Bernard Williams

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Sir Bernard Williams
Williams photographed seated
Born (1929-09-21)21 September 1929
Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, England, United Kingdom
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Rome, Italy
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic philosophy
Main interests
Moral philosophy
Personal identity
Notable ideas
Internal v. external reasons for action
Moral luck

Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams, FBA (21 September 1929 – 10 June 2003) was an English moral philosopher, described by The Times as the "most brilliant and most important British moral philosopher of his time."[1] His publications include Problems of the Self (1973), Moral Luck (1981), Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), and Truth and Truthfulness (2002). He was knighted in 1999.

As Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, Williams became known internationally for his attempt to reorient the study of moral philosophy to history and culture, politics and psychology, and in particular to the Greeks.[2] Described as an analytic philosopher with the soul of a humanist, he saw himself as a synthesist, drawing together ideas from fields that seemed increasingly unable to communicate with one another.[3] He rejected scientism, and scientific or evolutionary reductionism, calling the "morally unimaginative kind of evolutionary reductionists" "the people I really do dislike." For Williams, complexity was irreducible, beautiful, and meaningful.[4]

He became known as a supporter of women in academia; the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote that he was "as close to being a feminist as a powerful man of his generation could be".[5] He was also famously sharp in conversation. Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle once said of him that he "understands what you're going to say better than you understand it yourself, and sees all the possible objections to it, all the possible answers to all the possible objections, before you've got to the end of your sentence."[6]


Early life and education

Williams was born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, the only son of a civil servant. He was educated at Chigwell School, and read Greats (Classics) at Balliol College, Oxford, graduating in 1951 with a congratulatory first-class honours degree,[1] before spending his two-year-long national service in the Royal Air Force flying Spitfires in Canada.[6]

While on leave in New York, he met his future wife, Shirley Brittain Catlin – daughter of political scientist George Catlin and novelist Vera Brittain – who was studying at Columbia University. He had already known her at Oxford, in fact. At the age of 22, after winning a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford in 1951, Williams returned to England with Brittain Catlin to take up the post. They were married in 1955.[6]

Academic career

Williams left Oxford to accommodate his wife's rising political ambitions, finding a post first at University College London, where he worked from 1959 until 1964. He was later appointed Professor of Philosophy at Bedford College, while his wife worked as a journalist for the Financial Times. For 17 years the couple lived in a large house in Kensington with the literary agent Hilary Rubinstein and his wife, a period Willams described as one of the happiest of his life.[6]

The marriage produced a daughter, Rebecca, but his wife's political career kept the couple apart, and the difference in their personal values – Williams was an atheist, his wife a Catholic – placed a strain on their relationship. It reached breaking point when Williams had an affair with Patricia Law Skinner, then wife of the historian Quentin Skinner. Williams and Skinner subsequently married and had two sons.[6]

Shirley Williams said of her marriage to Williams: "[T]here was something of a strain that comes from two things. One is that we were both too caught up in what we were respectively doing – we didn't spend all that much time together; the other, to be completely honest, is that I'm fairly unjudgmental and I found Bernard's capacity for pretty sharp putting-down of people he thought were stupid unacceptable. ... He can be very painful sometimes."[6]

Williams spent nearly 20 years at Cambridge, eight of them as Provost of King's.

Williams was appointed Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge in 1967, vacating the chair to serve as Provost of King's College from 1979 until 1987.[1] He left England in 1988 to become Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, citing the relative prosperity of American academic life and the so-called "brain drain" from England of academics moving to the United States. He told The Guardian in 2002 that he regretted his departure becoming so public: "I was persuaded that there was a real problem about academic conditions and that if my departure was publicized this would bring these matters to public attention. It did a bit, but it made me seem narky, and when I came back again in three years it looked rather absurd. I came back for personal reasons – it's harder to live out there with a family than I supposed."[6]

He held several positions at Berkeley (1986–2003) where he was Mills Professor (1986–1988), Sather Classics Lecturer and Sather Professor (1988–1989), and Monroe Deutsch Professor of Philosophy (1988–2003).[7] He also served, at the same time, as White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford (1990–1996), eventually becoming a Fellow of All Souls College again in 1997.[6]

