Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen (1929–2003)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD090-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 26, 2021, from

1. General

Bernard Williams studied philosophy and classics at the University of Oxford. He was later Professor of Philosophy in London, Cambridge, Oxford and Berkeley, California, as well as chairing the commission set up by the British Government in 1977 to consider the legal control of obscene material.

Williams has written about many different areas of philosophy. His books include full-length studies of Descartes and of early Greek ethical thought, and he has written extensively on the philosophy of mind. His most influential writing has been in ethics, where he wrote Morality (1972), a book which pretends to be introductory but is in fact much more, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), a criticism of utilitarianism (the ‘against’ half of Utilitarianism: For and Against (1973a)), and many occasional papers, the most important of which are collected in Moral Luck (1981b).

Before turning to this ethical work two important early papers on other areas should be mentioned. His first collection, Problems of the Self (1973b), starts with a paper on personal identity. Williams takes an imaginary case in which twin brothers both claim to remember being the same historical figure. This shows that memory claims are not sufficient to establish personal identity (since the twins, being different from each other, cannot both be the earlier person). Hence, thinks Williams (although this would involve another argumentative step), the necessity of bodily identity for personal identity. This paper’s use of duplication is the basis of much of the subsequent discussion (see Personal identity).

Another influential early paper in this collection is ‘The Idea of Equality’. Williams here argues that some activities have an internal object, so that, for example, the internal object of the provision of medical services is medical need. Hence it is not optional whether health care should be distributed according to health need or according to ability to pay. By solving the problem of relevance in this way, Williams solves the problem of which property to consider in distribution, and hence a central problem of making egalitarian proposals practical (see Equality).

Citing this article:
Harrison, Ross and Edward Craig. General. Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen (1929–2003), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD090-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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