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Rule-Utilitarianism:Bridging the Gap between Consequentialist and Deontological Theories of Morality

Updated on October 16, 2009

There are many competing moral theories, all of which try to determine what constitutes right moral action. Consequentialists argue that the worth of moral actions ought to be judged based upon the consequences produced by one’s action. Deontologists argue that we have a duty to perform certain actions regardless of their consequences. However, in difficult moral dilemmas, both consequentialist and deontological theories of morality can violate our moral intuitions. That is, there are some moral situations where we feel that our moral duties ought to override the consequences of our actions, but there are other situations where we feel the consequences of our actions ought to override certain moral duties. In this essay, I will argue that rule-utilitarianism best accommodates for our moral intuitions in difficult moral dilemmas by reconciling our consequentialist and deontological inclinations. First I will briefly outline consequentialist and deontological theories of morality. Second, I will discuss several examples where both deontology and consequentialism arrive at counter-intuitive results. Third, I will show how rule-utilitarianism better accommodates for our moral intuitions in moral dilemmas than deontological or consequentialist theories of morality.

Generally speaking, when faced with a moral dilemma, many people often take into consideration a number of factors to determine how one ought to act. One factor in our moral deliberations is the consequences that our actions will bring about. Utilitarianism is perhaps the most famous form of consequentialism. Classic utilitarianism argues that right moral action is that action which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. On an intuitive level we feel that consequences are relevant in evaluating the moral worth of an action. We feel that if we can create, on balance, more happiness than unhappiness, we have done a morally good thing. Sometimes we even feel that consequences ought to take precedence over certain moral rules or principles that we would otherwise follow. In order to highlight the importance we place on creating good consequences, let us consider the following example.

Suppose you are walking down an alley and as you round a corner a lady runs by you. You look ahead and see that she is being chased by a man you strongly suspect to be a murderer (perhaps he is covered in blood, is holding a knife, and screaming “I’m going to kill you, Sally”). Suppose further, that as the lady rounds the corner you see her slip behind a dumpster to hide. As the man approaches you, he asks if you saw which direction the woman went. Surely many people would conclude that the right thing to do in this situation is to lie. We will think that lying is the best course of action simply because lying will produce the best consequences. If we lie to the would-be murderer, we can save Sally’s life, and this would indeed cause a great deal of happiness for both Sally, her family, and loved ones; however, if we tell the truth, Sally will surely die, and this would no doubt cause a great deal of unhappiness for Sally and her friends and family. From this brief example we can see that there is some intuitive appeal in consequentialism. Generally we feel that when we produce more happiness than unhappiness in a moral dilemma we have performed the morally right action. As we proceed, I will give more reasons to think that consequences are morally relevant in evaluating the moral worth of an action, but first, we must consider another equally influential view of morality.

Though we feel that good outcomes are important in moral situations, many feel that consequences are not the sole consideration for determining the moral worth of actions. In fact, Kantian deontology holds that consequences are not at all relevant in determining the moral worth of an action; rather, Kant grounded ethics in human reason. Before explaining the intuitive appeal of Kantian deontology, it will first be necessary to give an account of Kant’s moral theory. Given the complexity of Kant’s moral theory, I will only give a brief sketch here. I will have to assume that the reader is already acquainted with the finer details of his classic work.

Kant argued that morality was grounded in human reason, and that reason demands that our moral actions be universalizable and logically consistent. Kant thought these principles of human reason were best expressed through what he called, the categorical imperative. Kant’s categorical imperative is as follows: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”(Kant, p. 38). Essentially what Kant is saying here is that we should act only by those rules that could consistently be willed as universal rules for all to follow.

Kant’s categorical imperative contains a number of important notions in ethics. The first notion is that one ought not to make an exception for one’s self. It is widely held that if a moral action is wrong for me to perform, it is equally wrong for you to perform. This is so because we see persons as being of equal moral worth. That our worth is equal means no one is more morally valuable than another, and so we are all due equal respect. Given that we are of equal moral worth and due equal respect, no one has a right to make an exception for one’s self. The second notion, which is closely related to the principle of universalizability, is the importance of maintaining logical consistency in our moral actions. Kant argued that we are duty-bound to act rationally, because to act irrationally is to act contrary to our nature as rational agents. I will explain this in more detail below.

