This from Cogito, Volume 8, Issue 1, 1994, pp. 3-19
Cogito: Perhaps you could start by telling us something about your own philosophical background. How did you come to study philosophy, and what have been the main influences that have helped to shape your thought?
Williams: I started learning philosophy formally at Oxford, where I went, in the first place, as a student of classics. Indeed, when it was agreed at school that I would go to Oxford to study Latin and Greek, no one told me, I think, that the course included philosophy. Very fortunately, I discovered when I came to do philosophy that it covered quite a lot of questions that my friends and I had been discussing anyway. It turned out that we’d been doing philosophy without knowing it.
Cogito: Were there any particular philosophers who influenced your early studies?
Williams: When I was at Oxford, the so-called ‘Oxford’ or ‘linguistic’ philosophy was very much to the fore, and I suppose that the chief influence on me, in some ways, was Gilbert Ryle. Although I didn’t entirely agree with his way of doing philosophy, he did have considerable influence on certain aspects of my general outlook. I was less influenced by J.L. Austin, partly because I never believed that the problem with British philosophy was that it was liable to metaphysical excess and needed to be cut back, which seemed to be his view. He always seemed to me like a Treasury official who thought that the British economy needed deflating, when there were already three million unemployed. I also had an interest in, and a feeling for, certain more literary aspects of philosophy, which weren’t really catered for at that time.
Cogito: In a recent talk you gave at Bristol, you said that there were only half a dozen works of moral philosophy that are really worth reading. Perhaps you could give our readers your personal shortlist?
Williams: Perhaps you will allow me half a dozen philosophers rather than half a dozen works. I think my list would then be as folIows. Certain works of Plato (counting that as one choice. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Kant’s Groundwork, the Metaphysics Morals, Mill’s On Liberty (and perhaps also his Utilitarianism), Nietzsche’s Genealogy Morals and Beyond Good and Evil, and the first part of Hobbes’ Leviathan. I think that would do.
Cogito: Looking back over your philosophical work, one gets a clear sense of ‘Williams territory’: personal identity, the self, the subjective/objective distinction, the nature of practical reason and the foundations of ethics. It’s much harder, though, to discern a ‘Williams thesis’, a single guiding thought or principle. Is there any one leading idea that brings together all the various aspects of your work, a ‘figure in the carpet’, to use Henry James’ metaphor?
Williams: You are quite right in saying that my philosophy isn’t full of positions and theses. But there’s more unity to it than just in its areas of concern. I think that there’s a certain continuing element of style or approach which might be called ‘scepticism without reductionism’. I tend to be very suspicious of high-flown metaphysical answers to philosophical questions, while on the other hand rejecting scientistic reductionism. It’s not an accident that my work isn’t full of positions and theses. I think one of the things that I acquired from my formation, and haven’t lost, is my suspicion of philosophical theory. I’m much less suspicious of theory in some other areas of philosophy than I am in ethics, and some areas certainly demand theory. But I’m still not somebody who naturally expresses himself by coming up with a lot of theoretical positions.
There are subjects on which I do hold definite positions. One of them concerns ‘internal’ and ‘external’ reasons for action, on which subject I have defended- and still defend- a position against criticisms. And on the subject of personal identity, too, I’ve defended a position-perhaps we’ll come to that later.
I suspect that there is one idea, or perhaps obsession, which does tie together a number of the things I’ve been interested in. It’s related to a phrase of Nietzsche’s about becoming what you are. One thing that has continued, in various forms, to interest me is the question of what constraints, what sorts of authority, there are over ways in which one might develop, ways in which one’s life might develop. Are those constraints somehow given internally, given by an ethical order, or given by something you already are? Although I find the phrase ‘self-realization’ distasteful, and a lot of the philosophy associated with it (e.g. of a Hegelian kind) misleading, I suppose that certain ideas that philosophers try to capture by notions of self-realization are at the basis of some of my deepest concerns.
Cogito: One subject on which you have done a lot of work is that of personal identity. In your early paper, ‘Personal Identity and Individuation’, you rejected the Lockean theory that it is continuity of consciousness that constitutes personal identity and argued instead that bodily continuity is at least a necessary condition of identity. Is this still your considered view?
Williams: My current view on this subject could be summarized like this. I think that, in the manner of the time (1955) when I wrote that first paper, I thought that the question had a more straightforwardly determinate answer than I now think. That was partly because of the time, and partly because of my age-at that age, one prefers nice clear solutions. I now incline to think that the concept of personal identity is less determinate, and therefore of course one can find things to say in favour of other views. But I still hold to the basic opinion which I put in ‘Personal Identity and Individuation’, and also in another paper called, ‘Are Persons Bodies?’ The essence of it is this: if the identity of a person is to be the identity of a particular thing, then it should be bodily identity. That’s the only way of linking personal identity firmly to the notion that it’s the identity of a particular thing. If you don’t take that route, you are faced with only two alternatives. You are either left with the person being an allegedly particular thing of an immaterial character, such as a Cartesian soul, which I take to be quite unacceptable for various well-known metaphysical reasons. Or alternatively, and I think this is what a number of the examples in the literature have led to, you have the notion of a person as a type, which can have multiple tokens. Now this notion of a person as a type is one which, as actual life has led us, we don’t have much use for. But it’s one that we have a metaphysical base for, and you could imagine information-theoretical or other similar developments which might actually give us, at some future time, an everyday use for it.
Cogito: The philosophical arguments over personal identity tend to turn on a variety of bizarre thought-experiments involving the fusion or fission of persons, Star Trek style transporters, brain bisection, and so on. Non-philosophers often find such thought experiments crazy and irrelevant. Do you have any sympathy with such objections?
