Summary Of Bernard Williams A Critique Of Utilitarianism

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Bernard Williams’ essay, A Critique of Utilitarianism, launches a rather scathing criticism of J. J. C. Smart’s, An Outline of a System of Utilitarian ethics. Even though Williams claims his essay is not a direct response to Smart’s paper, the manner in which he constantly refers to Smart’s work indicates that Smart’s version of Utilitarianism, referred to as act-Utilitarianism, is the main focus of Williams’ critique.
Smart illustrates the distinction between act-Utilitarianism and rule-Utilitarianism early on in his work. He says that act-Utilitarianism is the idea that the rightness of an action depends on the total goodness of an action’s consequences. Smart also discusses how act-Utilitarianism is often associated with hedonism, and that
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Williams has an issue with the need to look at actions’ consequences to find any value in them. He believes that some actions have innate value regardless of their consequences. He compares the consequentialist’s position to that of a traveler who focuses only on the destination he is seeking to arrive at. Williams states that travelers don’t travel to arrive somewhere, they travel because they find value in the journey itself. There is something in this idea that can be applied to morality. Some actions, like journeys, have value regardless of the outcomes they produce. Williams brings this point about to show how the utilitarian’s focus on consequences might not be the best way to assign value to actions, since it has no way of accounting for the intrinsic values actions may have. Here I have to agree with Williams. The manner in which consequentialist judge actions does not seem to allow any room for considering a person’s intent behind choosing to commit that act. Williams seems to be more open to such considerations than Smart ever was in his…show more content…
He presents an example where a certain society might be better off banning a racial minority because, since the racists outnumber the minority, the best way to maximize happiness is to conform to the racist’s demands. Williams goes on to say that a utilitarian might be ashamed of this conclusion. However, if a utilitarian tries to change his views because he feels uncomfortable supporting racism, he might start going against his own utilitarian beliefs. This is where I find that basic human compassion clashes strongly with utilitarianism. In this particular case, utilitarianism seems to support a conclusion that goes against a fight humanity already fought during the civil rights movement. Williams transitions from this example into the discussion of something he calls “the precedent effect”. The fear of this effect is that certain horrendous utilitarian acts might encourage people to behave immorally because of the precedent that may be set by these actions. Even though Williams admits that the precedent effect would only occur if people where confused as to why utilitarian’s had to commit a horrendous act, Williams believes that this confusion is a very real possibility if utilitarianism is ever used in

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