It was the last day of summer. A bumpkin from the tropics, I’d never seen an autumn before. I watched the first leaves falling outside my tutor’s window and heard the 18th-century staircase creaking with the weight of suitcases being heaved into new rooms. If I wanted a head start on the reading, I could get going on this book, he said, reaching for his bookshelf with a practiced air: Morality: An Introduction to Ethics by Bernard Williams. It was a blue-and-black Pelican edition, part of a series that had been the solace of my years as a teenage autodidact.
"Writing about moral philosophy should be a hazardous business," the opening line went, not least because in doing so "one is likely to reveal the limitations and inadequacies of one’s own perceptions." All too aware of the inadequacies of my own perceptions, convinced that the scholarship committee had made a huge mistake in sending me to Oxford, I warmed to this man immediately. I read the book that evening all the way through — it was short — and felt my heart quicken at the sharp, ironic analysis, ruthless toward every kind of humbug (woolly relativism, confused appeals to divine authority, portentous but meaningless abstractions).
Yet, Williams was not averse to a thought he had found in D.H. Lawrence and quoted at his book’s climax — "Find your deepest impulse, and follow that." This wasn’t the relativism he deplored in the hippie anthropologist: Finding your deepest impulse was a serious business, and there was something that counted in getting it right, or wrong. There was a moral truth here, a truth about the self:
"The notion that there is something that is one’s deepest impulse, that there is a discovery to be made here, rather than a decision; and the notion that one trusts what is so discovered, although unclear where it will lead — these, rather, are the point. … Discovery, trust, and risk … are central to this sort of outlook, as of course they are to the state of being in love."
It was that "of course" that did it for me, its appeal to shared experience, its air of solidarity, almost of collusion: It’s just us human beings here.
My Romantic epiphany turned out to be a false start. In October — the month when Oxford’s Michaelmas term begins — I was sent for tutorials on moral philosophy to a gaunt young Swede who told me my essays were coming along very well. I flushed slightly and carried on. Question by nitpicking question, I was being taught what it was to do philosophy in the analytic tradition — as opposed, of course, to the tradition of Continental bunk.
It was nothing like I had expected philosophy to be, this self-contained, largely ahistorical, resolutely anti-literary enterprise, faintly embarrassed to be sharing institutional space with the other disciplines in the humanities. Somewhere in all the careful argument, I could just about see Socrates’ ancient question: How to live? But answering in the approved analytic style, for all the dialectical pleasures it afforded, called for a detour that went right past the other humanities, right past the human itself.
By the time of the publication of his first book, Morality, Bernard Williams was already acknowledged as an academic superstar. A legendary undergraduate in classics at Oxford, he was catapulted at the age of 34 to a professorship in London on the strength of some dazzling papers and a reputation for quicksilver sharpness. You can see him in his prime in a documentary series from 1972, the year that Morality was published. Williams, his shirt a once-trendy shade of orange, is in conversation with the philosopher-roué A.J. Ayer about the philosophy of science.
In the video, Ayer, a onetime logical positivist enamored of the sciences, is chain-smoking, speaking with the patrician cadence of an Old Etonian exhausted from a career dedicated in roughly equal parts to philosophy and philandering. Williams’s voice carries its own authority, but its class position is more ambiguous. (He grew up in a seaside town in Essex, east of London.) "Philosophies that have shown the most enthusiasm for the natural sciences since the 19th century," he says to Ayer, "have tended to be the more, as it were, brutally optimistic, unimaginative, short on … certain deeper perceptions about human life. … It would be difficult to deny that there’s some form of depth in Wittgensteinian philosophy, possessed also, obviously, by the philosophy of Nietzsche, which is notably lacking in the philosophies of Russell and Carnap."
The British moral philosophy of the early postwar years, the years in which Williams began his career, was many things — clever, incisive, often funny — but it was rarely deep. It was as if the aspiration to depth had been tarnished, with much else that was the tiniest bit Germanic, by its association with fascism. "Ordinary language philosophy" was the flavor of the decade: plain truths plainly spoken, ideally in English.
