Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Critique of Bernard Williams’ Critique of Utilitarianism

Bernard Williams claims that utilitarianism neglects the moral weight of integrity, and that negative responsibility is the utilitarian flaw that allows this neglect. My goal in this brief essay is to argue that Williams is correct about utilitarianism, incorrect about negative responsibility. In the first section, I explain the hedonistic supposition of utilitarianism, and the purported negative responsibility of consequentialism. In section 2, I briefly outline Williams’ notion of ‘commitments’ and their relationship to integrity. I argue that it is quite plausible that the axiological value of integrity is not solely in virtue of its pleasantness or conduciveness to pleasure. In section 3, I present an appropriately revised version of Williams’ thought experiment. I argue alongside him that this thought experiment shows that integrity must play more of a role in moral calculations than utilitarianism allows. However, I argue in section 4, contra Williams, that the supposed negative responsibility of consequentialism is not the culprit in the thought experiment; hedonism is.
1. Hedonism and negative responsibility
Utilitarianism is the theory that an action (or inaction) is right if and only if that action (or inaction) yields the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of persons.[i] Notice that utilitarianism, as I’ve defined it, is blind as to whether or not a consequence obtains via action or inaction. This formulation is problematic, and can be attacked on a few different grounds.[ii] But I formulate it in this way in order to grant at the outset a premise which Bernard Williams intends to use in his argument against utilitarianism. His worry is that utilitarianism in specific, consequentialism in general, must, in order to remain consistent, allow an agent to be blamed for consequences that are ensured by inaction. Such responsibility is known as ‘negative responsibility’, to be contrasted with responsibility for action, or ‘positive responsibility’. Williams argues further that, according to utilitarianism, negative responsibility is no more or less mitigating than positive responsibility. As he puts it, utilitarianism entails “that if I am ever responsible for anything, then I must be just as much responsible for things that I allow or fail to prevent, as I am for things that I myself, in the more everyday restricted sense, bring about.”[iii]
Utilitarianism is also a hedonistic doctrine in that it claims that happiness is the only ultimate good, where ‘happiness’ denotes nothing more than pleasure and the absence of pain. Hedonists differ on the definition of ‘pleasure’,[iv] but in all cases hedonism is a ‘mental-state’ view in that the ultimate good is taken to consist only in a certain kind of inner feeling or character of experience.[v] Notice that this does not entail that qualities and states of affairs other than mental states cannot be good. Rather, hedonism entails that if something is good, it is good only in virtue of its pleasurable properties[vi] or its conduciveness to pleasure. The hedonist can, for example, satisfy the common assumption that knowledge, friendship, virtue, freedom, love, health and integrity are goods. Merely, the hedonist’s account of why such things are good – the ‘good-maker’, as it were – is because they are pleasant or conduce to pleasantness.
2. Integrity
It goes without saying that most people have goals and personal projects that they would like to see fulfilled. Some may be simple human needs, some may be pipe dreams; others mere fancy or whim. But some goals and projects are so deeply enmeshed in one’s lifestyle and personal identity that they become what Bernard Williams calls ‘commitments’. Commitments, he says, “are more thoroughgoing and serious than (the) pursuit of various objects of taste…more individual and permeated with character than the desire for the necessities of life.”[vii] Commitments in Williams’ sense are not uncommon. Gandhi had a commitment to pacifism, Orson Welles to filmmaking, Lance Armstrong to biking. One’s commitments and one’s ability to make and maintain them are part of what constitutes a person’s integrity.
There is no need to deny that the pleasure that one might derive from a commitment can be a source of its goodness. The hedonistic assumption that pleasure is an intrinsic good is quite plausible. However, it also seems plausible that pleasantness does not exhaust the goodness of a commitment. Suppose that a young man, Geronimo, embarks on a solo mountain climbing expedition. He has spent most of his life fantasizing and preparing to do so. The climb is a commitment, in Williams’ sense of the term. Unfortunately, Geronimo is severely wounded during the last quarter mile of his ascent. It is obvious to him that he will soon die. Any movement is painful. He has two choices. He can either wait to die where he is, or complete his journey. He has no family to mourn him, no duties to fulfill, no one will ever document his quest and he knows that if he journeys on, even the triumphant pleasure of the last breath on top of the mountain will not outweigh the agony of the last quarter mile. It is unclear, then, whether either option wins-out in the hedonic calculus; perhaps neither does. What is best for him to do?
