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were not Greeks, not, that is, in Williams™ sense,” Barnes (1993), p. 3.
4 E.g., Nietzsche, who shares Williams™ strong admiration for pre-Socratic Greek eth-
ical ideas (and who harbors an even stronger animus against modern ones), would
challenge Williams™ contention that “morality” is distinctly modern. On Nietzsche™s
view, the trouble began much earlier: “with the Jews there begins the slave revolt in
morality: that revolt which has a history of two thousand years behind it and which
we no longer see because it “ has been victorious,” Nietzsche (1887/1967), First Essay,
sec. 7; Nietzsche (1886/1966), sec. 195.
5 Williams (1985), p. 196.
106 Robert B. Louden


“supererogatory”), the brave, the foolish, the admirable, the despicable, and
so on. And not all of the key normative concepts employed in the practi-
cal sphere would even be moral ones “ there would be ample space for
nonmoral ones as well. But on Williams™ view, modern normative outlooks
concerning practical deliberation tend to be pathologically obsessed with
obligation. Embedded in modernity is an objectionable ¬‚attening out of
the moral landscape. At least on this particular point, Williams agrees with
John Stuart Mill: “no [defensible] system of ethics requires that the sole
motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty.”6
A second, related kind of reductionism present in morality™s monomania
over obligation is its view that obligations cannot con¬‚ict. If I have one
obligation to do X (e.g., help a victim in a motorcycle accident) and a
second to do Y (e.g., drive my very pregnant wife to the hospital delivery
room), it must be the case that it is humanly possible for me to perform both
acts. This second kind of reductionism follows from the ¬rst, on Williams™
view, via two common bridging assumptions: (1) Ought implies can. (If I have
a genuine obligation to do something, then it must be within my capacity
to do it.) (2) The agglomeration principle. (If I have an obligation to do X
and an obligation to do Y, I am obligated to do both X and Y.) But here
(as elsewhere), Williams™ response is that such a view simply doesn™t square
with the hard facts of life. Life, particularly human life, is fundamentally
about con¬‚ict and tragic choice (choice-situations where whatever we do
will be morally wrong), and any deliberative outlook that denies this is
simply a product of a fantasy-world. The view that obligations and values
generally are occasionally in irreconcilable con¬‚ict with one another “is not
necessarily pathological at all, but something necessarily involved in human
values, and to be taken as central by an adequate understanding of them.”7
A third, related area involving obligation in which yet another kind of
reductionism is at work concerns the emotions. Williams has long been a
critic of moral philosophy™s alleged neglect of the emotions. On his own
view, our “conception of an admirable human being implies that he should

6 Mill (1861/1989), p. 17. Williams concludes his contribution to Smart and Williams (1973)
with the prediction: “the day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of utilitarianism,”
p. 150. Utilitarianism, he also notes elsewhere, “is an example of morality,” viz., of the
morality system, Williams (1995g), p. 205.
7 Williams (1981b), p. 72. In this essay. Williams acknowledges his debts to Isaiah Berlin on
the topics of value pluralism and con¬‚icts of value. See, e.g., Berlin (1969). Williams™ strong
commitment to value pluralism is also evident in Williams (2002), where he urges readers
to resist Kant™s “obsession” with the view that there exists “an exceptionless and simple rule,
part of a Moral Law that governs us all equally without recourse to power. There is no such
rule. Indeed, there is no Moral Law, but we have resources for living with that fact, some of
them no doubt still to be uncovered,” p. 122.
107
The Critique of the Morality System


be disposed to certain kinds of emotional response.”8 But for Kant, “the
philosopher who has given the purest, deepest, and most thorough repre-
sentation of morality,”9 “the idea that any emotionally governed action by
a man can contribute to our assessment of him as a moral agent “ or be a
contribution . . . to his moral worth” is rejected.10 Baldly put, the morality
system claims that morally right action must be determined by the thought
of obligation. Williams, by contrast, holds that (all?) ethically admirable
acts are determined by certain appropriate emotions rather than reasoning
about obligation.
Finally, a fourth feature of moral obligation that Williams also criticizes
is its alleged inescapability and categorical nature. According to the morality
system, a valid moral obligation is something that overrides, or takes prece-
dence over, all other considerations. Here, too, Williams asserts, distortion
and reductionism are at work again. Why assume that moral obligations
alone are inescapable? What about the signi¬cant demands placed on us
from other areas of life? Given his position that religion is “incurably unin-
telligible,” Williams could hardly be expected to embrace Kierkegaard™s
notion of a “teleological suspension of the ethical” “ or at least he couldn™t
be expected to endorse Kierkegaard™s religious motives for suspending eth-
ical commitments in favor of an allegedly higher religious duty.11 Nev-
ertheless, both thinkers do endorse the claim that the ethical is not the
highest element in human existence. We might say that on Williams™ view
there will be multiple teleological suspensions of the ethical, invoked from a
multiplicity of non-religious perspectives. Morality is not the only game in
town.
Practical Necessity. The second major philosophical mistake of the moral-
ity system concerns its tendency to reduce practical necessity uberhaupt to
¨


