Life Imitating Philosophy (Unfortunately)

Laura Nelson
12 min readApr 16, 2020


Dr. Anthony Fauci (Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Oscar Wilde, turning Aristotle on his head, once quipped that life imitates art, and does so with greater frequency than art imitating life. Recent events in the body politic of the USA certainly bear him out. At times it feels as if we are living in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, or that certain episodes of The Simpsons, like when the Lisa Simpson presidency was charged with the task of undoing the disasters of the previous Trump administration, have become spookily prescient. Life does frequently imitate art, but more often than not the art isn’t “The Peaceable Kingdom” but “Guernica” or “The Persistence of Memory.”

Less frequently, life imitates philosophy. This is probably because philosophy is less mimetic (or anti-mimetic) than art, and relies on examples only to make a more general point. But on rare occasions, one of those armchair case-histories pops up in the actual world. This is one of them.

(Bernard Williams (1929–2003)


In Utilitarianism: For and Against, the Cambridge philosopher Bernard Williams made a subtle argument against utilitarianism, the moral doctrine that an action’s moral worth is determined by its consequences, and only its consequences. Therefore for a utilitarian, to do the right thing is to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is the supreme principle of morality, against which all particular moral actions can be measured. Williams, realizing his case seemed rather dry and abstract, tied his critique to two fictional cases: that of “George the chemist” and “Jim and the Indian village.” These are not as famous as Philippa Foot’s ubiquitous “trolley problem”, but they ought to be: they address a similar difficulty with utilitarianism and all forms of consequentialist ethics.

Here is Williams’s story of George:

George, who has just taken his Ph.D. in chemistry, finds it extremely difficult to get a job. He is not very robust in health, which cuts down the number of jobs he might be able to do satisfactorily. His wife has to go out to work to keep them, which itself causes a great deal of strain, since they have small children and there are severe problems about looking after them. The results of all this, especially on the children, are damaging. An older chemist, who knows about this situation, says that he can get George a decently paid job in a certain laboratory, which pursues research into chemical and biological warfare. George says that he cannot accept this, since he is opposed to chemical and biological warfare. The older man replies that he is not too keen on it himself, come to that, but after all George’s refusal is not going to make the job or the laboratory go away; what is more, he happens to know that if George refuses the job, it will certainly go to a contemporary of George’s who is not inhibited by any such scruples and is likely if appointed to push along the research with greater zeal than George would. Indeed, it is not merely concern for George and his family, but (to speak frankly and in confidence) some alarm about this other man’s excess of zeal, which has led the older man to offer to use his influence to get George the job . . . George’s wife, to whom he is deeply attached, has views (the details of which need not concern us) from which it follows that at least there is nothing particularly wrong with research into CBW. What should he do? (pp. 97–98)

And here is the story of Jim:

Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of that kind is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers, understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?


Williams claims that, for a consistent utilitarian, both of these cases are no-brainers: George should take the job and Jim should shoot a random villager. The reason for this is that, since only consequences matter, it does not matter whether the consequences result from something you do or something other people do. So Jim should kill a random villager, because the alternative would be letting the captain kill twenty villagers (causing twenty families to grieve as well). And George should take the job, because even if he is working in an industry that threatens to kill millions, he can throw sand in the gears by working lethargically, and this will help his family, which trumps (pardon the expression) sticking to his prior principles.

One might expect Williams to make the claim that utilitarians are just wrong in drawing these conclusions because they are obviously wrong, deducing “a) Moral theory U entails action X, b) action X is morally wrong, c) therefore moral theory U is false because inconsistent.” But Williams does not take this tack. What interests Williams is not that the utilitarian is committed to making decisions at odds with common moral intuitions (a utilitarian could always reply “Well, so much the worse for common moral intuitions”), but the idea that these consequentialist decisions are no-brainers:

