Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen (1929–2003)

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

2. Morality, the peculiar institution

Williams, like other philosophers, often works by critique and contrast. The centre of his ethical position can best be brought out by considering what he takes himself to be opposing. This is a view of morality principally associated with Kant. In this view, morality imposes on all people a set of duties discoverable by reason alone. These obligations are taken to be objectively true, untouched by emotion and unconstrained by interest. The area of morality is meant to be sharply distinguishable from other practical concerns and to be particularly connected to the voluntary. For Kant, we can all equally will and are equally responsible for, and only for, what we will (see Kantian ethics).

All this Williams criticizes. He resists even the word ‘morality’, preferring the term ‘ethics’ for the study of how we should live. The voluntary he regards as too weak a notion to found obligation. He holds that our moral psychology and ethical intuitions reveal our values to be more tangled, pluralist and impure than the Kantian model allows. Kantianism is centred on obligation and blame. Instead of blame, Williams proposes the centrality of shame. He discusses the nature of shame by considering the thought of the early Greeks, which he thinks is more applicable to the actuality of our current practical thinking than Kant’s idealization. For Williams, Kantis wrong on the psychological facts; on the nature of the person; and on motivation. Kant is wrong to exclude the emotions. By contrast, Williams uses emotions, particularly regret, as a tool to uncover ethical requirements (see Morality and emotions; Praise and blame).

Perhaps the topic that focuses these thoughts most fully is that of moral luck. In the Kantian model, moral evaluation of people cannot depend upon mere luck (hence the importance of intention: there may be luck whether people succeed; there is no luck about whether they try). Williams wishes to show instead that our central evaluations may depend upon luck. For example, if I drive my car carefully and through no fault of my own run over a child, I may still, according to Williams, feel what he calls ‘agent-centred regret’ (that is, not just regret that it happened, but also regret that I did it). I may feel it proper to try and make some sort of recompense or acknowledgement of my responsibility. Yet my intentions were impeccable; if nevertheless regret is an appropriate emotion, it is a product of pure bad luck in a way that the Kantian model would preclude.

Williams’ central example is the case of Gauguin (and a picture of Gauguin is used to illustrate the cover of Moral Luck). Gauguin left his wife and family to go to the South Seas to paint great pictures. If he succeeds he is justified; if he doesn’t he is reprehensible. Again, mere intention is not enough; proper evaluation depends upon the luck of success (see Moral luck).

Citing this article:
Harrison, Ross and Edward Craig. Morality, the peculiar institution. 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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