In this section I offer three appealing moral principles that imply that we ought to regard our projects as dispensable. An agent regards a project as dispensable if they entertain as alternatives outcomes in which they dispense with that project. Agents who accept utilitarianism regard their projects as dispensable because, as Williams points out, the utilitarian outlook entertains all outcomes as alternatives, applying the same cost-benefit standard to each. This will include – as in the cases of George and Jim – outcomes in which agents are required by utilitarianism to dispense with their projects.
In this section, I will describe three other principles, weaker and more appealing than utilitarianism, that each also require agents to entertain alternatives in which they dispense with their projects. Therefore, they each imply that agents ought to regard their projects as dispensable, and hence that commitment, as defined by Williams, is impermissible.
In her response to Williams, Ashford (2000) argues that all plausible moral theories will ask agents to step aside from their projects in situations when others are in serious danger, immediate to the agent, from which the agent could save them at the cost of abandoning one of their projects. Though I do not endorse Ashford’s reading of Williams, I will make use of this element of it. The principle at stake is something like the following:
Rescue: When one is able to save others in one’s immediate vicinity from serious and urgent dangers one ought to consider doing so.
Rescue should have broader appeal than utilitarianism. It is in fact a less demanding principle than Ashford seems to endorse, since it requires agents merely to consider saving others; one could in theory comply with Rescue without doing any actual saving. Many utilitarians endorse Rescue, since they believe that saving people from serious, urgent danger tends to be conducive to well-being, and this makes considering helping in such cases a good general strategy (though there will be rare circumstances where this is outweighed by countervailing considerations). Utilitarians typically place no weight on the immediacy of the endangered to the agent: famously, Singer (1972) extrapolates from the duty to save a child from drowning in a nearby pond to the duty to save children on the other side of the world from starvation.Footnote 11 This means that utilitarians will probably endorse a stronger version of Rescue, without the ‘immediate vicinity’ clause, as well as endorsing Rescue as written. Many non-utilitarians think immediacy is morally significant. Many also think that we are not obliged to help people whenever doing so would be more conducive to well-being. These non-utilitarians could still endorse Rescue, since ‘serious and urgent dangers’ is a narrower category than ‘threats to the optimisation of well-being’. Ashford notes that Williams himself, in later work, endorses something like Rescue (Williams, 1985, p. 186).
Rescue falls foul of commitment for the same reason that utilitarianism does. In some circumstances, namely those in which it is necessary to save others immediate to one from serious and urgent danger, one ought, according to Rescue, to consider dispensing with one’s projects. One ought, for instance, to at least consider missing an interview for a job about which one deeply cares to save a drowning child. As noted above, that there are some extreme circumstances in which an agent will dispense with their projects is not sufficient to undermine commitment. It is rather if such circumstances are entertained as alternatives within the constraints set by the agent’s outlook on life, if they do not appear as ‘beyond the limits of their moral world’, that commitment is undermined. So the question is whether Rescue requires an outlook on life that makes projects dispensable in this way. I think that there is enough chance Rescue suggests considering dispensing with projects with sufficient frequency that complying with it requires such an outlook.
Why think that we are frequently in situations in which we can save others, immediate to us, from serious and urgent dangers, at the cost of our projects? There are not children drowning in front of us on every commute. But as we saw in the previous section, our lives are intertwined with others around the world. This fact, in times of war, natural disaster and poverty, connects us to many people who are in serious and urgent danger. Our interdependence with them should make them count as ‘immediate’ to us. Ashford quotes Williams’s own words:
‘We should be more concerned about the sufferings of people elsewhere… We should not banish the category of immediacy, but we must consider what for us, in the modern world, should properly count as immediacy…’ (1985, p. 186).
