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Utilitarianism’ Critique by B. Williams and P. Pettit Essay

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Updated: Mar 20th, 2020


Utilitarianism is one of the most debated concepts in normative ethics. The theory revolves around the argument that any action is considered desirable or ethical when it brings about maximum happiness or good. According to the developers of utilitarianism, actions are best justified by looking at the potential of those actions to reduce suffering and maximize happiness.

However, utilitarianism has been subjected to criticisms from several moral philosophers who capitalize on the weakness of the theory as far as the establishment of moral grounds in the society is concerned. Moral philosophers who have subjected utilitarianism to criticism include Bernard Williams and Philip Pettit (Danaher para. 1).

The argument by Williams is that utilitarianism cannot pass the integrity test that should be the foundation of any moral philosophy. This paper presents the criticisms of utilitarianism as opined by Williams and the counter criticism of Williams’ criticism by Pettit.

Williams’ objection of utilitarianism

Williams indicates that any moral theory has to stand and pass the integrity theory. The moral obligations of the doors of any actions are to ensure that the action is acceptable and not just because the action maximizes happiness. Williams opines that utilitarianism compromises morality in society. Williams argues against the concept of maximum utility as opined by developers of the utilitarian theory by arguing that it can be used to justify immoral acts in society.

According to Williams, utilitarianism encourages negative responsibility by focusing on certain actions and ignoring other probable actions that can be taken by the doer of an action (Danaher para. 2). Williams opines that responsibility entails what one allows to happen, as well as what one fails to prevent from happening.

Williams observed that utilitarian rejects the universal principle that a person is responsible for what he or she does rather than the course that is pursued by other people. According to the concept of morality, as opined by Williams, failure of an individual to take action is an action itself. As far as the action satisfies that individual, its moral basis is assessed not basing only on what the person does and what he does not do (Ashford 423).

Williams noted that the effects of an action that result from the failure of a person to take action could also lay on the person who fails to take action. An action of a person can prevent another immoral action from taking effect in the society, indicating the broadness of the concept of moral responsibility that is overlooked by the proponents of utilitarianism. In an utmost sense, utilitarianism cannot escape from failing to address the issue of moral responsibility in totality.

Utilitarianism does not account for practical questions in moral philosophy. Williams opines that the concept of morality has a grounded basis on inadequate account of agency. The proponents of utilitarianism argue that a significant moral relationship does not prevail between the doer of an action and the action itself; that is, utilitarian calculus (Ashford 424) what they give attention to our actions and omitted actions about production or hindrance of utility.

This is an undesirable measure of morality in the sense that it does not pay attention to the actions of agents, but it dwells mostly on the impacts of the actions where utility is derived. The separation of people from actions makes it difficult to attain the desirable standards on which the moral grounds on which actions are taken by agents can be established. The linkage of actions to doers is the sure way of looking at both sides of the action and the level of moral rationale in action.

A critique of Williams’ objection of utilitarian

One of the moral philosophers who have offered a candid counter criticism of utilitarianism is Philip Pettit. Pettit counters the critique of utilitarianism by presenting the concept of utilitarianism that backs the moral theses in utilitarianism. Consequentialism is a concept in normative ethics that opines that the goodness or badness of an action is determined by the impacts of the action and not the motive of the doer.

Pettit argued that ethical theories have to dwell on two main things. These are: specifying the good where the good means what is worthwhile and leaning towards the right action where the right action is determined by the effects of the action. This contradicts with the views of Williams, who seems to excavate morality by looking beyond the question of goodness and rightness of an action.

Pettit gives examples of what can be considered to be good. He backs the thesis in classical utilitarianism, which opines that the pleasure experienced by sentient beings constitutes good. He further argues that this is founded on Aristotelian ethics, as well as religious ethics. In religious ethics, doing religious work is considered to be valuable and a source of goodness (Danaher para. 1-3).

Pettit tries to explain the modalities on which the right action is determined by arguing that the right action is justified by the conduct of the doer and the process of deliberation that is undergone in deriving goodness from an action. Based on this observation, it can be argued that consequentialism tries to delineate itself from utilitarianism by focusing on the action and the process. In trying to do so, Pettit unconsciously supports the observation by Williams, who noted the importance of relating doers to actions.

Williams indicates that the moral basis of an action cannot be established without digging deep into the actions and the stimuli in which the moral obligations of the doer are embedded. In as far as Pettit argues that consequentialism is not a theory of good but a theory of right, the relatedness of the actions to the doers comes out in his theory.

This is important in bringing out the distinction between utilitarianism and other theories in normative ethics. Rightness and goodness are interlinked in the sense that exploring one’s terms automatically pulls in the other terms. Therefore, Pettit’s attempt to make a distinction between consequentialism from utilitarianism by basing on rightness and goodness exemplifies the objection of utilitarianism by Williams (Singleton 1-2).

Several observations have been made about the consequentialist concept by Pettit and its implications on the thesis that was advanced by Williams as an objection to the concept of utilitarianism. Pettit argues that consequentialism can be enriched through combining it with other ethical concepts that aid in the provision of answers that are not explored in consequentialism. This is to say that consequentialism is in itself not a complete concept of normative ethics, just as utilitarianism is.

One of the suggestions that are given by Pettit is the combination of consequentialism with virtue ethics. This means that a desirable agent should be in a position to produce the best outcomes. The question that ought to be asked is how best outcomes can be attained when consequentialism in itself focuses on the outcomes of actions.

An agent can hardly possess a virtuous character as opined by Pettit. The rationale behind this observation is that the character of an agent can only be established when a comparison is done between the agent and another agent who is acting in like situations. Furthermore, it should be noted that there lies a lot of differences, even in situations that seem to be similar (Danaher para. 1-3).

The first difference is the agent, followed by a ray of other stimuli within the environment in which an action takes place. However, the outcomes of action can be used to make a justification of the options that are embraced by an actor or actors who respond to a similar situation in a manner that seems to be the same.

Here, it can be argued that Pettit tries to back the issue of moral responsibility; how the moral stance of action can be established by looking at the action itself and the actor. Williams noted that the actor needs to be related to the act to establish the moral grounds on which an action takes place. Most proponents of consequentialism overlook the issue of the agent by focusing more on the outcomes of an action rather than the motivation of the agent (Singleton 2).


Pettit’s counter-criticism of the objection of utilitarianism is based on the definition of consequentialism that was developed by classical consequentialists. Therefore, he fails to separate consequentialism from utilitarianism. This justifies most of the criticisms that were advanced by Williams.

Works Cited

Ashford, Elizabeth. “Utilitarianism, Integrity, and Partiality.” The Journal of Philosophy 97.8(2000): 421-439. Print.

Danaher, John. Philosophical Disquisitions, 2009. Web. 16 July 2013, http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/2009/12/consequentialism-by-philip-pettit.html

Singleton, Jane. Virtue Ethics, Kantian Ethics and Consequentialism, 1999. Web. 16 July 2013, http://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/1152/103504.pdf?sequence=1

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