Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism, and Negative Responsibility
Bernard Williams' Utilitarianism
Bernard Williams claims that utilitarianism is committed to a doctrine of “negative responsibility.” The notion of negative responsibility is that an agent is responsible not only for the consequences she produces by her own actions, but that she is also responsible for consequences that she allows to happen by other agents or events she fails to prevent other agents from producing.
From this, Williams loosely equates consequentialism with negative responsibility. Williams reflects on this doctrine saying, “...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” (Markie 612). But this is inconsistent with William’s original account of consequentialism, since consequentialism posits indifference between states of affairs that the individual does and what is produced by the actions of what the individual does.
Essentially, Williams finds flaw in utilitarianism because it is overly committed to a strong doctrine of negative responsibility. The flaw comes from the fact that negative responsibility focuses on the negative consequences of an individual’s actions, while utilitarianism focuses on the outcome of such actions whether they regard the individual or those who respond to the actions of the individual. Williams concludes that there is a problem with the placement of integrity in the actions of utilitarians. The problem for utilitarianism is that it cannot coherently describe the relations between a man’s projects and his actions. In order to better show what he means, he posits two utilitarian scenarios.
Are people responsible for what they fail to prevent?
Williams' Thought Experiments on Utilitarianism
The first scenario is about a man named George. George is an unemployed Ph.D in Chemistry and is offered a job working with biological and chemical warfare. Jobs are scarce, and George has a family to provide for. On top of that, George’s wife has no qualms about George working on these forms of warfare. If George does not take the job offer, someone else surely will, and may even progress the experiments of biological and chemical warfare; were as George could slow the process indefinitely.
In the second scenario, a man named Jim finds himself in front of a row of twenty Indians. Jim is the guest of the day, and as such he gets the privilege of killing one of the Indians. If Jim kills one of the Indians, he will save the others. However, if Jim refuses such and honor, a man named Pedro will kill all of the Indians.
In both scenarios, we are left with the question, what should George and Jim do?
Analysis of Williams' Utilitarianism Scenarios
In both cases, the utilitarian will always suggest that George takes the job and that Jim shoots the single Indian. For, in George’s case it would bring about the most happiness if he could provide for his family, and for Jim’s case it would save the most lives.
To explicate what Williams is talking about when he states that there is a problem of integrity between a man’s projects and his actions, we can note George’s case as stated above. Focusing on a man’s projects, here, the utilitarian asks us to forget about integrity and to disassociate George from his feelings. This is the ultimate problem Williams is trying to portray to us.
Yes, perhaps if George does take the job then his family will be provided for. However, is this really the maximization of happiness? Not in George’s internal world it is not. Therefore, what can be said about the maximization of pleasure in George’s world if he ends up taking the job? Likely he will be horribly depressed at his actions and will fail to reach the maximum potential of happiness. This, Williams relates, is something utilitarians casually shrug off.
A likewise statement can be said for Jim’s dilemma. Here, the utilitarian would chose to terminate the single Indian. However, if we digress to the problem of integrity, we find that there is a distinction between a man’s action. In the second case, the distinction comes between Jim and Pedro.
Initially, the utilitarian would disregard Jim’s emotions on the overall event. If Jim were to shoot the man, then he would feel bad. However, if Jim failed to shoot the man, if negative responsibility holds firm, Jim too should feel bad because he would indirectly be killing twenty Indians. In both cases it seems as though Jim would feel bad and that these feelings should not be acknowledged by the utilitarian. To this, Williams wants to make the claim that Jim should not feel bad for not shooting the single Indian. In fact, it is because of the action of Pedro that the twenty Indians will die, not because of Jim’s.
Problems With Utilitarianism
Williams rejects the notions of utilitarianism because of its strong inclination to negative responsibility. In the case of Jim, we find that he feels sorrowful for either event that occurs. This shows that there is a problem defining integrity between a man’s projects and his actions. Although Jim takes no action, his emotions suggest otherwise. If a utilitarian wants to disregard integrity, then we are left with an unexplainable phenomena which is occurring within Jim’s conscience. This is a problem for Williams.
Bernard Williams' Objection to Utilitarianism
Again, Williams begins his analysis of utilitarianism by suggesting problems with consequentialism. He sees a problem with this view as he notes that not all things that have value necessarily have within them virtue of consequences. Thus, there are some things which “have non-consequential value, and also some particular things that have such value because they are instances of those types” (Markie 606).
Williams’ strongest objection to utilitarianism takes into account the consequentialist doctrine of negative responsibility. Williams reflects on this doctrine saying, “...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” (612). To further elaborate upon his dissatisfaction of the negative responsibilities doctrine, Williams gives two thought experiments in which he displays why he is objecting to utilitarianism.
Focusing on the second case, the one where Jim is a guest and is offered the privilege to kill an Indian in lieu of saving many others, it seems as though if Jim were a utilitarian that he must kill the Indian. For, after all, he would save so many other lives. However, by not killing the single Indian, the General would have all the rebel Indians killed. The negative responsibility doctrine states that Jim is responsible for not taking any action in this event. Supposing Jim is a utilitarian, then Jim would have to kill the single Indian in order to preserve the other Indian’s lives. The question lies in the moral framework of whether or not killing is a morally correct thing to do, even if it is to save lives.
Reflecting on Williams' Objection to Utilitarianism
I think Williams’ objection to utilitarianism through these means is a good one. If utilitarianism is a moral principle which is supposed to maximize overall happiness, I am not sure that the answer to this case is entirely clear. Perhaps killing the single Indian would maximize the happiness of the other Indians, however killing the single Indian would severely damage Jim’s conscience the rest of his life. In the case that Jim chooses not to act, all Indians would be killed. This does not maximize the happiness of any party, and with the notion of negative responsibility, Jim is responsible for this lapse in happiness.
Crash Course: Utilitarianism
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