Who Can Tell Right from Wrong?

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

by Bernard Williams
Harvard University Press, 230 pp., $7.95 (paper)


This is a powerful, original, and deeply interesting work and many will find it a disturbing one. For it is calculated to unsettle more radically than has been done before the belief, cherished for so long and by so many, that philosophy can furnish or discover rational foundations for ethical thought, or can at least provide some acceptable systematic theory that could determine how, in thinking ethically, we should think if we are to think correctly.

Williams differs from most of his predecessors and contemporaries in emphasizing the irreducible variety and complexity of ethical thought, and the extent to which it is obscured by fictions and myths and marked by conflict and uncertainty, leaving much to personal decision. These are things often obscured by philosophers in their pursuit of unity and system, and in their ambition to impose on ethical thought an inappropriate structure of discursive rationality and impersonal principle. So in Williams’ view, philosophy has not only done for ethical thought far less than it has often claimed to do, but it has also done much to damage it.

Williams writes with great understanding of the history of moral philosophy and is sensitive to aspects of it not seen or so imaginatively explored by others. He has an enviable grasp of its increasingly complex literature and in the course of this short book he throws a fresh and revealing light on a very wide range of philosophical thought. He does this equally well for philosophers with whom he has most sympathy, and in particular for Aristotle, as for others, like his contemporary R.M. Hare and the nineteenth-century philosopher Henry Sidgwick, whose different defenses of utilitarian ethical theory, dissected here with much acumen and vivacity, seem to him to rest upon and to foster some distinctive aberrations of modern moral philosophy. So in reading this book I had the exhilarating sensation of the mist clearing from many patches in this well-trodden, but still obscure, philosophical terrain.

But this is not an easy book, and I find it difficult to endorse the claim on the jacket of the English edition that it can be followed by readers without philosophical training. It is true that Williams writes without unexplained technicalities and often with clarity and wit, and his considerable philosophical scholarship does not intrude upon his text but appears in twenty pages of valuable discursive notes at the end of the book. Nonetheless much that he writes needs, as well as deserves, to be read more than once. Often this is because the slant of his attention and the insights he offers are novel; sometimes it is because he writes in an extraordinarily condensed, almost epigrammatic, style which leaves important implications to be worked out by the reader, not always (for me at least) with adequate guidance.

But there is also a difficulty of a quite different kind which many may encounter in reading this book. This arises not from any omission on the author’s part, but from his austere…

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