Are we any better?

Gisela Striker

  • Shame and Necessity by Bernard Williams
    California, 254 pp, £25.00, May 1993, ISBN 0 520 08046 7

The Sather lecturers are invited by the Department of Classics at Berkeley, but they are not always Classicists in a narrow sense. Bernard Williams rightly and proudly points to the precedent of one of his teachers, E.R. Dodds, whose The Greeks and the Irrational, published in 1951, remains one of the glories of the series. When Williams says in the preface to his own lectures that he is not primarily a Classical scholar, this is not meant as an apology: it simply tells us that his perspective will be mainly philosophical, not philological or literary. In fact, Williams’s project belongs to a philosophical genre exemplified most famously by Nietzsche: comparing ‘the Greeks’, our ancestors, with ourselves in order to discover whether the differences between their moral outlook and our own should be seen as improvements. Williams is not looking for a simple answer – progress, or decline, or much the same. He wants to show, on the one hand, that the Greeks were sufficiently similar to us to make a comparison instructive; on the other hand, that where we take ourselves to have different and perhaps more refined conceptions, we may be either deluded or not as far apart as we might like to believe. In other words, comparing ourselves to the Greeks may have the sobering effect of showing us that we have not advanced all that much, and that we might do well to reconsider some of the moral ideas alleged by philosophers and theologians to mark a decisive improvement.

The Greeks of Williams’s study are those of the Homeric period and of fifth-century Athens: that is, the Greeks before Plato and before the beginning of systematic philosophy. His main sources are Homer and the tragedians, especially Sophocles. No one doubts that these authors can inform us about the ethical ideas of their contemporaries; but since, at least for the fifth century, there are other sources as well, notably historians and orators, the question arises: why not take examples from life? Williams’s reply is a bon mot: ‘what philosophers will lay before themselves and their readers as an alternative to literature will not be life, but bad literature.’ This is going too fast. Not all history writing is bad literature, and where it is good literature, as one might claim for Herodotus and Thucydides, it is still not literature in the sense of fiction. It is a pity Williams has so little to say about his choice of sources.

After setting the scene, Williams proceeds to discuss, in turn, the concepts of agency, responsibility and shame, and two sorts of necessity. He starts with a devastating critique of the portrayal of ‘Homeric man’ as primitive or childlike. He shows that scholars like Bruno Snell, in his very influential The Discovery of the Mind, who have claimed that Homer’s people lack a conception of mind or soul, and hence our conception of human agency, tend to assume there can be no clear way of describing human actions and decisions without the would-be explanatory concepts of soul/body dualism and the will as some sort of mental agency. As Williams puts it, ‘All that Homer seems to have left out is the idea of another mental action that is supposed to lie between coming to a conclusion and acting on it; and he did well in leaving it out, since there is no such action, and the idea of it is the invention of bad philosophy.’

That would seem to be quite enough to restore Homer’s characters to the status of adult human agents, but Williams adds another explanation of why scholars might have found Homeric notions strange: ‘they did not revolve around a distinction between moral and non-moral motivations.’ This second diagnosis reveals that Shame and Necessity is a continuation of the project begun in Williams’s earlier Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), as becomes abundantly clear in later chapters. The target in the earlier book was mainly Kant’s moral philosophy; in this one, the pernicious tradition of moral theory is traced back to Plato. I confess that I do not find the second diagnosis very plausible in this particular case. First, it would be easy to show, as Williams does later, that Homer’s people do engage in what most of us would call moral deliberations, whether they have a special term corresponding to ‘duty’ or not. Secondly, I am not convinced by his argument that the psychological theories introduced by philosophers from Plato on are inextricably tied to the moral/non-moral distinction. It is true that Plato introduces his famous theory of the tripartite soul in the course of arguing for the thesis that to act justly is necessary for human happiness. But it is not so clear that the soul’s parts are distinguished only with a view to their role in moral psychology. A more sympathetic interpretation of Plato’s theory might say that the distinctions between reason, spirit (or, as later authors would put it, the passions) and appetite as sources of motivation can be understood in terms of psychology alone. Moral dispositions are characterised in terms not only of the kind of motivation they involve, but also of the relations of control and subordination between the soul’s parts. A virtuous disposition is not just a disposition to act for reasons, but one in which reason, as Plato puts it, rules or dominates: that is, determines decisions and actions. Only when reason is in control will a person not just deliberate, but make the effort to find the truth and act on a correct conception of what is good. Pace Williams, then, reason can operate as a distinctive part of soul even when it is enslaved to the passions.

