"3. “The day cannot be too far off…”: Williams against utilitarianism
[T]he important issues that utilitarianism raises should be discussed in contexts more rewarding than that of utilitarianism itself… the day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of it (UFA: 150).
Williams opposes utilitarianism partly for the straightforward reason that it is an “ism”, a systematisation—often a deliberately brisk or indeed “simple-minded” one (UFA: 149)—of our ethical thinking. As we have already seen, he believes that ethical thinking cannot be systematised without intolerable distortions and losses, because to systematise is, inevitably, to streamline our ethical thinking in a reductionist style: “Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can” (1985: 117). Again, as a normative system, utilitarianism is inevitably a systematisation of our responses, a way of telling us how we should feel or react. As such it faces the same basic and unanswerable question as any other such systematisation, “by what right does it legislate to the moral sentiments?” (1981: x).
Of course, Williams also opposes utilitarianism because of the particular kind of systematisation that it is—namely, a manifestation of the morality system. Pretty well everything said in section 2 against morality in general can be more tightly focused to yield an objection to utilitarianism in particular, and sometimes this is all we will need to bear in mind to understand some specific objection to utilitarianism that Williams offers. Thus, for instance, utilitarianism in its classic form is bound to face the objections that face any moral system that ultimately is committed to denying the possibility of real moral conflict or dilemma, and the rationality of agent-regret. Given its insistence on generality, it faces the demandingness and the “one thought too many” objections as well, at least in any version that keeps criterion of rightness and decision procedure in communication with each other.
Above all, utilitarianism is in trouble, according to Williams, because of the central theoretical place that it gives to the ninth thesis of the morality system—the thesis that I put on one side earlier, about impersonality. Other forms of the morality system are impersonal too, of course, notably Kantianism: “if Kantianism abstracts in moral thought from the identity of persons, utilitarianism strikingly abstracts from their separateness” (1981: 3). Like Kantianism, but on a different theoretical basis, utilitarianism abstracts from the question of who acts well, which for utilitarianism means “who produces good consequences?”. It is concerned only that good consequences be produced, but it does not offer a tightly-defined account of what it is for anything to be a consequence. Or rather it does offer an account, but on this account the notion of a consequence is so loosely defined as to be all-inclusive (1971: 93-94):
Consequentialism is basically indifferent to whether a state of affairs consists in what I do, or is produced by what I do, where that notion is itself wide… All that consequentialism is interested in is the idea of these doings being consequences of what I do, and that is an idea broad enough to include [many sorts of] relations.
This explains why consequentialism has the strong doctrine of negative responsibility that leads it to what Williams regards as its implausible demandingness. Because, for the utilitarian, it can't matter in itself whether (say) a given death is a result of what I do in that I pull the trigger, or a result of what I do in that I refuse to lie to the gunman who is looking for the person who dies, doing and allowing must be morally on a par for the utilitarian, as also must intending and foreseeing. Williams himself is not particularly impressed by those venerable distinctions; but he does think that there is a real and crucial distinction that is closely related to them, and that it is a central objection to utilitarianism that it ignores this distinction. The distinction in question, which utilitarian ignores by being impersonal, is the distinction between my agency and other people's. It is this distinction, and its fundamental moral importance, that lies at the heart of Williams' famous (but often misunderstood) “integrity objection”.
In a slogan, the integrity objection is this: agency is always some particular person's agency; or to put it another way, there is no such thing as impartial agency, in the sense of impartiality that utilitarianism requires. The objection is that utilitarianism neglects the fact that “practical deliberation [unlike epistemic deliberation] is in every case first-personal, and the first person is not derivative or naturally replaced by [the impersonal] anyone” (1985: 68). Hence we are not “agents of the universal satisfaction system”, nor indeed primarily “janitors of any system of values, even our own” (UFA: 118). No agent can be expected to be what a utilitarian agent has to be—someone whose decisions “are a function of all the satisfactions which he can affect from where he is” (UFA: 115); no agent can be required, as all are required by utilitarianism, to abandon his own particular life and projects for the “impartial point of view” or “the point of view of morality”, and do all his decision-making, including (if it proves appropriate) a decision to give a lot of weight to his own life and projects, exclusively from there. As Williams famously puts it (UFA: 116-117):
The point is that [the agent] is identified with his actions as flowing from projects or attitudes which… he takes seriously at the deepest level, as what his life is about… It is absurd to demand of such a man, when the sums come in from the utility network which the projects of others have in part determined, that he should just step aside from his own project and decision and acknowledge the decision which utilitarian calculation requires. It is to alienate him in a real sense from his actions and the source of his action in his own convictions. It is to make him into a channel between the input of everyone's projects, including his own, and an output of optimific decision; but this is to neglect the extent to which his projects and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified. It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity.
