Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home
Hostname: page-component-5c569c448b-bmzkg Total loading time: 0.285 Render date: 2022-07-06T07:29:10.129Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Article contents

Humean Reflections in the Ethics of Bernard Williams

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2007

LORENZO GRECO*
Affiliation:
University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’lorenzo.greco@uniroma1.it

Abstract

In this article I maintain that the anti-theoretical spirit which pervades Williams's ethics is close to the Humean project of developing and defending an ethics based on sentiments which has its main focus in the virtues. In particular, I argue that there are similar underlying themes which run through the philosophies of Hume and Williams, such as the view that a correct ethical perspective cannot avoid dealing with a broader theory of human nature; the conviction that this inquiry cannot be developed in abstraction from the contingencies which are distinctive of the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings driven by passions; and the belief that the notion of character plays a key role in identifying and morally evaluating such lives. Finally, Williams' account of the psychological mechanism of shame in explaining character formation bears a strong resemblance to Hume's treatment of the passion of humility.

Type
Research Article
Information
Utilitas , Volume 19 , Issue 3 , September 2007 , pp. 312 - 325
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)

References

1 Charles, Taylor, ‘A Most Peculiar Institution’, World, Mind, and Ethics. Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams, ed. Altham, J. E. J. and Harrison, Ross (Cambridge, 1995)Google Scholar.

2 Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘Aristotle on Human Nature and the Foundations of Ethics’, World, Mind, and Ethics.

3 Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge, 1996); esp. lecture 2.

4 For example, see the ‘Introduction’ by Garrett Cullity and Berys, Gaut, Ethics and Practical Reason, ed. Cullity, Garrett and Gaut, Berys (Oxford, 1997)Google Scholar. See also Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard and Peter Railton, ‘Toward Fin de siècle Ethics: Some Trends’, and Stephen Darwall, ‘Reasons, Motives, and the Demands of Morality: An Introduction’, both in Moral Discourse and Practice. Some Philosophical Approaches, ed. Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard and Peter Railton (Oxford, 1997).

5 Bernard, Williams, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton and Oxford, 2002)Google Scholar.

6 Note that, in Williams’ terms, ‘ethics’ becomes ‘morality’ when it is forced into a particular theoretical structure. See Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London, 1985, 1993), ch. 1.

7 Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, ch. 10; see also ‘Morality and the Emotions’, Problems of the Self. Philosophical Papers 1956–1972 (Cambridge, 1973).

8 See Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, ch. 10.

9 See ‘Morality and the Emotions’; Morality. An Introduction to Ethics (Cambridge, 1972), ch. 8; ‘Persons, Character and Morality’, Moral Luck. Philosophical Papers 1973–1980 (Cambridge, 1981); Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, ch. 4.

10 ‘Egoism and Altruism’, Problems of the Self, p. 260.

11 See ‘Internal and External Reasons’, Moral Luck, p. 101.

12 ‘Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame’, Making Sense of Humanity and Other Philosophical Papers 1982–1993 (Cambridge, 1995), p. 36.

13 ‘Internal and External Reasons’, p. 102.

14 ‘Internal and External Reasons’, p. 105.

15 ‘Internal and External Reasons’, p. 110.

16 On the problem of the motivational force of ethics in Hume see his discussion of the superiority of sentiment over reason in moving agents to act. See in particular A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, rev. P. H. Nidditch, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1978), bk. 3, pt. 1, sects. 1 and 2; see also An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford, 1998), sect. 1 and app. 1. Regarding the role of the imagination in ethics, what Hume says about the mechanism of sympathy is fundamental. See A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 2, pts. 1 and 2. On Hume's understanding of the role of the imagination in ethics, and on how it is related to sympathy, see Annette C. Baier, A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume's Treatise (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), ch. 6; M. Jamie Ferreira, ‘Hume and Imagination: Sympathy and “the Other” ’, International Philosophical Quarterly 34 (1994); Donald C. Ainslie, ‘Sympathy and the Unity of Hume's Idea of Self’, Persons and Passions: Essays in Honor of Annette Baier, ed. Joyce Jenkins, Jennifer Withing and Christopher Williams (South Bend, Ind., 2005).

17 Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 153.

18 A Treatise of Human Nature, ‘Introduction’, p. xix.

19 This is a striking element in Williams’ treatment of the notion of altruism, a treatment which he explicitly declares to be Humean, and anti-Kantian, in spirit. See Morality, ch. 8, and ‘Egoism and Altruism’.

20 An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, sect. 1, p. 76.

21 An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, sect. 1, p. 77.

22 A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 3, pt. 3, sect. 1; An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, sect. 9.

23 See Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, chs. 2 and 8, in particular pp. 45–53 and 152–5.

24 For example, see the ‘Introduction’ by Roger Crisp and Michael Slote to Virtue Ethics, ed. Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (Oxford, 1997).

25 For example, see Rosalind, Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford, 1999)Google Scholar. By Hursthouse, see also ‘Virtue Ethics and Human Nature’, Hume Studies 25 (1999).

26 See Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, ch. 3. See also the ‘Replies’ to Martha Nussbaum in World, Mind, and Ethics, pp. 194–202.

27 See Schneewind, J. B., ‘The Misfortunes of Virtue’, Ethics 101 (1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; reprinted in Virtue Ethics.

28 A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 3, pt. 3, sect. 6, pp. 620–1.

29 By Hume, see A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 2, pt. 2, sect. 3; bk. 2, pt. 3, sect. 2; bk. 3, pt. 2, sect. 1; bk. 3, pt. 3, sect. 1. By Williams, see ‘Persons, Character and Morality’ and Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, ‘Postscript’. See also Williams’ discussion of the notion of integrity in ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’, in J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism. For and Against (Cambridge, 1973), sect. 5.

