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The Need for General Rules

August 9, 2013

Tags World HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology

[Excerpted from The Foundations of Morality by Henry Hazlitt.]

1. The Contribution of Hume

David Hume, probably the greatest of British philosophers, made three major contributions to ethics. The first was the naming and consistent application of “the principle of utility.”1 The second was his account of sympathy. The third, no less important than the others, was to point out not only that we must adhere inflexibly to general rules of action, but why this is essential to secure the interests and happiness of the individual and of mankind.

It is a puzzling development in the history of ethical thought, however, that this third contribution has been so often overlooked not only by subsequent writers of the Utilitarian School, including Bentham, but even by historians of ethics when they are discussing Hume himself.2 One reason for this, perhaps, is that Hume, in the discussion of Morals in hisTreatise of Human Nature (1740) devotes only a comparatively few paragraphs to the point. And in his Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, published twelve years later (in 1752), which in his autobiography he described as “incomparably the best” of all his writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, he gave even less space to it. Yet it is so important and so central that it can hardly receive too much emphasis and elaboration.

Let us begin with Hume’s own exposition of the principle, and of the reasons for it, in the Treatise:

A single act of justice is frequently contrary to public interest; and were it to stand alone, without being followed by other acts, may, in itself, be very prejudicial to society. When a man of merit, of a beneficent disposition, restores a great fortune to a miser, or a seditious bigot, he has acted justly and laudably; but the public is the real sufferer. Nor is every single act of justice, considered apart, more conducive to private interest than to public; and it is easily conceived how a man may impoverish himself by a single instance of integrity, and have reason to wish that, with regard to that single act, the laws of justice were for a moment suspended in the universe. But however single acts of justice may be contrary either to public or private interest, it is certain that the whole plan or scheme is highly conductive, or indeed absolutely requisite, both to the support of society, and the well-being of every individual. It is impossible to separate the good from the ill. Property must be stable, and must be fixed by general rules. Though in one instance the public be a sufferer, this momentary ill is amply compensated by the steady prosecution of the rule, and by the peace and order which it establishes in society. And even every indivdual person must find himself a gainer on balancing the account; since, without justice, society must immediately dissolve, and every one must fall into that savage and solitary condition which is infinitely worse than the worst situation that can possibly be supposed in society. When, therefore, men have had experience enough to observe that whatever may be the consequence of any single act of justice, performed by a single person, yet the whole system of actions concurred in by the whole society is infinitely advantageous to the whole, and to every part, it is not long before justice and property take place. Every member of society is sensible of this interest: every one expresses this sense to his fellows, along with the resolution he has taken of squaring his actions by it, on condition that others will do the same. No more is requisite to induce any one of them to perform an act of justice, who has the first opportunity. This becomes an example to others; and thus justice establishes itself by a kind of convention or agreement, that is, by a sense of interest, supposed to be common to all, and where every single act is performed in expectation that others are to perform the like. Without such a convention, no one would ever have dreamed that there was such a virtue as justice, or have been induced to conform his actions to it. Taking any single act, my justice may be pernicious in every respect; and it is only upon the supposition that others are to imitate my example, that I can be induced to embrace that virtue; since nothing but this combination can render justice advantageous, or afford me any motives to conform myself to its rules.3

And some thirty pages further on, Hume observes: “The avidity and partiality of men would quickly bring disorder into the world, if not restrained by some general and inflexible principles. It was therefore with a view to this inconvenience that men have established those principles, and have agreed to restrain themselves by general rules, which are unchangeable by spite and favor, and by particular views of private or public interest.”4

In his Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, a dozen years later, Hume returns to the theme, though it is unfortunately made less central to his argument than in the earlier work. In the body of the Inquiry we find only one or two brief references, in a single sentence, to “the necessity of rules wherever men have any intercourse with each other.”5 It is not till we get to the Conclusion that we come to a second brief reference to the need of “homage to general rules.”6 And it is not till we get to the Appendices that we find any extended discussion, and even this is confined to two or three pages:

The benefit resulting from [the social virtues of justice and fidelity] is not the consequence of every individual single act, but arises from the whole scheme or system concurred in by the whole or the greater part of the society. General peace and order are the attendants of justice, or a general abstinence from the possessions of others; but a particular regard to the particular right of one individual citizen may frequently, considered in itself, be productive of pernicious consequences. The result of the individual acts is here, in many instances, directly opposite to that of the whole system of actions; and the former may be extremely hurtful, while the latter is, to the highest degree, advantageous. Riches inherited from a parent are in a bad man’s hand the instrument of mischief. The right of succession may, in one instance, be hurtful. Its benefit arises only from the observance of the general rule; and it is sufficient if compensation be thereby made for all the ills and inconveniences which flow from particular characters and situations.7

