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.”

In Shame and Necessity (1993), Williams contends that our notion of developed moral consciousness is a myth. We have no clear understanding of the substance of freedom, autonomy, moral responsibility, obligation, and other moral ideas. In his view, the ancient Greeks had a better sense of who we are and who we are not—of human agency, responsibility, practical necessity, regret, and shame—than is captured by our morality system. For example, Sophocles’ Oedipus committed no moral wrong, according to the morality system, in unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother, assuming he acted in self-defense and did not know his parents’ identity. Yet we understand why Oedipus held himself responsible and blinded himself, and why, even though Thebes’s inhabitants pitied him, he was driven out for “polluting” the city. However innocent Oedipus’ intentions may have been, he was responsible, Williams says, for killing his father and marrying his mother, because this is what he did.13

For Williams, moral obligations are important, but they are only one kind of ethical consideration among others. The fundamental fact for ethics is that “each person has a life to lead.” Many moral obligations play an indispensable role in enabling people to live their lives. But this does not mean they are unconditional, never admit of exceptions, and always override every other value. This is consistent with the ways in which we experience our ethical life. The “phenomenology of the ethical life”—the daily experience of choice—is where moral philosophy should begin, not with the abstract moral intuitions of ethical theories.14

Political Philosophy

Williams’s reviews of books by Rawls, Nozick, Sen, Alasdair MacIntyre, and others suggest his distinctive position in political philosophy. This is presented in In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (2005). “Moralism” refers to the prevailing trend that construes political philosophy as an extension of moral philosophy, concerned primarily with questions of justice. But political philosophy should concern politics, Williams says, which is different from morality. For him, the main problem with moralistic theories of political justice is their claim that impartial principles of justice—utilitarian, contractarian, libertarian, etc.—apply universally, regardless of a society’s history, practices, or fundamental values.

Williams argues that different societies at different times in history require different political arrangements to make their kind of social life possible. How a society should be structured and ruled depends on the deep social practices that constitute its “form of life,” as well as on its history, social arrangements, and ethical concepts. This is the basis for “the relativism of distance” that Williams relies upon to argue that liberal conceptions of justice cannot apply to past civilizations. For him, there is something mildly ridiculous about the idea that principles that guarantee equal personal liberties and political rights should apply to a world like King Arthur’s, whose inhabitants are incapable of understanding, much less applying, egalitarian principles of justice.

Instead of political moralism, Williams argues for “political realism.” Political philosophy should be localized and responsive to the cultural practices and historical circumstances of the societies to which it applies. Its primary role is to provide historically situated individuals with a justification, framed according to the ideas and standards that are accessible and acceptable to them, for the legitimate exercise of coercive political power. This is the “Basic Legitimation Demand” that is inherent in politics and the exercise of political power. The mere power to coerce is not legitimation. Legitimation is not a moral demand, Williams says, but is “inherent in any politics.” By this he means that the justification of political power to members of society (specifically, “to each person”) is necessary for political power to be exercised effectively. The absence of such justification renders impossible social cooperation and peaceful social existence.

In this sense, Williams’s political philosophy, as he made clear, is Hobbesian. However, he does not think, as Hobbes did, that we are rational egoists, indifferent to others and moved by pride and vanity. Rather, Williams sees “‘the first’ political question” in any society to be the securing of order, protection, safety, mutual trust, and other conditions of human cooperation.15 These political guarantees are necessary to social life. Without them, nothing else important to us is possible.

Williams’s relativism parallels his Humean account of individual reasons for acting; the reasons that we have are not objective or “external.” They are “internal,” relative to individuals’ circumstances, desires, and other motivations.16 Williams’s subjective account of reasons, once widely accepted in ethics, is now the minority view, given the recent revival of theories of objective or “external reasons,” advocated by Scanlon, Nagel, Parfit, Joseph Raz, and others.

Related to his relativism about reasons and principles, Williams argues that ethics cannot be objective or true in any sense that resembles science.17 Scientific judgments are pronouncements about the character and workings of the physical world. Ethical judgments enable us to find our way around the social world we inhabit, a world constituted by social practices. There are multiple social worlds, whereas there is only one physical world. Ethical knowledge exists, Williams says, but it is not discoverable by reflection or by taking an objective, impartial point of view on the world. Such approaches distort ethical knowledge. Ethical knowledge is obtainable only by the members of a society who engage in its social practices and its historically situated form of life.

Williams is sensitive to the problem of our having “confidence” in our ethical convictions and practices, notwithstanding their relativism and lack of universal objectivity. Avoiding nihilism and a sense of alienation was also an important theme in Nietzsche’s work, and in twentieth-century existentialism. But Williams’s account is not completely relativistic. Like Hobbes, he seems to accept, as a matter of empirical fact, that there are certain core conditions of social life that must be maintained among members of any society who value their own and their loved ones’ self-preservation and the pursuit of their personal ends and projects.

These core conditions apply universally; they include norms protecting people’s safety and possessions and ensuring some degree of freedom of movement; norms of truthfulness and honesty in one’s dealings, and of keeping promises, fulfilling commitments, and so on. The practical necessity of political enforcement of these norms is perhaps more universal than Williams openly admits.

