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11.4: Rule Utilitarianism on Stealing

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  • If you find yourself wishing to defend Utilitarianism, but are left uninspired by the extent to which Act Utilitarianism and Preference Utilitarianism can speak against instances of stealing, then Rule Utilitarianism may provide you with reason for optimism. As a reminder, the rule utilitarian suggests that moral action is action that would be recommended by the set of rules that, if followed, would promote the greatest good for the greatest number. On initial viewing, it might seem that a rule banning stealing would be a good candidate to be included in the set of rules that would produce the greatest good for the greatest number, especially given the potential psychological costs associated with stealing as described above.

    Indeed, if we think more broadly about the “best set of rules”, then it might seem likely that there would be a rule requiring adequate provision of food for those hungry or lacking resources, and a similar rule regarding provision of medical treatment and housing etc. Such provision would not be free, of course, but the best set of rules would very likely include provision for collecting adequate taxation, given that a pound spent on someone in distress is likely to facilitate greater future happiness than a pound spent by someone economically comfortable (though we encourage you to consider this idea in more depth, perhaps with your own examples).

    Despite the previous ideas, it may be suggested that the best set of rules would allow for stealing “when necessary” and thus discriminate between “good” stealing and “bad” stealing in a way that satisfies the non-absolutist. How easy it would be to write such a rule that is consistent with promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number, yet does not “get it wrong” with individual instances of stealing and their moral status, is something that you again should find it useful to consider. Here, it will be worth revisiting the distinction between Strong Rule Utilitarianism and Weak Ruse Utilitarianism as discussed in Chapter 1.

    Finally, it is worth considering the impact of a style of “demandingness” objection as it pertains to applying Rule Utilitarianism in the context of stealing. Recall from Chapter 1, Mill’s harm principle:

    The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.4

    If the harm principle informs rules in the set that promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then there would be no rule allowing people to take assets from private individuals in order to redistribute resources for the purpose of promoting happiness. A useful example to have in mind would be of jewels stored in a safety deposit box in perpetuity, when those jewels could be used in ways that would promote greater levels of happiness if stolen and sold. Such action — which seems to have the appearance of stealing from private individuals for the greater good in the style of Robin Hood — would not appear to sit neatly with Mill’s own harm principle. At the very least, in would need a particularly interesting interpretation of the notion of preventing harm to others.

    This entire issue in itself highlights the difficulty of actually fixing the rules by which the rule utilitarian wants us to judge specific actions in our minds, and this also raises another problem for the rule utilitarian in respect of the difficulty of practically applying the theory to stealing. It might be useful to return to cases 1–5 as outlined in section four and ask yourself what the rule utilitarian would suggest in those cases — does the answer of the rule utilitarian put them in a more or less attractive position than the answers of the act and preference utilitarians?

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