Agent Alienation In Consequentialism Essay

1633 words - 7 pages

In “Consequentialism and Integrity,” Bernard Williams criticizes consequentialism on the ground that it is inherently unreasonable due to its insistence on negative responsibility, and as a result, denies the agent integrity. Peter Railton’s “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality” is a response to Williams and a defense of consequentialism. In the following essay, I will explain Williams’s attack on consequentialism, and Railton’s argument that consequentialism need not deny the agent integrity. I will then consider an objection to Railton’s argument, and then evaluate a possible Railtonian response.

Williams identifies himself as a non-consequentialist not by offering a conflicting theory, but by pointing out the flaws of consequentialism. The crux of his argument is his rejection of what he calls negative responsibility: “for consequentialism, all casual connections are on the same level, and it makes no difference, so far as that goes, whether the causation of a given state of affairs lies through another agent, or not.”1 Williams posits that this insistence upon states of affairs reduces actors to causal nodes in a ‘state of affairs machine.’ To illustrate this point, he offers an example of Jim, a traveller lost in a South American jungle. Jim comes upon a town in which twenty of the residents are pressed against a wall, about to be executed by firing squad for daring to protest the government. The army captain present, Pedro, is unused to visitors, and being a hospitable man, offers Jim the opportunity to save the lives of nineteen of the villagers. However, to do so, Jim must take a gun and personally kill one of the residents.2

According to the consequentialist, the ethical solution to the aforementioned situation is that Jim ought to shoot one of the villagers. In doing so, he is preventing the deaths of the nineteen others; a failure to execute one would be morally akin to killing the nineteen. This is because the consequentialist is concerned only with the results: either one person dies, or twenty dies, regardless of who is causing the deaths. Wishing to dismiss any consequentialist certainty, Williams explores “what sort of considerations come into finding the answer” to Jim’s dilemma. He wishes to draw a distinction between “solely twenty Indians dead” and “Pedro’s killing twenty Indians” [emphasis added].3 This is Williams’s consideration of agent-relativity; namely, that to ascribe fault to Jim if he refuses “is to leave Pedro out of the picture in his essential role of one who has intentions and projects.”4 So this emphasis on states of affairs denies both Jim and Pedro the agency which is rightfully theirs; Pedro’s killing of the Indians is as much of a choice as Jim’s decision not to kill. This applies to all of consequentialist ethics; Williams states that it is absurd to ask anyone to deny the projects or actions which he or she holds as being the most important so that he...

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