Williams does not go on to propose an answer to the question of what should properly count as immediacy. But the way he poses the question implies that what counts as immediate has expanded in modernity to cover a wider geographical range. Thus, immediacy cannot be fixed by geographical proximity. Moreover, we should expect that the determinants of immediacy explain its expansion. If mutual interdependence were one such determinant, this would be explanatory. Centuries ago, most people were interdependent on a small number of others in their local community. Back then, immediacy in the sense relevant to moral principles such as Rescue would be geographically limited. Nowadays, there is a global network of social relations that constitute mutual interdependence between just about every person on the planet, as I argued in the previous section. This is why the category of immediacy is to be expanded.Footnote 12 We should extend ‘immediacy’ to mean, not simply the child drowning in the pond on your own street, but the child scouring the refuse heap halfway across the world where your old plastic bags are shipped, and their mother who stitched your trainers. Modernity has intertwined our lives with theirs in similar ways to how our lives are intertwined with people in our hometown. If immediacy extends so far, then every day there are many people facing serious and urgent dangers, who are immediate to us.
One might worry that extending immediacy so far exhausts it of meaning. If everyone is immediate to us, nobody is – or at least, there is no need for an immediacy clause in moral principles like the one in Rescue. But though basing immediacy on mutual interdependence expands the category, it does not universalise it. We are not in such relations with uncontacted tribes, with extra-terrestrial life (should it exist) or with far future generations (should they exist). And indeed many of us do think that our duties of rescue towards these beings are less, or perhaps non-existent. To serve my purposes here, what is important is that immediacy in the modern, interdependent world is likely to put us in touch with people in serious and urgent danger. A sad fact about the world is that few of us need to expand the concept through many degrees of separation to find such people.
Can we save them from those dangers? Ashford believes so: for people towards the top of the global wealth distribution in particular, she thinks, there are cases in which one’s charitable giving could save lives, and these are so frequent that attending to them will often mean abandoning one’s projects. As she puts it:
‘the current state of the world is a constant emergency situation; there are continually persons whose vital interests are threatened and, given modern communications, the relatively well-off are continually able to help them.’ (2000, p. 430).
For instance, it might mean abandoning your vocation in philosophy to take up a more lucrative career that will enable you to donate more money to charity, or, in Railton’s example (1984, p. 159), failing to see your spouse so that you can spend your time fundraising, thereby risking your marriage.
This claim is based on some non-obvious empirical claims about how effective charitable giving in fact is (Macaskill, 2015 makes the case for giving; see Wenar 2011, and Budolfson & Spears 2019 for qualified dissent).Footnote 13 If they are right, it would not only be in extreme cases, but very often, that we could save others immediate to us from serious and urgent dangers. Therefore, Rescue will require us to entertain alternatives in which we dispense with our projects on a frequent basis; thus, it precludes commitment to our projects.
Even if we doubt that the likes of Singer, MacAskill and Ashford are correct about how frequently we are in a position to save others at the cost of one of our projects, Rescue may still suggest such attitudes. We ought to have some credence in their claims: they are sincere, intelligent and well-informed. If we endorse Rescue, then their being right would alter our moral duties significantly. So we should at least entertain the possibility that they are right, try to evaluate their claims, and be prepared to respond if we become convinced by them. Rescue says that we should respond, if they are right, by considering dispensing with our projects. Therefore, when we are investigating whether they are right, we should be prepared to consider dispensing with our projects, if our inquiry vindicates them. But this preparation itself amounts to entertaining as alternatives outcomes in which we dispense with our projects; therefore, of regarding our projects as dispensable. To put it another way, if you are committed to your projects, in Williams’s sense, then you hold that if Ashford et al. turn out to be correct you will contravene Rescue, because you rule out in advance that you could dispense with those projects to which you’re committed. If you truly endorse Rescue and think Ashford’s claims have enough credibility to be worth investigating, this would be a strange position to hold.
So Rescue – a principle with wider appeal than utilitarianism – is also at odds with commitment, given our mutual interdependence and at least some chance that the empirical claims of people like Ashford are true. But perhaps you reject those empirical claims, or Rescue itself. There are at least two further principles with similar implications for commitment.