: Yes, I do to some extent, although I think it’s a complex question. My colleague in Oxford Kathy Wilkes
has written a book in which she rejects all such thought-experiments as quite irrelevant, unable to offer us any help with the subject. Let me put one thing on the side first. I think that you can tell a different story when you are dealing with metaphysical questions such as personal identity than if you are dealing with moral notions. I do think that fantastic examples in ethics are helpful only in a few rare cases. Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous article on abortion, which turns on a surreally horrible example, is extremely valuable for that very reason. I think that the awfulness of the example actually serves in an ethical way to concentrate the mind; but this is a very unusual case. In metaphysics, I think the issue is this. It’s very easy for fantastic examples to outrun our conceptual resources, and in that case they are irrelevant. When this objection is put to Derek Parfit, however, he has an answer which is clearly a very good first move. ‘The objection would be pertinent’, he replies, ‘if, confronted by such bizarre examples, people didn’t know what to say. But when people are confronted by a strange and artificial example and da still know what to say, that is surely significant’. That seems to me to be a fair point, as far as it goes. But now we must think, perhaps rather more searchingly, about what brings it about that people know (or think they know) what to say. That is, we have to question how far people think that they have something to say because the examples have been presented to them in a certain order, in a certain context, or in a way that brings out one analogy rather than another.
Cogito: So there could be ways of deploying arguments to produce plausible ‘intuitions’ for either of two conflicting conclusions-at least as regards personal identity?
Williams: I think that’s right. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a waste of time to have done that. I obviously don’t think that, because in my paper, ‘The Self and the Future’ I do employ some fantastic thought experiments to arrive at two conflicting conclusions-or rather, tentative conclusions. Thinking about how you arrived at these conflicting conclusions may, in my opinion, give you more insight into the basic situation. But thinking about how you got there involves thinking about what the examples do to you. In ‘The Self and the Future’ I do try to address, at least to some extent, questions of this kind. I thus think that fantastic examples can be helpful, but not if they are regarded uncritically, just as ‘intuition pumps’. If they are handled more carefully, they can help us to understand some of our own illusions, help us to become aware of models we have that are probably inadequate. All this means that there is a limited valid use of fantastic examples in this area, although I do think that they have to be used rather more self-consciously and self-questioningly than I used them, when I first deployed them, and than they sometimes are in the literature. Somebody once said to me that I was partly responsible for the literature which consists of gigantic numbers of fantastic examples about personal identity. If so, I think it’s one of those things that one has to regret.
Cogito: Do the questions that philosophers discuss under the heading of ‘personal identity’ bear any relation to what ordinary people are talking about when they refer to such things as ‘identity crises’ or the ‘identification’ of an individual with a group or society?
Williams: Yes, they do, but too few philosophical discussions acknowledge the fact. With regard to your second example, I do think the identification of an individual with a group is very important, but in that case one has to think in terms of the relation of a particular person to various properties he or she has. An important feature of an identity in this sense is that it is a general thing, that is, it is something you can share. Not only is it something you can share; it is something the whole point of which is to be shared. But it also bears on the matter that I mentioned earlier, about self-realization. People talk about identification with a group when that relationship with the group is particularly significant for them. I don’t think people would identify themselves with the local tennis club, for example; it tends to be more with nations, religions, and so on. In the case of sexuality, the identification of gay people with gay groups may be what is basically most important to them. There is an extremely interesting philosophical question about the sense of importance that makes an allegiance into an identification. What makes someone say, for example, ‘I have recently come to discover that I am really (basically, essentially) a gay person’? What is this discovery? This question takes us back to our earlier discussion of the notion of self-realization. On the other matter you mentioned, that of identity crises and that sort of thing, one of the things that is often overlooked in the philosophical literature on personal identity, and which I think has quite a close connection with the metaphysical issues about minds and bodies, is the fact that people can have a fear for a future in which they will be very different-even, perhaps, because they will be very different. Let’s take the example of somebody afraid of ending up with Alzheimer’s disease. That person may want to n1ake provision now to ensure that he or she won’t have to go on living in a profoundly vegetative condition. Still worse, perhaps, is the prospect not of being vegetative and kept alive on a machine, but of losing all one’s faculties and ending up, to use an old-fashioned and rather objectionable expression, ‘gaga’. People can be deeply concerned not-as they would naturally put it-to end up in that state. Now some theories of personal identity seem to leave no room for this perfectly natural thought. Advocates of such theories either wish us to believe that the heavily-handicapped future being is not a person at all (this seems to me an outrageous thing to say, but some philosophers say it); or they say that this being is a person but its relation to me is more like that of a descendant-it is not, at any rate, identity. Now I think that such views are simply belied by the nature of our concern for that person. One of the ways in which they are belied is the one I mentioned: I can be very concerned not to spend the last ten years of my life-as I would put it-in that condition; and one thing I can do, reasonably and defensibly, to prevent this is to bring it about that I die before that period, either by killing myself while there is still time to do so, or by bringing it about by means of some acceptable structure of euthanasia. (I’m not denying that there are institutional problems about euthanasia, but that is not the present point.) I have an absolute right to do this, because if I have a right over anything, I have a right over my own life. Now in order for this to be a correct perception of the situation, it has to be my life that would otherwise end up ruined by Alzheimer’s. It seems to me that this is something which is integral to the notions of identity crises and the sorts of associated personal problems you mentioned, on the one hand, and to the metaphysical questions of personal identity on the other.
Cogito: So, on your view, many of us have this concern for a future state in which we might be radically different from how we now are; this concern seems perfectly rational; so any theory of personal identity which is obliged to dismiss it as resting on confusion or misunderstanding must be wrong for that very reason?