On a Kantian understanding of ethics, in order to determine whether an act is permissible, one has to apply the categorical imperative to one’s intended action: if the universalization of the rule by which you intend to act is logically consistent, such an act is permissible; if the universalization of the rule by which you intend to act is logically inconsistent, such an act is impermissible. So, for example, if one wanted to know whether it was morally permissible to break one’s promise to repay a loan, one would try to will it a universal law: ‘always break your promise when you want to get out of repaying a loan’. One can quickly see that such a rule cannot consistently be held. If one were to will a universal law that one could break one’s promise when one wanted to get out of repaying a loan, the means by which this rule operates would disappear. This is so because the person being promised the repayment would know that the promiser was going to break her promise because that would be the rule in such instances. Put simply, if you were to insist that you were going to repay the loan everyone would know that you were in fact going to break your promise because you have willed a universal law that says when you are in such a circumstance you must break your promise. Thus, it would be utterly senseless to try to say that one was going to keep one’s promise. So we see that the rule ‘always break your promise when you want to get out of repaying a loan’ could not be a moral rule because such a rule would contradict itself. As a rational agent, to act according to a logically inconsistent rule is to violate one’s nature as a rational agent.

Kant also offered a second formulation of the categorical imperative, which he thought was “basically identical” to the first formulation stated above. Kant’s second formulation is as follows: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only”(Kant, p. 46). It is important to note that Kant is not saying that one should never use another as a means to some end; he is saying that one should never use another merely as a means. It is often the case that we use others as means to our ends without acting wrongly. For example, I use my local grocer as a means to get food to feed my family. However, I do not act wrongly in doing so because I do not use her merely as a means to my ends. Now, if it were the case that I falsely promised my grocer that I would pay her for my groceries, this would involve me treating her merely as a means to my own ends, and thus, my actions would be wrong. By making a false promise, I am manipulating her to suit my own ends, and by manipulating her I am treating her disrespectfully. It is wrong to be disrespectful because we are of equal moral worth, and thus, are due equal respect as rational persons. Hence, if I were to falsely promise to pay my grocer, I would be acting wrongly. Furthermore, as we saw above, to falsely promise to repay a debt was impermissible according to the first formulation of the categorical imperative, and so we see that it is also impermissible according to the second formulation as well.

One final aspect of Kantian ethics that needs to be mentioned briefly is the notion of perfect and imperfect duties. Kant saw perfect duties as moral absolutes, duties we must do, or as he put it, “a duty which permits no exception” (Kant, p. 38). Included among perfect duties are: the duty not to kill an innocent person, the duty not to lie, and the duty to keep one’s promises. Imperfect duties, on the other hand, are those duties that are contingent or meritorious, and thus not absolute. Included among our imperfect duties, are: the duty to cultivate our talents, and to act benevolently toward others. The notion of perfect duties will be central to our criticism of Kantian ethics below.

Now that we have at least a brief introduction to Kantian ethics, we can go on to consider how this theory appeals to our moral intuitions about the rightness and wrongness of acts. As I did with utilitarianism, let me illustrate the intuitive appeal of Kantian deontology by providing an example. Suppose you are a clerk at a jewellery store, and one evening while working alone you are robbed at gunpoint. You get a decent look at the assailant, and so the police bring you in to do a line-up identification. While looking at the men in the line-up you do not see the thief who robbed you, but you do happen to recognize one of the men. Man #3 is your neighbour. You happen to know that your neighbour physically abuses his wife and children, and that he always somehow gets away without being punished by the law. You have wanted to do something about this situation for years and now you have your chance. You tell the police that man #3 is the thief who robbed you at gunpoint that night and that you are certain of this. You reassure yourself that you are doing the right thing here, because a) your neighbour is a terrible and vicious man who deserves to be punished for his behaviour; and b) it’s not as though you are letting the real thief go free, because the police have not caught the real thief, otherwise he would have been in the line-up; and finally c) you believe you are producing the greatest amount of overall happiness, because surely the relief of the abused family members and friends will outweigh any unhappiness experienced by the abusive neighbour. So then, have you done the morally right thing here by lying?

