The Case Against Moralism

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Bertyl Gaye
Bernard Williams

Since Plato, philosophers have offered accounts of the ethical values and moral principles we should pursue individually and as a society. Although nearly moribund for most of the last century, ethical theory was revived in the 1970s, because of the influence of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), a systematic treatment of political and economic justice in the liberal social contract tradition. Robert Nozick’s libertarian reply to Rawls in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) was followed by a stream of new works in political philosophy, continuing to the present day.

In moral philosophy, theories of our personal moral duties were developed by Thomas Nagel, T.M. Scanlon, the utilitarians R.M. Hare and Derek Parfit, and others. And in legal philosophy, Ronald Dworkin revived the natural law doctrine that moral principles are implicit in legal systems. All of these philosophers made claims to an ethical objectivity that goes beyond our subjective attitudes or cultural practices. Some of them made claims of universal moral truth as well.

Bernard Williams was among the major moral philosophers of this extraordinarily fruitful era. He occupied a distinctive position: far from believing that the aim of moral and political philosophy was the construction of theories, much of his work was critical of such theories.1 But Williams was more than a brilliant critic of others’ positions. He sought to revise ethical thinking, offering deeply original and subtle correctives to what he considered to be misguided ideas about moral responsibility, free will, duty, blame, guilt, and right and wrong that underpin Western morality.

Williams, who died in 2003, was a professor of philosophy at London, Cambridge, and Oxford for most of his career; in his later years, he joined the Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to his many contributions on ethics, he wrote important essays on personal identity, free will, and science and evolution; books on Plato and Descartes; and many works on the history of philosophy.2 His essays on opera were published posthumously (in 2006) by his wife, Patricia Williams. Williams served on several British government committees and commissions, chairing the 1979 Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship.

The work reviewed here is the fifth volume of Williams’s collected papers (including On Opera) to appear since 2005. The seventy-one reviews and essays in the new collection extend over forty years, from 1959 to 2002. Thirteen of the works initially appeared in these pages. The reviews discuss many of the period’s main books on ethics as well as writings on other significant philosophical, academic, and literary topics. Williams succinctly summarizes each work and then critically assesses the issues, often brilliantly.3 There are also thirteen essays on wide-ranging topics, including God, existentialism, Richard Wagner, abortion, the importance of the humanities, and the need to be skeptical.

Williams’s work is characterized by elegant prose and subtle (sometimes elusive) arguments, humor, irony, and occasionally acerbic wit. In these and in more …

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  1. 1

    As he once put it, “My contribution to the philosophical debates has been to some extent that of making myself a nuisance to all parties.” See his In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 33. 

  2. 2

    The essays on the history of philosophy are collected in The Sense of the Past (PUB TK, 2005). 

  3. 3

    For a list of books reviewed, see the table of contents on the Princeton University Press website: press.princeton .edu/TOCs/c10080.html