Bernard Williams – Personal Identity and the Self

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An analytical philosopher with the soul of a humanist, Bernard Williams debunked the codifying of ethics into convenient moral theories.

Bernard Williams (1929-2003) considered much philosophy from the past to be mere flights from reality. Philosophical ideas, he believed, ignored what life was actually like and the problems that beset humanity. In 100 Great Thinkers, he is quoted as saying: “Writing about moral philosophy should be a hazardous business.” He continues by asserting that most philosophers of the past did not address the issues, and in the end, they “refused to write about anything of importance at all.”

What Williams Thought About Philosophers

  • Aristotle: He was boring.
  • The Utilitarians: Williams disliked them primarily because they believed morality meant pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number.
  • Immanuel Kant: Williams abhorred Kant’s reliance on the “categorical imperative” in defining moral behaviour. The categorical imperative required that rationality should be the basis for moral behaviour.

In Williams’ view, pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number, as endorsed by the Utilitarians, was neither worthwhile nor practical, ignoring as it does several important issues:

  • The integrity of the individual.
  • The central projects that inform their life.
  • Special obligations.
  • Loyalty to family and friends.

His argument with Kant rested on the following beliefs:

  • To be moral, people did not need to act selflessly.
  • People need not take an impartial view of the world.
  • People’s own values, commitments and desires influence how they see the world and act within it.
  • If we lose our individuality, we lose our humanity.

Williams’ Central Belief and Lifetime Achievements

We need to find our deepest impulse and follow it and allow ourselves to be driven by our inner necessity. Philosophy, says Williams, should ask us how we should live, not dictate to us our duty.

Bernard Williams was born in Britain at Westcliffe-on-Sea, and was educated at Oxford. He did his National Service in the RAF during the fifties. From 1967-1979 he was Provost of King’s College Cambridge. He taught in the United States at Berkeley, then became a Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford from 1990 to1996.

Occasionally he appeared on radio and television and was for some time a Director of the English National Opera and Chairman of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship.

Bernard Williams’ Main Publications:

  • Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (1972)
  • Problems of the Self (1973)
  • A Critique of Utilitarianism (1973)
  • Moral Luck (1981)
  • Utilitarianism and Beyond, edited with A.K. Sen (1982)
  • Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985)
  • Shame and Necessity (1993)
  • Making Sense of Humanity (1995)

Sources:

  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. Williams, Bernard, Descartes The Project of Pure Enquiry, Penguin Books, 1978.
  3. Harwood, Jeremy, Philosophy: 100 Great Thinkers, Quercus Publishing PLC, 2010.