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Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy
Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Harvard University Press, 1985. Background and Text Bernard Williams [masked]) was one of the most important moral philosophers of the 20thcentury. A detailed biography can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: . His first book, Morality: An Introduction to Ethics(1972), called into question the entire enterprise of systemic moral theory as well as the notion of absolute truth in ethics. It also contained his first attacks on utilitarianism and other theories that attempt to systematize moral life. In a later influential work, he writes, “There cannot be any very interesting, tidy or self-contained theory of what morality is… nor… can there be an ethical theory, in the sense of a philosophical structure which, together with some degree of empirical fact, will yield a decision procedure for moral reasoning” (Moral Luck, 1981, ix-x). Nevertheless, Williams did hold there are ethical truths, which raises a number of interesting questions for our discussion. Our text for this meeting will be Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), the most sustained treatment of Williams’ ethical thought. The Amazon page is here: . Used copies are not as cheap as more well-known philosophical books. We recommend ordering a copy from a library if possible. Whereas some of our meetings are more focused on a philosopher’s general themes and legacy, we intend to focus more on this one text. While Williams prose style is remarkably clear in comparison to many of the philosophers we have been reading, he is still difficult due to his rigorous argumentation and references to other philosophers and philosophies. For this reason, we will emphasize understanding the text before turning to critique. In order to facilitate a better understanding of the text, we ask that you mark at least one passage you find illuminating or about which you have a question. This will give us plenty of material to work out together Williams’ argument. The book is about 200 fairly dense pages of analytic philosophy. If you do not have the time to read all of it, chapters 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, and 10 would probably be of most interest to you, and a decent condensed version of the overall argument. Reading more is of course preferable. Near the bottom of this write-up we have included brief chapter overviews in order to give a sense of the book’s contents and to aid your reading. Here ( can also find useful chapter summaries and commentary by AW Moore, who edited one edition of the book. The various technical terms used in the summary below are hyperlinked to useful SEP articles. Last, at the very bottom are links to several interesting videos featuring Williams. Summary and Discussion Questions In his Ethics, Williams puts forward substantive and idiosyncratic views on both meta-ethics ( ethics. Below we situate his meta-ethical views in some detail and summarize his ethical views in broad strokes. We also provide questions to consider on each topic. Regarding meta-ethics, Williams argues for “an outlook that embodies a skepticism about philosophical ethics, but a skepticism that is more about philosophy than it is about ethics” (pg. 74). It is important to distinguish Williams’ moral “skepticism” from other forms of moral skepticism ( In analytic meta-ethics, there are two major questions on which different theories take different sides. The first question is whether moral judgments are truth-apt (, i.e. whether they can be true or false. Cognitivists argue that moral judgments are truth-apt and non-cognitivists argue they are not ( The second question is whether moral truths, if there are any, hold independently of humans or are in some way dependent on human activity. Objectivists argue moral truths are independent ( subjectivists argue they are not ( Williams is a cognitivist and a subjectivist. Regarding his cognitivism, Williams argues that knowledge of ethical truths is embodied in the socially justified use of “thick” moral concepts ( as treachery, brutality, andcourage(see pg. [masked];[masked]). For Williams, these concepts uniquely show how fact and value are inextricably intertwined. However, Williams’ view has the unexpected and curious implication that “in ethics, reflection can destroy knowledge” (pg.148). This consequence is tied to his subjectivism. Williams says that if objectivity “is construed as convergence on a body of ethical truths which is brought about and explained by the fact that they are truths—this would be the strict analogy to scientific objectivity—then I see no hope for it” (pg. 152). But he argues further that “this does not mean that there is a clear distinction between (any) fact and (any) value; nor does it mean that there is no ethical knowledge. There is some, and in the less reflective past there has been more” (pg. 155). So, Williams clearly rejects one non-cognitivist subjectivist view that is frequently considered a form of moral “skepticism,” the view that moral judgments are merely expressions of attitudes or emotions ( He finds this view’s treatment of thick moral concepts unacceptable (pg. [masked]). But it is less clear whether, or how, he differs with two other cognitivist subjectivist views also called moral “skepticism”: nihilism and relativism. On the one hand, nihilism holds that moral judgments aim at objective truth (, but systemically fail in this aim because there are no objective moral truths. This makes all moral judgments false. In Chapter 2, Williams rejects the optimistic view that “a justification of the ethical would be a force” able to bring the amoralist into moral life (pg. 26). This means there is no “Archimedean point” which moral theory can use to gain a foothold against nihilism (pg. 29). Thus Williams takes the arguments of his Ethicsto only have force for those already participating in the moral life. Relativism, on the other hand, holds that moral judgements can be true (, but only by satisfying requirements endorsed by individuals or cultures which cannot themselves be morally justified through the satisfaction of further, more objective requirements. Williams seems to reject full-blooded relativism in arguing that “nonobjectivity does not imply a relativistic attitude” because “people can and must react when confronted