Williams: Such theories offend against our deepest understanding of the nature of personal identity. It’s not only that I say that the future person will be me-it’s not just a farcon de parler. Of crucial importance is the fact that I have a right over this person’s very existence. If you take the view that my later ‘selves’ are like my children, then suicide would be like contraception. This certainly belies the fundamental notion that what I cause not to exist by killing myself is me. In my latest book, Shame and Necessity, I talk about the Homeric conception of the world. Here one has some concern for what happens to one’s body after one’s death. You don’t want your body to be eaten by dogs or birds, for example, but prefer to be decently buried. Some people draw the line before that; my late mother, for example, used to say that she didn’t care what happened to her body after her death. I don’t quite believe that: I think that attitude is only appropriate for dualists, who regard their bodies just as the boxes that they happened to live in. One could still have a sentimental attachment for such a box, of course, just as one can for the house one used to live in or the clothes one used to ‘We buried Auntie today’. But I don’t think that my body is like that. When you go to a funeral, you can say both that what is in the box is auntie’s body, but also that ‘we buried Auntie today’. It seems to me that the fact that we say both these things is very significant.
Cogito: Questions about the nature and boundaries of the self crop up at a number of different places in moral philosophy. One important topic here is that of moral luck. Kant of course denied the very possibility of luck playing any role in morality. The only things I can be held morally responsible for, he argued, are those within my power. Hut with regard to my bodily actions I am not completely in control: it is always possible that I intend to do X but, due to circumstances beyond my control, Y is what ensues. So, he concluded, it is only the self qua locus of will that is the moral agent, not the self qua embodied and socially located human being. You, of course, dissent from his conclusions. But how do you account for the persuasive force of his argument?
Williams: That’s an extremely interesting question. Of course, most people dissent from that conclusion, even Kant himself as a matter of fact, when he had to accommodate his moral philosophy to a more realistic view of the world. Hut the question of the diagnosis of that thought is a deep one. I think that it’s partly a moral matter, and partly a non-moral matter. The non-moral part is connected with the phenomenology of action itself. There is a problem in the theory of action, introduced in this form by William James, though in a way it goes back to Descartes. Suppose I were blindfolded and paralysed in some way, and then told to raise my arm. I might think that I had raised my arm, when in fact I hadn’t. Yet when it’s pointed out to me that my arm hasn’t gone up, I have the absolute conviction that I’ve done everything that I do when I raise my arm. This suggests that actually raising my arm-in Wittgenstein’s famous phrase, what I’m left with when I subtract from raising my arm the fact that my arm goes up-must be (a) something purely mental, and (b) something that I do every time I raise my arm. Now there’s a long story to be told about that in the theory of action, but I take it that the answer to your question is in part connected with the phenomenology of bodily movement and the notion of trying. For Kant’s concerns, however, there are a very rich set of answers that lie in the relation of the theory of action to moral judgment. One way of putting it is that it is an attempt at once to contract and enormously to expand the notion of control, the power of the will. If you just take the will in an everyday sense, the world is only very imperfectly under its control. There’s an enormous temptation to try to find something over which the will has total control. But of course you only find that by contracting its domain, because so long as it still gives hostages to fortune, so long as some things are ‘up to nature’, then we’re still in the mixed and imperfect position. So the mysterious ‘something’ over which we would have complete control would have to be very small indeed. I think, though, that there’s a further question we should ask here. Why do we want something over which we have complete control? This is because we want to have a notion of the real authorship of our actions. We want it not to be the case that our actions are just things that simply happen to uso We know, at a reflective level, that our actions emerge out of a whole set of factors-some of which we know about, some of which we don’t know about; some of which are under our control, some of which are not under our control. We have within us a whole set of desires, projects, principles, fantasies, and so on, which issue in our actions. We are, as Nietzsche said in one of his many images on this subject, a kind of polyp. Out of this mass of stuff emerge our actions. But we want to defend the idea of the authorship of actions, and authorship requires a point at which, as it were, I intervene in all this stuff, stuff which is part of me but also partly not-me because i1’s only very imperfectly known and controlled. There has to be, or so the myth goes, a point which is me as the ultimate author or gate-keeper, mediating between the hidden and only partly understood stuff which is desire, on the one hand, and the external world, on the other. And this has to be the will. I think there is yet a further reason why we want there to be such a thing as the will. We want it partly for reasons of our own self-conception, but also because of a relation we have to other people (and to some extent also to ourselves), namely, the relationship-and this takes us precisely back to Kant- of blame. We know that people sometimes do horrible and nasty things to us; we often can’t either punish them or prevent them; but we have a tremendously powerful feeling that there is a point at which, as it were, this agent could have acted otherwise. That was the point of application of the will. We need this thought in order to represent to ourselves how it was that this agent might not just have been changed by external force but might have changed himself. If we think only in terms of change by external forces, we are simply concerned with our failure to control him (as if he were apart of the external world), but that’s not the thought involved in the feeling of blame. It cannot merely accept that (as Nietzsche put it) a reprehended action means a reprehended world. I think-and this is the most speculative part of what I am saying-that our notion of the will is actually linked to a certain fantasy, the fantasy of entirely retrospective control. The fantastic thought is that our rage, our resentment, could actually make him not have done it, not by the application of force but simply by inserting itself into his mind at the crucial point. This is the kind of fantasy, I think, which goes with certain conceptions of blame. What I’ve done in this story is the following: I’ve moved from considerations of phenomenology, through some fairly uncontroversial thoughts about how such a picture might build up, to considerations about blame and moral control that are a little more disputable, to introducing a fantasy that some may recognize and some may not. The last part of the account, of course, is Nietzsche’s story, as told in The Genealogy 0f Morals. That’s why he says at various places that in the introduction of the will we tend to double the cause and the effect. We tend to think that there is an action, and then again an agent of that action, which as it were requires the introduction of the notion of agency twice. This, I think, is a very profound idea.
Cogito: So this is one of the reasons why Nietzsche is on your short list-as a sort of diagnostician of the failings of the metaphysical model, as it were, behind Kantian moralism?