Hume then speaks of “the general, inflexible rules necessary to support general peace and order in society,” and continues:

All the laws of nature which regulate property as well as all civil laws are general and regard alone some essential circumstances of the case, without taking into consideration the characters, situations, and connections of the person concerned or any particular consequences which may result from the determination of these laws in any particular case which offers. They deprive, without scruple, a beneficent man of all his possessions if acquired by mistake, without a good title, in order to bestow them on a selfish miser who has already heaped up immense stores of superfluous riches. Public utility requires that property should be regulated by general inflexible rules; and though such rules are adopted as best serve the same end of public utility, it is impossible for them to prevent all particular hardships or make beneficial consequences result from every individual case. It is sufficient if the whole plan or scheme be necessary to the support of civil society and if the balance of good, in the main, do thereby preponderate much above that of evil.8

2. The Principle in Adam Smith

It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of this principle both in law and in ethics. We will find later that, among other things, it alone can reconcile what is true in some of the traditional controversies of ethics — the long-standing dispute, for example, between Benthamite Utilitarianism and Kantian formalism, between relativism and absolutism, and even between “empirical” and “intuitive” ethics.

Most commentators on Hume completely ignore the point. Even Bentham, who not only took over the principle of utility from Hume, but christened it with the cumbersome name of Utilitarianism, which stuck,9 missed, for all practical purposes, this vital qualification.

It is only natural that we should look for some trace of the influence of Hume’s General-Rules Principle in Adam Smith, his admirer and younger friend (by twelve years), and — at least in some doctrines — his disciple. (Many of the views in The Wealth of Nations, on commerce, money, interest, the balance and freedom of trade, taxes and public credit, are anticipated in Hume’s Essays, Literary, Moral, and Political, published some thirty years earlier.) And we do in fact find that Adam Smith incorporated the General-Rules Principle in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759), particularly in Part III, Chapters IV and V. He states it eloquently:

Our continual observations upon the conduct of others insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or avoided. ...10 The regard to those general rules of conduct is what is properly called a sense of duty, a principle of the greatest consequence in human life, and the only principle by which the bulk of mankind are capable of directing their actions. ... 11 Without this sacred regard to general rules, there is no man whose conduct can be much depended upon. It is this which constitutes the most essential difference between a man of principle and honor, and a worthless fellow. The one adheres on all occasions steadily and resolutely to his maxims, and preserves through the whole of his life one even tenor of conduct. The other acts variously and accidently, as humour, inclination, or interest chance to be upper-most. ...12 Upon the tolerable observance of these duties [justice, truth, chastity, fidelity] depends the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing if mankind were not generally impressed with reverence for those important rules of conduct.13

But in spite of this emphatic statement of the principle, Adam Smith makes a doubtful qualification which is, in fact, inconsistent with it. He tells us, apparently in contradiction to Hume, that: “We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, is formed by finding from experience that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstances in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of.”14 He goes on to declare that “the man who first saw an inhuman murder committed” would not have to reflect, “in order to conceive how horrible such an action was” that “one of the most sacred rules of conduct” had been violated.15 And he becomes ironic at the expense of “several very eminent authors” (Hume?) who “draw up their systems in such a manner as if they had supposed that the original judgments of mankind with regard to right and wrong were formed like the decisions of a court of judicatory — by considering first the general rule, and then, secondly, whether the particular action under consideration fell properly within its comprehension.”16

Smith oversimplifies the problem, and does not recognize his own inconsistency. If we had always, from the beginning of time, instantly recognized, just by seeing them, hearing of them, or doing them, what actions were right and what were wrong, we would not need to frame general rules and resolve to abide by general rules, unless it were the general rule: Always do right and never do wrong. We would not even need to study or discuss ethics. We could dispense with all treatises on ethics or even any discussion of specific ethical problems. All ethics could be summed up in the foregoing rule of seven words. Even the Ten Commandments would be nine commandments too many.

