Understanding the Doctrine of Negative Responsibility

Topics: Ethics, Virtue, Morality Pages: 9 (2337 words) Published: May 28, 2014

Question 1: Williams thinks that the doctrine of negative responsibility, which follows from the principle of utility, undermines personal integrity. Do you agree that being held responsible for the consequences of not acting, of failing to prevent something, will (always or sometimes) erode the idea of personal integrity? Is there any way to be a utilitarian and still respect the integrity of individuals?

Integrity is the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions. Integrity regards internal consistency as a virtue. One may judge that others “have integrity” to the extent that they act according to the values, beliefs and principles they clam to hold. As Williams explains, the principal of utility undermines personal integrity. Utilitarianism focuses primarily on describing morally correct action, not necessarily virtue and character. Williams criticizes how utilitarianism specifies more than what it is for an action to be morally correct by specifying how an individual should think about moral decision. For example, individuals should think about which of the actions available would maximize general well-being and decide to act accordingly. Williams explains that utilitarianism recognizes no personal commitments, causes, or any other such related activities and any individual who tried to live as an utilitarian would not be able to live with integrity (Williams 1973).

A utilitarian might argue that his identity-conferring commitments, which Williams argues would undermine his personal integrity, would have compliance with utilitarian principals. So, there would be no conflict between his integrity and utilitarianism because the latter would include the former. Ashford believes that a virtue of utilitarianism is that it highlights the threats to our objective integrity given our world of extreme poverty and suffering (Ashford 2000). Any view which views an individual’s personal integrity over the general wellbeing and happiness of others is deeply flawed. So, the principals of utilitarianism are not conflicting with personal integrity.

With that being said, I believe that a person of integrity may differ about what is right but a moral person cannot have integrity. The utilitarian approach alienates individuals from their own commitments and moral identity. Deliberating and acting for reasons directed at the right or good thing to do depend upon a moral theory in which we have personal integrity. To be moved by the needs of others, we need to possess substantial commitments that help individuals see themselves as part of the group (Sheehy 2008). Not to dismiss what role principles like the principles of utility have in our decisions, but our view of the world is made of the commitments forming us. This idea is not limited to an individual, but central to the nature of us and woven into our moral thinking. Ashford, Elizabeth, 2000. ‘Utilitarianism, Integrity and Partiality,’Journal of Philosophy, 97: 421–439. Sheehy, Paul. "Doing the Right Thing (Part II): Challenges to Utilitarianism." The Richmond Journal of Philosophy. Richmond Journal, Mar. 2008. Williams, Bernard, 1973. ‘Integrity,’ in J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against New York: Cambridge, 108–117.

Question 2: Morality tells us what we ought to do, and imposes upon us duties which it would be wrong not to fulfill. Yet Kant claims, in Chapter Two of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, that autonomy—the ability to choose for ourselves what to do—is crucial for morality. That might appear somewhat contradictory. First, briefly explain the role of autonomy in Kantian ethics. Then argue either that Kant is correct or incorrect in claiming that morality requires autonomy.

Kantian ethics is based on autonomy, human capacity to direct one’s life according to rational principles. Kant tries to explain that both the laws of nature and the laws of morality are grounded in human reason itself. While many...
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