Williams: Yes, that’s right. Not only of Kantian moralism, but above all of Kantian moralism. I don’t see Nietzsche as the sort of philosopher whose views you just adopt: there are all sorts of problems with his positive views about the future, about politics, and so on. I see him in the same way that Foucault saw him, as a sort of resource. Foucault said that there isn’t any one Nietzsche: everybody gets out of him what they find most helpful. I’m also convinced, from my own experience, that you get most out of him when you’ve got part of the way there on some path of your own. I think it’s arriving at some thoughts of my own which turned out to be not dissimilar to things that Nietzsche had developed in greater depth that has greatly increased my interest in him. I do think that his genealogies are very remarkable constructions, and deserve our attention and respect. But of course they go beyond the metaphysical psychology of Kantian moralism. They also extend much more generally to the sources of our moral conceptions and their associated metaphysical models. I find that I now take these sorts of historical questions more seriously than I did earlier in my career.
Cogito: Another related area of moral philosophy concerns the relation of the self to its roles. Are the roles played by an individual externally related to the self, or are they constitutive of it? In his work, After Virtue, Alastair MacIntyre argues that the nature of these relations has changed over the centuries. In Homer’s Iliad, he suggests, Achilles can’t divorce himself from his various roles. For him, there is no ‘is-ought problem’: from ‘Hector has killed Patroclus’ and ‘Patroclus was my best friend’ it simply follows deductively that ‘I must kill Hector’. The ‘is-ought’ division, on MacIntyre’s view, is a sort of twentieth-century pathology, not a timeless conceptual truth. How do you regard this claim?
Williams: I think that, like a lot of things that MacIntyre says, it is an immensely stimulating mixture of the true and the false. I also think that it forces us to address some important issues. But I don’t entirely agree with him. As a matter of fact, Achilles was a wonderfully unfortunate example to take. Achilles is the one hero in the lliad who actually questions his own destiny: he has asked himself the question of whether he should live the life of a glorious hero who dies young, or should he give it up. Just on the historical point, even if there were a strong identification with the heroic role in the ancient world, it’s quite clear that it was already under question, in ways that MacIntyre would recognise. Indeed, there is a very interesting contrast between Sophocles’ Ajax, on the one hand, and Euripides’ The Madness 0f Herakles on the other, which raises exactly this issue. Herakles, as it were, retires-he does something that no hero is supposed to do. So I don’t think that the pure history in MacIntyre’s account is quite right. Now I don’t believe-and here MacIntyre and I are on the same side-in an abstract, logical, is/ought distinction as such, as taught by, far example, my old teacher Richard Hare. Apart from purely technical objections, I don’t find it a very illuminating tool. I do think that there are certain distinctions between the pre-modern world and the modern world that have something to do with the is/ought distinction. That is, I think it’s true that in pre-modern society certain roles or statuses were both more firmly defined and more readily accepted as given to individuals than is typically the case in a modern society. That’s because the notion of a job has changed in modern society, because the notion of social mobility is more developed, and because hierarchical notions of caste and class have become less important-all for reasons familiar from sociologists of modernity such as Max Weber. All these factors naturally tend to make the distinction between what I do qua such and such, e.g. as the holder of a certain role or office, and what I do at the end of the line on my own responsibility, a dearer distinction than it was in pre-modern societies. I can ask, with greater freedom and a wider range of choices, what I am going to be. The child’s question, ‘What am I going to be when I grow up?’ is, in certain ways, a rather modern question. Of course it could still be asked, within a certain range, in pre-modern societies; but if you go back to a really traditional society the range would be much narrower. This is just a matter of sociological fact. I think that MacIntyre exaggerates the extent to which these manifest social changes are either necessary or sufficient conditions of changes in our conceptual structure. People in pre-modern societies could ask questions about whether they ought to do what is expected of them or required by their role; just as many people in modern society still take a great deal of their ethical world as given. There is, however, another item which has changed our view of the relation between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, or fact and value. That is the rise of modern science. I think that the rise of science has actually changed ethical conceptions in certain ways; MacIntyre thinks that, if it has done so, it has done so only by misleading uso For instance, he thinks it’s a mistake to suppose that Aristotle’s ethics rested on Aristotle’s biology. I don’t agree with him over this point: I think that certain important features of Aristotle’s ethics did rest on his biology and on his wider cosmology. I think that it was possible, and indeed perfectly reasonable, for Aristotle to believe that there was a pattern of real natures in the world that had a human significance. It’s not that we don’t believe in real essences or natures these days-some philosophers of science do, others don’t. But even those philosophers who believe in real natures think of them as belonging to such things as subatomic particles, fields of force, or whatever. What they do not believe is that the world is written, fundamentally and ultimately, in a script that will tell us a lot about how to be. Now it seems to me that Aristotle did believe this. In the course of the development of modern science we have thus come to reject an in1portant assumption of pre-modern thought. It’s no good trying to whistle it up again by invoking the name of Aristotle. You might weIl say that this is the thing that unites Nietzsche and Kant. Kant tried, above all, to come up with a theory of morality that would deal with the fact of autonomy-that is, the fact that we aren’t told what to do by the way the world is. He realized that fact at the greatest possible depth. Nietzsche is responding, at a rather similar depth, to the fact that he finds Kant’s acknowledgment of this fundamental truth does not go far enough.
Cogito: Now you’ve disagreed with MacIntyre’s about identity and roles, but then you have raised another example of your own where conceptual change has resulted from a major historical development-in this case, the rise of science. But if either case is correct, might we not find ourselves forced to do a lot of rethinking about the nature of analytic philosophy? Your old teacher Richard Hare, for example, presumably didn’t think of himself as discovering conceptual truths valid only for twentieth-century modernity?