Utilitarianism replies, in the first case, that George should accept the job, and in the second, that Jim should kill the villager. Not only does utilitarianism give these answers but, if the situations are essentially as described and there are no further special factors, it regards them, it seems to me, as obviously the right answers. But many of us would certainly wonder whether, in (1), that could possibly be the right answer at all; and in the case of (2), even one who came to think that perhaps that was the answer, might well wonder whether it was obviously the answer. Nor is it just a question of the rightness or obviousness of these answers. It is also a question of what sort of considerations come into finding the answer. A feature of utilitarianism is that it cuts out a kind of consideration which for some others makes a difference to what they feel about such cases: a consideration involving the idea, as we might first and very simply put it, that each of us is specially responsible for what he does, rather than for what other people do. This is an idea closely connected with the value of integrity. It is often suspected that utilitarianism, at least in its direct forms, makes integrity as a value more or less unintelligible . . . [T]his suspicion is correct. (p. 99; emphases mine)

Let’s flesh this out: for Jim, the near and long-term consequences of his actions matter, but they might not be the only thing that matters. Jim’s integrity matters. What he does, as opposed to what the captain and his soldiers do, matters in a different way than the consequences, without regard to who causes the consequences. Jim is a rational, self-determining agent: He has a special responsibility for what he does, and if he fudges that responsibility his integrity, his understanding of himself as an agent who does not choose an action that is prima facie evil, will be compromised.

Williams insists that Jim’s integrity could make him lean either way. He could kill a villager in good conscience if he judges his integrity would not take a hit, but if he can’t be confident of that, he must not kill an Indian, even if his refusal to act results in twenty deaths instead of one. That utilitarians cannot, under pain of inconsistency, view this as a genuine dilemma, points to the general weakness of the doctrine.

George’s case embodies a similar dilemma. On the one hand, by taking the job, he could be working for a cause, the development of chemical and biological weapons, which he finds abominable. His integrity would indeed take a hit. On the other hand, if he doesn’t take the job, be not only compromises the well-being of his family, but passes over the opportunity to act as a kind of double-agent, sabotaging the aims of the company while getting a paycheck, and by keeping his fanatical competition out of the loop.

Williams hints that it might be morally permissible for George to refuse the job and Jim to kill a random villager. I disagree with what Williams might be suggesting are acceptable choices. With respect to Jim, arbitrarily killing a randomly chosen villager will be a direct result of his own agency. This would be the case whether the captain spares or kills the other nineteen anyway. Jim would be doing something evil so that good may come of it, amounting to the maxim “the end justifies the means”, which rationalizes a host of moral horrors. I agree with Elizabeth Anscombe and Paul Ramsey, though for very different reasons than those they advanced, that some things are wrong to do regardless of the consequences.

Regarding George, the situation is more complicated. George might be able to take the job in good conscience, and without compromising his integrity, as long as his employers, and not George himself, would be responsible for creating and promoting the evil of CBW. He merely provides the research that they, and the states that pay them, would employ for belligerent ends. The situation would change drastically if his employers changed his job description to directly implicate him in doing evil; e.g., if he was ordered to sign a document that authorized testing a new biological agent on a prison population, without the prisoners’ consent or prior knowledge. Here, the distinction between others doing evil and doing evil oneself collapses. On the other hand, George might see this scenario as inevitable given enough time, and refuse to take the position in the first place. It then becomes a matter of what Aristotle called phrónēsis — practical wisdom or sound judgment — which is the ability to discern the particulars of a situation and act in the right manner and to the right degree, without recourse to universally valid rules of conduct.

There may be no single right answer to every moral dilemma — which is one of the key problems with utilitarianism. This is the key takeaway from Williams’s essay. Any system, like utilitarianism, that views moral judgment and choice as a computation from a single ultimate principle will run afoul of the complexities involved in being a human agent.


Life has been imitating Williams’s philosophy in the dilemma faced by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the Reagan administration. Dr. Fauci is a well-respected and nonpartisan medical epidemiologist who was enlisted in President Trump’s Coronavirus task force. He has presented well-informed and unflinchingly honest assessments of the severity of COVID-19 on television and other media outlets, and has often gone on record contradicting Trump’s misleading attempts to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, or at least to minimize Trump’s depraved indifference, in the months leading up to the national order to shelter in place, to the threat the virus posed to the lives and livelihoods of those citizens he had sworn to preserve, protect, and defend. While it is no secret that Trump is reluctant to dismiss Dr. Fauci on the grounds that he is not a reliable lackey because of his popularity, it’s not much of a secret that he resents being contradicted by him. (At this writing, Trump re-tweeted without comment a Twitter broadside against Dr. Fauci to the effect that he should be dismissed out of his presumed disrespect for the President, since he disagrees with him and says so.)