with another culture” (pg. 159). However, he ultimately endorses a “relativism of distance” under which suspension of ethical judgment is less justified the more that the ethical standards of another culture are similar to our own (pg. 162). Meta-ethical questions to consider: ●What exactly does Williams’ mean when he says that reflection destroys ethical knowledge? What does he see as the implication of this for ethical practice? ●What does it mean for the force of Williams’ overall account that, rather than rejecting nihilism, he seems to brush aside the problem of bringing the amoralist into moral life? How much ground does Williams cede to moral nihilism? ●What comes along with Williams’ acceptance of “the relativism of distance”? What are its implications for ethical conviction? Does it commit Williams, in the end, to what we would see as a more full-blooded moral relativism? Williams’ ethical views are outlined in Chapters 3 through 6. There he critiques the foundational projects of Aristotelianism ( 3) and Kantianism ( 4), as well as the moral theories of utilitarianism ( a form of deontology ( “contractualism (” Each of these theories, he says, attempt to provide “a general test for the correctness of basic ethical beliefs” (pg. 72). But he finds each of these theories unacceptable, on account of reasons unique to each but also on account of assumptions shared across the theories. The upshot, he wants to say, is that there are no general tests for the correctness of ethical beliefs. Williams holds that, though we can productively think about and debate whether ethical truths hold, philosophy cannot provide a general ethical theory that can definitively settle our ethical doubts or our ethical debates. Ethical questions to consider: ●How does Williams’ rejection of general tests in ethics inform his meta-ethical views? Does it shed light on any of the meta-ethical questions above? ●What assumptions are shared by all the systemic moral theories rejected by Williams? Does Williams successfully avoid making those very assumptions? If we abandon those assumptions, what do we lose (if anything) in moral life? ● Does Williams accept Aristotelian virtue theory (, to which he appears sympathetic? Do his arguments push all moral theories aside, or just deontology and utilitarianism, thereby propping up virtue theory? Chapter Overviews Chapter 1: Socrates' Question - Begins with Socrates’ question “How should one live?” in order to lay the groundwork for criticism of various ethical philosophies. Introduces and defines various ethical concepts, including an important distinction between ethics and morality. Questions the value of philosophy for theorizing about ethics. Chapter 2: The Archimedean Point - Questions the presupposition that the ethical life or morality needs justification. Argues that an objective ground for a justification of ethical life would have to be found in rational action. Identifies Aristotelian and Kantian philosophies as primary candidates for this objective ground. Chapter 3: Foundations - Well-Being - Explains the special notion of moral obligation as fundamental to the “morality system.” Argues for a conception of ethical life that is detached from the morality system. Chapter 4: Foundations - Practical Reason -Critiques Kant’s formal system of ethical obligation and its inability to provide motivations for justice. Concludes that rational deliberation fails to achieve objective ground for ethical justifications. Chapter 5: Styles of Ethical Theory -Explores two positive ethical theories, contractualism and utilitarianism. Explicates and critiques at length R. M. Hare’s preference utilitarianism. Chapter 6: Theory and Prejudice -Addresses the problem of how an ethical theory could have authority to judge competing ethical intuitions. Argues that contractualism and utilitarianism fail to be such an authority. Considers possible middle ground between ethical theory and prejudiced beliefs. Chapter 7: The Linguistic Turn -Argues that the fact-value distinction cannot be confined to human language, and thus linguistic philosophy cannot adequately explain or resolve the fraught relationship between “is” and “ought” statements. Chapter 8: Knowledge, Science, Convergence -Rejects the notion that ethical knowledge can be attained, or ethical truth evaluated, in the manner of objectivist science. Leaves open the possibility for an objective grounding of ethical life in human nature. Chapter 9: Relativism and Reflection -Explains types of relativism and argues for the value of holding to a “relativism of distance.” Explores various other issues including the uneasy relationship between ethical conviction, decision, and reflection, and the impact of these phenomena on ethical knowledge. Chapter 10: Morality, the Peculiar Institution -Explains the special notion of moral obligation as fundamental to the “morality system.” Argues for a conception of ethical life that is detached from the morality system. Videos This video has Williams, with Bryan Magee (, commenting on “the Spell of Linguistic Philosophy.” It helps frame how Williams’ general approach differs with the linguistic methods that dominated analytic philosophy ( from the 1930s to the 1960s. The Spell of Linguistic Philosophy: Of Williams, the influential Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle ( ( he "understands what you're going to say better than you understand it yourself, and sees all the possible objections to it, and all the possible answers to all the possible objections, before you've got to the end of your own sentence." In this video Williams talks with philosopher AJ Ayer (, a prominent advocate for the meta-ethical theory of emotivism ( metaphysical theory of logical positivism (– both of which opposed by Williams. In addition to getting a sense of Williams’ general outlook in distinction to Ayers’ outlook, you can also see that conversational virtuosity, referenced by Ryle, which contributed to Williams’ influence and reputation. Williams and Ayer discussion on “Logic Lane” show ( This is the only video that we know of that captures a Williams lecture. The entire lecture is long (over an hour), but it gives some color to the humanism that Williams seems to espouse in his Ethics, and outlines some of its implications for big ethical issues such as animal rights. Bernard Williams on The Human Prejudice:

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