Williams: No, he certainly didn’t. Indeed, he used to spend quite a lot of time trying to find traces of the is/ought distinction-perhaps of a somewhat benighted or anticipatory nature-in Plato’s dialogues. I don’t think that Oxford philosophy, or perhaps any of the analytic philosophy of those days, was very historically conscious. There was something called ‘the history of philosophy’, but that mostly consisted of exposing the errors of various writers, read in a somewhat anachronistic manner. Analytic philosophy seems to have a sort of resistance to the historical, although there has been, oddly enough, some very distinguished analytic history of philosophy. It’s a curious genre, analytic history of philosophy, but some of it has been very good. What I think has often happened is that when analytic philosophy has been thinking about philosophical topics rather than the history of philosophy, its use of history has been very linear. In particular, it tends to confine its use of history to the history of philosophy. But one thing that we surely know is that our conceptions about a lot of things are deeply influenced by the history of things other than philosophy-science, religion, and literature. This is manifestly true, but one of the difficulties about acknowledging this manifest truth is that it gives you too much to do. If you can’t write about anything with any depth or seriousness without knowing a lot about its history, you’re never going to write anything at all, because there’s an awful lot of history to know. Also, it makes you too much the servant of the conceptions of the past. A lot of good things are written by people who don’t know much history and just write something new. I’m very much in favour of that: I don’t want us to sink into history. But having said that, I think that my sense of the degree to which the fundamental way of understanding the phenomena is historical has grown, on the whole. It’s no accident that my most recent book is in good part a work of history-though it’s also got quite a lot of philosophy in it.
Cogito: Questions about the self also play a prominent role in your critique of utilitarianism. In your contribution to Utilitarianism: For and Against you suggest that utilitarianism cannot do justice to our notion of the integrity of the moral agent. But why, the utilitarian will reply, should we care so n1uch about integrity, especially if it frequently leads us to admittedly undesirable outcomes?
Williams: This has been the subject of a great deal of misunderstanding, which is in some part my fault. The main problem, I suspect, lies in certain preconceptions about what arguments in moral philosophy should look like. My objection to utilitarianism is taken to be in the form of a counterintuition to a principle. But that wasn’t my point. It isn’t that you are supposed to read the examples, think, ‘Oh yes, they were quite right to act on the principle of integrity’, and thus conclude that utilitarianism must be wrong because it doesn’t allow for that. If that had been the point, I would have had to tell you more about the cases than I did. (Actually I do suggest that there may be some reason for thinking that Jim might have to do the nasty thing in question, whereas George certainly doesn’t.) My point was that utilitarianism gives us adepleted way of thinking about such cases. ‘Here’, I was saying, ‘are two exampIes of a fairly familiar form. I’ve given you enough for you to understand what the issues are. First of all, what do you think these people should do? Secondly, how do you think that they should think about what to do? And what sorts of things could we say about them if they acted (or thought) in one way or the other?’ Now there’s a concept that many people find natural to apply to such situations, namely the concept of integrity. Most of us think that there is space for such a concept in our moral thinking. There are a very large number of things that this doesn’t entail, and that I never intended it to entail. First, it doesn’t entail that the agents themselves are thinking about their own integrity. I more or less said in the Utilitarianism essay, and I certainly said it in a later paper, that I didn’t suppose that they needed to do so. Thinking about one’s own integrity is almost always a terrible idea. Second, it doesn’t entail that integrity is always a good thing. Indeed, there are obvious cases in which the possession of this quality may make things worse. That doesn’t prove, however, that it isn’t a virtue. Courage often makes things worse, but it’s still a virtue. If a man is engaged in a particular1y foolish or destructive project, it may be better, both for himself and for others, if he is a coward. Likewise, if there are people with hideous principles, such as Nazis, it may be better if they lack integrity. The Jews in Nazi Germany had a better chance of survival if the local Gauleiter could be bribed. What’s completely mad is the idea of some of the objectors, to the effect that I’d supposed that integrity itself represented a principle operated by the agent, a principle which on their view he would be better off without. This is the idea that a fanatical Nazi who not only has fanatical Nazi principIes but has the principle of integrity as well, would be better if he dropped the latter. What do they think he becomes if he does so? A less fanatical Nazi? It just doesn’t make sense. The point is this. Integrity occupies a space in which a lot of people (not necessarily the agents themselves) think about cases of this kind. I then ask, what would it be like if you didn’t have that thought at all? The answer is that it would be like what utilitarianism says it is like. If you ask why that should be so, you will see that a moral philosophy which made everyone into direct utilitarians would necessarily be a world in which there was no space for the notion of integrity. That’s because of the way in which utilitarians conceptualize the relation between an agent, his actions, and his circumstances. Now of course you are absolutely right- and I say this in the book-that the utilitarian has a possible answer. He can say, ‘Fine, I don’t believe in integrity. I don’t think there is space for such a thing. I think that a conception of action which requires, or allows, such a notion is mistaken. I think that we are all simply channels between circumstances and outcomes, functions for mapping circumstances onto outcomes’. Fine. That’s what I think they believe; it’s what a few of them are honest enough to admit that they believe. It couldn’t actually last very long, because there’s no way of living in a world in which everyone believed that. I’m just inviting everyone to think about what the relation is between, on the one hand, certain things we say and think about people, and certain things we find valuable about people, and on the other hand the philosophical theory of utilitarianism.
Cogito: In Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy you criticize the attempts of Aristotle to found morality on human nature, and of Kant to found it on the nature of reason itself. But if all the big theories have indeed failed, and if there is no prospect of a successor, what is left of moral philosophy?