Royal commissions, opera

Williams served on a number of royal commissions and government committees. He chaired the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship in 1979; its report was influenced by the liberal thinking of John Stuart Mill, whom Williams admired.[2] Williams's report concluded that, so long as children were protected from pornography, adults should be free to read and watch it as they see fit. He was not asked to chair another public committee for almost 15 years.[6] Apart from pornography, he sat on commissions examining the role of British private schools (1965–1970), drug abuse (1971), gambling (1976–1978), and social justice (1993–1994). "I did all the major vices," he said.[1]

He was interested in opera from the age of 15, and served on the board of the English National Opera for 20 years.[8] A collection of his essays, On Opera, was published in 2006, edited by his widow, Patricia.[9]

Honours and death

Williams was knighted in 1999. He became a fellow of the British Academy and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[10] He was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by Harvard University in 2002. He died on 10 June 2003 while on holiday in Rome; he had been suffering from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. He was survived by his wife, Patricia, their two sons, and a daughter from his first marriage.[1]


Approach to ethics

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900); Williams said he wished he could quote him every twenty minutes.[11]

Williams turned his back on the meta-ethics studied by moral philosophers in the Western analytic tradition, and instead tried to address the question of how to live, focusing on the complexity of everyday life. In Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (1972), he wrote that whereas "most moral philosophy at most times has been empty and boring ... [c]ontemporary moral philosophy has found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing moral issues at all."[12] The study of ethics, he argued, should be vital and compelling. He wanted to find an approach that was accountable to psychology, history, politics, and culture. In his rejection of morality as a discrete and separable domain of human thought, or "a peculiar institution", as he called it, Williams resembled the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, someone he said he wished he could quote every twenty minutes.[13]

Although his disdain for reductionism could make him appear a moral relativist, he was far from that. He believed, like the Ancient Greeks, that what he called the "thick" ethical concepts, such as cruelty or faithfulness, were real, a "union of fact and value".[14]

Critique of utilitarianism

Williams was particularly critical of utilitarianism, a consequentialist position, the simplest version of which is that actions are good only insofar as they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. His arguments against utilitarianism were complex and manifold, yet did seem to focus on its consequentialist structure.

For example, hypothesized Williams, take the case of Jim, a botanist doing research in a South American country led by a brutal dictator. Unfortunately, Jim eventually finds himself in a small town facing 20 Indian rebels who have been captured and tied up as examples of what will happen to others. The captain who has arrested them says that if Jim will kill one, the others will be released in honour of Jim's status as a guest, but if he does not, they will all be killed.[15] Simple act utilitarianism would favour Jim killing one of the men. Against this, Williams argued that there is a crucial moral distinction between a person being killed by me, and being killed by someone else because of an act or omission of mine. The utilitarian loses that distinction, turning us into empty vessels by means of which consequences occur, rather than preserving our status as moral actors. He argued that moral decisions must preserve our psychological identity and integrity.[16]

We do not judge actions by their consequences, he argued. Indeed, we should reject any system that reduces moral decision-making to a few algorithms, because any systematisation or reduction will distort its complexity.[17] Additionally, and playing off the inherent complexity in the moral world as seen by Williams, is this reductionist element, or more broadly, the reach for certainty, and not merely in typical Utilitarian thought but moral theorising generally. This ongoing appeal of Williams to human identity and nature, in contrast to the objectivity characteristic of Ethical thought, would be a continuing motif of Williams, and illustrative of his general scepticism in this field. The elusiveness and depth of true moral situations is often unappreciated, and so not realised in, standard theorising, according to Williams.

Critique of Kantianism

Painting of Kant looking downward
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

One of the main alternatives to utilitarian theory is the moral philosophy of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Williams's work throughout the 1970s and 1980s outlined the basis of his attacks on the twin pillars of utilitarianism and Kantianism in Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (1972), Problems of the Self (1973), Utilitarianism: For and Against with J.J.C. Smart (1973), Moral Luck (1981) and Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985). Martha Nussbaum wrote that his work "denounced the trivial and evasive way in which moral philosophy was being practised in England under the aegis of those two dominant theories."[5]

Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals expounded a moral system based on the categorical imperative. Although Kant formulated exactly what that is several times, the best-known version of it is: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become, by an act of will, a universal law of nature."[18] Williams argued against the categorical imperative in his paper "Persons, Character and Morality". Morality should not require us to act "in abstract of character", as though we are not who we are in the circumstances in which we presently find ourselves. We should not have to take an impartial view of the world, or be necessarily expected to cast aside our individuality.[19]

Reasons for action

Williams's insistence that morality is about people and their real lives, and that acting out of rational self-interest and even selfishness are not contrary to moral action, is illustrated in his "internal reasons for action" argument, part of what philosophers call the "internal/external reasons" debate. Philosophers have tried to argue that moral agents can have "external reasons" for performing a moral act; that is, they are able to act for reasons that are independent of their inner mental states. Williams argued that this is meaningless. For something to be a "reason to act," it must be "magnetic"; that is, it must move people to action. Williams argued that something entirely external to us – for example, the proposition that X is good – cannot do this, because cognition (belief) is not magnetic; a person must feel something before they are moved to act. He argued that reasons for action are always internal – that is, they always boil down to desire.[20]


In his final completed book, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (2002), Williams identifies the two basic values of truth as accuracy and sincerity, and tries to address the gulf between the demand for truth and the doubt that any such thing exists.[21] The Guardian wrote in its obituary of Williams that the book is an examination of those who "sneer at any purported truth as ludicrously naive because it is, inevitably, distorted by power, class bias and ideology."[11] The debt to Nietzsche is clear, most obviously in the adoption of a genealogical method as a tool of explanation and critique. Although part of his intention was to attack those he felt denied the value of truth, the book cautions that, to understand it simply in that sense, would be to miss part of its purpose; rather, as Kenneth Baker wrote, it is "Williams' reflection on the moral cost of the intellectual vogue for dispensing with the concept of truth."[8]


Williams did not propose any systematic philosophical theory; indeed, he was suspicious of any such attempt. Daniel Callcut writes:

The extent of Williams' impact can easily be underestimated since it is spread across many of the distinct subfields that now constitute professional philosophy. Yet it is also the case that, in spite of his influence, Williams remained throughout his life something of a renegade within English-language philosophy: his ideas generated many a research program but there has not been a large amount of philosophy conducted in what one might call a Williamsian spirit. One of the things that distinguish Williams’ work from that of many of his contemporaries is the way that he brings together aspects of moral philosophy that tend to get separated by the distinction between metaethics and normative ethics. His work explores the implications for ethics of truths about the ethical (historical, cultural, political, psychological, biological, and so on). His work is thus able to reveal and wrestle with what would otherwise remain merely latent tensions between influential positions in metaethics and normative ethics.[22]

Alan Thomas writes that Williams' contribution to ethics was an overarching scepticism about attempts to create a foundation to moral philosophy, explicitly articulated in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985) and Shame and Necessity (1993), where he argued that moral theories can never reflect the complexities of life, particularly given the radical pluralism of modern societies.[23] Jonathan Lear writes that Williams wanted to understand human beings as part of the natural world, and that the fundamental starting point of moral reflection had to be the individual perspective, the internal reasons for action. To try to transcend one's point of view, Williams argued, leads only to self-deception.[24]

In a secular humanist tradition, with no appeal to the external moral authority of a god, his ideas strike at the foundation of conventional morality, namely that one sometimes does good even if one does not want to, and can be blamed for a failure to do so. Timothy Chappell writes that, without external reasons for action, it becomes impossible to argue that the same set of moral reasons applies to all agents equally, because an agent's reasons can always be judged according to their lives they have led and their internal reasons for action.[25] In cases where someone has no internal reason to do what others see as the right thing, they cannot be blamed for failing to do it, because internal reasons are the only reasons, and blame, Williams wrote, "involves treating the person who is blamed like someone who had a reason to do the right thing but did not do it."[26]

Chappell writes that learning to be yourself, to be authentic and to act with integrity, rather than conforming to any external moral system, is arguably the fundamental motif of Williams's work.[25] "If there's one theme in all my work it's about authenticity and self-expression," Williams said in 2002. "It's the idea that some things are in some real sense really you, or express what you and others aren't ... The whole thing has been about spelling out the notion of inner necessity."[6] He moved moral philosophy away from the Kantian question, "What is my duty?" and back to the issue that mattered to the Greeks: "How should we live?"[5]


  • Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 1972.
  • Problems of the Self. Cambridge University Press, 1973.
  • (with J. J. C. Smart) Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press, 1973.
  • Descartes: The Project of Pure Inquiry. Harvester Press, 1978.
  • Moral Luck. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Shame and Necessity. University of California Press, 1993.
  • Making Sense of Humanity. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • The Great Philosophers: Plato. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Princeton University Press, 2002.
Posthumously published
  • In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, ed. Geoffrey Hawthorn, Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Philosophy As A Humanistic Discipline, ed. A. W. Moore, Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • The Sense Of The Past: Essays In The Philosophy Of History, ed. Myles Burnyeat, Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • On Opera, Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Essays and Reviews: 1959–2002, Princeton University Press 2014.
  • "Pagan Justice and Christian Love", Apeiron 26.3–4, 1993, pp. 195–207.
  • "Cratylus's Theory of Names and Its Refutation", in Language, ed. Stephen Everson, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • "The Actus Reus of Dr. Caligari", Pennsylvania Law Review 142, May 1994.
  • "Descartes and the Historiography of Philosophy", in Reason, Will and Sensation: Studies in Descartes's Metaphysics, ed. John Cottingham, Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • "Acting as the Virtuous Person Acts", in Aristotle and Moral Realism, ed. Robert Heinaman, Westview Press, 1995.
  • "Ethics", in Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject, ed. A. C. Grayling, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • "Identity and Identities", in Identity: Essays Based on Herbert Spencer Lectures Given in the University of Oxford, ed. Henry Harris, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • "Truth in Ethics", Ratio 8.3, 1995, pp. 227–42.
  • "Contemporary Philosophy: A Second Look", in The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy. N. F. Bunnin (ed.), Blackwell, 1996.
  • "History, Morality, and the Test of Reflection", in The Sources of Normativity. Onora O'Neill (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • "Reasons, Values and the Theory of Persuasion", in Ethics, Rationality and Economic Behavior, ed. Francesco Farina, Frank Hahn and Stafano Vannucci, Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • "The Politics of Trust", in The Geography of Identity, ed. Patricia Yeager, University of Michigan Press, 1996.
  • "The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, Ethics", in The Greeks and Us, R. B. Louden and P. Schollmeier (eds.), Chicago University Press, 1996.
  • "Toleration: An Impossible Virtue?" in Toleration: An Exclusive Virtue, ed. David Heyd, Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • "Truth, Politics and Self-Deception", Social Research 63.3 (Fall 1996).
  • "Moral Responsibility and Political Freedom", Cambridge Law Journal 56, 1997.
  • "Stoic Philosophy and the Emotions: Reply to Richard Sorabji", in Aristotle and After, R. Sorabji (ed.), Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 68, 1997.
  • "Tolerating the Intolerable", in The Politics of Toleration. ed. Susan Mendus, Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
  • "Philosophy As a Humanistic Discipline", Philosophy 75, October 2000, pp. 477–496.
  • "Understanding Homer: Literature, History and Ideal Anthropology", in Being Humans: Anthropological Universality and Particularity in Transdisciplinary Perspectives. Neil Roughley, ed. de Gruyter, 2000.
Posthumously published
  • In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, ed. Geoffrey Hawthorn, Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Philosophy As A Humanistic Discipline, ed. A. W. Moore, Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • The Sense Of The Past: Essays In The Philosophy Of History, ed. Myles Burnyeat, Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • On Opera, Yale University Press, 2006.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 The Times, 14 June 2003 at the Wayback Machine (archived 13 May 2011).
  2. 2.0 2.1 The Daily Telegraph, 14 June 2003.
  3. McGinn, 10 April 2003.
  4. Baker, 22 September 2002: "The people I really do dislike are the morally unimaginative kind of evolutionary reductionists who in the name of science think they can explain everything in terms of our early hominid ancestors or our genes, with their combination of high-handed tone and disregard for history. Such reductive speculation encourages a really empty scientism."
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Nussbaum, October/November 2003.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 Jeffries, 30 November 2002.
  7. A List of Sather Professors, University of California, Berkeley.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Baker, 22 September 2002.
  9. Fodor, January 17, 2007.
  10. "Bernard A. O. Williams", University of California.
  11. 11.0 11.1 O'Grady, 13 June 2003.
  12. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, p. xvii.
  13. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 174ff; O'Grady, 13 June 2003.
  14. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 143–144; O'Grady, 13 June 2003.
  15. Jim and the Indians
  16. Smart and Williams 1973, p. 98ff; Markovits 2009, p. 111ff.
  17. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 117; Chappell, February 1, 2006.
  18. Groundwork, 52/421.
  19. Moral Luck, pp. 1–19.
  20. "Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame", in Making Sense of Humanity, pp. 35–45.
    • Also see "Replies," in Altham and Harrison, pp. 185–224; and "Postscript: Some Further Notes on Internal and External Reasons," in Millgram 2001, pp. 91–97.
  21. Cooper 2003.
  22. Callcut, Daniel, 2009. 'Introduction,' in Reading Bernard Williams, Daniel Callcut (ed.), London: Routledge, pp. 1–2.
  23. Thomas 1999.
  24. Lear 2004.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Chappell, February 1, 2006.
  26. "Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame", in Making Sense of Humanity, p. 42.