The next principle has a Kantian flavour: it concerns the immorality of treating others as mere means. As Derek Parfit puts it:
‘we treat someone as a means when we make use of this person’s abilities, activities or body to help us achieve some aim… we treat someone merely as a means if we both treat this person as a means, and regard this person as a mere instrument or tool: someone whose well-being and moral claims we ignore, and whom we would treat in whatever ways would best achieve our aims.’ (Parfit, 2011, p. 213).
Parfit rejects the principle that an act is wrong if it involves using someone merely as a means. I think he has good reasons for doing so. In a case he gives (2011, p. 231), a gangster who regards everyone but his own family as instruments uses the body of another person to save his own child’s life during an earthquake, causing minor injury to this other person. This action is not wrong. But Parfit endorses the claim that one ought not to regard other people as mere means (2011, p. 232). There is something wrong with the gangster, but it is the attitude he has towards the other person, not the fact that he uses him to save his child. We may draw from Parfit this principle:
Non-Instrumentalisation: If one makes use of some other person’s abilities, activities or body to pursue some project then one should sometimes be prepared to dispense with one’s project for their sake.
The gangster violates Non-Instrumentalisation not because he makes use of another person’s body to save his child, but because he does so without considering that person’s moral claims – the gangster would not have held back from his aim of saving his child, using this person’s body, even if that person had a good moral claim not to be so used (for instance, that they would have been killed or worse).
Mutual interdependence entails that in pursuing my projects, I make use of countless other people’s abilities, activities and bodies to help me achieve my aims. It implies, therefore, that the antecedent of Non-Instrumentalisation is true for all of our projects. We cannot avoid treating others as means. Therefore, to comply with Non-Instrumentalisation we must, for all projects, sometimes being prepared to dispense with our projects for the sake of those on whom our success in achieving those projects relies. If one accepts Non-Instrumentalisation, therefore, one must entertain as alternatives outcomes in which one dispenses with one’s projects for the sake of others – not to entertain such possibilities would be to instrumentalise those others on whom one’s pursuit of one’s project depends.
The thought is this: we use others – this is unavoidable given mutual interdependence – but we shouldn’t use them as tools. Avoiding using them as tools means entertaining possibilities in which we dispense with our projects for their sake. What those possibilities are is left undetermined, and so Non-Instrumentalisation is compatible with a wide variety of further moral principles specifying them.
Note that Non-Instrumentalisation does not prohibit using others to pursue one’s projects; nor pursuing them whenever they are at odds with the interests of those you use to achieve them. It simply says that one should sometimes be prepared to dispense with one’s projects for their sake. One could comply with Non-Instrumentalisation by simply being prepared to dispense with one’s projects when pursuing them would cause very severe, irreparable damage to those on whom you rely. One would then only dispense with one’s project in extreme situations. But one should have the attitude to others, that they are sufficiently important to sometimes consider dispensing with our projects for their sake, as part of one’s regular outlook on life – on pain of instrumentalising them. This would mean regarding one’s projects, given that they rely on others, as dispensable.
One clearly does not have to be a utilitarian to accept Non-Instrumentalisation. It has Kantian inspiration, and a good degree of intuitive plausibility. Furthermore, since the specification of the ‘sake’ of others that we should consider are unspecified, a wide range of moral theories could endorse Non-Instrumentalisation. It could ask us to consider other people’s needs, interests, rights, or moral claims of any kind. It is consistent with utilitarianism, with ‘sake’ read as well-being, as we are likely to perform actions which more reliably maximise well-being when we are prepared to forego our own aims to increase the well-being of others. It might be thought that there is some tension between Non-Instrumentalisation and utilitarianism, as the former emphasises the sake of those whom we use, whilst utilitarianism weights the well-being of each person equally. However, Non-Instrumentalisation simply encourages us to consider those whom we use; it does not claim that they have greater weight than anyone else’s. That said, given the kind of mutual interdependence that occurs in the modern world, Non-Instrumentalisation itself might encourage us to consider the claims of every person in the global economy.Footnote 14
Responsibility for Injustice
Iris Marion Young proposes the following principle as part of her ‘social connection model’ of responsibility (Young, 2006, pp. 102–103).
