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Two Concepts of Rule Utilitarianism

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image of Journal of Moral Philosophy

The notion of rule utilitarianism (a twentieth-century addition to the canon of utilitarian thought) has been discussed under two main headings—ideal-rule utilitarianism and 'indirect' utilitarianism. The distinction between them is often hazy. But we can sketch out each perspective along three different dimensions, contrasting the two conceptions of rule utilitarianism at each of three main hinge points: (1) the grounding of rules, (2) the allowed complexity of rules, (3) the conflict of rules. These two profiles constitute ideal types, but they help us see that we can regiment and focus utilitarian intuitions in two quite distinct ways. An interesting test case is provided by J.S. Mill. He has been associated with each of these perspectives (with a utilitarianism of ideal rules by R.B. Brandt and with indirect utilitarianism by John Gray), but careful attention to Mill's main arguments indicates, I believe, that he adheres to neither consistently, though he is closer to the indirect utilitarian position.


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