Ethical Perspectives

December 1999

Seminar with Bernard Williams 25 November 1998 — Institute of Philosophy — KU Leuven

Bernard Williams

Arnold Burms: Professor Williams has said that he is willing to answer some of our questions about his work. Given the amount of work he has to do here in a few days, this was a generous decision for which we are genuinely grateful. Professor Van de Putte will start the discussion with some questions about the relation between theory and practice.

André Van de Putte: In Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy you situate ethical thought in the context of a movement of reflection. To quote from page 112: “It is too late at this stage to raise the prior question: `Why reflection?' — too late in terms of this inquiry, (...) and always too late in terms of the question itself, since one could answer it without prejudice only by not considering it.” And just before that quotation you also said that “the drive to theory has roots in ethical thought itself” and a little bit further you say: “The important question at this point is why reflection should be taken to require theory.” Now I would like to elaborate a little bit on these remarks and ask you to comment on what I'm going to say.

Three things should be stressed concerning ethical reflection which are important for moral philosophy and for our understanding of moral philosophy. The first one is this: the person who is reflecting is already part of a concrete society when he or she starts reflecting. That means that he or she has been socialized in a concrete ethos and has already an experience of a substantive ethical life. In this sense he or she does not need to invent ethical life.

The second remark is this: ethical reflection is in itself already the expression of an ethical intention. By asking the question `How should one live?', one shows that one is interested in living an ethical life. In this sense I can agree with what I think you say in Ethics, namely that the question `Why should I be moral?' is not meaningful for a moral thinker. The answer to the moral question, the results of his reflection are not meant to convince him or his readers to be moral. On the contrary, he starts precisely from this interest in morality and tries to understand what it means to be moral, what his wish to be moral implies.

My third point is the most important. In starting his reflection the thinker has as it were decided that his answer will only be acceptable if it is valid for all, if it can be justified for all. In the moral question itself, a norm of universality is implied. And given the fact that the moral question is itself the expression of an ethical intention, this is important. If he would not assume this norm, he would in my view not really be posing the question. We can immediately understand this if we consider the alternative.

Suppose a moral thinker who assumes that an answer to the moral question will be valid only when it suits him. Would we say in this case that this person is really asking the moral question? I do not think so. To put this another way, my thesis is that in the reflection the person who reflects is subjecting himself to the law of thinking itself, to the law of reason, in other words, to the law of universality, of non-contradiction. In the question he discovers this law as a norm for himself asking the moral question and thus as a norm inherent in moral intention. I think that this is precisely what Kant discovered and why for so many there is an important link between ethics and reason and why we are, as you say, driven to theory: since we want a universal answer, since a moral norm implies universality, we are looking for a theory, for a universal justification. But this is not yet the full story. All that I have said only becomes visible on the reflective level. It is only visible, as it were, once one starts reflecting.

This means that the norm of universality cannot and must not be understood as a concrete norm which can and should replace the norms of the concrete ethos we all already live in when we start reflecting. I think rationalism in ethics is precisely that: the belief that this norm and what one hopes to deduce from it can and should replace the concrete ethos. I think it must be clear that this cannot be done. As we all know the Kantian imperative is formal and negative and does not produce any content. If we need content — and of course we need it — it should come from our historical ethos.

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To  Ethical Perspectives 3-4/1999