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Tyler Cowen Department of Economics George Mason University Fairfax, VA 22030 firstname.lastname@example.org
January 12, 2010
Abstract 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 sliding scale and a matter of degree, it isn’t obvious why this argument should have so much force. 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 much stronger than their current reputation.
I. Introduction Should we analyze policies by asking how they fit into more general rules? For instance maybe a single act of corruption has no harmful effects but corruption in general is harmful and many corrupt acts will destroy a polity. Would we be justified in condemning the single act of corruption? More generally, does a “rules perspective” on policy evaluation possess independent force? Or does the doctrine of “rule consequentialism” collapse into “act consequentialism”? Why not make an exception to the rule when the exception is harmless or possibly even beneficial? Defenders of the rules perspective are wary of such questions. They know that if we’re not willing to adhere to a rule for the sake of the rule itself, talk of the rule is no better than a myth, albeit what is possibly a socially useful myth. A lot is at stake. If rules-based perspectives hold up, it is easier to justify strict moralities and strict policy prescriptions. We need only argue that the rule makes sense as a whole, not that it gives the best result in each and every case. Adopting a rules-based perspective also would make us less pragmatic and more willing to generalize. If the generality were true (“don’t gamble!”), that would be enough to establish its force, even if it didn’t apply exactly to every case. A single act of weakness may not damage credibility much, but many weak acts will destroy credibility. A single investment may not boost science very much, but a broader collection of such investments will make a big difference. A single bad tax may not stifle economic growth, but a large number of bad taxes will. Numerous legal "exceptions" may make sense on an individual basis, but only if we fail to consider the more general consequences of those exceptions; for instance many arguments for the rule of law depend on expectation and incentive effects. In general, when expectations and incentives matter, a rules-based approach and a case-by-case or act-based approach will offer different normative recommendations.1
An extensive literature covers the practical arguments in favor of rules; see Brennan and Buchanan (2000), Epstein (1997), and Kydland and Prescott (1977), among many others. 3
4 . Under one view. this is a proposal with “some cost and no real benefit”. all of them firing accurately at his heart. ex ante it is optimal to promise not to break the patent rights for a valuable new drug. One of Derek Parfit’s (1987) "Mistakes in Moral Arithmetic" shows yet another divide between an act-based and a rules-based perspective. Or is it “the first step along a much-needed program to solve the dire and critical problem of climate change”? It again depends on whether we view the legislation in stand-alone or in bundled terms. The time consistency logic corresponds to a wide range of practical problems. Ex post it is optimal for the policymaker to confiscate the rights to the new drug once it is made. monetary policy. research and development. but once the rule is in place we are better off if we can break it. stand-alone impact on global climate. can we say that any one of the shooters is a murderer? After all. In stand-alone terms it is hard to justify the bill. to earn a few dollars. The case for the bill is stronger if we adopt the bundled perspective. or to non-profits that fight to repeal Glazer and Rothenberg (2005) outline how many policy issues involve time consistency issues. the “marginal product” of any single shooter was zero. If a firing squad of six shooters kills an innocent person. To give one example. We would be better off if a no-confiscation rule could be put in place. including taxation. and foreign policy. patents.Or consider the proposed Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation. as it costs something and achieves virtually no good in terms of its net. The issue of time consistency also draws a divide between act-based and rules-based perspectives. copyright. Pharmaceutical companies. That’s a classic problem of time consistency. of course. understand this logic and they are somewhat reluctant to invest in new drugs in the first place. Should we punish or invest resources to prevent any one of the shooters? Does it matter whose bullet arrived first? Should we refuse to prosecute group murders of this kind? How would we feel about a marksman who participates in a group hit on an innocent man. trade policy. figuring that the fellow is going to die anyway? This marksman might even donate some of those dollars to charities. as stated on paper the bill won’t much lower global temperatures.
” The points here apply to a broader context than utilitarianism alone. but the logic of the issues very much resembles the classic rule utilitarian vs. In general a rules-based perspective makes it easier to advocate or defend relatively extreme positions. if we bundle the various shots and evaluate the overall package of actions. and Richard Epstein have. we’ll advocate more bailouts if we abandon the rules-based approach for an act-based perspective. but a rules-based perspective opens up the possibility for additional objections. Hayek. participation will be understood as heinous and destructive. We face the general question of how to evaluate the smaller parts of larger collectively produced impacts. I will use the phrase “bundling” for when we treat choices as a collective package. If you wish you also can substitute in the more philosophically familiar terms “rule utilitarianism” and “act utilitarianism. act utilitarian debates.A. linked the case for a free society to the validity of a rules-oriented perspective. Those are simply more general phrases for the more commonly described notions of rule-based and act-based perspectives. relative to the alternative stance of following the rule all of the time.67) for a related and more complex example. rather than evaluating all government policies on a case-by-case basis. To refer back to Parfit’s marksmen example. and I will refer to the “small unit perspective” when we evaluate the choices in terms of their smaller components. when combined with the actions of others. but it also might be better to break that rule in particular historical circumstances.2 F. Again. An act-based perspective may suggest that participation in the shooting is fine. to varying degrees and in varying manners. p. such as the participation of a single additional person in the firing squad. by their very nature. even if that 2 See Parfit (1987. are moderating. These divides will exist to the extent that our actions have non-linear consequences. For instance a true rule of “don’t bail out failed automobile companies” might be a good idea. Under these assumptions. Exceptions. 5 .capital punishment. much is at stake when we choose whether to bundle and what to bundle. James Buchanan. The idea is that we should look for those rules which will best delineate the scope of government.
