Bernard Williams on what makes consequentialism a distinctive moral theory

For this Argument in the Wild post, I’ll discuss Bernard William’s “A Critique of Utilitarianism” from Utilitarianism: For and Against. This volume also features the essay “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics” by J.C.C. Smart.

I chose this essay as the result of a happy accident. While browsing the books at a local thrift store, I happened to find a used copy of Utilitarianism: For and Against. The price? Eleven cents!

This fortuitous find motivated me to finally read William’s essay and discuss it here.

My aim is to clarify the following passage:

I agree with what in general is [Smart’s] stand . . . That utilitarianism, properly understood and consistently carried through, is a distinctive way of looking at human action and morality. These distinctive characteristics he mostly seems to find agreeable, while to me some of them seem horrible. (78)

Clarifying what makes consequentialism distinctive is the primary goal of section 2, “The Structure of Consequentialism”. More precisely, the goal is to fill in the right side of the following biconditional:

(0) A moral theory X is consequentialist if and only if . . .

(A note for clarification: while Williams’ main target in his essay is utilitarianism, he focuses on the broader moral theory of consequentialism of which utilitarianism is a species.)

First Attempt: Only States of Affairs are Intrinsically Valuable

Williams’ first attempt suggests that consequentialists regard only states of affairs as intrinsically valuable:

I take it to be the central idea of consequentialism that the only kind of thing that has intrinsic value is states of affairs, and that anything else that has value has it because it conduces to some intrinsically valuable states of affairs.

How much, however, does this say? Does it succeed in distinguishing consequentialism from anything else? (83)

According to this first attempt, our biconditional will look like this:

(1) A moral theory X is consequentialist if and only if X implies that only states of affairs have intrinsic value.

Let us break (1) into two conditionals:

(1.1) If a moral theory X is consequentialist, then X implies that only states of affairs have intrinsic value.

(1.2) If a moral theory X implies that only states of affairs have intrinsic value, then X is consequentialist.

Roughly, (1.1) says that all consequentialist moral theories imply that only states of affairs have intrinsic value, and (1.2) says that all moral theories that imply that only states of affairs have intrinsic value are consequentialist.

We can argue against (1.1) by finding a consequentialist moral theory which does not have this implication, and we can argue against (1.2) by finding a moral theory which does have this implication but is not consequentialist.

What is Williams’ strategy?

The trouble is that the term ‘states of affairs’ seems altogether too permissive to exclude anything: may not the obtaining of absolutely anything be represented formally as a state of affairs? A Kantian view of morality, for instance, is usually thought to be opposed to consequentialism, if any is; at the very least, if someone were going to show that Kantianism collapsed into consequentialism, it should be the product of a long and unobvious argument, and not just happen at the drop of a definition. But on the present account it looks as though Kantianism can be made instantly into a kind of consequentialism — a kind which identifies the states of affairs that have intrinsic value (or at least intrinsic moral value) as those that consist of actions being performed for duty’s sake. We need something more to our specification if it is to be the specification of anything distinctly consequentialist. (83)

Here Williams argues against (1) by arguing against (1.2). There is a moral theory, Kantianism, which implies that only states of affairs are intrinsically value. These states of affairs are those in which an action is performed for duty’s sake. But Kantianism is not consequentialist, or at least should not be thought to be consequentialist so easily. But if (1) is true, then Kantianism is easily shown to be consequentialist. So (1) is false.

Second Attempt: Actions are not Intrinsically Valuable

If we want to fill in the right side of (0), Williams will need to look elsewhere. He offers a second suggestion in the following section:

The point of saying that consequentialism ascribes intrinsic value to states of affairs is rather to contrast states of affairs with other candidates for having value: in particular, perhaps, actions. A distinctive mark of consequentialism might rather be this, that it regards the value of actions as always consequential (or, as we may more generally say, derivative), and not intrinsic. The value of actions would then lie in their causal properties, of producing valuable states of affairs . . . (83-84)

Actions are never intrinsically valuable but only derivatively valuable, or valuable insofar as they produce states of affairs which are intrinsically valuable. This gives us:

(2) A moral theory X is consequentialist if and only if X implies that actions are not intrinsically valuable.

Which, again, can be broken down into its constituent conditionals:

(2.1) If a moral theory X is consequentialist, then X implies that actions are not intrinsically valuable.

(2.2) If X implies that actions are not intrinsically valuable, then X is consequentialist.

