Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980. Bernard Williams

Bernard Williams

Moral Luck

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1981.


“The papers collected here have all been published in the past seven years, mostly in collective volumes, in three cases as contributions to Festschriften. I am grateful to editors and publishers for their agreement to republication. Most of the essays are substantially unchanged, though I have made some stylistic alteration to all of them. Three have undergone rather greater change. In the case of Justice as a Virtue, which was written for a volume on Aristotle’s moral philosophy, the aim has been to take away some of the more detailed exegesis. The most extensive revisions have been to Moral Luck itself, where I have tried to get the main idea under rather better control than it was in the first version. I have not entirely succeeded, and in deciding to give its name to the book, my aim has been not to draw particular attention to that essay, but rather to suggest something which may indeed have contributed to its imperfections — that concerns echoed in that title are picked up in different forms in several parts of the book.

It will be obvious that certain worries both in and about moral philosophy, and also certain images of human action and practical thought, run through most of the papers. It is also obvious, when the papers are brought together, that they raise some pressing questions which they do not do much to answer. The ideas which occur here certainly need some rather more systematic framework, and I hope to be able to publish work in that direction in the course of the next few years. I do not think, however, that such a framework could have helpfully preceded these ideas — if there is anything in them, then they have to shape it.

Moral philosophy certainly needs the benefits of theory, but of theory in other parts of philosophy. I am more than ever convinced that what it does not need is a theory of its own. There cannot be any very interesting, tidy or self-contained theory of what morality is, nor, despite the vigorous activities of some present practitioners, can there be an ethical theory, in the sense of a philosophical structure which, together with some degree of empirical fact, will yield a decision procedure for moral reasoning. This latter undertaking has never succeeded, and could not succeed, in answering the question, by what right does it legislate to the moral sentiments? The abstract and schematic conceptions of ‘rationality’ which are usually deployed in this connection do not even look as though they were relevant to the question — so soon, at least, as morality is seen as something whose real existence must consist in personal experience and social institutions, not in sets of propositions.

One should rather say: any real existence that it may have. A further difficulty for these theoretical undertakings is something which is an historical truth, and therefore (by now) a philosophical problem, that morality itself is problematical, not merely in content, but in its supposed existence as a dimension of practical thought or social evaluation at all. The fact that the words ‘moral’ or ‘morality’ occur in the titles of no less than five of the present essays should be taken as signalling a widening doubt, rather than a simple territorial acknowledgement. It is this doubt, as well as scepticism about the powers of moral or ethical theory, which has led me to try to find out — often by the crude method of prodding it — which parts of moral thought seemed to me to be actually alive, before trying to design any elegant physiology for it.

The last two essays stand apart from the rest, even if there is some link through the piece on Relativism. They are reprinted for any independent interest they may have, but there are in fact preoccupations that relate them to the rest. They both raise the question of the extent to which we can hope to attain to any conception of the world which will be independent of our peculiarities and the peculiarities of our perspective — an aim which has been that of many philosophers, and remains that of almost all scientists. The question of the extent to which such a representation of the world may be possible is intimately connected with issues in moral philosophy. It is a question central to the definition of scientific discovery, and that notion — which seems to have been left high and dry by the most sceptical treatments of this problem in recent philosophy — still provides a central contrast with changes in moral understanding, despite a very welcome decline in interest in a blank contrast of ‘fact’ and ‘value’. At the same time, the perspectiveless or ‘absolute’ view of things which has been an ambition for science has a certain analogue in the external view of action and experience which, on many views of the matter, is called for by moral impartiality – what Sidgwick, in a memorably absurd phrase, called ‘the point of view of the universe’. These models, for scientific enquiry and for morality, lay similar claims to expressing an idea of objectivity. To assess those claims and to compare them remains a central and pressing demand on philosophy.”

Bernard Williams

*Recomiendo el capítulo 8, “Internal and external reasons”, que trata sobre el problema de la concepción externalista e internalista de las razones para actuar.




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