Although I do not wish to defend the exclusive focus on utility found in many of those debates. and then we adhere to rules. He is killing no one at the specified margin of choice and both he and the charity may be better off. ought to collapse into act utilitarianism. In debate.additional marksman is not decisive with regard to the death of the victim and even if the additional marksman donates his wages to charity. but sometimes breaking the rules maximizes utility. How many stones constitute a pile? The contribution of any single stone to the “pileness” of the pile is zero or very small. Yet if we stick with the small unit perspective. I will at times borrow the terminology of that literature for expository purposes. The act utilitarian typically believes that the rule utilitarian does not offer a coherent point of view. So rule utilitarianism. So we should act to maximize utility. yet the accretion of successive stones brings a pile into being. but bundling has been on the intellectual defensive. Temkin (1996) considers how the Sorites problem differs from intransitivity and vagueness as issues in moral philosophy. then adherence to the rule – for the rule’s sake – is hard to justify. The analogy is not perfect because our definition of "pile" is fuzzy. If consequences are what matter. upon scrutiny. The action. To many observers rule consequentialism is not persuasive. which typically involves nonlinear effects. the marksman is improving social welfare. The strongest arguments against bundling recur in the debate between act and rule utilitarianism.3 A bundled perspective may seem attractive. it is hard to beat the simple and immediately forceful reduction Some of these dilemmas resemble the Sorites problem. 3 6 . not rules per se. Act utilitarians (and others) apply the following reduction to rule utilitarianism: "What we really care about is utility (or some other notion of good consequences). a complication which does not arise in the firing squad case (the death of the victims is unambiguous). precisely because the underlying concern with consequences leads us to make many exceptions to the rule." Many philosophers accept this “reduction argument” and thus they do not consider rule utilitarianism (or rule consequentialism) to be an independent alternative to an act orientation. bundled perspective. causes the death of an innocent human being. considered in a broader. Sometimes adhering to rules maximizes utility. It seems we should break the rule when that would bring better consequences.
why shouldn’t we make an exception and do something which will improve human welfare? The act orientation.125-127). What is feasible and what is utopian? If we think of utilitarian or consequentialist doctrine as involving problems of constrained maximization. pp. In this view “moving along the budget constraint” (reshuffling resources) is feasible. Hooker (2000. I will address the oft-cited but under-analyzed concept of feasibility. It will turn out this is a difficult problem and it also will turn out to have some connections with the differences between bundled and small unit perspectives. In other words. At the textbook level. See. This problem has been present in rule utilitarianism since William Paley in the eighteenth century. chapter four).in a maximization problem in a philosophically coherent way. whereas “wanting the budget constraint to shift out” 4 The literature here is enormous. We will end up having the liberty to pursue a bundled perspective. corresponds to what I am calling the small unit perspective. I will start with the idea of trying to define the “feasible set” – or alternatively to define “constraints” -. Regan (1980). 7 . see Schneeewind (1977.argument. These issues have been debated since at least the eighteenth century but I will propose a new tack toward evaluating the strength of rules-based commitments. Slote (1992). we might look to economics for clarification on what it means to postulate a constraint. This way of posing the question will give us access to some new intuitions. Lyons (1965). the desire to think in rule-based terms will turn out to be more robust than common philosophic opinion might hold. The resulting fuzziness of modal considerations will lead us to a partial license for rules-based thinking. It turns out that our best current understanding of the concept of “a constraint” does not boil down to a simple matter of fact but rather it involves modal logic and other murky waters. economists use the idea of a budget constraint to delineate the utopian from the feasible. Mackie (1985). and Feldman (1997). among many others. of course. without a rules-based perspective collapsing into an actbased perspective. Brandt (1963).4 II. without fearing immediate refutation from what I am calling the reduction argument. for instance. After all. Scarre (1996).
