Bernard Williams

Bernard Arthur Owen Williams (September 21, 1929 – June 10, 2003) was a British philosopher, widely cited as the most important British moral philosopher of his time.[1] He was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge for over a decade, and Provost of King's College, Cambridge for almost as long, before becoming Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. [2] Williams became known internationally for his attempt to return the study of moral philosophy to its foundations: to history and culture, politics and psychology, and, in particular, to the Greeks. Described as an "analytic philosopher with the soul of a humanist," [3] he saw himself as a synthesist, drawing together ideas from fields that seemed increasingly unable to communicate with one another. He rejected scientific and evolutionary reductionism, once calling reductionists "the ones I really do dislike" because they are morally unimaginative, he said. [4] For Williams, complexity was beautiful, meaningful, and irreducible.

Williams rejected attempts to reduce ethics into codes of moral theories that views such as Kantianism and, especially, utilitarianism take to be essential to philosophical thinking about ethics. Williams argued, instead, that our ethical life is too untidy to be captured by any such ethical theory. Williams also made important contributions to debates on moral psychology, personal identity, equality, morality and the emotions, and he did important work on the interpretation of other philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.


He became known as a great supporter of women in academia, [5] seeing in women the possibility of that synthesis of reason and emotion that he felt eluded analytic philosophy. The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum said Williams was "as close to being a feminist as a powerful man of his generation could be." [5]

His Life

Williams was born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, England, the only son of a civil servant. He was educated at Chigwell School and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Greats (Classics), the Oxonian degree that begins with reading the ancient Greeks Homer and Vergil, passes through Thucydides and Tacitus, and ends with the latest in contemporary philosophy. These subjects, as well as his tutors, especially R.M. Hare, remained as influences throughout his life; the Greeks attracted him and Hare's approach repelled him.

Despite allegedly turning up 30 minutes late for his finals in order to spend that time learning all the material he needed for his exams, he still graduated, in 1951, with the rare distinction of a congratulatory first-class honors degree, the highest award at this level in the British university system. He then spent his year-long national service in the Royal Air Force (RAF), flying Spitfires in Canada.

He met his future wife, Shirley Brittain-Catlin, the daughter of political scientist and philosopher George Catlin and novelist Vera Brittain, while he was on leave in New York, where she was studying at Columbia University. At the age of 22, after winning a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, Williams returned to England with Shirley to take up the post—though not before she'd reportedly had an affair with four-minute-miler Roger Bannister[6]—and they were married in 1955. Shirley Williams, as she became known, was elected as a Labour Party Member of Parliament (MP), then crossed the floor as one of the "Gang of Four" to become a founding member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the UK, a centrist breakaway party. She was later made a noble, becoming Baroness Williams of Crosby, and remains a prominent member of the Liberal Democrats of the UK.

Williams left Oxford to accommodate his wife's rising political ambitions, finding a post first at University College London and then at the University of London's Bedford College, while his wife worked as a journalist for the Financial Times. For 17 years, the couple lived in a large house in Kensington with the literary agent Hilary Rubinstein and his wife.

During this time, described by Williams as one of the happiest of his life,[6] the marriage produced a daughter, Rebecca, but the development of his wife's political career kept the couple apart, and the marked difference in their personal values—Williams was a confirmed atheist, his wife a devout Roman Catholic—placed a strain on their relationship, which reached breaking point when Williams had an affair with Patricia Law Skinner, then wife of the historian Quentin Skinner. The Williams' marriage was dissolved in 1974, and Williams and Patricia were able to wed, a marriage that produced two sons.

Williams spent nearly 20 years at Cambridge, eight of them as Provost of King's College.