Williams had his first education in philosophy in a series of one-on-one tutorials with a young philosopher named Richard Hare. Hare was allergic to Continental notions of depth, something he thought a cloak for lazy thinking. "The thing wrong with the … Continental philosophers," he told The New Yorker in the early ’60s, "is that they haven’t had their noses rubbed in the necessity of saying exactly what they mean. I sometimes think it’s because they don’t have a tutorial system."
Hare had had a tough war. Taken prisoner by the Japanese while serving in Singapore, he was one of thousands of forced laborers on the infamous "Death Railway" from Siam to Burma. The first draft of his 1952 book, The Language of Morals had been scribbled in a prison camp. "Ethics, as I conceive it," the book begins, "is the logical study of the language of morals." To speak the language of morals, Hare told The New Yorker, was to understand how to say something both universal and prescriptive: "If you say ‘X ought to do Y,’ then you commit yourself to the view that if you were in X’s position, you ought to do Y also." "Ought," "right," "good": there was little room in Hare’s picture, as perhaps in a prison camp, for mischief or eccentricity or love.
Conceived in extremity, Hare’s moral philosophy made no concession to the ordinary conditions of human life. In this view, all the world’s a labor camp, and all the men and women merely prisoners; they do their duty, or don’t, and then they die. Williams, too young to have fought in the war himself, saw early on just what was missing from a view like Hare’s: nearly all of human life.
To bring human life back into philosophy, Williams wrote, was a matter of finding the right style, "in the deepest sense of ‘style’ in which to discover the right style is to discover what you are really trying to do." The cover of my Pelican edition of Morality bears two details from Marcel Duchamp’s "Rotoreliefs," a set of double-sided discs that, when spun on a turntable at a specified speed, create the visual impression of depth. To Duchamp, this was how one got movement into a static art form. Williams was asking the same question of philosophy: How could a form of writing marked by its abstraction have room in it for concrete detail, for reality, for a human voice?
Of course, Williams never found, or sought, a single answer to that question. His prose is a succession of inspired stopgaps. Even at its most abstract, Morality is enlivened, like a Brutalist apartment block, with glimpses of human life. Halfway through considering whether we can simply throw off our given social roles, he would describe a bank clerk who, while "he may hate the bank, despise banking, and care only about his friends and growing chrysanthemums … could hardly say that he wasn’t a bank clerk (really)." No Anna Karenina, but the prose had something (those chrysanthemums!) that redeemed it from utilitarian banality. It was as if Williams were saying about philosophy what Marianne Moore once said about poetry: "I, too, dislike it […] / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one / discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine."
I remained in Oxford over Christmas for fear of leaving the first place I’d been happy. My college wouldn’t let me keep my room, and I ended up subletting in a large Victorian house in leafy North Oxford with a small kitchen where I boiled eggs for breakfast and ate cereal for dinner. Oxford in term-time is endlessly, shallowly sociable; its vacations are long and lonely for those who stay. I struggled that winter through Williams’s best-known and most difficult, book, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985).
I gathered that Williams was dissatisfied with the state of academic moral philosophy. He didn’t think philosophy could answer, once and for all and by itself, the question of what makes actions right and wrong. I was drawn to the book’s dry, sardonic tone, its elegant, unsentimental modernism, its plea for a philosophy more at home with the humanities, but I found it difficult to finish. It was clearly written at the level of the sentence, but puzzling at the level of the paragraph, and positively baffling at the level of the chapter.
Full of half-formed misgivings, I applied and was accepted to graduate school in Oxford, largely unperturbed by careerist thoughts. I had vague ideas of becoming some sort of writer and had begun to publish reviews and essays. I reckoned that Oxford, small and full of libraries, would be a convenient place to carry on in this belletristic fashion. My sense of not being fully of academe helped me, I think, to survive the next six years.
The philosophy department itself I found deeply intimidating, confronting me with people my age who were terrifyingly well read in contemporary philosophy but whose conversation gave the defiant impression that they read nothing else. They peppered their speech with butch metaphors ("Your second premise is doing the heavy lifting here" or "I’m happy to bite the bullet on that one") and spoke with a robotic staccato cadence I’ve only ever heard in a philosophy seminar room. Invited to the house of one contemporary for coffee and struck by his empty bookshelves, I asked him, in innocence, where he kept his books. He told me you could get most everything off JSTOR these days.