8 Williams (1973b), pp. 225“226. Cf. Williams (1973a) in the same volume, p. 166.
9 Williams (1985), p. 174.
10 Williams (1973b), p. 226. As noted earlier (n. 2), Kant is almost always the intended target
behind Williams™ attacks on morality. For example, in another essay he notes: “The deepest
exploration in philosophy of the requirements of morality is Kant™s,” Williams (1995a),
p. 17. Later in this essay, I shall examine the accuracy of Williams™ portrait of Kant™s moral
theory, and offer a few Kantian re¬‚ections on the morality system.
11 Williams (1972), p. 78. As the title indicates, in this early work, Williams does not yet
distinguish between morality and ethics. However, hints of many of his later concerns (e.g.,
his view that imaginative literature has more to teach us about ethics than abstract theories “
p. xi, his interest in thick as opposed to thin normative concepts “ p. 33, and his view that
scienti¬c knowledge is much more objective than ethical “ p. 30) are nevertheless present.
For another sceptical look at religious belief, see Williams™ very early essay, Williams (2006).
See also his more recent remarks about ˜Feuerbach™s axiom™ in Williams (1995e), p. 238. For
Kierkegaard™s discussion of the teleological suspension of the ethical, see his (1843/1983),
Problem I.
108 Robert B. Louden


moral obligation. On Williams™ view, “practical necessity is in no way pecu-
liar to ethics.”12 In other words, people in the grip of the morality system
typically assume that whenever someone says: “I have thought it over, and
this is what I really must do,” the resulting must will necessarily be the must
of moral obligation. But this too is a distortion of the facts. In real life,
agents™ practical deliberations about what they must do may not result in a
conclusion to carry out a moral obligation at all “ even when the speci¬c
question, “Ethically speaking, what ought I to do here?” is itself included
within their deliberative processes. The moral ought, so to speak, may be
overridden by a more pressing non-moral ought. As he writes in his essay,
“Practical Necessity”:
The question: “What ought I to do?” can be asked and answered where no
question of moral obligation comes into the situation at all; and when moral
obligation does come into the question, what I am under an obligation to
do may not be what, all things considered, I ought to do.13

Williams™ basic point here seems related to the issue of inescapability, dis-
cussed earlier. He denies that moral obligations are uniquely inescapable
and categorical. Or rather, he acknowledges that the morality system tags
them this way, but he himself denies that they function in this manner in
real life. On his view, moral obligations are just one factor among many that
agents might consider when deliberating about what to do, and they won™t
necessarily trump other considerations. Moral obligations, as he notes else-
where, “are never ¬nal practical conclusions, but are an input into practical
decision. They are only one kind of ethical input, constituting one kind of
ethical consideration among others.”14
There is at least one additional point that bears noting. For Williams,
any and all conclusions of practical necessity “are determined by projects
that are essential to the agent.”15 Depending on (among other things) what
kind of society people live in and how they have been brought up, the
projects that are essential to them may or may not be moral or ethical ones.
But this is always an empirical, contingent matter. Here Williams™ position
echoes Hume™s: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions,
and can never pretend to any other of¬ce than to serve and obey them.”16

12 Williams (1985), p. 188.
13 Williams (1981c), pp. 124“25.
14 Williams (1995g), p. 205. Williams™ denial that moral obligations are uniquely categorical
is similar to Philippa Foot™s position; see Foot (1978). Cf. Williams (1981a), p. 20 n. 1;
Williams (1985), 223 n. 18.
15 Williams (1995a), p. 17.
16 Hume (1739“40/1978), p. 415. Cf. Williams (1995g), p. 205).
109
The Critique of the Morality System


Effective practical deliberation helps us get what we want (e. g., realize
projects that are essential to us), but without a preexisting want there is no
sense in deliberating.
Ethical Practical Necessity. The third major philosophical mistake of the
morality system occurs within contexts concerning what Williams calls
“ethical practical necessity” “ that is, deliberative situations in which we
are guided by ethical considerations to determine our conclusion about
what we must do, but where the resulting must is still not the must of moral
obligation. Here, too, he claims, the morality system tends to reduce such
deliberative situations to an obsessive hunt for moral obligations, and the
result is yet another ¬‚attening of our ethical experience. On Williams™ view,
practical necessity, “even when it is grounded in ethical reasons, does not
necessarily signal an obligation.”17
So we are talking now about cases in which people conclude that eth-
ically they must do X, but in which there is no sense of moral obligation
involved in this conclusion. The issue at hand, in other words, is not whether
there can be legitimate teleological suspensions of the ethical by allegedly
higher or more pressing nonethical concerns, but rather whether ethical
deliberation about what we must do itself always necessarily culminates in
the must of moral obligation. One example that Williams offers, which I
have embellished a bit, goes as follows: Suppose you have promised to visit
a friend in the hospital during visiting hours. However, right before setting
off, you receive a phone call. A demonstration is being held in front of the
university administration building (as it happens, during hospital visiting
hours) to protest the lack of health bene¬ts granted to part-time instructors
at the university, and the organizers want to know if you will speak at the
rally.18 You have previously written an editorial in the campus newspaper,
arguing that part-time instructors should indeed be granted such bene¬ts.
Because the issue is very important to you, you decide to attend “ indeed,
ethically, you feel that you must go. However, you do not feel that you
are under any moral obligation to participate in the demonstration, and
you realize that if you do go, you will be breaking your promise (and thus
failing to carry out an incurred moral obligation) to visit your friend in the
hospital.19


