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Feedback Utilitarianism philosophy paper



This paper is a focus on the opposite views of J.J.C. Smart and

Bernard Williams on the topic of the ethical theory of utilitarianism.

The essays done by these two men really get to the heart of a lot

problems presented by both sides of the argument.

In the first part of his argument, J.J.C. Smart develops an

argument for utilitarianism, and in retort, Bernard Williams,

argues against J.J.C. Smarts position on Utilitarianism. The ethical

doctrine of “utilitarianism†is based on two doctrines in and of

itself: consequentialism, which considers an act to be right if it

results in the most good for the people, and hedonism, which states

that pleasure or happiness is the greatest thing in life. Therefore,

according to utilitarianism and specifically act-utilitarianism (AU),

an act that is right, and or obligatory, will have the best

consequences, and will therefore produce the greatest happiness for the

greatest number of people. In addition, everyone is counted equally,

meaning that the happiness of one sentiment being is not worth more

than that of another, due to any circumstances.

In his responses to Smart, Bernard William is not as effective in

undermining or “sinking the ship†on which utilitarianism floats on,

because his position can be used against him, and for several other

reasons, that will be argued in this essay.

William claims, “no one can hold that everything, of whatever

category, that has value, has it in virtue of its consequences.†1 If

such was the case, then there would be an infinite regress, which

William also claims. For instance, I am an avid mountain climber and

lets say I decide to go climb in Aspen, Colorado; I would first set the

goal to reach my desired destination, to enjoy the mountains. The

consequences of going to Aspen is good, because it will produce

happiness for me, but the idea of getting to that place, the actual

traveling, does not have a consequence in of itself. One travels to

reach a point, for once one reaches that point, one sets another point

so that one can travel. If the actual traveling was done in virtue of

its consequence, then that act would also be in virtue of its

consequences, indeed there would be no place to stop. One sets goals or

ambitions, in my case the desire to climb the Maroon Bells in Colorado

this vacation, and then we work towards them.

Smart could easily reply, that the actual fact of reaching some

place, whether it be a state of mind, an emotion, a destination, an

academic or career goal, all will be in virtue of its consequences.

Either I can take a plane or drive to Aspen Colorado, the idea of

traveling has therefore a consequence. Well, then how is it possible to

know the best method of reaching one destination? According to some

studies it is safer to take a plane than to drive, and on the other

realm there is fact of self-fear, that something might happen at 35,000

feet above the ground and one is not able to escape or have any control

of the situation, sparks even more fear. Therefore, with utilitarianism

and particularly on the part of consequentialism, one can never really

know all the consequences of an action.

In William’s argument, he calls those “things†that have non-

consequential value as being intrinsically good, and a crucial factor

of consequentialism “might be that it regards the value of actions

as always consequential and not intrinsic.†As discussed in class, the

case of the scientist going against his own ethical viewpoints to work

somewhere and have money (an instrumental good- only good in order to

provide a means to get to something) and being able to spend it on his

family for example. Yes it is good and will increase ones happiness

when using it, however it does not have anything to do with acting

morally right. This point; however, William does not make, probably

because it can be assumed from his writing. But yet again a Utilitarian

can respond by saying that the scientist is not a direct cause of any

sort of evil going on due to the job because if he doesn’t take it

someone else will! The money the scientist makes can be shared amongst

the family and social Fridays can be set up where by the family goes

out and spends money on the flea ridden homeless of the are, and enjoy

Friday afternoons. Yes indeed, but the motive itself still is not

morally good, because the initial motive was not: “I am going to work

an evil job so that I can help my family and feed the smelly, flea

ridden homeless of the Student Union†is all really done in violation

of the scientists ethical agenda.

Returning to the issue of an act that is right will result in the

best consequences, William makes another interesting point, that if

everyone were to think so thoroughly of their actions one would go

insane, or rather simply be insane. For example, I am at the beach and

I happen to see my mother in the far reaches of the ocean, I do not

consider to myself all the possibilities of what is the right action to

take, because I simply know that it is right for me to save my mother.

Smart also claims that there are rules in which society must live

by, for example everyone conforms to drive on the same side of the

street, but in our case, the fact of saving a my mother’s life, is

simply one of those rules that mankind has come to reason, because of

his deep enticements with sympathy for family. Therefore “a man†knows

that he has no time to consider “various possibilities†when he has to

save his helpless mother from drowning. 2

In order for an act to be right, it must produce the greatest

consequences, well as William said, what if not all the possible acts

are available to an agent whether be because of historical,

psychological, or cultural aspects, or that it is not imaginable

because of those aspects. For example, during the 1800s when the

sadistic fact of slavery was a central aspect of life in early America,

the fact of a slave running away would be for him/her the best

consequence, given the fact that he/she is not caught. Lets go even

further with this point, is it really the best action. The slave can

run up North were even still there was prejudice against blacks, or

stay in the Tyrannical South. The concept of actually being worth or

valued more than just being something as materialistically good, is

perhaps considered to be in some cases greater than happiness itself.

