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Agent Alienation in Consequentialism Essay

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In “Consequentialism and Integrity,” Bernard Williams criticizes consequentialism on the ground that it is inherently unreasonable due to its insistence on negative responsibility, and as a result, denies the agent integrity. Peter Railton’s “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality” is a response to Williams and a defense of consequentialism. In the following essay, I will explain Williams’s attack on consequentialism, and Railton’s argument that consequentialism need not deny the agent integrity. I will then consider an objection to Railton’s argument, and then evaluate a possible Railtonian response.

Williams identifies himself as a non-consequentialist not by offering a conflicting theory, but by pointing out the flaws of consequentialism. The crux of his argument is his rejection of what he calls negative responsibility: “for consequentialism, all casual connections are on the same level, and it makes no difference, so far as that goes, whether the causation of a given state of affairs lies through another agent, or not.”1 Williams posits that this insistence upon states of affairs reduces actors to causal nodes in a ‘state of affairs machine.’ To illustrate this point, he offers an example of Jim, a traveller lost in a South American jungle. Jim comes upon a town in which twenty of the residents are pressed against a wall, about to be executed by firing squad for daring to protest the government. The army captain present, Pedro, is unused to visitors, and being a hospitable man, offers Jim the opportunity to save the lives of nineteen of the villagers. However, to do so, Jim must take a gun and personally kill one of the residents.2

According to the consequentialist, the ethical so...


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...ibility to the drought-stricken people, but his obligation to his wife is a greater responsibility, for himself, Linda, and the institution of marriage. In other words, the ‘causal node machine’ is not limited to people; a sophisticated consequentialist would consider Juan and Linda’s marriage as a component in the machine.

In the above paper, I have explored Williams’s criticism of negative responsibility and consequentialism’s attack on integrity. I then moved on to Railton’s solution of sophisticated consequentialism as a reconciliation of consequentialism and integrity; I then proposed an objection to Railton on the grounds that embracing sophisticated consequentialism is a move away from consequentialism. Finally, I considered Railton’s probable response to that objection. The decision is now left to the reader as to the fruitfulness of my endeavor.


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