chapter
INTRODUCTION
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Bernard Williams’ writings arguably constitute the most important and most cited body of work in contemporary Anglophone moral philosophy: it would be hard to pick up a survey or anthology of contemporary ethical theory without seeing a very large number of references to his work. He has published groundbreaking work in many areas of philosophy: on moral luck (a term he coined), on internal and external reasons (terms also coined by Williams), on moral objectivity, on integrity and authenticity, on personal identity, on theory and anti-theory, on ethical reflection, on shame, on truth and truthfulness, on genealogy, and in other areas too. Some of the terms coined by Williams now constitute the names of research topics and certain phrases (such as “one thought too many”3) look well on their way to achieving a kind of philosophical immortality. Contemporary philosophy would look very different without Williams’ contributions. Contemporary moral philosophy has been so profoundly altered by Williams that if one subtracted his influence, it is hard to imagine the shape of what would be left. The extent of Williams’ impact can easily be underestimated since it is

spread across many of the distinct subfields that now constitute professional philosophy. Yet it is also the case that, in spite of his influence, Williams remained throughout his life something of a renegade within English-language philosophy: his ideas generated many a research program but there has not been a large amount of philosophy conducted in what one might call a Williamsian spirit. One of the things that distinguishes Williams’ work from that of many of his contemporaries is the way that he brings together aspects of moral philosophy that tend to get separated by

the distinction between metaethics and normative ethics. His work explores the implications for ethics of truths about the ethical (historical, cultural, political, psychological, biological, and so on). His work is thus able to reveal and wrestle with what would otherwise remain merely latent tensions between influential positions in metaethics and normative ethics. His doubts about moral theory and everyday moral thought led him “to try to find out – often by the crude method of prodding it – which parts of moral thought seemed … to be actually alive.”4 His work is, as a result, marked by a rich and ambivalent relationship with moral skepticism. Williams’ work, not surprisingly, thus offers a deep engagement with

themes and ideas that have become emblematic of modernism. He interrogates and recasts, as Elijah Millgram observes in Chapter 7 of this volume, ideas that have become philosophical clichés. Moreover, Williams was brilliant at spotting when the intellectual, cultural, and emotional implications of an idea had only been half-absorbed. He worked, for example, to clarify some of the intuitions underlying a conception of value that was not only central to much twentieth-century philosophy but one which also arguably has become a central tenet of much contemporary life: namely, the view that there is no objective moral reality, and that ethical norms are projections on to an in itself valueless world. Williams emphasized the point that if evaluative thought is to be understood as a projection, then some sense needs to be made of what is “there anyway.”5

Projection, to adapt a phrase of his, requires a screen. Thus, Williams’ interest in making sense of an “absolute conception” of reality (i.e. a conception of what is there anyway) was, as Simon Blackburn makes clear in Chapter 1, fueled in part by his interest in making room for the significance of the claim that ethical norms are not there anyway. Blackburn argues that pragmatists who reject Williams’ metaphysics will nonetheless need to find ways to retain and rearticulate his basic insights and distinctions. Millgram, by contrast, presents a sustained argument for the view that Williams’ focus was, from a practical point of view, on the wrong distinctions, and that (ironically) Williams’ brilliant explorations of the fact/value and science/ ethics distinctions should ultimately help liberate philosophers from the kind of worldview within which such distinctions are important. Williams did not think that rejection of the idea of moral reality (in the

“there anyway” sense) meant an end to (at least not entirely) the notions of ethical knowledge or ethical truth. More specifically, he argued that we should think of ethical concepts as vehicles with which we construct ethical reality, a reality of which we can then (sometimes rightly) claim to have knowledge. But Williams doubted whether current forms of ethical selfunderstanding could easily accommodate this constructivist model of ethical knowledge. He was thus far more interested than many of his contemporaries in the revisionary implications of a ‘projectivist’ or ‘dispositionalist’ conception of value: how should we personally, socially,

and politically accommodate the fact that any ethical way of life (in Williams’ words) “is only one of many that are equally compatible with human nature”?6 Williams took the serious versions of ethical relativism seriously. How could he not, given his view that values and obligations are, as Charles Guignon puts it in Chapter 8, “projections of our culturally conditioned commitments”? Carol Rovane, in Chapter 3, explains both Williams’ “distinctive and influential contribution to the topic of relativism” and her own account of the truth in relativism. Williams, then, was interested in the question of “what needs to be, and

what can be, restructured in the light of a reflective and nonmythical understanding of our ethical practices.”7 He argued that what must be achieved by an adequate conception of ethics is a robust enough sense of the importance of ethical concerns. Williams explored ways to understand the kind of importance typically accorded to ethical concerns even if the various traditional justifications for morality failed. He stressed the importance of getting over the recoil idea, associated most prominently with existentialism, that if ethical norms have no importance from a cosmic or God’s eye point of view, then they lose their importance. This response, Williams argues powerfully in “The Human Prejudice,” is itself part of a worldview “not yet thoroughly disenchanted.”8 He was constantly engaged with the question of what it means to come deeply to inhabit (or reinhabit, after disenchantment) a meaningful and ethical life lived within not just a human but an historically and culturally situated point of view. Nonetheless, one can certainly see moments of what John Cottingham in Chapter 2 calls a “lingering dismay” at the human cosmological condition. Cottingham explores to what extent Williams’ difficulties are generated by the fact that, for Williams, human dispositions are the sole and ultimate support of human value and meaning. Thick concepts, as Peter Goldie explains in Chapter 5, play a central role

for Williams in providing the texture of ethical, cultural, and emotional life. Williams thinks of thick ethical concepts as the prime vehicles of ethical knowledge: they embody agreement on an historically contingent but shared form of ethical life. The conditions of modernity, however, mean that ways of life that would have once been simply inherited are increasingly transferred into the realm of conscious choice. Williams defended (in characteristically nuanced fashion) the idea that this can be a liberation. But it can also mean that personal and cultural confidence, in the form expressed by practical know-how within a way of life, is challenged or undermined by the sheer variety of different modes of life on offer. Thus the question of which thick concepts to “live” (in the sense explained by Goldie) can be plagued with cultural and personal uncertainty and worries about arbitrariness (in the sense explained by Cottingham). Williams’ later work increasingly dwelt on the philosophical and ethical significance of the cultural history that has brought such questions of contingency and identity to the fore.