Williams: I think an awful lot is left of it. People are always asking, ‘What would you put in its place?’ If they mean, ‘What item(s) of the same sort would I put in its place?’, the answer is none. There is a great deal of difference between, on the one hand, theoretical structures that enable us to think about the relation of ethics to the world and, on the other hand, moral or ethical theories that are supposed to tell us how to decide what to do. The removal of the latter, which is the main focus of my book, seems to me to remove very little at the moral level. Take, for example, the ethics of Aristotle. Not everyone who is a good agent, on Aristotle’s view, needs to be armed with Aristotelian theory. In fact, one of the things he says in his book is that you won’t be able to understand it unless you are already a good agent. I simply do not believe that what keeps most people going through their ethical lives is something in the form of a theory; and I don’t think that what is needed to sustain moral life is philosophers’ producing more theories. I do accept that there are images and conceptions which help people to organize their experience, and n1ay thus be useful at the political level. I have in mind images of what societies are-whether they are organic, or based on a contract, or whatever. Such images may help us to think about our relation to the State, what the powers of the State should be, and so on. Some sort of conceptual apparatus for thinking about these issues is especially important in modern society, where such things as open discussion and transparency are both particularly important and particularly vulnerable. And of course these political conceptions will have consequences and implications for ethics. On my view, it is a mistake to start with the theories of ethics and then ask what we are to do if they are all discredited. Rather, we should say, ‘Look, we find ourselves living under certain kinds of pressures to make the world sensible to ourselves. How much and what kind of theory do we need?’ Then we’ll see how ‘theoretical’ the structures will need to be to serve their purpose.
Cogito: In ethics, as in other areas of philosophy, principIes are tested against our intuitive judgments regarding particular cases. Here, too, philosophers often conjure up bizarre test cases. I remember asking my pacifist mother what she would do if a child were about to stumble over the red button that would trigger World War Three, and the only way she could prevent the catastrophe was to shoot the child. She not only refused to answer, but didn’t see why the case should be seen as a threat to her principles. At the time I saw this as merely evasive; after reading Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy I began to reconsider. You, I presume, would take her side in this argument?
Williams: I rather think I would. We need to recognize the fact that, most of the time, moral thought and practice have to operate against a set of expectations about what sorts of things change the world. If the world were full of stray buttons which would cause everything to blow up, or people who exploded if you touched them, then a very different set of expectations would come into play. Indeed, we have examples not totally unlike that, e.g. people’s beliefs about leprosy, or about diseases so hideous and so contagious that the peopIe who suffered from them had to be treated as pariahs or scapegoats. But we have to start our moral thinking with some sort of set-up, and counterfactual examples which totally violate that set-up are usually not very helpful. At the same time, we certainly can’t take the providential view, which is taken by Professor Anscombe, for instance, when she says that discussing certain kinds of example (e.g. hideous threats by tyrants) is (a) bad for you, because it inures you to thinking in extremes, and (b) beside the point, because if you are a good person you will never find yourself faced with that kind of situation. I have son1e sympathy with her first point, but none with her second. In fact, I don’t think that even all Christians accept her version of providentialism: many believe that the world has been sufficiently deserted by God that events don’t conspire to protect an innocent agent against extremities of that kind. We also have to accept, in my view, that human affairs are largely shaped by luck, contingency, and even absurdity. People sometimes do find themselves in situations that seem to them to be absurdly, even surreally horrible. There is therefore a tension here. Ethical thought is bound to address itself to the usual — that’s almost a matter of necessity. But we live in a world in which the usual is constantly subverted by contingency, absurdity, and horror. How can we reconcile those two things? It may help to distinguish here, not between the fantastic and the real, but between extraordinary and ordinary cases. Having made this distinction, I think there are two things we can say about the use of extraordinary examples. The first is that the extraordinary should be represented in realistic terms. If we draw our extraordinary examples from science fiction, or from wildly counterfactual stories, the effect can be very misleading. It insulates you from their horror, for one thing. Also, it confuses the difference between the fantastic and the extraordinary because, by being contrary to the laws of nature, such examples make us think that the extraardinary belongs to another world. And it’s very important that that it doesn’t. So we should take realistic examples of the extraordinary. Some of the torture and threat cases are relevant here, e.g. those that turn on the sorts of threat that actual terrorists do use. Take, far example, being in a room with twenty innocent people, where the terrorists take one out of the room every hour and shoot them. Questions about what you should do in cases like that are, I think, perfectly proper in moral philosophy. The case that comes up in tragic drama. Such cases may teach us something about moral psychology, but nothing about general questions of moral principle. Some moral philosophers seem to think that the whole of the moral world can be tamed by principle, and if your current principles aren’t serving too well, you should get yourself some more complicated ones. But not every form of extreme situation should be reacted to in that way.
Cogito: There has been a trend in recent moral philosophy to make a sharp distinction between rules on the one hand, and ideals on the other. The basic thought seems to be that we might reasonably hope for consensus in the former area, that a group of rational individuals might come to agree on a small set of mutual rules. By advantageous social rules, while continuing to hold widely divergent ideal goals. What do you think about this approach to moral philosophy?
Williams: I think that it has great limitations. What it tries to do is to structure a great deal of moral and of course political philosophy by reference to the kind of principles which inform American constitutional practice and the conception of a pluralist state as it’s written into the constitution of the USA. The most complex attempt to do that is John Rawls’ recent book, Political Liberalism, which applies the structure of his Theory of Justice to a more overtly political subject matter. I think, personally, that the method has more limitations than Rawls admits. The idea that the set of rules, the determination of right, can be kept out of the theory of the good, seems to me overoptimistic. This is partly because I agree with Charles Taylor, who claims that the conceptions of the right which govern the structure of the rules are more informed by or grounded in certain overriding goods than Rawls typically allows. I also think that the goods or ideals held by the various pluralistic parties are going to have more effect than Rawls allows on the way in which they promote the shared structure of right. A clear example of this is an extreme consequence that Rawls has drawn in his latest book. If you are voting in anational election in a pluralist state, he says, your conception of the good shouldn’t inform the way you vote. That does seem to me to be a quite extraordinary view. In the USA, moral dilemmas needn’t take us far from real-life situations. The second consideration which is very important here is whether the extraordinary case is one from which anything can be learned. One of the troubles about the method of principle and counter-example in moral philosophy is that it always assures that the case is one from which you can learn something of a general kind, that is, that you can modify your principle. Now some cases are of this kind: what you may learn is that a certain kind of extraordinary case is continually coming up, so you’d better be prepared for it. But consider, on the other hand, the sort of extraordinary example, you couldn’t vote for a candidate because of his or her views on abortion, or because of his or her religion. So I’m afraid I am more sceptical about this than Rawls’ supporters. I actually think the case goes better if you have a less purified view of the right. Rawls is extremely emphatic that the shared structure of the right is not to be regarded as merely a modus vivendi. !t’s got to be a principled idea of right. Now I think, oddly enough, that we can combine more various views of the good if we do regard the rules of the right as a mere modus vivendi. I think a Hobbesian solution is more robust here, because it gives people a more vivid sense of what’s at stake. They know that they are not going to get the best order, which is homogeneity in beliefs about the good; they know that the cost of constant strife will be hideous. That gives them a vivid sense of why they have to stay together and make a few shared notions of the right work. This, I think, gives a stronger account of the matter than Rawls’ more idealized version of it.
