Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of "world history," but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

― Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

There is no test of cosmic significance. If there's no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours, from which our activities can have, or lack, significance.

― Bernard Williams: Philosophy as Humanistic Discipline

Philosophy contributes to the project of making sense of being human, and that is not […] best served by abstracting from the local perspectives or idiosyncrasies of human beings.

― Adrian Moore on Bernard Williams

What are we doing when we do moral philosophy? How should this self-understanding inform our practice of philosophy, and what we might hope to gain from it?

Bernard Williams, like Nietzsche, took these questions seriously. I hope to revisit and write on his Ethics & The Limits of Philosophy sometime soon. For now I’ll just quote heavily from his lecture “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline” (video, audio).

Williams wants to sharpen the distinction between science and moral philosophy. On his conception, science aims to give us “a representation of [the world] which is to the largest possible extent independent of the local perspectives or idiosyncrasies of enquirers”. Moral philosophy, by contrast, is concerned with the broader and more fundamental task of making sense of the situation in which we find ourselves, and deciding what to do about it.

Williams wants to push back against a “scientistic” trend in moral philosophy, and against philosophers who exhibit “a Platonic contempt for the the human and the contingent in the face of the universal”. Such philosophers believe that:

if there were an absolute conception of the world, a representation of it which was maximally independent of perspective, that would be better than more perspectival or locally conditioned representations of the world.

And, relatedly:

that offering an absolute conception is the real thing, what really matters in the direction of intellectual authority

If we think of moral philosophy as about “making sense of the situation in which we find ourselves, and deciding what to do about it”, it becomes clear why the scientific focus on representing “the world as it is anyway”, abstracted from any human perspective, is helpful, but insufficient.

Thinking of moral philosophy as "a search for timeless truths" is attractive insofar as it seems to anchor our efforts, and permit us to tell a story of improvement rather than, simply, change.

As Williams puts it, a “vindicatory” explanation of moral change is such that:

the later theory, or (more generally) outlook, makes sense of itself, and of the earlier outlook, and of the transition from the earlier to the later, in such terms that both parties (the holders of the earlier outlook, and the holders of the later) have reason to recognize the transition as an improvement.

The history of science usually involves such vindicatory changes, which are stimulated by crises of explanation that are recognised by all serious parties. But this—on Williams' view—not true for changes in moral or political "outlook":

In the case of scientific change, it may occur through there being a crisis. If there is a crisis, it is agreed by all parties to be a crisis of explanation, and while they may indeed disagree over what will count as an explanation, to a considerable extent there has come to be agreement, at least within the limits of science since the eighteenth century, and this makes an important contribution to the history being vindicatory. But in the geographically extended and long-lasting and various processes by which the old political and ethical order has changed into modernity, while it was propelled by many crises, they were not in the first instance crises of explanation. They were crises of confidence or of legitimacy, and the story of how one conception rather than another came to provide the basis of a new legitimacy is not on the face of it vindicatory.

On liberalism:

If we consider how [liberal] forms of argument came to prevail, we can indeed see them as having won, but not necessarily as having won an argument. For liberal ideas to have won an argument, the representatives of the ancien régime would have had to have shared with the nascent liberals a conception of something that the argument was about, and not just in the obvious sense that it was about the way to live or the way to order society. They would have had to agree that there was some aim, of reason or freedom or whatever, which liberal ideas served better or of which they were a better expression, and there is not much reason, with a change as radical as this, to think that they did agree about this, at least until late in the process. The relevant ideas of freedom, reason, and so on were themselves involved in the change.

Philosophers such as Sidgwick and Parfit want to tell a story of historical improvement, where our moral beliefs gradually converge on human-independent moral truths. They want a story that "vindicates" our current ethical beliefs, and offers the possibility of further improvement. For Parfit, clearly:

...a vindicatory history of our outlook is what we would really like to have

Therefore, the idea that:

liberalism, in particular (but the same is true of any outlook), has the kind of contingent history that it does have is a disappointment, which leaves us with at best a second best.

So Parfit's story about moral philosophy risks severe disappointment.

Williams has a different story:

But, once again, why should we think that? Precisely because we are not unencumbered intelligences selecting in principle among all possible outlooks, we can accept that this outlook is ours just because of the history that has made it ours; or, more precisely, has both made us, and made the outlook as something that is ours. We are no less contingently formed than the outlook is, and the formation is significantly the same. We and our outlook are not simply in the same place at the same time. If we really understand this, deeply understand it, we can be free of what is indeed another scientistic illusion, that it is our job as rational agents to search for, or at least move as best we can towards, a system of political and ethical ideas which would be the best from an absolute point of view, a point of view that was free of contingent historical perspective.

If we can get rid of that illusion, we shall see that there is no inherent conflict among three activities: first, the first-order activity of acting and arguing within the framework of our ideas; second, the philosophical activity of reflecting on those ideas at a more general level and trying to make better sense of them; and third, the historical activity of understanding where they came from. The activities are in various ways continuous with one another. This helps to define both intelligence in political action (because of the connection of the first with the second and the third), and also realism in political philosophy (because of the connection of the second with the first and the third). If there is a difficulty in combining the third of these activities with the first two, it is the difficulty of thinking about two things at once, not a problem in consistently taking both of them seriously.

