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Is Mill A Rule Utilitarian?

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D. Vinson

Is Mill A Rule Utilitarian?

I don't believe so. I must begin my argument with two definitions and one assumption. First, Rule Utilitarianism states that right action is defined by whether or not a given action is an instance of a moral rule that tends to maximize utility. Second, Act Utilitarianism states that right action is defined by whether or not a given action maximizes utility. Finally, the Utilitarian Principle holds that right actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. I hope that my assumption will be granted as it is taken verbatim from the text. With these notions as a starting point I believe that I can now show Mill to be an act-utilitarian.

The case for Mill being a rule-utilitarian is a strong one. Mill certainly relies heavily on rules in his treatise and argues that they are useful to the point of necessity.

To consider the rules of morality as improvable is one thing;

to pass over the intermediate generalizations entirely, and to

endeavor to test each individual action directly by the first

principle is another.

Further on in the text, Mill even seems to minimize the importance of the first principle by declaring that it is only useful for settling disputes over secondary principles.

Ð'...only in these cases of conflict between secondary

principles is it requisite that first principles should be appealed


The problems with Mill being a rule-utilitarian begin to arise when we examine its method. When, in the statement of the Utilitarian Principle, Mill says that right actions tend to promote happiness, some have taken that to mean that Mill must only be dealing with classes of action. If this were the case, then an instance of a right action class, if in the wrong (of any infinitely complex) set of circumstances, may fail to maximize happiness but still be right.

Furthermore, an act-utilitarian may still make great use of moral rules to help make right actions. It may be that moral rules provide a generally reliable guideline for how to act without determining that it is always the right way to act and that they indicate completely wrong action in some cases. This is supported by a passage from the text.

Mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs which have thus come down are the rules of morality for the multitude, and for the philosopher until he has succeeded in finding better. That philosophers might easily do this, even now, on many subjects; that the received code of ethics is by no means of divine right; and that mankind have still much to learn as to the effects of actions on general happiness, I admit or rather earnestly maintain.

If our secondary principles are prone to revision and even deletion then either Mill is an act-utilitarian who allows use of rules that tend to maximize utility to guide our action on simple, or at least morally commonplace, decisions but holds the



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