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This page contains a summary of Ideal Code, Real World (2000) by Brad Hooker. This book presents a description of and defense of a version of rule-consequentialism that addresses many of the practical difficulties with applying act-consequentialism or act-utilitarianism in the real world. Although the summary here is detailed, the reader is encouraged to read the original book to fully understand its concepts.

Note that Hooker refers to his theories as a type of consequentialism (which is a broader category than utilitarianism), but Bentham equated happiness and well-being in his manuscript on deontology thereby allowing the possibility that this type of consequentialism is utilitarianism in the strict sense (see deontology Utility). There other differences between Hooker's theories and traditional utilitarianism, but regardless of the labels, the theories here are relevant to the study of utilitarianism.

Chapter 1: Introduction Edit

The introduction to this book includes a brief description of rule-consequentialism, a review of the five criteria that Hooker used to evaluate moral theories, and a discussion of impartiality. Some of the content of the introduction is taken from an earlier article that argued against ethical pluralism.

What is Rule-Consequentialism? Edit

In its simplest form, rule-consequentialism is a moral theory that suggests that people should follow rules that are set according to which rule, if internalized by the vast majority of people, would produce the best outcome (p. 2). Hooker's version of rule-consequentialism adds the suggestion that if two or more rules produce the best expected consequences, then we should prefer the one that is closest to existing morality [1] (p. 3). More details are given in the next chapter.

Hooker used two methods of identifying the rules of rule-consequentialism. One was a mathematical calculation of the value of the consequences of two rules (p. 3). The other is a less-specific suggestion that a rule is good if the result of everybody feeling free to act in a given way would lead to good consequences, and a rule is bad if everyone feeling free to act in a give way will have bad consequences (p. 5).

Methodology Edit

Hooker presented five criteria for evaluating (and presumably fine-tuning) moral theories:

  1. They begin with attractive general beliefs (this prevents the possibility of creating moral theories that seem plausible that were derived from principles that people cannot accept).
  2. They are internally consistent.
  3. They are consistent with existing morality (they are especially consistent with the most defensible or most important moral convictions).
  4. They describe a basic principle that explains and justifies moral convictions.
  5. They help to resolve moral conflicts. (p. 4; see also Comparison of moral systems)

Hooker interpreted the third criterion broadly and used the term reflective equilibrium to describe the correspondence between a theory and specific moral convictions.

A potential problem with this criteria is that the third criterion affords unfounded weight to existing moral conventions. Hooker acknowledged the pitfalls of accepting ethical principles that stem from culture, but also suggested that ethical convictions are inherently evaluative and that we cannot avoid evaluating such convictions without some reference to our existing beliefs (p. 11).

Unifying Principles and Impartiality Edit

One compelling reason to look for a unifying ethical principle is that it could help to resolve ethical disputes or conflicts (p. 22). Rules should be impartial with respect to scope so that any circumstances that define the applicability of the rule do not refer to specific people (or classes of people), specific places, and so forth (p. 25).

One view of impartiality allows for directing some of that effort toward the worst-off (as Hooker will tentatively suggest that we do). In response to the implausibility of acting strictly impartially toward both self and other, Hooker allows for some preference to benefit the self, family, and friends (p. 28-29) but continued to describe his theory as fundamentally impartial (p. 29-30).

Chapter 2: What Are the Rules to Promote? Edit

The Main Idea Edit

Hooker started the chapter with a concise definition of his version of rule-consequential. Some of the main points were as follows:

  1. Rules are selected if their internalization by most people is expected to produce the best outcome in terms of (aggregate) well-being.
  2. The worst off are given some preference.
  3. The expected value of a code reflects the cost of promulgating it so that people internalize it.
  4. If multiple rules have the same expected value, choose the one that is closest to conventional morality. (p. 32)

An additional element of Hooker's rule-consequentialism is his "prevent disaster" policy in which rules can be broken if and only if doing so would prevent disaster (p. 98).

Details Edit

The number of good or bad acts does not influence the selection of rules—only the aggregate well-being matters (p. 33). By ignoring intrinsic value of acts themselves, the resulting theory makes fewer assumptions while continuing to explain morality (p. 34). Hooker later conceded that there is some intrinsic value in virtues that help people to accept the rules that are proposed by rule-consequentialism (p. 36), but he also suggested that it is rule-consequentialism that describes what these virtues are (p. 37).

The definition of well-being affects the implementation of Hooker's rule-consequentialism, but philosophers have disagreed on what the definition should be. A utilitarian view of well-being is that pleasure and pain define well-being and that these things are evaluated through introspection. Hooker opposes this measure of well-being by presenting an example of being delusional and deriving pleasure from his perception that he achieved his goals even though, empirically, he has not done so (p. 38). Ultimately he concluded that desires contribute to well-being only if they are for the right thing (p. 40).

