweight Loss: A Nonexistence Theorem (unpublished manuscript, California State University, Northridge, 1988)Google Scholar; and Klein, Daniel B., ed., What Do Economists Contribute? (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Part I, chap. 3.

11 Norcross, Alastair argues that we need to consider the best available action relative to alternatives, and discusses the ambiguities in defining exactly what those alternatives are, in “Good and Bad Actions,” The Philosophical Review 106, no. 1 (1997): 133CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the relevance of related ideas for the free will controversies, see Dennett, Daniel C., Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984)Google Scholar. For discussion of the meanings of “if” and “can” in ordinary language philosophy, see Austin, J. L., Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961)Google Scholar; and Pears, D. F., “Ifs and Cans,” in Essays on J. L. Austin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973)Google Scholar. Blackburn, Simon considers general issues involving morals and modal logic in “Morals and Modals,” in Blackburn, , Essays in Quasi-Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 5274Google Scholar.

12 In fairness to Fourier, he was also an early prophet of the steam locomotive, a view for which he was ridiculed in his time; see Beecher, Jonathan, Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 59Google Scholar. On the lemonade idea, see ibid., 125.

13 The literature on utopias raises related questions, although not usually in a philosophic or rational choice framework. Kolnai, Aurel writes: “How exactly can we distinguish between the proper pursuit of the good and its perfectionist aberration?” in Kolnai, The Utopian Mind and Other Papers: A Critical Study in Moral and Political Philosophy, ed. Dunlop, Francis (London: Athlone, 1995), 17Google Scholar. Manuel, Frank E. and Manuel, Fritzie P. note that “one man's trivial revision is another man's upheaval” in Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979), 8Google Scholar. Mannheim, Karl refers to the “difficulty in defining precisely what, at a given period, is to be regarded as ideology, and what as utopia” in Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Harcourt, 1936), 203Google Scholar. Since at least Friedrich Engels, this topic has been a staple of socialist debate as well. See Engels, Friedrich, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1975)Google Scholar. For a survey of some definitions of utopia, see Levitas, Ruth, The Concept of Utopia (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 3Google Scholar. See also Davis, J. C., “The History of Utopia: The Chronology of Nowhere,” in Alexander, Peter and Gill, Roger, eds., Utopias (London: Duckworth, 1984): 118Google Scholar; and Sargent, Lyman Tower, “Utopian Themes: Themes and Variations,” in Schaer, Roland, Claeys, Gregory, and Sargent, Lyman Tower, eds., Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World (New York: The New Public Library/Oxford University Press, 2000), 815Google Scholar. Goodwin, Barbara and Taylor, Keith consider the role that concepts of utopia have played in political debate in The Politics of Utopia: A Study in Theory and Practice (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982)Google Scholar.

14 On various modal debates, see Loux, Michael J., The Possible and the Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979)Google Scholar; Forbes, Graeme, The Metaphysics of Modality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Lewis, David, On the Plurality of Worlds (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986)Google Scholar; Armstrong, D. M., A Combinatorial Theory of Possibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lycan, William G., Modality and Meaning (Dordrecht: Kluwer Publishers, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hitchcock, Christopher, “Farewell to Binary Causation,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26, no. 2 (1996): 267–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pruss, Alexander Robert, “Possible Worlds: What They Are Good For and What They Are Not” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2001)Google Scholar; Sider, Theodore, “The Ersatz Pluriverse,” The Journal of Philosophy 99, no. 6 (2002): 279315CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gendler, Tamar Szabo and Hawthorne, John, eds., Conceivability and Possibility (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002)Google Scholar; and Divers, John, Possible Worlds (London: Routledge, 2002)Google Scholar.

15 Parmenides argued that the world could not be any different. The literature on theodicy considers whether God made the “best possible world” and what it means to say that other worlds are possible. See Adams, Robert M., The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Ideology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar; Adams, Robert M., Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; and Plantinga, Alvin, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

16 For a more general survey of utopian thinking, see Manuel and Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World.

17 In formal terms, the Shapley solution looks at all possible differing “coalitions” (combinations of actions or abstentions from action, in the firing squad example) and measures the differing marginal values of an individual unit to the coalition. These marginal values are then averaged across all of the possible combinations of units. In the firing squad example, for instance, the Shapley value averages a single shooter's marginal impact across “all six of us shoot,” “only the first five of the six shoot,” “only the last five of the six shoot,” “only these three of the six shoot,” “only I shoot,” and so on, across all the possible combinations. We will then find that the Shapley value for a single marksman is positive, but less than the value of an individual life. On the bargaining theory foundations for the Shapley value, see Roth, Alvin E., “Axiomatic Models of Bargaining,” Lecture Notes in Economics and Mathematical Systems, No. 170 (New York: Springer Verlag, 1979)Google Scholar; and Gul, Faruk, “Bargaining Foundations of Shapley Value,” Econometrica 57, no. 1 (1989): 8195CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 David Lewis has suggested some standards for ranking worlds in terms of their similarity, and along these lines we might regard the more similar worlds to our own as “more possible” or “less utopian.” See Lewis, David, “Counterfactual Dependence and Time's Arrow,” Noûs 13, no. 4 (1979): 472CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a treatment of degrees of possibility, see Forbes, The Metaphysics of Modality, chap. 7.

19 Note that we should not identify feasibility with the notions of probability or likelihood. Feasibility refers in some manner to the “closeness” of some other world to our own, whether or not we expect that world to occur. Blinking your eyes one more time in a day, each day, might be quite feasible in the common-sense use of that term, although we do not necessarily expect such an act to occur with a high probability. Conditional on the number of blinks changing, the chance that the change is exactly one blink might be quite small. This example suggests that feasibility and probability are distinct concepts and that a high degree of feasibility does not have to mean a high degree of probability.

20 On costs of adoption and internalization and rule utilitarianism, see Richard Brandt, “Toward a Credible Theory of Utilitarianism,” in Castaneda and Nakhnikian, eds., Morality and the Language of Conduct, 107–43; and Hooker, Ideal Code, Real World, 78–79. On varieties of rule utilitarianism more generally, see Scarre, Utilitarianism, 122–32.