Is Philosophy Ethically Limited?



The Alleged Limits of Moral Philosophy



Bernard Williams wrote a book entitled Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.[1]This title invites interrogation. What kind of limitation might be meant? We can all agree that philosophy is limited in someway: it cannot do what science does, for example, or history or geography or literature or painting. In that sense everything is limited: there is no point in using one’s philosophical faculties in order to answer non-philosophical problems. Someone could write a book called Ethics and the Limits of Scienceand we could be persuaded that science is not the answer to ethical questions, since it is not the answer to many questions, especially normative ones. But isn’t ethics precisely moral philosophy—so how could philosophy be limited in doing the philosophy of right and wrong? What if Williams had called his book Moral Philosophy and the Limits of Philosophy? Of course, real ethical questions involve factual matters, and hence are not properly part of philosophy, but what could be meant by saying that philosophy is limited in dealing with the philosophical aspects of ethics? And is philosophy limited in other areas traditionally designated philosophical too? As it turns out Williams doesn’t really mean that philosophy is limited with respect to ethics (or moral philosophy): he means a certain kindof philosophy is so limited. He doesn’t mean that a more historically rooted and humanistic philosophy is limited when it comes to ethics; he means the kind of philosophy exemplified by Kant and Bentham along with their successors. He means something theoretical, abstract, systematic, monistic, context-independent, non-psychological, ahistorical, absolute, and scientific-sounding. So his title is misleading: he thinks that a certain dominant strandof Western philosophy is limited when it comes to ethics. Not that this strand might not contain important truths and be valuable in its way, but that it has limits—it doesn’t cover the full territory of ethics. This is a less resounding thesis than that suggested by the title of his book. He might more accurately have called it Ethics and the Limits of a Certain Kind of Philosophy. The book would then have gone on to argue that the kind of philosophy in question omits certain important considerations, to be remedied by adopting a different kind of philosophical approach or style or method.

The question I want to raise is whether Williams would wish to extend his thesis to other parts of philosophy. Is it just ethics in which a certain kind of philosophy has inherent limits? Let us call this kind theoreticalphilosophy, meaning thereby to sum up the list of features I cited in the last paragraph. Would he complain that epistemology, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on, are not sufficiently historical or humanistic or contextualized? Is his critique of theoretical philosophy as too limited itself limited to ethics? Is it that the other areas traditionally covered by philosophy are perfectly well suited to the theoretical style, but that right and wrong are not? If so, what is it about this domain that makes it stand out so? It can’t be merely that it is a normative domain, because so are aesthetics and epistemology (which concerns what we oughtto believe and is shot through with normative notions), not to mention logic. And why exactly would the normative preclude theoretical treatment while everything else invites it? I don’t recall Williams ever addressing this question—though he certainly contrasted the “absolute conception” of science with philosophical investigations. My question is whether he would be prepared to extend his critique to all of philosophy or whether he intended it as restricted to the case of ethics.

It seems to me this is an uncomfortable dilemma for him. For it is hard to see on what grounds he could restrict it, and yet extending it surely proves too much. It proves too much because clearly theoretical philosophy is not limited in any non-trivial way when it comes to these other areas. How could it be argued that logic and philosophy of language are objectionably limited in their methods and results? Of course, they can be supplemented by other disciplines, but in what way are they just the wrong way to approach the subject? Similarly for epistemology and philosophy of mind: why do they fail to provide an adequate way to approach the questions that constitute their domain of interest? Would Williams be prepared to write a book entitled Knowledge and the Limits of Philosophyor The Mind-Body Problem and the Limits of Philosophy? What other approach to these questions would he favor over the one traditionally practiced by philosophers? Does he think logic should be more historically situated and psychologically realistic? What about the analysis of knowledge or the nature of intention? I myself see no reason to distinguish ethics from other branches of philosophy methodologically, and I also believe that there is no real alternative to the usual way of doing things. So I would see no point in a book paradoxically entitled Philosophy and the Limits of Philosophy, even when that last phrase is understood to mean “limits of a certain kind of philosophy”.

