Cyn Huang L&S Arts & Humanities
Bernard Williams on the Ideal Role of History in Philosophical Ethics
Few philosophers, even those working in the analytic tradition, would deny that our commonsense ethical views are historically conditioned. For example, witness lively debates about ethical conventionalism, the possible anti-realist implications of ethical diversity, or whether or not the evolutionary history of our moral intuitions give us reason to doubt our evaluative attitudes. Despite this general awareness, however, most philosophical ethicists seem rather uneasy about the connection their discipline bears to historical investigation –– it is not clear what they substantively think about the questions of what insights philosophical ethics can draw from history or when engagement with the historical record is necessary.
Bernard Williams is one of the few exceptions to this trend. Many of his major works, such as Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy and Truth and Truthfulness, deliberately address the shortcomings of abstract, non-historical philosophical theorizing, and gesture at the importance of historical investigation in figuring out how individuals can live with ethical confidence and how they become motivated to adopt certain ethical outlooks or take certain values seriously. Williams’ remarks on the topic are notoriously elusive, and the argumentation for his claims quite sparse at times. Through my research, I hope to precisify Williams’ view of the role of history in philosophical ethics, as well as his motivations for it.