Class Essay: Utilitarianism vs. Indirect Hedonism

Explain the alternative to utilitarianism presented by Bernard Williams in Consequentialism and Integrity (see p. 33-34 for full descriptions of Williams’ hypothetical situations). How does it apply to the situation of George, the chemist who must choose whether to take a much-needed job at a weapons laboratory or let a more zealous, less scrupulous colleague take it? How does it apply to Jim, who must choose whether to kill one person or let several die?

The alternative perspective (to utilitarianism) offered by Williams is what I will call indirect hedonism (ID). Toward the conclusion of his Critique, Williams suggests that happiness cannot be attained via direct pursuit in the way that pleasures (e.g. satiating hunger) can be. Rather, happiness is gotten through a relationship to one’s projects. One must “commit” to some other project, e.g. Zionism or combating injustice, at the “deepest level.” One identifies “with his actions as flowing from projects and attitudes which in some cases he takes seriously…as what his life is about.” Williams describes the relationship between one’s convictions and projects and one’s actions as “integrity.” Happiness, for ID, is a side effect of integrity.

According to this alternative view, the morally relevant features of a situation include not only how an agent’s actions will affect overall happiness, but also their effect on the agent’s integrity. In George’s case, utilitarianism dictates that George put aside his “self-indulgent squeamishness” and take the job producing CBW because the positive effects (improving his family’s finances etc., and relatively slowing the rate of CBW research) outweigh the negative effects (George’s discomfort). ID, on the other hand, dictates that George give greater weight to his own integrity: because one of the projects which defines him as a moral agent is his opposition to CBW, he should not take the job which promotes CBW, even at the cost of hurting his family and indirectly promoting (or at least allowing someone else to promote) CBW research.

ID has a harder time deciding what to do in Jim’s case for two reasons. First, ID does not flatly reject the utilitarian calculus; rather, it complicates it by suggesting that a given agent should not only consider her action’s effect on overall happiness, but should also consider her actions’ relationship to her own projects and moral identity. ID does not make it clear how to compare these two kinds of considerations, so it’s not clear how it would compare the (partial) weight of Jim’s commitment to not-killing people against the (impartial) weight of the potentially-remaining Indians’ lives. Second, we’d need to be clearer about how much Jim’s commitment to not-killing people is really just a commitment to people not being killed; that is, we’d need to know how much his commitment against killing has to do with him personally being the killer and how much it has to do with his ability to prevent killing regardless of who the actual killer is.


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