Williams became Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge in 1967, then vacated the chair to serve as Provost of King's College, Cambridge, from 1979 until 1987, when he moved to the University of California at Berkeley to take up the post of Deutsch Professor of Philosophy, which he held from 1987 to 2000. He told a British newspaper that he was taking that step because he could barely afford to buy a house in central London on his salary as an academic. His public outburst at the low salaries in British universities made his departure appear part of the "brain drain," as the British media called it, which was his intention. He told The Guardian in November 2002 that he regretted that his departure became so public:

I was persuaded that there was a real problem about academic conditions and that if my departure was publicised this would bring these matters to public attention. It did a bit, but it made me seem narky, and when I came back again in three years it looked rather absurd. I came back for personal reasons—it's harder to live out there with a family than I supposed.[6]

In 1990 he began working simultaneously at Berkeley and again at Oxford where he held the White's Chair of Moral Philosophy. He returned to Oxford to live in retirement in 2000 until his death in Rome while on holiday in 2003.

In addition to academic life, Williams chaired and served on a number of Royal Commissions and government committees. In the 1970s, he chaired the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship, which reported in 1979 that:

"Given the amount of explicit sexual material in circulation and the allegations often made about its effects, it is striking that one can find case after case of sex crimes and murder without any hint at all that pornography was present in the background."

The Committee's report was influenced by the liberal thinking of John Stuart Mill, a philosopher greatly admired by Williams, who used Mill's principle of liberty to develop what Williams called the "harm condition," whereby "no conduct should be suppressed by law unless it can be shown to harm someone."[6] Williams concluded that pornography could not be shown to be harmful and that "the role of pornography in influencing society is not very important … to think anything else is to get the problem of pornography out of proportion with the many other problems that face our society today." The committee reported that, so long as children were protected from seeing it, adults should be free to read and watch pornography as they saw fit. Margaret Thatcher's first administration put an end to the Liberalism|liberal agenda on sex, and nearly put an end to Williams' political career too; he was not asked to chair another public committee for almost 15 years.

Apart from pornography, he also sat on commissions examining recreational drug abuse in 1971; gambling in 1976–1978; the role of British private schools in 1965–1970; and social justice in 1993–1994. "I did all the major vices," he said.[7]

Williams was famously sharp in discussion. Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle once said of him that he "understands what you're going to say better than you understand it yourself, and sees all the possible objections to it, all the possible answers to all the possible objections, before you've got to the end of your sentence."[6]

Williams was knighted in 1999 and became a fellow of the British Academy and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He sat on the board of the English National Opera and wrote the entry for "Opera" in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Williams died on June 10, 2003, while on holiday in Rome. He had been suffering from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. He is survived by his wife, Patricia, their two sons, Jacob and Jonathan, and Rebecca, his daughter from his first marriage.

His Work

Williams' books and papers include studies of René Descartes and Ancient Greek philosophy, as well as more detailed attacks on utilitarianism and Kantianism.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844–1900. Williams said he wished he could quote Nietzsche on every page.

Williams was a systems destroyer, attacking all "isms" with equal vigor. He turned his back on the meta-ethics studied by most moral philosophers trained in the Western analytic tradition—"What is the Good?" and "What does the word 'ought' mean?"—and concentrated instead on practical ethics. Williams tried to address the question of how to live a good life, focusing on the complexity, the "moral luck," as he called it, of everyday life.

In Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (1972), he wrote that "whereas most moral philosophy at most times has been empty and boring … contemporary moral philosophy has found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing issues at all." The study of morality, he argued, should be vital and compelling. He wanted to find a moral philosophy that was accountable to psychology, history, politics, and culture. In his rejection of morality as what he called "a peculiar institution," by which he meant a discrete and separable domain of human thought, Williams resembled the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. After beginning by thinking of him as a crude reductionist, in his later career, Williams came to greatly admire Nietzsche—he once even remarked that he wished he could quote Nietzsche on every page he wrote.

Although Williams' disdain for reductionism sometimes made him appear a moral relativist, he believed, like the Ancient Greeks, that the so-called "thick" moral concepts, like courage and cruelty, were real and universal.