It is intuitive (at least to me) that it is better for Geronimo to carry-on. If this intuition is accurate, then the goodness of Geronimo’s completing his commitment cannot derive solely from pleasure.[viii] The non-hedonic good-maker here could be a variety of things. It could be that the pleasureless satisfaction of a lifelong desire is an intrinsic good. Or perhaps an omniscient, perfectly rational observer would advise Geronimo to stick to his commitment. Perhaps seeing the commitment to its completion is a mark of determination, determination a virtue, and virtue an intrinsic good. Perhaps this final, intense struggle is a mark of human flourishing. Or perhaps, most simply, integrity itself is intrinsically good. Hence, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the goodness of a commitment, and in turn integrity, is not always solely in virtue of pleasure and the absence of pain. It is my claim that this is the reason for the intuitions that are elicited in the following thought experiment.
3 Utilitarianism, scathed
            George is a scientist living in a jingoist dictatorship. Because he is a widower with no other family or community members who can help him financially, he desperately needs a job in order to support himself and his kids. Furthermore, he is too feeble in health and unqualified in other fields to do anything other than scientific work. George is offered reasonably lucrative employment in the field of chemical and biological warfare research and development. George is deeply opposed to this project, and therefore instantly wants to refuse the offer. But there are complications. George finds out that the other candidates for the job will fervently develop deadly weapons, whereas in taking the job he can easily slow the process without any risks of being discovered. Because he lives in a dictatorship, he cannot go to the press to expose the project, nor can he leave the country to find less harmful work elsewhere. Because he lives in a jingoist dictatorship, it is absolutely certain that unimpeded R&D will do more harm than good. George still wants to refuse on the basis of his commitment against such a project. What ought he to do?
Bernard Williams, the originator of this (amended[ix]) thought experiment, argues that, complications aside, utilitarianism entails that George ought to take the job in order to secure the consequence that the chemical and biological warfare research is slowed. Moreover, this prescription is obvious on a utilitarian account. But it is clear, argues Williams, that even if the prescription is correct, it is far from obvious. Williams concludes that utilitarianism diminishes the worth of at least one seemingly crucial factor in its moral calculation; namely, George’s integrity.
I think that Williams is absolutely correct on these points. First, since utilitarianism is a purely hedonistic doctrine, George’s integrity counts in the moral calculation only insomuch as its violation engenders a difference in pleasure. It is true, or so we can stipulate, that the undermining of George’s commitment will render him, and perhaps those close to him, fairly miserable. But of course, we can also stipulate that this level of misery is trumped, on the hedonic calculus, by a larger amount of pleasure and avoidance of pain that will be brought about by George’s impeding the R&D of chemical weapons. Hence, once the results from the hedonic calculus are in, utilitarianism predicts that George should take the job.
Second, although there are forms of ‘rule’ utilitarianism that might not predict that it is obvious that George should take the job, those forms of utilitarianism are not without complications, and Williams himself provides an excellent argument against them.[x] At least act utilitarianism predicts that it is obvious, and insomuch as second-order rule utilitarianism calculations are grounded on first-order act utilitarian calculations, the former should yield the same prediction as the latter. Third, it is almost certainly the case that some of us have the intuition that it is not obvious that George should take the job. Our intuitions should be even stronger in light of the following specification. Suppose that the pleasure that will be brought about by George’s taking the job is only slightly greater than if he does not; perhaps in the former case just as many people are harmed as in the latter case, but in the former the harm is not quite as great, and therefore the utilitarian scales are tipped. This small difference is likely to elicit the intuition that George should not take the job.
Last, counter-intuitions to utilitarian predictions are likely to be based, as Williams predicts, on the violation of George’s integrity. George opposes biological and chemical warfare research not on mere whim, but through a deep commitment at the very core of his personal identity and value system. It seems unreasonable to expect George to violate his commitment based solely on an overall increase of pleasure in the world. Williams is right to claim that George’s integrity, at least in regards to his commitments, must weigh more heavily in the calculation than utilitarianism allows.