Grad school wasn’t all bespectacled bros. The effacement of the humanistic strand in philosophy came with something nobler: the effacement of the individual ego. I once heard a philosopher talk about a student who’d asked him what he ought to do with his life. "Do whatever you want," the philosopher said. "But I don’t want to do what I want to do," the student protested. "I want to do what I ought to do." The idea, half-paradoxical, is that Socrates’ question — how to live — can be answered without any reference to what you actually are or want or value. You can’t get much further away from "Find your deepest impulse, and follow that."
Oxford is not alone among college towns in breeding a radically ascetic, almost monastic, subculture of counternarcissism. Someone has a vegan epiphany every other day, insisting loudly that they don’t want to eat what they want to eat. Someone is constantly "calling out" someone else for failing to check their privilege, with a zeal reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. Morality, curiously enough, is in.
I confronted this new moralism most conspicuously in the form of the "effective altruists," members of a growing social movement looking for evidence-based ways to improve the world. Most of them have pledged away a sizable portion of their future incomes to charities they judge to be effective. Some among them took jobs as consultants so they would have more to donate to charities that, for instance, supply the poorest Africans with medicated mosquito nets.
It isn’t only philosophers who’ve found this a compelling project. To be one of the very rich, in global terms, is to live with the guilty burden of privilege, that most first-world of problems. At once pious and rational, comforting and selfless, effective altruism promises a life free of all the hokeyness involved in the business of finding ourselves and our deepest impulses. An unsoppy, no-bullshit morality, it promises to shield our do-gooding from the temptations of faddish causes and poignant advertising.
The fact that it seems to require an astonishing degree of self-abnegation, foresight, and mathematical ability does not faze the effective altruist. On the contrary, effective altruism poses just the sort of technical challenge likely to galvanize a movement led by graduates in philosophy, math, and computer science, all of whom want to do only what they ought to do.
A founder of the movement, the Oxford philosopher Toby Ord, responds sharply to the charge that his moral philosophy asks for too much:
Morality can demand a lot. ... It turns out that we can save 1,000 people’s lives. If you don’t do that, then you have to say that it’s permissible to value yourself more than 1,000 times as much as you value strangers. Does that sound plausible? I don’t think that sounds very plausible. If you think that, your theory’s just stupid.
To resist this logic is to expose yourself as holding a "stupid" theory, one that insists your own life matters more than the lives of 1,000 strangers. What made the years of grad school bearable was the jokey solidarity among those of us out of sympathy with that peculiar vision of ethics.
As Williams saw it, we come to ethical reflection from a life we’re living already, with our own ways of thinking and feeling and valuing: This is what it is to have an ethical point of view at all. Altruism may well be part of such a life, but an outlook in which the demands of morality trump everything else has no means of preventing the demands of altruism from dominating life altogether.
I returned during my early years at grad school to these arguments — first set out in Williams’s 1973 essay, "A Critique of Utilitarianism" — with a deep sense of urgency. The utilitarian was no longer a theoretical construction to do dialectical battle with; he was knocking at the door armed with pamphlets, asking me to sign away 10 percent of my income. Well, he could have my money, but I wasn’t going to let him have my soul.
I can see what "doing the most good" offers as an ideal to those who haven’t got one already; roughly what the church or the military once offered to young men who didn’t have any firm ideas about what they wanted to do with their lives. They could certainly do worse. But what if one has firm ideas on this question already? How could an attempt from the outside to overrule those thoughts be anything other than alienating?
"Alienation, schmalienation," comes the reply. How many new ways will we find of dressing up our refusal to do the right thing? The right thing, that is, from the point of view of the universe, that perfectly impartial place from which utilitarians would have us do ethics. Well, I suspect that it comes naturally to a certain sort of person to adopt this point of view, to long not just to do some good but to do the most good. I suspect this strikes some people as what that unrelenting despot, rationality, wants of us all. Does that sound like a plausible view of rationality? I don’t think that sounds very plausible. If you think it does, well, it takes all sorts to make a world: utilitarians, fruitarians, Sabbatarians, and bank clerks who’d rather be growing chrysanthemums.