Cogito: You describe morality, in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, as a ‘peculiar institution’. Presumably you intended the word ‘peculiar’ to bear both of its normal English-language meanings. But why have you come to think of morality as something odd or strange?
Williams: I think you have missed out the other reading of that phrase. ‘The peculiar institution’ was the expression that was used, in the slavery debate in the USA, for Southern slavery, and that echo wasn’t absent from my mind when I adopted this phrase. That is to say, I was hinting that the form of the ethical, supposed by Kant and others to be the very stuff of freedom, might in fact be a form of traditional slavery.
Cogito: Well, that partly answers my next question as weIl. You suggest that we might be better off without the ‘peculiar institution’, Le. without the domination of our practical reasoning by what you caH ‘moralism’. Is this a purely professional philosophical judgment, or is there some personal animus involved as well?
Williams: Like any such judgment, it’s obviously in part a result, in some sense, of my own experience, no doubt of my upbringing. But I may not be the best person to judge. One thing that has always struck me, since I was at school, is the sort of conflict that sometimes arises between art and the conditions which produce art, on the one side, and the demands of morality on the other. When I was at school I was thinking in terms of romantic artists, ‘art for art’s sake’, and so on. I admired Oscar Wilde, for instance, and D.H. Lawrence interested me, although in hindsight I see him now as an intense moralist and a highly puritanical thinker. I suppose I was also dimly aware of something that Nietzsche reminds us of, which is that the material conditions for the production of things of value, including morality itself, often rest on the violation of morality. I’ve always been impressed by the thought that if you took morality absolutely as seriously as it demands, almost nothing that we value would exist. It seems to me that this conflict requires us to rethink entirely the balance between rules and constraints, on the one hand, and various sorts of creativity on the other.\
Cogito: In 1979 the Williams Report was published, the report of a committee you chaired on pornography. In view of your rather modest conception of the con1petence of moral philosophy, what role do you think philosophers can and should play in the formation of public policy on such matters?
Williams: I don’t have modest views about the competence of moral philosophy. Rather, I have modest views about one thing in particular: its supposed authority as based on theory. It seems to me that a lot of the pretensions of moral philosophy to contribute to public policy are based on a false view of its authority as based on theory. The idea seems to be that someone will turn up on a Royal Commission, or a hospital board, and claim to have an authoritative voice because they have taken a degree in moral philosophy, or have a PhD. in applied ethics, or whatever. I really do think that, taken at face value, this is just nonsense. You can get an academic qualification without having any practical judgment whatever; and how can we expect that someone who hasn’t got any judgment in other matters will be competent to make good decisions in, say, medical ethics? However, I don’t underestimate the powers of moral philosophy-particularly if it’s historically informed-to serve a number of valuable roles in relation to public policy. For one thing, it’s helpful in sorting out one argument from another. I am strongly opposed to the claim that analytic expertise is a monopoly of philosophers-that, I think, is an insult to other people who think clearly about anything-but there is a certain level of abstraction that philosophers, in virtue of their analytic training, may help with. For example, I was once involved in an argument about the rights and wrongs of inheritance. Is inheritance based on the right of the children to receive, or the right of the parents to give? It makes a big difference. Again, is the right to inherit a house a special case, or is it just one smaller part of a general question about inheritance? If you think there is something particularly wrong about inheriting a house, perhaps because of a distortion in the housing market, should that consideration be confined to inheritance, or is it a point about housing as property? These are perfectly sensible questions, and some analytic training may help us to grasp them more quickly. Second, some expertise in moral philosophy may help you to get some hold on aspirations and ideals that are rather ill-defined, and to focus them onto a particular case. They may help you to see that a certain dispute is a species of a more general kind of argument, or resembles an argument that is going on in another area. If you are lucky and approach the matter in the right way, you may be able to unite ethical ideas from apparently very different domains. So I don’t think that moral philosophy is all that limited in relation to public policy; I think its limitation is only in respect of a false model of its authority as based upon theory. A further point about the pornography case is that you have to remember that the report was a public policy document of a very special kind, namely, a legislative proposal within a given state. As such, it is a public document, and one that must couch itself in terms of the discourse of that politics and that legislature. For instance, suppose that my colleagues on that commission and I had feIt that the constitution of the USA was much better in this respect than that of England, because it founds pornography legislation on the First Amendment, on a right of free speech of a very unqualified kind. It would have been no good our ‘saying, ‘Everyone has an absolute right to free speech, as expressed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution’, because that is not part of the political tradition in which we were operating. You have to start from the law, and the understanding of the law, that are already in place. This produces a particular kind of political discourse. It’s not necessarily conservative, but it has to be continuous, i.e. it must address itself to the ideas that are expressed in existing institutions and practices. Moral philosophy may help here because it may help you to see what is essential and what is not. But of course it isn’t sufficient, because you still have to have the political judgment to determine what is practicable.
Cogito: Campaigners for a ban on pornography have traditionally cast their argument in causal terms-porn is sometimes defined as material that will ‘deprave and corrupt’ . Now according to conventional views about causality, causal claims involve us in counterfactual conditionals, i.e. claims about what would have happened if … But claims about what would have been the case raise notorious problems for philosophers interested in their truth-conditions. Do you think such propositions have definite truth-conditions? And if so, could we hope to know them? Or is this an area in which ideological bias will always prevail on either side?
