Williams argues that utilitarianism is defective for at least two reasons.
Its doctrine of negative responsibility holds us responsible for too much. In particular, it holds us responsible for things that other people do.
Thinking like a utilitarian is incompatible with retaining one’s integrity.
The two points are related, but he puts more emphasis on the second than on the first.
Note: Williams sometimes uses the term “consequentialism.” For our purposes, that is equivalent to “utilitarianism.”1
Williams gives us two cases: George the chemist and Jim the explorer. Each one is faced with an uncomfortable decision. In each case, Williams thinks, the utilitarian way of thinking about the question is inadequate.
Williams believes that when you look at what people actually want, you will find what he calls projects and commitments. These are things that we want to happen or do. For instance, it is important to me that I take care of my son. He is not the most needy child in the world and if I were concerned with children in general, I could devote less attention to him and more to other children. But my commitment isn’t to care for children in general; it is to care for mine. I also want to do a good job with my lectures and I don’t want to be part of someone else’s demented schemes to hurt other people. Those are a few of my commitments.
Well, so what? Utilitarians tell you to take your commitments into account when you decide what to do. If a decision would violate your commitments, it would make you very unhappy. So you should usually stick by your commitments even if you are a utilitarian. What’s the problem?
As Williams sees it, the problem is that you’re supposed to give the same weight to your commitments as you give to everyone else’s. But that’s not compatible with having commitments. To be committed to something means that it’s important to you. If you thought of your commitments as no more important than anyone else’s, you wouldn’t actually have commitments.
According to Williams, this puts utilitarians in a bind. On the one hand, they say that they respect what people want in their hedonistic theory of good and bad. On the other hand, he thinks it’s impossible for us to keep a grip on what we want, namely, to keep our commitments, while also accepting the utilitarian’s consequentialist theory of right and wrong.
What about George and Jim? Williams doesn’t say that utilitarianism necessarily gets the wrong answer in their cases. His objection is that the way utilitarians think about their choices is unsatisfying. It would not capture the reason why George and Jim find their decisions difficult.
Is Williams’s argument compelling? Some people find it decisive while others think it doesn’t really say very much. For instance, Williams doesn’t have anything constructive to say about how George and Jim should make their decisions, except that they should consult their commitments. Utilitarians will say that they should also ask whether their commitments are worth having. That kind of question, they believe, can only be answered by using the utilitarian principle.
These are the points that you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.
Strictly speaking, “consequentialism” refers to a family of theories of right and wrong. They all hold that questions about right and wrong, such as “is this the right thing to do?” are answered by looking at the consequences of the thing in question. Utilitarianism is distinguished from other consequentialist theories by its hedonistic account of good and bad.↩︎