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August 20, 2018 | by  | in Philosoraptor | [ssba]


Utilitarianism is an ethical doctrine which states that the morally right action is the action which maximises net welfare. Formulated most famously by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, utilitarianism is a radical ethical theory with a number of counterintuitive conclusions. Among these conclusions is the doctrine of “negative responsibility”: the claim that our moral obligations to prevent harm from happening are just as strong as our obligations not to cause that harm ourselves. For example, according to utilitarianism, our moral obligation to donate money to a charity that will save someone from starvation is just as strong as our moral obligation not to murder that person.
In the mid 20th century, utilitarianism enjoyed considerable support among philosophers, but since then its popularity has declined. This decline was in part due to several powerful critiques of utilitarianism advanced by the moral philosopher Bernard Williams in the 1960s and 1970s. The most famous (and most frequently misunderstood) of these critiques is the so-called “integrity objection” to utilitarianism: the charge that the moral obligations of utilitarianism assault our integrity.
By “integrity”, Williams does not mean honesty or uprightness. Rather, he is referring to the state of being a whole, coherent person, rather than just a bundle of psychological sensations. But how does utilitarianism threaten our wholeness as persons?
According to Williams, our status as coherent agents arises from our ability to have self-directed goals and “projects” towards which we strive. Importantly, we lose our integrity if we become merely conduits or tools for the pursuit of someone (or something) else’s projects, since we would thus lose our ability to have autonomously-chosen goals.

With this premise established, Williams argues that the threat to our integrity comes from the doctrine of absolute negative responsibility espoused by utilitarianism. The doctrine of negative responsibility commands us to “drop everything” and devote our lives to the impartial maximisation of everyone’s utility. But this robs us of the ability to have any self-directed goals: utilitarianism provides us with a single all-consuming goal, and prevents us from having any personal, self-directed ultimate goals. Thus, the doctrine of negative responsibility demolishes our integrity.
Williams makes use of two famous examples to illustrate his point. One of them involves Jim, a tourist in South America, who enters a remote town square and finds 20 “Indians” (Williams is writing in the 1970s, after all) lined up against a wall. A military officer explains that the Indians are about to be executed for rebellion. But since Jim is an honoured foreign guest, the officer says that if Jim personally shoots one of the Indians, the other 19 will be set free as a symbol of the occasion.Utilitarianism obviously recommends that Jim accept the offer and kill one of the Indians himself.
Now, Williams’s point is not that this is the wrong conclusion: in fact, he thinks utilitarianism produces the right pronouncement in this case. What matters is the manner by which utilitarianism arrives at that conclusion. In considering Jim merely as an instrument for maximising utility, utilitarianism allows Jim to be co-opted into the projects of the military officer: Jim becomes a conduit for the exercise of that officer’s will. And this violates Jim’s integrity.
Williams concludes that a world in which utilitarianism is true is a world which lacks coherent agents. And this seems to him to be sufficient to make the truth of utilitarianism highly dubious.


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