At a certain point, the chain of justification ends in an affirmation of human identity—contingent, ephemeral, and possibly otherwise, but worth affirming all the same. We are who and what we are; justification is not required. Elsewhere, Williams quotes Max Stirner:

The tiger who attacks me is in the right, and so am I when I strike him down. I defend against him not my right, but myself.

For Williams, justification only makes sense within a context of similarity, of common ground, where we can appeal to shared values, sensibilities, ways of thinking, and so on. He writes:

Wittgenstein influentially and correctly insisted that there was an end to justifications, that at various points we run into the fact that ‘this is the way we go on’. But, if I may say again something that I have said rather often before, it makes a great difference who ‘we’ are supposed to be, and it may mean different groups in different philosophical connections. It may mean maximally, as I mentioned earlier, any creature that you and I could conceive of understanding. Or it may mean any human beings, and here universal conditions of human life, including very general psychological capacities, may be relevant. Or it may mean just those with whom you and I share much more, such as outlooks typical of modernity.

The mistake of the ahistorical liberals is that:

they go on […] as though liberalism were timeless. It is not a reproach to these liberals that they cannot see beyond the outer limits of what they find acceptable: no-one can do that. But it is more of a reproach that they are not interested enough in why this is so, in why their most basic convictions should seem to be, as I put it, simply there.

To me, these passages explain why non-naturalistic moral philosophy often seems oddly naive. Most days of the week, I agree with Williams—and Nietzsche—that we should be willing to pledge our allegiance to moral truths that are not timeless, or uncontingent. And that we should avoid excessive acquiescence to the demand for justification. At a certain point, we have to say: “we are like this and not like that and there is no justification necessary.” [1] [2]

Further reading:


  1. Incidentally, I think that Jeremy Bentham agreed with Williams on this. My read, following David Runciman, is that The Principle of Utility was a pragmatic political principle—the result of his search for something we can all agree on—not a metaphysical principle. Tyler Cowen agrees (personal correspondence). Simon Blackburn has a similar take to Williams, denying that anti-realism is equivalent to nihilism. And Nick Bostrom and Carl Shulman recently shared a similar story. ↩︎

  2. Some philosophers who defend a non-naturalistic story: Peter Singer and Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, Derek Parfit, Henry Sidgwick. The first three describe themselves as secular. ↩︎

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:21 PM

I think you mean 'moral realism' when you write 'non-naturalism'? Note that Rawlette, for example, is a naturalist moral realist. (According to her analytic hedonism, normative properties are conceptually reducible to the natural properties of pleasure and pain.)

Ah, thanks. I've removed the mention of Hewitt-Rawlette from footnote #2.

I do mean non-naturalism for the rest. If that still seems confused or wrong to you, please do let me know.

(I'm not sure if I agree that Hewitt-Rawlette is as naturalistic as she thinks she is, but I've not gone deep enough to argue against her self-categorisation.)

There is a bit of a terminology problem with "moral realism" vs "non-naturalism".

As I understanding things:

  1. "Moral realism" usually just means that moral beliefs can be true or false, and at least some of them are true. That leaves lots options for explaining what the truth conditions of these beliefs are.

  2. Naturalistic moral realism says that the truth conditions of moral statements are reducible (or at least based on) natural properties.

  3. Non-naturalistic moral realism says the truth conditions are not natural properties.

  4. And then we have to decide what counts as natural properties. There's a risk that people just draw boundaries differently here and then argue definitions. Or that they say "all pictures of the world that includes uncontingent moral properties is basically religious, and any that doesn't is secular".

  5. And finally there's the question of mind-independence. Are the natural properties relational properties that involve all possible minds, or at least some minds? Or are they independent of all minds?

"Moral realism" usually just means that moral beliefs can be true or false. That leaves lots options for explaining what the truth conditions of these beliefs are.

Moral realism is often (though not always) taken to, by definition, also include the claim that at least some moral beliefs are true – e.g. here in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A less ambiguous way to refer to just the view that moral beliefs can be true or false is 'moral cognitivism', as also mentioned here.

This is to exclude from moral realism the view known as 'error theory', which says that moral beliefs are the sorts of things that can have truth values but that all of them are false.

[I'm using "belief" in a loose sense in this comment, on which it is not just true by definition that a belief can be true or false. People using 'belief' in the latter sense would describe the noncognitivist view as saying that those things that appear to be moral beliefs in fact aren't beliefs at all.]

Thanks. I've edited (1) to exclude error theory.

(This is a bit tricky because one might be a moral realist who thinks all our current beliefs are false, but we might get some right at some point. But anyway.)

So the terminology here gets used differently by different people, but the view that moral statements can be true or false is usually called "cognitivism", not "realism" (though there definitely are people who use "realism" for that view). My own personal preference is to define realism as cognitivism plus the metaphysical claim that moral properties are mind-independent (i.e. not grounded in facts about anyone's moral beliefs or attitudes).

I read Williams as a naturalistic moral realist with a pragmatic theory of truth (i.e. we call true those beliefs which "work well" for us, where "working well" is ultimately about evolutionary fitness).

I was recently wrong about the same thing. I think her position has some similarities with non-naturalism, but it's true that she labels it as naturalism.