(2) solves the problem facing (1). This can be made explicit by focusing on the contrapositive of (2.1):

(2.1C) If X implies that actions are intrinsically valuable, then X is not consequentialist.

Since Kantianism implies that actions performed for duty’s sake are intrinsically valuable, we can infer in conjunction with (2.1C) that Kantianism is not consequentialist. So far, so good!

But there is still trouble lurking about:

. . . It may be that we have still not hit exactly what we want, and that the restriction is now too severe. Surely some actions, compatibly with consequentialism, might have intrinsic value? This is a question which has a special interest for utilitarianism, that is to say, the form of consequentialism concerned particularly with happiness. (84)

The trouble with (2) suggested by this passage is (2.1); There are moral theories which are consequentialist and imply some actions are intrinsically valuable.

It would be helpful if we had a working example to think about. To make it as simple as possible, let us focus on an egotistical form of consequentialism which implies that an action is morally right if it has the best consequences for me.

Let’s take my decision to play pinball. Why is my decision the right decision? Our egotistical consequentialism is going to say that this decision was the right one because it has the best intrinsically valuable consequences for me. But in this example that intrinsically valuable consequence looks to just be my playing pinball. So here we have a consequentialist moral theory which implies some actions, in this case playing pinball, are intrinsically valuable.

Williams’ argument (nor the example) require that this version of consequentialism be correct; it only requires that this moral theory be consequentialist. Given that it implies that right actions are those which bring about the best consequences, it certainly looks consequentialist. But (2) says it is not, so (2) cannot be correct.

Or can it?

Traditionally utilitarians have tended to regard happiness or, again, pleasure, as experiences or sensations which were related to actions and activity as effect to cause; and, granted that view, utilitarianism will indeed see the value of all action as derivative, intrinsic value being reserved for the experiences of happiness. (84)

My pinball case is only a problem for (2) if my playing pinball is intrinsically valuable. But in the above passage Williams notes that traditional utilitarians would argue that what is really intrinsically valuable in the pinball case is my happy or pleasurable experience while playing pinball.

If the egotistical moral theory only implies that my decision to play pinball was right because playing pinball induces a pleasurable or happy experience in me, then this moral theory does not imply that actions are intrinsically valuable. Playing pinball is only valuable because it causes these happy feelings. So this moral theory does not provide a counterexample to (2).

All this hinges on whether the traditional utilitarian gambit is successful. Williams thinks it is not:

But that view of the relations between action and either pleasure or happiness is widely recognized to be inadequate. To say that a man finds certain actions or activity pleasant, or that they make him happy, or that he finds his happiness in them, is certainly not always to say that they induce certain sensations in him, and in the case of happiness, it is doubtful whether that is ever what is meant. Rather it means such things (among others) as that he enjoys doing these things for their own sake. (84-85)

To get clear on what the problem is, let us make the Traditional Utilitarian Gambit (TUG) explicit:

(TUG) If an action is pleasant or makes one happy, then that action induces certain sensations in him or her.

According to TUG, playing pinball is pleasant because it causes me to experience certain pleasureable mental states.

Williams’ denies TUG and instead advocates the following principle:

(BWP) If an action is pleasant or makes one happy, then he or she enjoys that action for its own sake.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t argue against TUG and for BWP in this passage. To be charitable, let us try to fill in the argument ourselves.

Compare playing pinball with the enjoyment some people get from drinking alcohol. Here it seems clear that one reason people enjoy drinking is the particular sensation it induces in them, the sensation of being tipsy or, at one extreme, drunk. I think Williams is suggesting that this is only the case for particular kinds of enjoyment. I don’t enjoy pinball, Williams thinks, because there is a particular sensation stapled into my consciousness when I play it the way a person enjoys drinking because of a sensation that it induces in them.

If there is this disanalogy between enjoying drinking and enjoying pinball, then Williams is right to deny TUG. If he is right about this, then TUG does not offer a way of salvaging (2). Our egotistical moral theory can be modified according to BWP to say that my decision to play pinball was right because it lead to the intrinsically valuable circumstance of my playing pinball. Thus the egotistical moral theory is consequentialist and implies there are intrinsically valuable actions and so stands as a counterexample for (2).

