This continues the discussion of Bernard Williams’ essay on utilitarianism.
4) Two kinds of remoter effects
Although the utilitarian response to the two examples featuring George and Jim will be clear-cut, Williams believes that even under utilitarianism, we might be able to find an alternative approach. For starters, we could consider the effect of actions on people more remote to the initial decision, or even on the public-at-large (a common defence for utilitarianism when arguing in favour of general principles, such as telling the truth). Relying on these lines of argument is problematic since it’s difficult to attach probability to remote events.
However, Williams decides there are two further arguments that could be used when considering the consequences of an action (these are the ‘two kinds of remoter effects’ as indicated by the chapter title). The first is the psychological effect on the agent. Because the agent thinks he has done the wrong thing, he will subsequently feel bad in the future. This may be more applicable in George’s case than in Jim’s. George has longer-term effects to consider, whereas Jim’s decisions (whether to kill the native) relates to the current moment in time.
In fact, by asking that we consider the psychological effects on the agent, this almost strengthens the case that Jim has to kill the native. His own displeasure could be seen as merely a form of squeamishness, completely out of proportion to the larger issue at stake. Utilitarians in general do not like to consider things such as squeamishness as this seems irrelevant to the question of utilitarian value. Some utilitarians might give token recognition to it, whereas others wouldn’t even consider it all.
Williams highlights a broader problem with utility, that of the notion of minorities. Since overall happiness is always the ultimate aim, utilitarians gives little weight to the feelings of individuals or small groups. Their wishes can easily be overcome by appealing to the more general happiness of the masses, even if the increase in their happiness is only slight.
The second argument in relation to remoter effects is what Williams describes as the ‘precedent effect’. If by performing an act (which itself might be right according to utilitarianism) it would encourage other people to perform similar acts that wouldn’t have such desirable consequences, then perhaps we ought to take these effects into account. While Williams believes this is a genuine problem, it would be very difficult to measure in practice and determine how many people are likely to be impacted. The precedent effect also wouldn’t apply in the cases of George and Jim, as both examples are sufficiently private.
Under utilitarianism, there is no real distinction between acting and failing to act. If by failing to act, bad consequences still result, then you can be held morally accountable for your ‘action’. In the case of Jim and George, this will occur even when the actual act is carried out by another party. This does not excuse you from responsibility. However Williams believes that the negative consequences argument can be raised as an objection to utilitarianism.
Williams introduces his notion of personal projects. All moral agents have their own unique projects. These relate to themselves, their family and society in general. They could be intellectual in nature or aesthetic or social. They could also be in support of certain causes or religions. Williams considers: should these projects form part of the utilitarian equation? If the utilitarian says ‘no’, then he is accepting a very shallow version of utilitarianism, one in which personal principles would never have any relevance at all. However, when utilitarians consider questions of happiness, one of the criterion they should be considering is whether the parties have a greater capacity to fulfil their personal projects. People are happier in such cases, even if the project doesn’t directly relate to any form of happiness.
Utilitarians therefore should accept that when people ‘pursue’ happiness, they are not simply trying to be happy per se, but they want to pursue projects that make them happy. Therefore we should consider the agent’s own projects when calculating happiness, in combination with the projects of the other parties directly connected with the action. In the case of Jim, the undesirable projects of the soldiers (in wanting to kill all twenty natives) should also be part of the equation. But how does this relate to Jim’s own project in wanting to preserve life at all costs? The utilitarian would still argue that the personal projects of the nineteen survivors would exceed that of Jim’s solitary project. So even the argument for personal projects does not seem to help Jim, and he is still required to go ahead and kill the one native.
It is here that Williams brings integrity into the equation. People are so deeply involved in some projects that they are better thought of as ‘commitments’. It is absurd to think that a moral agent can simply step aside from a commitment just because the utilitarian equation declares a certain action to be right. This alienates the moral agent completely from his principles. It makes him feel he has no moral conviction at all. It is a direct attack on his integrity.
Williams believes that a moral theory needs to be able to distinguish between an action that you directly caused as opposed to an action someone else caused which came about from your failure to get involved. Utilitarianism in its current form is unable to do this.