The argument against a certain conception of morality as a hindrance to understanding the Greeks continues with an examination of responsibility, as treated, once again, by Homer and Sophocles. Williams has an easy time establishing that Homer and the tragedians had the conceptual means to deal with questions of responsibility, intention, causation and so on, even if their vocabulary did not contain terms that can be accurately translated by the English words ‘intention’ or ‘responsible’. But it might seems that the religious belief in pollution, according to which an agent may be punished for actions he did not or could not intend, opens up a gulf between the archaic Greeks and the more enlightened modern conception of responsibility. An example would be the case of Oedipus (in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus), who did not know that the person he killed was his father, nor that the person he later married was his mother, and hence by our lights could not be considered guilty of patricide or incest. Williams argues that any assumption of superiority on our part would be an illusion. He points out that our allegedly clearer concept of moral responsibility is not as clear as some people (presumably philosophers) might believe, and that it is not true that ‘we’ do not hold people responsible for harm they did not intend or could not foresee – witness the law of torts and rules of strict liability. What differences there are should be explained in terms of the different role of government and legal procedures in modern societies. The Greeks were simply more honest in acknowledging that what we do may affect our lives even if we don’t think ourselves to blame for it. But do ‘we’ deny this? I doubt it – and it seems to me that ‘we’ might want to agree with the revised judgment of Oedipus in the later play, Oedipus at Colonus, as interpreted by Williams himself. What Oedipus did was not his fault; the punishment he inflicted on himself was excessive; but the weight of what he did without intending it would still have ruined his life. The driver who kills a child that runs in the way of her car need not think herself either morally or legally responsible for the child’s death, and yet she may be devastated by the thought that it was she who brought it about. We need not deny this when we deny that what devastates her has to be a sense of responsibility or guilt. Hence we may be justifiably grateful to be rid of the notion of pollution. But what Williams succeeds in showing is that we have no reason to think that that archaic notion makes Greek conceptions of responsibility unintelligible to us.

He goes on to refute another alleged contrast between the archaic Greeks and our selves: the claim that Homer’s people, and to some extent all Greeks until the fifth century, lived in a ‘shame culture’, evaluating them-selves and their actions only in terms of social status and reputation, whereas we – and indeed the Greeks after Socrates – have a ‘guilt culture’, in which judgments of persons and actions are based on whether their motives and actions are right or wrong in a moral sense, regardless of what other people think. Here the suggestion that the alleged transition is seen as an improvement because modern scholars think that our moral concepts are superior to Greek ones has more plausibility. Williams argues convincingly that the alleged contrast rests on a misunderstanding of the notion of shame – both in the sense of the English word ‘shame’ and in that of the Greek aidos. It is simply false to say that shame has to do only with how one appears in the eyes of others; nor do Homer’s people evaluate themselves and others exclusively in those terms. Shame is usually internalised, in the sense that it has regard to others whose standards one shares and respects, and hence it is felt because one falls short of one’s own standards and expectations. The Greek notion of aidos seems to cover some of the same ground as our notion of guilt, and while our conception may be different because we have two concepts where the Greeks had only one, there is no reason to think that this shows us to be better or more enlightened. On the contrary: ‘The structures of shame contain the possibility of controlling and learning from guilt, because they give a conception of one’s ethical identity, in relation to which guilt can make sense. Shame can understand guilt, but guilt cannot understand itself.’

Williams then turns to topics where no one would deny that there has been some moral progress: slavery and the subjection of women. Nonetheless, he argues, this gives us no reason to feel morally superior. Apart from Aristotle, who made a desperate attempt to justify it by arguing that it was natural and just, the Greeks did not generally approve of slavery as a just institution. They regarded it as a great calamity for the person enslaved, and a few explicitly said that it was unjust. They accepted it because they could not imagine how the civilised way of living they cherished might be possible without slaves. Thus it was not that the Greeks lacked the moral ideas that could make them realise that slavery is unjust, but that because they saw it as a necessary part of their economic and social arrangements, the question of justice was not usually raised. This still leaves room for the criticism that the Greeks were acting in bad faith – but then the same criticism could be made of modern societies, not just in respect of women, where modern prejudices are not far removed from those of the Greeks, but in respect also of other economic and social arrangements which we can recognise as unjust, but about which we do nothing, or next to nothing, because we can think of no easy way of changing them.