Intensely successful by any conventional measure, Williams was given to thoughts of failure. His work, he once remarked, had "consisted largely of reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers." He sounds here a little like Wittgenstein, who famously told his most promising students to do something, anything, other than philosophy, the urge to philosophize being a kind of malady. Williams had contempt for the cruder of Wittgenstein’s acolytes, who made "an academic philosophy out of denouncing academic philosophy." But he thought Wittgenstein had been right to see that "there was one problem that was everyone’s problem, an emptiness and cruel superficiality of everyday thought, which a better philosophy certainly could not cure, but which it might stand against."
The world, Williams thought, is full of temptations to take simple moral views — whether "bomb Iraq" or "maximize the good" — because the longer route of self-understanding and critique is hard and risky. If philosophy can help us with any of this, it won’t be because it discovers a formula to replace the traditional sources of moral understanding — art, other people, life — but because it helps to improve the self-understanding of those who have more, much more, to their lives than philosophy.
Williams never disdained rational argument, but he never thought it was enough by itself: "Analytic argument, the philosopher’s specialty, can certainly play a part in sharpening perception. But the aim is to sharpen perception, to make one more acutely and honestly aware of what one is saying, thinking and feeling." Unhedged with cautious qualifications, his work goads you to distinguish what you actually think from what you think that you think. If his prose, compressed and epigrammatic, stands up to rereading today, as analytic philosophy seldom does, it’s because it leaves room for its readers to add something of themselves to it. A reader’s thought, Williams said, "cannot simply be dominated … his work in making something of this writing is also that of making something for himself." For every reader comes to philosophy with "thoughts of his own, ways of understanding which will make something out of the writing different from anything the writer thought of putting into it. As it used to say on packets of cake mix, he will add his own egg."
Everything — the political economy of the modern university, the rationalist pathologies of the age — militates against Williams’s style of philosophy. That style asks for so much, from both reader and would-be emulator, and what academic has that to give after a youth spent appeasing the gods who grant tenure? So we carry on, paraphrasing his arguments into a geeky, gawky, affectless prose with nothing left of the man’s voice.
And yet I find in Williams’s professional success a kind of comfort. Out of sympathy with the direction of philosophy for much of his life, he still thrived in the institutions of academe and acknowledged their virtues: the possibility of friendships based on shared intellectual sympathies, of disagreements prosecuted with humor and civility, of generous tolerance of eccentricity. Those virtues are real, and I, too, cherish them. Most of all I cherish the university’s natural capacity for renewal. When the leaves begin to fall is when the campus is most alive. Fresh hordes of human beings — young, curious and not yet doctrinaire — are moving into their dormitories. Some of them will find in something they hear or read, a passage, a sentence, a phrase that makes them more acutely, more honestly aware of what they’re saying, thinking, feeling.
My favorite aphorism of Williams’s, almost a throwaway line in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, goes, "The only serious enterprise is living, and we have to live after the reflection; moreover (though the distinction of theory and practice encourages us to forget it), we have to live during it as well." In making something of the book, while life went on in the foreground, I found I had begun to fashion an insight or two for myself out of its materials.
That it’s hard to distinguish a love for philosophy from a love of being good at it. That it’s all too easy to move from the hope that philosophy might help me understand my deepest impulses to the thought that it is, itself, my deepest impulse. A perverse part of me wants to leave philosophy just to give this story the ending toward which it is so obviously tending, but narrative tropes tend, like systematic moral theories, to distort the phenomena. There might prove to be good reasons for me to leave academic philosophy (no one should have to be a serial adjunct, for instance), but none of them are philosophical reasons. Few reasons are. This is one of the many places in life where we come up against the limits of philosophy. We have to live after, and during, the reflection.
Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in the faculty of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. A version of this essay appeared in The Point.