Williams' last finished book, Truth And Truthfulness: An Essay In Genealogy (2002), attempts to defend a non-foundationalist attachment to the values of truth, which Williams identifies as accuracy and sincerity, by giving a naturalistic genealogy that vindicates them. The debt to Nietzsche is again clear, most obviously in the adoption of a genealogical method as a tool of explanation and critique. Although, as The Guardian noted in its obituary of Williams, describing the book as an examination of those who "sneer at any purported truth as ludicrously naive because it is, inevitably, distorted by power, class bias and ideology,"[8] part of Williams' intention was to attack those who he felt denied the value of truth; the book's blurb cautions that to understand it simply in that sense would be to miss part of its purpose: it "presents a… challenge" to both "the fashionable belief that truth has no value" and "the traditional faith that truth's value guarantees itself"[9].

Critique of utilitarianism

Williams was particularly critical of utilitarianism, a consequentialist theory, the simplest version of which argues that moral acts are good only insofar as they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

One of Williams' famous arguments against utilitarianism centers on Jim, a scientist doing research in a South American country led by a brutal dictator. Jim finds himself in the central square of a small town facing 20 rebels, who are captured and tied up. The captain who has defeated them says that, if Jim will kill one of the rebels, the others will be released in honor of Jim's status as a guest. But if he does not, they will all be killed.[10] Simple act utilitarianism says that Jim should kill one of the captives in order to save the others, and indeed, for most consequentialist theories, there is no moral dilemma in a case like this: All that matters is the outcome.

Against this, Williams argued that there is a crucial moral distinction between a person being killed by me, and being killed by someone else because of what I do. The utilitarian loses that vital distinction, he argued, thereby stripping us of our agency and so our humanity, turning us into empty vessels by means of which consequences occur, rather than preserving our status as moral actors and decision-makers with integrity. Moral decisions must preserve our integrity and our psychological identity, he argued.

An advocate of utilitarianism would reply that the theory cannot be dismissed as easily as that. The Nobel Prize winning philosopher of economics Amartya Sen, for example, argued that moral agency, issues of integrity, and personal points of view can be worked into a consequentialist account; that is, they can be counted as consequences too.[11] For example, to solve parking problems in London, Williams wrote, a utilitarian would have to favor threatening to shoot anyone who parked in a prohibited space. If only a few people were shot for this, illegal parking would soon stop; the shootings would be justified, according to simple act utilitarianism, because of the happiness the absence of parking problems would bring to millions of Londoners. Any theory that has this as a consequence, Williams argued, should be rejected out of hand, no matter how intuitively plausible it feels to agree that we do judge actions solely in terms of their consequences. We do not, argued Williams, and we must not.

However Sen and others have argued rule utilitarianism would ask what rule could be extrapolated from the parking example. The rule "shoot those who commit parking violations" is unlikely to, in the long run and considering all its consequences, maximize good outcomes. For Williams, however, this type of argument simply proved his point. We do not, as a matter of fact, need to calculate whether threatening to shoot people over parking offences would maximize good outcomes. We already know that threatening to shoot people over parking offenses is wrong, and any system that requires us to make that calculation is a system we should reject because by forgetting we know that, it misunderstands and misrepresents moral reasoning.

Critique of Kantianism

Immanuel Kant, 1724–1804. Williams rejected Kant's moral philosophy, arguing that moral principles should not require me to act as though I am someone else.

One of the main rivals of utilitarianism is the moral philosophy of the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Williams' work throughout the 1970s and 1980s[12] outlined the basis of his attacks on the twin pillars of utilitarianism and Kantianism. Martha Nussbaum wrote that his work "denounced the trivial and evasive way in which moral philosophy was being practised in England under the aegis of those two dominant theories."[5]

Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals expounded a moral system based on what he called the Categorical Imperative, the best known version of which is: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become, by an act of will, a universal law of nature."

