Skip to main content

Williams, Bernard (1929–2003)


Bernard Arthur Owen Williams, an English philosopher, was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and received his BA in 1951. He was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and went on to teach at New College, Oxford, University College London, and Bedford College, London, before moving in 1967 to Cambridge as Knightbridge Professor and Fellow of King's College; he was Provost of King's from 1979 to 1987. In 1988 he became a professor at Berkeley, then in 1990 was appointed White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. An English public figure as well as a distinguished thinker, he was chairperson of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship and served on the Royal Commission on Gambling, the Labour Party's Commission on Social Justice, and the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act, as well as on the Board of the English National Opera. He was knighted in 1999.

Williams was a brilliant and versatile contributor to many branches of philosophy and its history. Trained in classics, he wrote about Plato and Aristotle, and also, in Shame and Necessity, about the ethical consciousness of classical Greece as revealed in its literature, law, and culture. He wrote an important book about René Descartes, and was profoundly drawn to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. But his main contributions are his own ideas about knowledge, truth, reality, the self, ethics, and morality.

Williams did not offer a systematic philosophical theory and was distrustful of such theories; instead he tried to bring clarity and a recognition of complexity and historical contingency to a number of central philosophical problems. A theme throughout his work was how to combine the point of view of the individual with the conception of the world encouraged by the scientific ideal of objectivity and its kin. An early example is his paper, The Self and the Future, about the problem of personal identity over time, which showed that the first-person conception of the self is more favorable to a physical condition of personal identity than to a condition based on psychological similarity.

In his book on Descartes, he introduced the fruitful notion of the absolute conception of realitya conception that would be free of every contingency of the human perspective and would therefore describe the world as it is in itself, not merely as it appears to us, or the world that is there anyway, as he put it. This conception drives the pursuit of scientific objectivity, but also raises the question whether humans can reasonably hope to approach it. Williams thought the view sub specie aeternitatis was a reasonable goal for science, but rejected its authority for ethics.

He used the term ethics for the general topic of how to live, and morality for the special type of modern theory of right and wrong that is based on some form of impartiality or universalizability over all persons. Impartial morality, he argued in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy and elsewhere, does not have an adequate basis in human motivation for the authority it claims over the individuals to whom it is addressed. The appropriate standpoint for assessing human conduct is from here not from an external vantage point assumed to be the same for everyone.

Williams held more generally that all reasons for action are internal reasons, by which he meant reasons derived from some desire or interest already present in the agent's subjective motivational set. External reasons, such as those Kant imagined the categorical imperative to provide, do not exist. It follows that moral requirements in particular must be rooted in already existing desires and commitments, and that they may be less than universal in their application. Williams also embraced a qualified relativism, whereby we can morally appraise only forms of life that constitute real options for us: It makes no sense for us to judge either right or wrong the moral beliefs of a medieval samurai, for example.

He had a large impact on moral philosophy through his claim that impersonal morality undermines the integrity of individual life by requiring us to detach from our most fundamental projects and personal commitments, the things that give life its substance and make it worth living. Utilitarianism does this by asking that we regard the attainment of our own aims simply as part of the general welfare, and ourselves as instruments of the universal satisfaction system. But Kantian universalisability, too, requires us to act on our deepest commitments only under the authorization of the higher-order principle that anyone in our situation may do the samefor example, rescue one's own child from drowning rather than a stranger. This, said Williams, is one thought too many. The core of personal life cannot survive subordination to the impersonal standpoint. The exploration of this critique and responses to it have become a focal point of moral theory.

Williams was skeptical about what he called the morality system, and of ethical theory, but he was not a moral skeptic: Morality, he thought, should seek confidence rather than theoretical foundations, and he himself held strong moral views. He believed that ethical judgments were often supported by less universal, more local groundsparticularly judgments involving thick moral concepts like cruelty, courage and chastity. But he drew the corollary that ethical knowledge expressed by those concepts can be lost if the practices and forms of life that underlie them disappear.

Williams formulated the important concept of moral luck, a term he invented for the phenomenon of our moral vulnerability to factors that are not under our control, so that what we are guilty of may depend partly on the actual, and not merely the foreseeable, results of our choices. This possibility was strenuously denied by Kant, but it is central to the moral content of tragedy, one of Williams's great subjects. He rejected the ideal of finding principles of choice which would guarantee that if we follow them, we will have no reason to reproach ourselves later, whatever happens.

His final book, Truth and Truthfulness, pursued the reconciliation of his commitment to objectivity about factual, scientific, and historical truth with his resistance to the claims of objectivity in ethics. He attacked general postmodernist skepticism about truth, explained the vital moral importance of respect for factual truth, especially in politics, and analyzed the historical development of our ideas about truth, lying, and authenticity, starting with an imagined prehistory and then proceeding from the ancient world to the present.

See also Aristotle; Descartes, René; Ethics, History of; Kant, Immanuel; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Personal Identity; Plato; Truth; Utilitarianism.


primary works

Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Problems of the Self; Philosophical Papers, 19561972. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

"A Critique of Utilitarianism." In Utilitarianism; For and Against, by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Descartes: the Project of Pure Inquiry. Hassocks, U.K.: Harvester Press, 1978.

Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 19731980. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Making Sense of Humanity and Other Philosophical Papers, 19821993. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Thomas Nagel (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Williams, Bernard (1929–2003)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 17 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Williams, Bernard (1929–2003)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (January 17, 2019).

"Williams, Bernard (1929–2003)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.