“The most literal sense” of “integrity” is, according to Chambers' Dictionary (1977 edition), “entireness, wholeness: the unimpaired state of anything”; then “uprightness, honesty, purity”. For our purposes the latter three senses in this dictionary entry should be ignored. It is the first three that are relevant to Williams' argument; the word's historical origin in the Latin in-teger, meaning what is not touched, taken away from, or interfered with, is also revealing.
An agent's integrity, in Williams' sense, is his ability to originate actions, to further his own initiatives, purposes or concerns, and thus to be something more than a conduit for the furtherance of others' initiatives, purposes or concerns—including, for example and in particular, those which go with the impartial view. Williams' point, then, is that unless any particular agents are allowed to initiate actions and to have “ground projects”, then either the agents under this prohibition will be subjects for manipulation by other agents who are allowed to have ground projects—the situation of ideological oppression. Or else, if every agent lies under this prohibition and all agents are made to align themselves only with the ground projects of “the impartial point of view”, there will not be any agents; to put it another way, all will be ideologically oppressed, but by the ideology itself rather than by another agent or group of agents who impose this ideology. For all agents will then have lost their integrity, in the sense that no single agent will be an unimpaired and individual whole with projects of his own that he might identify himself with; all agents will have to abandon all “ground projects” except the single project that utilitarianism gives them, that of maximising utility by whatever means looks most efficient, and to order all their doings around no other initiatives except those that flow from this single project. What we previously thought of as individual agents will be subsumed as parts of a single super-agent—the utilitarian collective, if you like—which will pursue the ends of impartial morality without any special regard for the persons who compose it, and which is better understood as a single super-agent than as a group of separate agents who cooperate; rather like a swarm of bees or a nest of ants.
It is important not to misunderstand this argument. One important misunderstanding can arise fairly naturally from Williams' two famous examples (UFA: 97-99) of “Jim”, who is told by utilitarianism to murder one Amazon Indian to prevent twenty being murdered, and “George”, who is told by utilitarianism to take a job making weapons of mass destruction, since the balance-sheet of utilities shows that if George refuses, George and his family will suffer poverty and someone else—who will do more harm than George—will take the job anyway. It is easy to think that these stories are simply another round in the familiar game of rebutting utilitarianism by counter-examples, and hence that Williams' integrity objection boils down to the straightforward inference (1) utilitarianism tells Jim to do X and George to do Y, (2) but X and Y are wrong (perhaps because they violate integrity?), so (3) utilitarianism is false. But this cannot be Williams' argument, because in fact Williams denies (2). Not only does he not claim that utilitarianism tells both Jim and George to do the wrong things. He even suggests, albeit rather grudgingly, that utilitarianism tells Jim (at least) to do the right thing. (UFA: 117: “…if (as I suppose) the utilitarian is right in this case…”) Counter-examples, then, are not the point: “If the stories of George and Jim have a resonance, it is not the sound of a principle being dented by an intuition” (WME 211). The real point, he tells us, is not “just a question of the rightness or obviousness of these answers”; “It is also a question of what sort of considerations come into finding the answer” (UFA: 99). “Over all this, or round it, and certainly at the end of it, there should have been heard ‘what do you think?’, ‘does it seem like that to you?’, ‘what if anything do you want to do with the notion of integrity?’” (WME 211).