3. Rediscovery in the Twentieth Century

The problem, unfortunately, is more complicated. It is true that our present ethical judgments of some actions are instantaneous; they seem based on abhorrence of the act itself, and not on any consideration of its consequences (apart from those that seem inherent in the act, such as the suffering of a person who is being tortured, or the death of a person who is killed), or on any judgment that they involve the violation of an abstract general rule. Nevertheless most of these instantaneous judgments may indeed be partly or mainly based on the fact that a general rule is being violated. We may look with horror on another car speeding directly toward us on its left side of the road, though there is nothing inherently wrong with driving on the left side of the road, and the whole danger comes from the violation of a general rule. And in our private moral judgments, no less than in law, we do in fact try to decide under what general rule we should act or under what general rule a given act should be classed. The courts must decide whether a given act is First-Degree Murder, or Manslaughter, or Self-Defense. If a patient’s disease is hopeless a doctor who is asked for reassurance must decide whether this would be Telling a Lie, or Sparing Needless Suffering. When we are deciding (if we ever consciously do) whether or not to tell our hostess that we can’t remember when we have had such a wonderful evening, we must decide whether this would be Perjury, Hypocrisy, or the Duty of Politeness.

The problem of deciding under what rule an act should be classed can sometimes present difficulties. F. H. Bradley was so impressed by these, in fact, that he even deplored any effort to solve the problem “by a reflective deduction” and insisted it must only be done “by an intuitive subsumption, which does not know that it is a subsumption.” “No act in the world,” he argued, “is without some side capable of being subsumed under a good rule; e.g. theft is economy, care for one’s relations, protest against bad institutions, really doing oneself but justice, etc.,” and reasoning about the matter leads straight to immorality. (Ethical Studies, pp. 196-197.) I do not think we need take this obscurantist argument very seriously. Logically followed, it would condemn all reasoning about ethics, including Bradley’s. The problem of deciding under what rule of law an act should be classed is one that our courts and judges must solve a thousand times a day, and not by “intuitive subsumption” but by reasoning that will stand up on appeal. In ethics the problem may not often arise—but when it does it is precisely because our “intuitive subsumptions” conflict.

The need of adhering inflexibly to general rules is plain. Even the qualifications to rules must be drawn according to general rules. An “exception” to a rule must not be capricious, but itself capable of being stated as a rule, capable of being made part of a rule, of being embodied in a rule. Even here, in brief, we must be guided by generality, predictability, certainty, the non-disappointment of reasonable expectations.

The great principle that Hume discovered and framed was that, while conduct should be judged by its “utility,” that is, by its consequences, by its tendency to promote happiness and well-being, it is not specific acts that should be so judged, but general rules of action. It is only the probable long-run consequences of these, and not of specific acts, that can reasonably be foreseen. As F. A. Hayek has put it:

It is true enough that the justification of any particular rule of law must be its usefulness. ... But, generally speaking, only the rule as a whole must be so justified, not its every application. The idea that each conflict, in law or in morals, should be so decided as would seem most expedient to somebody who could comprehend all the consequences of that decision involves the denial of the necessity of any rules. “Only a society of omniscient individuals could give each person complete liberty to weigh every particular action on general utilitarian grounds.” Such an “extreme” utilitarianism leads to absurdity; and only what has been called “restricted” utilitarianism has therefore any relevance to our problem. Yet few beliefs have been more destructive of the respect for the rules of law and of morals than the idea that the the rule is binding only if the beneficial effect of observing it in the particular instance can be recognized.17

The principle of acting in accordance with general rules has had a most curious history in ethics. It is implicit in religious ethics (the Ten Commandments); it is implicit in “intuitive” ethics and in “common-sense” ethics — in the concept of the “man of principle” and the “man of honor”; it is explicitly stated by the first utilitist, Hume; then it is almost completely overlooked by the classical Utilitarian, Bentham, and only fitfully glimpsed by Mill; and now, practically within the last decade, it has been rediscovered by a group of writers.18 They have given it the name rule-utilitarianism as contrasted with the older act-utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill. The former designation is excellent (though I would prefer rule-utilitism as a little less cumbersome), but the aptness of the latter is more questionable. In both cases it is the probable consequences of an act that are being judged, but in the first it is the probable consequences of the act as an instance of following a rule, and in the second it is the probable consequences of an act considered in isolation and apart from any general rule. Perhaps a better name for this would be ad hoc utilitism.

In any case, there will often be a profound difference in our moral judment, according to which standard we apply. The standards of direct orad hoc utilitism will not necessarily in every case be less demanding than the standards of rule-utilitism. In fact, to ask a man in his every act to do that “which will contribute more than any other act to human happiness” (as some of the older utilitarians did) is to impose upon him an oppressive as well as impossible choice. For it is impossible for any man to know what all the consequences of a given act will be when it is considered in isolation. It is not impossible for him to know, however, what the probable consequences will be of following a generally accepted rule. For these probable consequences are known as a result of the whole of human experience. It is the results of previous human experience that have framed our traditional moral rules. When the individual is asked merely to follow some accepted rule, the moral burdens put upon him are not impossible. The pangs of conscience that may come to him if his action does not turn out to have the most beneficent consequences are not unbearable. For not the least of the advantages of our all acting according to commonly accepted moral rules is that our actions are predictable by others and the actions of others are predictable by us, with the result that we are all better able to cooperate with each other in helping each other to pursue our individual ends.

