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When you receive the information, if you think any of it is wrong or out of date, you can ask us to change or delete it for you. What are we? Where are we going? Daniel Callcut. He is the editor of Reading Bernard Williams He lives in Stamford, United Kingdom. Brought to you by Curio , an Aeon partner. Edited by Nigel Warburton. What is more familiar and compelling than the injunction to be true to oneself, to keep it real?

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Williams explored the force and appeal of this ideal, and his work still helps us makes sense of it. But, as he was also keenly aware, being true to yourself can be dangerous. Gauguin left behind — basically abandoned — his wife and children. It provides a justification that not everyone will accept, but one that can make sense to Gauguin himself, and perhaps to others. Williams imagines Gauguin to be conflicted.

Williams introduces Gauguin as a useful prop in a thought experiment designed to explore the role that authenticity, achievement and luck play in justification. Williams also just assumes, for the purposes of argument, that Gauguin did in fact succeed, which is to say that Gauguin did create valuable art, and that this art was a great expression of his gifts as a painter. The story of moral harm in pursuit of art, with the overall endeavour somehow justified by the art, is a familiar one both in fact and fiction.

The fiction tends to be written by men, and their protagonists tend to be men. Life imitates art and vice versa, and in reality those who justify their selfishness and worse in the name of art tend to be men too. This is something I will return to in what follows. He staked everything on following his inner voice, and obstacles did not get in the way: he did.

Why did Gauguin risk everything?

This is what a ground project does, according to Williams: it gives a reason, not just given that you are alive, but a reason to be alive in the first place. And this framing assumption can be questioned. We see here the enormously influential cultural ideal mentioned at the outset: the purpose of life is to be authentic, where that means finding out who you are and living accordingly.

Seen in this light, his decision to leave for Tahiti is an attempt to live the most authentic life possible, the life truest to himself.

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Some actions can be justified only retrospectively if at all by what happens and, in particular, if things turn out as desired. But is his imagined Gauguin a good example of the phenomenon of moral luck? Second, Gauguin is moved by this good, and so Gauguin is not concerned with doing something entirely selfish, even if he is being self-centred.

Williams thinks that this gives the successful Gauguin a justification for his actions, and in that sense he is morally lucky. Perhaps the Gauguin example, he suggests, shows the limits of morality. But Williams is right that certain kinds of success often transform moral perception. This is true in politics and sport and many other areas of life as well as art: achievement is foregrounded and moral failings, even grave moral wrongs, are pushed to the margins.

And when character leads to great achievement, then moral wrongs are often forgiven or overlooked. That is why the Gauguin example genuinely captures the phenomenon of moral luck. There is, though, without doubt, something very male about the phenomenon: think of the examples that come to mind, and how many concern men.

You might be tempted to ask: is it moral luck or male luck, or in this case do they come down to the same thing? The Australian-American moral philosopher Kate Manne has rightly asked this question. In any deliberative contest between a moral obligation and some other consideration, the moral obligation will always win out, according to the morality system.

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The only thing that can trump an obligation is another obligation ; this is a fifth thesis of the morality system, and it creates pressure towards a sixth , that as many as possible of the considerations that we find practically important should be represented as moral obligations, and that considerations that cannot take the form of obligations cannot really be important after all Ninth , and finally, the morality system is impersonal. We shall set this last feature of the system aside until section 4, and focus, for now, on the other eight.

For each of the theses, Williams has something at least one thing of deep interest to say about why we should reject it. In real life, Williams argues, there surely are cases where we find ourselves under ethical demands which conflict. Suppose for example [ 15 ] that I, an officer of a wrecked ship, take the hard decision to actively prevent further castaways from climbing onto my already dangerously overcrowded lifeboat. Afterwards, I am tormented when I remember how I smashed the spare oar repeatedly over the heads and hands of desperate, drowning people.

