What’s the difference between rule-based utilitarianism and deontology?

Robert asked:

What’s the difference between a rule-utilitarian and a Kantian? Is there really a difference?

Answer by Paul Fagan

This question is really a big area for debate and a small article such as this one, will never do it justice. However, I will attempt to give the questioner a few helpful pointers.

At first glance, rule based-utilitarianism and deontology (of which Kantianism is a famous variant) may seem to be similar because they both seemingly need ‘rules’ to operate: but there are differences and a major one will be explained.

For me, the difference lies where each particular school of thought places value. For instance, the utilitarian, as a consequentialist, will wish to achieve an end-state which may require rules to achieve this. However, the Deontologist, who may value wholesome interactions between people in their daily life, would wish for codes of conduct to be applied continually. Hence, there may be both a noticeable time difference and a geographical difference when each of the valued goods is realised: the utilitarian’s goal may be realised eventually and distantly, whilst the deontologist’s goal should be realised universally and constantly.

When giving examples of how utilitarians and deontologist differ, often very ludicrous examples are offered; and self-confessed utilitarians or deontologists are prone to use such examples even though they are unlikely to face such dilemmas in their own lives. A typical example is as follows: Sharon wishes to kill Tracey and one may avoid an act of murder by pretending not to know Tracey’s whereabouts. Here, the utilitarian may lie about the matter without any qualms; viewing murder as a potentially wrongful end-state. Contrast this with the deontologist who may believe that one should always act honestly as lying to another person is reprehensibly using them as a means to an end (although it should be noted, that in these cases like this, some variants of deontology will allow some acts that save a potential victim’s life).

Examples like this are often aired and may be found to be quite irksome as they strictly define persons within a single philosophy and do not reflect reality: when faced with this situation the hardened deontologist is likely to momentarily become a utilitarian.

Concerns for realism aside, for me, the important point is what one values the most: an end-state or rightful behaviour. To this end, deontologists and utilitarians alike may construct as many ‘rules’ as they desire to ensure the attainment of their respective desiderata and so focusing upon ‘rules’ is relatively unimportant.

Here, I have attempted, in a very simplistic, manner to demonstrate an important difference of two schools of philosophy. For further reading, in a similar simplistic vein, the reader may like to refer to Ben Dupré’s 50 philosophy ideas you really need to know (London : Quercus); which features a very good section introducing ethics. After this, the reader may like to peruse James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy (London: McGraw- Hill). I hope this helps.

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