Against Simplicity

Stuart Hampshire

  • Moral Luck by Bernard Williams
    Cambridge, 173 pp, £16.50, December 1981, ISBN 0 521 24372 6

The surprising title, first attached to one essay among the 13 here collected, does suggest the theme that holds the book together. Much of the argument in the various essays is a many-sided onslaught on Kant’s conception of morality. Kant had represented morality as imposing identical claims on all men equally and at all times, irrespective of all other differences between them, including differences in their sentiments, their characters and their circumstances. The claims, if they are authentic moral requirements, must arise from a common humanity and a common rationality, and not from any contingent features of particular situations in which particular persons have found themselves. The implication was that the claims of morality must be wholly disconnected from claims and loyalties founded on sentiment or on social custom, and from codes of honour and of decorum. Universal and overriding, the requirements of morality show themselves in our natural languages as unconditional commands – ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’ – emanating, not from God, but from Reason. This was one of the philosophies of the Enlightenment, designed to unite mankind across religious and national barriers in a common consciousness and in a common prospect of the future. As the Enlightenment has receded, and as the common future projected by the Enlightenment has proved illusory, so the idea that morality’s claims upon us rest upon reason alone has faded within moral philosophy. Mr Williams attacks this rationalism.

A residue of Kant’s doctrine survived in an argument within the philosophy of language, an argument that Mr Williams also attacks: that there is a peculiar and recognised moral use of the word ‘ought’ which compels the speaker to declare a universal principle when he tells himself or others what they ought to do. In two essays Mr Williams shows this to be implausible as an interpretation of natural language, and at the same time he explains why this last-ditch effort to preserve the peculiar autonomy of morals, originally urged by Kant, is bound to fail. He argues, first, that the motives that lead a person to conduct himself as a person of principle cannot be altogether separated from other serious interests that he has. Secondly, he argues that a person’s essential achievements and virtues are not to be attributed solely to his will, the bearer of his moral nature, but also to the so-called accidents of talent and opportunity. Lastly, he argues that there is no strong reason to expect that the moral principles, which seem to carry their own authority with them, will always or usually form a tidily coherent set. We should also expect to come across irresoluble conflicts of principle, and among these conflicts some are tragic and have the dignity of tragedy.

Plainly Nietzsche, in his sceptical phase, is here once again toppling Kant, but this time with less rhetoric, and with more close argument. At the same time we are witnessing in moral philosophy, as in social theory and politics, a general rejection of the plans and hopes of the Enlightenment for the human sciences, and apart from Kant, the Utilitarians were the principal philosophers of the Enlightenment. Mr Williams’s essays attacking both these philosophies are a very significant symptom of the present turn-about, of the rejection of moral optimism. The Enlightenment’s claim had been that just as the underlying laws of physics and chemistry must be the same from China to Peru, so the underlying laws of morality must be the same wherever human beings are found: not because the Creator had arranged that it should be so, as the Church asserted, but because, once liberated from local prejudice, we could not fail to recognise the true theory that explains moral necessities, as we recognise the theory or theories that explain physical necessities. Even the sceptical Hume did not deny the appropriateness of a theory of morality, which he thought must be a theory of human nature, corresponding to Newtonian theory in physics.

Mr Williams has arguments that lead him to deny that theory has any secure place in morality, in any sense of ‘theory’ which preserves the analogy with scientific theory. Here, as in previous writing, he attacks the Utilitarianism Mill inherited from Beccaria and Priestley and Bentham, because it is a grossly simplifying, and falsely coherent, theory which clashes with our moral intuitions: our intuitions constantly point to the irreducible diversity of our serious purposes and interests. Simplicity and coherence are the typical virtues of those theories which, within the natural sciences, are believed to be compatible with a fidelity to the complexities of nature revealed to us in experience – compatible, that is, with truth, in spite of the tension between an elegant simplicity and coherence, on the one side, and untidy assortments of concrete detail, on the other. But coherence and simplicity no longer seem any kind of virtues to be cultivated when we are thinking about difficult moral problems. But why not? Where is the crucial difference between theoretical reasoning and practical thinking about moral issues to be found?

