Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy
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Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

3.99 of 5 stars 3.99  ·  rating details  ·  178 ratings  ·  10 reviews
Book by Williams, Bernard
Paperback, 230 pages
Published March 15th 1986 by Harvard University Press (first published January 1st 1985)
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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...more
Aug 07, 2009 Tyler rated it 2 of 5 stars 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...more
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.
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...more
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...more
Richard Newton
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
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
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
Bernard Williams being all smart and sophisticated.
Anything by Williams is masterful.
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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
More about Bernard Williams...
Shame and Necessity Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973 1980 Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (Canto) Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956 1972 Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry

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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?” 5 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.” 1 likes
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