Yet what I did certainly brought it about that as many people as possible were saved from the shipwreck, so that a utilitarian would say that I brought about the best consequences, and anyone might agree that I found the only practicable way of avoiding a dramatically worse outcome. So what will typical advocates of the morality system have to say to me afterwards about my dreadful sense of regret? My anguish is not irrational but entirely justified. Moreover, it is justified simply as an ex post facto response to what I did : it does not for instance depend for its propriety upon the suggestion—a characteristic one, for many modern moral theorists—that there is prospective value for the future in my being the kind of person who will have such reactions.

The third thesis Williams mentions as a part of the morality system is the obligation out-obligation in principle, the view that every particular moral obligation needs the backing of a general moral obligation, of which it is to be explained as an instance. Williams argues that this thesis will typically engage the deliberating agent in commitments that he should not have. For one thing, the principle commits the agent to an implausibly demanding view of morality — :. But even if it does hold, it is not clear how the general duty explains the particular one; why are general obligations any more explanatory than particular ones?

Dancy , and Chappell The notion that moral obligation is inescapable is undermined by careful attention to this concept of importance, simply because reflection shows that the notion of moral obligation will have to be grounded in the notion of importance if it is to be grounded in anything that is not simply illusory.

But if it is grounded in that, then it cannot itself be the only thing that matters. Hence moral obligation cannot be inescapable, which refutes the fourth thesis of the morality system; other considerations can sometimes override or trump an obligation without themselves being obligations, which refutes the fifth ; and there can be no point in trying to represent every practically important consideration as a moral obligation, so that it is for instance a distortion for Ross The Right and The Good , 21 ff.

To understand this notion, begin with the familiar legal facts that attempted murder is a different and less grave offence than murder, and that dangerous driving typically does not attract the same legal penalty if no one is actually hurt. Inhabitants of the morality system will characteristically be puzzled by this distinction. One traditional answer—much favoured by the utilitarians—is that these sorts of thoughts only go to show that the point of blame and punishment is prospective deterrence-based , not retrospective desert-based.

There are reasons for thinking that blame and punishment cannot be made sense of in this instrumental fashion cp. UFA: , If this gambit fails, another answer—favoured by Kantians, but available to utilitarians too—is that the law would need to engage in an impossible degree of mind-reading to pick up all and only those cases of mens rea that deserve punishment irrespective of the outcomes.

Even if this is the right thing to say about the law, the answer cannot be transposed to the case of morality: morality contrasts with the law precisely because it is supposed to apply even to the inner workings of the mind. Thus, morality presumably ought to be just as severe on the attempted murderer and the reckless but lucky motorist as it is on their less fortunate doubles. Williams has a different answer to the puzzle why we blame people more when they are successful murderers, or not only reckless but lethal motorists, despite the fact that they have no voluntary control over their success as murderers or their lethality as motorists.

His answer is that—despite what the morality system tells us—our practice of blame is not in fact tied exclusively to voluntary control. We blame people not only for what they have voluntarily done, but also for what they have done as a matter of luck : we might also say, of their moral luck. The way we mostly think about these matters often does not distinguish these two elements of control and luck at all clearly—as is also witnessed by the important possibility of blaming people for what they are. Parallel points apply with praise. Nor is it only praise and blame that are in this way less tightly connected to conditions about voluntariness than the morality system makes them seem.

As the Greeks knew, such terrible happenings will leave their mark, their miasma , on the agent. Do we understand the terror of that discovery only because we residually share magical beliefs in blood-guilt, or archaic notions of responsibility? MSH Essays 1—3. In this way, he controverts the eighth thesis of the morality system, its insistence on the centrality of blame; which was the last thesis that we listed apart from impersonality, the discussion of which we have postponed till the next section.

Again, as a normative system, utilitarianism is inevitably a systematisation of our responses, a way of telling us how we should feel or react. Of course, Williams also opposes utilitarianism because of the particular kind of systematisation that it is—namely, a manifestation of the morality system. Pretty well everything said in sections 2 and 3 against morality in general can be more tightly focused to yield an objection to utilitarianism in particular, and sometimes this is all we will need to bear in mind to understand some specific objection to utilitarianism that Williams offers.

