Society Must be Governed by Rules
According to Sober, "Utilitarianism is an ethical theory whose central idea is 'the greatest good for the greatest number'" (Sober 430). Utilitarianism rose in opposition to the idea that the upper crust of society had the right to arrange the rules of society as they saw fit. The concern of Utilitarianism is the most good for the most people, not the most good for the people that "matter." From this standpoint, Utilitarianism appears to be an attractive ethical theory. However, there are many philosophers who criticize Utilitarianism. They argue that the apparently simple premise of Utilitarianism has many complex problems behind it. For example, what is happiness? How can we ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? And what happens if acting for the greatest good for the greatest number leads to injustice? I believe that a specific variation of Utilitarianism -- Rule Utilitarianism -- can adequately address these problems, and it is therefore the most plausible ethical theory.
Rule Utilitarianism is derived from the basic Utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. However, where Act Utilitarianism addresses each individual action or situation in reference to this principle, Rule Utilitarianism states that we must use the Utilitarian principle to define the rules that regulate society. Many of the rules of modern society have derived in this manner. For example, it would not benefit the most people if murder were allowed by society. No matter how beneficial a murder might be for one individual, society would not benefit from murder being allowed, and therefore Rule Utilitarianism supports the idea that murder is wrong. However, society does benefit from murdering people who are dangerous to society -- those who murder other people. Therefore, Rule Utilitarianism can also be used to support the idea of capital punishment, even as it opposes murder. Rule Utilitarianism is an offspring of Utilitarianism; however, instead of using the utilitarian principle to examine whether an action is ethical on an individual basis, Rule Utilitarianism uses this principle to formulate rules to govern society. Therefore, Rule Utilitarianism is a very realistic ethical theory. Modern society is not governed by one overriding principle, as Utilitarianism would suggest. Society is governed by rules, and Rule Utilitarianism would allow society to formulate rules with the greatest good for the greatest number in mind.
Elliot Sober presents one objection to Utilitarianism in what he calls, "The Case of the Lonely Stranger." Sober presents a situation in which a sheriff in a town where a murder has occurred knows that the murderer is dead, and knows the town will riot soon if a suspect is not arrested. The sheriff also knows that the town will not believe him if he tells them that the murderer is dead. The sheriff is then presented with a stranger with no...