Ideas from 'Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy' by Bernard Williams [1985], by Theme Structure

[found in 'Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy' by Williams,Bernard [Fontana 1985,0-00-686001-x]].

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13. Knowledge Criteria / E. Relativism / 6. Relativism Critique
It is very confused to deduce a nonrelativist morality of universal toleration from relativism
                        Full Idea: Some people believe a properly relativist view requires you to be equally well disposed to everybody's ethical beliefs, but this is seriously confused, as relativism has led to a nonrelativist morality of universal toleration.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 9)
                        A reaction: Good point. This need not stop a relativist from passionately defending tolerance - it is only that the lack of rational support for the passion must be recognised.
Our ability to react to an alien culture shows that ethical thought extends beyond cultural boundaries
                        Full Idea: The fact that people can and must react when confronted with another culture, and do so by applying existing notions, seems to show that ethical thought of a given culture can always stretch beyond its boundaries.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 9)
                        A reaction: Hardly conclusive, but it does seem to show that there is an element of universalising in values, no matter how local you may consider them to be.
22. Metaethics / A. Value / 1. Nature of Value / f. Fact and value
Some ethical ideas, such as 'treachery' and 'promise', seem to express a union of facts and values
                        Full Idea: Some 'thicker' ethical notions, such as 'treachery', 'promise', 'brutality' and 'courage', seem to express a union of facts and values.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 8)
                        A reaction: The onus does seem to be on the followers of Hume to disentangle what the rest of us have united. They may, of course, manage it.
22. Metaethics / B. The Good / 1. Goodness / g. Consequentialism
It is an error of consequentialism to think we just aim at certain states of affairs; we also want to act
                        Full Idea: We do not merely want the world to contain certain states of affairs (it is a deep error of consequentialism to believe that this is all we want). Among the things we basically want is to act in certain ways.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 4)
                        A reaction: A key objection. Does it matter whether Hiroshima is destroyed by earthquake or bombing?
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 1. Nature of Ethics / d. Ethical theory
Philosophers try to produce ethical theories because they falsely assume that ethics can be simple
                        Full Idea: If there is a truth about the subject matter of ethics, why should it be simple? ..I shall argue that philosophy should not try to produce ethical theories.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 1)
                        A reaction: Bizarrely defeatist - in parallel with Mysterians about the mind like McGinn. Is there any point in thinking at all? I suggest the aim of life as the best starting point.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / c. Ethical intuitionism
Intuitionism has been demolished by critics, and no longer looks interesting
                        Full Idea: Intuitionism in ethics has been demolished by a succession of critics, and the ruins of it that remain above ground are not impressive enough to invite much history of what happened to it.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 6)
                        A reaction: Why does intuitionism have such appeal to beginners in moral philosophy? There is a truth buried in it somewhere. See 'Sources of the Self' by Charles Taylor.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / e. Human nature
The category of person is a weak basis for ethics, because it is not fixed but comes in degrees
                        Full Idea: The category of person is a poor foundation for ethical thought, because it looks like a sortal or classificatory notion while in fact it signals characteristics that almost all come in degrees (responsibility, self-reflection etc).
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 6)
                        A reaction: On the contrary, it must be the basis of moral theory, and its shifting character is strong support for Aristotle's approach to moral growth and responsibility.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / f. ‹bermensch
Plato found that he could only enforce rational moral justification by creating an authoritarian society
                        Full Idea: For Plato, the problem of making the ethical into a force was the problem of making society embody rational justification, and that problem could only have an authoritarian solution.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 2)
                        A reaction: Plato's citizens were largely illiterate. We can be more carrot and less stick.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / i. Prescriptivism
The weakness of prescriptivism is shown by "I simply don't like staying at good hotels"
                        Full Idea: That "I simply don't like staying at good hotels" is intelligible brings out the basic weakness of prescriptive accounts of the evaluative.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 7)
                        A reaction: This might be an elision of two different prescriptions, mine and most people's. In what sense do I think the hotel good, as opposed to other people?
23. Ethics / B. Contract Ethics / 3. Promise Keeping
Promise keeping increases reliability, by making deliberation focus on something which would be overlooked
                        Full Idea: The institution of promise keeping operates to provide portable reliability, by offering a formula that will confer high deliberative priority on what might not otherwise receive it.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch.10)
                        A reaction: This is a bit pessimistic. We do not perceive promise keeping as a mere suggestion that we should bear something in mind when making a decision. 'May I rot in hell if I fail you'.
23. Ethics / B. Contract Ethics / 5. Free Rider
A weakness of contractual theories is the position of a person of superior ability and power
                        Full Idea: A particular weakness of the contractual theory is that it is unstable with respect to a superior agent, one more intelligent and resourceful and persuasive than the rest.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 3)
                        A reaction: The very weak are equally a problem. Democratic societies produce fewer inequalities. Hierarchical societies are miserable (I expect..).
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 2. Elements of Virtue Theory / c. Motivation for virtue
A crucial feature of moral thought is second-order desire - the desire to have certain desires
                        Full Idea: Recently there has been much emphasis on the importance of our capacity to have second-order desires - the desire to have certain desires - and its significance for ethical reflection and the practical consciousness.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 1)
                        A reaction: This is a crucial point if we are to defend a reasonably rational view of morality against (say) emotivism. I agree that it is crucial to morality.