I suspect many people would think that lying in this instance would be the wrong thing to do. Even though we may sympathize with the notion that the neighbour ought to be punished for the abuse he inflicts on his family, we also think he is not being treated fairly by being accused of a crime of which he is innocent. We likely feel that even though the neighbour is a despicable and evil individual, he is still due the respect of the rule of law. And even though our reasoning may not always be this explicit, we likely think that it would be wrong to treat the abuser merely as a means to our ends. He is still of equal moral worth as a person, and so it would be wrong to lie in this situation. This example is meant to show the intuitive appeal of Kantian deontology.

The problem I am addressing in the examples discussed thus far is the tension that exists in each of us as to what we ought to do, morally speaking, when faced with a difficult moral dilemma. Sometimes we reason like consequentialists and feel that the morally right thing to do is to produce more happiness than unhappiness (like in the case of Sally and the murderer). Yet, at other times we reason as deontologists and feel that certain moral rules or principles demand that we disregard consequences as a morally relevant factor. Certainly it is true that in the above example, we feel a strong inclination to lie so that we might bring about good consequences (i.e., put the neighbour in prison for a few years, and thus, end the abuse suffered by his family), but we feel even stronger that to lie in this instance would be the wrong thing to do. So what are we to do in order to reconcile these conflicting moral intuitions? What we need to do is challenge each of these theories to see which can withstand our toughest criticisms. If it turns out that each theory fails to meet our moral intuitions, we must find some other way to reconcile our intuitions in these moral dilemmas.

Now that we have a basic understanding of utilitarian and Kantian ethics, and have seen their intuitive appeal, consider again the example of Sally and the murderer. As we saw, consequentialists will hold that lying is the morally right thing to do in this situation in virtue of the fact that better consequences will result if we lie. But what would a Kantian say? If we subscribe to Kantian deontology, then it would seem that we have a duty not to lie. A Kantian would have a moral duty to refrain from lying in this situation because lying is not a maxim that could be willed a universal law. To show that this is true, our reasoning would go as follows: one would ask whether the rule, ‘anyone who can save a life by lying ought to lie’, could be universalized. It appears that if such a rule were universalized, the means by which the end is served would disappear. In other words, such a rule would contradict itself. This is so, because the murderer would know it is a universal law that when someone can save a life by lying, he or she must lie. Therefore, the murderer would know that if you said you didn’t know where the lady was hiding, he would know you were lying, and he would press you to tell him her whereabouts. Thus, ‘anyone who can save a life by lying ought to lie’, cannot become a universal law. So, in this case, it would appear as though one has a moral duty to tell the truth if one is a Kantian, even though the consequences of telling the truth seem completely immoral according to our common sense intuitions about morality.

The Kantian might reply that the would-be rescuer in this example may not have a duty to tell the truth, but simply faces a conflict of duties: perhaps he is duty-bound to try and save Sally and has a duty not to lie. But as we saw above, the duty not to lie is a perfect duty, something one must do, regardless of the consequences. Even if the duty to try and save Sally is also a perfect duty, then his choosing to try and save Sally would need to be morally worthy independent of the good it brings should he pull it off. But the only reason I can see to choose helping Sally over keeping his duty not to lie is for the better consequences that would result from doing the former. In other words, it would seem that the only way in which the would-be murderer could decide which duty ought to take precedence over the other would be to decide upon consequentialist grounds. What other means has Kant given us to help rank the importance of our moral duties?

If we feel – at least in this case and others similar to it – that Kantian ethics is disagreeable with our moral intuitions, we then have to take a closer look at our other intuitively appealing theory, utilitarianism, to see whether it can hold up under criticism. If we find that utilitarianism is unable to meet our objections, we will have to find some way to reconcile our consequentialist and deontological inclinations. But, haven’t we already seen that utilitarianism has failed to meet our moral intuitions?