In fact, Williams’ chief targets were Kantian ethics and utilitarianism. He found them too abstract and oversimplified as well as psychologically unrealistic. I can see a point to that critique, but it is an unwarranted leap to suppose that ethics in general has been blighted by the same failings. What about the work of W.D. Ross? What about Aristotle? These are theoretical thinkers in the sense intended—they purport to offer a systematic treatment of ethics valid for all times and places—but they are more pluralistic and realistic than the abstract monistic formulae of Kant or Bentham. True, philosophers are prone to defend oversimplified monistic theories, but it is no abnegation of theory as such to move in a more complex pluralistic direction. Is that all Williams is asking for? Evidently not, but I fail to see why ethics should be held to a different standard than other philosophical topics. In epistemology we can distinguish a rule-based from a consequentialist view of justification: either you follow the rules of induction, deduction and abduction, or justification is defined as simply what makes the best predictions (or has the best results for humans if you are a pragmatist). This is analogous to the distinction between deontology and consequentialism in ethics. We can certainly oppose either view as being partial or limited, but combining them is hardly a move away from the theoretical to something more historically grounded or humanistic. Similarly, we can oppose the monolithic systems of Kant and Bentham without thereby abandoning a broadly theoretical approach to ethics. Pluralism is not inherently anti-philosophical or an indication that philosophy has reached its limits. To reject bad theories, or theories that oversimplify, is not to reject theory altogether.

And is it that Williams finds nothing of value in the theories he criticizes? No: for they crystalize important aspects of morality—moral rules and good consequences, respectively. They are idealizations intended to bring out what matters, much as other philosophical theories are idealizations. There is nothing wrong with that so long as we realize what we are doing. Maybe they aretooidealized, but again that is not a point against theoretical philosophy as such. Nor do I see any real alternative to theoretical philosophy if we are going to keep on doing philosophy at all. Certainly, merely describing the moral attitudes and practices of societies present and past is not a kind of moral philosophy worthy of the name. So I don’t really see what Williams is getting at by accusing moral philosophy of failing to recognize its limits.[2]


Colin McGinn


[1]Harvard University Press: 1986.

[2]I considered Bernard Williams a friend. I admired him as a philosopher. I enjoyed talking to him. We once appeared together on television discussing animals and ethics. I taught a seminar with Malcolm Budd on Ethics and the Limits of Philosophywhen it came out. But I never felt I really understood his position in ethics—either what he objected to or what he favored. I got the flavor of it, if course, but the actual content of his views eluded me.

5 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    Much of philosophical ethics is concerned with understanding the nature of morality and moral concepts like right, wrong, good bad, praise blame, etc. Williams is perhaps different than many or most people in that he is a skeptic about morality from the start, thinking that the moral scheme of concepts provides a very naive lens through which to view human life that fails to capture its richness and complexity. What’s needed is not to understand the essence of morality more, as if it had some interesting essence, but to show what an un-interesting idea that it is. This is better done, not by ascending to a high level of abstraction in order to get a more and more refined theoretical understanding of morality, but by descending to the particular, complex subject matter that morality purports to be about and pointing out how patently it fails to say anything interesting or insightful about the real, concrete subject matter to which it applies. I would suggest that this marks the difference, for Williams, between morality and the other subjects that you mentioned: knowledge, meaning, mind, are not bankrupt, useless concepts in the way that morality is–they actually capture important things, not things (the things picked out by moral concepts) that seem to be important but are really veils covering a more interesting reality. Just a thought. I am not that sympathetic to Williams anti-morality skepticism, I take morality more seriously than he does and don’t think it should just be chucked away.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      If he were a moral nihilist, he would be like a standard eliminativist such as Quine or Churchland; but I don’t think this is his position. He believes in right and wrong, he just doesn’t like the way many philosophers talk about it.

  2. says:

    Science informs, or ought to inform, philosophy. But there is established science and there is aspiring science. Philosophers are, or ought to be, over-lords—or “conceptual” over-lords, so to speak, of aspiring sciences. There is much in the science of human nature, as elsewhere, that yet aspires. Ergo: the value of philosophy.

  3. says:

    Speaking of Bernard Williams and of ethics. Good interview of Martha Nussbaum in,”The New Statesman”. A formidable person—on the order of Anscombe (too bad , “The New Statesman”, is no longer so formidable). Just a bit of holiday jollity: a character in my novel off-handedly remarks, provoked by an impression of his nurse wielding an anu-scope, that he,”should like to be treated severely by Martha Nussbaum”. No disrespect to Martha.


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