Bentham's criteria of pleasure as a basis for utilitarianism is an example of a subjectivist view, but an objectivist view would be that there is an objective basis by which people can independently determine what is best for others. Hooker's conception of well-being seems to be objectivist by allowing the possibility that an external forces (e.g., governments or religious institutions) could determine (dictate?) what well being means for others. His defense is that his system counts autonomy as valuable thereby preventing egregious abuses of external power (p. 40-41).

Hooker tentatively endorsed what he called the objective list theory of personal good in which pleasure, knowledge, achievement, friendship, and autonomy are included in the determination of well-being (p. 41, 43). In the end, Hooker explicitly takes a neutral stance on what is the best measure of well-being.

Alternative Bases of Rule-Consequentialism Edit

Hooker addressed some potential bases for rule-consequentialism. Equality is one such basis, but he warns that it should not be interpreted to level down the best-off so that they are equal to the worst off (p. 45).

The related principles of fairness, justice, and desert are often considered bases of ethical systems, but Hooker warned that desire for these things does not bring with it criteria to determine what is fair, just, or deserving (p. 45-48). Procedural justice and formal justice (legal justice) are appealing for their appearance of impartiality in the application of rules, but Hooker warned that impartially applied rules can be unjust. In the end, Hooker argued that concepts of justice and fairness ultimately rest upon perceptions of what people deserve (p. 49), and that demands for justice and fairness to not resolve this dependency.

In his discussion of contracts, Hooker argued that his rule-consequentialism explains prevailing beliefs about contracts. His system asserts that the force of contracts outweighs any desire for proportionality (p. 55). This principles applies to the case in which the most productive employee gets a large bonus and the second most productive employee gets no bonus (the reward is disproportional, but the employment contract was clear and adopted freely). Exactly how Hooker would apply his principle of affording some priority to the worst off would have substantial implications for any reply to libertarian arguments that nothing should interfere with contracts (e.g., libertarians would argue that labor laws or minimum wage laws are unjustifiable).

Priority for the Worst Off Edit

Jeremy Bentham's version of utilitarianism suggested that the utility of each person should be counted equally, whereas Hooker suggested that rules should favor those who are in the most difficult circumstances. He calls this a weighted sum of well-being. His examples of economic incentives demonstrates that redirecting some of the incentives from the well-off group to the least-well-off minority can increase the total utility of the system (p. 56-57). One of the unstated assumptions is that the least-well-off group must be a small minority or the disparity between the well-off and least-well-off groups must be large. Hooker listed some pragmatic difficulties including the lack of precision when calculating utility and difficulty of choosing which group should benefit.

Hooker reviewed the utilitarian equivalent of redirecting resources to the least-well-off. Because people with an abundance of food, bicycles, and other material goods receive decreasing benefit from more of these things and poor people would experience great benefit from having a small portion of these things, some of a nation's income should be redirected to the least-well-off (p. 63). Hooker stated several times that he is unsure of the superiority of one approach versus the other (p. 65).

Animals and Nature Edit

Hooker reviewed the appeal of contractualism but argued that it fails when dealing with animals. Starting with the assertion that animals matter morally because of their ability to suffer, he suggested that contractualism could be modified to address animals needs through a human trustee, but that this approach seemed ad hoc and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of contractualism (p. 69). He noted that some people perceive intrinsic value in nature, and that this is more difficult for contractualism to address. He suggested that rule-consequentialism could be weighted to consider the value of "environmental goods" (p. 70). Despite this seemly environmentalist view, Hooker expressed uncertainty that the natural environment has value beyond its direct and indirect impact on sentient beings (p. 70-71).


Chapter 3: Questions of Formulation Edit

Expected vs. Actual Consequences Edit

The sometimes conflicting concepts of blameworthiness and moral permissibility affect our judgments when information is lacking. Hooker argued that an offense might be wrong but not be blameworthy if it was based on misinterpretation of evidence that a reasonable person would have made.

Compliance vs. Acceptance Edit

Some versions of rule-consequentialism formulate rules based on the expected consequences of compliance with the rules versus acceptance of them. Acceptance implies that people would be morally motivated to follow the rule, they would encourage others to follow the rule, and so on. Hooker's view is that codes of behavior are internalized throughout society in a way similar to the current transmission of ethical values (p. 79). If one code is expected to have slightly better consequences than an alternative code, but the cost of leading people to internalize the first code is much higher than the corresponding cost for the second code, then the net benefit of the second code, considering implementation costs, would make it preferable (p. 79). Hooker offered an exception to this rule by saying that the cost of changing the beliefs of racist, sexist, or homophobic people should not be counted, but justification for this from within the framework of consequentialism seemed lacking (p. 79-80).

