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Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism, and Negative Responsibility

Luke Holm earned bachelor's degrees in English and philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

Bernard Williams

Bernard Williams

Bernard Williams and a Critique of 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 the consequences of events done by other agents that she allows to happen 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 flaws 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 with 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.

Williams' Thought Experiments on Utilitarianism

Scenario 1

The first scenario is about a man named George. George is an unemployed PhD 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; whereas George could slow the process indefinitely.

Scenario 2

In the second scenario, a man named Jim finds himself in front of a row of twenty Native Americans. Jim is the guest of the day, and as such he gets the privilege of killing one of the Native Americans. If Jim kills one of the Native Americans, he will save the others. However, if Jim refuses such an honor, a man named Pedro will kill all of the Native Americans.

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 Native American. In George’s case it would bring about the most happiness if he could provide for his family, and in 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 choose to terminate the single Native American. However, if we digress to the problem of integrity, we find that there is a distinction between a man’s actions. In the second case, the distinction comes between Jim and Pedro.

Initially, the utilitarian would disregard Jim’s emotions about 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 Native Americans. 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 Native American. In fact, it is because of Pedro's action that the twenty Native Americans 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 phenomenon 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 value within the 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 with 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 a Native American in lieu of saving many others, it seems as though if Jim were a utilitarian that he must kill the Native American. For, after all, he would save so many other lives. However, by not killing the single Native American, the General would have all the rebel Native Americans 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 Native American in order to preserve the other Native Americans' 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 Native American would maximize the happiness of the other Native Americans, however, killing the single Native American would severely damage Jim’s conscience for the rest of his life. In the case that Jim chooses not to act, all Native Americans 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.

Works Cited

Cahn, Steven M., and Peter Markie. Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.

© 2017 JourneyHolm


Dan on April 02, 2020:

Hi Patrick,

Good point but the Indians might also be offended by the term, not just the Native Americans. Also, people can always get offended if they want to. A term itself does little justice to a person or people anyway

JourneyHolm (author) on September 12, 2018:

Patrick, I apologize if the use of the term "Indian" was offensive. As requested, I've changed each instance to Native American. However, to whomever might be reading this, please note that Williams used the term "Indians" in his original discourse, which was what I was trying to preserve and relate as closely and accurately as possible for my audience.

Patrick on September 12, 2018:

I would refrain from saying things like having "indians" lined up to be killed. For one, Native American is much more accurate and respectful. Also, if I were a Native American I would be very offended I imagine. This is not consistent with the morals of the time period in which we live today

JourneyHolm (author) on May 05, 2017:

Jennifer, I enjoyed your poetic description of "...we do not KNOW for SURE that if we don't do Horrible Deed X, then Even Worse Thing Y will happen. We THINK it will. Or we think X MIGHT help us prevent Y ... so we torture a guy..." Your mind is reeling in complex analogies. You've given me a lot to think about. Thank you for your addition to this idea :)

Jennifer Mugrage from Columbus, Ohio on May 05, 2017:

Thanks for bringing this up.

I'm not a student of philosophy, but I've thought about these things a bit because utilitarian philosophy has really crept in to popular thought. You see it a lot in spy or action movies: An action that we would normally consider wrong or even deeply depraved, is considered justified or even required because "If we don't do it, people will die." Think Jack Bauer torturing (presumed) terrorists. Or getting himself hooked on drugs to infiltrate a drug ring.

The problem with all these thought experiments is that they are usually a lot more neat and tidy than real life is. Usually we do not KNOW for SURE that if we don't do Horrible Deed X, then Even Worse Thing Y will happen. We THINK it will. Or we think X MIGHT help us prevent Y ... so we torture a guy, but it's not directly saving lives, it's more of a fishing expedition.

In real life, sometimes we choose not to shoot the Indian, and it turns out Pedro doesn't kill the others. Or, we do the thing that goes against our conscience, and it fails to prevent greater evil as we had been told it would.

Sorry if I'm getting preachy. I think it's very important to think these things out, because we will be faced with situations where we're told, using utilitarian logic, that we must or ought to do something that goes against our conscience, because it will serve the greater good or save someone's life or something. It helps to be clear beforehand that, for example, we think murdering an innocent person is always wrong, no matter the danger of not doing so. To be sure that we would rather die ourselves, than join the mob.

About your poll, I didn't vote. Of course we are not responsible for EVERY thing we don't prevent, because we are limited in time, resources, and power. And of course, we are responsible for preventing SOME things that are in our proper domain ... e.g. preventing our child from drowning.

JourneyHolm (author) on March 09, 2017:

CJ Kelly, thanks for the review. What did you think? Please include the link if you're sharing. Thanks!

CJ Kelly from the PNW on March 09, 2017:

Learned a lot. Thx. Lots to think about. Sharing.