  • Baker, Kenneth. "Bernard Williams: Carrying the torch for truth", San Francisco Chronicle, 22 September 2002.
  • Chappell, Timothy. "Bernard Williams", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1 February 2006.
  • Cooper, David E. Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy by Bernard Williams", Philosophy, 78(305), July 2003, pp. 411–414.
  • Fodor Jerry. "Life in tune", The Times Literary Supplement, 17 January 2007.
  • Jeffries, Stuart. "The Quest for Truth", The Guardian, 30 November 2002.
  • Lear, Jonathan. "Psychoanalysis and the Idea of a Moral Psychology", Inquiry, 47, 2004, pp. 515–522.
  • Markovits, Daniel. "The architecture of integrity," in Daniel Callcut (ed.). Reading Bernard Williams. Routledge, 2009.
  • McGinn, Colin. "Isn't It the Truth?", The New York Review of Books, 10 April 2003.
  • Nussbaum, Martha. "Tragedy and Justice", Boston Review, October/November 2003.
  • O'Grady, Jane. "Professor Sir Bernard Williams", The Guardian, 13 June 2003.
  • Smart, J.J.C. and Williams, Bernard. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press, 1973.
  • The Daily Telegraph. "Professor Sir Bernard Williams", 14 June 2003.
  • The Economist. "Bernard Williams", 26 June 2003.
  • The Times. "Professor Sir Bernard Williams" at the Wayback Machine (archived 13 May 2011), 14 June 2003.
  • Thomas, Alan. "Williams, Bernard" in Robert Audi (ed.). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Williams, Bernard. Moral Luck. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Williams, Bernard.Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Williams, Bernard. "Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame," 1989, reprinted in Making Sense of Humanity, and Other Philosophical Papers. Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 35–45.
  • Williams, Bernard. "Replies," in J.E.J. Altham and Ross Harrison (eds.), World, Mind and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Williams, Bernard. "Postscript: Some Further Notes on Internal and External Reasons," in E. Millgram (ed.) Varieties of Practical Reasoning. MIT Press, 2001.

Further reading

  • "A live chat with Bernard Williams", GuardianUnlimited, November 2002.
  • Foot, Philippa. "Reasons for Action and Desires", in Raz, Joseph (ed). Practical Reasoning, Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • McGinn, Colin. Isn't it the truth? New York Review of Books, 10 April 2003.
  • Pearson, Richard. "Philosopher Bernard Williams Dies: Weighed Questions of Moral Identity", The Washington Post, 18 June 2003.
  • Sen, Amartya; Williams, Bernard; and Ratoff Robinson, William (eds.). Utilitarianism and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Thomas, Alan (ed.). Bernard Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Williams, Bernard. "Why Philosophy Needs History", London Review of Books, 17 October 2002.
  • Williams, Bernard. "A Mistrustful Animal: A Conversation with Bernard Williams," in Alex Voorhoeve (ed.). Conversations on Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2009.

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by Provost of King's College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Patrick Bateson