Objections to Utilitarianism: Duty and Integrity


      Richard Norman

Contrast between consequentialist and deontological moral theories

      Consequentialist theories:  what make actions right or wrong are their consequences.  Also called Œteleological¹ theories ­ what make actions right or wrong are the ends or goals which they achieve.

      Utilitarianism a consequentialist theory.  Actions are right insofar as they lead to happiness (or pleasure, or Œpreference-satisfaction¹), wrong insofar as they lead to suffering and pain.

Contrast between consequentialist and deontological moral theories

      Deontological theories: some kinds of actions are right or wrong simply because of the kinds of actions they are.

      For example:

      It is right to keep promises.

      It is right to tell the truth.

      It is wrong to kill.

      It is wrong to steal.

      It is wrong to punish the innocent.

How a utilitarian theory could deal with such examples (1)

      They are Œrules of thumb¹ (Smart) ­ useful guides to remind us what actions are likely to have good or bad consequences.  They help us to cultivate useful habits or dispositions.

      But sometimes, if we have time to think about all the consequences and can be sure that we are not biased in our own interests, it may be right to break the rules.

How a utilitarian theory could deal with such examples (2)

      A stronger role for rules: 

      Generalized rule-utilitarianism:  Act on those rules the general acceptance of which would have the best consequences.


      Act-utilitarian counter-argument:

      GRU either collapses into AU or is superstitious rule-worship.

      Look at Smart¹s discussion of it. (He calls it Œrestricted utilitarianism¹.)

A Deontological Theory

      Utilitarianism cannot account for the rightness or wrongness of certain kinds of actions.


      W.D.Ross, The Right and the Good (1930)


      Certain kinds of actions are moral duties.

Ross¹s Duties

      Duties of fidelity (keeping promises, telling the truth, paying debts)

      Duties of reparation (compensating for a harm one has done)

      Duties of gratitude (repaying a kindness)

      Duties of justice (distributing goods rightly, treating people as they deserve)

      Duties of beneficence (doing good to others)

      Duties of self-improvement (making ourselves better people)

      Duties of non-maleficence (not harming others)

Ross¹s Duties

      Note that

      These duties include Œutilitarian¹ duties to promote other people¹s happiness and prevent suffering.  But these are not the only duties.

      These duties are prima facie duties.  They may sometimes conflict, and then we have to decide which is the stronger duty.

Example of promises

      Ross agrees that sometimes it would be right to break a promise because of the consequences.


      So how is this different from utilitarianism?


      Ross: the fact that I have promised counts independently.  If I have to break a promise, it is because there is a conflict between two different duties.

Ross¹s Intuitionism

      Ross¹s theory of duties is linked to an intuitionist meta-ethics.  These duties are Œself-evident¹.

      (ŒWhy ought I to keep my promise?¹  ŒYou just ought to, that¹s all.¹)

      Looks very dogmatic. But in fact there is more to be said.

Example of Promises

      Suppose I have promised to take my daughter on a trip.

      My son asks if he can go.

      I can only take one of them.

      They will each enjoy it equally if I take them, and they will each be equally disappointed if I don¹t take them.

      Which of them should I take?

Two important features of promises

      The duty to keep a promise is backward-looking.  What creates the duty is not what will happen in the future, but what I have done in the past ­ I have promised.

      The promise creates a special relationship between me and the person to whom I have made the promise.

Different kinds of moral relationships

      Ross: Utilitarianism Œseems to simplify unduly our relations to our fellows.  It says, in effect, that the only significant relation in which my neighbours stand to me is that of being possible beneficiaries by my action.  They do stand in this relation to me, and this relation is morally significant.  But they may also stand to me in the relation of promisee to promiser, or creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow-countryman to fellow-countryman, and the like; and each of these relations is the foundation of a prima-facie duty.¹

Two features of promises

      Putting these two features together, we can say that utilitarianism is unable to explain what promising is.  It is a way of creating a commitment, of putting yourself under an obligation to someone.

      Similarly a utilitarian cannot explain what fidelity is, what a debt is, what gratitude is, what desert is.

Possible utilitarian
replies to Ross (1)

      Bring in also the indirect, more remote effects of breaking a promise.

      ŒWhen you break a promise you not only fail to confer a certain advantage on your promisee but you diminish his confidence, and indirectly the confidence of others, in the fulfilment of promises.¹ (Ross p.282)

      But we can build this into the example, as part of the consequences.  The fact that I have promised still counts independently, separately from the consequences.

