Bernard Williams: Ethics from a human point of view

Portrait of Professor Bernard Williams, Chairman of the Obscenity and Film Censorship Committee, September 6th 1977. (Photo by Roger Jackson/Central Press/Getty Images)

Paul Russell in the TLS:

When Bernard Williams died in June 2003, the obituary in The Timessaid that “he will be remembered as the most brilliant and most important British moral philosopher of his time”. It goes on to make clear that Williams was far from the dry, awkward, detached academic philosopher of caricature.

Born in Essex in 1929, Williams had an extraordinary and, in some respects, glamorous life. He not only enjoyed a stellar academic career – holding a series of distinguished posts at Oxford, UCL, Cambridge and Berkeley – but was also a public figure in British political and cultural life. He played, for example, a leading role in several high profile government committees and reports, and served for almost two decades on the board of the English National Opera. He had, moreover, an easy confidence and charm, a lucidity of expression, and a sharp and, at times, acerbic wit (which could alarm both friends and foes alike).

Although these achievements and qualities are impressive, what he will be remembered for chiefly is his significant contribution to philosophy, which spanned a wide spectrum of topics. It is in the field of ethics, in particular, that his contributions are of the most lasting importance. And yet there is a real sense in which he remains a rather enigmatic figure – and the interpretation of his work continues to be a matter of considerable debate.

More here.

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