Greg's Reviews > Morality: An Introduction to Ethics

Morality by Bernard Williams
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Nov 05, 2009

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Read in November, 2009

This book is on the Goodreads list of "1000 Books Every Christian Should Read (Besides the Bible)". I don't know if it's addition to the only 618 books that have so far made it on to the list is meant to be serious, or is one of the obvious blasphemers having snuck in and added it. I hope it's serious, that some Christian saw this book, picked it up, read the chapter about God and morality, and swallowed the argument that if one believes in God, and can logically make sense of some kind of ethical system out of the whole concept, and one lives their life only in order to please this god and not be punished in the afterlife than one may be acting like a good person (or not), but one is not acting morally.

Thus Christians are not moral if they only rely on religion to guide their ethical practices.

I don't know if I actually agree with all of William's conclusions, but he does a nice job of setting up the weaknesses of competing systems of morality, and added a couple of more logical tools to my mental toolbox for seeing through bullshit.
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Comments (showing 1-36 of 36) (36 new)

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The Crimson Fucker Do you get any hate mail from crazy Christians???

Greg No, it's a shame that I don't.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio You've been plowing through the analytic philosophy lately. Kudos. Haven't read this one but I like Bernard Williams, even though I disagree with him on some things (e.g. he called Steven Pinker "glib" in an interview once, which pissed me off). I read Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy and have two others on my queue. Problems of the Self looks like an interesting collection of early essays, plus it has one of my favorite paintings by Magritte on the cover.

It is strange that any book by Williams would be on a pro-Christian list.

Williams is an interesting example of someone who eventually came to dislike the hard line split between the analytic and continental traditions. From an extended obituary in The Guardian:

"Williams pooh-poohed the incessantly-made antithesis between the rigorous analytic and the literary continental styles of philosophising, saying you might as well compare a car with four-wheel drive with a Japanese car (a category confusion of methodology and geography). Michael Tanner, the Cambridge exponent of Nietzsche, remembers how, in the 1960s, Williams picked up his copy of Beyond Good And Evil and demanded, "Why do you waste time over rubbish that Joad could have refuted?" But he was always able to change his mind, and soon became besotted with Nietzsche, saying that he longed to quote him every 20 minutes."

This is part of what made me pick up his work for the first time.

message 4: by D. (new)

D. Pow I think I might own this book...

message 5: by Elliot (last edited Mar 02, 2012 09:56AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Elliot Lee Williams has a lot of damning things to say about religions (especially Christianity) in this book and in other places, but his criticism is not that the motivations of wanting to please God or not wanting to go to hell necessarily rules out an action from being moral. He actually argues against this kind of tendency in argument by attacking the implied premise that there are two morally pertinent and exhaustive motivations, moral and prudential. Furthermore, he does not think that an act, policy, or outlook of prudence excludes the act from being moral, and vice versa. So he argues against the implied exclusivity of prudential and moral actions/policy/outlook.

Greg My memory of this book is very poor, I will grant that I didn't spend nearly the amount of time with the book that it probably deserved. Even though I didn't spend nearly enough time with this book, and it was just part of a quick undertaking in getting a superficial familiarity with some of the important figures in analytical philosophy I can promise you that it didn't result in any, "aid in fallacious name-droppings and puffing up the ego". I have never name dropped Williams, nor felt like I was superior to anyone for having read this or any other analytical philosophy book. I could have gotten more out of the book I'm sure if I gave it multiple reads and really studied it but honestly philosophical works on ethics I don't think aren't interesting or rewarding enough to me to put in that kind of effort. I'm probably a stupid person because of this.

I would have appreciated your comments but I'm a petty person who keeps getting hung up on the name calling at the start of your comments.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Admit it, Greg, you try to pick up chicks at work by name-dropping Bernard Williams.

I've gotten a BJ from a girl at a bar just by saying the name Frege.

You know it works. Don't be modest.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Hey, Elliot: Frege.

Greg It's true, I was just trying to keep that under wraps until the publication of my own version of The Game is released:How to Seduce Women with Anglo-American Philosophy.

message 10: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Feb 29, 2012 10:04PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Move over, Mystery, there's a new game in town!

message 11: by karen (new)

karen wait, are you objecting to being called "this person??"

message 12: by Greg (new) - rated it 3 stars

Greg You know how I get when I'm called 'this person'.

message 13: by Miriam (new)

Miriam How to Seduce Women with Anglo-American Philosophy

Ooh, can you work in a reference to Charles Elliot Norton? I need him to have more name-dropping cache so that my extensive knowledge of his intellectual development is not a complete waste.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Hey girl, anyone ever tell you that you look as fiiiiiine as Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe?

