Utilitarianism: For and Against  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Utilitarianism: For and Against (1973) is a book by Bernard Williams and J.J.C. Smart. It is known for its thought experiment Jim and the Indians.

Williams set out the case against utilitarianism –a consequentialist position the simplest version of which is that actions are right only insofar as they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

One of the book's thought experiments involves Jim, a botanist doing research in a South American country led by a brutal dictator. Jim finds himself in a small town facing 20 captured Indian rebels. The captain who has arrested them says that if Jim will kill one, the others will be released in honour of Jim's status as a guest, but if he does not, they will all be killed. Simple act utilitarianism would favour Jim killing one of the men.

Williams argued that there is a crucial distinction between a person being killed by Jim, and being killed by the captain because of an act or omission of Jim's. The captain, if he chooses to kill, is not simply the medium of an effect Jim is having on the world. He is the moral actor, the person with the intentions and projects. The utilitarian loses that distinction, turning us into empty vessels by means of which consequences occur. Williams argued that moral decisions must preserve our psychological identity and integrity. We should reject any system that reduces moral decisions to a few algorithms.

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