Sometimes economists think about this dilemma in terms of transaction costs. akin to wishing for the proverbial free lunch. more resources for nothing) is considered to be utopian. The resources expressed and measured by the budget constraint are all owned and controlled by various individuals. or for different resources. we are missing the transaction costs dimension from our measurement of costs. and in the absence of interference agents will allocate these resources one way rather than another. At the very least we are asking for something to be different.(i.. In considering a move along the budget constraint. begs the question as to what is truly feasible at a more fundamental level. To ask for one allocation rather than another is to stipulate that some of these constraints and incentives be changed.e. when moving along the budget constraint we also are asking for more resources. When drawing a social budget constraint. We are not in any straightforward process of choosing among options which “lie before us. which graphed looks like this familiar picture: XXXXXXXXXX The diagram appears to indicate there is a clear difference between “moving outside the constraint” and “moving along the constraint.” as illustrated by the lines and descriptions in the diagram. relative to an observed status quo.” like various pairs of socks might be laid out on a bedspread each morning when one is dressing for work. albeit in disguised fashion. somewhere. This distinction. however useful it may be to positive economics. Here is a simple budget constraint: Max U. Bringing about other options along the drawn budget constraint requires different facts associated with a new possible world. That is typically how economists define what is feasible and what is not. we are 8 . In other words. subject to p1x1 + p2x2 = Y. A society cannot move from one point along a budget constraint to another point without a cost being incurred somehow.
so we can move along the budget constraint. We are imagining the involved agents cutting a different set of deals.wishing that outcomes could take a different particular form or in other words that transactions costs in some manner would be different. men were angels? Would not the world be better off? In each case the answer is yes. Let’s see how that position looks if we present it 9 . or could be yes if we worded the query to cover the relevant counterexamples. economists are staking out (part of) a position on feasibility. we can no longer invoke the budget constraint as an a priori circumscription of what is feasible and what is not. rather than the status quo. Once viewed in these terms. Rather I am interested in how he imagines the feasible set. Had Friedman not insisted elsewhere that “There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch”? Is not asking for “more markets” another kind of utopianism. The specification “Transactions costs change.” slides easily into “lower costs would bring a better outcome and push us outside the previous budget constraint. if only we would rely on markets more. It’s not obviously different from wishing to live “beyond” the budget constraint. albeit unintentionally. Whether you agree with Friedman’s positive claim about markets is not the point for this discussion. of course.” In any case. Milton Friedman (2002). laid out the dilemma very clearly.” He argued that market economies capture gains from trade and can make virtually everyone better off. He titled an essay “Markets – the Ultimate Free Lunch. Economists. no more relevant than the plea for a free lunch? “What if” we all had more information? What if. to paraphrase Madison. the real question is what the social budget constraint looks like in the first place. if only implicitly. Standard economic methods simply assume we have defined the feasible rather than providing such a definition. That’s another way of wishing for a change and on reflection it is not obviously different from wishing that manna would fall from the sky. in an essay for the Cato Institute. In denying the normative relevance of the free lunch. refuse to claim that the absence of a free lunch represents inefficiency per se (Demsetz 1969).
in denying the relevance of the free lunch. Social state X (with different policies than the status quo) 4. in other words. the distinction between these two questions is not easy to defend on the grounds of pure logic. Oceans of lemonade 2. many economists do not see it as excessively utopian to ask for #3 in lieu of #4. are unwilling to criticize vision three for falling short of vision two. might rank some alternatives. In other words. Social state X plus a free lunch 3. many contemporary economists advocate what they call "comparative institutional analysis. At the same time. for instance. many economists consider it normatively interesting to ask: (1) “What if we had institution X instead of institution Y?” Those same economists do not consider it normatively interesting to ask: (2) “What if we had a free lunch?” Again. Economists might. In lieu of making pleas for free lunches. It is difficult to dismiss the free lunch question as utopian while maintaining 10 . vision two is excessively utopian or alternatively it is not sufficiently feasible. ranked in terms of their degree of feasibility. Status quo Economists. in the following manner: Most to least utopian: 1.in terms of a simple set of rankings. We have a relevant imperfection only when an institutional improvement would bring more benefit than cost." The economist compares one set of (feasible?) institutions to another set of (feasible?) institutions and asks which is better.
