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        Utilitarianism is a philosophical belief that the goodness, or rightness, of an action is derived from the amount of utility gained from the action. Utility can be defined as the well-being of sentient beings. In this basic belief of utilitarianism an action that maximizes utility is the action that should be taken.

        J.J.C. Smart is one of the bigger, modern, proponents of utilitarianism. Smart’s views of utilitarianism differed from the more classical view introduced by Bentham in that Smart had a more preferential view. By preferential I don’t mean that he preferred it, I mean that he believed that that the act that took place was to lead to preferred outcome for those involved in the action, as opposed to Bentham’s more hedonistically driven utilitarianism. Smart also favored “act utilitarianism” over “rule utilitarianism” believing that rule utilitarianism was too restrictive and that it didn’t have a firm distinction to act utilitarianism.

        Act utilitarianism states that the action that leads to the best outcome, i.e. the action that promotes the most well-being, is the action that should be taken. Smart went further with this in that he believed that the most right action increased the well-being of all those involved with the action. If the ones involved in the action gained utility and down the road someone who was indirectly affected lost well-being, then the action was still right as those directly involved with the action increased their utility.

 Smart’s main argument against rule utilitarianism said that there is no strict rule to classify a rule, meaning that rule utilitarianism falls back onto act utilitarianism. And his second argument was that even if you could classify a rule you might be forced to follow a bad rule, even when breaking that “bad” rule would have better consequences for all parties involved.

        To look at it with an example let’s take a basic traffic law “Stop at all red lights and stop signs”. Even if this were not a rule most people would stop at these as it is safer, increases well-being, for all parties. In that case rule and act utilitarianism coincide in saying you should stop. However, let us assume that you come to a four-way stop and that without stopping you know that the other three ways are clear, but there is another car about to rear end you if you stop. A rule utilitarian would stop because that’s what the rules say, and those rules generally have the best outcome. In this case, however, stopping would not have the best outcome as both you and the car behind you would collide. An act utilitarian, seeing that the way ahead is clear, would not stop because stopping would lead to a collision, and having that outcome would not lead to an increase of well-being.

        Moving away from Smart for a little while, let us take a look at Bernard Williams. Williams’ big problem with utilitarianism is that it takes hard moral questions and turns them into easy actions. Williams also believed that utilitarians focus too much on the “acts” which in turn causes a focus on “non-acts” or negative responsibility. This lead to his two big thought experiments.

        The first example is George, a recent Ph.D in chemistry. George is in poor health and only has a few jobs he can take. His wife also has to work to support their family, but by working she cannot be home to take care of their small children adding stress upon stress to everyone’s lives. George is offered a job at a laboratory that specializes in chemical warfare, but George says that he cannot take the job as he is pacifist. The person offering him the job says that even if that is the case, there is already someone else about to take the job that would have no such qualms about the research. If George were to take the job he could stop the overzealous person from doing a lot of harm, but he would have to do a little bit of harm himself.

        The second example is Jim, an American botanist. Jim finds himself in a small South American village where twenty random natives are about to be executed by a firing squad because some others were protesting the government. There is no guaranty that any of these natives were ones responsible for the protests. Jim is then given the option, as a guest right, of killing one of the natives at random in order to spare the other nineteen. Thinking over the situation, Jim sees no way that he could potentially disarm the soldiers in order to rescue the natives. Jim is also capable just walking away and letting the executions happen, letting someone else do the harm while he just watches without stopping it.

        According to utilitarianism the expected action is for George is to take the job, doubly so according to Smart, as it benefits the world to have less zealous person designing the chemical and it benefits his family as it is a steady income. By the same logic, Jim is expected to kill the one native in order to save the other nineteen as utilitarians believe that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. Williams thought that these actions were too focused on the act of providing the most utility to be right. The utilitarian viewpoint gives no thought for the thoughts and feelings of those making the hard decisions. 

        Williams brought up the fact that the utilitarian belief sacrifices the integrity of George, and completely ignores Jim’s feelings. Jim still has to be the one to pick up a rifle and kill an unarmed individual and then dealing with the fallout of that. He, Williams, also sees that in these two cases utilitarians would blame the two men for their non-action. George would be blamed for what the job applicant would do, and that Jim would be just as responsible for the deaths as if he did it himself.



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