Paul Seabright

  • Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams
    Collins and Fontana, 230 pp, £10.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 00 197171 9

Bernard Williams’s new book is the nearest thing to a systematic and comprehensive discussion of moral philosophy we can hope for from someone who thinks a yearning for systematic and comprehensive discussion is the main defect of moral philosophy today. The author identifies ethics as the subject constituted by certain kinds of attempt to answer Socrates’s question: how one should live. As the title suggests, much of the book consists of an attack on the claims of philosophy to provide ethical answers to the question. More precisely (since it never quite explains what is to count as philosophy), it attacks the claims of a certain rationalistic and foundationalist method in moral philosophy, a method broadly though not exclusively associated with Kant. In general, Professor Williams represents his target as an entire dominant trend in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophy (though occasional grumblings in the footnotes suggest an annoyance at more specific currents, such as evangelical vegetarianism). In his first three chapters he contrasts it with some elements in classical ethical thought, which he thinks closer to providing an attractive account, even though its attempt to ground ethics entirely in considerations about human nature is a failure. But though some of the classical debris is salvageable, Williams is in no doubt that philosophy can provide ethical guidance only by accident: he concludes his book by affirming a substantial ethical individualism, a belief in ‘the continuing possibility of a meaningful individual life, one that does not reject society ... but is enough unlike others, in its opacities and disorder as well as in its reasoned intentions, to make it somebody’s. Philosophy can help to make a society possible in which most people would live such lives, even if it still needs to learn how best to do so. Some people might even get help from philosophy in living such a life – but not, as Socrates supposed, each reflective person, and not from the ground up.’

The book is an important one, not simply because of its anti-philosophical ambitions. There is no shortage nowadays of philosophers urging us to save ourselves from the unworldly abstractions of philosophy, often out of an equally unworldly romanticism about the innocence of ordinary speech, one that forgets how second-rate philosophising (what Wittgenstein called ‘the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’) can originate just as much in the saloon bar or at the dining-table as in the lecture hall. Bernard Williams’s writing shows few traces of such sentiments, and his criticism of the Kantian method is from within the tradition of clear argument and careful distinction, the tradition that thinks logic can be used to progress. A preface explains of his work that ‘I do care that it should be what I call “clear”,’ and though this remark is followed within a quarter page by a sentence that the reviewer needed five readings to understand, the lapse is as exceptional as it is ill-timed, and the book itself amply justifies the author’s hope. Its careful conviction also suggests he is far from believing that philosophers have nothing distinctive to contribute to ethics, and warns us that his strictures against philosophy need thoughtful interpretation.

A quotation from Camus provides a much more direct clue to the book’s theme than is found in most epigraphs: quand on n’a pas de caractère, il faut bien se donner une méthode. The search for a method of resolving ethical problems is, Williams argues, distinctly inferior to an ethical concern with character, a now unfashionable concept in which what is valuable in the personality is seen as consisting chiefly in habits or dispositions, some of which we know as virtues or vices. The fact that such dispositions are usually well ingrained by the time people reach intellectual maturity is only one reason why there is unlikely to be a fruitful philosophical method for determining how one should live; even the character formation of third parties is not something for which we may expect to find comprehensive methods, Thomas Arnold and Benjamin Spock notwithstanding. Nor is the main reason even the fact, which Williams discusses at some length, that certain admirable dispositions are intrinsically unsuited to being the object of conscious cultivation: people who are generous, humble or independent of mind are unlikely to be characterised by undue concern for their own generosity, humility or independence (they may, of course, be characterised by an equally methodical concern for something else). The main reason an appraisal and appreciation of character is not likely to be philosophical in nature is that, like all exercises of judgment, it has to start from somewhere. ‘Somewhere’, in this context, stands for a specific social and cultural environment – embarrassment at which, and a futile ambition to escape from which, are chief among the failings of the Kantian project, as first and famously pointed out by Hegel. The rationalistic approach to moral philosophy stands convicted, in the eyes of Professor Williams and others, of trying to offer ethical directions while all the time insisting, with a grave shake of the head like the rustic in the Irish joke, that ‘if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.’

The book itself starts from a look at what Socrates’s question might mean. The way it is formulated implies, first, that it is not addressed to any particular person, ‘that something relevant or useful can be said to anyone, in general.’ Second, it is not about what one should do ‘now, or next. It is about a manner of life ... a demand for reflection on one’s life as a whole, even if we do not place as much weight as the Greeks did on how it should end.’ It is ‘in a sense a timeless question, since it invites me to think about my life from no particular point in it.’ Third, ‘it is also entirely non-committal, and very fruitfully so, about the kinds of consideration to be applied to the question.’ There is a lengthy discussion of different kinds of consideration, urging that not all answers to Socrates’s question need be ethically-based answers, and resisting the tendency of many theorists to reduce all ethical considerations, or all deliberative considerations whatever, to a single common kind. For Williams, ethical considerations are distinguished as those that relate ‘to us and our actions the demands, needs, claims, desires and, generally, the lives of other people’. As taxonomy the discussion is valuable, and its anti-reductionism is attractive, but it makes the job of refuting the reductionists look deceptively easy. For instance, the argument that ‘if one compares one job, holiday or companion with another, judgment does not need a particular set of weights’ needs better defence than the claim that ‘people’s experience’ shows that ‘they regularly arrive at conclusions they regard as rational ... without using one currency of comparison.’ That people’s experience can be read at face value in this way is precisely what the reductionists deny (for them the use of one currency of comparison need not be conscious, or formulable by the people concerned: it need merely be formulable by someone).

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