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The Consequences of Accepting Consequentialism

Katy Baker on the demands of consequentialist theories of morality.

“Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all… The men against the wall and the other villagers understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?”
Bernard Williams in the book Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, 1973

Consequentialism is the theory in moral philosophy that says our actions should aim at producing the best consequences. A consequence of consequentialism, however, is that it fails to respect the integrity of the individuals involved. As what matters is only the end result, who is acting or how they arrive at the decisions they make is irrelevant. The lack of respect for the integrity of the individual is raised by Bernard Williams’ famous ‘Jim and the Indians’ thought experiment, quoted above. Williams’ example shows that consequentialism disregards the agent’s own personal commitments and allows for negative responsibility. I intend to show that expecting individuals to take an impersonal standpoint in a decision that so greatly affects them is unrealistic and leads to alienation. Consequentialists may try to respond by arguing that alienation and taking an impersonal standpoint can be a virtue, but this seems a high price to pay if the agent is expected to disregard her most fundamental relationships, leaving her deeply unhappy. For a theory often touted as promoting happiness, this is a problem.

A Utilitarian Approach

Consequentialism focuses on promoting the best consequences, but what kind of consequences are the best? The best-known consequentialist ethical theory is utilitarianism, which says that the wrongness or rightness of an action depends on the amount of overall good or ‘utility’ that is produced. So, to decide whether or not to take some step, we must calculate whether it will produce the best overall outcome for the highest number of people. Many utilitarians take a hedonistic approach, saying that utility equates to happiness, so we should act to produce the greatest happiness, and to minimize pain and unhappiness. For example, if I have the choice between saving one of my two cats, Benjy and Oliver, from a house fire, I should save the cat that would produce the most utility over the other one. So, if Oliver had a wide network of adoring cat lovers because of his friendly, playful nature, unlike Benjy who prefers a life of peaceful solitude I should save Oliver as this would cause the least pain and produce the most pleasure for the people that know him. For consequentialism, life is a numbers game; an action should aim to make the majority happy, regardless of who they are, and should aim to go for actions that produce minimal pain. Williams furthers this explanation; “making the best of a bad job is one of its maxims, and it will have something to say even on the difference between massacring seven million, and massacring seven million and one” (Consequentialism and its Critics, 1988). So whilst both acts are morally abhorrent, the consequentialist will inevitably say that if these are the only options available then not only should we choose to massacre seven million, but that it would be right to do so. What matters is not so much the horrific act in itself but the outcome of that act.

Jim & The Indians

As consequentialism only looks at the consequences it allows for negative responsibility; that is, being held morally accountable not for some action, but for failing to act to prevent bad things happening. Also, it does not matter who performs the action, only the action itself as Williams’ example shows.

For the consequentialist it is obvious that the right choice for Jim would be to kill one Indian in order to save the lives of the other nineteen. If Jim refuses to kill anyone then he is therefore responsible for the deaths of the others. From a consequentialist point of view it doesn’t matter who commits the murder, merely the amount of lives lost in the end, so Jim would be just as responsible for the deaths as the captain is – surely an absurd outcome. So what exactly is wrong with it? By saying that Jim should shoot the one Indian the consequentialist fails to take into account the impact that this would have on Jim’s life. In one moment Jim goes from being a tourist in a foreign country to becoming a murderer for the sake of morality. He is likely to have his own commitments in which murder (rather than letting others die) would go against his most fundamental beliefs. Does the pain that Jim would feel not need to be taken into account when looking at the best overall outcome? Killing the one Indian is going to have a profound effect on Jim’s life but for the consequentialist, Jim’s values are irrelevant. What matters in this example is saving the highest number of lives, and how this is attained is unimportant.

Can The Consequentialist Adequately Respond?

In response to criticism of the unappealing idea that by doing nothing Jim is as responsible for the deaths of the twenty Indians as the captain, the consequentialist can choose to bite the bullet by accepting the idea of negative responsibility; that is, to accept that we can be held morally responsible for not acting. Our duty to others can be illustrated using another example, one used by contemporary utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. Imagine you are in your local park feeding the ducks on the pond when you hear a loud splash; a child has fallen into the pond and is struggling to swim. No other adults or swimmers are anywhere to be seen, so without your help the child will drown. It is not unreasonable to say that in this example you should pause your duck feeding and jump in to save the child. If you don’t, you should be held partly responsible for the child’s death. The same could be said for Jim who by doing nothing is responsible for the lives of the twenty Indians. But Jim has to actively kill someone unlike the duck feeder for whom the only bad consequences are that he will get wet and muddy. Whilst the drowning child example seems to support the existence of negative responsibility, it differs in that there are no commitments or beliefs preventing us from saving the child. And this is the central problem; that Jim’s values are seen as unimportant when it comes to deciding how he should act in the given situation.