But TUG isn’t just false. There are also contemporary versions of consequentialism which deny TUG:

It would trivialize the discussion of utilitarianism to tie it by definition to inadequate conceptions of happiness or pleasure, and we must be able to recognize as versions of utilitarianism those which, as most modern versions do, take as central some notion such as satisfaction and connect that criteria only with such matters as the activities which a man will freely choose to engage in. But the activities which a man engages in for their own sake are activities in which he finds intrinsic value. So any specification of consequentialism which logically debars action or activity from having intrinsic value will be too restrictive even to admit the central case, utilitarianism, so soon as that takes on a more sophisticated and adequate conception of its basic value of happiness. (85)

What is here meant by “satisfaction”? Many contemporary utilitarians think that what is intrinsically valuable are the satisfaction of desires. So my playing pinball is intrinsically valuable because it satisfies my desire to play pinball.

But what satisfies my desire to play pinball, so these utilitarians think, is not merely that I think I have played pinball. Rather, it is the non-mental actions of actually playing pinball.

So if we are to treat these contemporary utilitarians as indeed consequentialists, then (2) fails to express what is distinctive of consequentialism. These utilitarians who focus on desire satisfaction think actions are intrinsically valuable when they satisfy desires. But this, combined with (2.1C), implies that these utilitarians are not consequentialist.

Let’s take stock of where we are:

The first idea was that consequentialism was distinctive because it implied that only states of affairs are intrinsically valuable. But this didn’t make consequentialism a distinctive moral theory at all because every moral theory, even Kantianism, can be understood as saying only states of affairs are intrinsically valuable.

The second idea was that consequentialism was distinctive because it implied that actions are not intrinsically valuable. This has the advantage over the first of implying that moral theories like Kantianism are not consequentialist. But it has the opposite problem: it implies that contemporary utilitarianisms which treat desire satisfaction as intrinsically valuable are not consequentialist.

In short, (1) was too permissive while (2) was too restrictive.

Third Attempt: Actions are Right Because They Bring About (or Consist in) Intrinsically Valuable States of Affairs

. . . For the consequentialist, even a situation of this kind in which that action itself possesses intrinsic value is one in which the rightness of the act is derived from the goodness of a certain state of affairs — the act is right because the state of affairs which consists in its being done is better than any other state of affairs accessible to the agent; whereas for the non-consequentialist it is sometimes, at least, the other way round, and a state of affairs which is better than the alternative sis so because it consists of the right act being done. (87)

(1) and (2) both claim that consequentialism is distinctive in virtue of what it either finds intrinsically valuable (state of affairs, according to (1)) or what it doesn’t find intrinsically valuable (actions, according to (2)). In this third attempt to specify how consequentialism is a distinctive moral theory, Williams proposes instead that what makes consequentialism distinctive is the relationship between intrinsic value and right action. Specifically, consequentialism implies that actions are right in virtue of the intrinsically valuable states of affairs brought about by those actions:

(3) A moral theory X is consequentialist if and only if X implies that actions are right because of the intrinsically valuable states of affairs they consist in or bring about.

Let’s take the example of pinball. Perhaps out of all the actions I could perform at a given moment, my playing pinball will lead to the most happiness, pleasure, satisfaction, or whatever as compared to any other action I could perform. This would make my action the right action according to consequentialists. The rightness of the action depends upon the goodness of the states of affairs being produced by performing the action.

But sometimes it seems the dependence goes the other way. My cat David Lewis loves knocking over glasses and watching them break on the floor. Even though he surely enjoys this, we might say that his knocking over a glass isn’t good, and it isn’t good because it isn’t right. For a more horrifying example, consider the enjoyment certain criminals get performing dastardly deeds. We might think that no matter how much they enjoy committing crimes, their actions aren’t good because they aren’t right.

Williams is saying here is that this latter attitude is a distinctively non-consequentialist moral attitude, while the former attitude is distinctively consequentialist.

He brings about the link between right action and intrinsic value more precisely:

Suppose S is some particular concrete situation. Consider the statement, made about some particular agent

(A) In S, he did the right thing in doing A.

For consequentialists, (A) implies a statement of the form

(B) The state of affairs P is better than any other state of affairs accessible to him;

where a state of affairs being ‘accessible’ to an agent means that it is a state of affairs which is the consequence of, or is constituted by, his doing an act available to him . . . ; and P is a state of affairs accessible to him only in virtue of his doing A.

Now in the exceptional case where it is just his doing A which carries the intrinsic value, we get for (B)

(C) The state of affairs which consists in his doing A is better than any other state of affairs accessible to him.