17 Williams (1985), p. 188.
18 This example may puzzle readers outside of the United States. However, the United States
lacks a national health insurance system, and at present it is also the case that not all part-
time or even full-time employees working in the United States receive health insurance
bene¬ts from their employers.
19 Williams (1985), p. 190.
110 Robert B. Louden


Williams™ position here is that you should go to the rally, even though
you are under no moral obligation to do so. In other words, even when
we are deliberating within the ethical sphere and want to do the right
thing, the thought of moral obligation should not necessarily be paramount.
Even when our thinking about what we must do is based on ethical rather
than nonethical considerations, moral obligation does not necessarily win
out over other competing ethical considerations. Some moral obligations,
ethically speaking, are not very important in the larger scheme of things.
Inclination, the Voluntary, and Purity. We have seen already that Williams
attacks the concept of moral obligation from multiple perspectives: ethical
life is about much, much more than moral obligation; the phenomenolog-
ical sense of practical necessity is not unique to moral obligation; the pres-
ence of practical necessity in our deliberation need not necessarily signal a
moral obligation, and so on. But a further attack comes via the mundane
concept of inclination. On Williams™ view, obligations are not opposed to
inclinations but rather presuppose them. Obligations do not stand opposed
to inclination but rather grow out of them. In other words, an agent will
only be in a position to decide that she must do X if she has a pre-existing
desire to do X. However, because the desire in question will be one that
helps energize her to decide that she morally must do something, it needs
to be particularly strong or fundamental to her: it is not just “a desire that
the agent merely happens to have,” but, as we saw earlier (see note 15), one
determined by projects that are essential to the agent.20 Thus here again
we ¬nd Williams™ neo-Humeanism at work. Reason is and ought to be the
slave of the passions.
The morality system also leads people to think that “without its utter
voluntariness, there is only force.”21 With the concept of the voluntary we
run up against another fundamental illusion of the morality system; albeit
a more metaphysical one than those discussed earlier. The particular sense
of voluntariness at issue here is radical “ “one that will be total and will cut
through character and psychological or social determination, and allocate
blame and responsibility on the ultimately fair basis of the agent™s own con-
tribution, no more and no less.”22 The morality system, in other words,
presupposes the traditional notion of free will “ on its view, moral character
and the choices that issue from it are not mere products of psychologi-
cal or social determination. Rather, they are free choices for which agents


20 Williams (1985), p. 189.
21 Williams (1985), p. 196.
22 Williams (1985), p. 194.
111
The Critique of the Morality System


are responsible. It should be noted that Williams himself does not reject
weaker, less ambitious senses of the voluntary “ indeed, elsewhere he claims
that “the idea of the voluntary is essentially super¬cial.”23 According to this
essentially super¬cial sense, “an agent does X fully voluntarily if X-ing is an
intentional aspect of an action he does, which has no inherent or delibera-
tive defect.”24 But Williams™ assumption here is that it is perfectly consistent
with this de¬nition that an agent “voluntarily” choose something that nev-
ertheless is entirely a product of psychological and/or social determination.
On his view, “one™s history as agent is a web in which anything that is the
product of the will is surrounded and held up and partly formed by things
that are not.”25 There is no possibility of escape (or even of momentary or
partial disentanglement) from this all-encompassing web. Williams rejects
any and all stronger free will senses of the voluntary. Our choices are always
surrounded and held up and partly formed by forces beyond our control,
even in cases of voluntary action.
In holding fast to its illusion of utter voluntariness, the morality system
also pretends that the only options available for in¬‚uencing human behavior
are reason and force. In saying “you ought to have done X,” we are trying
to reason with the agent, and to blame him when he does not act on the
relevant reasons. But if the “¬ction” of appealing to reasons is not effective
(and recall here that on William™s view it can only be effective in cases where
there already exists a basic desire or pro-incentive within the agent to do
reason™s bidding), we resort to force. On Williams™ view, there are many
other options between the extremes of reason and force. Indeed, “in truth
almost all worthwhile human life lies between the extremes that morality
puts before us.”26

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