Thought experiment: Bernard Williams’ Jim in the village

This thought experiment comes from Bernard Williams.

Context for this thought experiment surrounds the different schools of thought regarding ethics and ethical theory. One school of thought is consequentialism. Consequentialiam, as the name implies, says we should always to whatever produces the best consequences. Another school of thought is contractarianism. Contractarianism says we must adhere to moral rules and standards, even if breaking them may produce better consequences.

With some context added, this is Williams’ thought experiment:

Jim is travelling through South America. He enters a village where twenty men are being guarded by armed men. Pedro, the officer in charge, notices Jim and informs him of what is happening. Pedro says that the captives are a randomly selected group of inhabitants that are about to be shot to end recent acts of protest against the government. Pedro would like to honour Jim’s presence by having him shoot one of the villagers. Jim has the choice to refuse. However, if Jim does, Pedro will release the surviving nineteen villagers. If Jim does not, Pedro will shoot all of them.

If you were in Jim’s position, would you shoot one of the prisoners or would you not? And why or why not?

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

5 thoughts on “Thought experiment: Bernard Williams’ Jim in the village”

    1. Thanks Jason,

      Yes it would be a bizarre captain. Not to mention sadistic and psychopathic. Nonetheless, let’s imagine Jim had read in the local news that this was a common social practice, for whatever reason. So there was enough precedence to pretty much assure you Pedro will keep his word. Would this have an impact on your decision?



      Liked by 1 person

      1. It certainly would Andrew. So let us say that I were to kill someone to save the others, what if that guys family should hunt me down or harm my family? It may not be worth it if we were to judge this according to a set of scales.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Interesting answer. I haven’t come across that approach before. I guess we could think of it in two ways: would self protection be sufficient to refrain from acts that will produce better consequences? I think we could make an exhaustive list of cases where it would be. Another way would to think whether the desire of retribution by the family would be rational or justified? We could test this by imagining if one of your family member’s was the one shot by Jim and you were fully aware of Jim’s circumstances. Hard to tell. Ultimately I find this thought experiment generally interesting because unlike many thought experiments that are produced to push us towards a certain answer, this one is produced to illuminate that the answer is not obvious.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. True, self-protection may not in and of itself be sufficient grounds in this scenario. However, it would be imprudent to base such a critical decision – to commit murder – on that variable alone. Regardless of what the family thinks or to what degree they feel justified in revenging my act, or even if my brother should take my place, the consequences can be dire for all concerned. For instance, what if my family should avenge my murder, or that of my brothers; in the long haul, a battle could ensue that might take a lot more lives than the 19 in question. You are right though, there is nothing certain about this case.

        Liked by 1 person

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