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Summary "Anti-theory" is a label often applied to a group of ethical philosophers who, despite substantial disagreements in other areas, possess a shared skepticism towards the aspirations of moral theory.  They share a sense that moral theories--in virtue of trying to reduce all moral considerations to a very small set of general values or principles--cannot do justice to the complexity, particularity or "messiness" of ordinary life.  Insofar as moral theories aim to produce sets of reasons for action which aspire to rational authority over the lives of individual decision-makers, the anti-theorist claims that the moral theory must fail, and they will often (though, not always) point to some absurd or counterintuitive implication of a moral theory in support of that claim.
Key works The anti-theory movement is usually traced to Elizabeth Anscombe's seminal critique of modern moral philosophy in Anscombe 1958.  Following her, Foot 1958 and Winch 1965 offered arguments against the idea of a moral theory as it was then concieved.  Bernard Williams was by far the most influential and dedicated anti-theorist, see Williams 1981, Williams 1985, Smart & Williams 1973, and Williams & Nagel 1976.  Other important contributions to the genre include Wolf 1982, Stocker 1976 and Chapter 1 of MacIntyre 2007.
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  1. J. E. J. Altham & Ross Harrison (eds.) (1995). World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams. Cambridge University Press.
    Bernard Williams is one of the most influential figures in recent ethical theory, where he has set a considerable part of the current agenda. In this collection, a distinguished international team of philosophers who have been stimulated by Williams' work give new responses to it. The topics covered include equality, consistency, comparisons between science and ethics, integrity, moral reasons, the moral system, and moral knowledge. Williams himself then provides a substantial reply, which in turn shows both the current directions of (...)
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  2. G. E. M. Anscombe (1958). Modern Moral Philosophy. Philosophy 33 (124):1 - 19.
    The author presents and defends three theses: (1) "the first is that it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology." (2) "the second is that the concepts of obligation, And duty... And of what is morally right and wrong, And of the moral sense of 'ought', Ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible...." (3) "the third thesis is that (...)
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  3. Alfred Archer (2014). Sebastian Schleidgen (Ed.): Should We Act Morally? Essays on Overridingness. [REVIEW] Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17 (2):349-350.
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  4. Carla Bagnoli (2015). Moral Objectivity: A Kantian Illusion? Journal of Value Inquiry 49 (1-2):31-45.
    Some moral claims strike us as objective. It is often argued that this shows morality to be objective. Moral experience – broadly construed – is invoked as the strongest argument for moral realism, the thesis that there are moral facts or properties.See e.g. Jonathan Dancy, “Two conceptions of Moral Realism,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 60 : 167–187. Realists, however, cannot appropriate the argument from moral experience. In fact, constructivists argue that to validate the ways we experience the objectivity of (...)
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  5. E. Bond (1985). Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. [REVIEW] Philosophy in Review 5:480-484.
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  6. E. J. Bond (1985). Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy Reviewed By. Philosophy in Review 5 (10):480-484.
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  7. Jason Brennan (2008). Beyond the Bottom Line: The Theoretical Goals of Moral Theorizing. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 28 (2):277-296.
    Moral theory is no substitute for virtue, but virtue is no substitute for moral theory. Many critics of moral theory, with Richard Posner being one prominent recent example, complain that moral theory is too abstract, that it cannot generally be used to derive particular rights and wrongs, and that it does not improve people's characters. Posner complains that it is thus of no use to legal theorists. This article defends moral theory, and to some degree, philosophical inquiry in general, against (...)
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  8. Keith Burgess-Jackson (1993). The Problem with Contemporary Moral Theory. Hypatia 8 (3):160 - 166.
    Feminists, especially radical feminists, have reason to be dissatisfied with contemporary moral theory, but they are understandably reluctant to abandon the theoretical project until it is seen as unsalvageable. The problem is not, however, as Margaret Urban Walker claims, that theory is abstract, that it seeks to guide conduct, or that it postulates moral knowledge. The problem is that contemporary moral theory is foundational.
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  9. Daniel John Callcut (2003). Bernard Williams and the End of Morality. Dissertation, The Johns Hopkins University
    My dissertation has two main aims. The first is to show how some of the central parts of Bernard Williams' conception of ethics fit together. The second is to criticize and develop Williams' thought and, by doing so, to illustrate why it offers such an important and fruitful starting point for contemporary moral philosophy. ;Much of the importance of Williams' work stems from his rich and ambivalent engagement with moral skepticism. His work forcefully engages both with philosophical and wider cultural (...)