This is a binding law, Kant argued, on any rational being with free will. You must imagine, when you act, that the rule underpinning your action will apply to everyone in similar circumstances, including yourself in future. If you cannot accept the consequences of this thought experiment, or if it leads to a contradiction, you must not carry out the act. For example, if you want to kill your wife's lover, you must imagine a law that says all wronged husbands have the right to kill their wives' lovers; and that will include you, should you become the lover of someone else's wife. In other words, you must universalize your experience.

Williams argued against the Categorical Imperative in his paper "Persons, character and morality."[13] Morality should not require us to act selflessly, as though we are not who we are, as though we are not in the circumstances we presently find ourselves. We should not have to take an impartial view, or a Christian view, of the world, he argued. Our values, commitments, and desires do make a difference to how we see the world and how we act; and so they should, he said, otherwise we lose our individuality, and thereby our humanity.

Reasons for action

Williams' insistence that morality is about people and their real lives, and that acting out of self-interest and even selfishness are not contrary to moral action, is illustrated in his internal reasons for action argument, part of what philosophers call the "internal/external reasons" debate.

Philosophers have tried to argue that moral agents can have "external reasons" for performing a moral act; that is, they are able to act for reasons external to their inner mental states. Williams argued that this is meaningless. For something to be a "reason to act," it must be magnetic; that is, it must move us to action. How can something entirely external to us—for example, the proposition that X is good—be magnetic? By what process can something external to us move us to act?

Williams argued that it cannot. Cognition is not magnetic. Knowing and feeling are quite separate, and a person must feel before they are moved to act. Reasons for action are always internal, he argued. If I feel moved to do X (for example, to do something good), it is because I want to. I may want to do the right thing for a number of reasons. For example, I may have been brought up to believe that X is good and may wish to act in accordance with my upbringing; or I may want to look good in someone else's eyes; or perhaps I fear the disapproval of my community. The reasons can be complex, but they are always internal and they always boil down to desire.

With this argument, Williams left moral philosophy with the notion that a person's moral reasons must be rooted in his desires to act morally, desires that might, at any given moment, in any given person, be absent. In a secular humanist tradition, with no appeal to God or any external moral authority, Williams' theory strikes at the foundation of conventional morality; namely, that people sometimes do good even when they don't want to.

Posthumous works

Since Williams' death, three collections of essays, articles, and transcripts of lectures have been published. In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (2005), on political philosophy; The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy (2006), a series of essays on the boundaries between philosophy and history; and Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (2006), on metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.


  1. Obituary, "Professor Sir Bernard Williams," The Times, June 14, 2003.
  2. Obituary, no byline, Professor Sir Bernard Williams The Daily Telegraph, June 14, 2003. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  3. Colin McGinn, "Isn't It the Truth?" The New York Review of Books, April 10, 2003. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  4. Kenneth Baker, Bernard Williams: "Carrying the torch for truth", an interview with Bernard Williams, San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 2002. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Martha Nussbaum, "Tragedy and Justice", Boston Review, October/November 2003. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Stuart Jeffries, The Quest for Truth The Guardian, November 30, 2002. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  7. Obituary, no byline, Professor Sir Bernard Williams The Times, June 14, 2003. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  8. Jane O'Grady, Professor Sir Bernard Williams The Guardian, June 13, 2003. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  9. Princeton University Press, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy by Bernard Williams. A short introduction about the book. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  10. Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. 1973.
  11. Amartya Sen, and Bernard Williams (eds),Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  12. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics in 1972; Problems of the Self in 1973; Utilitarianism: For and Against with J.J.C. Smart, also in 1973; Moral Luck in 1981; and Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy in 1985
  13. Bernard Williams, Moral Luck. (Cambridge University Press, 1981).


