Reflections on Bernard Williams

Nakul Krishna has a well written piece on the late, great, moral philosopher Bernard Williams, one of the giants of 20th century moral philosophy, as told through the lens of his (Krishna’s) own experience as a philosophy grad student:

[Morality: An Introduction to Ethics] was his first book, but by the time of its publication Bernard Williams was already acknowledged as an academic superstar. A legendary undergraduate in classics at Oxford—awarded a so-called “congratulatory first” by his examiners—he became a “Prize Fellow” at Oxford’s mysterious, studentless All Souls College, was conscripted into the Royal Air Force, where he flew Spitfires, then catapulted at the age of 34 to a professorship in London on the strength of some dazzling papers and a reputation for quicksilver sharpness.

As an aside, Krishna quotes the radical utilitarian philosophy Toby Ord, wherein we can see the horrifying extremes, and natural logical entailment of, pathological altruism. Ord is quoted as saying:

Morality can demand a lot. Let’s say you’ve been falsely accused of murder, you’ve been sentenced to death, and you realize that you can escape if you kill one of your guards. Morality says you can’t kill him, even though it means you’re going to lose your life. That’s just how it is. Well, it turns out that we can save 1,000 people’s lives. If you don’t do that, then you have to say that it’s permissible to value yourself more than 1,000 times as much as you value strangers. Does that sound plausible? I don’t think that sounds very plausible. If you think that, your theory’s just stupid.

Of this position, Krishna responds:

I have heard Ord at seminars a few times and read his work, which is scrupulous and even-tempered, but this uncharacteristically truculent off-the-cuff remark, quoted by the journalist Larissa MacFarquhar in the Guardian, is nicely revealing of his outlook. “Morality” appears here as a tyrant who can “demand” or “permit” things. To resist is to expose yourself as holding a “stupid” theory, one that insists your own life matters more than the lives of a thousand strangers.

What made the years of grad school bearable was the jokey solidarity among those of us unsympathetic to this understanding of ethics, the ones who wrote on Aristotle and Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, on ambivalence, alienation and anger, and who didn’t see morality wherever they looked. Of the contemporary philosophers I read, Williams alone offered a model of a life in academic philosophy that held any appeal.

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