Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

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In this book Bernard Williams delivers a sustained indictment of moral theory from Kant onward. His goal is nothing less than to reorient ethics toward the individual. He deals with the most thorny questions in contemporary philosophy and offers new ideas about issues such as relativism, objectivity, and the possibility of ethical knowledge.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 15, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067426858X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674268586
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces

Customer Reviews

When to philosophize and when not to.

77 people found this helpful.
 on March 30, 2000
By Ihsan Dogramaci
First a summary of the book, then my opinion. The book seemsto divide naturally into five parts. The first part (chapters 1 and2) lays out the issue–How should one live?–and the question of whether philosophy can help with that issue. The second part (chapters 3 and 4) shows philosophy trying to give a justification of ethical life that presupposes no commitment to any ethics. The third part (chapter 5) shows philosophy trying to justify ethics–or rather now, trying to justify an “ethical theory,” something like a test you can always apply to check whether something’s ethical or not–this time grounding the justification only on a bare commitment to ethics-in-general (no content to ethics need be assumed). The fourth part (chapter 6) shows philosophy trying to justify an ethical theory from substantive ethical presuppositions. Needless to say, all three of these attempted justifications are rejected. Finally, the fifth part (chapters 7-10) show how ethics is not objective (but objectivity does belong to science), how ethics is relative to a culture, and how the “morality system” (which says something along the lines of: life is a matter of meeting obligations, and each particular obligation in any specific circumstance somehow derives from the one big most abstract obligation whatever that is) today no longer has whatever usefulness it once had. So far as the issue–How should one live?–is concerned, the book’s answer seems to be: however you have reason to. Not much of an answer, but there’s also this: philosophy alone can’t tell you how you have reason to live. And my opinion, for what it’s worth: I very highly recommend it. Read it slowly. Everyone will find plenty in it they don’t agree with, of course, but it will stimulate your mind and give you food for thought as as only the best books will. A fair amount of philosophical background is probably necessary, so as to appreciate the discussions of the various philosophical attempts to justify ethics. But this is not frivolous philosophy, it is a serious book, which I have very much enjoyed.

Ethics without foundations

31 people found this helpful.
 on July 11, 2005
By S.M.B.
Williams’s main projects in “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy” are (1) to argue against the idea that there is a rational foundation for ethics;(2) to argue that there is no adequate ethical theory, nor is there likely ever to be such a theory; and (3)to broaden the focus of moral philosophy from a focus on the role of obligation in life to a wider array of considerations that are relevant in deciding how one should live.

Here Comes Bernie to Spoil the Philosophers’ Party!

11 people found this helpful.
 on November 29, 2011
By Kevin Currie-Knight
As I see it, the thesis of this book can be put succinctly thus: while ethical philosophy can help us explore different ways to think about ethical problems, it cannot justify why anyone should be moral. Why? Because any justification for morality – moral rules maximize overall well-being, they are part of a social contract all rational people would agree to, they spring from our natural moral sentiments – will only appeal to people who already want to be moral (to maximize overall well-being, do what rational people would accept, etc).

Worth reading

 on February 6, 2013
By Mr. Martin N. White
I’m reading this with C Korsgard’s “Sources of Normativity”. Williams is harder work to read, but worth while. I think it wil take a while for the Logical Positivist approach to be returned to a smaller profile.

Five Stars

 on November 30, 2014
By Pereira
Williams maintains his high standard of writing.

this makes me think

 on November 9, 2013
By hagitani ryo
The item is in a good condition without any failure and this arrived just the date indicated by the sender. Everything is OK.

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