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Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

4.02  ·  Rating Details  ·  357 Ratings  ·  13 Reviews
In this book Bernard Williams delivers a sustained indictment of moral theory from Kant onward. His goal is nothing less than to reorient ethics toward the individual. He deals with the most thorny questions in contemporary philosophy and offers new ideas about issues such as relativism, objectivity, and the possibility of ethical knowledge.
Paperback, 230 pages
Published March 15th 1986 by Harvard University Press (first published January 1st 1985)
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Mar 29, 2010 laura rated it really liked it
ok, i didn't read it in one weekend-- in fact, i took two, and all of the days in the middle, and just a little of this morning. whew. here's what i've got to say:

bernard williams wrote beautiful beautiful books of philosophy. human books. books of ecumenical sweep. he addressed himself to the central questions in analytic ethics, but avoided falling victim to the myopia endemic to the analytic project. and he managed, in addition, this most extraordinary thing (really, i've found nothing to mat
Aug 07, 2009 Tyler rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Philosophy Readers
Shelves: philosophy
This 1985 survey of modern ethics comes to us from a provost at Kings College, Cambridge. Bernard Williams raises an ancient concept, “virtue,” as an alternative to what he considers today's implausible, impersonal systems of morality, which have been built up by philosophers such as Kant.

The first chapters look back at the Greek ideas of virtue. Middle chapters look at modern morality as an institution; the author highlights the many faults in this public morality. Final chapters look at altern
Jan 03, 2008 Jennifer rated it really liked it
Although he treats certain historical positions quite shallowly, this book is a joy to read (and reread). I think any secular person who wants to take "morality" seriously (Kantians, utilitarians, I'm lookin at you!) will need to deal with the objections raised by this book.
David Markwell
Feb 08, 2016 David Markwell rated it liked it
Williams' Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy is a deceptively easy read. There is a great deal going on in Williams' book, and a great deal that is positive. His critique of 'morality' and the notion of obligation is forceful, and his separation of 'ethics' from 'morality' is prudent and well formed. Ultimately though, Williams position leaves one in a difficult position. His focus on deliberative priority, and first person decision making fails to question how/why certain individuals deliberat ...more
Jan 10, 2015 Xavier rated it it was ok
Shelves: wishlist

Misunderstood by those who feel like he's at least contributing to the debate. Funny at times. Though, again, misunderstood as to where and when he's kidding or poking fun at a theme or a philosopher. The distinction is crucial. I suppose he owes his readership to those willing to read their own viewpoint between the lines. Which is possible.
He could have taken the normative/morality distinction and ran with it some further instead of tweaking it and hollowing out words, rendering us
Don't let my 'low' score mislead you. Relatively seen, it is a very high score. I normally don't like works which are qualified as 'analytic philosophy' (or as you can put it: most of the philosophical works from the Anglosphere). Bernard Williams seems to break that habit of mine.
His work might , however, not be as clear as he was hoping it would (A. W. Moore confirms this in his commentary on the text), but nevertheless he made some very good points.

I really appriciated his vision on - as the
Aug 30, 2012 Kevin rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal work by one of the twentieth century's great moral philosophers.

I can't recommend this work enough to students of moral and political philosophy. Williams's elusive style, by which his arguments are elaborated gradually and key passages seem to come out of nowhere, is maddening for the casual reader; I would absolutely not recommend this book to non-specialists. This work is an intervention into several deep debates within contemporary moral philosophy, a grasp of which is probably n
Jun 25, 2015 Ryan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I can't remember the last time a book made me feel too stupid to be reading it - this one did. A.W. Moore said it well in the "Commentary on the Text" that appears in the back of the Routledge Classics (2011) edition: "It has a kind of clarity. But it does not have the kind of clarity that makes for easy reading. Williams never belabors the obvious; and he rarely makes explicit what he takes to be implicit in something he has already said. His writing is therefore extremely dense. It leaves an e ...more
Richard Newton
May 01, 2013 Richard Newton rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
This is an interesting book in which Williams makes some profound and deep observations, not just about ethics but, as the title implies, about the ability of philosophy to understand, create or comment on ethics. In the end I got a lot from it, but it does have one very major flaw. Williams has a flowery style of writing that make some sections impenetrable until you have read them several times. His habit of writing elongated sentences with lots of sub clauses can make it difficult to follow a ...more
Apr 22, 2014 Johann_tor rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
A singular and intriguing approach to the philosophy of ethics. Lots of powerful insights, but a bit too cleverly written.
May 18, 2013 JP rated it liked it
Bernard William gets at the core of the issue, while still covering the basics of both utilitarian and relativist thoughts. His thesis is skepticism that there can be a universal basis for ethics, but that the arguments most commonly involved do form the basis for each individual to adopt a consistent approach. He also separates ethics from morals, for which the latter usually assumes some basis of tradition or collectivism and carries some degree of obligation. I especially enjoyed his introduc ...more
Jun 02, 2015 Zedder rated it really liked it
This is so close to being really, really good, but then he drops the ball. Consistently. Still one of the best books in Anglo-American ethics written over the past 30 years. (Trying to imagine what else should be on that list is a depressing thought.)
Josh Paul
Feb 10, 2008 Josh Paul rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
Bernard Williams being all smart and sophisticated.
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  • Sense and Sensibilia: Reconstructed from the Manuscript Notes by C.J. Warnock
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  • Philosophical Explanations
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Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams FBA (21 September 1929 – 10 June 2003) has been described as the most important British moral philosopher of his time.

Williams spent the bulk of his career at four academic institutions: Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, and the University of California, Berkeley. Early in his career at Cambridge, Williams became known internationally for his attempt to
More about Bernard Williams...

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“Utilitarians are often immensely conscientious people, who work for humanity and give up meat for the sake of the animals. They think this is what they morally ought to do and feel guilty if they do not live up to their own standard. They do not, and perhaps could not, ask: How useful is it that I think and feel like this?” 7 likes
“It may be that considerations of justice are a central element of ethical thought that transcends the relativism of distance. Perhaps this, too, comes from a feature of the modern world. We have various conceptions of social justice, with different political consequences; each has comprehensible roots in the past and in our sentiments. Since we know that we do not accept their past legitimations, but otherwise are not sure how to read them, we are disposed to see past conceptions of justice as embodiments of ideas that still have a claim on modern people. To this extent, we see them as in real confrontation with each other and with modern ideas.” 2 likes
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