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Bernard WilliamsReview - Bernard Williams
by Alan Thomas (Editor)
Cambridge University Press, 2007
Review by Lisa Hague
Feb 12th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 7)

This collection of papers provides an overview of Bernard Williams' contribution to moral philosophy.  The seven papers assess his work on moral realism, moral objectivity, the nature of practical reason, moral emotion, the critique of the 'morality system', Williams' assessment of the ethical thought of the ancient world, and his work on Nietzsche's method of 'genealogy'.  The intended audience is students of philosophy, professionals and students in related areas.  This is an introductory volume, so the exposition and critical analysis is accessible.

The purpose of Adrian Moore's paper is to contrast Williams' conception of realism about science with his views on moral objectivity.  He evaluates Williams' absolute conception of reality, interpreting him as arguing that the truth of scientific knowledge can be directly explained from no point of view.  Moore argues that Williams' conception allows room for an external observer to tell a story that explains the thick ethical concepts of a community, and thus indirectly vindicate what they know, whilst maintaining that direct explanations of the ethical concepts of a community cannot be made from no point of view, as in the case of science. This is an interesting development to try and make room for a minimal objectivism in Williams' account, however, it is not clear that it is possible for the external observer to have no point of view, as he must have some point of view.

Alan Thomas argues that Williams' objection to the idea that scientific and ethical knowledge are made true in the same way does not necessarily result in denial of moral knowledge.  He evaluates Moore's indirect vindication argument, but does not think that this saves the moral knowledge needed by the cognitivist, as once reflection has destroyed the knowledge, Thomas does not see how there can be any way back.  He suggests that Williams' arguments depend upon his characterisation of moral objectivity, in which an individual can stand outside several sets of moral concepts and evaluate them from there.  Thomas thinks that by regarding ethical thinking as occurring in particular contexts, we can accept Williams' arguments against the objectivist position, yet leave room for parts of our moral knowledge to be objective.      

John Skorupski's paper discusses Williams' distinction between internal and external reasons.  In general terms, an agent has an internal reason to do an action because he has a motive that will be furthered by the action; an external reason is one that has no relation to motive.  Skorupski reinterprets Williams as claiming that if a particular individual has a reason, then it must be possible for that particular individual to act for that reason.  He develops this idea into a narrower claim that something can only be a reason for an agent if they can recognise it as a reason, arguing that this is still internalism because the reasons are specific to the individual.    This paper tackles the problem of defining exactly what the distinction between internal and external reasons is, but it is questionable whether the narrower claim that Skorupski develops can be called internalist in Williams' sense.  The argument as to why this is a type of internalism is not clear, as this narrower claim removes Williams' necessary link between reason and motivation and could be interpreted as a type of externalism.

Robert B. Louden's paper focuses on Williams' critique of the morality system.  He casts doubt on whether this is a direct attack on Kant by considering four areas in which Williams thinks the morality system is mistaken: the concept of obligation, the reduction of practical necessity to obligation, the claim that only obligation can ground ethical considerations and the concept of the voluntary that is entailed by the morality system.  He concludes that in some cases Williams is correct to criticise Kant, but that in others Kant's position can be defended.  This paper provides a good analysis of the conflict between Williams and Kant's historical position, but it is not clear from Williams' work whether his primary target was Kant or the Kantian influence on later work; this question is left open by Louden's paper.

Michael Stocker examines moral emotions, in particular shame and guilt.  He argues that Williams' criteria for identifying shame, as being primarily of agents, and guilt, as being primarily of acts, cannot adequately distinguish the two.  He argues that the two emotions are not so easy to differentiate because they are interrelated, drawing upon evidence from psychologists to back up his claims.  Although he does not agree with how Williams distinguishes shame from guilt, he thinks that Williams is correct to emphasise the evaluative importance of shame. This paper explores the complexities of shame, but does not consider whether guilt can be characterised as a uniquely moral emotion and be differentiated from shame on these grounds.

Tony Long discusses Williams' Shame and Necessity, explaining that in this work Williams supports the ethics and psychology of Homer, the tragedians and Thucydides but is critical of the moral psychology of later Greek philosophers, in particular, Plato and Aristotle.  He argues that the latter criticisms are a departure from other works of Williams and that we should interpret this change in the light of his aim to discredit the 'morality system'.  He analyses Williams' criticisms of the view that morality has greatly progressed since the time of the early Greeks.  In doing so, Long criticises Williams' argument that Homer did not use an ethicized psychology and he questions whether Williams is correct to say that the early Greeks did not have the concepts of guilt and responsibility.  

Edward Craig looks at the use Williams made of the method of genealogy.  He explains that the concept of genealogy is broad, extending from explanations of a belief to narratives that subvert or vindicate a practice.  He discusses how historical claims can be used in philosophy and concludes that the role of a genealogy is to explain the function, or what something is for, and to account for how it has ended up as it is.  He makes a distinction between 'state of nature' and genealogical arguments, identifying the former as depending on a very general starting point and the latter as starting from a particular historical situation.  He concludes by considering Williams' claim that the purpose of a genealogy is to discover a hidden function and to explain how and why it hides itself.  He agrees with Williams that it is only the genealogical method that can make the link between the functional and intrinsic aspects of a practice.  

References

Williams, B., Shame and Necessity, 1993, Berkeley: University of California Press

© 2008 Lisa Hague

Lisa Hague has an MPhil from King's College London and is currently a research student at the University of Kent.  Her research interests include virtue ethics, moral psychology, practical reasoning and motivation.


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