tax system. If institution X is better than institution Y. Given all the special interest groups at work. see Beecher (1986. Norcross (1997) argues that we need to consider the best available action relative to alternatives. as well as Cowen (2006). taken alone. a view for which he was ridiculed in his time.5 Economists therefore face a "war on two fronts. A world without scarcity may sound good as an abstract ideal. Blackburn (1984) considers general issues involving morals and modal logic.59). p. but now consider some growthimproving policy.S. Austin (1961) and Pears (1973) consider the meanings of "if" and "can" in ordinary language philosophy. such as a revamping of the U. see Beecher (1986.125).6 Moving outside economics to the context of political thought. is wishing for a truly good reform much more realistic than Charles Fourier’s belief that socialism would bring oceans of lemonade and ship-pulling dolphins?7 It might be more realistic as a matter of degree. but it’s hard to see where a clear line – delineating the feasible from the infeasible – might come from.the normative relevance of the comparative institutional question. The first is that inefficiencies exist and can be pinpointed meaningfully. It is not easy to reconcile two strong intuitions. and it is normatively meaningless to wish for one. but we reject the idea as excessively utopian. The second is that there is no free lunch." to borrow Parfit’s (1987) fruitful concept. he was also an early prophet of the steam locomotive. On the lemonade idea. sounds plausible. On the relevance of related ideas for the free will controversies. 7 In fairness to Fourier. see Dennett (1984). arguably having X is one form of a free lunch as that term is used in other contexts. Fair enough. we can reproduce similar issues in different contexts. But it is hard to put the two intuitions together into a single account of which changes are feasible and which are not. Dahlmann (1979). Either intuition. see Philbrook (1954). p. Again. Brown (1988) Klein (1999). it’s not easy to draw an “in principle” line between feasible and utopian. 5 On the concept of utopianism in the economics literature. 6 11 . and discusses the ambiguities in defining exactly what those alternatives are. from which I draw this ranked example.
They require that some degree of utopianism is acceptable. do not much help in this context. p. require that we advocate good outcomes for their own sake. Hayek. The key question is not about central planning but rather when we consider any changes (including a move away from central planning) we should evaluate those changes bit by bit or together as part of a The literature on utopias raises related questions. competing proposals. Without this willingness to be at least somewhat “utopian” we cannot elevate a good reform proposal above the status quo. they suggest that certain proposals. to have it both ways. Davis (1984). as we find in Popper.8) note: "…one man's trivial revision is another man's upheaval. We reject (many of these) proposals by arguing that they are excessively utopian. is to be regarded as ideology.17) writes: "'How exactly can we distinguish between the proper pursuit of the good and its perfectionist aberration?'" Manuel and Manuel (1979.203) refers to the "difficulty in defining precisely what. without necessarily predicting their adoption. p. much less resolve it. Yet we again return to the dilemma: why do we classify some reform proposals as feasible and others not?8 The standard "conservative" critiques of utopianism. chapter IV). At the same time. See also Mannheim (1936. It doesn’t make sense to just draw up an ideal wish list and call that a theory of reform. and evolutionary biology. p. expected. p. Nonetheless for whatever imagined improvement we can cite. or forthcoming. yet more utopian.3) surveys some definitions of utopia. Kolnai (1995.The general issue is this. we do not wish to think so big that we lose the moorings of common sense and veer off into the excessively utopian. If we advocated only what was already in place. We wish to allow at least some scope for normative. although not usually in a philosophic or rational choice framework. Levitas (1990. But these perspectives do not address the utopian dilemma per se. at a given period. big picture thinking. at least implicitly." Mannheim (1936. there will exist better. and what as utopia…" Since at least Friedrich Engels. It is not useful to argue that the world is already as good as it could be. to some extent. this topic has been a staple of socialist debate as well. Goodwin and Taylor (1982) consider the role that concepts of utopia have played in political debate. and Sargent (2000. 8 12 . would be disasters rather than utopias. Proposals for change.15). especially of a totalitarian nature. p. These powerful arguments do tell us that human nature is somewhat fixed. Many reform advocates wish. there would be little point to making policy prescriptions.
Gendler and Hawthorne (2002). modal logic is not well-suited to the task at hand. For instance it is frequently accepted that “talking donkeys. see Loux (1979). Some philosophers believe that claims about modal logic make sense only if they refer to real worlds actually out there (modal realism). The above questions about utopianism are not uniquely left or right wing. Hitchcock (1996). not the least of which is what the concept of “possible worlds” means in the first place. or at least a means of moving forward. but arguably they are still “too impossible” for purposes of ethics and politics. the major approaches to modal logic deal with a very broadly circumscribed notion of what is feasible or possible. and Divers (2002). Forbes (1985). Modal logic operates within a broader notion of the feasible than would resolve typical policy debates over the feasible set. 9 13 . without intending any criticism of the broader genre. such as Fourier’s oceans of lemonade. The questions exist on logically distinct planes.9 On various modal debates. We also cannot look to formal modal logic to resolve these questions about feasibility. Formal modal logic is a well-developed philosophic literature which looks at what it means to analyze or speak of “possible worlds. rather than a purely abstract standard of logical classification based on hard constraints taken from the science of physics. belong to the set of possible worlds. Lewis (1986).” Nonetheless. while other philosophers are suspicious of the concept of modality altogether. Maybe such donkeys are not impossible in the sense of violating the known laws of physics. Armstrong (1989). which is independent of any very particular approach to controversial questions of metaphysics and modal logic. Lycan (1994). Ideally we would like a solution. not as solving them. First. Second. I think of the literature on modal logic as reflecting and anticipating the more practical dilemmas discussed above. modal logic itself presents numerous unsolved dilemmas at a quite fundamental level. Pruss (2001).broader bundle. nor do they require a belief in extreme human malleability or any particular stance about the well-known schemes of utopian thinking from intellectual history. Sider (2002). I am looking for a concrete and practically useful method of judging feasibility.” however strange the concept may be in common sense terms.
