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Bernard Williams

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Video: Utilitarianism : a lecture by Bernard Williams
Duration: 00:24:41
Date: 05-08-1986
Video: Utilitarianism : a tutorial by Rohan Collier
Duration: 00:24:35
Date: 13-01-1987
Portrait photograph of Professor Sophie Grace Chappell, Professor of Philosophy at The Open University.
Image : Professor Sophie-Grace Chappell
Date: 2021


This 1986 lecture gives a wonderfully close-up picture of one of the biggest personalities in 20th century British philosophy, Professor Sir Bernard Williams (1929-2003). In this introductory lecture, Williams focuses on some particular technical difficulties in the formulation of utilitarianism. What does it mean by “desire”, “well-being”, “maximisation” or “quantification” (not “pontification”, as the last page of the video’s transcript amusingly has it)? 
Williams’ lecture is such a model of clarity that it speaks for itself. In this commentary, I fill in a bit of the background to his remarks.
Williams is, on the whole, fairly moderate and balanced in what he says in this lecture, no doubt in the interests of giving the OU’s students a picture not only of his critique, but also of its target—of utilitarianism itself, in all its forms and guises. Still, Williams himself was far from neutral on this topic. Williams was always a famously doughty opponent of utilitarianism, and of the more general way of thinking that he saw as lying behind it. This way of thinking he called “the morality system”, meaning a structure of practical requirements of a specially demanding and unconditional kind: above all, duties and obligations. 
For Williams, modern philosophical utilitarianism, as exemplified by writers like Richard Hare and Jack Smart, is a combination of two thoughts in particular. The first is specifically utilitarian: it is the idea that we have more reason “to do the best”—to “maximise the good”—than to do anything else, as indeed utilitarianism in its most basic form has always said. The second is a notion that might be given, and has been given, expressions both in and outside a utilitarian framework. It is the idea that our reason “to maximise the good” is of the morality system’s exceptionally demanding and non-negotiable kind: it is a specifically moral reason, a Specially Moral Duty or Obligation (capitalisations deliberate).
Over the course of his career Williams developed all sorts of ways of questioning and undermining this picture of what moral philosophy is or should be, and gave all sorts of sketches of an alternative vision of ethics. 
But I choose the word “sketches” advisedly, because Williams, himself an exuberant and at times even overwhelming personality, was often charged with tearing down the edifice of contemporary moral philosophy, but having nothing precise or worked-out “to put in its place”—except perhaps the development of strong individual personalities like his own. (There is often a strikingly Nietzschean tone to Williams’ work. This is particularly evident towards the end of “Persons, Character, and Morality”, and in his last book, Truth and Truthfulness.)
To this charge Williams’ characteristic retort was, to paraphrase things he says more than once: “I do indeed have nothing to put ‘in its place’. But that’s fine, because the place where contemporary moral philosophy is, is a place where there shouldn’t be anything anyway. We need to find different places: different ways of thinking about, of framing the entire argument about, what is most important to us in our lives.” 
The debates that he began in his work, about what these alternatives might be, and whether they are really philosophy at all, continue to this day. One contributor to them is myself, the OU’s own Sophie Grace Chappell, and some others are listed in the bibliography to my and Nicholas Smyth’s Stanford Encyclopedia article on Williams, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/williams-bernard/
Other suggestions for further reading (full references in the SEP article):
  • Bernard Williams & Jack Smart, Utilitarianism: For and Against (1973)
  • Bernard Williams, “Persons, Character, and Morality” (1981)
  • Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985)
  • Sophie Grace Chappell, Knowing What To Do (OUP 2014), Chs.1-2; Epiphanies (OUP 2022), Ch.2 
Sophie Grace Chappell
Sophie Grace Chappell is Professor of Philosophy at the Open University
Related videos and essays (all links open in a new window):
  • Dostoevsky and Deontology: Bernard Williams debates Kant, utilitarianism and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment with A. Phillips Griffiths.
    Accompanying essay by Christine M. Korsgaard.
  • Moral Philosophy: A. J. P. Kenny and R. M. Hare discuss the value of moral philosophy.
    Accompanying essay by Michael Smith.

Bernard Williams (page 2 of 8)