When we judge an act by a mere ad hoc utilitism, it is as if we asked: What would be the consequences of this act if it could be considered as an isolated act, as a just-this-once act, without consequences as a precedent or as an example to others? But this means that we are deliberately disregarding what may be its most important consequences.

In pursuing the further implications of the principle of acting according to general rules, we must consider the whole relationship of ethics and law.

  • 1. Some of Hume’s doctrines were anticipated by Shaftesbury (1671-1713) and still more clearly by Hutcheson (1694-1747), the real author of the “Benthamite” dictum that “that action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.” But Hume was the first to name the principle of “utility” and to make it the basis of his system. Though, unlike Bentham, he seldom gave an explicitly hedonistic implication to “utility,” he wrote one paragraph, beginning: “The chief spring or actuating principle of the human mind is pleasure or pain” (Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part III, sec. 1), that may have been the inspiration of the famous opening paragraph of Bentham’s Morals and Legislation.
  • 2. It is even more ironic that contemporary philosophers who have re-discovered or adopted the principle, under the name of rule-utilitarianism, seem to be unaware of Hume’s explicit statement of it. Thus John Hospers writes (in Human Conduct [1961], p. 318): “Rule-utilitarianism is a distinctively twentieth-century amendment of the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill.” And Richard B. Brandt (in Ethical Theory [1959], p. 396) writes: “This theory, a product of the last decade, is not a novel one. We find statements of it in J. S. Mill and John Austin in the nineteenth century; and indeed we find at least traces of it much earlier, in discussions of the nature and function of law by the early Greeks.” But he does not mention Hume.
  • 3. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1740), Book III, Part II, sec. 2.
  • 4. Ibid., Book III, Part II, sec. 6.
  • 5. David Hume, “Of Political Society,” An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Library of Liberal Arts), Sec. IV, p. 40.
  • 6. Ibid., p. 95n.
  • 7. Ibid., “Some Further Considerations with Regard to Justice,” Appendix III, p. 121.
  • 8. Ibid., p. 122.
  • 9. Bentham plays an immense role in the history of ideas since the eighteenth century, and his numerous verbal coinages made permanent additions to the language without which modern discussion could hardly get along. His most famous coinage was international. But he also gave us codification, maximize and minimize, and many words of more limited usefulness, like cognoscible and cognoscibility. But he did an ill service to mankind when he invented Utilitarian and Utilitarianism, which simply pile up needless and inexcusable syllables. Everything began, quietly enough, with Hume, with the English adjective useful and the English abstract noun utility, derived respectively from the Latin utilis and utilitas through the French utilité. Why not, then, simply Utilist as the adjective for the doctrine, and the noun for the writer holding the doctrine, and simply Utilism, or at most Utilitism, as the name of the doctrine? But no. Instead of beginning with the adjective, Bentham began with the longer abstract Latin noun made from the adjective. Then he added three syllables—arian—to the noun to turn it back into an adjective. Then he added another syllable—ism—to turn the inflated adjective made from an abstract noun back into another abstract noun. Now behold the eight-syllabled sesquipedalian monstrosity, Utiltarianism. Then John Stuart Mill came along and nailed the thing down by making the name the title of his famous essay. So as the name for the doctrine as it has existed historically, posterity is stuck with the word. But perhaps from now on, when we are describing doctrines not identical with historic Utilitarianism, as developed by Bentham and Mill, but involving the doctrine that duty and virtue are means to an end rather than sufficient ends in themselves, we can use the word Teleology or Teleotism or the simpler words utilic, Utilist and Utilitism. Thus we save three syllables, and escape from some confusing and outmoded associations.
  • 10. Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy, ed. Herbert W. Schneider (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1948), p. 185.
  • 11. Ibid., p. 189.
  • 12. Ibid., p. 190.
  • 13. Ibid., p. 191.
  • 14. Ibid., p. 186.
  • 15. Loc. cit.
  • 16. Ibid., p. 187.
  • 17. The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 159.
  • 18. E.g., Richard Brandt, Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1959) and John Hospers, Human Conduct (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961). See the bibliographical references in the latter (pp. 342-343) to others.


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