In contemporary times Leslie (1997) and Rescher (1999) argue that there is only one possible world. 14 . albeit not always globally efficient. The Panglossian has a rejoinder to claims of inefficiency: “The current state of affairs would be inefficient. See Adams (1987. it has a logical consistency which many of its competitors do not. if the relevant parties could bargain or trade to bring about a better 10 Parmenides argued that the world could not be any different. I would like to argue that the (ostensibly) weakest version of this view is in terms of logic stronger and more plausible than many of the more popular intermediate positions. for reasons discussed directly above. It may be more of a lunch room exercise than a view which anyone holds consistently. that would be big news. It might seem I am picking on this attitude by taking its weakest variant but my purpose is the opposite.” “democracies are efficient. but we can admit this possibility while recognizing we still must plow forward using stopgap approaches in the meantime. That is not my view. though Stigler never made it in print as far as I can tell. Pangloss as a stopping point Some economists talk as if they believe the extreme claim that everything we observe is efficient. III. Any beneficial improvement which we do not already have is utopian and thus should be dismissed as a free lunch. if the viability of rules-based perspectives did depend on very technical questions in modal logic.” or “everything is locally efficient. such as “everything we observe in markets is efficient. Nobel Laureate George Stigler and parts of the Chicago School have been associated with this view. namely the status quo. namely the world we have.10 Although virtually everyone rejects the Panglossian view.” I will consider the most straightforward claim that everything is efficient.Finally. In essence the budget constraint is now a single point. but I am interested in this approach nonetheless. Sometimes this claim is presented in modified form. all of the time. 1994) and Plantinga (1989). The literature on theodicy consider whether God made the "best possible world" and what it means to say that other worlds are possible.
The Panglossian view seems to abuse discourse and our common sense understanding that real world improvements are possible. the mail is not always delivered on time. They tell us to hold out for an extreme utopian vision in which virtually everything is up for grabs and very broad improvements will prove feasible. Genocide happens. and it fits with the practice of most of the 11 Manuel and Manuel (1979) survey utopian thinking more generally. Today tech-savvy advocates of “The Singularity” tell us that all of human existence will be transformed within the next century. We are in the “worst of all possible worlds” as well as in the “best of all possible worlds. But apparently they cannot. all things considered. We are economists. once we take all constraints and all costs. into account. and Herbert Spencer believed in the possibility of extreme progress and human perfectibility as well.outcome. a kind of utopian dreaming. and so on. it seems reasonable. He believed that the quality of human understanding could rise to extremely high levels across a broad cross-section of humanity. like the Panglossian view. Surely something is wrong in the world and it outrages many people to hear that everything is efficient. Turgot. and the costs of change. perhaps because we will be genetically re-engineered or we will become computer uploads. offer a logical consistency of sorts. It “feels” right. including the costs of bargaining. babies starve. The existence of the problem is efficient.” At this point many individuals will mock the Panglossian view as a tautology or a moral absurdity.” Of course the Panglossian view need not be thought of as especially optimistic. Marquis de Condorcet.11 Most of us embrace some intermediate view between Panglossianism and extreme utopianism. By the way. the Panglossian view is only one of the available extremes. To claim otherwise is simply to wish that things would be better. Correcting the so-called problem is too costly. These attitudes. 15 . John Stuart Mill moved in the other direction and defended the perfectibility of mankind as a central political vision. We do not ask for free lunches. more deserving of scorn than an intellectual response.
In most cases. as could be defined by an exact cut-off. when we consider the practical epistemic issues. including in the areas of fiscal restraint. Probably it is too utopian to expect everyone to work eighteen hours a day and enjoy it. don’t have as much logic on their side as we might like to think. the more utopian it will appear to be. the lower the degree of feasibility that appears to hold. Perhaps there is some ultimately true and correct metaphysical theory in which people can work seventeen minutes longer In some cases larger improvements may be easier to implement than small ones. But the judgment of non-feasibility does not appear to kick in at any particular number of hours. the larger the potential improvement. tax reform. again without any clear cut-off point as to what is feasible and what is not. For instance consider the option of inducing harder work from a labor force. it is unlikely that we could identify or verify a cut-off point between the feasible and the infeasible. human motivations would have to be “too different” for that to happen. 12 16 . we can think of feasibility as a spectrum rather than as an all-or-nothing category. The intermediate positions run the risk of appearing arbitrary rather than wellgrounded and consistent. or for that matter declines in the probability of genocide. A similar logic holds with regard to many other feasibility judgments.12 At the very least. appealing though they may sound. Yet the intermediate positions.smart and honest people we know. referring to the world’s more violent countries. For instance a large proposal may be needed to generate public attention and support. Most feasibility differences do appear to be of degree. even if such a clear line existed in some rarefied realm of modal logic. Once you push on them. it is hard to defend why we might allow one degree of utopianism yet reject another. but as a matter of degree rather than of kind. Rather the more extra work is specified. Degrees of feasibility In lieu of the Panglossian and pure utopian points of view. changes in the speed of bureaucracy. This non-monotonicity does not refute the general point that the relevant distinctions will be those of degree rather than of kind. Some specified world-states are more utopian than others.