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Gotta 'brute fact' for your 'speech act' right here, girl...

message 16: by Miriam (new)

Miriam See, that would totally work! If I were a consequentialist.

message 17: by karen (new)

karen you should see what i am doing to my computer right now.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Girl, you the sexiest counterfactual theory of causation there is.

message 19: by karen (new)

karen unh unh

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Frege.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio They're also called 'militant atheists' by people who think that merely criticizing religion equates to being bullies against the poor benighted Christian majority of America.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio This conversation is going to give me ulcers, I can already feel it...

message 23: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Mar 01, 2012 02:00PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio There are atheists that keep their mouths shut and more or less apologize for being unable to 'believe' and then there are atheists that see socio-political problems attached to religiosity and speak out against them on the basis that not only are certain religious doctrines ridiculously untenable but also harmful. Religious folks tend to dislike that latter sort more and demonize them as being 'fundamentalist' or 'militant'.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Girl, you got ersatz modal realism to spare with yo bad self.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio My seduction artist mentor was the great David K. Lewis. He was truly a ladies man:

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio The tenure track is a hairy one, I suppose.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Frege.

message 28: by Miriam (new)

Miriam you fail to humor me

Wow. The ultimate in self-absorbed insults.

message 29: by Greg (new) - rated it 3 stars

Greg Are we fundamentalist atheists because we didn't engage in this dialogue again? Josh (MFSO, it just doesn't seem right calling him Josh) and I have had many many many discussions and fights between ourselves and others on various threads about this topic, I can't speak for MFSO but I'm guessing by his comment about feeling an ulcer coming on that neither of us is in the mood right now for getting into this kind of debate / argument or whatever it would turn out to be right now. I would love if I could have given you some better responses here, and maybe have even written a review that wasn't just quick thought on what I thought was the silliness of this book being on a list of 1,001 books a Christian should read. The book didn't leave much of a lasting impression on me though, I barely remember the book, and I had taken it out of the library so I can't even go pick it off the shelf and re-read the chapter I mentioned to see what I had meant. But, I'm sure you have a better grasp on Williams than I do, which isn't saying much since until last night I don't think I've even thought of him or this book in almost two and a half years.

To touch briefly on the philosophy / ethical arguments you mentioned in your original posting, I have a feeling we aren't that far off from what I thought Williams said and what you are correcting me for being wrong about. My original point, dashed off in a poorly and quick manner, was probably that being a Christian doesn't not automatically make you a moral person. Which sounds obvious, but the Christians of the Born Again / Tim Lahaye / Jack Chick variety do like to think that they are automatically just people because they have said the magic words to let Jesus into their hearts. This concept is brought up in various Fundamentalist works that basically say that God doesn't care if you are a murderer of children, if you take take Jesus into your heart you will go to heaven, but if you don't say the magic words and even if you have done lots of good deeds and lived a decent life you will burn in hell because we are all awful sinners in comparison to the infinite goodness of God. I know this isn't what all Christians believe, but it is held by certain varieties of Christianity. If anyone buys into this basic theory then the only way to live a moral life, which gets rewarded by not being eternally punished is to believe in God. This is basically the Christians I was talking about, they are the ones that I'm talking about in just about all my anti-Christian reviews, the fundamentalist / born again whatever you want to call them, the ones who write the self-help books, have sincere books of prayer to get rid of demons, who preach prosperity gospels and who believe a whole slew of nonsensical bullshit that rivals the insane beliefs New Age people subscribe to.

Returning to the accusation of being a fundamentalist atheist that is just bullshit. Because I'm not willing to have a totally open mind and entertain the notion every time someone tries to push God on me doesn't mean that unexamined starting premises or an irrational confidence in my lack of belief. This type of accusation isn't asking for an open mind it's an attempt to shift any dialogue to be in favor of religion.

message 30: by Miriam (new)

Miriam being a Christian doesn't not automatically make you a moral person. Which sounds obvious, but the Christians of the Born Again / Tim Lahaye / Jack Chick variety do like to think that they are automatically just people because they have said the magic words to let Jesus into their hearts.

I think predestination theology may also play a role in this attitude; I've had people argue to me that because they were saved God wouldn't allow them to commit any serious sins.

message 31: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Mar 02, 2012 09:25AM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Frege.

It's pretty funny.

My problem with you isn't your incoherent, cobbled together Manga-Nietzsche-Christian views, just the nose-in-the-air priggishness with which you jumped onto the thread and presented some of them. You'll make a great 'Cool Guy Preacher' someday though I'm sure. Your flock will be very impressed by the big words you dazzle them into submission to Jesus with.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio It's pretty swell of Elliot to have deleted all but his first, now edited, post. What an intellectually honest and upfront fellow he is. God bless you, Pastor Elliot.

message 33: by Jen (new)

Jen Elliot said:" This kid tries to insult me but I just think he is an immature imbecile. lol. Keep on barking and see if you care. Come on. Post more.
Oh boy. I've been missing out.

message 34: by Jen (new)

Jen Miriam wrote: "predestination theology may also play a role in this attitude; I've had people argue to me that because they were saved God wouldn't allow them to commit any serious sins. "

I've heard this too, but more from Pentecostal types. Weird. I've also heard that "God doesn't do anything halfway" so if you pray and ask for understanding, then VOILA! You have the mind of God a-presto-change-o.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Elliot wrote: "This kid tries to insult me but I just think he is an immature imbecile. lol. Keep on barking and see if you care. Come on. Post more."

That's twice now that you've broken your solemn oath to stop posting here. Christ is weeping upon your lies.

message 36: by Jen (new)

Jen I'm confused. Elliot's profile is for a 26 year old, so which kid is he referring to?

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