As we see from the example of the abusive neighbour, consequentialism will sometimes lead us to counter-intuitive results. When confronted with the difficulty of whether or not we ought to lie in this situation, it would seem quite clear that a utilitarian would counsel us to lie. This is so because the morally right action, according to a utilitarian, would be to act so as to produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, and by lying this is what we would be doing. But are we being fair in concluding that a utilitarian would argue that the morally right thing to do in this situation is to lie? Certainly it must be true that more happiness will result if we lie than if we do not lie. If the neighbour were convicted of the crime, as he surely would be if he were positively identified, then we can imagine that his family would be quite happy. Imagine the relief that the wife and children would feel when they learned that their abuser was going to be sent to prison for a fairly lengthy term. Furthermore, others who knew of the abuse would be extremely pleased to hear that the abuser was getting what he deserved: prison time. We might protest that the neighbour himself will not be too happy for being convicted of a crime that he did not commit, however, it seems unreasonable to think that his unhappiness will outweigh the happiness of his abused family and their loved ones. After all, the abuser knows that he has done plenty to warrant jail time, and so, he might feel that his incarceration is not completely undeserved. So it seems that consequentialism will lead us to counter-intuitive results in this situation.

So now we have arrived at a point where we are not completely satisfied with either of our two competing moral theories. Both Kantian deontology and classical utilitarianism have left us with deep concerns as to the conclusions they reach in difficult moral dilemmas. However, we are not without some hope. In what follows, I will demonstrate that rule-utilitarianism provides us with a moral theory that allows us to consider consequences as morally relevant, and at the same time, allows us to keep certain features of Kantian deontology that we found attractive. Rule-utilitarianism is also able to escape counter-intuitive results in moral dilemmas that classical utilitarianism and Kantian deontology were unable to avoid.

John Hospers defines rule-utilitarianism as follows:

Each act, in the moral life, falls under a rule; and we are to judge the rightness or wrongness of the act, not according to its consequences, but by the consequences of its universalization – that is, by the consequences of the adoption of the rule under which this act falls (p. 204).

We see from this definition that rule-utilitarianism allows (indeed demands) us to consider consequences as morally relevant, and also incorporates the notion of universalization that we found appealing in Kantian deontology. By performing these two functions, rule utilitarianism seems well suited to meet our moral intuitions; however, in order to determine whether rule-utilitarianism will reconcile the tension between our consequentialist and deontological intuitions, we must subject it to the same two moral dilemmas that both classical utilitarianism and Kantian ethics failed at. If we can show that rule utilitarianism results in conclusions that satisfy our moral intuitions, we will then have good reason to value it over classical utilitarianism and Kantian deontology.

First, in the case of Sally and the murderer, we were confronted with whether we ought to lie, or whether we ought to tell the truth. We saw that classical utilitarianism arrived at a result that satisfied our moral intuitions: we ought to lie. However, Kantian deontology was unsuccessful in meeting our intuitions, for it told us that we ought to tell the truth. What does rule-utilitarianism say? Well, in order to determine the morally right course of action in this situation we simply apply the rule-utilitarian dictum. So first, we must identify the rule by which our intended act would fall under. So in this instance, the rule would be: ‘lie to save a life’ (By the rule ‘lie to save a life’ I simply mean, ‘lie, if lying will result in the life of a person being saved). Next, we must consider whether such a rule, if universalized, would result in more or less overall happiness. In other words, we need to ask if everyone, when similarly situated, were to lie in order to save a life, would this result in more happiness than unhappiness? It seems clear that if everyone, when confronted with the possibility of saving a life by lying, were to lie, this would surely bring about more happiness than unhappiness. This is so, for the simple fact that we highly value human life: everyone has moral worth, and is due respect, and everyone feels strongly about preserving life, especially when all that is needed to do so is to tell a harmless lie. So we see that in this situation, rule-utilitarianism would have us lie in order to save a life. We conclude that lying is the morally right thing to do under these circumstances in virtue of the fact that such a universal rule would bring about the greatest amount of overall happiness. Hence, we see that rule utilitarianism has successfully met our common sense intuitions in our first moral dilemma.