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  10. Shaun Yip Wah Chan (1997). Williams, Ethics, and Morality. Dissertation, Queen's University at Kingston (Canada)
    This thesis considers Bernard Williams's critique of moral philosophy. ;First, I examine Williams's claim that there are no ethical theories which can provide an objective grounding or foundation for ethics. I focus on his discussion of ethical realism and ethical naturalism. Ethical realism holds that the objective foundation of ethical truths and knowledge rests on their mirroring or representing an ethical reality independent of us. Whereas ethical naturalism holds that ethical truths and knowledge are embedded in forms of ethical life (...)
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  11. Sophie Grace Chappell (2015). “How Encounters with Values Generate Demandingness”, in Michael Kuehler and Marcel van Ackeren, The Limits of Obligation, Routledge. In Michael Kuehler and Marcel van Ackeren (ed.), The Limits of Obligation, Routledge. Routledge
    I talk about the relation between the direct encounters with values that I take to be a key part of ordinary moral phenomenology, and the well-worn topic of demandingness. I suggest that an ethical philosophy based on (inter alia) such encounters sheds interesting light on some familiar problems.
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  12. Sophie Grace Chappell (ed.) (2015). Intuition, Theory, and Anti-Theory in Ethics. OUP Oxford.
    What form, or forms, might ethical knowledge take? In particular, can ethical knowledge take the form either of moral theory, or of moral intuition? If it can, should it? A team of experts explore these central questions for ethics, and present a diverse range of perspectives on the discussion.
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  13. Timothy Chappell (2014). Knowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in Ethics. OUP Oxford.
    Timothy Chappell develops a picture of what philosophical ethics can be like, once set aside from conventional moral theory. His question is 'How are we to know what to do?', and the answer he defends is 'By developing our moral imaginations'--a key part of human excellence, which plays many roles in our practical and evaluative lives.
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  14. Timothy Chappell (2011). Glory as an Ethical Idea. Philosophical Investigations 34 (2):105-134.
    There is a gap between what we think and what we think we think about ethics. This gap appears when elements of our ethical reflection and our moral theories contradict each other. It also appears when something that is important in our ethical reflection is sidelined in our moral theories. The gap appears in both ways with the ethical idea glory. The present exploration of this idea is a case study of how far actual ethical reflection diverges from moral theory. (...)
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  15. Timothy Chappell (2009). Ethics Beyond Moral Theory. Philosophical Investigations 32 (3):206-243.
    I develop an anti-theory view of ethics. Moral theory (Kantian, utilitarian, virtue ethical, etc.) is the dominant approach to ethics among academic philosophers. But moral theory's hunt for a single Master Factor (utility, universalisability, virtue . . .) is implausibly systematising and reductionist. Perhaps scientism drives the approach? But good science always insists on respect for the data, even messy data: I criticise Singer's remarks on infanticide as a clear instance of moral theory failing to respect the data of moral (...)
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  16. Timothy Chappell (2007). Integrity and Demandingness. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10 (3):255 - 265.
    I discuss Bernard Williams’ ‘integrity objection’ – his version of the demandingness objection to unreasonably demanding ‘extremist’ moral theories such as consequentialism – and argue that it is best understood as presupposing the internal reasons thesis. However, since the internal reasons thesis is questionable, so is Williams’ integrity objection. I propose an alternative way of bringing out the unreasonableness of extremism, based on the notion of the agent’s autonomy, and show how an objection to this proposal can be outflanked by (...)
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  17. Stanley G. Clarke (1987). Anti-Theory in Ethics. American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (3):237 - 244.
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  18. David Copp (ed.) (2005). Particularism and Antitheory. Oxford University Press.
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  19. Christopher Cordner (2003). Bernard Williams 1929–2003 Moral Philosophy Brought Down to Earth. Sophia 42 (2):149-150.
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  20. Garrett Cullity (2002). Particularism and Moral Theory: Particularism and Presumptive Reasons: Garrett Cullity. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 76 (1):169–190.
    Weak particularism about reasons is the view that the normative valency of some descriptive considerations varies, while others have an invariant normative valency. A defence of this view needs to respond to arguments that a consideration cannot count in favour of any action unless it counts in favour of every action. But it cannot resort to a global holism about reasons, if it claims that there are some examples of invariant valency. This paper argues for weak particularism, and presents a (...)
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  21. Philippa Foot (1972). Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives. Philosophical Review 81 (3):305-316.
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  22. Philippa Foot (1958). Moral Arguments. Mind 67 (268):502-513.
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  23. Nick Fotion (2014). Theory Vs. Anti-Theory in Ethics: A Misconceived Conflict. OUP Usa.
    This book argues that theory formation in ethics might be, but does not have to be, grand; local and weaker theories can also be effective. Indeed, theory formation is far more varied than theorists and anti-theorists imagine it to be.
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  24. Fabian Freyenhagen (2013). Adorno's Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly. Cambridge University Press.
