Integrity and Squeamishness

J. J. C. Smart

[From J. J. C. Smart, "Utilitarianism and Justice," Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 1978. This version extracted from "Utilitarianism and Its Critics", Ed. Jonathon Glover, © 1990 Macmillan Publishing Company. ISBN 0-02-344134-8.]

SUPPOSE THAT AN innocent man is sentenced to imprisonment or a stupid student is given a prize for outstanding excellence. In such cases it can be held that an injustice has been done and that this injustice is of a non-comparative kind. If all innocent men were to be punished or all stupid students given a prize this would only compound the injustice. The most poignant sort of case, of course, is that of the punishment of an innocent man. Suppose that in order to prevent a riot in which thousands would certainly be killed a sheriff were to frame and execute an innocent man.1 On utilitarian principles would not the sacrifice of one life in order to save thousands be justified? The usual utilitarian reply is that if such a thing were to be done it would probably be detected, or would leak out, that an innocent man had been punished, and the resulting destruction of faith in the law would lead to more harm than would result even from thousands of people being killed in the riot. If faith in the due processes of the law is destroyed the very foundations of society are shaken. If a potential criminal thinks that innocent people may be punished, he will be less likely to be deterred by the threat of punishment, since he may reasonably enough think that he might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a goat. Nevertheless, this sort of reply will not do, because the case can be made a very strong one: we may assume that detection of the sheriff's deceit is almost impossible. If need be the story can also be altered so as to make the likely harm done in the riot even greater than it was in the original story. There must come a time at which it will be agreed on all sides that the harm done by punishing the innocent man would be less (even much less) than that which would be done by the riot. Moreover, it is not relevant to object that it is merely probable that there would be a riot if the innocent man were not punished, whereas the harm done by executing the innocent man would be quite certain to occur. We must in a utilitarian calculation (in which probabilities are relevant) take the harm done to be the total probable harm, and the objector to utilitarianism can always state the case so that the harm caused by doing the injustice to the innocent man is much less than the total probable harm which is prevented.

Certainly it is cases such as this one which make me wonder whether after all I really am a utilitarian. To do a serious injustice to someone is a terrible thing. How terrible it must be for a man to know that he is about to be executed, or that he must stay in prison for many years. How much worse it must be for the man if he knows that he is innocent: to all the usual pains and penalties is added the anguish of his believing himself to be disgraced and held in contempt because people had false beliefs about him. It really is distressing even to think about such a case, let alone to be the victim oneself. And yet one can argue that our feelings of distress are (at least partly) due to looking at only one aspect of the situation. If the harm done to the victim really is (as on the hypothesis) much less than the harm that would have been caused by the riot, with the thousands of deaths, the fatherless and motherless children, and so on, then it ought to give us even more anguish if we contemplate this side of the story.

Certainly the utilitarian is entitled to assert that such cases in which it would be right to do an injustice must be very rare indeed. In nearly all empirically likely situations there are almost certainly better ways of dealing with the situation.2 It is therefore highly improbable that any utilitarian will find himself called upon by his own principles to commit a flagrant act of injustice of the sort which we have been considering. Moreover, the sort of man who is most likely to behave in the most optimific way in normal circumstances is one who will find it hard and distasteful to do the act of injustice which is postulated in the case which we have been considering: he will have a lively and sorrowful sympathy with the man who has to be sacrificed for the good of others. After all, if he is not sympathetic in particular instances he is unlikely to have the strong feeling of generalized benevolence which is the basis of utilitarianism.3

There will therefore be fearful conflicts in the mind of a utilitarian who has to do an act of injustice of the sort which we have been considering. Injustice of this sort does harm to someone and no benevolent person can like this. There will therefore be a sort of conflict in the mind of a utilitarian which contributes to what Bernard Williams has described as a lack of integrity. I think that the utilitarian must be prepared to sacrifice the harmony of his own mind for the good of others. If, to use Williams's example,4 the only way in which I can save twenty men from being wrongfully executed in the field by an army captain is to myself shoot the twentieth (who is to be executed anyway) then I must do it. No doubt I shall feel bad about it, and perhaps I shall not be able to bring myself to do it. But in this case the nineteen men who will otherwise be shot are unlikely to thank me for it (as Williams recognizes).5 The case is analogous to one in which I might have the knowledge to perform a life saving operation, but in which I just could not bring myself to cut into human flesh. This would be weakness of will, however laudable (because generally optimific) a squeamishness about cutting into human flesh would be in normal circumstances (supposing of course that I am not a medical person, who must learn to overcome such squeamishness). The man who is most likely to do the utilitarian thing in normal circumstances may not be the one who is likely to do the utilitarian thing in very out of the way circumstances. We must however distinguish between what a utilitarian may in fact be most likely to do and what he, on his own principles, ought to do. What he ought to do may be to sacrifice his own inner harmony. To be solicitous for one's own integrity when it conflicts with the general good would be thought by the utilitarian to be too self-regarding. (Williams is aware of this sort of objection. He seems from his point of view to regard the objection as question begging.6) I do not suppose that there are any surgeons who fail to overcome their initial distaste as medical students for cutting into human flesh and for the sight of blood. But let us suppose that all or most surgeons were like this. Then surely it would be better for mankind that they should continue to work at surgery, despite their inner conflicts and messily unintegrated selves, than that they should give up surgery for other pursuits. Similarly if non-comparative justice flagrantly conflicts with the utilitarian principle, the utilitarian will find himself in a similar position to these surgeons. One may reasonably hope, however, that very extreme situations of this sort will almost never occur.