Thus, for instance, utilitarianism in its classic form is bound to face the objections that face any moral system that ultimately is committed to denying the possibility of real moral conflict or dilemma, and the rationality of agent-regret. Above all, utilitarianism is in trouble, according to Williams, because of the central theoretical place that it gives to the ninth thesis of the morality system—the thesis that we put on one side earlier, about impersonality. It is concerned only that good consequences be produced, but it does not offer a tightly-defined account of what it is for anything to be a consequence.

Or rather it does offer an account, but on this account the notion of a consequence is so loosely defined as to be all-inclusive 93—94 :. This explains why consequentialism has the strong doctrine of negative responsibility that leads it to what Williams regards as its fundamental absurdity. Williams himself is not particularly impressed by those venerable distinctions; [ 21 ] but he does think that there is a real and crucial distinction that is closely related to them, and that it is a central objection to utilitarianism that it ignores this distinction. As Williams famously puts it UFA: — :.

For our purposes the latter three senses in this dictionary entry should be ignored. To put it another way, all will be ideologically oppressed, but by the ideology itself rather than by another agent or group of agents who impose this ideology. What we previously thought of as individual agents will be subsumed as parts of a single super-agent—the utilitarian collective, if you like—which will pursue the ends of impartial morality without any special regard for the persons who compose it, and which is better understood as a single super-agent than as a group of separate agents who cooperate; rather like a swarm of bees or a nest of ants.

It is important not to misunderstand this argument. Not only does he not claim that utilitarianism tells both Jim and George to do the wrong things. He even suggests, albeit rather grudgingly, that utilitarianism tells Jim at least to do the right thing. An agent can be told by utilitarianism to do something terrible in order to avoid something even worse, as Jim and George are. As soon as we take up the viewpoint which aims at nothing but the overall maximisation of utility, and which sees agents as no more than nodes in the causal network that is to be manipulated to produce this consequence, we have lost sight of the very idea of agency.

And why should it matter if we lose sight of that? Why is it absurd? But even if such a conception were available—and Williams argues repeatedly that it is not available for ethics, even if it is for science Ch. That latter viewpoint does after all have the pre-eminent advantage of being mine, and the one that I already occupy anyway indeed cannot but occupy. Notice that Williams is also making the point here that there is no sense in the indirect-utilitarian supposition that my living my life from my own perspective is something that can be given a philosophical vindication from the impartial perspective, and can then reasonably be regarded by me or anyone else as justified.

While some utilitarians have claimed to be unfazed by this result—it does not imply the falsity of utilitarianism qua theory of right action—the fact that they continue to publish books and articles defending utilitarianism suggests that they do not really wish for the theory to play no direct role in our moral deliberations. On the issue of impartiality, it will no doubt be objected that Williams overstates his case. To this Williams will reply, we think, that a commonsense notion of impartiality is indeed available—to us, though not to moral theory.

The commonsense notion of impartiality is not, unlike the utilitarian notion, a lowest common theoretical denominator for notions of rightness, by reference to which all other notions of rightness are to be understood. Rather, commonsense impartiality is one ethical resource among others. The indeterminacy of the relations between commonsense impartiality and other ethical considerations means that commonsense impartiality resists the kind of systematisation that moral theory demands. Hence, there is indeed a notion of impartiality that makes sense, and there is indeed a notion of impartiality that is available to a moral theory such as utilitarianism; but the impartiality that is available to utilitarianism does not make sense, and the impartiality that makes sense is not available to utilitarianism.

We can also say something that sounds quite different, but which in the end is at least a closely related point. We can say that Williams takes the utilitarian world-view to be absurd, because it requires agents to act on external reasons. I turn to that way of putting the point in section 5. This is the internal interpretation of such sentences. This is the external interpretation of such sentences, on which, according to Williams, all such sentences are false.

Officially, then, Williams is not defining or fully analyzing the concept of a reason; rather, the necessary condition itself represents a threat. We say "officially" because there are indications that Williams unofficially held a stronger view; see the final paragraphs in this piece for elaboration. His positive defense of the thesis can be roughly stated as follows: since it must be possible for an agent to act for a reason, reasons must be capable of explaining actions.