But more than this, he also suggests that there are certain fundamental human rights—against torture, assault, enslavement, religious persecution, total censorship, arbitrary power, etc.—that are not subject to the “relativism of distance.” These too apply universally. Political moralism and liberal political theory are not needed to say what these rights are or to justify them. According to Williams, they are “nearer to being…self-evident,” and should be regarded as such if they are to escape criticisms that they express the preferences of liberal culture.18 He does not elaborate, but the reason he thinks these rights are so important may be that respect for them is among the conditions of social cooperation. To interact with others while denying them these rights is not to cooperate but to coerce them. Protecting these rights for all members of society might then explain why Williams says that government must justify its use of coercive power to each member of society.


What becomes of liberal justice if its principles are neither justified by political moralism nor guaranteed as a matter of human rights? One of the remarkable features of Williams’s thought is how he combines inspiration from such nonliberals as Hobbes, Nietzsche, Hegel, and the ancient Greeks to argue for liberalism.19

Williams endorsed what Isaiah Berlin called the “plurality of values,” the idea that there is a plurality of intrinsically good things worth doing in life. Pursuing these goods often produces conflicts among them, and they are not all capable of being realized, sometimes not in a single lifetime, or even in a particular society or historical period.20 The pluralism of value is not primarily a moral claim for Williams; instead, it is, he argues, a characteristic of modern Western societies that people pursue many final purposes and commitments, and that there is no agreed upon religious or philosophical doctrine or system of values that could reconcile these different pursuits. From Williams’s politically realist position, this perspective explains why liberal principles of justice are implicit in our history and in our form of life. They are conditions for the pluralism of values so characteristic of modern democratic societies, and therewith of their governments’ political legitimacy.

Williams calls his political position (following Judith Sklar) the “liberalism of fear,” which suggests that limiting the powers of government and protecting liberal freedoms are necessary if people with plural and conflicting values are to feel protected from both government and one another in maintaining their diverse convictions, projects, and special commitments.21 On these grounds, Williams would endorse such liberal rights as freedom of conscience, expression, and association; freedom of tastes and the pursuit of one’s personal projects; equal political rights and equality of opportunity; gender equality and nondiscrimination against racial, ethnic, and religious groups. He also endorses the liberal welfare state and its guarantee of the education, health, and basic needs of all society’s members.

Williams’s Hobbesian understanding of liberalism makes liberal rights and social welfare benefits a kind of modus vivendi or compromise among persons with different values, convictions, and resources. Such compromises normally work so long as there is not a great imbalance of power among significant groups. But why on this account should substantial religious or ethnic majorities or social classes respect the equal rights of weak minorities with whom they disagree? Moreover, liberal rights and other conditions of cooperation are not self-interpreting. The role of a political conception of justice is to provide standards for resolving disagreements when they arise, in ways that are generally acceptable to citizens in a democratic society. This is as much a condition of political legitimacy as are the Hobbesian kinds of social cooperation that Williams relies upon.

The only way to achieve these principles may be to ascend to the abstract levels of philosophical moralism and theories of impartial justice that Williams disdains. Doing so does not require “foundationalism” or universal principles that apply to all ages. It relies rather on the considered convictions of justice that individuals presumably share in a democratic society.

Williams seems to concede a need for such a shared political morality and public conceptions of justice. He says that because people in a liberal society have such different ethical values and perspectives, politics is the activity in which the “thin,” i.e., abstract ethical concepts of right, justice, and welfare, are appropriately applied and developed.22 Moreover, as a condition of legitimacy of government policies, public political discourse requires some way to justify controversial policies in terms that everyone can accept:

We may recognize, possibly in virtue of…certain conceptions of justice, the need that decisions taken by public bodies may have to be argued about and justified in more abstract, procedural terms, with a “thinner” ethical content.23

But this acknowledgment seems to reintroduce a need for the impartial morality Williams eschews, at least for a public political morality that is acceptable and justifiable to democratic citizens who have different and conflicting values. This was the project that occupied Rawls in later years in Political Liberalism (1993). Williams’s review of that book is mildly sympathetic but still critical. He sees Rawls as insufficiently attuned to the sociology of politics.

Williams’s influence on many fields of philosophical ethics has been enormous. His criticisms of utilitarian, Kantian, and other ethical conceptions have occupied generations of students sympathetic to these positions, who seek to respond to the questions Williams raised. Moreover, Williams’s argument that it is not impartial morality but individuals’ projects and special commitments that are the source of value, and ultimately provide us with reasons for acting, has shifted the center of gravity in moral philosophy. His work has led to many attempts, by Kantians, utilitarians, and other ethical theorists, to show that the impartial point of view can accommodate the personal perspective and primary objectives of individuals. The reviews and essays in this latest volume offer a glimpse of the many facets of Williams’s positions and the extraordinary complexity of his thinking throughout his long career. His writing is unfailingly engaging; no matter the topic, he always has something unique and often brilliant to say.