Books and articles by Bernard Williams

  • Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge: University Press, 1993. ISBN 0511001185
  • Problems of the Self. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1973. ISBN 0521202256 *Utilitarianism: For and Against with J.J.C. Smart. Cambridge University Press, 1973. ISBN 0521202973
  • Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978. ISBN 0391005634
  • Moral Luck: philosophical papers, 1973-1980. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. ISBN 0521243726
  • Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985. ISBN 0674268571
  • "Pagan Justice and Christian Love," Apeiron 26(3–4) (1993): 195–207.
  • Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. ISBN 0520080467
  • "Cratylus' Theory of Names and Its Refutation." in Language. Stephen Everson (ed.). Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • "Descartes and the Historiography of Philosophy." in Reason, Will and Sensation: Studies in Descartes's Metaphysics. John Cottingham (ed.) Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN 019824083X
  • "The Actus Reus of Dr. Caligari." in Pennsylvania Law Review 142 (May 1994).
  • "Acting as the Virtuous Person Acts." in Aristotle and Moral Realism. Robert Heinaman(ed.) Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. ISBN 081332646X
  • "Ethics" in Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject. A. C. Grayling (ed.) Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0198751567
  • "Identity and Identities." in Identity: Essays Based on Herbert Spencer Lectures Given in the University of Oxford. Henry Harris (ed.) Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0198235259
  • Making Sense of Humanity and other philosophical papers, 1982-1993. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0521472792
  • "Truth in Ethics." in Ratio 8(3): 227–242. Oxford, B. Blackwell, 1995.
  • "Contemporary Philosophy: A Second Look." in The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy. N. F. Bunnin (ed.) Oxford; Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. ISBN 0631187898
  • "History, Morality, and the Test of Reflection." in The Sources of Normativity. Christine M. Korsgaard (Author), Onora O'Neill (ed.) Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0521550599
  • "Reasons, Values and the Theory of Persuasion." in Ethics, Rationality and Economic Behavior. Francesco Farina, Frank Hahn and Stafano Vannucci (ed.) Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • "The Politics of Trust." in The Geography of Identity. Patricia Yeager (ed.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. ISBN 0472106724
  • "The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, Ethics." in The Greeks and Us. R. B. Louden; P. Schollmeier (eds.). Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996. ISBN 0226493946
  • "Toleration: An Impossible Virtue?" in Toleration: an elusive virtue. David Heyd (ed.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. ISBN 069104371X
  • "Truth, Politics and Self-Deception." in Social Research 63(3) (Fall 1996). New York: Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, New School for Social Research.
  • "Moral Responsibility and Political Freedom." in Cambridge Law Journal 56. London: Published by Stevens & Sons, for the Cambridge University Law Society, (1997).
  • "Stoic Philosophy and the Emotions: Reply to Richard Sorabji." in Aristotle and After. R. Sorabji (ed.) London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 1997. ISBN 0900587792 in Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 68, 1997. London: Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, 1997.
  • "Tolerating the Intolerable." in The Politics of Toleration: tolerance and intolerance in modern life. Susan Mendus (ed.) Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. ISBN 0748610944
  • "Philosophy As a Humanistic Discipline." in Philosophy 75 (Oct. 2000): 477–496.
  • "Understanding Homer: Literature, History and Ideal Anthropology." in Being Humans: Anthropological Universality and Particularity in Transdisciplinary Perspectives. Neil Roughley (ed.) Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000.
  • Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Princeton University Press, 2002. ISBN 3110169746
  • In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument. Geoffrey Hawthorn (ed.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. ISBN 0691124302
  • Philosophy As A Humanistic Discipline. A. W. Moore (ed.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 0691124264
  • The Sense of the past: essays in the history of philosophy. Myles Burnyeat (ed.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 0691124779

Secondary sources

  • Foot, Philippa. "Reasons for Action and Desires." in Practical Reasoning. Joseph Raz (ed.) Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. ISBN 0198750412
  • Sen, Amartya. On ethics and economics. Oxford, UK: B. Blackwell, 1987. ISBN 9780631154945
  • Sen, Amartya and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. ISBN 0521242967

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2016.

General Philosophy Sources


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