Second, in the case of the abusive neighbour, we found that Kantian deontology clearly offered the morally correct course of action by obliging us not to lie, whereas classical utilitarianism led us to the counter-intuitive conclusion that we ought to lie. What will rule-utilitarianism have us do? Again, we need to identify the rule by which our intended action would fall under. In this situation, the rule would be: ‘lie to convict the falsely accused’ (By the rule ‘lie to convict the falsely accused’ I mean ‘lie, if lying will result in the legal conviction of someone who is innocent of the crime of which he or she has been charged’). Next, we ask if the universalization of this rule would result in more or less overall happiness. It seems clear that if everyone were to lie when faced with these circumstances, more overall unhappiness would be produced. Why? It is simple: if there were such a judicial system in place that would knowingly prosecute and convict those who were innocent of the crimes of which they had been charged, no one would have any faith in the integrity and fairness of the judicial system. And if no one had faith in the integrity and fairness of the justice system, this fundamental aspect of free and democratic society would wither away, and society would then be in a very poor state indeed. Furthermore, innocent people would live in constant fear of being accused of some crime, because they would know that they would be facing a corrupt legal system, if charged. Hence, rule utilitarianism would counsel us not to lie in these situations, because such a rule would bring about more unhappiness than unhappiness. We see that this result meets our moral intuitions about what one ought to do in this type of situation, and so rule-utilitarianism has passed our second difficult moral dilemma.

Though I have only offered two examples of rule-utilitarianism at work, these two examples are difficult moral dilemmas that pull at opposite ends of our moral intuitions. Of course, more may be said by the defenders of Kantian and classical utilitarian positions, however, as we have seen, it is clear that there are at least some cases in which these theories fail to meet our moral intuitions of right and wrong. I have shown through these two examples that rule utilitarianism is able to accommodate for our moral intuitions by reconciling our inclinations between obtaining good outcomes, and respecting the deontological requirement of universalizability. However, not all has been settled in this short essay, indeed, this is only a first step. What remains to be argued is whether intuitions ought to count as the proper way to judge the moral rightness of actions. That is, all along we have judged the rightness or wrongness of actions by appealing to our common sense intuitions about morality. However, are we justified in appealing to such an authority? There are certainly reasons for and against the notion that intuitions ought to be our guiding principle in determining the moral worth of actions. More must be said on this score. Furthermore, we have left unargued the premise that happiness is that feature which we ought to maximize in moral dilemmas. Why value happiness over pleasure, or preferences, or other possible forms of utility? These are two important unexamined aspects of this paper that will need to be discussed elsewhere. Finally, we will have to see rule-utilitarianism applied to more than just two difficult moral dilemmas before we can fully commit ourselves to rule-utilitarianism. However, the point of this essay was not to establish rule-utilitarianism as the supreme moral theory, it was merely to show that it can bridge the gap between consequentialist and deontological theories.


Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Lewis White Beck, 2nd ed, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1997).

John Hospers, “Rule-Utilitarianism,” in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed Louis P. Pojman, (Wadsworth, 2004).


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    • WestWalesCelt profile image

      WestWalesCelt 5 years ago

      Hey Trevor,

      Thanks for your kind comments.

      A shame you are less philosophically active these days but I'm sure other RUs will come along and critique my critique; that's the nature of the game after all...

      All the best...

    • Trevor Coffrin profile image

      Trevor Coffrin 5 years ago

      Thanks so much for your feedback WestWalesCelt. This is a great analysis to both the construction of the essay, as well as the arguments I make. Unfortunately I do not do much "philosophizing" these days as I wrote this essay about 5 years ago, but I will certainly leave your comments here and I welcome others to respond to them. I really do appreciate the time you took to respond.

    • WestWalesCelt profile image

      WestWalesCelt 5 years ago

      Hi Trevor,

      My apologies; I thought I was being ignored and clearly I wasn't.

      I thought your essay was very nicely constructed and effectively explained some complex concepts, I really enjoyed reading it. Nevertheless, if I may, I’d like to make a few observations on both your method and conclusions.

      Firstly, the construction of your rules in the examples could be perceived as fortuitous. In the Sally example the base maxim (don't lie) is broadened to provide a more convenient version for rule utilitarians (lie to save a life). In the neighbour example the expanded version (lie to convict the falsely accused) could be further developed (lie to convict the falsely accused person who persistently abuses others without receiving punishment) to provide a more rigorous challenge for the favoured theory. Indeed, we could add additional information to the scenario; the neighbour blames his wife for his arrest and you have overheard him directly threaten to kill her when he is released, etc, etc. Do we still refrain from the lie?

