Bernard Williams: Ethics from a Human Point of View

Paul Russell at the TLS:

Portrait of Professor Bernard Williams, Chairman of the Obscenity and Film Censorship Committee, September 6th 1977. (Photo by Roger Jackson/Central Press/Getty Images)

In an interview that he gave near the end of his life, Williams says that most of his efforts in philosophy are focused on this point: “to make some sense of the ethical as opposed to throwing out the whole thing because you can’t have an idealized version” (Williams’s emphasis). He pursues this fundamental theme by way of his two-sided critique of what he calls “the morality system”. It is two-sided because not only does it aim to discredit the forms of “idealization” that the morality system has encouraged, it also seeks to provide an account of what we are left with when we discard or abandon its assumptions and aspirations. His central text for this programme is Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985). Understood this way, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy constitutes Williams’s pivotal work, in part because it is his most ambitious and wide-ranging. Beyond that, however, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy both brings together the diverse threads and strands of his earlier work – much of which is critical in character – and lays the foundation for his later work, particularly his last two books: Shame and Necessity (1993) and Truth and Truthfulness (2002). All these contributions “hang together” (to use Williams’s own expression). In the final analysis, it is not possible to have a complete understanding of the central concerns of Williams’s philosophy without putting Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy at the heart of it.

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