What is Acceptance Edit

Hooker's version of rule-consequentialism does not envision universal acceptance of codes of conduct but does hypothesize acceptance by a vast majority of people. In a passing note, Hooker mentioned that selection of the best code need not be determined by consequentialism itself (in contrast to the global utilitarianism of Toby Ord[2]; p. 81; see also p. 101).

On Rules Edit

Sidgwick defended the policy of presenting popular morality to the general public without the consequentialist foundations while simultaneously maintaining the full consequentialism for the elite class. This policy implied some degree of deception of the masses, but Hooker's version of consequentialism implies rules that would be equally meaningful for all (p. 85).

In any system of moral codes, the codes will eventually conflict with one another. To resolve the conflict, Hooker proposed an objectivist solution: let those who are virtuous and "morally well-trained" resolve the conflict[3] (p. 90). Hooker offered several clarifications that the serious student of consequentialism would need to study directly.

Chapter 4: Collapse or Incoherence Edit

Many philosophers have suggested that either rule-consequentialism collapses into act-consequentialism or that it becomes incoherent. Hooker denies these accusations.

Chapter 5: Predictability and Convention Edit

Unrestricted conventionalism is the view that people should always follow conventional morality (no matter how bad it might be; p. 112). Satisficing conventionalism follows convention if it is not too bad. Hooker opposes both views.

Unrestricted Conventionalism Edit

Philosophers have argued that determination of the (complete set of) best rule-consequentialist rules is either exceedingly difficult or impossible. Hooker's version of consequentialism avoids some of the difficult calculations by deferring to conventional morality where needed, and he asserts that there will be few cases in which substantially different codes are equally distant from conventional morality and have the same expected value (p. 114-115). A passing comment in this section was that people cannot decide on what the code should be on their own: the implication being that some panel or institution should be responsible for this task (p. 115).

Although critics have argued that Hooker's rule-consequentialism is too conservative, the benefit is that it improves upon conventional morality when there is a basis for doing so and also avoids paralysis by providing a default stance on many issues (conventional morality).


Chapter 6: Prohibitions and Special Obligations Edit

This chapter reviews how rule-consequentialism addresses behaviors that are morally prohibited and those that stem from obligation.

Prohibitions Edit

Many people believe that it is wrong to harm innocent people, but people disagree about the existence of exceptions to general rules about prohibitions. For those that permit exceptions to general rules about prohibitions, there is no "one size" of incremental benefit that is universally recognized as justifying an exception to a moral code (p. 128). If it is possible to address these exceptions, moral judgment will be required. Hooker's defense against absolutist philosophies was to argue that the absolutists have not made the case that we should reject all exceptions for some rules (p. 130).

Hooker reviewed his principle of breaking rules when doing so can prevent disaster, and reminded the reader that rule-consequentialist would not break a moral code simply because a small benefit can be gained for doing so. Instead, rules are broken only to prevent large losses (disasters).

When resolving moral conflicts, there is no master list that tells us which principles override other principles, but perhaps the duty to avoid injuring people is strong than the duty to actively help people (p. 133). As for absolute moral codes that should never be broken, Hooker tentatively suggested that rule-consequentialism would always allow at least the possibility of breaking any rule (p. 135). In his summary, Hooker suggested that rule-consequential "comes up short" (p. 136) with regard to conflict resolution, but then argued that there is no simple rule that could justly resolve all moral conflicts.

Obligations Edit

Hooker previously stated that his system allows some priority toward helping friends and family (p. 136). In some cases you are required to help these people. When occupying a special role (e.g., judge), persons are required to be impartial, but off duty they would be required to give preferential treatment (e.g., to their children; p. 136-137). Without arguing that selfishness is unavoidable, Hooker suggested that selfishness is "pervasive and recalcitrant" (p. 137).

Even those who act altruistically in an emergency might not act altruistically on a daily basis (p. 138). Besides self-interest, our own good (according to Hooker) is substantially influenced by our sense of accomplishment and our friendships (attachments to other people; p. 138). The combination of self-interest and our needs for achievement and attachments to others calls for preferential treatment of those close to us. Some close relationships (such as with family members or a spouse) require some degree of loyalty that is more enduring than temporary variations in affection (p. 140-141). Hooker's system accounts for these needs.


Chapter 7: Act-Consequentialism Edit

One version of act-consequentialism is the system of evaluating the morality of actions based on the consequences of each act without deferring to a general rule. Hooker said that nobody does this for several reasons including that we do not have the time or information to make such judgments about every action (p. 142-143). He also suggested that this type of act-consequentialism leads people to adopt rules, such as promise-keeping, so that trust and the social order are maintained.