Again, despite Williams' interest in the moral category of “the unthinkable” (UFA: 92-93; cp. MSH Essay 4), it is not Williams' claim that either Jim or George, if they are (in the familiar phrase) “men of integrity”, are bound to find it literally unthinkable to work in WMD or to shoot an Indian, or will regard these actions as the sort of things that come under the ban of some absolute prohibition that holds (in Anscombe's famous phrase) whatever the consequences: “this is a much stronger position than any involved, as I have defined the issues, in the denial of consequentialism… It is perfectly consistent, and it might be thought a mark of sense, to believe, while not being a consequentialist, that there was no type of action which satisfied [the conditions for counting as morally prohibited no matter what]” (UFA: 90).
Nor therefore, to pick up a third misunderstanding of the integrity objection, is Williams offering an argument in praise of “the moral virtue of integrity”, where “integrity” is—in jejune forms of this reading—the virtue of doing the right thing not the wrong thing, or—in more sophisticated forms—a kind of honesty about what one's values really are and a firm refusal to compromise those values by hypocrisy or cowardice (usually, with the implication that one has hold of the right values). An agent can be told by utilitarianism to do something terrible in order to avoid something even worse, as Jim and George are. Williams is not opposing this sort of utilitiarian conclusion by arguing that the value of “integrity” in the sense of the word that he anyway does not have in mind—the personal quality—is something else that has to be put into the utilitarian balance-sheet, and that when you put it in, the utilitarian verdict comes out differently. Nor is Williams saying, even, that the value of integrity in the sense of the word that he does have in mind—roughly, allowing agents to be agents—is something else that has to be put into the utilitarian balance-sheet, as it is characteristically put in by indirect utilitarians such as Peter Railton and Amartya Sen: “The point here is not, as utilitarians may hasten to say, that if the project or attitude is that central to his life, then to abandon it will be very disagreeable to him and great loss of utility will be involved. I have already argued in section 4 that it is not like that; on the contrary, once he is prepared to look at it like that, the argument in any serious case is over anyway” (UFA: 116). Williams' point is rather that the whole business of compiling balance-sheets of the utilitarian sort is incompatible with the phenomenon of agency as we know it: “the reason why utilitarianism cannot understand integrity is that it cannot coherently describe the relations between a man's projects and his actions” (UFA: 100). As soon as we take up the viewpoint which aims at nothing but the overall maximisation of utility, and which sees agents as no more than nodes in the causal network that is to be manipulated to produce this consequence, we have lost sight of the very idea of agency.
And why should it matter if we lose sight of that? To say it again, the point of the integrity objection is not that the world will be a better place if we don't lose sight of the very idea of agency (though Williams thinks this as well). The point is rather that a world-view that has lost sight of the real nature of agency, as the utilitarian world-view has, simply does not make sense: as Williams puts it in the quotation above, it is “absurd”.
Why is it absurd? Because the view involves deserting one's position in the universe for “what Sidgwick, in a memorably absurd phrase, called ‘the point of view of the universe’” (1981: xi). That this is what utilitarianism's impartial view ultimately requires is argued by Williams in his discussion of Sidgwick at MSH 169-170:
The model is that I, as theorist, can occupy, if only temporarily and imperfectly, the point of view of the universe, and see everything from the outside, including myself and whatever moral or other dispositions, affections or projects, I may have; and from that outside view, I can assign to them a value. The difficulty is… that the moral dispositions… cannot simply be regarded, least of all by their possessor, just as devices for generating actions or states of affairs. Such dispositions and commitments will characteristically be what gives one's life some meaning, and gives one some reason for living it… there is simply no conceivable exercise that consists in stepping completely outside myself and from that point of view evaluating in toto the dispositions, projects, and affections that constitute the substance of my own life… It cannot be a reasonable aim that I or any other particular person should take as the ideal view of the world… a view from no point of view at all.
As Williams also put it, “Philosophers… repeatedly urge one to view the world sub specie aeternitatis; but for most human purposes”—science is the biggest exception, in Williams' view—“that is not a very good species to view it under” (UFA: 118). The utilitarian injunction to see things from the impartial standpoint is, if it means anything, an injunction to adopt the “absolute conception” of the world (1978: 65-67). But even if such a conception were available—and Williams argues repeatedly that it is not available for ethics, even if it is for science (1985 Ch.8)—there is no reason to think that the absolute conception could provide me with the best of all possible viewpoints for ethical thinking. There isn't even reason to think that it can provide me with a better viewpoint than the viewpoint of my own life. That latter viewpoint does after all have the pre-eminent advantage of being mine, and the one that I already occupy anyway (indeed cannot but occupy). “My life, my action, is quite irreducibly mine, and to require that it is at best a derivative conclusion that it should be lived from the perspective that happens to be mine is an extraordinary misunderstanding” (MSH 170).