Williams is curiously reticent about the notion of justice that would have led the Greeks (and ourselves) to recognise the injustice of slavery. He echoes Aristotle’s criteria in describing it as unjust because it is arbitrary and involves violence – but then how exactly do arbitrariness and violence make for injustice? In order to justify slavery Aristotle finds it necessary to claim that there are human beings who lack the essential capacity of reasoning and self-determination. This suggests, rightly I think, that it is because all humans have those capacities, at least to some degree, that we find it morally wrong to deprive people of the freedom to exercise them. The demands of justice are based at least in part on the recognition of all human beings as rational agents, for the Greeks as well as for us. It does not follow that rationality is the only value that counts; but since the criticism of slavery as unjust comes later in the Greek sources than the recognition that it is a disaster for the victim, could it not be that the elevation of rationality to a central place in moral thought was a kind of progress after all – not, to be sure, between the Greeks and ourselves, but within Greek thought itself? Given that it was Aristotle who made the standards explicit, I am left wondering whether the influence of moral theory was really only for the worse, as Williams seems to think.

He deals finally with a feature of the Greek worldview that may make it look particularly exotic to us: the belief in supernatural powers that interfere in unforeseeable and inescapable ways in our lives, often frustrating our best efforts to act in the way we hope will be. Such beliefs are no longer held, at least not by most of us; and yet we do not seem to respond to the Greek tragedies, in which such powers play a decisive part, as mere curiosities from a distant and happily forgotten past. What makes for our sense of understanding the tragic hero’s plight. Williams argues, is the fact that in spite of our enlightened disbelief in demonic forces, we may find ourselves in situations where rational planning and moral deliberation fail to save us from moral disaster.

His first example from Greek tragedy is Agamemnon, who had to decide between murdering his daughter and abandoning his obligations as the leader of the Greek campaign against Troy when a goddess held up his fleet at Aulis. I find this an unfortunate example, since it invites the thought – for me, at any rate, if not for ‘us’ – that this is after all a fairytale situation. There are no such goddesses, and the winds just don’t behave that way; so Agamemnon should not have killed Iphigeneia. Williams’s second example, of Oedipus’ son Eteocles going into a battle where he knows he will kill his own brother, is more convincing: civil wars are known to us as well as to the Greeks. Moral dilemma, as this type of situation has come to be called in recent philosophical debates, can occur in our time as it did in ancient Greece, and it is an illusion – an illusion that Williams once again attributes to the pernicious influence of moral philosophy – to think, as Socrates put it, that ‘no harm can come to a good man.’ But do ‘we’ really think that? It may be that Socrates and Plato did; Aristotle probably did not; the Stoics certainly thought it couldn’t, as did the Christian martyrs, and possibly Kant. But most of ‘us’ – present-day scholars and philosophers, including present-day Kantians – think no such thing. The point that morality, understood as a set of rules that should govern the relations between rational and reasonable people, will not solve all our problems or offer us an easy way to make all our ethically important decisions, seems uncontroversial. While we may not be much better off than the Greeks in our ethical views, I do not think many of us are deluded nor, therefore, that we should try to rid ourselves of what Williams has called ‘Morality, the Peculiar Institution’.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this comparison of our moral notions with those of the pre-philosophical Greeks, it has to do more with the fact that there are good reasons for focusing on literary works than with the fact that those works were written before moral philosophy became an established discipline. Studying the characters of Shakespeare might have led to similar results. And this is so because poets often prove to be much better observers of human thought, character and action than philosophers, historians or psychologists, who are apt to launch into theory and generalisation before they have a good description of what they are setting out to explain. This is what Williams’s discussions of the ancient texts bring out in every instance, and what makes his book worth reading, not just for those who are interested in the question whether we have made any real moral progress, but also for those who are interested in the Greeks, or in the varieties of ethical experience.