In an important footnote Mr Williams suggests one definite answer, one that is presupposed by many of his arguments. He is discussing the status of a moral feeling which a person may find that he has, perhaps a form of squeamishness, when on reflection he cannot reasonably endorse the feeling, which is recognised to be in conflict with his more considered opinions and with his general principles. Then he may try to dissociate his thought from his feelings in the interest of a more objective assessment of the moral issues. Many moral philosophers – Adam Smith is one example – have stressed that moral judgment requires some element of objectivity as well as a personal involvement. Mr Williams notices that this requirement of objectivity may be compared with the requirement that scientific knowledge should be dissociated from our perceptual sensations and from the subjective conditions of observation. It is a requirement of rationality that the scientific picture of the world should not be limited or biased by our particular perspective, or by our limited powers of observation: but he then remarks that the same complete objectivity cannot be ‘the aim of moral thought and experience, which must primarily involve grasping the world in such a way that one can, as a particular human being, live in it’. Here he identifies the essential difference between rationality in ethics and rationality in science as a matter of motivation. My moral opinions, however rational, cannot be disconnected from my emotions and desires and from the springs of action, or they will not count as moral opinions at all. This sets the limits on theoretical simplicity and coherence, limits that are peculiar to ethics. I cannot climb out of my particular standpoint and judge the world from a God-like position, as perhaps I can in natural science.

This is part of a sophisticated version of the ancient doctrine that intellect does not by itself move to action. But the phrase ‘as a particular human being’ implies a narrower limit on rationality in morals, an implication that is developed further in these essays. My own interests and talents, my personal history and circumstances, and my position on the surface of the globe, are not irrelevant to the moral claims which I properly acknowledge. The fatal word ‘particular’ shows that there is little room for full-blown rational theorising: theory is aimed precisely at the suppression of the particular in the interests of the general, of coherence and simplicity. Once we say, in moral judgment as in aesthetics, ‘Sound judgment depends on seeing the complexities of particular cases, which are rarely reproduced exactly,’ abstract moral theory, and the sovereignty of general principles, have already been in part discarded.

I am not entirely certain how radical Mr Williams intends to be in his rejection of generalising moral theory, and how far he will travel along the Nietzschean path, pressing his polemic against Kant and the Utilitarians. At least in these essays he stops well short of a full Nietzschean philosophy, which, having rejected the demarcation of a distinct domain of morality, accepts as a consequence that morality and aesthetics are not to be distinguished, and that all strongly and repeatedly affirmed values have equal authority. There is a halfway and fall-back position in the retreat from claims to a rational basis for morality, abandoning the parallel with the objectivity of science: the comparison, natural and traditional, between morality and law. The law of this land, and of any land, is undeniably a construction of human reason, and legal reasoning has its own proper standards. The law equally confronts the difficulties of applying general principles to particular cases, and also finds that argument often leaves undetermined gaps and is inconclusive. This legal model of rationality and of practical reason was the foundation for morality which was implicitly chosen by the so-called intuitionists, such as Ross and other Oxford moralists of the recent past: a plausible and defensible philosophy, but not, I think, clearly Mr Williams’s. In a valuable essay, ‘Conflicts of Values’, he writes of intuition as necessarily the basis of morality in ‘personal life and in a more closely shared existence’. But public order, at least in a liberal democracy, requires some roughly uniform and rational procedure for arbitrating between conflicting values in particular cases. In politics we therefore need some ‘imperfect rationalisation’ of possibly divergent private intuitions. He argues that an equilibrium between public method and private feeling must be achieved, because both are indispensable to us.

This is a half-way position, which assimilates a part of morality to law, in virtue of morality’s social role, while segregating the area of privacy, peculiar to morality, as more open to feeling and less open to reasoning. There are altogether different grounds for putting away all models of rationality, and of uniformity of reasoning, in ethics: first, that morality, like languages and unlike legal systems, has the function of differentiating persons, and of dividing them into identifiable groups, as well as the function of uniting them in a social order. In all moralities there is an irreducible element of convention, and conventions are only to be explained historically. Secondly, there is the Nietzschean claim that it is only an insoluble conflict between values which lends moral significance to existence, and that such conflicts, and not an ideal moral consensus constitute the essence, or full realisation, of our humanity. In this view, to be fully alive, and to have untrivial moral beliefs, entails being in unsolved conflict both with oneself and with others. At present, and on the evidence of this book, I think that Mr Williams has not advanced, or lapsed, so far as this, being still more under the influence of Plato than of Heraclitus.

Apart from the essays already mentioned, there are articles on persons and their character, on Justice, on ‘ought’ and moral obligation, and on what Mr Williams calls practical necessity. Outside moral philosophy there is an essay on Wittgenstein’s apparent Idealism, and one at the end of the book on a problem in the philosophy of mind. All are clearly argued, and none of them is difficult to read or inaccessible to the layman. Taken as a whole, they represent a loosening of academic thinking on morality, a widening of horizons, and at the same time they conform to the highest standards of argument and of careful statement.