Responsibility: all who contribute by their actions to the structural processes that produce injustice have responsibilities to work to remedy those injustices.
This principle may be more controversial than the previous two, but many find it plausible. Such a principle is necessary, Young argues, given that many injustices are largely determined by structural processes rather than the direct effects of action. Young’s central example is the global clothing industry. Many of the workers who manufacture clothes face serious injustices, including overwork, precarity, low pay, unsafe conditions and restrictions on their rights to organise. Mostly these injustices are the direct effects of the actions of those who employ or manage them – usually small enterprises in poor countries, dependent on larger exporters, who are in turn dependent on large multinationals who sell to consumers in rich countries. However, Young says,
‘In this system, each of the links in the chain believes itself to be operating close to the margin in a highly competitive environment, and usually is under heavy pressure to meet orders at low cost by firms higher up the chain.’ (2006, p. 110).
Manufacturers can truthfully say that if they mitigated the condition of the workers, they would be outcompeted by a rival who would treat workers more harshly. Multinationals can truthfully say that if they paid manufacturers more, allowing them to improve working conditions, they too would be outcompeted. Their actions, then, do not generate the injustice. What of the consumers to whom they ultimately sell, and whose demand for cheap clothing puts downward pressure on costs throughout the chain? Well, these consumers are often themselves not wealthy, and are usually just trying to clothe themselves and their families in accordance with their own budget constraints and prevailing social norms. Furthermore, buying fewer clothes may make things even worse for the workers by putting them out of work, and paying more for their clothes may simply increase the profits of multinationals.
There seems to be, in this case, no single agent or agents on whom this injustice can be blamed. But, Young notes, there is some lingering feeling that all of the agents mentioned bear some responsibility for the injustice. The explanation for this is that structures are not some alien force: they are, as noted above, produced by people. Our actions produce structures, and this gives us some responsibility to do something about them when they cause injustice, namely to work to remedy it.
What does this have to do with projects and commitment? If the argument of Section II is correct, our pursuit of our projects contributes to structures. This is largely how they affect (amongst other things) the projects of others. There are, according to any plausible view, many unjust structures in the world. Because there are so many plausible views about justice, we cannot be confident which these are; nor, given the complexity of the social world, can we be confident to which structures our pursuit of projects contributes. Often, as Young says, these contributions are unwitting and many degrees removed from identifiable harms. (Pursuing a career writing for fashion magazines may contribute to structures that exploit workers on the other side of the world, that are enmeshed with local class and gender structures, that affect the political system of that country…). Therefore, if we accept Responsibility as a principle, we should acknowledge that our pursuit of our projects will give us responsibilities to work to remedy injustices.
This work to remedy injustices will often involve entertaining as alternatives outcomes in which one dispenses with one’s projects. It is not that when we realise that our pursuit of some project contributes to unjust structures we ought to give up that project. Young emphasises that in cases of structural injustice, the remedy will tend to be collective, rather than individual, action. One consumer abandoning their project of trying to keep up with the latest affordable fashion will not in itself remove the injustice; this is part of what makes the injustice structural. The work of remedying such injustice, therefore,
‘is ultimately political responsibility… [it] involves joining with others to organize collective action to reform unjust structures… Thus, discharging my responsibility in relation to sweatshop workers might involve trying to persuade others that the treatment of these workers is unacceptable and that we collectively can alter social practices and institutional rules and priorities to prevent such treatment.’ (Young, 2006, 123)Footnote 15
However, engaging in that political struggle, I think, will necessitate entertaining possibilities in which we give up our projects. If one struggles for a change in the social structures to which one’s project contributes, one aims for a world in which one’s project would be radically altered. If the clothing industry really did reorganise to remove injustices in its supply chain, it is likely that the project of following fashion would be very different to what it is today. If the activist fashionista is serious about such change, they will entertain the possibility of their project no longer being available to them, as a result of their success in the work that Responsibility sets them. Even if one thinks such complete success is unlikely, and work to remedy injustices will usually result in piecemeal change compatible with retaining one’s project, that it is one’s aim means that one must entertain it as an alternative, and a desirable one.