It was just the possibility of this sort of case which raised the difficulty of not being able to distinguish between a sophisticated consequentialism and non-consequentialism. The question thus is: if (C) is what we get for consequentialism in this case, is it what a non-consequentialist would regard as implied by (A)? If so, we still cannot tell the difference between them. But the answer in fact seems to be ‘no’. (87-88)

(Note: In the above and the following I replaced “1”, “2”, and “3” with “A”, “B”, and “C” to distinguish these sentences from the one’s I have called (1), (2), and (3).)

This helps make Williams point more precise. What makes consequentialism distinctive according to (3) is that the consequentialist regards (A) as implying either (B) or (C). The non-consequentialist does not regard (A) as implying (B) or (C). But why does Williams think the non-consequentialist doesn’t think (A) implies (B) or (C)?

One reason is that a non-consequentialist, though he must inevitably be able to attach a sense to (A), does not have to be able to attach a sense to (C) at all, while the consequentialist, of course, attaches a sense to (A) only because he attaches a sense to (C). Although the non-consequentialist is concerned with right actions — such as the carrying out of promises — he may have no general way of comparing states of affairs from a moral point of view at all. Indeed, we shall see later and in greater depth the necessary comparability of situations is a peculiar feature of consequentialism in general, and of utilitarianism in particular. (88)

The argument here seems to be that (A) does not imply (C) for the non-consequentialist because the non-consequentialist can reject (C) outright. She may not have any idea about what makes one state of affairs better than another.

Here is a possible example. What is better: working at a soup kitchen or working at a homeless shelter? It seems perfectly possible to not think there is a straightforward answer to this question. Our hypothetical non-consequentialist will think these are both right actions, but not think there is any clear sense in which one is better than the other.

The consequentialist, however, cannot say this, or at least Williams says she can’t. If one had the option to do one or the other, the consequentialist can only judge which is the right option in virtue of which would have better consequences. Perhaps she agrees with the non-consequentialist that they would both be right actions, but this can only be because she believes both actions would have equally good consequences. Either way, she has to be able to make comparisons between the value of different sets of consequences to correctly judge which action is right.

A different kind of reason emerges if we suppose that the non-consequentialist does admit, in general, comparison between states of affairs. Thus, we might suppose that some non-consequentialist would consider it a better state of things in which more, rather than fewer, people kept their promises, and kept them for non-consequentialist reasons. Yet consistently with that he could accept, in a particular case, all of the following: that X would do the right thing only if he kept his promise; that keeping his promise would involve (or consist in) doing A; that several other people would, as a matter of fact, keep their promises (and for the right reasons) if and only if X did not do A. (88-89)

Let’s make this second reason more concrete with a hypothetical case. A celebrity breaks an important promise, and this becomes a public scandal. In response, a national campaign to encourage keeping promises is instituted, and as a result more promises are kept than would be if the celebrity kept her original promise.

According to the non-consequentialist, it was still wrong for the celebrity to break her promise, even though by breaking it she caused more promises to be kept than otherwise would have been. Breaking the promise led to an intrinsically better state of affairs according to the non-consequentialist, yet was still wrong.


To conclude, let us see how (3) fares with all the problematic cases we have considered.

(3) implies that Kantianism is non-consequentialist. It is one’s duty to not break a promise and is wrong to break a promise even if, like the celebrity, breaking it leads to more people keeping promises then would have otherwise.

(3) implies that utilitarianisms which treat desire satisfaction as intrinsically valuable are consequentialist. My decision to play pinball is right because it brings about an intrinsically valuable state of affairs: my playing pinball.

Compared to (1) and (2), (3) is neither too permissive (it rules out Kantianism) nor too restrictive (it does not rule out desire-satisfaction forms of utilitarianism).

Do you agree with Williams that (3) expresses what is distinctive of consequentialism? Or do you think it is also either too permissive (like (1)) or too restrictive (like (2)). Perhaps you think Williams is wrong and that (1) or (2) can be salvaged. Let me know in your comments below!

Announcement: The Thought Laboratory is now free, forever and for everyone

Today signals a change in direction. We initially provided our online office visits for a fee. No longer. You will now be able to schedule online office hour visits for free.

We decided to go in this direction because we are committed to helping everyone think critically about the important ideas and arguments that surround each and every one of us. This commitment was in conflict with offering our online office hours at any price.

Instead, we have decided to go the Patreon route. If you think our mission is important, you can pledge a monthly donation here.

And if you don’t decide to pledge? Our office hours are still open to you.

Responding to online comments that make you angry

Most critical thinking courses focus on the more cognitive aspects of critical thinking: what an argument is, when it is valid, the types of logical fallacies, and so on.

