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Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy Paperback – March 15, 1986
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Bernard Williams is an eloquent member of that small but important group of distinguished thinkers who are trying to erase the borders between the experts and all of us who grapple with moral issues in our own lives. In this book he delivers a sustained indictment of systematic moral theory from Kant onward and offers a persuasive alternative.
Kant’s ideas involved a view of the self we can no longer accept. Modern theories such as utilitarianism and contractualism usually offer criteria that lie outside the self altogether, and this, together with an emphasis on system, has weakened ethical thought. Why should a set of ideas have any special authority over our sentiments just because it has the structure of a theory? How could abstract theory help the individual answer the Socratic question “How should I live?”
Williams’s goal is nothing less than to reorient ethics toward the individual. He accuses modern moral philosophers of retreating to system and deserting individuals in their current social context. He believes that the ethical work of Plato and Aristotle is nearer to the truth of what ethical life is, but at the same time recognizes that the modern world makes unparalleled demands on ethical thought. He deals with the most thorny questions in contemporary philosophy and offers new ideas about issues such as relativism, objectivity, and the possibility of ethical knowledge. Williams has written an imaginative, ingenious book that calls for philosophers to transcend their self-imposed limits and to give full attention to the complexities of the ethical life.
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“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
“Bernard Williams writes so elegantly that one is led to believe that his arguments are simple; they are not; they are dense and intricate, and they always repay rereading. They constitute in this book a profound critique of contemporary moral philosophy and a wonderfully subtle exploration of the ethical life we actually live (and think about) everyday.”―Michael Walzer
About the Author
- Publisher : Harvard University Press (March 15, 1986)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 244 pages
- ISBN-10 : 067426858X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0674268586
- Item Weight : 10.1 ounces
- Dimensions : 6.1 x 0.65 x 9.29 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #440,298 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #1,407 in Philosophy of Ethics & Morality
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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. Williams is not optimistic that any attempt to justify morality in a way that doesn't propose a commitment to morality can work.
To be honest, chapters 1-5 (as described above) and chapter 10 (which summarizes Williams's view) are the bang for the buck. There is a chapter on linguistic philosophy and the error Williams sees in supposing that analyzing what moral language means will actually offer any help to figuring out how to justify morality. There are further chapters on why analogizing ethics to science (and the hope that philosophic discourse will lead to a gradual consensus-building as is hoped in science) can lead us astray, as well as a chapter arguing that relativism doesn't seem to be a great answer either, largely because we do have a sense that philosophy CAN do something for us, just not justify the (Williams's phrase) the 'peculiar institution' of morality.
This book, while an absolute torture to read stylistically-speaking, is a gem of a book. Williams's reasoning is quite strong and his ability to articulate what I am sure many a confused undergraduate sitting through a philosophy class intuits is quite stunning. (It is too bad a book like this is too poorly written to be profitably read by said undergraduates, as the book does demand a fair amount of background knowledge in ethics and a ton of patience.)
With this, I personally would recommend the similar views of Alisdair MacIntryre ( After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition and, to a degree, Richard Taylor ( Good and Evil (Great Minds Series) ). Both take a view similar to Williams's that moral philosophy took a wrong turn when it began questing for unbending moral rules that bind us by sheer force of Reason or some other argument that need not assume moral commitments to get going. (Though MacIntyre and Taylor are virtue ethicists, a view that Williams argues well against in the present book.)
ANYONE who is interested in ethical philosophy really should read this, though. Agree or not, Williams gives us something to strong to grapple with.
A very interesting reading in philosophy.
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. While it was once a term that could be used to make true and false moral statements, reflection upon sexuality has (for argument's sake) undermined our use of the term. Because of the role reflection plays, people are unlikely to ever converge on ethical truths that correspond to reality the way that scientific/factual beliefs do. Related to this is Williams's moderate ethical relativism: there are some terms used in distant (in space or time) societies that we recognize as evaluative, but that we cannot judge by the lights of our own set of evaluative concepts.
I don't find Williams's views here convincing becuase I don't believe in his underlying Cartesian theory of truth. And I don't buy his relativism because I think it's impossible not to evalute the way that other people or other cultures--even those of the distant past--evaluate. One can't be neutral on how other people think and act.
The book also has strong, lively and sophisticated critiques of consequentalism and contractarianisn. Williams believes that neither is an adequate ethical theory because each theory is based on unrealistic views of what it means to be a real person in the world with real desires. For example, contract-based views of ethics assume that people can shed their actual beliefs and desires and still deliberate about how to act. But if one distances himself from his own desires and beliefs, based on what does this more abstract self deliberate?
The book is leas interersting when Williams obsesses over the distortion that the exclusive emphasis on obligation in moral philosophy has wrought on moral thinking. I think this was a big deal at the time the book was written, but for a non-philosopher reading it now, these concerns, largely confined to the last chapter, were a bit boring.
Finally, I would recommend reading Williams's essay "Internal and External Reasons" in his collection "Moral Luck" to better understand his views on the relation between rationality and morality.