Possible utilitarian
replies to Ross (2)

      Promising is  a useful institution: ŒWhen you break a promiseŠyou strike a blow at one of the devices that have been found most useful in the relations between man and manŠ¹ (Ross p.282)

      Could call this institutional rule-utilitarianism (John Rawls, ŒTwo Concepts of Rules¹, in Foot Theories of Ethics)

      But if we treat the rules of promising, or punishment, as the rules of institutions, we are accepting that they have independent weight.

Bernard Williams, A Critique of Utilitarianism (1973)

      Raising similar problems for utilitarianism.

      Concerned to emphasise the special significance of actions.

      But not a classic deontological theory.


Williams¹ two examples (1)

      George is a scientist who is out of work.  He is offered a job in a laboratory which does research into chemical and biological weapons.  George is strongly opposed to the manufacture of chemical and biological weapons.  If he does not take the job, his wife and his children will suffer.  And if he does not take the job, it will be given to someone else who will pursue the research with fewer inhibitions.  Should he take the job?

Williams¹ two examples (2)

      Jim is an explorer who stumbles into a South American village where 20 Indians are about to be shot.  The captain says that as a mark of honour to Jim as a guest, he will be invited to shoot one of the Indians, and the other 19 will be set free.  If Jim refuses, all 20 Indians will be shot.  What should Jim do?

Williams¹ two examples

      Think what a deontological theorist such as Ross would say about them.


      But Williams not defending a simple deontological theory.  Concerned to raise more complicated issues.


      Key concepts he wants to explore with the examples:

      negative responsibility

      consequences mediated by someone else¹s action

      projects and commitments


Negative responsibility

      Consequentialists (including utilitarians) are committed to notion of Œnegative responsibility¹ ­ that we are just as much responsible for the things that we allow or fail to prevent, as we are for the things which we ourselves bring about.


      Application to George and Jim examples ­ if Jim doesn¹t shoot, he is responsible for the 20 deaths.

Negative responsibility

      Cf Peter Singer on famine and poverty ­ if we don¹t do everything we can to save lives, are we murderers?

      A simple alternative is the Œacts and omissions¹ distinction ­ but Williams thinks this is too simple.

The moral relevance of other people¹s actions

      In the George and Jim examples, the worse consequences which will follow if George does not take the job, and Jim does not shoot the Indian, will come about in part because of what others will do.


      Does that mean George, or Jim, would not be responsible for these consequences?

      That, again, would be too simple.

Projects and Commitments

      ŒProjects¹: very roughly, the things people want to do and achieve.


      For the utilitarian, there are:

      the higher-order moral project of maximising the general happiness;

      all the many lower-order projects which people have, which are the sources of their happiness.

Projects and Commitments

      Williams:  some projects are more important than this ­ what he calls Œcommitments¹  e.g. a commitment to a cause (such as the abolition of chemical and biological weapons) or to a moral value or principle (such as a hatred of injustice, or cruelty, or killing).

      These are Œprojects with which one is more deeply and extensively involved and identified¹ ­ projects Œaround which one has built one¹s life¹ (p.49).

Projects and Commitments

      Utilitarianism treats George¹s or Jim¹s commitments simply as lower-order projects alongside all the other projects which are sources of happiness.  They count, but only as elements in the maximising calculation.

Projects and Commitments

      Put this together with point about relevance of other people¹s actions:


      Utilitarianism would require someone to sacrifice his/her deepest convictions because of how others will act.

      This Œis to alienate him in a real sense from his actions and the source of his actions in his own convictionsŠ. It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity.¹ (p.49)


      Williams is not saying:  George should refuse to take the job, and Jim should refuse to shoot, in order to preserve his integrity.

      This would be a kind of moral egoism.  A desire to Œkeep one¹s hands clean¹.

      ŒIntegrity¹ is not itself a moral reason for acting or refusing to act.


      Rather:  Integrity is a matter of my identifying myself with the deepest projects and commitments around which I build my life. It involves recognising that I am specially responsible for what I do, rather than for what other people do.

      ŒUtilitarianism cannot understand integrity¹ because Œit cannot coherently describe the relations between a man¹s projects and his actions¹. (p.35)

      What follows from this?  Not clear.