Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen (1929–2003)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD090-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 27, 2020, from

5. Consistency and realism

In two early papers Williams attempts to show that moral judgments are much more analogous to desires than to beliefs. Where there is a conflict of beliefs, he argues, this must in itself tend to weaken at least one of the beliefs, since beliefs are aimed at truth and two contradictory beliefs cannot both be true. Yet inconsistent desires are not like this. Although they cannot both be satisfied, this has no tendency to weaken at least one of them.

Williams shows that in tragic cases someone may be under two incompatible obligations, as Agamemnon in classical Greek tragedy was under incompatible obligations to his daughter and to his fleet. Whatever he does is wrong. On a Kantian view such conflict would not be possible; and it would not be rational to feel guilt about the thing not done. Yet Williams, again using moral psychology, shows that we both do and should feel regret in this sort of case. Hence what we did was wrong; hence there were incompatible obligations.

He derives from this conclusions about moral realism. The possibility of contradictory obligations shows that they cannot be taken to be descriptions of some real, independent, moral state of affairs. Our evaluative beliefs are plural and conflicting. They are therefore not descriptions of independent values which would provide objective and impersonal reasons for action (see Berlin, I.; Moral pluralism).

So far this is similar to other twentieth-century departures from the abstract impersonal reason of the Enlightenment. However, Williams disagrees with other thinkers in making a sharp distinction between ethical and other beliefs. For him, ethics is strongly contrasted with science. Both can be called kinds of knowledge, in that there can be agreement of belief about them. However, for Williams, this does not survive reflection in ethics, whereas in science it can. Scientific knowledge converges and can also explain how our scientific beliefs are caused by a real, independent world. Moral beliefs cannot in the same way survive explication of their causes.

An idea which Williams originally discussed in his book about Descartes, and which can be used to underline this distinction, is that of the ‘absolute conception’ of reality. Our knowledge and belief is perspectival, or from a particular position. Yet we have also the idea of things being true absolutely; that is, not from any particular position. This applies, thinks Williams, in science; at least as a regulative ideal. Things are just true; even if we do not know them. However, in ethics, it is all from a position. It is not just that it is psychologically impossible to think of ourselves being motivated by supposed moral truths which are true for all peoples and for all times; it is not just that our variable ideas show that we have no knowledge of any such truths; it is also that there are no such truths to be known.

Citing this article:
Harrison, Ross and Edward Craig. Consistency and realism. Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen (1929–2003), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD090-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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