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By Jake Wojtowicz

I want to sketch out a familiar idea from Bernard Williams’s ethics, and then offer a problem, alongside some things we might say in reaction to it. I’m far from well versed on the literature here, and the earlier stuff, which I present in a fairly brief manner, is what I know more about – but I don’t think that people will be as interested by a fairly arcane piece about the distinction between commitments and ground projects. So, although I won’t say much new here, I think it opens up plenty of avenues for debate. The sort of problem I’m considering, which turns around value pluralism, could affect others, such as Isaiah Berlin, and if anyone could point out avenues to explore, that would be good. But, really, the point of this is meant to be getting some discussion going – so that’s what I hope to do.

In his critique of utilitarianism, Bernard Williams offers a couple of examples. Jim can shoot an Indian to save nineteen, or not shoot and twenty will die. I think his other example, George, gets the point across in a slightly clearer way, so let’s go with that. George is a scientist, he’s just finished his PhD, and he’s pretty poor. He’s offered a job. If he takes the job, he’ll be able to support his family (his financial straits are causing problems for them), but the job is in chemical and biological weaponry, and George isfundamentally opposed to working in that industry. If he takes the job then he’ll not only be able to support his family, but will prevent it going to a warmongering zealot – who would greatly profit the cause of chemical weaponry by working overtime (which George could avoid). So, the utilitarian says George obviously should take the job, since it will maximise happiness: his family will do better, and fewer people will die since the zealot won’t be making chemical weapons into even greater killing machines.

But Williams thinks that George should be able to say “No” to the job. George has a commitment to pacifism, and that’s not the sort of thing he can just throw away. (Elsewhere he talks of ground projects, and categorical desires, but the distinction between these three things is messy at best, so let’s just work with commitments.) In short, commitments are vital to anything like a valuable human life. Without them, life is not worth living. (Elena Makropulos, in his famous paper on Death, has no commitments, and is utterly bored.) Basically, and this is far more complex and deserves far more space than I’ll give it, Williams’s point is that utilitarianism doesn’t deal with proper human agents. Utilitarianism doesn’t let you keep any commitments, because anything you might seem to be committed to cannot really be something you’re committed to, since as a good utilitarian you have to be willing to abandon it whenever doing so would increase happiness – and commitments aren’t abandonable in such a way. But commitments are a vital part of a valuable human lives, so utilitarianism cannot really account for valuable human lives.

There are two other things in Williams that are relevant here. First off, his internalism about reasons. This is the thought that one cannot have a reason to do something, unless one, in some way, wants to do it. So, if Owen doesn’t want to join the army (nor does he have any desires that, to be satisfied, require him joining the army), then he has no reason to. Second off, you get throughout Williams the idea that there is a plurality of values, and that there can be tragic conflict between values – such that there is no way of avoiding awful problems (see, for instance, Moral Luck). The plurality about values gives us something else: that it’s fine to go against these purportedly-moral demands. There are more values than the merely moral, and we would much rather live in a world full of many different values than just the one: be that moral, aesthetic, or whatever. So, sometimes we might do something that is morally bad, but aesthetically good – but that’s better (in some sense) than always doing the morally good thing.

But then we get some sort of problem. It’s supposedly fine for George to go by his commitment to pacifism, against the moral demand for the greater good. But what about a Himmler figure? Himmler had a commitment to antisemitism. Why might we think it is ok for George to stick to his pacifism, for Anna Karenina to abandon her child in the name of Love, and for people to spend their time in galleries rather than working for the poor, but be repulsed if someone like Himmler offered the thought: “Ah, but genocide is what makes my life worth living!”? What’s more, we want to be able to say something to Himmler – what can the Williamsian say?

Now, one line I used to think was worth pursuing, but am no longer so sure of, focuses on Jim. Jim, if he sticks to his pacifism, condemns twenty people to death. Himmler, if he sticks to his form of antisemitism, condemns millions. Perhaps we might want to say something about expected-sacrifice. We might say that abandoning one’s commitment is something like suicide. Now, sacrificing yourself to save twenty people might be the sort of thing we think is supererogatory – but we might think it’s expected that you would do so if it were to save hundreds, thousands, or millions; so this might legitimate Jim’s actions, but not Himmler’s. But that won’t do – since it would rule out George refusing the job, since his actions might, in some sense, lead to the deaths of many people (think Oppenheimer). So, I’m not sure this is the way we can go.

Now, although there can be no recourse to some free-floating external reason that bans Himmler from setting out on his genocide, we might be able to show that Himmler has a clash of desires, or has got the facts wrong. Perhaps he wants to do the best by the human race, and also eliminate the Jews. If we can show him that Jews are part of the human race, and that his desire to do best by the human race outweighs his desire to kill the Jews, then we might be able to get him to cease his evil ways.

But if he’s utterly set on genocide, and there are no competing desires, and we can’t show our Himmler that he’s gotten something factual wrong, then what might the Williamsian say? Well, we can’t reason with Himmler. But we might be able to use other persuasive techniques – like calling him “cruel”. Though, this will only work if Himmler cares for what we say to him. But, perhaps we don’t even want to reason with this sort of figure. If we can’t reason, and he goes off and tries to complete his project, what can we do? So long as there’s one of us who doesn’t much mind it – who doesn’t have some very strong commitment against just-killing – we might find someone willing to put a bullet in Himmler: would there be anything wrong with that?

But what gives us a right to decide which other commitments we want to exist alongside? What I’ve just said concerns motivating Himmler, trying to get him back to the right side. What justifies our insistence on our values over his? And that seems to be a real problem: once you get rid of the idea that there might be one overarching value, then how to decide between others, and how to decide whether or not something is valuable or is utterly awful and should form no part of the things we pursue, becomes really, really, hard.

Someone of an Aristotelian frame of mind might want to say that we could look to a plurality of values that are constrained by what it means to be a good human – there are plenty of questions to be begged here, but it’s a path that might be worth pursuing. Or, and this is something I want to look at more, we might want to say that some things might be worth pursuing even if they cause great harm, but what we can’t do is something evil. Perhaps some bad things realise other values, or even are just bad, but aren’t the sort of thing that pose much overall threat; but evil things are totally abhorrent and in some way infect other things. But that, as it stands, sounds a bit twee and needs a lot of work – and it seems like it might fall back on some Aristotelian considerations.

Or maybe there just is no way to decide. There’s nothing that makes our values better than Himmler’s. So if we were to appeal to some independent omniscient court, there would be no settlement. The only thing we can do is persuade, cajole, and fight. But that doesn’t do justice to our view that we’ve got something right and he’s got something wrong – though, nor does it do justice to his view that he’s got it right and we’ve got it wrong. Unsettling. But perhaps it’s a bullet I might bite.

Anyway, I think the Williams line against utilitarianism (and, really, all moral systems) is persuasive. And I’m a big fan of a plurality of values. But I’m still a little stuck, and not sure where to go when we face a Himmler figure. What puts us in a better position than someone who seems to say “Evil, be thou my good.”?


Williams, B A O. “A Critique of Utilitarianism.” In Utilitarianism for and against, by B A O Williams and J J C Smart, 75–150. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

———. “Internal and External Reasons.” In Moral Luck, 101–13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

———. “Moral Luck.” In Moral Luck, 20–39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

———. “Persons, Character and Morality.” In Moral Luck, 1–19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

———. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” In Problems of the Self, 82–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.