Dr. Fauci appears with Trump on near-nightly press conferences, which have degenerated into platforms for the President to revel in narcissistic display and the promulgation of big and little lies. Some of these lies might have dire consequences. The baldest of these lies is Trump’s claim that the anti-malarial and immunosuppressive drug hydrochloroquine is likely to be effective against COVID-19, despite the lack of medical evidence that it is. In an attempt to push the drug, with which he is alleged to have a personal financial interest, our fearless leader asks “What have you got to lose?” Well, your life, potentially. One of the potential medical risks of the drug is cardiac arrest. An actual risk for public health is that a run on the drug risks constricting its availability to lupus patients, who need the drug to control their often severe symptoms. Touting this drug goes beyond irresponsible to recklessly endangering the lives of many people. That Trump is indifferent at best to the well-being of citizens and the body politic, and at worst sadistically glad to see people suffering, adds to the serious nature of his antics. Yet Dr. Fauci remains on the screen, a safe 6-foot distance between him and his administration colleagues.

In the face of this nightly circus of embarrassing presidential horrors, I have often found myself asking: how can Dr. Fauci stand this? Why is he still part of this proud display of unfurled ego and shameless propaganda? Then it dawned on me. Dr. Fauci is George the chemist.

Like George the chemist, he is faced with what seems to be an ideal utilitarian dilemma: do I stick around as a form of damage control, or do I dissociate myself from the situation because it is beyond redemption? And, like George, it is clear that while securing good consequences necessarily matter, utilitarian considerations alone are not sufficient. Why?

Because integrity matters. Dr. Fauci is not just acting as a fiduciary for the common good of the American people: he is acting as Dr. Anthony Fauci. And it is important for the American citizenry to witness Dr. Fauci act not just as a steward of the common good but as a person of integrity. Responsibility for producing good consequences is inseparably intertwined with personal and public integrity in a genuine Liberal Republican Democracy such as ours is — at least on paper.

That integrity is bound up with the exercise of phronēsis, of sound practical judgment. Dr. Fauci is clearly a person of integrity, and although one can never read the contents of his mind and will as if they were transparent, I think it’s safe to say that he is restricting his embarrassment and shock at Trump to the occasional face-palm for a reason. As a trustee of the public interest, Dr. Fauci rightly sees himself as needing to suck it up and be “the adult in the room”, someone whose expertise is desperately needed in dire circumstances. And this is not just a matter of drawing conclusions about how to optimize public health and minimize the dire threats of a pandemic. It is not just a matter of what he does, but who he is, both as an individual agent and a public trustee. He is that variant of George who takes the job with a different motive than his employer would like. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who took a job with the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) partly with the intention of helping Jews rather than Hitler, Dr. Fauci sucks it up and participates in the Coronavirus Task Force in order to use his expertise for a wider and nobler cause. To do otherwise would be to compromise his integrity as a public servant.

But contexts change. There may be a point in which Dr. Fauci’s continued participation in the dangerous farce that is the Trump administration may elicit the judgment that it is finally time to bail. I think that things are coming dangerously close to that point, but that’s not my call nor anybody else’s — it’s a matter of Dr. Fauci’s wise practical judgment. Trump’s pimping for hydrochloroquine, as well is imminent announcement of an early and potentially catastrophic easing of social distancing, might constitute a moment where the case of George becomes the case of Jim and there is no other course, consistent with personal integrity, than to refuse to participate in a monstrosity. I am confident that Dr. Fauci embodies the practical wisdom to know when that line has been crossed. It is a sign of the frightening and appalling times in which we live that he might have to exercise it.



Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.