chapter  10
BERNARD WILLIAMS: Tragedies, hope, justice
Pages 29

Bernard Williams made a large demand on behalf of philosophy: that it come to terms with, and contain, the difficulty and complexity of human life. He believed that much philosophy of the past had represented a flight from reality, a rationalistic defense against complexity, emotion, and tragedy. Utilitarianism and Kantianism, particularly, had simplified the moral life in ways that he found egregious, failing to understand, or even actively denying, the heterogeneity of values, the sometimes tragic collisions between one thing we care for and another. These theories also underestimated the importance of personal attachments and projects in the ethical life, and, in a related way, neglected the valuable role emotions play in good choice. Finally, they failed to come to grips with the many ways in which sheer luck affects not only happiness, but also the ethical life itself, shaping our possibilities for choice and the ethical import of our choices. A lover of both literature and opera, he asked philosophy to come up to the higher standards of human insight these other forms of expression exemplified. What was the point in it, if it didn’t? Clear obtuseness does not contribute anything to human life. “Writing about moral philosophy should be a hazardous business,” he wrote in the opening sentence of Morality – both because one reveals “the limitations and inadequacies of one’s own perceptions” more clearly than in other parts of philosophy and because one runs the risk of “misleading people about matters of importance.”2 Most writers on the subject, he continued, avoid the second danger by “refusing to write about anything of importance.”3 Williams never refused. At the heart of Williams’ attempt to turn philosophy back to questions

of fundamental importance was a lifelong engagement with ancient Greek literature. From his early essay “Ethical Consistency”4 to the discussion of Thucydides in Truth and Truthfulness,5 the Greek poets and historians

commanded his respect; he thought, along with Nietzsche, that they were more truthful about our condition than most philosophers. In “Ethical Consistency,” he argued powerfully that modern moral philosophy had incorrectly characterized conflicts of obligations by holding that in all such cases there is at most one genuine obligation; no claim that conflicts with a genuine obligation exerts any legitimate residual ethical pull. Using the example of Agamemnon’s dilemma at Aulis, Williams argued that Aeschylus knew better. When Agamemnon says, “Which of these is without evils?” he correctly records the fact that the world is more powerful than such ethical theories allow: bad luck may cause two genuine obligations to collide. Even if one makes the best choice available in such a situation, some genuine obligation will be violated, and it will be correct for the agent to feel and express remorse, and to make reparations. This insight, of profound importance for the political as well as the moral life, was announced in a characteristically low-key way, without fanfare. It leaves simplistic approaches to public choice in tatters. Its implications have not yet been fully taken on board, for example, by the practitioners and theoreticians of cost-benefit analysis, who proceed, still, as if there is only one question before us, namely, what is the best choice, with the best balance of benefit over cost.6 Williams showed that there are really two questions – the obvious question, and a further question, namely, whether any of the alternatives before one is free of serious wrongdoing. The latter question has major consequences not only for subsequent reparative conduct, but also for future attempts to create a world in which such conflicts will assail agents less frequently. Over the years, Williams’ engagement with Greek tragedy continued – in

an elegant historical piece for Moses Finley’s The Legacy of Greece;7 in the nature of the questions he confronted in Moral Luck, a book in which Greek tragedy, if not often mentioned, is a constant presence;8 and in his direct confrontation with the Greeks in Shame and Necessity, which makes an admirably lucid argument against various condescending progressivist interpretations of Greek culture, putting to rest, once for all, the tired allegation that the early Greeks had no concept of deliberation and choice and a primitive notion of agency.9 The book also returns to the concerns of “Ethical Consistency” and generalizes them, arguing that the Greek poets show us a view of the world that we would do well to ponder: a world in which the things that matter most are not under the control of reason, or indeed under human control at all, and we are exposed to luck on a grand scale. As time went on, Williams pushed his interest in the Greeks in a

Nietzschean anti-Enlightenment direction – though whether it was a change in his view or a revelation of elements that had always been there is difficult to say. Certainly the Nietzschean turn involved a displacement, at least temporary, of the constructive political side of his work that had been in

evidence earlier. This anti-Enlightenment direction perhaps shows up most clearly in an essay he wrote later than Shame and Necessity: “The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, Ethics.”10 This essay is so important for Williams’ thought that I shall focus on it alone in this chapter. After giving an account of the essay’s argument, I shall suggest that Williams greatly underestimates the Greek tragedians’ interest in calamities of human origin and in the capacity of human beings for addressing constructively the bad things in their world. I shall suggest that one of the valuable contributions of Greek tragedy to ethical thought is in fact a subtle process of deliberation about luck and bad human behavior, as we are again and again led to ask ourselves, “What, in the terrible events we witness, is sheer luck and necessity, and could not have been otherwise? What, by contrast, is human folly, rapacity, and negligence, and could possibly have been otherwise?” In this way, I shall try to bring back into Williams’ picture of the Greeks a feature that seems indubitably central to the tragedies in their historical setting, namely their contribution to the process of democratic deliberation, and, perhaps, to the envisaging and constructing of a world that is at least a bit better than the one we currently know.