The consequentialist could retort that in calculating what course of action is right, the individual’s integrity can be taken into account. Perhaps it can in some way be quantified, so that if carrying out some act would damage the integrity of the individual so grievously that the maximum utility could be reached only if they failed to act, then not acting would be the right thing to do. But in Jim’s case his pain at killing one person is a relatively minor consideration when the very lives of nineteen others (and the happiness of their families and friends) is at stake. Furthermore, whilst the consequentialist can agree that the individual agent’s integrity should not be ignored, as Williams explains, “(h)is own substantial projects and commitments come into it, but only as one lot among others.” (Ethics, 1994) As our integrity is one among many others and consequentialism expects us all to take an impersonal standpoint, it would follow that everyone would need to disregard their personal commitments, which is likely to lead in turn to overall unhappiness, a problem for a moral theory with hedonistic tendencies.

Who would you save?


Even if the damage to Jim’s integrity is taken into account, there is another problem: the consequentialist would regard Jim’s killing another person not merely as preferable, but as morally required. It is a problem that consequentialism forces us to take an impersonal, objective view of situations and override some of our most cherished beliefs because of its requirement that we focus exclusively on the final result. Taking an impersonal standpoint leads to alienation; this is the state of someone who has become separated from their commitments to themselves and others. This makes consequentialist theories very demanding on the agent involved. Consequentialism requires that the agent should step outside herself, as it were, and assess the consequences not in terms of prior commitments, but just on the results produced.

To this objection, the consequentialist can protest that alienation can be a virtue. In effect we become moral martyrs, surrendering our integrity (leading to alienation) in order to achieve what they believe is morally right. Some consequentialists even argue that alienation is necessary for social progress. As Peter Railton says: “The alienation of some individuals or groups from their milieu may at times be necessary for fundamental social criticism or cultural innovation” (Alienation, Consequentialism and the Demands of Morality, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1984). Rather than taking into account our own attitudes towards an action, by taking an objective standpoint we are able to remove ourselves from our usual social groups and ideologies which affect the way in which we act and look at a situation, and instead we should act without bias. In practice this a very difficult thing to do – to step outside of the values we have been brought up with – and the state of being alienated itself often causes unhappiness within the individual. For consequentialism this is not a problem, as the individual is just a mechanism for maximising overall happiness; they are instrumental. Through alienating ourselves Railton shows that “adopting one’s exclusive ultimate end in life in the pursuit of maximum happiness may well prevent one from having experiences or engaging in certain sorts of commitments that are among the greatest sources of happiness” (‘Alienation, Consequentialism and the Demands of Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1984). Again, consequentialism forces us to put our commitments second, regardless of how strongly we are connected to them or how much pleasure we derive from them. The happiness of the individual is overridden by the happiness of the masses.

Using the example of Jim and the Indians, Williams successfully illustrates that consequentialism fails to respect the integrity of the individual because in deciding what is wrong or right what really matters is not the action but the outcome of it. Any prior commitments are disregarded or, if taken into consideration, are unlikely to have any substantial effect on the outcome. Consequentialism entails that we can be held morally responsible for a lack of action, and whilst the case of the drowning child shows that it is possible to be indirectly responsible by not acting, in cases like Jim’s it involves going further than can be reasonably expected. The consequence of consequentialism is that by taking an impersonal standpoint we alienate ourselves and whilst the consequentialist can argue that this should be a virtue, the expected result of unhappiness shows its inadequacy for this is a high price to pay for a view that values happiness. If consequentialism is to take a hedonistic approach – that we should act so as to maximise overall happiness – then it results in a contradiction. Disregarding our integrity and alienating ourselves from our values and social ideas is likely to result in a life of unhappiness. If this is demanded of all moral agents, then general unhappiness is likely to ensue rather than the opposite. So by treating the individual as merely a means to an end, consequentialism may turn out to be self-defeating.

© Katy Baker 2016

Katy Baker studied Philosophy at the University of Kent and is now part of the Philosophy Now team.

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