If I believe in rule-utilitarianism as the best moral system we have to judge what actions are right and wrong, how would I go about applying this system pratically in real life decisions?

For example, if I was a strict-utilitarian it would be somewhat approachable. I could try to predict the likely consequences of an action and see if they contribute to a net-gain in happiness.

But with rule-utilitarianism, how do I even go about applying it? If there’s an action I want to judge morally, do I need to now make thousands of rules that I believe will grant the best net-gain of happiness and then see which of these rules this action falls under?

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    I doubt that you'd be able to predict consequences of most actions, let alone decide how they contribute to "net happiness", whatever that is. The idealism and impracticality of it is what sunk strict utilitarianism as an ethical system. You do not need thousands of rules, only settle on a few general ones (like be honest, etc.) that you believe would make things better on average. You are much more free to idealize in picking them than when "calculating happiness" case by case, and time tested candidates are already available. And then you have to follow them, without any more "calculations". – Conifold Oct 27 '19 at 11:03

Typically, it will be enough to imagine one or two rules and consider the utility of the consequences if you would follow these rules, generally.

The textbook example is the broken promise. Imagine, you made a promise to pay a kid 10$ to mow your lawn. After the job is done, you consider giving the 10$ to charity where it would be passed to a child much more in need and therefore where it would generate much more utility.

According to rule-utilitarianism, you would have to compare something along the line of the utility generated by the consequences of following the rule "keep promises at large" vs. the utility generated by the consequences of following the rule "keep promises at discretion".

Of course, which rule exactly to test and how to formuate it, is hard to pin down. But that is notoric in ethical problems and solutions. I find rule-utilitarianism an idea that can be put to praxis.

  • +1. Probably more than one or two unless they are highly abstract. Nice answer, though. – Geoffrey Thomas Jul 24 '20 at 8:40

Do I need to now make thousands of rules...?

It would be impossible to make all the rules you need. From Sheldon Kopp's Eschatological Laundry List:

We must live with the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial power, and partial knowledge.

All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficent data.

Therefore, a good course of action might be prioritization. Try to brainstorm some of the more important rules for situations you are likely to encounter. Under what conditions would you want to run a red light, lie or kill someone?

If you run into a more unusual situation you aren't prepared for, then you just have to sit down and study that situation.

That's pretty much how law works. There were no laws governing patents or the Internet until the advent of patents and the Internet.

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