When reading critical essays on John Stuart Mill’s version of utilitarianism, many of the commentators refer to an influential essay by Bernard Williams (‘A critique of utilitarianism’). Therefore, I thought it might be worth examining Williams’ essay in more detail to highlight some of his major arguments. Over the next three posts, I will examine each section of Williams’ essay, starting with the first three chapters below:
Williams sets out the scope of his critique. While Williams is aware that people discuss utilitarianism in terms of its of usefulness in terms of social and political decision making, he wants to limit the discussion to personal morality only. Williams therefore intends to highlight the distinctive features of utilitarianism that have relevance to morality.
Williams recognises that utilitarianism is a consequential theory, meaning that the moral value of an action lies in its consequences. Utilitarianism is also defined as a ‘eudaimonistic’ theory, in that the most desirable result of actions is to maximise people’s happiness. So Williams stresses that the terms ‘utilitarianism’ and ‘eudaimonistic consequentialism’ are synonymous terms in his analysis.
Finally, Williams notes the traditional distinction between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism, however he prefers to call these ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ forms of the theory. He believes that his terms better clarify what is being captured by the two approaches.
2) The structure of consequentialism
If consequences were the only goal in life, Williams believes this would create an infinite regress as everything would have to be based on some inherent value of its consequence. So if we can’t find value in the first consequence, we would then have to consider ‘the consequence of the consequence’, which would lead us to the infinite regress.
Therefore, to avoid the infinite regress we can recognise two types of value: (1) value in consequences, and (2) intrinsic value in states of affairs. Kantian ethics for instance, is based on the second of these types of values, in that actions must be performed for the sake of duty. Consequentialism, on the other hand, values actions based on their consequences and the state of affairs likely to be obtained. However, Williams contends some actions are valuable not just for their consequences. For instance, if someone obtains personal satisfaction in carrying out a moral action, should this also not be considered as part of the happiness equation? Is utilitarianism too strict in its insistence upon relying on consequences only?
Williams next considers the concept of the ‘right action’ under utilitarianism. This is defined as whatever action available to the agent brings about the highest degree of the ultimate end of utilitarianism (happiness). Williams assumes that this must be based on objective standards, for it is quite possible that the agent is ignorant or mistaken on some of the circumstances. However, some people would still insist that a subjective appraisal is called for, in that only the agent can decide what actions are specifically available to her.
Right actions therefore lead to good states of affairs, even if it is unclear whether an agent can carry out an action simply because she enjoys it. This debate occurs under Kantian ethics as well, because it is implied by Kant that personal enjoyment should not form part of duty. While both utilitarians and non-utilitarians would agree that (1) the agent does the right thing by carrying out a certain action, the utilitarian adds a further requirement: (2) the state of affairs that results in doing the right action is better than any other state of affairs accessible to the agent. For the non-utilitarian, (2) may or may not occur.
3) Negative responsibility and two examples
Williams stresses that when dealing with consequentialism, we have to limit ourselves to actions that were accessible to the agent. This suggests that even if the agent is not ultimately responsible for what happens, if his action (or inaction) is what started the chain of events, then the agent can still be held morally responsible for his acts. Under utilitarianism, all causal connections, regardless of who performs them, are treated the same way. Consequentialism is ultimately concerned with states of affairs. For Williams, this is a problem with utilitarianism. It suggests that you can still be held responsible for actions that other people carry out, provided they have a causal connection with your original decision.
Williams next presents his two famous examples, both of which will be referred to throughout the essay (the second example is also referred to by other philosophers).
The first example concerns George, who has a PhD in chemistry but is finding it difficult to secure a job. This forces his wife to work, which causes a lot of strain on the family. George is offered the chance to work at an institution that specialises in biological warfare. Although George is vehemently opposed to the industry, if he doesn’t accept the position, a colleague of George’s will get the job. This man has a complete lack of moral scruple, so George would at least ensure the research does not head into dangerous territory. What should George do?
The second example concerns Jim, who is travelling through South America. Jim enters a village to find twenty natives tied up by members of some government army. The natives are about to be killed as a reminder to other natives not to protest against the government. Jim is offered a guest’s privilege of killing one of the natives himself. The effect of this is that the other nineteen will be immediately released. If however Jim fails to accept the offer, all twenty will be killed as originally planned. What should Jim do?
The utilitarian answer is as follows: in the first case, George should accept the job, while in the second case, Jim should kill the one native himself. Williams describes these as the obvious ‘right’ answers in terms of what produces the best consequences. But when looking at the problems from general intuition, both outcomes are troubling. We seem to attract moral responsibility not only for our own actions but for what others do as well. This is Williams chief concern with utilitarianism – personal integrity does not matter.