These are definitely crucial, but an equally crucial aspect of critical thinking is the affective or emotional aspect. You can know all the logical fallacies in the world, but if you fill with rage upon encountering a claim you disagree with, that knowledge isn’t going to be very useful to you.

This is especially the case when discussion happens online. In this series of posts, I will address some issues surrounding how to handle emotional responses to comments online.

A common emotional response when reading something online is anger. Thinking and responding critically will require recognizing why we are angry and acting on that anger in appropriate and helpful ways.

What is the source of my anger?

The first step to responding appropriately is to ask yourself why the comment makes you angry in the first place. Does the comment express views you find morally repugnant? Does the commenter treat some intellectual issue you find deep and difficult glibly and as though it has an easy answer?

Knowing why the comment makes you angry can help you think more clearly about how to respond to it. Sometimes figuring out why you are angry can diffuse the anger and make you more capable of critically evaluating and helpfully responding to the comment. Other times uncovering the source of the anger will reveal that it is simply best not to engage in dialogue in the first place.

If they treat some intellectual dispute glibly, you can ask yourself if they are only doing this because of lack of knowledge or simple arrogance. We all have thought some of the deep questions of life had an easy answer at some point in our lives. Recognizing that you also had this attitude can diffuse the anger. This will put you in a better position to critically evaluate and helpfully respond to the comment.

This probably won’t be the case if the comment angers you because it expresses morally repugnant views as is the case with racist or sexist comments. At this point you need to ask yourself if responding at all will be a useful way of expressing your anger. Will it help diminish the morally repugnant views on display? If not, it is probably best to take that anger in more constructive directions.

What is my role?

If after uncovering the source of your anger you do decide that responding to the comment is appropriate, you need to ask yourself what role you see yourself in and what role the commenter sees themselves in. Are you an intellectual equal of the person you are responding to or are you a teacher seeking to correct mistakes in someone less knowledgeable than yourself?

Whatever role you see yourself in, you need to ask yourself if the person you are engaging with also sees you in that role. A lot of angry dialogue online stems from a mismatch between the roles discussants see themselves in and the roles they see the other person in.

Someone responding as a teacher will get push back from someone who does not see themselves as a student but rather as an peer. The teacher will often be frustrated that the person they are responding to doesn’t recognize their need to be taught. The teacher might display their credentials or simply point towards teaching aids without considering the claims and arguments the other is making.

This type of response misses the point. If a commenter does not see themselves as a student, they do not want to be taught; they want to discuss. Only frustration will result by continuing the dialogue while adopting these mismatched roles.

Thus if you approach a conversation as a teacher, you need to make sure the other person sees themselves as a student. If they see themselves instead as a peer, it is better to engage the person as a peer. If you don’t see this being fruitful, it is better not to start the dialogue in the first place.

Reading and responding constructively

If you think there is a match between the role you see yourself in and the role the commenter sees themselves in and you decide to respond, you are still probably somewhat angry about the comment.

One helpful technique to respond constructively is to reread the comment as slowly and deliberately as possible. Imagine the person you are responding to is honest, earnest, and intelligent. If you are unable to do this or suspect that the person does not have these qualities, responding won’t be in anyone’s interest, especially your own.

Assuming the commenter has these qualities, look only for claims and arguments. If there is some claim for which you see no evidence, ask what evidence the commenter has for that claim. If there is an argument you think is problematic, explain why it is problematic.

The key here is directly responding to the claims and arguments. If the commenter sees you as a peer and you are responding as a peer, don’t wheel out credentials or point out that professionals who have thought about the issue have a different opinion. The commenter isn’t likely to care about this and only wants to discuss the argument directly. If you respond at all, you should respond in this manner.


When a comment online makes you angry, ask yourself four questions before responding:

  1. Why does the comment make me angry? Can I defuse the anger by understanding why the person has the views they have and recognizing that we have all displayed ignorance and arrogance at some point in our lives?
  2. What role do I see myself in, and what role does the commenter see me in? Am I a teacher correcting mistakes or a peer engaging in a dialogue?
  3. Can I read the comment as though it is coming from someone who is ready to engage in a fruitful exchange?
  4. Am I willing to respond directly to the claims and arguments in the comment?

Answering these questions can help you respond to comments that make you angry in a critical and productive way (or decide to refrain from commenting at all).

Do you have any more tips on responding to comments that make you angry? Comment below!