Bernard Williams and the End of Morality

Dissertation, The Johns Hopkins University (2003)

My dissertation has two main aims. The first is to show how some of the central parts of Bernard Williams' conception of ethics fit together. The second is to criticize and develop Williams' thought and, by doing so, to illustrate why it offers such an important and fruitful starting point for contemporary moral philosophy. ;Much of the importance of Williams' work stems from his rich and ambivalent engagement with moral skepticism. His work forcefully engages both with philosophical and wider cultural concerns about the 'status' and authority of moral values and with questions over how to understand and sustain the deliberative priority traditionally accorded to moral concerns. His conception of reasons for action, which I consider in Chapter One, threatens the appealing view that moral judgements always give reasons for action to those to whom they apply. His exploration of what it is to have a deep commitment to a person or project suggests, as I explain in Chapter Two, that moral obligations do not necessarily have priority over other concerns. His doubts about moral objectivity, which I explore in Chapter Three and Chapter Four, lead him to a deeply problematic conception of the relationship between ethical reflection and ethical practice. ;All of these views of Williams' incorporate varying degrees of skepticism. But Williams does not aim to be an outright moral skeptic. Indeed, I reveal how his work can be read as containing a response to outright skepticism: what he shows is that ethics need neither be as exacting nor as saddled with metaphysical ambition as the skeptic thinks. However, the elements of Williams' work that tell against outright skepticism, I argue, give one reason to go further and to be less skeptical about morality than he is
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