we are left with feasibility as a matter of degree. the exact number or nature of the dimensions is not the relevant point.” Most likely.472) measure of similarity involves a lexical ranking of the following four qualities: "(1) It is of the first importance to avoid big. might be “more like” the world we know in terms of fact. (4) It is of little or no importance to secure approximate similarity of particular fact. to answer these kinds of questions? For a treatment of degrees of possibility. the more feasible worldstate possesses some combination of these qualities. (3) It is of the third importance to avoid even small. We can see degrees of feasibility even in the Fourier vision of a utopian future. For practical purposes. even in matters that concern us greatly. has different countries. but not seventeen minutes and one millisecond longer. Is this world "close" to our own or not? What could it mean. chapter seven). in principle. But again we are far from having access to such knowledge. Forget about oceans.) Again.” Of course any such ranking algorithm will be vulnerable to counterexamples. Which of these two worlds is “more similar" or "more possible”? What if one scenario changes our current world in one small way. p. what if we were told that socialism would bring us a mid-sized lake full of lemonade? A small pond? How about a glass full of lemonade? (Can you get that in North Korea? I wonder. different institutions.g. simple violations of law. For our purposes. compared to a less feasible vision. Consider a world that looks just like the status quo. relative to the less feasible world-state. A more feasible vision. and so on. 17 . someone shoots Hitler in 1934). localized. except that one atom completely and consistently violates all known laws of physics. it suffices to note that some kind of continuum exists.each." Lewis's (1979.. (2) It is of the second importance to maximize the spatio-temporal region throughout which perfect match of particular fact prevails. see Forbes (1985. but with a large final effect (e. more like the world we know in terms of adherence to laws of science. Consider a second world that follows all known laws of physics.13 13 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. A spectrum of feasibility might specify a number of dimensions. or stand at the end of a relative simple path from “here” to “there. it is difficult to find a distinct cut-off at which the specified world-states clearly and definitely cross from the realm of the feasible into the realm of the infeasible. widespread diverse violations of [physical] law. but is populated by different people than our world.
each day. In other words. 18 . That’s the take-away from the discussion of Pangloss. whether or not we expect that world to occur. Feasibility refers in some manner to the “closeness” of some other world to our own. for instance. at which point no further divisibility is possible. apart from Pangloss that is and such an approach does not command the loyalty of many people. which again serves as a definite limit.14 IV. at least for the vast majority of our speculations. But the feasibility problems of the social sciences are not so exact or so amenable to fixed measurement at these kinds of limiting points. to some extent. Quantum theory. the chance that the change is exactly one blink might be quite small. although we do not necessarily expect such an act to occur with a high probability. That 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. Or in Einstein’s theory no objects other than tachyons can travel faster than the speed of light. In other words. Conditional on the number of blinks changing. might be quite feasible in the common sense use of that term.In some cases physical laws might suggest very definite limits to feasibility but still along most margins feasibility will be a matter of degree. We do not know how to break social science problems down into their quantum elements. In defense of rules-based thinking Any plausible normative theory must. there is no strong argument for keeping the degree of utopian thinking to a minimum. But we’re also seeing we don’t have clear guidance for where to stop in delineating the feasible set. even if such a reduction is possible. there are some hints for why we should not dismiss bundling and the rulesbased perspective as quickly as the reduction argument suggests. We are left again with feasibility as a sliding scale. Perhaps we can measure this limit quite exactly in principle if not always in practice. treat some previously imagined constraints as freely floating parameters of choice. Blinking your eyes one more time in a day. might suggest that particles can only become so small. I think of rules-based 14 Note that we should not identify feasibility with the notions of probability or likelihood. and our knowledge of physics offers few useful guidelines.