    Adorno notoriously asserted that there is no 'right' life in our current social world. This assertion has contributed to the widespread perception that his philosophy has no practical import or coherent ethics, and he is often accused of being too negative. Fabian Freyenhagen reconstructs and defends Adorno's practical philosophy in response to these charges. He argues that Adorno's deep pessimism about the contemporary social world is coupled with a strong optimism about human potential, and that this optimism explains his negative (...)
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  25. Allan Gibbard (1995). Review: Why Theorize How to Live with Each Other? [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55 (2):323 - 342.
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  26. David Glidden (1996). JEJ Altham and Ross Harrison Eds., World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams Reviewed By. Philosophy in Review 16 (4):231-236.
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  27. Lorenzo Greco (2008). Bernard Williams, Vergogna e necessità (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2007). [REVIEW] Rivista di Filosofia 99 (2):352-54.
  28. Lorenzo Greco (2007). Humean Reflections in the Ethics of Bernard Williams. Utilitas 19 (3):312-325.
    In this article I maintain that the anti-theoretical spirit which pervades Williams's ethics is close to the Humean project of developing and defending an ethics based on sentiments which has its main focus in the virtues. In particular, I argue that there are similar underlying themes which run through the philosophies of Hume and Williams, such as the view that a correct ethical perspective cannot avoid dealing with a broader theory of human nature; the conviction that this inquiry cannot be (...)
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  29. Russell Grice (1968). WILLIAMS, Bernard and MONTEFIORE, Alan.-"British Analytical Philosophy". [REVIEW] Philosophy 43:166.
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  30. James Griffin (1999). What Can Philosophy Contribute to Ethics?: A Dialogue with Moody-Adams. Utilitas 11 (1):122.
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  31. Nora Hämäläinen (2009). Is Moral Theory Harmful in Practice?—Relocating Anti-Theory in Contemporary Ethics. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 12 (5):539 - 553.
    In this paper I discuss the viability of the claim that at least some forms of moral theory are harmful for sound moral thought and practice. This claim was put forward by e.g. Elisabeth Anscombe ( 1981 ( 1958 )) and by Annette Baier, Peter Winch, D.Z Phillips and Bernard Williams in the 1970’s–1980’s. To this day aspects of it have found resonance in both post-Wittgensteinian and virtue ethical quarters. The criticism has on one hand contributed to a substantial change (...)
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  32. Ulrike Heuer & Gerald Lang (eds.) (2012). Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes From the Ethics of Bernard Williams. Oxford University Press, USA.
    Luck, Value, and Commitment comprises eleven new essays which engage with, or take their point of departure from, the influential work in moral and political philosophy of Bernard Williams (1929-2003).
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  33. Brad Hooker (2012). Theory Versus Anti-Theory in Ethics. In Ulrike Heuer & Gerald Lang (eds.), Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes From the Ethics of Bernard Williams. Oxford University Press, Usa 19.
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  34. Brad Hooker (2012). Theory Vs Anti-Theory. In Ulrika Heuer Gerald Lang (ed.), Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Bernard Williams. Oxford University Press
    Bernard Williams influentially attacked ethical theory. This paper assesses arguments for the ‘anti-theory’ position in ethics, including mainly arguments put forward by Williams but also arguments put forward by others. The paper begins by discussing what is supposed to be theory in ethics and what ethical intuitions are taken to be by those involved in the theory versus anti-theory debate. Then the paper responds to the objections that ethical theory is mistaken to prize principles, mistaken to prize rationalism, mistaken to (...)
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  35. Terry Horgan & Mark Timmons (2009). What Does the Frame Problem Tell Us About Moral Normativity? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 12 (1):25 - 51.
    Within cognitive science, mental processing is often construed as computation over mental representations—i.e., as the manipulation and transformation of mental representations in accordance with rules of the kind expressible in the form of a computer program. This foundational approach has encountered a long-standing, persistently recalcitrant, problem often called the frame problem; it is sometimes called the relevance problem. In this paper we describe the frame problem and certain of its apparent morals concerning human cognition, and we argue that these morals (...)
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  36. J. Howes (1987). WILLIAMS, B.: "Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy". [REVIEW] Australasian Journal of Philosophy 65:221.
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  37. T. H. Irwin (2008). The Threefold Cord: Reconciling Strategies in Moral Theory. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 108 (1part2):121-133.
    Eighteenth-century disputes in moral theory seem to offer an opportunity to scepticism about moral theory and about morality. Twentieth-century theorists have tried to forestall a sceptical argument from disagreement in moral theory to doubts about morality, by appeal to a division between first-order and second-order questions. This division, however, does not answer the sceptical argument. A better reply appears in Butler's treatment of disagreement through his strategies of consensus and comprehension. These strategies are illustrated by his discussion of utilitarianism and (...)
