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Bernard Williams (1929-2003)

by A. W. Moore

Professor Sir Bernard Williams was one of the greatest twentieth-century British philosophers, renowned especially for his work in moral philosophy.

He was born on 21 September 1929. After studying Classics at Oxford and graduating in 1951, he held various academic posts in Oxford, London, Cambridge and Berkeley, before returning to Oxford as White's Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1991, a post which he held until his retirement in 1996. He made a number of contributions to public life, including chairing a Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship which reported in 1979: the report was shelved by Mrs Thatcher's government, though many of its proposals have subsequently been implemented. He married twice, first Shirley Williams in 1955, and secondly Patricia Williams in 1974. He died on 10 June 2003 during a brief holiday in Rome. The immediate cause of his death was a heart attack, though he had for four years been struggling with cancer.

Williams' publications include numerous articles, many of which are collected together in the three anthologies Problems of the Self (1973), Moral Luck (1981), and Making Sense of Humanity (1995). Among his books are: Morality (1972), a beautifully concise introduction to moral philosophy; Descartes (1978), a highly influential historical study of Descartes' 'method of pure enquiry'; Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), probably his greatest work and certainly the locus classicus of his ideas in ethics; Shame and Necessity (1993), in which he pursued a recurrent interest in ancient Greek thought; and Truth and Truthfulness (2002), a Nietzschean study of the virtues of accuracy and sincerity, written during his final illness but completed in time for him to be able to savour its enthusiastic reception.

Williams' work lies within the analytic tradition of philosophy. Although he was never a vigorous apologist for that tradition, he always maintained the standards of clarity and rigour which it prizes, and his work is a model of all that is best in the tradition. It is brilliant, deep, and imaginative. It is also extraordinarily tight. There cannot be many critics of his work who have not thought of some objection to what he says, only to find, on looking for a relevant quotation to turn into a target, that Williams carefully presents his views in a way that precisely anticipates the objection. Where his work is perhaps less typical of the analytic tradition is in its breadth, in its erudition, and above all in its profound humanity.

Williams provides a refreshingly new approach to moral philosophy. When he first began to write in this area, moral philosophy had for some time been embroiled in arid, ahistorical, second-order debates about the status of moral discourse. But Williams was keen not to lose touch with the real concerns that animate our ordinary ethical experience. His aim was to provide a critique of that experience. This he does with great sensitivity and force, showing admirably how much moral philosophy can achieve. It is somewhat ironical, then, that one of his best-known contentions concerns how little moral philosophy can achieve: in particular, it cannot deliver the very thing which might have been expected of it, a moral theory to guide ethical reasoning. Theories, in Williams' view, aim at a tidiness, a systematicity, and an economy of ideas that are quite inappropriate where human motivation is concerned.

This partly explains his famously even-handed hostility to both utilitarianism and Kantianism, which are usually reckoned to be diametrically opposed to each other. An equally significant reason for his hostility to these two theories is the fact that he took them both to be examples of a particular style of ethical thought, pervasive in the modern world and, in his view, deeply pernicious. He sometimes reserved the term 'morality' for this way of thinking. It is characterized by such concepts as guilt, blame, and responsibility, which are supposed to be uncontaminated by anything that does not relate to the purely voluntary. Williams was resolutely opposed to the idea that moral concepts can be 'pure' in this way. It was in this connection that he coined the term 'moral luck', which signifies the application of these concepts to what is not in anyone's control, and which for those who think in this way sounds like a contradiction in terms. Williams did not want to claim that there is such a thing as moral luck. He wanted to claim rather that we do better not to think in this way.

In fact we do better, he believed, to turn to various concepts from antiquity, such as the eponymous shame and necessity of his third book. Williams was convinced that we have much to learn from the ancient Greeks. In particular, he thought that we can learn from them about the possibility of (secular) meaning for an individual human life. And he believed passionately in this possibility, both in the sense that he believed the possibility to be a real one, even in the modern world, and in the sense that he was committed to its importance. There are few places in his writing where he explicitly expresses these beliefs. But they inform almost all of it.

This goes some way towards counteracting the common complaint that his work is negative, in the sense that he is always more concerned to destroy other people's iews than to promote his own. There are in any case many extremely important positive bequests in his work. These include a distinctive account of how human beings manage to construct social worlds for themselves, and in particular of the use to which they put 'thick' ethical concepts (that is to say, concepts such as infidelity which have both a prescriptive and a descriptive aspect). They also include a distinctive account of science. Williams famously believed that we can, in our scientific thinking, aspire to an 'absolute conception of reality', in other words a conception of reality which is independent of our various perspectives and their peculiarities. This indicates a deep contrast with what we can aspire to in our ethical thinking. And this in turn means that, quite apart from the enormous intrinsic interest of the idea, it served as another vital component of the wonderfully rich understanding that Williams provided of our ethical experience.

© A. W. MOORE 2003

A. W. Moore is a Tutorial Fellow at St Hugh's College Oxford. His books include The Infinite (1990; 2nd edition, 2001), Points of View (1997) and Noble in Reason, Infinite in Faculty: Themes and Variations in Kant's Moral and Religious Philosophy (2003).


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