As some of you know, I’m taking an ethics course this semester. We’re in the preliminary stages of discussion, hashing out different views. Our textbook rejects Divine Command theory early in chapter one. Only silly people believe a god speaks to them about moral issues, after all. In a few weeks we’ll be covering topics like abortion and racism. I can’t wait. I’ve decided to let my opinions fly; damn the consequences. With any luck, I’ll be the first North Carolinian expelled for unpopular political views.
I can’t believe how naive I was a few years ago when I started college. I thought I might stumble on a teacher of the likes of Mr. Cambria or Laurel Loflund, or some old-European-in-guise-of-modern-liberal who pours through his students’ material, waiting to find a living soul to take under his wing. What a fantasy that was. There’s nothing but Satan as far as the eye can see in academia. The sooner I’m out, the better.
Here was my response to the most recent discussion question. I got a one-hundred for my work. The teacher’s being fair, at least for now…(he has no idea what he’s in for).
Describe Bernard Williams’ accounts of George the Chemist and Jim the Botanist. What point does Williams try to make with these illustrations? How does this relate to Utilitarian theory? (Be sure to include a clear definition of utilitarianism in your post.)
“Utility” is that quality or state of being “useful” (however that might be defined), so naturally “utilitarianism” is the idea that our moral decisions ought (!) to be made on the basis of how useful their consequences (one wonders if being a utilitarian is useful and if so, how? And if not, we’ll have a hard time figuring out why we ought to be utilitarians without first having to reject utilitarianism at the outset!)
Williams’ essay is critical of the theory (and rightly so, as we’ll see), although he doesn’t go far enough in this humble student’s opinion. He uses poor George and Jim as fodder for his philosophical illustrations, putting the men (both hapless, lab-coat-wearing pagans) into difficult moral dilemmas their training at the university hadn’t prepared them for.
(In Williams’ illustration, George is a chemist who has moral qualms about building chemical weapons. He’s told that if he doesn’t take the job, a more zealous chemist will take it and perhaps move the industry along quicker. If George takes the job, he would hate his daily work, but he might manage to slow production of weapons. It’s suggested that the “utilitarian” thing for George to do, would be to take the job so the other, more-zealous chemist, can’t get it).
We might quibble with Williams’ illustrations. George the chemist is urged to take a job working on weapons of war with the promise that, should he not accept the position, another more eager chemist will get the job. Of course, if this war-mongering chemist is so zealous, he’ll find a way to fulfill his life’s passion be it at the current position or elsewhere. Any work George does to stave off this fellow’s zeal will, itself, ultimately add to the body of chemical weapons knowledge.
Still – even if we take George’s situation at face value (without quibbling over the finer points of the illustration), it seems he’s still in a jam. Williams notes that, while the utilitarian may have a clear cut idea of the moral “good” in this situation, upon reflection, it seems more complicated; especially when we begin considering the utility of George’s moral feelings and what sort of damage might be done to his integrity and sense of self.
Jim the Botanist is used for the same purpose – his situation serves to “slow-the-role” of the utilitarian who might be too hasty in ascribing moral judgments to the situation at hand. More must be considered, says Williams, most notably, the subjective emotional states of those making the moral decisions.
From page 43:
“The reason why the squeamishness appeal can be very unsettling, and one can be unnerved by the suggestion of self-indulgence in going against utilitarian considerations, is not that we are utilitarians who are uncertain what utilitarian value to attach to our moral feelings, but that we are partially at least not utilitarians, and cannot regard our moral feelings merely as objects of utilitarian value. Because our moral relation to the world is partly given by such feelings, and by a sense of what we can or cannot “live with,” to come to regard those feelings from a purely utilitarian point of view, that is to say, as happenings outside one’s moral self, is to lose a sense of one’s moral identity; to lose, in the most literal way, one’s integrity.”
Williams brushes close to the truth with these concluding remarks.
On the Christian view, every man is created with moral faculties which, if properly functioning, produce in him a sense of “squeamishness” at the idea of moral evils, from petty to the large.
Imagine George having an old-world sense of medieval nationalism, where love for his own kith and kin outweighed his hippy-like qualms about weapons. In that case, he might see the creation of martial deterrents as a profound good, one that has the potential to keep many of his compatriots free from worry about invasions.
And what of our friend Jim?
(Jim is a botanist in a South American jungle who stumbles upon a tribal conflict. A local military thug has his platoon’s rifles trained on 20 innocent indians. He suggests that if Jim agrees to shoot one of the indians, he’ll let the other 19 go. Williams says the obvious utilitarian move is to shoot the one innocent man to save the other 19.)
Jim the utilitarian may make the cold decision to kill an innocent man. Jim the Christian, realizing he’s not omniscient, and realizing no end to any story is written in stone, might echo King Theoden in “Return of the King” who, when told of the seemingly insurmountable might of the army of Mordor, replied: “We’ll meet them in battle none the less!” All the innocent Indians may have died, Jim along with them, but he’d have died in a last-ditch effort to uphold the honor and “integrity” (to use Williams’ word) inherent in his Christian heart.
Neither of the alternative scenarios I’ve presented might appeal to the utilitarian modernist but it’s a guarantee that both George and Jim (if he survives) would sleep lightly, with no demonic qualms eating at their conscience.