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Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985)
de Bernard Williams
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Bernard William gets at the core of the issue, while still covering the basics of both utilitarian and relativist thoughts. His thesis is skepticism that there can be a universal basis for ethics, but that the arguments most commonly involved do form the basis for each individual to adopt a consistent approach. He also separates ethics from morals, for which the latter usually assumes some basis of tradition or collectivism and carries some degree of obligation. I especially enjoyed his introduction to the classical perspective -- the search for "how should one live?"
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Wikipedia en anglès (1)
What is ethical thought about? What can philosophy do for it? Bernard Williams takes up these questions in a radically new way, claiming that the modern world makes unprecedented demands on ethical thought, demands which philosophy, with its present resources, cannot meet. He explains the theories that moral philosophy typically presents, asks what the point of such theories is, and suggests that they suffer from a 'rationalistic conception of rationality', which is merely a reflection of the modern world, rather than something that can help us to live in it. Bernard Williams strikingly relocates many central issues of ethics, such as relativism, objectivity, and the possibility of ethical knowledge. He claims that to face modernity, we in fact need some older ideas, which owe more to ancient Greece; and that we should reject as no longer helpful that particular form of ethical thought which is centred on the idea of obligation and is known as 'morality'. The argument is rigorous, but it does not demand a philosophical training to follow it. Writing clearly and forcefully, Williams gives here a wide-ranging account of what ethical philosophy is, challenges current conceptions of its powers, and suggests what it needs to become.
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Classificació Decimal de Dewey (DDC)170.42 — Philosophy and Psychology Ethics Ethics -- Subdivisions Essays; Special Topics Metaethics
LCC (Clas. Bibl. Congrés EUA)
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Philosophy, however, and most particularly that branch of it one might suppose applicable to these commendable ends, namely ethical inquiry as such, has been almost spectacularly disappointing to these ancient expectations. It has been able to apply itself to life only at the price of distorting our conception of life by reducing it to one dimension of itself. Kant, for example, on the plausible assumption that only rational beings are capable of moral conduct, proceeded to develop an ethics suited to beings who were merely rational, as if the good life consisted in reasoning alone. But Kant's was but an extreme case of a remote abstractness all across the discipline for which Socrates held such vivid and immediate hopes. And the question cannot be avoided whether these hopes were inappropriate, the business of philosophy lying elsewhere, or if philosophy is deeply flawed by its failure to satisfy them.
Bernard Williams' book, a strenuously critical discussion of ethical theory from the Socratic perspective, seems divided between these two views. On the one hand, he means to raise the question of "How far any philosophy could help us re-create ethical life." So perhaps it is not to philosophy's final discredit that it should have proved so helpful: "How could it be that a subject--something studied in universities--could deliver what one might recognize as an answer to the basic questions of life?" On the other hand, he does not think that in moral philosophy today, things "are as they should be," and part of his complaint is that it does seem internally disconnected from any concern with living of lives in any robust human fullness.
The body of his book is a sequence of astute critiques of dominating strains in recent and contemporary ethical theory, with the recurring motif that none of them takes the Socratic question of how life ought to be lived quite seriously enough. "Its prevailing fault, in all styles, is to impose on ethical life some immensely simple model." Socrates' question, by contrast, "Still does press a demand for reflection on one's life as a whole , from every aspect and all the way down." Williams returns, over and over, and with an almost prophetic insistence, to the thought that "The only serious enterprise is living." But while it is clear that we can think about our ethical problems, "philosophy can do little to determine how we should do so." Such skepticism not withstanding, it is evident that his ambition is redirective: to find some extension of ancient ethical theory which might, better than contemporary moral philosophy can, meet the realities of modern life.
Inevitably, the ratio of destructive criticism to positive ethical recommendation is high. This is not simply because it is easier to carp than create. It is, rather, that the level of critical ingenuity is so sustained that Williams could not in consistency be less exacting with anything he might wish to propose. The positive recommendations are accordingly merely sketched in just over five pages as a postscript. There he expresses a hopeful belief in three things: in truth, in truthfulness and in the meaning of the individual life. Necessarily schematic and compressed, these poles of an as yet unwritten system of ethics draw a certain substance from the extended critical discussions to which the book is mainly given over. The belief in truth, for example, connects with his repudiations of extreme conventionalisms and relativisms in regard to science. The belief in truthfulness rests on a qualified confidence in our capacity for reflection and a kind of nuanced objectivity in the acceptance of moral criticism. The belief in the meaning of the individual life stands in dramatic contrast to the radical reductionisms moral philosophy finds it cannot resist, and which utopian political systems often impose so brutally. Interspersed among these deep critiques are shrewd examinations of most points of philosophical contest in the theater of current ethical analysis. ( )