Williams: I don’t think that the metaphysical issues about the truth of counterfactuals are relevant here, because there are clearly acceptable counterfactuals about public matters. For example, we may all agree that if certain events hadn’t happened at Chernobyl, there would not have been an explosion; or that if a lot of people hadn’t started smoking, the incidence of lung cancer would be much lower. So I’m not worried about that. There is, however, another feature of counterfactuals which is clearly relevant to public policy debates. In philosophers’ jargon, counterfactuals are not monotonic — that is, you can’t get from ‘if p then q’ to ‘if p and r, then q’. This is of course the whole basis of David Lewis’ theory of counterfactuals, which relies on the similarity of possible worlds. In asking what would have been the case if p had been the case, you try to imagine the nearest possible world to the actual one, let’s you leave as much as possible of the rest unchanged while changing the contrary-to-fact condition. So counterfactuals come out in the form, ‘if p had been the case, and as much as possible of the background had been kept constant, q would have been the case’. The trouble is that in matters of public policy, such as pornography debates, people say things like, ‘If there had been less pornography available, there would have been less rape’. But in any realistic scenario in which there is less pornography, a lot of other things would be different as weIl. A society in which less pornography is available is also a society less exposed to material pressures, less open to the rest of the world, less given to discussion of sexual matters, and so on. So what you end up with is some wonderful result such as, ‘If the modern world were less like the modern worId than it actually is, a lot of things about it would be different’. That’s the trouble. People trot out comparative statistics about, say, how there is less pornography and a lower rate of sexual crime in Singapore. WeIl, it’s no doubt true that there is less pornography and less sexual crime in Singapore-but a lot of other things are different as weIl. There’s a rather robustly enforced public order, for instance. In general, my view is this. In the report, we did the best we could in dealing with pornography in the light of these sorts of causal considerations. We had to do so, because that’s the way in which it has been treated both in British law and in public controversy. I’m sure we were right to say that all the alleged causal connections are pretty dubious. What received less emphasis in the report was that this level of discussion is rather unrewarding. I now think that the treatment of the issue of pornography as if it were a public health problem, like the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, or between poor drains and cholera, is a mistake. You sometimes have to address causal arguments in their own terms, because the law is formulated that way, but it’s better to think about pornography as a cultural phenomenon, and to enquire into its expressive content and its relations to such things as structures of social power.
Cogito: The difficulty of sustaining the causal argument has led many anti-pornographers to adopt a different line. Pornography should be banned, argue a number of feminists, not because of its causal consequences but because it is itself degrading to women, i.e. because of its expressive content rather than its causal powers. What do you think of this line of argument
Williams: There has been a lot of literature since the report was published, particularly by feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, which attempts to get away from the public health model. The trouble is that the moment you try to put considerations of cultural significance, for example the relation of pornography to questions of gender and social power, into a law, you haven’t got a hope of legitimating it until you turn it back into a public health issue. So the concept of defamation or damage to women, which is deployed in MacKinnon’s draft statute, is in fact just another causal concept. It’s true that it’s been moved from the area of public health to the area of tort, but it carries with it exactly the same problems as other causal accounts.
Cogito: Your most recent book is entitled Shame and Necessity. Can you give our readers, in a few words, some idea of its contents?
Williams: It’s a study, in good part a historical study, of ethical ideas found in the earliest ancient Greek literature, particularly Homer and the tragedians. I’m concerned mainly with literature that was written before Socrates and Plato, although there is some discussion of Aristotle. Its negative aim is to combat a certain view of our relation to those ethical ideas, a view that I label ‘progressivism’. On this view, the ancient Greeks had certain primitive, elementary, pre-modern (even pre-moral) ethical ideas on such matters as moral responsibility, guilt, and so on. That progressivist view is associated with celebrating what one of us will regard as improvements: the abolition of chattel slavery, an improved respect for the equality of women, and so on. My thesis in brief is, firstly, that the ethical ideas of ancient Greece have been misunderstood; secondly, that we have much more in common with the ancient Greeks than we believe. A lot of the ideas that actually ‘keep us going’ are fundamentally. By the same token, I argue, as those of that world; and insofar as ours are different in some respects, they may even be worse. We have fooled ourselves into believing that we have a more purified notion of moral responsibility than we have. This belief is thus a form of illusion. To the extent that our situation represents progress or an improvement over theirs, understanding that progress requires the ancient ideas rather than our modern ones. Put another way, the degree of self-understanding of post-Enlightenment ethics is rather poor. I don’t want to take the archaising, reactionary view and say, ‘The Enlightenment has been a terrible disaster- back to the Greeks!’ If you were to go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, you’d get a very black picture indeed. Of course there has been some progress: our ethical situation is not theirs, because the modern world isn’t the ancient world. But there is more in common, ethically, than people think, and we actually mislead ourselves when we suppose otherwise.
Cogito: We always close these interviews by asking our interviewees about their extra-philosophical interests and activities. So, Professor Williams, what do you do when you are not doing philosophy?
Williams: I have a lot of interests outside philosophy; perhaps l’d better confine my answer to two of them. I have had a long involvement with the world of opera, and was on the board of the English National Opera for nearly twenty years, which gave me great pleasure and satisfaction. I still write about opera. In fact, I recently agreed to do something which no sane and well-informed person would have done, which was to write an article in the new Grove Dictionary 0f Opera under the entry, ‘opera’. Nobody who was actually an expert on the subject wanted to write so general an article. I’m also involved in some issues of public policy, notably the Labour Party’s new Commission for Social Justice, although I am not myself presently a member of the Labour Party. The Commission is supposed to deal with difficult issues concerning social security, pensions, and so on, and I hope to make a contribution to its deliberations.