and asks what that agent should do to maximize utility. if we could manipulate a whole bunch of variables together. Under this understanding. In contrast. under the constraint that a similar policy (or rule) be applied in subsequent time periods. I haven’t shown the rules-based 19 . subject to Action (t1) = Action (t2. we don’t have an in principle argument for rejecting the rules-based perspective. the rules-based perspective is based on the notion of a difference in the constraints. rule utilitarianism looks like this: (1) Max.approaches as embodied in a different understanding of the relevant constraints before us. fact-based correct way of understanding constraints. since we don’t have a definitive. consistency over time when applying a principle to a broad number of cases. U. t3…) In other words we have to apply a rule consistently over time. For instance. We are picking some policy today. Rule utilitarianism asks "what we should do. More is "up for grabs" than under act utilitarianism. relative to act-based approaches. when it comes to chosen actions. t3…) as different variables. t3. namely a rule. That’s what a rule means. rule utilitarianism specifies a differing series of constraints and thus a different maximization problem altogether. act utilitarianism takes the action of one individual at one point in time as a free variable. t2." More formally. rather than collapsing into act utilitarianism. allowing for Action (t1. Act utilitarianism looks more like this: (2) Max U. Furthermore. rather than one subsuming the other or one collapsing into the other. Rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism postulate different maximization problems and thus they coexist in some fashion. not just one. Rule utilitarianism takes an entire series of individual actions to be free variables but it takes them up collectively rather than one-by-one.
requires a commitment to a very particular account of feasibility. The logic of the act utilitarian reduction argument should.not a single act. The first asks a business to maximize profit.the single act -. But again. once we look at both the maximand and the constraint. subject to the constraint that inventories in one particular store never fall below a certain level. why not treat a larger rule or bundled package up as a variable for choice? The act utilitarian critique of rule utilitarianism seems plausible because act utilitarianism appears to examine the smallest possible unit of choice. The second asks a business to maximize profit.” or that one such problem “collapses” into the other. as it is used against rules-based perspectives. not to act utilitarianism. If we can put a single act up for grabs in our normative decisionmaking.perspective is better (more on that later). but at the very least it has no longer been knocked out of the running. only because we allow some utopianism in the door and allow at least one constraint to be 20 . Again the maximand is the same – profit – but we have two differing constraints. lead to the Panglossian perspective. Supposedly we should look at a smaller unit of choice -. Treating “a bundle of choices” as a relevant free variable is no less defensible than treating “a single act” as a relevant free variable. Rule and act utilitarianism (consequentialism) hold a similar dual and possibly coexisting status. namely the individual act. Act utilitarianism “survives. For a simple analogy. consider these two microeconomic problems. it isn’t obvious why this argument should have so much force.as the relevant constraint.” so to speak. once we see feasibility as a sliding scale and a matter of degree. The reduction argument. It requires the implicit claim that thinking of rules or bundled acts as the relevant constraint is somehow incorrect. The maximand is in both cases the same – some notion of good consequences. taken alone. subject to the constraint that inventories in each store in the chain never fall below a specified level. It would be wrong to claim that one such problem is “the wrong normative theory. But the smallest possible unit of choice is zero – namely no change -. with utility as the immediate stand-in – but the relevant constraint is not uniquely determined.
if we knew which constraints were the appropriate ones. But it has a harder time taking them both on at the same time and winning the debate. see Brandt (1963) and Hooker (2000. the code can either be treated as a free variable (to be selected or not). each involving a different specification of constraints. 15 21 . or as an investment in a new custom. The act utilitarian perspective might appear strong when faced with either Pangloss or rule utilitarianism. including transition costs. But since we do not have a definitive. we have opened the door for yet additional flexibility in understanding the constraint and the reduction argument is no longer decisive. pp. rules-based approaches do not reduce to the act-based standard. pp. If we can object to taking rules as a free-floating variable. Why stop at one point rather than the other? Once we elevate an “act” perspective over Pangloss. The logic of act utilitarianism – or indeed of normative analysis in the first place -. the Panglossian can object to taking individual acts as a free-floating variable. In other words.allows for the possibility of moving even further away from Pangloss and considering rules-based changes or other bundled approaches to the constraints. see Scarre (1996. Again.78-79).loosened. On the point of “teaching costs” and rule utilitarianism. For instance there are multiple approaches to generating a rules-based code. the act utilitarian critique fails to win a “war on both fronts.” again referring to Parfit’s concept. we see two maximization problems. fact-based account of what is feasible and what is not. both act-based and rule-based perspectives survive.122-132). The idea of coexisting moral codes is in fact a familiar one and it appears in the debates on different versions of rule utilitarian principles. Just as one problem does not “reduce” to the other.15 We could decide that either rule utilitarianism or act utilitarianism (or some other approach) was correct at the expense of the other. Should we evaluate the code on the presupposition that it is adopted and internalized by all relevant individuals? Or should we evaluate the code assuming that we must bear significant costs of adoption and internalization? In other words. On varieties of rule utilitarianism more generally.