4 Consequentialism, unscathed
            Why? One possibility is that consequentialism of any kind cannot properly accommodate integrity due to its alleged entailment of negative responsibility. As Williams puts it, it seems that “each of us is specially responsible for what he does, rather than for what other people do.”[xi] But a person’s “own substantial projects and commitments come into (a utilitarian calculation) 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…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.”[xii]
In George’s case, the immoral actions of his jingoist government might, according to any consequentialism, morally oblige him to violate his commitments. Indeed, this does seem problematic. Williams asks rhetorically, “how can a man as a utilitarian agent come to regard as one satisfaction among others, and a dispensable one, a project or attitude round which he has built his life, just because someone else's projects have so structured the causal scene that that is how the utilitarian sum comes out?”[xiii] But Williams ought to tread carefully here. It is not clearly morally wrong to expect George to drop his commitments on the basis of what others do in all scenarios.
Suppose that the consequences that will be brought about by George’s not taking the job will be vastly worse than if he does. Suppose that if he does not take the job, 10,000 people will be severely harmed by the commitments of a malevolent scientist deeply committed to George’s belligerent government, but if he does, then 10,000 people will not be severely harmed. This difference is likely to elicit the intuition that George should take the job. Furthermore, it is obvious that he should take the job, despite the fact that he is obliged to do so by the actions of others. The intuition is that George should ‘suck it up’ as they say. So many lives are simply not worth one man’s commitments or worth condoning inaction. So much for integrity. There is, instead, likely to be a threshold of how much integrity, or any other good, intuitively counts in a moral calculation.[xiv] But if there is a threshold, then negative responsibility is not the culprit; for intuitions radically diverge in each case while George’s negative responsibility remains fixed.
Utilitarianism simply adopts the wrong sort of axiology; integrity seems to count more than utilitarianism allows because one or more of the intrinsically good qualities of integrity is non-hedonic. This is a mark in favor of non-hedonistic consequentialism. Consider a consequentialist theory that adopts an axiology which includes non-hedonic goods. Integrity could count more in such a consequentialist calculus than its mere pleasantness and conduciveness to pleasure. This would allow that George is not clearly morally required, perhaps not at all required, to take the job in the case in which doing so would only provide a small increase in pleasure. But there would also be a breaking point to the value of integrity such that George would be clearly morally required to take the job when 10,000 lives are at stake.
Consider as well that a consequentialist could weaken negative responsibility by allowing autonomy to be a non-hedonic good and then claiming, plausibly, that negative responsibility violates autonomy more than positive responsibility. Again, such a consequentialist theory could set the threshold for integrity violations much higher than a utilitarian. Certainly, there would be problem cases. But Williams has not provided any. And a unilateral prohibition against negative responsibility is intuitively precluded.

[i] It is the conjunction of two theories: consequentialism and hedonism. Consequentialism is the rather broad theory that the moral value of any action (or inaction) depends solely on the consequences of that action (or inaction). The consequences which are taken by consequentialists to constitute moral rightness are those that maximize the ultimate good. (I separate consequentialism from its axiological assumptions in order to leave conceptual space for deviation. After all, it’s perfectly coherent, though not very convincing, to take an aesthetic approach to consequentialism. ‘An action (or inaction) is right’, such a theory might say, ‘if and only if that action (or inaction) yields the greatest amount of beauty.’)
[ii] John Harris points out that “The obvious ways to criticize the negative responsibility thesis are either to attack the causal linkage between inaction and consequence, and to claim that it is somehow more tenuous than that between action and consequence, or to ‘discredit it by insisting on the basic moral relevance of the distinction between action and inaction.’ Williams, interestingly, chooses neither of these two methods.” John Harris, Williams on Negative Responsibility and Integrity, The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 96 (Jul., 1974), pp. 265-273. In the interest of full disclosure it is probably best, considering that I do not find Williams’ critique of negative responsibility convincing, to admit that I don’t find any of these other critiques convincing either. For me there is very little moral difference, if any, between an agent ensuring that a consequence obtain via action or inaction. I hold this view despite the fact that I think that omissions are not causal, in any strict and metaphysically useful sense. I think that an agent can, then, be morally responsible for events that s/he did not cause.
