WHY YOU SHOULD KILL THE ONE TO SAVE THE TWENTY. AND WHY YOU SHOULDN’T.
December 18, 2011 § 49 Comments
Jim is a botanist doing research in a South American country led by a brutal dictator. One day he finds himself in the central square of a small town facing 20 Indians who have been randomly captured and tied up as an example of what will happen to rebels. The army captain tells Jim that if he agrees to kill one of the Indians, the others will be released in honour of Jim’s status as a guest. If, however, Jim refuses, then all the Indians will be shot. What should Jim do?
It is a question that philosopher Bernard Williams poses in his essay ‘A critique of utlitarianism’ in his 1973 book Utilitarianism: For and Against, which I am currently re-reading. The book is a double-hander with JJC Smart, in which the two philosophers… well, unsurprisingly, argue for and against utilitarianism. Both essays in the book are worth reading. But my sympathies are clearly with Williams’ critique of utilitarianism, and more broadly of consequentialism.
Wiliams uses the story of Jim to illustrate his most profound criticism of conequentialism. The real problem with consequentialism, he observes, is not that it arrives at the wrong answers to moral questions (though often it does). It is that even when a consequentialist arrives at the right answer, he or she does so by the wrong means and for the wrong reasons, and in a way that is devastating for our moral lives.
Take Jim. For most consequentialists, there is no moral dilemma. Jim should kill one Indian because it is better that one is executed than twenty. A non-consequentialist would probably come to the same conclusion. But there can be no simple counting up of consequences. Rather, a non-consequentialist Jim would face a deep and terrible moral dilemma. Why? Because there is a crucial moral distinction between my killing a person, and that person being killed by someone else because of my refusal to act immorally. It is a distinction that rests upon the existence of humans as moral agents.
The consequentialist, Williams argues, has lost sight of the difference between ‘my agency and other people’s’. In ignoring that distinction, consequentialism transforms human beings from moral actors, keenly pursuing particular moral ends, into empty vessels by means of which consequences occur. Or, to put it another way, consequentialism undermines the integrity of the moral agent. ‘Integrity’ is an immensely signifitant concept for Williams. It describes the ability of an individual to view himself as a moral agent whose actions flow ‘from projects or attitudes which in some cases he takes seriously at the deepest level, as what his life is about’. To demand of such a moral agent that he should see himself as a janitor of a ‘universal satisfaction system’, as a compiler of a balance-sheet of consequences, rather than as the curator of his own moral projects, 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’. It is to attack his moral integrity.
Consequentialism cannot understand this notion of moral integrity, Williams suggests, because ‘it cannot coherently describe the relations between a man’s projects and his actions’. It has, in other words, an impoverished picture of the inner life of human beings, of why humans act upon the world, and why it is so important to see those actions as ours, as flowing from our needs, motives, desires and dreams. The whole business of compiling moral balance-sheets of the consequentialist sort is incompatible with the phenomenon of agency as we know it.
A consequentialist Jim would have done his calculations and then simply picked up a gun and shot an Indian. A non-consequentialist Jim would have agonized over his decision, before perhaps also picking up a gun and shooting an Indian. It may not seem much of a difference (it certainly would not make any difference to the Indian who was shot). It may even seem that the assertive consequentialist has a clearer, firmer grasp of ethics than the prevaricating agonizing non-consequentialist. But in that gap between the picking up of the gun after having consulted a moral spreadsheet, and the picking up of the gun after having wrestled with one’s moral torments, lies, Williams insists, the meaning of morality.
(The picture, by the way, is Goya’s The Third of May, about a rebellion in Madrid against French occupation.)