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Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

4.3 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674268586
ISBN-10: 067426858X
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Editorial Reviews


Who has not asked--if only when depressed--"How should I live, and how can I find out?" To read this book is to be taken through one of the most sophisticated discussions available of such questions by an engaging, skeptical, often wryly witty and extraordinarily subtle professional. (Ronald de Sousa New York Times Book Review)

Bernard Williams's book is better read not as an introduction to ethics, but as an attempt to take stock of the present state of the subject. As such, it is a splendid piece of work It illuminatingly maps the various tendencies and the difficulties which they encounter...Such stocktaking is much needed. Bernard Williams is probably the philosopher best placed to undertake it, and he has done it admirably. (Richard Norman Times Higher Education Supplement)

Remarkably lively and enjoyable...It is a very rich book, containing excellent descriptions of a variety of moral theories, and innumerable original and often witty observations on topics encountered on the way. (Philippa Foot Times Literary Supplement)

About the Author

Bernard Williams was White's Professor of Moral Philosophy, Oxford, and Deutsch Professor of Philosophy, University of California at Berkeley.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 15, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067426858X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674268586
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #239,182 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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