It should be noticed that I have been assuming that our particular feelings (e.g. for justice) have to be criticized in the light of our most general feeling of universal benevolence. In ethics the situation seems to be disanalogous to that in science. In science we test our theories by means of particular observations. (This is a bit of an over-simplification, but near enough the truth for present purposes.) However, in ethics (so I have been assuming) we are concerned with expressions of feelings rather than with statements of what is the case in the universe. It seems reasonable (or not unreasonable) to trust our most general feelings and to test our particular feelings by reference to them. That is, because of the non-cognitivist nature of ethics, the situation seems to be the opposite to that in science.7

Consider now the case in which as a utilitarian I over-rule my feelings against doing an injustice, let us say a breach of non-comparative justice. These feelings may be simply due to the dislike of doing harm to someone, even though the desire to do good to others may outweigh this. However, the dislike of doing harm may in the circumstances be more powerful than strict utilitarian calculations will warrant. Furthermore I may have feelings against doing the injustice which derive from my traditional, non-utilitarian, moral training in the past. When these things are so, can I be said really to subscribe to the utilitarian principle (at least if the non-cognitivist meta-ethical position is accepted)? Would I not be an adherent of some compromise position, like that of Sir David Ross or of H. J. McCloskey?8 Such a position would be deontological but would have its utilitarian aspect, in so far as beneficence would be one prima-facie duty among others. I have suggested earlier in this paper that the situation may be better understood as a case where one does not have a compromise ethics, but rather one in which in some moods, one is a utilitarian and in some moods one is not. However, I should like now to put forward yet another possible account of the situation. I have suggested that if the utilitarian can not bring himself to act as a utilitarian he may put this down to weakness of will. Weakness of will may occur whatever one's ethical system: for example through partiality to a friend a man may act unjustly. One needs some sort of account according to which our desires and attitudes belong to a hierarchy. Thus second order attitudes are dispositions to modify our first order attitudes, and third order attitudes are dispositions to modify our second order attitudes. Our moral attitudes will be those which are highest in the hierarchy and will be our "over-riding" wants, as D. H. Monro has called them,9 and in the case of the utilitarian will be the sentiment of generalized benevolence. It may well be that the utilitarian will have dispositions to behave according to the tenets of traditional morality. Since these are lower in the hierarchy, if the utilitarian acts according to them he will act in accordance with weakness of will, no less than he would if he ate (through hunger) on an occasion when he knew that it was not in his own interests to eat. One can, through weakness of will, act against one's prudence, and similarly, the fact that a utilitarian might not be able to do an act which is traditionally classified as unjust need not prove that he is not really a utilitarian.10

1This sort of case is discussed by H. J. McCloskey in his paper "An Examination of Restricted Utilitarianism," Philosophical Review 66 (1957), 466-485, reprinted in Michael D. Bayles (ed.) Contemporary Utilitarianism (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968). See also H. J. McCloskey "A Non-Utilitarian Approach to Punishment," Inquiry 8 (1965), 249-263, reprinted in Michael D. Bayles (ed.) Contemporary Utilitarianism, and H. J. McCloskey, "A Note on Utilitarian Punishment," Mind 72 (1963), 599.

2For a very perceptive discussion of the issues involved in such cases, see T. L. S. Sprigge, "A Utilitarian Reply to Dr. McCloskey," Inquiry 8 (1963), 264-291, reprinted in Michael D. Bayles (ed.) Contemporary Utilitarianism.

3I say this in spite of the fact that we do come across people who worry a lot (or profess to worry a lot) about the fate of humanity in general, but who show little tenderness or sympathy in their personal relationships.

4See J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, p. 98.

5Op. cit. p. 99, near top.

6Op. cit. p. 120. See also Bernard Williams, "Utilitarianism and Moral Self-Indulgence," in H. D. Lewis (ed.) Contemporary British Philosophy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1976).

7I have discussed this issue more fully in my paper "The Methods of Ethics and the Methods of Science," Journal of Philosophy 62 (1965), 344-349. Peter Singer has defended a rather similar view to mine about the methodology of ethics, though he bases it on a cognitivist meta-ethics, in his interesting paper "Sidgwick and Reflective Equilibrium," Monist 58 (1974), 490-517.

8Sir David Ross, Foundations of Ethics (London: Oxford University Press, 1939). H. J. McCloskey, Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969).

9D. H. Monro, Empiricism and Ethics (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967). See chapter 17.

10I am grateful to Peter Singer and Robert Young for helpfully commenting on an earlier draft of this article.