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Bernard Williams can appropriately be considered a heretic figure in twentieth century philosophy. While many moral philosophers were working on finessing moral theories to overcome various objections, Williams scrutinized the very project of a morality system. While others tried to abstract away from contingent social factors of our daily lives, Williams emphasized the importance of our actual experiences. And while many ethicists hoped to show that moral philosophy could offer us serious elucidation about how we ought to live and think about how we ought to live, Williams was eager to acknowledge its limits. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (ELP) is seen as the most impressive and salient presentation of these views. This collection of essays explores themes from ELP, engaging both in exegetical analysis and criticism of Williams. The book consists of fourteen chapters. In what follows I discuss some of the key themes and how they discussed by some of the contributors.
One recurring theme throughout the book is the relationship between Williams and David Hume. Hume was a moral sentimentalist, i.e. he saw the basis of morality in our responses or emotions. In Simon Blackburn's chapter, he suggests that Williams could have benefited from drawing upon this tradition (particularly Hume and Adam Smith), due to somewhat compatible projects. Williams expressed skepticism that any Archimedean moral theory – an explanation of what it is to act in a morally permissible way and why one should behave that way – could be given in a way that someone 'outside the moral system' would accept it. He was unsatisfied by the attempts of Kant and Aristotle to do so (2006: 29). Blackburn contends that a sentimentalist understanding of morality could support much of this. We could agree that ethics is unable to provide a single human purpose or give rational arguments demonstrating from first principles what a person should do in any situation. Rather, Blackburn suggests that we should (or at least Williams should) be satisfied if ethics can show how "a historical and socially set budget of desires and aversions such as resentment, indignation, anger, shame or guilt" can explain "the creation of institutions of justice, property, and government" (31).
Further Hume influences are exhibited in chapters concerning Williams' view on the nature of practical deliberation. Williams, like Hume, held that all actions must be, in some sense, internally caused, i.e. they must be explained by a person's desires, or their 'motivational set'. On this view, beliefs by themselves are motivationally inert. To get someone to actually act, they need to also have some appropriate desire. He also argued that practical deliberation was 'radically first-personal'. The contributions from Roger Teichmann (chapter 12) and David Cockburn (chapter 13) cast doubts on these claims respectively.
Another repeated topic is the relativism of distance. Williams claimed that when we are presented with cultures with different moral outlooks, there are two ways we can approach them. If we see their outlook as a 'real option' for us, and we have a real confrontation. We have a notional confrontation, on the other hand, when the other outlook does not present a real option. Williams claims that it is "only in real confrontations that the language of appraisal – good, bad, right, wrong, and so on – can be applied to them" (2006: 161). This is what Williams calls the relativism of distance. In chapter 9, Geraldine Ng tries to make sense of this in a way that still allows us to appraise certain moral communities that it still seems appropriate for us to condemn. She argues that we should see options as real if they are "related to our concerns" (163). Williams as making a moral-psychological claim – that appraisal isn't appropriate when moral systems are only tenuously related to our own – rather than a metaethical claim.
In the chapter least concerned with exegetical matters, Regina Rini (chapter 10) also examines the relativism of distance. Noting that we view many cultures in the past – ones that embraced slavery, classism and misogyny, for instance – as morally monstrous, and also that we typically think future generations will make better moral judgments than we do, Rini asks whether we are morally atrocious ourselves. Rini argues that we should actually, like Williams, reject objectivity over time. In this way, she is able to accept that future generations will regard us as morally hopeless, while also accepting that thee judgments don't really apply to us.
Another recurring theme is Williams' consideration of the limits of the morality system. In the final chapter, Catherine Wilson discusses the range over which morality operates, ultimately agreeing with Williams that a morality system can only be justified 'from the inside', i.e. to someone who already accepts morality's authority. However, not accepting certain moral propositions does not make irrational or cognitively defective. She describes those who do not subscribe to a morality system as 'deeply alienated or psychopathic' (246). Wilson's analysis embraces Williams' internal reasons thesis, that only reasons one has internalised can provide reasons for acting. Someone who does not feel the force of moral reasons then has no reason to accept a Kantian or Aristotelian justification for some act rather than another, in the same way someone who doesn't desire to see fine art has no reason to go to a museum no matter how much you describe how exquisite the paintings are. Wilson accepts that there is significant resistance to viewing these cases as similar. With that in mind, she concludes by speculating about the evolutionary development of moral thought in comparison to our prudential judgments, suggesting that the origins of moral judgments make them seem more external and non-negotiable.
This desired audience for this book seems to be people who have thoroughly enjoyed ELP and desire a deeper understanding of some of the nuances of Williams' thought. To that end, much of the content is very exegetical, probing a variety of Williams tomes and making sophisticated reflections upon them. For dedicated Williams scholars, this collection offers insightful discussions and interpretations of Williams' works.
Unless specified, references refer to the reviewed work, Ethics Beyond the Limits.
Williams, Bernard (2006): Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (originally 1985), London: Routledge.
© 2019 Joe Slater
Dr Joe Slater, MA (Hons), MPhil, CertNatSci (Open), CertHum (Open), AFHEA, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Glasgow, Fellow at the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs (CEPPA)