This post concludes the discussion of Bernard Williams’ essay on utilitarianism.
6) The Indirect Pursuit of Utility
Williams next line of attack is to distinguish between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ utilitarianism. As previously noted, Williams uses these terms to refer to act utilitarianism (direct) as opposed to rule utilitarianism (indirect). However, according to Williams, the distinction between the two might not be so clear. If we were planning to introduce a new law, and wanted to see whether it was the right action according to utility, we would have to consider the likely consequences of implementing the law (or not). Given that this is a ‘total assessment’ of the situation (taking into consideration all things such as character and personal projects), it is difficult to see how the direct utilitarian would arrive at a different answer to the indirect.
You could argue that the direct utilitarian does not count certain causal effects – and that the indirect utilitarian takes more into account – but this would not be rational given utilitarianism is supposed to take all circumstances into account.
If we focus more on the act itself, this also does not resolve the question. A direct utilitarian might declare a certain act to be ‘right’ (because its consequences maximise happiness), so how could the indirect utilitarian argue that the act isn’t right? He may well argue that it is right, but for other reasons (such as complying with a moral rule). So the distinction between the two seems to hinge on the question: ‘what does the rightness of the act consist in?’
Rule utilitarianism also has the problem that mere obedience to a rule can’t possibly equate to any moral value. Such an ethical system would be too simple-minded. But utilitarianism in general isn’t really a doctrine that seeks to assign blame to people. Rather, its main focus is to consider what is the right action in any one circumstance, not ‘did X do the right thing?’.
Some rule utilitarians would argue that the system is not about ‘rule worship’. The rule is only there to save time. If the best consequences would be obtained by not following the rule, then it would be appropriate in this case to not act in accordance with the rule. So in other words, ‘rules’ are more like ‘rules of thumb’. But if that’s the case – people accept that exceptions are possible – than this implies that we have to study each case in detail to ensure that it’s not an instance of the exception. So how does this save time? In the end, we still have to go through the full process of evaluation, regardless of whether the rule exists or not.
Therefore, Williams accepts that act utilitarianism (direct) is more in keeping with the original spirit of utility. It insists on rationally determined consequences for each individual act, not on the basis of some arbitrary rule. But it still has its problem, especially when we consider this notion of ‘total assessment’. Firstly, Williams notes that many of the qualities that human beings prize in society are distinctly non-utilitarian, but they still contribute to people’s happiness. Williams doesn’t specify examples, but perhaps he is thinking of creativity or good health or sufficient wealth. This suggest that ‘happiness’ needs to be clarified, with certain types of happiness included or excluded. But either way is problematic. This returns us to people’s projects, and how you assign value to particular projects.
The second objections is related to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The approach that maximises happiness in this case is for both prisoners to confess, but they will fear to do this in case the other party chooses to express their innocence at the cost of the other party. So if each prisoner adopted a strictly utilitarian approach, they may favour their own chances of freedom over the co-operative solution. Utilitarianism does not easily deal with co-operation as an element in the equation. In this case, overall maximal utility would only be obtained by each party foregoing their own individual case of maximising utility.
7) Social Choice
Although Williams is primarily interested in questions of personal morality, he realises he can’t escape the fact that utilitarianism is just as much about political and social decisions. On one level, utilitarianism is attractive for policy makes because it at least offers a solution, which is better than many of the alternative theories.
However, this doesn’t get around the fact that utilitarianism becomes even more difficult to apply when wider populations are concerned. How exactly do you measure utility across a vast number of people? Can you simply look at one person, calculate the effect for him or her, and then multiply it by a thousand (or whatever the total population is)? And who exactly do you pick in this scenario? Who is best placed as the ‘normal citizen’? Picking somewhere at random is hardly a rational approach, for you could end up with someone at the extremes.
Another problem with social utility is that ‘maximising happiness’ has nothing to say on the numbers of people likely to be made happy. According to utilitarianism, if a decision resulted in either (a) a larger group being made moderately happy, or (b) a small minority made very happy, utility has nothing to say on which one should be preferred. This leads to issues of inequality and exploitation of minorities.
If we were somehow able to pick a suitable citizen as a role model, how then do we go about assessing their likely happiness? Do we ask him what he actually prefers right now, or what he might prefer in the future? And what if these views are based on mistaken facts or the citizen isn’t fully informed of the circumstances? Do the administrators just go ahead and assume the knowledge for themselves? But this opens them up to accusations of elitism.
One solution for decision makers is to simply accept that no moral theory can ever provide the answer to any question of social policy. The range of factors is just too complex for ANY system to be effective. Williams re-iterates his basic position that utilitarianism is too simple-minded to tackle any weighty subjects in great detail. The theory has very little to say on the sorts of problems that come up in real life, on a larger scale. Perhaps the theory can work in cases of individual morality, because the consequences may not be so major either way. However, for large social policy making, utilitarianism has little practical value.