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Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy Paperback – May 21, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0415399852 ISBN-10: 0415399858 Edition: New

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Paperback, May 21, 2006
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; New edition (May 21, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415399858
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415399852
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 5.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,119,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


'Williams's discussions are much to be valued: his explicitness and argumentative ingenuity focus the issues more sharply, and at greater depth, than any comparable work I know...One of the most interesting contributions of recent years, not only to ethics but to philosophy.' - John McDowell, Mind

'This is a superior book, glitering with intelligence and style.' - Thomas Nagel, Journal of Philosophy

'Remarkably lively and enjoyable…It is a very rich book, containing excellent descriptions of a variety of moral theories, and innumerable and often witty observations on topics encountered on the way.' - Times Literary Supplement

'Bernard Williams has a greater force of thought, deployed over a wider horizon, than anyone else I have ever listened to.' John Dunn - The Times Higher Education Supplement

About the Author

At the time of his death in 2003, Bernard Williams was hailed by the Times as 'the outstanding moral philosopher of his age.' He taught at the Universities of Cambridge, Berkeley and Oxford and is the author of many influential books, including Morality; Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (available from Routledge) and Truth and Truthfulness.

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

70 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Ihsan Dogramaci on March 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
First a summary of the book, then my opinion. The book seemsto divide naturally into five parts. The first part (chapters 1 and2) lays out the issue--How should one live?--and the question of whether philosophy can help with that issue. The second part (chapters 3 and 4) shows philosophy trying to give a justification of ethical life that presupposes no commitment to any ethics. The third part (chapter 5) shows philosophy trying to justify ethics--or rather now, trying to justify an "ethical theory," something like a test you can always apply to check whether something's ethical or not--this time grounding the justification only on a bare commitment to ethics-in-general (no content to ethics need be assumed). The fourth part (chapter 6) shows philosophy trying to justify an ethical theory from substantive ethical presuppositions. Needless to say, all three of these attempted justifications are rejected. Finally, the fifth part (chapters 7-10) show how ethics is not objective (but objectivity does belong to science), how ethics is relative to a culture, and how the "morality system" (which says something along the lines of: life is a matter of meeting obligations, and each particular obligation in any specific circumstance somehow derives from the one big most abstract obligation whatever that is) today no longer has whatever usefulness it once had. So far as the issue--How should one live?--is concerned, the book's answer seems to be: however you have reason to. Not much of an answer, but there's also this: philosophy alone can't tell you how you have reason to live. And my opinion, for what it's worth: I very highly recommend it. Read it slowly.Read more ›
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By S.M.B. on July 11, 2005
Format: Paperback
Williams's main projects in "Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy" are (1) to argue against the idea that there is a rational foundation for ethics;(2) to argue that there is no adequate ethical theory, nor is there likely ever to be such a theory; and (3)to broaden the focus of moral philosophy from a focus on the role of obligation in life to a wider array of considerations that are relevant in deciding how one should live.

The book has excellent discussions of and arguments against Aristotle's attempt to find a foundatoin for ethics in human nature (that is, in the idea that there is something about the function of a human life that makes an ethical life proper) and Kant's attempt to find a foundation for ethics in a bare committment to rationality. Williams is convincing in arguing that in order for the claims of an ethical life to get a grip on an individual that individual must have some committment to ethics already. It is possible for someone to be rational and unethical. That does not imply, Williams points out, there are not reasons to be ethical. Many people have good reasons to be ethical; it's just that we we would be wrong to criticize those unethical people as necessarily being irrational.

Williams's discussions of truth in ethics and of relativism are less convincing but equally valuable. Williams argues that evaluative statements that use "thick terms"--terms like "loyal," "murder," "cruel" that are evaluative like the terms "good" and "right" but can be applied with descriptive accuracy in a way that those more general terms cannot be applied--can be true. But reflection on thick terms unseats them and they are replaced by nothing knew. For example, in the modern Western world, the thick term "chaste" has become obsolete.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 29, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As I see it, the thesis of this book can be put succinctly thus: while ethical philosophy can help us explore different ways to think about ethical problems, it cannot justify why anyone should be moral. Why? Because any justification for morality - moral rules maximize overall well-being, they are part of a social contract all rational people would agree to, they spring from our natural moral sentiments - will only appeal to people who already want to be moral (to maximize overall well-being, do what rational people would accept, etc).

The first part of the book has Williams broadly outlining this thesis and giving examples of failed attempts (in his eyes, and I agree) to justify morality without presupposing it. Aristotle justified being virtuous because being virtuous would lead to the human happiness that comes from humans fulfilling their nature (teleology) as humans. But, Williams asks, why should anyone care about doing those specific things Aristotle suggests would help us act in accordance with our nature and purpose (particularly, if they don't see that as what they want to do)? Kant tries to justify morality on grounds of reason, suggesting that categorical imperatives are duties that we should do in order to be consistently rational. But, Williams notes, Kant really can't justify morality to anyone who does not want to be consistently rational, or is not going in already willing to let rationality bind their moral actions. The utilitarians attempt to justify morality by appealing to maximization of overall happiness/well-being. Williams has several problems with this, the biggest of which is the question of whether the impartiality utilitarianism requires is something that humans can do, and have any non-question-begging reason to do.
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