30 ‘Moral Luck’, Moral Luck, p. 21.

31 ‘Nietzsche's Minimalist Moral Psychology’, Making Sense of Humanity, pp. 69–72, I quote from p. 70. Cf. also Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 169.

32 An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford, 1999), sect. 8, n. 18, p. 158; see also A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 2, pt. 3, sect. 1.

33 See for example ‘Morality and Emotions’; ‘Moral Luck’; Morality, ch. 6; Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, chs. 9 and 10.

34 Shame and Necessity (Berkeley, 1993), ch. 3, p. 61.

35 An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, app. 4, p. 176.

36 On ‘liberty of spontaneity’ and ‘liberty of indifference’, see A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 2, pt. 3, sect. 2.

37 ‘Voluntary Acts and Responsible Agents’, Making Sense of Humanity, esp. pp. 28–32.

38 Williams discusses thick ethical concepts in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, esp. ch. 8.

39 In that regard, the comparison between Rousseau and Diderot in Truth and Truthfulness, ch. 8, which focuses on the notions of sincerity and authenticity, is illuminating.

40 Shame and Necessity, p. 219.

41 On the relation between guilt and shame see Shame and Necessity, ch. 4 and Endnote 1. See also ‘Nietzsche's Minimalist Moral Psychology’, Making Sense of Humanity.

42 According to Williams, shame has to do with our being seen, while guilt has to do with our being heard. Whereas the sentiment of shame causes us to want to disappear and not be seen by anybody, with the sense of guilt this is not enough: even if we did disappear, the impersonal voice which judges us would keep haunting us. See Shame and Necessity, ch. 4 and Endnote 1. See also ‘Nietzsche's Minimalist Moral Psychology’.

43 Shame and Necessity, p. 82.

44 A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 1, pt. 4, sect. 6, p. 252.

45 For example, see the following articles: Donald C. Ainslie, ‘Scepticism about Persons in Book II of Hume's Treatise’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 37 (1999) and ‘Sympathy and the Unity of Hume's Idea of Self ’; John Bricke, ‘Hume's Conception of Character’, Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 5 (1974); Nicholas Capaldi, ‘The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Hume's Theory of the Self’, Philosophy, its History and Historiography, ed. A. J. Holland (Dordrecht, 1983); Pauline Chazan, ‘Pride, Virtue and Self-Hood: A Reconstruction of Hume’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 22 (1992); Robert S. Henderson, ‘David Hume on Personal Identity and the Indirect Passions’, Hume Studies 16 (1990); Clarence Shole Johnson, ‘Hume's Theory of Moral Responsibility: Some Unresolved Matters’, Dialogue 31 (1992); Eugenio Lecaldano, ‘The Passions, Character, and the Self in Hume’, Hume Studies 28 (2002); Jane L. McIntyre, ‘Personal Identity and the Passions’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 27 (1989) and ‘Character. A Humean Account’, History of Philosophy Quarterly 7 (1990); Terence Penelhum, ‘Self-identity and Self-regard’, ‘The Self of Book I and the Selves of Book II’ and ‘Hume, Identity and Selfhood’, all collected in Themes in Hume: The Self, the Will, Religion (Oxford, 2000); Susan M. Purviance, ‘The Moral Self and the Indirect Passions’, Hume Studies 23 (1997); Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, ‘Pride Produces the Idea of Self: Hume on Moral Agency’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 68 (1990); Kenneth P. Winkler ‘ “All Is Revolution in Us”: Personal Identity in Shaftesbury and Hume’, Hume Studies 26 (2000); John P. Wright, ‘Butler and Hume on Habit and Moral Character’, Hume and Hume's Connections, ed. M. A. Stewart and John P. Wright (Edinburgh, 1994).

46 For Hume's account of the mechanisms of pride and humility, see A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 2, pt. 1.

47 A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 2, pt. 1, sect. 9, p. 316.

48 A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 2, pt. 2, sect. 5, p. 365.

49 As Páll S. Árdal, Terence Penelhum and Eugenio Lecaldano have observed, even though the term used by Hume to refer to the passion opposed to pride is ‘humility’, it is appropriate to identify it with ‘shame’, given the particular way in which he describes it as functioning. See Páll S. Árdal, Passion and Value in Hume's Treatise (Edinburgh, 1966), p. 34; Terence Penelhum, ‘Self-identity and Self-regard’; Eugenio Lecaldano, ‘Soggetto morale e identità personale dalla prospettiva del sentimentalismo humeano’, lecture for the Pisa University conference on ‘Dimensions of Subjectivity’, 19 September 2001.

50 I would like to thank the participants in the 2nd Morrell Studies Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy, 23 September 2004, York, England, where this article was presented as a paper; in particular, I wish to thank Alex Bavister-Gould, Sarah Marshall, Matt Matravers, Susan Mendus, David Owen, Simon Robertson, Matt Sleat and Tim Stanton for their useful questions. An earlier version had been presented at the 5th Seminar on Law Theory and Practical Philosophy, 14 May 2003, Modena, Italy; my thanks to Thomas Casadei and Gianfrancesco Zanetti. I am grateful to Mattia Bilardello, Marco Borioni, Roger Crisp, Piergiorgio Donatelli, Eugenio Lecaldano, Sebastiano Maffettone and Daniel Star for their valuable comments.

1
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure coreplatform@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Humean Reflections in the Ethics of Bernard Williams
Available formats
×

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Humean Reflections in the Ethics of Bernard Williams
Available formats
×

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Humean Reflections in the Ethics of Bernard Williams
Available formats
×
×

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *