Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy
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In this book Bernard Williams delivers a sustained indictment of moral theory from Kant onward. His goal is nothing less than to reorient ethics toward the individual. He deals with the most thorny questions in contemporary philosophy and offers new ideas about issues such as relativism, objectivity, and the possibility of ethical knowledge.
connects them with Soccrates’ original questioning, as contrasted with other and less fruitful lines in the history of moral philosophy. Each of them yields an argument in practical reason. Neither aims in the first instance to prove the truth of some ethical proposition, which we are then asked to accept in virtue of our interest in believing the truth. Each of them rather commends certain action to us because of our interest in acting rationally or leading a satisfying human life. For both
there is no law, then silence is not meaningful, permissive, silence: it is simply silence. In another sense, of course, people “may” interfere with my freedom, but that means only that there is no law to stop, permit, or enjoin. Whether they “may” means they “can” depends on me and what I can do. As the egoist Max Stirner put it: “The tiger that assails me is in the right, and I who strike him down am also in the right. I defend against him not my right, but myself.”12 I can also ask why, if I
offered a utilitarian account of many dispositions that are usually thought to have intrinsic or nonutilitarian value. The values of justice, truthtelling, spontaneous affection, loyalty to THEORY AND PREJUDICE your friends, a special concern for your own children, and so forth, might seem to involve an outlook that the thoroughgoing utilitarian would not endorse. But, Sidgwick insisted, you must consider the utilitarian value of those values, in the sense of the value of the state of affairs
that there are many different cultures in which they can live, differing in their local concepts. In any case, an explanatory theory is not enough to deal with the problems of objectivity raised by the local ethical concepts. In the case of secondary qualities, the explanation also justifies, because it can show how the perceptions are related to physical reality and how they can give knowledge of that reality, which is what they purport to do. The question with them is: Is this a method of
out to be objective and, if so, how. They are problems about the nature of ethical thought, the way in which it can understand its own nature and the extent to which it can consistently appear to be what it really is. Those are serious problems on any showing, and would be so even if ethical thought turned out to be objective in the only way that is intelligible. We shall see them more distinctly when we have looked at them from a different angle, that of relativism. 9 RELATIVISM AND REFLECTION