Therefore, a moral framework including Responsibility, given that the pursuit of our projects is likely to contribute to unjust structures (as the fact of mutual interdependence suggests), implies that agents ought to entertain as alternatives possibilities in which they dispense with projects. Responsibility is, like Rescue and Non-Instrumentalisation, a principle with broader appeal than utilitarianism. Utilitarians may agree with it. As long as unjust situations instantiate less than optimal well-being, utilitarians believe that everyone ought to do whatever they can to remedy injustice: including those who contribute to the processes that cause it. Utilitarians do not believe moral responsibility ends there, of course, and this is one reason that it is sometimes thought ‘too demanding’. But those who think this can endorse Responsibility. Responsibility can be true if nobody has a responsibility to remedy injustice apart from those who contribute to the processes that produce it. It can also be true on a variety of conceptions of justice, and on a variety of conceptions of what remedying such injustices in fact involves – its demands could therefore be much weaker than the demands of utilitarianism (although they need not be).
In this section I have argued that, like utilitarianism, Rescue, Non-Instrumentalisation and Responsibility imply that we ought to regard our projects as dispensable, given the mutual interdependence of human lives. This means that any moral framework incorporating any of these principles will be inadequate, according to the conditions suggested by Williams’s objection to utilitarianism. Anyone who endorses any of those three principles, therefore, cannot avail themselves of Williams’s objection to utilitarianism. Moreover, insofar as it likely that at least one of utilitarianism, Rescue, Non-Instrumentalisation and Responsibility is true, Williams’s view that an adequate moral theory should permit commitment is false.
We do not just have an argument against this adequacy condition for moral theories. We also have an argument against the permissibility of individuals having commitments as Williams defined them. Williams’s argument showed that utilitarianism made commitment impermissible. This was meant as a reductio against utilitarianism. However, we now see that three other principles with broader appeal than utilitarianism also make commitment impermissible. This strengthens the case for thinking that commitment is indeed impermissible: otherwise, not only utilitarianism but also each of these three other principles is mistaken.
There are some ways of modifying the Integrity Objection to respond to the arguments of this section. One would be to note that, whilst utilitarianism implies that anyone in any context should at least sometimes regards their projects as dispensable – Rescue, Non-Instrumentalisation and Responsibility only imply that we should regard our projects as dispensable contingently, in light of the facts of mutual interdependence. One might hold that a moral theory is inadequate if it necessarily precludes agents from having commitments, but not if it does so only contingently. Such a view would count utilitarianism as inadequate but not make the same judgment against all theories implying Rescue, Non-Instrumentalisation or Responsibility. But it is hard to see how such a modified condition could be motivated: we are making moral theories for the actual world, after all.Footnote 16 Alternatively, one could modify the definition of commitment such that agents could count as committed to some project whilst regarding it as dispensable, but not whilst regarding it as dispensable for utilitarian reasons. Thus, non-utilitarian theories implying Rescue, Non-Instrumentalisation or Responsibility would not preclude commitment, though they would have us regard our projects as dispensable. Again, there is a need to motivate this definition. It reduces the Integrity Objection to a special version of the claim that utilitarianism does not specify the correct moral reasons. That may be so, but it is a more general objection to utilitarianism, and it is unclear why Williams would focus his discussion on commitments if this were his claim.