” “only these three of the six shoot.” Once we see feasibility as a matter of degree. We can think of the Shapley value as one means of thinking about bundling. the Shapley value averages a single shooter’s marginal impact across “all six of us shoot. First. versions of the bundling problem surface repeatedly in game theory. 16 22 . serves as the most popular “rational choice” solution to many bargaining problems.” and so on. see Roth (1978) and Gul (1989). We will then find the Shapley value for a single marksman is positive. but less than the value of an individual life. the Shapley solution looks at all possible differing "coalitions" (combinations of risky actions or abstentions from action. This suggests that economics and rational choice approaches do not commit us to the small unit perspective when non-linear effects are present. across all the possible combinations.The “marginalist” tradition might lead many economists to favor the small unit perspective. we can question the idea of a single. for instance. These marginal values are then averaged across all of the possible combinations of units.” “only I shoot. in our example) and measures the differing marginal values of an individual unit to the coalition. For instance the notion of a "Shapley value" is used to measure the importance of an individual to a broader coalition and it does not refer to an agent’s marginal product in the traditional sense. do not translate into a strong case for the small unit perspective in this setting. Our choices themselves include “which action or actions should be treated as the relevant margin. On the bargaining theory foundations for the Shapely value. using the marginalist method. unique margin for addressing normative issues. while it hardly commands universal support. The proper conception of the margin depends on what we take to be the relevant constraints on our choices and again we return to the ambiguities discussed above and to the notion of the feasible as a matter of degree. In formal terms. the relevant definition of “the margin” is not given immediately or unambiguously by the objective facts of the case. in this context the specialized literature has not generally sided with the small unit perspective. More fundamentally.” “only the last five of the six shoot. or a voter’s contribution to a political coalition.16 The Shapley value. A Shapley value may help measure a worker’s contribution to joint production. In the firing squad example.” “only the first five of the six shoot. Yet the positive analytical successes of economics.
applicable. That means the relevant question is not whether to bundle but rather which form or method of bundling is the best way to proceed. still in the real world we must act in some manner. which by its nature cannot be combined or weighted with anything else. That’s a form of progress. All of a sudden the 23 . take a policy that has no effect when applied in small doses but significantly boosts economic growth when it is applied repeatedly. the overall blend will give some weight to bundling. For instance. will be influencing the final decisions. Aggregation procedures are the friend of bundling. In expected value terms we still ought to pursue the recommendation of the bundled perspective. Most importantly. given how the calculation would proceed. In contrast. as I have called it. as a general method. When we have multiple. So again. but in fact the arguments for bundling are stronger than that mere observation. the result generally will involve some bundling.2. If we combine rules-based and act-based perspectives. That’s a deliberately oversimplified example but it reflects a more general point. or otherwise relevant in some manner with some positive probability. if we aggregate together bundled and single unit perspectives. does not defeat a rules-based perspective. whatever the weights and bundled entities may be. Furthermore assume that we believe bundling to be correct. aggregation procedures move us away from the singleact perspective. not its enemy. the very act of combining means that on net we are left with some form of bundling. If we aggregate individual unit and bundled perspectives in some manner.V. but in net terms some method of bundling. coexisting perspectives floating around in our moral theory. Ultimately that blend is more of a victory for the bundled perspective than for the single act perspective. More complicated examples will give weight to both act and bundled perspectives. That suggests looking to some plausible aggregate or combination of those multiple perspectives and again bundling has survived the reduction argument. the arguments for bundling do not require bundling to be correct with certainty or with p = 1. say p = 0. How strong can the arguments for a rules-based perspective get? So far the argument has established only that the reduction argument.
I’ve tried to show it isn’t. on at least equal terms and possibly superior terms. or public-minded in the first place. They might just be part of a very important noble truth.debate has been settled in favor of bundling. if indeed they are that sophisticated. simply hoping to survive the next election cycle. The notion of rules offers a legitimate and independent perspective which can compete with act consequentialism. Politicians typically look at the marginal products of particular actions. I am pursuing the question of whether we can find a focal means of bundling. while still insisting the latter cannot be philosophically justified. For instance plenty of act utilitarians will admit we are better off for believing in rule utilitarianism. this kind of “noble lie” defense of a rules-based perspective does not get us very far on its own. given the multiplicity of bundling options facing us. A second consideration is the practical one: in which direction is our civilization most likely to err? Are we more likely to perish because our decision algorithms involved too much bundling or too little bundling? In my view. Policymakers often make decisions on a day-to-day. currently in progress. it is unlikely that real world decision-makers will bundle too much. But the “noble lie” approach is too cynical a way of viewing the choice between rules-based and act-based perspectives. rational. If that’s the case. the practical benefits of believing in a rules-based perspective don’t have to be seen as a noble lie. Calling it a noble lie is assuming that a rules-based perspective is a philosophical weak sister to begin with. In future work. case-by-case basis. 24 . The nature of politics is more likely to produce too little bundling than too much bundling. That is one reason why we make as many political mistakes as we do. in some form or another. To be sure. or act utilitarianism. rather than treating a broader set of actions as a bundled group.
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