Lecture Supplement on Bernard Williams’ “Against Utilitarianism”[1] [1973]


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


Bernard Williams contends that utilitarianism (and consequentialism generally), rests upon an extreme notion of impartiality which focuses exclusively upon the consequences of our actions.  Williams uses two examples to try and show that there is a serious problem with utilitarianism here: the doctrine deprives agents of their integrity.  He contends that this happens because utilitarianism separates an agent’s actions from his “projects.” 


The Text:


245 “Consequentialism is basically indifferent to whether a state of affairs consists in what I do, or is produced by what I do, where that notion is itself wide enough to include, for instance situations in which other people do things which I have made them do, or allowed them to do, or encouraged them to do, or given them a chance to do.  All that consequentialism is interested in is the idea of these doings being consequences of what I do, and that is a relation broad enough to include the relations just mentioned, and many others.” 


-Note that this sentence is understandable only after one has read the whole article! 


246 Utilitarianism is [overly] committed to a strong doctrine of negative responsibility which flows from the fact that it assigns ultimate value to states of affairs.  [See p. 225 below!] 


-...from the moral point of view [for the utilitarian and consequentialist], there is no comprehensible difference which consists just in my bringing about a certain outcome rather than someone else’s producing it.  That the doctrine of negative responsibility represents in this way the extreme of impartiality, and abstracts from the identity of the agent, leaving just the locus of causal intervention in the world—that fact is not merely a surface paradox. 


247 Williams notes that while the use of particular examples in moral theory (as one attempts to disprove by counter-example) is subject to problems (e.g., the examples may be arbitrarily cut-off from alternative courses of action, or they may be arbitrarily cut off from the rest of the agents’ lives), the examples to be presented are to be sufficiently detailed that they should, at least, point to serious problems. 


-Indeed, he contends, in moral thought “...discussion about how one would think and feel about situations somewhat different from the actual...plays an important role in discussion of the actual.” 


First example: George (an unemployed new Ph.D. in chemistry): should he take a job working on biological and chemical warfare?  Someone else will if George doesn’t; George has a family; jobs are scarce; George’s wife isn’t against this sort of research. 


Second example: Jim in the jungle: either Pedro kills twenty Indians or Jim kills one. 


-“To these dilemmas, it seems to me that utilitarianism replies, in the first case, that George should accept the job, and in the second that Jim should kill the Indian.  Not only does utilitarianism give us these answers, but, if the situations are essentially as described and there are no further special features, it regards them, it seems to me, as obviously right answers.” 


248 “A feature of utilitarianism is that it cuts out a kind of consideration which for some others makes a difference to what they feel about such cases: a consideration involving the idea, as we might first and very simply put it, that each of us is specially responsible for what he does, rather than for what other people do.  This is an idea closely connected with the value of integrity.” 


-We should, perhaps, ask ourselves: “What is integrity?”  We then should ask whether Williams correctly captures it, and whether he is right in his claim that, utilitarianism can not account for, or allow for, it. 


-While utilitarians might suggest that we should forget about integrity, we can not do that and this points to a weakness in utilitarianism: “...the reason why utilitarianism cannot understand integrity is that it cannot coherently describe the relation between a man’s projects and his actions. 


-248-250 Utilitarians often consider the psychological effect of a course of action upon the agent.  But the bad feelings George or Jim might have are, from a strictly utilitarian point of view, irrational!  Indeed, a utilitarian should suggest that any squeamishness felt, for example, by Jim, is actually self-indulgent and should be ignored rather than valued or followed! 


--249-250 “The reason why the squeamishness appeal can be very unsettling, and one can be unnerved by the suggestion of self-indulgence in going against utilitarian considerations, is not that we are utilitarians who are uncertain what utilitarian value to attach to our moral feelings, but that we are partially at least not utilitarians, and cannot regard our moral feelings as objects of utilitarian value.  Because our moral relation to the world is partly given by such feelings, and by a sense of what we can or cannot “live with,” to come to regard those feelings from a purely utilitarian point of view, that is to say, as happenings outside one’s moral self is to lose a sense of one’s moral identity: to lose, in the most literal way, one’s integrity.  At this point utilitarianism alienates one from one’s moral feelings; we shall see a little later how, more basically, it alienates one from one’s actions as well.” 


--250 Utilitarianism and the punishment of an innocent minority by the majority.  Moral feelings of revulsion are irrational here! 


Omitted from our text is Williams’ discussion of the precedent effect—the effect that such a precedent might establish for other people.  But neither of the cases in question are such that there should be such an effect: Jim’s case is relatively unique and George’s situation is relatively private.  For the precedent effect to be relevant, others must be in the same sort of situation and the likelihood of this occurring must be significant. 


251 Consequentialism offers a strong doctrine of negative responsibility:


-Negative responsibility: “...if I know that if I do X, O1 will eventuate, and if I refrain from doing X, O2 will [eventuate], and that O2 is worse than O1, then I am responsible for O2 if I refrain voluntarily from doing X.  `You could have prevented it’ can be said truly to Jim, if he refuses, by the relatives of the other Indians.” 


-“That may be enough for us to speak, in some sense, of Jim’s responsibility for that outcome, if it occurs; but it is certainly not enough...for us to speak of Jim’s making those things happen.”  Pedro is the person who makes the effects (kills the Indians). 


The problem Williams is pointing to here is, perhaps, indicated by the following question: “What projects [of life] does (or, could) a utilitarian agent have? 


-“...among the things that make people happy is not only making other people happy, but being taken up or involved in any of a vast range of projects, or...commitments.  One can be committed to such things as a person, a cause, an institution, a career, one’s own genius, or the pursuit of danger.” 


-“Happiness...requires being involved in, or at least content with, something else.” 


-252 But utilitarianism requires, in effect, that we stand back from our projects and value them only if the promote the general utility: “...what the outcome will actually consist of will depend entirely on the facts, on what persons with what projects and what potential satisfactions there are within calculable reach of the causal levers near which he finds himself.  His own substantial projects and commitments come into it, but only as one lot among others—they potentially provide one set of satisfactions among those which he may be able to assist from where he happens to be.  He is the agent of the satisfaction system who happens to be at a particular point at a particular time: in Jim’s case, our man in South America.  His own decisions as a utilitarian agent are a function of all the satisfactions which he can affect from where he is; and this means that the projects of others, to an indeterminately great extent, determine his decision.” 


-253 “It is absurd to demand of such a man when the sums come in from the utility network which the projects of others have in part determined, that he should just step aside from his own project and decision and acknowledge the decision which utilitarian calculation requires.  It is to alienate him in a real sense from his actions and the source of his action in his own convictions.  It is to make him into a channel between the input of everyone’s projects, including his own, and an output of optimific decision; but this is to neglect the extent to which his actions and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified.  It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity.” 


253-254 “The significance of the immediate should not be underestimated.  Philosophers, not only utilitarian ones, repeatedly urge one to view the world sub specie aeternitatis,[2] but for most human purposes that is not a good species to view it under.” 




For an excellent critique of William’s essay, examine Peter Railton’s “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality.”[3] 


Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Notes to selection in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2007), pp. 245-254.  The selection originally appeared in Utilitarianism: For and Against, Bernard Williams and J.J.C. Smart (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1973), pp. 97-99, 101-103, 108-109, and 112-116. 

[2] That is, “under the aspect of eternity.” 

[3] Peter Railton, “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs v. 13 (1984), pp. 134-171. 


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File revised on: 09/28/2013