Bernard Williams Philosophy Anti-Philosophy

Bernard Williams 1: Morality

How did I have the presumption to write a post on Bernard Williams’s Moral Philosophy when I didn’t understand much of what I found on the Web on it?  It was because I still felt a presumption to say something.

My major difficulty was a lack of sites in which his logicking was translated for non-philosophers to understand.  Perhaps BW was as yet of too recent a vintage and of insufficient fame.  All I got were sites in which philosophers were speaking in the vocabulary of philosophy. 

To start with my astonishment at philosophers in general when they do moral philosophizing:  It is hardly credible, what I get from my reading of philosophy since 580 BC, that philosophers ignore the first thing about Man — that he is just a good old sinner! I don’t mean this in the distinctive Christian sense, but that despite our fine moral principles, we are regularly drawn towards self-interest and even malice.  And then we find arguments to show we have after all acted according to moral principle!  This manoeuvre inside our heads is called ‘rationalizing’ — the finding of respectable reasons for what we do.

It’s as if doing good is a matter of working out which moral philosophy to adhere to.

That we are sinners is the most basic and interesting thing about us .  Philosophers seem not to know this.  They are concerned with working out the logic of what we say our moral principles are.  They seem to think that we just do what we think is right. 

They think that the important part of morality is thinking about the right principles of what we ought to do. — They think that matters of morality are purely in the realm of Thought!  They really are the most naive idiots, who haven’t reached first base of knowing themselves or others.

For me, the moral problem with Man is not an intellectual one but one of human nature which is also that incidentally of all living things — that one looks after the interests of Number One and even after one’s pleasures in malice.

That is the bittersweet, ultimate, profound, ironic, interesting thing about Homo sapiens.

Besides the enormity of Sin which makes up much of what it is to be human,  and is the most interesting thing about Man, the question of these intellectual principles of morality is piffling.  It is an irrelevance to human wisdom, an appendix, a footnote.

The great moral problem is not to work out the logic of what you think your principles of behaviour are, but your actual naughty behaviour itself – the psychological byways and alleyways of how you came to do it.

Knowing how one gets to do what one does, and then justify it in one’s own mind, is moral self-knowledge.  Understanding these processes in others is knowledge of others.  But philosophers just don’t deal with that sort of thing at all.  

Self-knowledge isn’t something that comes by way of logicking, mathematicking or scientificking.

Moral philosophy, ever since Socrates, has been entirely rationalistic/intellectualistic ; it assumes that Man wants to do right, and the moral problem for him is to puzzle out firstly the facts of the situation he has to act in, and secondly the general principles on which he can then choose the right thing to do in that situation.

For me this whole intellectual discussion of Kantianism, Consequentialism, Moral Objectivism, Absolutism, Relativism or Virtue Moralism, has never been compelling except to understand what the philosophers are talking about — compared to the eternal matter of Man, the jolly old sinner.  I mistrust my own mind in its understanding of what philosophers are doing, but I look again and again at the philosophers and there it still is.

I’ve gone too far: there probably is some value in working out what would have been right, even if in real life we act according to self-interest or malice. 

So for me the most significant moral thing about BW is something totally excluded from his moral philosophy.  His ex-wife wrote (from here): “I found Bernard’s capacity for pretty sharp putting-down of people he thought were stupid unacceptable……He can be very painful sometimes.  He can eviscerate somebody. Those who are left behind are, as it were, dead personalities.  Judge not that ye be not judged.  I was influenced by Christian thinking, and he would say ‘That’s frightfully pompous and it’s not really the point.’ “

I can’t find when exactly she made that comment.  She may have done so very late in BW’s life, before he had sufficient time to reply.  Is it even legitimate to mention something an ex-wife wrote?  But it’s the nearest one can get to Bernard’s actual behaviour.  It never figured in BW’s own fictitious and exotic examples of morality.  And, again according to his ex-wife, he considered her views on this matter to be pompous! and not really the point!

Shirley’s story about him was a real-life example of morality, rather than the exotic fictions that BW dreamt up.  (It struck me incidentally that positing exotic fictions is something typical of the tame lives that people in Britain lead.)

For me, the interesting thing about morality is not the working out of its intellectual principles, but that all of us have a weakness for acting in our own self-interest, or even for the careless pleasure of cruelty, or even for the need to vent contempt at other people’s low standards in what we hold dear.  Does one need a theory of ethics to know that cutting a person’s self-esteem and public esteem is not nice?  There was some disjunction between BW’s moral principles and his behaviour. 

