Morality should not require us to act “in abstract of character”, as though we are not who we are in the circumstances in which we presently find ourselves.”

Bernard Williams.
Moral Luck, pp. 1-19, 1981.

The Triumph of the Virtues (also known as Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue). Mantegna, 1502. Cover art for Bernard Williams’s book on Morality.

Bernard Williams in his essay Morality- An Introduction to Ethics (published 1972) deals with what he believes are challenges to moral philosophy. He begins by constructing a persona that he believes would pose the ultimate challenge to the existence of morality- the amoralist. The amoralist is a person who, despite acquiescing to the public’s claims of moral considerations, is not bound by any such constraints himself. The foundational principles of morality, which guide the actions of others, do not have the same sway on the amoralist’s decisions. For example, an amoralist may choose not to lie, but he would not do so from a moral principle that defines lying as bad; rather, the amoralist would choose not to lie from self-interest or any other non-moral consideration. Williams thus compares the amoralist to a stereotypical gangster, who is not guided by morals when making decisions. Williams begins his characterisation of the amoralist by juxtaposing the presumption that the amoralist is indifferent to moral considerations with the presumption that the amoralist does have motivations, such as caring about some things, and has some preferences, aims, and passions for some desired ends. The amoralist must steer clear of moral considerations, by avoiding “caring about other people’s interests, having an inclination to tell the truth or keeping promises when it does not suit him, rejecting courses of action on the ground that they are unfair, dishonourable or selfish.”

  The amoralist must not harbour resentment or disproval for others. Not liking being treated as he treats others is acceptable as those reactions do not necessitate moral considerations, but resentment and disapproval are attitudes that generally result from moral considerations, and the more consistent the attitudes are the more likely it is that they stem from some moral precept. Williams goes on to explain that the amoralist must avoid considering himself, or anyone else, as courageous, splendid, or excellent. Despite not believing in any virtues or vices themselves, the amoralist can understand what society considers to be so and can recognise them in others or themselves. If the amoralist is to maintain consistency, instead of an exploration of actions caused by emotions in the hopes that such an exploration might lead to the amoralist providing reasons or justifications that open to door for moral considerations, Williams approach is having the amoralist dismiss the entire cause and effect chain reaction as having absolutely nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with biology and the social conditioning. Further, according to Williams, the amoralist needs to not be disposed toward thoughts that some actions are alright, as this implies some actions are not alright, and would lead to discourse on what makes an act so, requiring a moral value judgment. Williams allows the acts deemed alright to mean acts that the amoralist will not moralise about and thus allows the amoralist to escape this dilemma. This works on the assumption that the amoralist in question would not be moralising about anything at all.

  Williams further describes the Amoralist as a parasite – dependent on the moral institutions surrounding him. He can only behave the way he does because other people don’t. This parasite would be nonexistent and ineffective unless others were bound by a specific framework. This thus raises the question that still remains unanswered by Williams – Is the Amoralist even human? For in order to be human, one has to be able to form emotional and sympathetic bonds. The amoralist, despite having a conscience, chooses a lifestyle devoid of any human connections.

L’invention de la vie. Magritte, 1928.

  When dealing with the subjectivist, William takes a rational approach and deconstructs the strongest possible argument the subjectivist may pose. He responds to the first claim of subjectivism, which is that moral statements are merely reflections of ones attitude, saying a statement like that is too dismissive. Williams feels that moral statements are much more than simply attitudes, since societies attach value to their moral beliefs and build laws around them. He then imagines a subjectivist’s possible response to this, which is that building laws and structure around moral beliefs simply shows that the individuals take their attitudes very seriously and nothing else. He denies this in turn, with his stand that it is possible for an individual to re-think their views and change their moral opinions by engaging in a rational argument, and this is not merely a decision to change their attitude but is a logical, reasoned thought. Since changing one’s moral views is not an arbitrary decision but rather a conclusion one feels pulled towards, Williams insists that one must take ethical statements more seriously than subjectivists do. In a similar way, Williams takes apart the other two basic subjectivist claims. He refutes that moral judgements cannot be empirically proved, and that values are distinct from facts, since there must be an assumed moral attitude in the background for any moral discussion or argument to take place. He proposes a rational argument, structured in a logical way, to take apart an argument that poses a problem to his perception of morality.

