Arnold Burms: Professor Williams has said that he is willing to answer some of our questions about his work. Given the amount of work he has to do here in a few days, this was a generous decision for which we are genuinely grateful. Professor Van de Putte will start the discussion with some questions about the relation between theory and practice.André Van de Putte: In Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy you situate ethical thought in the context of a (...) movement of reflection. To quote from page 112: “It is too late at this stage to raise the prior question: `Why reflection?' — too late in terms of this inquiry, and always too late in terms of the question itself, since one could answer it without prejudice only by not considering it.” And just before that quotation you also said that “the drive to theory has roots in ethical thought itself” and a little bit further you say: “The important question at this point is why reflection should be taken to require theory.” Now I would like to elaborate a little bit on these remarks and ask you to comment on what I'm going to say.Three things should be stressed concerning ethical reflection which are important for moral philosophy and for our understanding of moral philosophy. The first one is this: the person who is reflecting is already part of a concrete society when he or she starts reflecting. That means that he or she has been socialized in a concrete ethos and has already an experience of a substantive ethical life. In this sense he or she does not need to invent ethical life.The second remark is this: ethical reflection is in itself already the expression of an ethical intention. By asking the question `How should one live?', one shows that one is interested in living an ethical life. In this sense I can agree with what I think you say in Ethics, namely that the question `Why should I be moral?' is not meaningful for a moral thinker. The answer to the moral question, the results of his reflection are not meant to convince him or his readers to be moral. On the contrary, he starts precisely from this interest in morality and tries to understand what it means to be moral, what his wish to be moral implies.My third point is the most important. In starting his reflection the thinker has as it were decided that his answer will only be acceptable if it is valid for all, if it can be justified for all. In the moral question itself, a norm of universality is implied. And given the fact that the moral question is itself the expression of an ethical intention, this is important. If he would not assume this norm, he would in my view not really be posing the question. We can immediately understand this if we consider the alternative.Suppose a moral thinker who assumes that an answer to the moral question will be valid only when it suits him. Would we say in this case that this person is really asking the moral question? I do not think so. To put this another way, my thesis is that in the reflection the person who reflects is subjecting himself to the law of thinking itself, to the law of reason, in other words, to the law of universality, of non-contradiction. In the question he discovers this law as a norm for himself asking the moral question and thus as a norm inherent in moral intention. I think that this is precisely what Kant discovered and why for so many there is an important link between ethics and reason and why we are, as you say, driven to theory: since we want a universal answer, since a moral norm implies universality, we are looking for a theory, for a universal justification. But this is not yet the full story. All that I have said only becomes visible on the reflective level. It is only visible, as it were, once one starts reflecting.This means that the norm of universality cannot and must not be understood as a concrete norm which can and should replace the norms of the concrete ethos we all already live in when we start reflecting. I think rationalism in ethics is precisely that: the belief that this norm and what one hopes to deduce from it can and should replace the concrete ethos. I think it must be clear that this cannot be done. As we all know the Kantian imperative is formal and negative and does not produce any content. If we need content — and of course we need it — it should come from our historical ethos. (shrink)
This collection is a festschrift prepared for Williams on his retirement from the White’s Professorship of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. The topics covered include equality, consistency, comparison between science and ethics, integrity, moral reasons, the moral system, and moral knowledge. Most of the chapters combine exegetical and critical ambitions. With contributions by J. E. J. Altham, Jon Elster, Nicholas Jardine, Ross Harrison, Christopher Hookway, John McDowell, Martin Hollis, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and Charles Taylor, and replies by Bernard Williams.
Philosophers have long distinguished various interpretations of the principle of equal opportunity and argued over their implications and justifications. But they have almost always tacitly assumed that the context was a national one. They have not, in particular, considered whether some interpretation of the principle could apply and be justified globally, that is, to all people without regard to their nationality or citizenship. Yet, such an investigation is clearly demanded. The leading moral theories seem to support a case for at (...) least some interpretation of the equal opportunity principle, and it is not obvious that they can support it only domestically. Consider, first, those moral theories which place great value on negative liberty, for example, libertarianism. Libertarianism supports a standard interpretation of the equal opportunity principle – “formal” equality of opportunity; formal equality of opportunity requires that legal restrictions j on the taking of opportunities be lifted, and such restrictions diminish negative liberty. But libertarianism would also seem to support a global. version of formal equality of opportunity, for example, that laws be rescinded which require that candidates for jobs in a country be citizens of that country, or which restrict emigration or immigration. Such laws also diminish negative liberty. Or consider those moral theories which place great value on efficiency, for example, utilitarianism. Utilitarianism probably supports formal equality of opportunity because legal restrictions on the taking of opportunity not only diminish negative liberty, but also often prevent talent and skill from going where it can best be used and thus reduce efficiency. (shrink)
"In this exceptionally brilliant book, ranging effortlessly from Herodotus and Thucydides to Diderot and Nietzsche, Bernard Williams daringly asks--and still more daringly answers--one of the central questions of philosophy: what is the ...
By the time of his death in 2003, Bernard Williams was one of the greatest philosophers of his generation. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy is not only widely acknowledged to be his most important book, but also hailed a contemporary classic of moral philosophy. Presenting a sustained critique of moral theory from Kant onwards, Williams reorients ethical theory towards ‘truth, truthfulness and the meaning of an individual life’. He explores and reflects upon the most difficult problems in contemporary (...) philosophy and identifies new ideas about central issues such as relativism, objectivity and the possibility of ethical knowledge. This edition also includes a new commentary on the text by A.W.Moore and a foreword by Jonathan Lear. (shrink)
This new volume of philosophical papers by Bernard Williams is divided into three sections: the first Action, Freedom, Responsibility, the second Philosophy, Evolution and the Human Sciences; in which appears the essay which gives the collection its title; and the third Ethics, which contains essays closely related to his 1983 book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Like the two earlier volumes of Williams's papers published by Cambridge University Press, Problems of the Self and Moral Luck, this volume will (...) be welcomed by all readers with a serious interest in philosophy. It is published alongside a volume of essays on Williams's work, World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams, edited by J. E. J. Altham and Ross Harrison, which provides a reappraisal of his work by other distinguished thinkers in the field. (shrink)