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The Case Against Moralism

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 substantive ways he resembles Friedrich Nietzsche, one of his favorite thinkers. In this collection, it is in reference to Nietzsche that Williams often evokes one of the most salient themes in his own work, his criticism of “the peculiar institution” of morality: “Nietzsche was the greatest moral philosopher of the past century…. He saw how totally problematical morality, as understood over many centuries, has become.”

The last of Williams’s books published during his lifetime, Truth and Truthfulness (2002), emulates Nietzsche by providing a “genealogy” of the idea of truth and of the virtue of truthfulness. The idea of truth, Williams argues, is necessary to our having any beliefs at all; the virtue of truthfulness is a precondition of mutual trust and civilized social life. The book was written partly as a response to academics who were beguiled by postmodernism and its skepticism about truth, as evidenced by Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and others. Williams saw such skepticism as incoherent and destructive of study in the humanities. He worried that the “deniers” of truth would not have enough intellectual power and academic authority to sustain humanities departments once the wider world came to see their work as “boring, tiresome, and useless.”4

Impartial Morality

At Oxford, Williams studied Greats, a combination of classics and contemporary philosophy. The classical philosophers and playwrights deeply influenced his thinking about ethics. The fundamental question of ethics, according to Williams, is the Socratic question, “How should one live?” But the modern academic discipline of moral philosophy, he argues, has ignored this question and instead is governed by a narrower one, “What is our duty?”

There are two dominant kinds of theories in moral philosophy, consequentialist and deontological. Consequentialism says that actions are right to the degree that they promote good consequences; our duty is to take measures that create the greatest overall good. Utilitarianism is the primary example: our duty is to maximize the sum total of happiness or “utility” in the world.

Deontological theories are not as easy to summarize. They regard right action as primarily defined by moral constraints on individuals’ pursuit of the good or their own purposes. The main example is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant’s categorical imperative says that in pursuing our ends, we ought always to act in conformity with rules that reasonable persons can endorse as universal laws that everyone complies with. “Act,” he wrote, “as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law.” A third, less influential approach is Aristotelian ethics, which holds that people should act in ways that realize their nature (telos) by cultivating appropriate virtues and excellences of character.

In Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), Williams rejects all of these positions. He is skeptical about the enterprise of moral theory generally,5 questioning one of its central organizing ideas, the “moral point of view.” This point of view can be understood as a hypothetical thought experiment in which we abstract from our personal aims, characteristics, and commitments, impartially consider everyone’s circumstances, and then decide the best principle or course of action for everyone similarly situated.6 Some version of this idea is evident in the work of most major moral and political philosophers since the eighteenth century, including the utilitarians David Hume, Adam Smith, and Henry Sidgwick, the social contract theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Kant. Recently, Rawls, Hare, Nagel, Scanlon, Parfit, and Amartya Sen, among others, have advanced versions of an impartial moral perspective.

Williams argues at length that there is no such impartial perspective from which to discover the rational or morally right thing to do, and no unassailable basis for deciding what is of ultimate value; there are only the personal perspectives of individuals.7 For him, the main problem with the moral point of view and the theories it supports is that they require, in deciding what we ought to do, that we leave behind our “character” and “individuality,” and also the personal “projects” and commitments that are the source of our values and that give meaning to our lives. “The only serious enterprise is living,” Williams asserts. Ethical theories mistakenly subsume all human actions and reasons for action under “some immensely simple model.”8

In failing to capture the multiplicity of reasons and concerns that inform our ethical lives, ethical theory, he argued, can tell us very little about how we should live. Our duties to others—of, for example, truthfulness, fidelity to our promises, respect for others’ property, etc.—provide important conditions of civilized social life. But moral duties cannot provide us with reasons for living. If life is to have any substance, it cannot give supreme importance to impartial or impersonal judgment from the Kantian or utilitarian moral perspectives.

‘The Morality System’

Williams was not simply concerned with criticizing the academic discipline of moral philosophy. He thought the discipline reflected something amiss in our culture, which he called “the morality system.”9 This is an outlook we are all prone to accept, a “deeply rooted and still powerful misconception of life” that pervades our ethical assessments of our own and others’ actions. We are encouraged to think about morality as a separate domain of unconditional reasons and principles that override all other considerations and interests we have. We think individuals are free, autonomous agents who are morally responsible for the intended consequences of their voluntary actions. We blame people for actions and intended consequences that violate moral demands but do not hold them responsible for bad consequences beyond their foresight and control (something Williams calls “moral luck”). Blame encourages guilt and self-reproach. This outcome is supposed to induce malefactors to make reparations and amends and then reform their conduct.

The morality system also encourages us to think that moral obligations cannot conflict and that there is always a uniquely right thing to do. Moreover, moral obligations are imperialistic. They tend to expand, occupying an increasingly large part of our lives and leaving little space for morally indifferent action. The imperialism of morality stems from the idea that there are general moral obligations behind our particular obligations—a duty to meet others’ basic needs, to promote justice and/or the general good, or to undertake the Kantian duties of promoting others’ ends and our own self-perfection. In its zeal to regulate our pursuit of our ends and projects, the morality system overtakes and consumes them, providing its own source of meaning for life.

Williams contends that we falsify ethical experience when we assume that its logic requires that moral obligations never conflict and that one of two conflicting “oughts” must be totally rejected on the grounds that it never really applied.10 Thus we normally experience regret and feel we have wronged someone when we cannot comply with one obligation, such as keeping a promise to a friend, because we have to fulfill another. “An agent can justifiably think that whatever he does will be wrong.”11

Kant argued that moral duties are categorical and outweigh all other reasons. Williams replies that “practical necessity” does not always stem from moral demands and is not peculiar to morality. Some people may feel that heroic actions of self-sacrifice are necessary for themselves, but such actions are not obligatory and we do not expect others to undertake them. Also, the pursuit of fundamental personal values may be of such importance for a person that the practical demands these values or projects entail can justify (or at least excuse) the violation of some obligations to others, if not in their eyes at least in those of third parties.12

For example, many of us think that Gauguin’s paintings could justify abandoning his family obligations to travel to Tahiti; but we would not condone that behavior if he had painted nothing while in Tahiti, or if his ship had sunk en route. Our ordinary sense of moral responsibility does not condition the justification of actions on their success or failure in this way. But as Williams says, our conceptions of moral responsibility and blame “may never have made much sense.”

  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 

  4. 4

    Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 9. 

  5. 5

    See Essays and Reviews, no. 60, “The Need to Be Sceptical.” 

  6. 6

    As Williams says, “the moral point of view is specially characterized by its impartiality and its indifference to any particular relations to particular persons.” See his Moral Luck (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 2. 

  7. 7

    In Essays and Reviews, he says there is no impersonal point of view. The question of whether we are equally important or equally unimportant thus has no meaning unless we are talking about our importance to each other (p. 266). 

  8. 8

    Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 117, 127. 

  9. 9

    Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 174. 

  10. 10

    “Ethical Consistency,” in Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers, 1956–1972 (Cambridge University Press, 1973). 

  11. 11

    “Conflicts of Values,” in Moral Luck, p. 74. 

  12. 12

    “Moral Luck,” in Moral Luck

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