I knew a young lady, always displaying her moral opinions and even her moral emotions.  She called herself a moral relativist but in terms of behaviour was as bad as a malignant psychopath.  That’s too extreme a word but is the closest my vocabulary in these psychic matters can get to.


Now to get round to what BW did say in his Moral Philosophy:

He disapproved of both Kantianism and Utilitarianism

In the late 20th century when he was active, it was still Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and Bentham and J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism, that held sway in moral philosophy.  

Kant’s Categorical Imperative was that one should do that act which one would choose as a maxim or rule for anyone in a similar situation to do. It is not exactly pure Deontologism which says that the act is simply right or wrong in itself, from here.  (I’m not sure, after years of battering my head, if my interpretation of Kant is exactly right, but it’s the best I can presently do.)

Utilitarianism said that one should do that act which one reckons would bring the greatest surplus of pleasure over pain for all the people affected!

 BW’s disapproval of theories of moral principle seems to be that these theories ignore our emotions, personal attachments, motives, and the present state of our culture as influencing our choices, and our moral luck (see below) as influencing our evaluations.  (This needs unpacking and exemplifying.)  

BW shivered at Kant and the Utilitarians prescribing ‘a single calculable principle for morality’ which had ‘objective universality ‘ (from here).  He tried to exhume principles of right and wrong from such logical, ahistorical analysis, into a kind of moral anthropology.  To continue, here is a sentence I don’t understand, almost verbatim from here): He saw moral codes and writings as embedded in history and culture, and questioned the whole “peculiar institution” of morality, which he considered to be a particularly modern western development of the ethical 

Does BW mean we shouldn’t prescribe principles of which action to choose, but rather take the path of maintaining our nobility of character, which is the Virtue Ethics of Ancient Greece?  (I’m not sure it makes any difference in the end.)  Does he mean, by what he calls the “peculiar institution” of morality, this focus on actions rather than on the virtue of the person? Does he also mean something to do with Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals in which Nietzsche saw ideas of right and wrong as being moulded by history and not being eternal at all?

(Those last two paragraphs sound rather liberating from the fixedness of eternal moral principles, but what did BW precisely mean?)

Here are some more words of disapproval that BW used on philosophical theories (see here from A.W.Moore):  They eclipse “the subtlety and variety of human ethical experience”.  They had “a tidiness, a systematicity, and an economy of ideas,” that didn’t take account of  human lives and motives.  BW  tried not to lose touch “with the real concerns that animate our ordinary ethical experience,” rather than the “arid, ahistorical, second-order” debates about ethics in Philosophy.  He argued that study of ethics should be vital, compelling and difficult, and he sought an approach that was accountable to psychology and history. 

BW also thought modern moral philosophy trivial, “neglecting emotions and personal attachments and how sheer luck shapes our choices.”(from here).   

(Again, those last two paragraphs sound very liberating, but what does he mean?)

BW on Utilitarianism 

BW was dissatisfied with it, and thought up fictional situations to illustrate it.  There was firstly a scene where a row of native Americans was lined up awaiting the decision of the army captain who had taken them prisoner in their rebellion .  The captain offers Jim, a British botanist, a choice of shooting the leader, in which case the captain will let the rest go; or not shooting the leader in which case the captain will have all of them shot.

‘Simple act utilitarianism would favour Jim killing one of the men.’ (here).  But BW’s response was that Jim would be morally responsible for shooting the leader, and it would then be the responsibility of the captain whether or not to shoot the rest.  Jim can’t take that responsibility away from him.  The captain is a morally responsible agent, and not just a link in a chain.  So, according to BW, Jim shouldn’t shoot the leader.

That sounds to me rather a pat and priggish way of lifting the moral responsibility off Jim.  Jim should at least have tried to figure out whether the captain would keep his promise not to shoot the rest.

BW on Kant’s moral principles:

I shan’t bother you with my semi-understandings of BW on Kant (which I got from here and here.)

BW invented the concept ‘moral luck’. 

One of his examples of this concept was Paul Gauguin’s desertion of his family in his move to Tahiti.  It was immoral at first sight but could be justified, by BW, in that in Tahiti he later painted very good pictures (from here). (I think that Gauguin was still intending to paint good pictures even if he had failed to do so; and it sounds a utilitarian ethic on BW’s part.).

Is BW saying too that good can luckily sometimes result from wicked acts?  You don’t say! 


And lastly, BW on Pornography:

BW, while sitting on a Royal Commission, said (from here): “that pornography could not be shown to be harmful and that ‘the role of pornography in influencing society is not very important …’ ” .  Mmm, all very pat!  I don’t expect BW had much personal experience in this field; and  I expect he was waiting for some scientifically methodological evidence of harm.


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