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This argument, it should be noted, brings together a normative and a descriptive concept in a robustly naturalistic manner. The notion of a reason, he argues, is inextricably bound up with the notion of explanation. Absent a motive which can be furthered by some action, it seems impossible for an agent to actually perform the action except under conditions of false information. If an external reason is one that is supposed to obtain in the absence of the relevant motive even under conditions of full information, then external reasons can never explain actions, and hence cannot be reasons at all This thesis presents a challenge to certain natural and traditional ways of thinking about ethics.

When we tell someone that he should not rob bank-vaults or murder bank-clerks, we usually understand ourselves to be telling him that he has reason not to rob bank-vaults or murder bank-clerks. One easy way out of this is to distinguish between moral demands and moral reasons.

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If all reasons to act are internal reasons, then it certainly seems that the bank-robber has no reason not to rob banks. If as we naturally assume there is no opting out of obeying the rules of morality, then everyone will be subject to that moral demand, including the bank-robber. In that case, however, this moral demand will not be grounded on a reason that applies universally—to everyone, and hence even to the bank-robber.

At most it will be grounded in the reasons that some of us have, to want there to be no bank-robbing, and in the thought that it would be nice if people like the bank-robber were to give more general recognition to the presence of that sort of reason in others—were, indeed, to add it to their own repertoire of reasons. If we take this way out, then the moral demand not to rob banks will turn out to be grounded not on universally-applicable moral reasons, but on something more like Humean empathy. In this he stands outside the venerable tradition of rationalism in ethics, which insists that if moral demands cannot be founded on moral reasons, then there is something fundamentally suspect about morality itself.

It is this tradition that is threatened by the internal reasons thesis. Of course, we might wonder how significant the threat really is. As Williams stresses, the internal reasons thesis is not the view that, unless I actually have a given motive M , I cannot have an internal reason corresponding to M. We are not obliged to say, absurdly, that this person has a genuine internal reason to drink petrol, nor to say, in contradiction of the internal reasons thesis, that this person has a genuine external reason not to drink what is in front of him.


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Rather we should note the fact that, even though he is not actually motivated not to drink the petrol, he would be motivated not to drink it if he realised that it was petrol. He can get to the motivation not to drink it by a sound deliberative route from where he already is; hence, by b , he has an internal reason not to drink the petrol. If he has either of these motivations, or any of a galaxy of other similar ones, then there will very probably be a sound deliberative route from the motivations that the bank-robber actually has, to the conclusion that even he should be motivated not to rob banks; hence, that even he has internal reason not to rob banks.


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  • But then, of course, it seems likely that we can extend and generalise this pattern of argument, and thereby show that just about anyone has the reasons that a sensible morality says they have. For just about anyone will have internal reason to do all the things that morality says they should do, provided only that they have any of the kind of social and extroverted motivations that we located in the bank-robber, and used to ground his internal reason not to rob banks. Hence, we might conclude, the internal reasons thesis is no threat either to traditional ethical rationalism, nor indeed to traditional morality—not at least once this is shorn by critical reflection of various excrescences that really are unreasonable.

    However, it does not ward off the threat to ethical rationalism. We have suggested that the bank-robber will have internal reason not to rob banks, if he shares in certain normal human social motivations. On the present line of thought, this possibility remains open; and so the internal reasons thesis remains a threat to ethical rationalism. One way of responding to this continuing threat is to find an argument for saying that every agent has, at least fundamentally, the same motivations: hence moral reasons, being built upon these motivations, are indeed unconditionally and universally overriding, as the ethical rationalist hoped to show.

    One way of doing this is the Thomist-Aristotelian way, which grounds the universality of our motivations in our shared nature as human beings, and in certain claims which are taken to be essentially true about humans just as such. The point is rather that there are some motivations which are derivable from any S whatever. So for the Kantian and the neo-Aristotelian or Thomist, there are motivations which appear to ground internal reasons only, since the reasons that they ground are always genuinely related to whatever the agent actually cares about.

    On the other hand, these motivations also appear to ground reasons which have exactly the key features that the ethical rationalist wanted to find in external reasons.