[iii] Bernard Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism” in Utilitarianism for and Against, Cambridge University Press, 1973, Pg.95.
[iv] The ‘pleasure’ which hedonists claim is constitutive of happiness can be defined in a few ways. Traditional hedonists such as Bentham define it as a kind of phenomenal state. He calls them ‘interesting perceptions.’ See Jeremy Bentham, “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation” in John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham: Utilitarianism and Other Essays. Ed. Alan Ryan. Penguin Books 1987. Pgs 89-93. For a defense of pleasure as a phenomenal state, see chapter 4 of L.W. Sumner, Welfare, Happiness & Ethics, Oxford University Press 1996, particularly pages 98-112. On the other hand, preference hedonists define it as a kind of pro-attitude towards the occurrence of one’s phenomenal state. For a more detailed explanation of preference hedonism, see Roger Crisp, Hedonism Reconsidered, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 2006, 619-245 and also the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry at ttp:// Bernard Williams discusses the distinction but strangely seems to blur the further distinction between what is now known as ‘preference hedonism’ and a desire-satisfaction view. See Williams ibid pp 84-85.
[v] There are general objections to the viability of this position, but I leave them aside. See for instance Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Basic Books 1974, pgs 42-45.
[vi] On a traditional hedonistic view such as Bentham’s, intensity and duration are taken to be the only pleasant-making properties of an experience. Notice that these are blind to the content or causal source of the pleasure. So in the traditional vocabulary, it makes perfect sense to say that “prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.” Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Reward, London: Robert Heward, 1830, pg206 (culled from Google books). In chapter 2 of Utilitarianism, Mill contentiously posits a third factor – ‘quality’ – which derives from the content or causal source of the experience, and distinguishes ‘higher’ from ‘lower’ pleasures (see especially paragraphs 4 and 5). Many have said that this third factor is either reducible to intensity and duration or simply an oblique reference to a non-hedonistic good and therefore an abandonment of hedonism. My wording should leave open the possibility that the ‘quality’ of an experience is a third pleasant-making property. (For this reading see Nicholas Sturgeon, Boston University Law Review, Vol. 90, 1705-1729.) This possibility is sure to help rather than hinder the plausibility of hedonism. See, for instance, Crisp ibid pp.631-635.
[vii] Ibid Williams pg 111
[viii] A Millian hedonist might protest that reaching the top is a ‘higher’ pleasure that will outweigh the less-agonizing experience of waiting to die just a quarter mile from the apex. My response is that we can stipulate that there is an equally high pleasure ready at hand; he can further cultivate his intellectual capacities in his last moments by reading a copy of Mill’s Utilitarianism. Even in this case it is intuitive (at least to me) that Geronimo should carry on.
[ix] In the original thought experiment, George has a wife who can work to help raise the family, it is not absolutely clear that unimpeded R&D will do more harm than good and the option of George becoming an effective protestor is not precluded. I hope that, in altering these details, I have bolstered the force of the original thought experiment without detracting from its intent. See Williams ibid pp77-98.
[x] See section 2 of Williams ibid, especially pgs 90-93.
[xi] Ibid pg99
[xii] Ibid pg115
[xiii] Ibid pg116 Williams ought to be careful for another reason as well. His statements indicate that George may be motivationally inert against his commitments; that George cannot take the job. This would preclude him from moral obligation altogether on the infinitely plausible assumption that morally obligations imply that an agent can fulfill them.
[xiv] Recall that Gandhi had a commitment to pacifism, Orson Welles to filmmaking, Lance Armstrong to biking. As it turns out, Gandhi’s commitment led him to the questionable conclusion that “the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife.” Orson Welles admitted shortly before he died that his commitment made him miss incredibly valuable opportunities. Lance Armstrong’s commitment is a contributing factor to his sponsorship by Nike, an egregious human rights violator. In each of these cases it seems perfectly reasonable that the individuals might be at times morally obligated via the commitments of other people to violate their own commitments.

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