The main difference between act- and rule-consequentialism is when the rule from rule-consequentialism produces results that are slightly worse than an alternative act, and sometimes secondary effects complicate the analysis of the act (p. 145-146). The next section is an example of an act- versus rule-consequentialism problem in which the immediate act of giving food to people in a poor country might have secondary effects of increasing the total number of people who suffer in the future. Hooker made some economic predictions that are outside the normal scope of ethics but ultimately suggested that act-consequentialism would require that every act is directed to help the poorest people, thereby leading to impoverishment of people who currently have resources (p. 151). This leads to the demandingness objection to act-consequentialism.

Where that duty stops, so does permissability (p. 152). Hooker argued that this duty and permissability implies that act-consequentialists can not rightly favor their friends and family, which he sees as too demanding (p. 155).

Chapter 8: Rule-Consequentialism and Doing Good for the World Edit

This chapter continues with the discussion of charitable giving that was started in the previous chapter.

One rule of thumb about charitable giving is that we should give as long as the benefit to others is large relative to the cost to ourselves, but Hooker says that this becomes too demanding because it would lead to donating until the giver is poor (p. 159-160).

Perfect duties are those that everyone should obey at all times. Imperfect duties are those that people should obey in general but without a need to obey in every instance. If you have an imperfect duty to help others, that means that you can choose to not help some people if you choose to help another (p. 160). When applied to the current discussion, Hooker suggested that the imperfect duties view allows individuals to arbitrarily determine how much to give (p. 161). He sees this as problematic (p. 162).

In reference to a general rule that requires each of us (who are well-off by global standards) to make some contribution to charity, Hooker suggested that it would be a good rule while admitting that an individuals are not compelled to become economists before estimating the course of action that would have the highest expected value (p. 164-165). He also suggested that there would be prohibitive implementation costs of getting each new generation to consent to giving huge donations to charity (p. 166). In a passing note, Hooker mentioned that people would be allowed to make donations beyond the minimum—this is contrary to the prohibition against supererogation found in some forms of utilitarianism (based on the assertion that acts not aligned with the maximum happiness are not maximal). It also contradicts the act-utilitarian principle mentioned on page 152 about permissability ending where duty stops. He sees donations as an imperfect duty (p. 167). In the end, Hooker sees his version of consequentialism as withstanding claims that it requires counterintuitively severe demands for charity (p. 173).

Chapter 9: Help with Practical Problems Edit

The first topic begins with an observation of a strong moral sanction against premarital sex a century ago and a consideration of how or if we should eliminate that sanction. Some relevant factors are the availability of birth control that was not available a century ago; shorter life span in the old days and other factors perhaps calling for the need for marriage (as well as religious beliefs). His point was not to prescribe what the rule should be but to observe that the rule in the old days could be supported by utilitarian arguments and, after various changes occurred, the utilitarian case waned and the prohibition against premarital sex diminished (p. 175-176).

Hooker identified six, morally relevant categories of euthanasia that reflected combinations of active and passive with voluntary, involuntary, and nonvoluntary (p. 179). One of the challenges in this debate is the possibility that a person with a terminal illness might not be in a rational state to make life and death decisions (p. 180). A temporary wish to die might lead to deaths of people who would otherwise change their minds, so a waiting period is recommended for active euthanasia (p. 181).

An underlying emphasis on personal autonomy would seem to support legality of voluntary euthanasia. Negative side-effects of involuntary euthanasia could include avoidance of hospitals for fear of being killed. Feelings of personal security would diminish if hospitals (or governments) adopted policies of killing people according to what those organizations thought was best for the patient. The result is that rule-consequentialism would support active, voluntary euthanasia but not involuntary, passive euthanasia (p. 182).

There is a possibility of a false diagnosis that leads a patient to want to be killed (p. 183). Unexpected cures also complicate the decision. Agreement between three experts might reduce the chances these errors.

For nonvoluntary euthanasia (i.e., people who are unconscious without a living will), decisions should not be made by people who stand to gain (such as by inheritance;. p. 185). A policy of encouraging living will would help to reduce problems with nonvoluntary euthanasia. Other restrictions on euthanasia would depend on empirical probability of abuses, but overall, some types of euthanasia would produce net benefit (p. 187).

References Edit

  1. Hooker, Brad (2000). Ideal Code, Real World. Clarendon Press: Oxford
  2. Ord, Toby. How to be a consequentialist about everything. http://www.amirrorclear.net/academic/papers/everything.pdf
  3. Although traditional utilitarians might gasp at this suggestion, it is important to consider how other ethical systems would perform in their entirety when examined at this level of detail. Pure utilitarianism might approach the conflict differently and rely on similar experts to use calculations to resolve the conflict.


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