I regularly argue for rule-based reasoning in ethics, on the grounds that without rules, there are, well, no rules. Jim Ryan thinks that between rules and anything goes lies some middle ground, which he calls “critical common-sense-ism.” This means reasoning analogously from cases that we already know to be true:

Its easy. You determine the cases about which you know the true moral judgments and that bear the closest resemblance to case X. For examples, if X is an abortion, then we determine whether X is more like ordinary murders or more like perfectly permissible medical procedures. Common sense tells us that its wrong to kill a child but also that its not wrong to scrape skin cells off of your skin. It depends on what the fetus is. If X is a welfare program, we determine whether X is more like robbing Peter to pay Paul or more like requiring Peter to do his duty to save a child who is drowning right before him. It depends on the program. Common sense can make its pronouncement, but only after we make fine distinctions and comparisons, and draw analogies and disanalogies between various cases were sure about and X.

Now there is no such thing as case-based reasoning, strictly speaking. Cases are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike. Jim himself has remarked elsewhere on the difficulty of deducing propositions from experience. “Critical common-sense-ism” replaces rules with rules. “It’s wrong to kill a child” is a rule. “It’s wrong to rob Peter to pay Paul” is a rule. What Jim really objects to is not rule-based reasoning per se, but one big rule, like “the greatest good for the greatest number” or “rational self-interest” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He proposes to replace one big rule with many little rules, like, say, the Ten Commandments. (In this respect “critical common-sense-ism” resembles all religious morality.) From here on I will call ordinary rule-based thinking “big-rulism” and Jim’s alternative “little-rulism.”

Little-rulism is an accurate description of how most people actually do reason morally, most of the time. Your best chance to convince somebody in a moral argument is to apply a known and agreed-upon little rule. (I speak from long and painful experience.) Jim has grander ambitions for little-rulism, however. He wants a revolution. He wants to overthrow the big-rulers.

What happens when two little rules conflict?

These deliberations depend on having our facts straight; we need to know the relevant facts in order to judge them. Whether the fetus is not importantly disanalogous to a skin cell is question that can be decided only if we know the pertinent biological facts. In the other case, we need to know whether the welfare program will support the indolent or be wasted and not help the deserving, and whether innocent lives will be saved, whether innocent people who are unable to support themselves will be kept from living in abhorrent conditions, whether they will be given more than that, how costly the program will be, how rich the rich are, etc. Saving a drowning person might be analogous to the welfare program. But it might be disanalogous if the people it helps are not in as dire straits as the drowning person, for example.

By relying on the analogies and disanalogies between the puzzling case and the many cases about which we know the right judgment, we can find out whether X is more analogous to cases of obviously wrong action or more analogous to cases of obviously right action. This will determine the judgment about X that our values commit us to. We need to know the relevant facts, in order to draw any conclusion.

Note first that big-rulers don’t have this problem. One big rule organizes the various little rules, each in its place. (Whether it does so correctly is a different question, of course.) We should also remember that the little-rulers aren’t reasoning from cases; they’re reasoning from little rules. Jim can’t really talk about “analogies and disanalogies between the puzzling case and the many cases about which we know the right judgment” and whether the case in question is more or less analogous to something else.

The following argument may clarify this point: It is wrong to kill innocent people, if we bomb Iraq we will kill innocent people, therefore it is wrong to bomb Iraq. (Morally wrong, I should note: we aren’t discussing policy for the moment.) No one who has graduated the fourth grade can rest in this argument. Yet the case of bombing Iraq does not fit the little rule that it is wrong to kill innocent people approximately, or even closely. It fits the rule exactly. In fact, for any little rule you formulate, a case will fit it either exactly or not at all. To take one of Jim’s examples, if a fetus is a person then the rule that it’s wrong to kill innocent people applies, exactly. If a fetus is like skin cells then the rule that it’s not wrong to scrape off skin cells applies, exactly.

This leaves me with three questions for Jim. First, why not, as a little-ruler, stop at the first rule? We have found a perfect fit. Second, if we continue to pursue the question, when do we stop? How many little rules must we examine? Finally, since all applicable rules will fit the case perfectly, how do we adjudicate among them, lacking “more” or “less” analogous as a standard?

(Update: Jim replies.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted February 11, 2003 @ 8:49 PM | Philosophy

3 Responses to “Big Rules and Little Rules”

  1. 1 1. Jim Valliant

    "Common sense"–almost universally accepted moral propositions, in Ryan’s context–may or may not be correct. Slavery was "common sense" for a long, long time, as was execution for minor theft. The infamous "Rule of Thumb," permitted husbands in merry ole England to hit their wives, who were "to be properly corrected by them," and to do so with a stick. The only proviso: the stick could be no thicker than the man’s thumb. ALL moral propositions, most especially those which have remained long unexamined precisely because they are over in the "non-controversial" category, must be justified in reason.

    One wonders what the point of ethics is for Jim Ryan — making him comfortable with his actions despite the nagging of his conscience? Is this conscience supposed to be innate? Most primitive societies executed childeren as a matter of religious policy. Not just the Aztec and exotic tribes from New Guinea, but, almost certainly, the prehistoric Hebrews and Greeks. Ryan’s approach could have developed fine justifications for all of this, I am sure. This is the danger of failing to repair to "first principles" in any act of
    moral reasoning.

    "Little-rulism," using Aaron’s terms, is a failure of integration, a kind of semi-intentional compartmentalization. But, all the facts of reality are, in fact, interconnected. So must be all of our moral positions.

    At the risk of psychologizing, the pragmatist always strikes me as one who must have been burned by a previous system of "rules" and now takes it out on the entire conceptual faculty.


  2. 2 2. Jim Valliant

    Could Jim Ryan, in his response, have met my expectations more perfectly? No need to psychologize anymore, he HAS been burned, poor dear, by previous "rule" systems. His universally bold skepticism about rules is undemonstrated and unfounded. He simply asserts that "infinite complexities" makes this task impossible, yada, yada, yada… When he tries to retain a concept like "principle" while chucking the concept "rule," I feel like Woody Allen in Love and Death when Diane Keaton denies that she is "scared of dying," but concedes that she is "frightened of it." Allen’s only response: "interesting distinction, hmm.." I guess "principles" are those universal "rules" with lots of very flexible exceptions. Didn’t he just eat that cake?


  3. 3 3. Bill Kaplan

    The problem is that abstractions subsume countless individual instances. So you see twenty instances where x is the right answer and assume x is ALWAYS the right answer. Then you see one in which it is not.

    Ronald Dworkin used the following example ad nauseum. The general rule is that a person’s estate should be left to his heirs. A man dies intestate with only his son as an heir. The rule says the son should inherit, but it is discovered that the son killed the father for the inheritance. Finding: The son should not inherit. The geeral rule is inadequate for the circumstances.

    Always understand that concepts are formed and reformed by the individual cases. Thus rules are rules and concepts concepts, but neither makes a Procrustean bed.


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