Therefore, what is “the best of the alternatives available to him� 3

According to Utilitarianism, that act which produces the best

consequences. The issue of time is crucial, when will it produce the

best consequences? Any act can be therefore justified in order to say

that it was the right act. So what is good for one group of people in

society might not be good for another group of people in society,

which leads to the problem of individual rights. Unfortunately,

according to Utilitarianism, the use of humans as a means for a greater

end can be justified; therefore, atrocious acts such as slavery, or the

use of humans as experimental test subjects, or any act in which a

human is sacrificed for the greater good is a right act, and I repeat

according to Utilitarianism. William’s does not make this point the

last point, so in order to judge the effectiveness of his argument in

response to Smart, one must undermine his argument.

Next issue, the fact of “negative responsibilityâ€Â. that if I am

ever responsible for anything, then I must be just as much responsible

for the things I allow or fail to prevent, as I am for things that I

myself, in the more everyday restricted sense, bring about†4 Referring

to page 98, in the case of Jim. He is responsible if the general kills

all twenty Indians, but yet again, he is also responsible for the

killing of that one. From the view point of Utilitarianism, it would be

his obligation to pick which Indian should die, in order for the other

nineteen Indians live. Returning to the point made previously, humans

are not capable of knowing every single consequence of an

action.(although some think they do) Jim does not know if he picks an

Indian, that the general will instead change his mind and kill the rest

of the group.

To get even deeper in this dingy hole, is not the act of killing

a rational being undermining ones moral principle? William addresses

this point, that utilitarianism undermines ones integrity. A

utilitarian can ask the question what if someone’s integrity is towards

mischievous ends, such as a person who wants to join the Black

Panthers, or go into the ACLU. This is part of William’s argument,

which ends up backfiring on him. William can rebuttal the position;

common sense tells a person that joining the Black Panthers or voting

for Al Gore is not a right act; however, the person who wants to do

such an act does not rationalize logically, and so the person’s common

sense does not make much sense to rest of society.

According to Williams, “Smart’s defense is devoted to act-

utilitarianism, that in essence stands as the view that the rightness

of any particular act depends on the goodness of its consequences.â€Â

William calls this view direct consequentialism, and so if it is

in terms of happiness, then one may speak of direct utilitarianism.

Contrast this with indirect utilitarianism, in which the action is

considered because of a rule. Then William claims if a society has

rules in order to prevent some action, then the majority of the people

will not perform such action because there is a rule preventing it, so

the society will behave according to indirect utilitarianism

principles. This is unclear on the part of utilitarianism; consider the

act of rape, if a society does not have a rule that considers the act

of killing an individual as wrong, that does not make the act right.

Well then, we must pinpoint the difference between indirect and direct

utilitarianism “Many acts are preformed because a law or rule exist,â€Â

which ranges from the act of teaching that a particular rule exist, and

punishing an act which is wrong. 5 The supporter of direct

utililitarianism, can reply by saying that the act of punishing an act

that is wrong will prevent further similar actions, such as in the case

of a mother reprimanding her son for placing faith in Frank Solich to

lead the Huskers to a Bowl worthy season. The sadness of a child may

“decrease†the level of happiness for the entire family than just the

mother feeling sympathy because her child has been punished.

Williams is attempting to blur the distinction between direct and

indirect utilitarianism. If there is not a clear cut line between the

two, and some parts of Utilitarianism are unclear, such as the concept

of self-sacrifice, supererogatory acts, and most importantly acts that

are considered obligatory (absolute truth claims) according to

the Utilitarian; however considered wrong by many in society, including

myself, then Utilitarianism must fall into another theory, deontology,

in order to say that such obligatory acts are wrong.

William said that Smart’s causal theory of moral comments has two

familiar disadvantages. “It essentially lacks openness, it is not

possible for it to be openly known in the society what this practice

is.†This is perhaps the most crucial sentence in his entire argument.

Let’s take the example used in class of the doctors killing off one

patient to save five, the act of saving five lives but sacrificing one,

and the fact that no one would find out, makes the act obligatory.

Therefore, as mentioned earlier, the ends justify the means, and the

use of humans as means for an end is justifiable. Imagine a society

that has kept record of everyone’s DNA, and in this society a disease

that only can be stopped by one man begins to start killing everyone

off. The only man with an antibody is a stinky, troublemaking bum at

the Student Union. To get the antibody requires the life of the bum. Do

we take him down for the betterment of the society?

The part were it becomes tricky is when does utilitarian actually

make sense? Kill one to save two, according to utilitarian would make

sense. This fact cannot be openly known in society, or else everyone

would be in fear. Thinking of whether or not they will die tomorrow,

because of a greater end. Therefore, if a utilitarian wants to consider

such an action as wrong, in where the ends do not justify the means,

such as using humans as test subjects, then the utilitarian must deny

their belief and accept deontology or some form of the golden rule.

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