(Notice that Williams is also making the point here that there is no sense in the indirect-utilitarian supposition that my living my life from my own perspective is something that can be given a philosophical vindication from the impartial perspective, and can then reasonably be regarded (by me or anyone else) as justified. Williams sees an incoherence at the very heart of the project of indirect utilitarianism, because he does not believe that the ambition to justify one's life “from the outside” in the utilitarian fashion can be coherently combined with the ambition to live that life “from the inside”. The kind of factors that make a life make sense are so different from the kind of factors that utilitarianism is structurally obliged to prize that we have every reason to hope that people will not think in the utilitarian way. In other words, it will be best even from the utilitarian point of view if no one is actually a utilitarian; which means that, at best, “utilitarianism's fate is to usher itself from the scene” (UFA: 134).)
On the issue of impartiality, it will no doubt be objected that Williams overstates his case. It seems possible to engage in the kind of impartial thinking that is needed, not just by utilitarianism, but by any plausible morality, without going all the way to Sidgwick's very peculiar notion of “the point of view of the universe”. When ordinary people ask, as they always have asked, the question “How would you like it?”, or when Robert Burns utters his famous optative “O wad some pow'r the giftie gie us/ To see oorselves as ithers see us”, it does not (to put it mildly) make best sense of what they are saying to attribute to them a faithful commitment to the theoretical extravagances of a high-minded Victorian moralist. Can't morality find a commonsense notion of impartiality that doesn't involve the point of view of the universe? Indeed, if Williams' own views about impartiality are plausible, mustn't he himself use some such notion?
To this Williams will reply, I think, that a commonsense notion of impartiality is indeed available—to us, though not to moral theory. The place of commonsense impartiality in our ordinary ethical thought is utterly different from the theoretical role of utilitarianism's notion of impartiality. The commonsense notion of impartiality is not, unlike the utilitarian notion, a lowest common theoretical denominator for notions of rightness, by reference to which all other notions of rightness are to be understood. Rather, commonsense impartiality is one ethical resource among others. (Cp. the quotation above from 1985: 117 about avoiding sparseness and reduction in our ethical thinking, and “cherishing as many ethical ideas as we can”.) Moreover, and crucially, Williams' acceptance of “methodological intuitionism” (see MSH essay 15) commits him to saying that the relation of the commonsense notion of impartiality to other ethical resources or considerations is essentially indeterminate: “It may be obvious that in general one sort of consideration is more important than another… but it is a matter of judgement whether in a particular case that priority is preserved: other factors alter the balance, or it may be a very weak example of the kind of consideration that generally wins… there is no reason to believe that there is one currency in terms of which all relations of comparative importance can be represented” (MSH 190). The indeterminacy of the relations between commonsense impartiality and other ethical considerations means that commonsense impartiality resists the kind of systematisation that moral theory demands. Hence, there is indeed a notion of impartiality that makes sense, and there is indeed a notion of impartiality that is available to a moral theory such as utilitarianism; but the impartiality that is available to utilitarianism does not make sense, and the impartiality that makes sense is not available to utilitarianism.
Williams argues, then, that the utilitarian world-view is absurd because it requires agents to be impartial, not merely in the weak and everyday sense that they take impartiality to be one ethical consideration among an unsystematic collection of other considerations that they (rightly) recognise, but in the much stronger, reductive and systematising, sense that they adopt the absolute impartiality of Sidgwick's “point of view of the universe”.
We can also say something that sounds quite different, but which in the end is at least a closely related point, and perhaps—depending on exactly how we read it—actually the same point. We can say that Williams takes the utilitarian world-view to be absurd, because it requires agents to act on external reasons. I turn to that way of putting the point in section 4."