      Secondly, the rationale upon which following ‘just rules’ is seemingly couched appears to be based on a false choice; either we follow the rule on this occasion or everybody will break the rule on every occasion. So, for example, either we refrain from lying to convict the innocent person or we always lie in these circumstances with the subsequent damage to the justice system. In reality there have been a number of famous examples of lying giving rise to great injustice - the Birmingham 6 and the Guildford 4 come to mind from my own country's experience - and yet, despite the storm, the system survived and is still generally, though by no means universally, held in high esteem. Similarly, people break promises and get found out yet promise-keeping survives and continues to be regarded as important. I suppose the point is that most people refrain from lying and most people keep promises in most situations but we expect some people to lie and some people to break promises in some situations.

      Of course, these issues are of little concern for a deontologist, since the Kantian justification of the universalisation principle relies on logic, not consequences. They pose a greater challenge for rule utilitarians because here universalisation, like the imperative to maintain just rules, are couched on the premise that it serves utility. But it seems a rule utilitarian would contradict the utility principle, the whole basis of their theory, if they refuse to break a just rule where this is the means by which the greatest happiness for the greatest number is to be achieved in this particular circumstance. The argument that to break a rule, even in exceptional circumstances, is to fatally undermine the rule is wholly at odds with human experience; hence the legend ‘rules are there to be broken’. I think a number of philosophers have argued that to avoid total contradiction, rule utilitarianism inevitably breaks down into act utilitarianism or morphs from a theory of utility to a theory of rule worship. I’d be interested in your thoughts.


    • Trevor Coffrin profile image

      Trevor Coffrin 5 years ago

      If you sent in a previous comment I did not receive it. You can try sending it again. I accept all comments, positive, critical, negative, etc

    • WestWalesCelt profile image

      WestWalesCelt 5 years ago

      Hi Trevor,

      Posted a response to your essay over two weeks ago.

      Have you been away or do you only publish comments which are entirely congratulatory?

    • profile image

      Joe 5 years ago

      Excellent and very helpful essay - thank you!

    • profile image

      Natan 5 years ago

      A great explanation of Rule Utilitarianism. Do you have other pieces of your work on ethics?

    • profile image

      charles vanuatu 5 years ago

      This essay has clearly explain consequential ism,deontology

      that whenever there is a situation we have to calculate the cost about what the end would be! therefore our decision must always bring utilitarism...

    • profile image

      Trevor Cofrin 5 years ago

      Hi Dan:

      I'm glad you enjoyed the essay and found it helpful. It's hard to find philosophy essays that are simple to follow and written in plain language. Philosophy doesn't have to be complicated. If it were less complicated, more people would probably find it enjoyable.

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      Dan 5 years ago

      A very clear and well-supported essay helping to contrast Rule Utilitarianism with the Categorical Imperative. I majored in Philosphy in college, and still struggle at times to clearly define how deontology works - especially since the definition of duty is so subjective - each thinker has a different idea about what our obligations are and what to do when we have conflicting duties. The promise-keeping example as a logical contradiction is the classic example that all of my professors (and many other online forums) use, since Kant presents it in his own work, but I often struggle to understand how other examples might also present logical contradictions.

      Now, as a high school humanities teacher, I am often faced with students who have a hard time discerning rule-utilitarianism from the categorical imperative - teenagers, by nature, think of consequences and have a difficult time envisioning a moral framework that doesn't take them into account. Often in the essays they write, they confuse Rule Utilitarianism with the Categorical Imperative and each year I gain a bit more insight about how to help clarify the difference.

      Many of the materials online related to this subject are written in a highly technical jargon that is hard for me (with a masters degree) to interpret, let alone a 17-year-old student. This essay was great and I think I may have some of my honors students read it. I will certainly pass it along to my colleagues.

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      Freddie Jung 7 years ago

      Your explanation on rule utilitarianism was very helpful. Thank you!

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      Vladimir Lenin 7 years ago

      john stuart mill was a great philosopher, and his school of thought is very compelling. i'd like to follow you more.