Ethical Perspectives 6 (3):199-200 (1999)

William Desmond
Villanova University
The current issue of Ethical Perspectives is a double issue reflecting significant discussions of ethical issues that occurred in Leuven in the very recent past. The volume is composed in the main of two seminars, one led by Michael Walzer, the other by Bernard Williams. These well-known and highly respected thinkers were guests at Leuven in the past year. Michael Walzer was the holder of the Multatuli Chair, while Bernard Williams was the holder of the Mercier Chair at the Institute of Philosophy. In addition to the responsibilities of offering a public lecture or lectures, both were generous with their time, and open to critical discussion of their work. The results are to be found in the intellectually stimulating seminars published here.Michael Walzer's contribution is threefold. First, we publish here the lecture he delivered to a wide public, as the holder of the Multatuli Chair. This was entitled: International Society: What is the Best We Can Do? The lecture was delivered on May 1, at a time when the whole issue of the international community and its moral and political responsibilities was widely discussed, with reference to the war in Kosovo. That war, and other considerations, might suggest something too optimistic about such discussions of the international community. Walzer is no stranger to the topic of war, as those familiar with an earlier work, Just and Unjust Wars, will know. Walzer's title, on the present occasion, indicates the modesty of his proposal: what is the best we can do? With a theme that might seem to include too much, his discussion offers a sober and ordered approach, which works towards its goal by strategic steps from the left and right extremes of a continuum of possibilities. Second, in addition to this Multatuli lecture, a workshop was convened on the theme of The Power and Impotence of Multilateral Organizations. Marc Hooghe and Bart Pattyn had prepared in advance papers bearing on the work of Walzer. Marc Hooghe wrote of: “The Notion of Complex Equality and the Beauty of Alcibiades”. Bart Pattyn offered: “Two Questions about the Meaning of Meaning.”Subsequent to his response to these, the discussion was again wide-ranging, touching on the themes of the Multatuli lecture, as well as Walzer's other works. This seminar was held at the Institute of Philosophy, but Walzer's third contribution was a further seminar on the themes of his work, this time in the Faculty of Theology, and among the participants were students and teachers who had just spent time carefully studying his work. Among other things, the issues discussed here reflected Walzer's own interest in biblical themes, with repercussions in religion, but also beyond.The seminar with Williams was ordered around the questions of a number of participants who had prepared some questions on the basis of their study of his work. Williams responded impromptu, and as the reader will see the terrain covered is extensive. Williams has been an influential philosopher in the Anglo-American world, notably with reference to his explorations in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.The seminar reflected some of the themes of that work. Williams raises questions about the obsession with theory in ethics, and seeks to explore a domain more ecumenical, so to say, than morality, understood in a more restricted sense, such as we find in forms of utilitarianism and Kantianism. The neutral universal is not enough. Or as he says pithily here: “I'm not living my life in order to exemplify a mathematical theory.” Ethics points to something more inclusive, and moreattentive to the nuances of concrete details and situations.This is not entirely unlike forms of thinking we find in Greek culture, whether among the philosophers, such as Aristotle, or among the poets and tragedians. Something of the latter is explored in Williams's Shame and Necessity. Among the many issues touched on in this discussion was the issue of universality, and as the reader will notice the seminar closed with an exchange with Jaap van Brakel over the nature of the `we.' The reader will find an extensive discussion of `we' in the paper that follows, indicating perhaps also that the `we' of the seminar itself had a post-seminar life.All in all, these different contributions provide us with lively and thought-provoking dialogue, from a diversity of ethical perspectives
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DOI 10.2143/EP.6.3.505341
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