  Williams moves on to relativism at this point and dismisses the view as “absurd.” Relativists feel that the meaning of ‘right’ is relative to different societies and that societies should therefore not interfere in the affairs of each other, since what is not right for one society may be so for the other. He shows this view to be flawed since this means that even though morals are considered to be relative, there is only one non-relative clause, that is, that of non-intervention. This becomes problematic as a relativist would always require one non-relative clause and it would be difficult for societies to reach a conclusion as to which moral should be non-relative. This leads us back to the argument on what morality is and thus is tautological. Relativism is also impractical as it preaches non-interference, which may not always be the solution. For instance, in Nazi Germany, killing Jews may have not been considered morally wrong, but other countries considered it their moral responsibility to put an end to this. On the other hand, there are countries like the US that intervene in other societies despite there being no need for this intervention and the societies not welcoming their interference. It becomes complicated to consider when it is acceptable to intervene and when it isn’t; therefore, relativism cannot be considered a viable moral position. However, Williams does not consider that there may be some societies that agree on the clause of non-intervention and can co-exist. While this may not be true for or apply to all societies, Williams does not consider the possibility of a situation such as this, in which relativism does not become problematic.

  Having dismissed relativism, Williams poses further thoughts on the flaws in subjectivism and claims that subjectivism would ultimately lead to a sort of moral indifference because they would find themselves unjustified in protesting against an action they consider wrong, since (as moral statements are merely expressions of personal attitude for them) they do not find themselves to be in the position to decide what is right. When a subjectivist says the person they are arguing with may be right, however, Williams clarifies that this doesn’t mean the subjectivist is doubting himself: they simply accept that they are not certain of what right is. However, Williams believes that this can only be for one of two reasons- if nothing is justified or if protesting in particular is not justified. Taking on the first possibility, William reminds that a subjectivist can only claim that a moral statement is not verifiable. It therefore also holds that one cannot verify if not protesting is justified. Thus, it does not follow from the subjectivist’s previous claims that an act of protest is not right. Williams also considers the second possibility, according to which the subjectivist believes there is a concept of righteousness- they just do not know what it is since everyone’s perception of right is different. In this case, it is equally likely that their protesting is right (or wrong). The argument thus becomes circular since they cannot take a distinct stand on what ‘right’ is. What Williams may also consider is that by extending the same argument, a subjectivist may say everything is justified (since they cannot know what is ‘right’), instead of claiming nothing is justified, and thus have protesting be valid.

La reproduction interdite. Magritte, 1937.

  Despite refuting the claims and exposing the errors of subjectivism, Williams does not feel that the view of morality can be simply diffused. He thus responds to those that attempt to do so, that is, to diffuse and make it innocuous, who profess that subjectivism leaves everything unchanged. Williams counters this assertion with profundity, maintaining that such a diffusion of subjectivism rejects the validity of moral arguments. Since individuals can engage in a moral discourse that does not come out of a vacuum but from beliefs founded on rational thought, one cannot reject subjectivism as not having affected anything. He establishes that even though morality does not mirror the empirical world where facts are logically verifiable, it still corresponds to something in reality, because of which it is able to exist. Without a real parallel on which to found moral structures, it would be as though individuals freely choose which morals to practise, and this is not the case, as established earlier. However, he does not address what the ‘something’ that the ethical world mirrors is and leaves this question unanswered. This seems to take away from his argument that subjectivism is built on a base of some kind, since he provides no clues as to what this base or foundation may be. His response to the diffusers of subjectivism therefore seems incomplete. He also leaves unaddressed question that are raised due to his essay on religion and how it relates to morality. Although morality and religion are separate concepts, they tend to be clubbed together by societies and often morals are taught via religious means (for instance, through threat and fear of god). He does not address how the two are linked to each other, as well as to social conditioning, which also plays a large role in determining ethics and morals. He does not draw a distinction between morals borne out of religion (such as a respect for books and paper in Hindus, or vegetarianism in Jains), social conditioning (such as use of courteous language), or that which individuals are inspired from within to perform. The need for this distinction also brings up the question of whether morals are different from social norms, since the two seem to have almost blended into one indistinguishable concept today.

  Some critics of Williams, such as D.H. Monro, feel that his essay gives descriptions of moral theories, none of which Williams likes very much, and then leaves the reader in the air. This could however be attributed to the length of the essay due to which Williams was possibly unable to elaborate or give conclusions. Many writers have also pointed out inconsistencies in his writing, due to his trying to offer as many different perspectives to a moral theory as possible. In all, Williams desecrates with logic the theories he is not in agreement with and feels pose a problem to morality. He probes the reader to question the very foundation of morals and ethics, not offering a general solution to the problem (as he did not believe one exists) and instead stimulating thought.

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