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  38. Terence H. Irwin (2000). Ethics as an Inexact Science: Aristotle's Ambitions for Moral Theory'. In Brad Hooker & Margaret Olivia Little (eds.), Moral Particularism. Oxford University Press 100--29.
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  39. Mark Jenkins (2006). Bernard Williams. Routledge.
    From his earliest work on personal identity to his last on the value of truthfulness, the ideas and arguments of Bernard Williams - in the metaphysics of personhood, in the history of philosophy, but especially in ethics and moral psychology - have proved sometimes controversial, often influential, and always worth studying. This book provides a comprehensive account of Williams's many significant contributions to contemporary philosophy. Topics include personal identity, various critiques of moral theory, practical reasoning and moral motivation, truth and (...)
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  40. Paul Johnston (1999). The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy: Ethics After Wittgenstein. Routledge.
    The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy is a highly original and radical critique of contemporary moral theory. Johnston skillfully demonstrates how much of recent moral philosophy runs aground on the issue of whether we can make correct moral judgements. His analysis begins with an insightful discussion of the divisions within moral philosophy. On one hand many philosophers deny that it is possible to make correct judgements on other peoples actions; on the other, they remain preoccupied with distinguishing between what is (...)
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  41. Leonard Kahn (2011). Conflict, Regret, and Modern Moral Philosophy. In Thom Brooks (ed.), New Waves in Ethics.
    I begin this paper by discussing the difference between outweighing and canceling in conflicts of normativity. I then introduce a thought experiment that I call Crash Drive,and I use it to explain the nature of a certain kind of moral conflict as well as the appropriate emotional response – regret – on the part of the primary agent in this case. Having done this, I turn to a line of criticism opened by Bernard Williams and recently expanded by Jonathan Dancy (...)
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  42. John Kaler (1999). What's the Good of Ethical Theory? Business Ethics 8 (4):206–213.
    It is argued that presently prevailing ethical theories can be largely dispensed with. Such theories are of limited use in solving ethical problems. They fail because they are ‘reductionist’. They take an aspect of morality to be the whole of morality. Moreover, the very process of constructing, testing, and modifying them reveals that we already have that understanding of the nature of the ethical which they purport to provide us with. That prior understanding is the identification of morality with the (...)
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  43. Hugh LaFollette (1997). Pragmatic Ethics. In Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory. Blackwell 400--419.
    Pragmatism is a philosophical movement developed near the turn of the century in the of several prominent American philosophers, most notably, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Although many contemporary analytic philosophers never studied American Philosophy in graduate schoo l, analytic philosophy has been significantly shaped by philosophers strongly influenced by that tradition, most especially W. V. Quine, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty. Like other philosophical movements, it developed in response to the then-dominant philosophical wisdom. What (...)
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  44. Mark Lance & Margaret Little (2006). Particularism and Antitheory. In David Copp (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford University Press 567--594.
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  45. Heuer and Lang (ed.) (2011). Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes From the Ethics of Bernard Williams.
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  46. Jonathan Lear (2004). Psychoanalysis and the Idea of a Moral Psychology: Memorial to Bernard Williams' Philosophy. Inquiry 47 (5):515 – 522.
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  47. Uri D. Leibowitz (2009). Moral Advice and Moral Theory. Philosophical Studies 146 (3):349 - 359.
    Monists, pluralists, and particularists disagree about the structure of the best explanation of the rightness (wrongness) of actions. In this paper I argue that the availability of good moral advice gives us reason to prefer particularist theories and pluralist theories to monist theories. First, I identify two distinct roles of moral theorizing—explaining the rightness (wrongness) of actions, and providing moral advice—and I explain how these two roles are related. Next, I explain what monists, pluralists, and particularists disagree about. Finally, I (...)
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  48. Brian Leiter (2007). Morality Critics. In Brian Leiter & Michael Rosen (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. Oxford University Press
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  49. Brian Leiter (1997). Nietzsche and the Morality Critics. Ethics 107 (2):250-285.
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  50. Andreas Lind & Johan Brännmark (2008). Particularism in Question: An Interview with Jonathan Dancy. Theoria 74 (1):3-17.
    Jonathan Dancy works within almost all fields of philosophy but is best known as the leading proponent of moral particularism. Particularism challenges “traditional” moral theories, such as Contractualism, Kantianism and Utilitarianism, in that it denies that moral thought and judgement relies upon, or is made possible by, a set of more or less well-defined, hierarchical principles. During the summer of 2006, the Philosophy Departments of Lund University (Sweden) and the University of Reading (England) began a series of exchanges to take (...)
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