23. Ethics / D. Deontological Ethics / 1. Deontology
'Deon' in Greek means what one must do; there was no word meaning 'duty'
                        Full Idea: There is no ancient Greek word for duty; the word 'deon' (the basis of 'deontology') means what one must do.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 1)
                        A reaction: Presumably it covered compulsions which were not duties, such as the need to eat or drink. Greeks thought morally, but lacked a good moral vocabulary?
23. Ethics / D. Deontological Ethics / 2. Duty
The concept of a 'duty to myself' is fraudulent
                        Full Idea: The concept of a 'duty to myself' is fraudulent.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch.10)
                        A reaction: The only person who can offer a rebuttal of this is Aristotle. With the magnet of the Platonic Form of the Good, I can perceive the natural excellences of which I am capable, and feel a duty to pursue them.
Obligation and duty look backwards (because of a promise or job), although the acts are in the future
                        Full Idea: Obligation and duty look backwards; the acts they require lie in the future, but the reasons for those acts lie in the fact that I have already promised, the job I have undertaken, the position I am already in.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 1)
                        A reaction: Maybe the central issue in morality is forwards versus backwards. It reflects two types of human temperament. Tomorrow is another day. Spilt milk.
Not all moral deliberations lead to obligations; some merely reveal what 'may' be done
                        Full Idea: Not every conclusion of moral deliberation expresses an obligation; for example, some moral conclusions merely announce that you 'may' do something.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch.10)
                        A reaction: An important point for any deontological ethics. It may be possible to translate what 'may' be done into some form of duty, but it will probably involve contortions.
"Ought implies can" is a famous formula in connection with moral obligation
                        Full Idea: "Ought implies can" is a famous formula in connection with moral obligation.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch.10)
                        A reaction: Williams says it is true in particular instances, but is not generally true of 'ought'. Maybe you 'ought' before you know whether you 'can'.
23. Ethics / D. Deontological Ethics / 3. Universalisability
Why should I think of myself as both the legislator and the citizen who follows the laws?
                        Full Idea: Why should I think of myself as a legislator and at the same time a citizen of a republic governed by some notional laws?
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 4)
                        A reaction: Kant's answer is supposed to be 'because you are rational, and hence must want consistency'. If we were all rational, Kant would be right.
If the self becomes completely impartial, it no longer has enough identity to worry about its interests
                        Full Idea: How can an 'I' that has taken on the perspective of impartiality be left with enough identity to live a life that respects its own interests?
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 4)
                        A reaction: Not a big problem. Thought constantly flips between objective and subjective, as Nagel has shown us. Compare Nagel in Idea 6446.
23. Ethics / E. Utilitarianism / 3. Motivation for Altruism
Utilitarian benevolence involves no particular attachments, and is immune to the inverse square law
                        Full Idea: Utilitarian benevolence involves no particular attachments, and it is immune to the inverse square law.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 5)
                        A reaction: Nicely put. The point is that the theory is inhuman, but Mill says it tells us what we should do, not what we actually tend to do.
23. Ethics / F. Existentialism / 7. Existential Action
Ethical conviction must be to some extent passive, and can't just depend on the will and decisions
                        Full Idea: The view that the only alternative to the intellect is the will, and the source of ethical conviction is decisions about principles and ways of life, cannot be right; ethical conviction, like any conviction, must to some extent come to you passively.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 9)
                        A reaction: Seems right. We cannot choose our factual beliefs (look at the sun and believe it is cloudy!). Could I 'decide' that it was right to betray my family just for fun?
Taking responsibility won't cure ethical uncertainty by; we are uncertain what to decide
                        Full Idea: If ethics is a matter of decision, and we must face the responsibility and burden of those decisions, this ignores the obvious point that if we are uncertain, then we are uncertain what to decide.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 9)
                        A reaction: Good point. The defence would be that the decision itself contains the seeds of certainty. Do something rather than nothing, and the sense of it will emerge. Modify as you go along.
24. Applied Ethics / B. Moral Rights / 3. Animal Rights
Speciesism isn't like racism, because the former implies a viewpoint which belongs to no one
                        Full Idea: Speciesism is falsely modelled on racism and sexism, which really are prejudices; ..our arguments have to be founded on the human point of view; they cannot be derived from a point of view that is no one's point of view at all.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 6)
                        A reaction: This must be wrong. How else are we going to judge cruelty to animals as wrong? The 'point of view of the Universe' (Sidgwick) is not an empty concept.
24. Applied Ethics / C. Death Issues / 3. Abortion
Most women see an early miscarriage and a late stillbirth as being very different in character
                        Full Idea: Few women see a spontaneous abortion or early miscarriage as the same thing as having a child who is stillborn or who dies very soon after birth.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 6)
                        A reaction: This implies a theory about the nature of what is lost. Everyone sees the difference between potential and actual.
25. Society / E. State Functions / 5. Education / b. Aims of education
It is a mark of our having ethical values that we aim to reproduce them in our children
                        Full Idea: It is a mark of our having ethical values that we aim to reproduce them in our children.
                        From: Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [1985], Ch. 9)
                        A reaction: Maybe beliefs imply education. A commitment to truth is an aspiration that others will agree, especially those over whom we have the greatest influence.