The Inevitability of Inauthenticity: Bernard Williams on Practical Alienation

In Sophie Grace Chappell & Marcel van Ackeren (eds.), Ethics Beyond the Limits: New Essays on Bernard Williams' Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. New York: Routledge (2018)
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Abstract

"Ethical thought has no chance of being everything it seems." Bernard Williams offered this cryptic remark in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, and in this chapter I argue that understanding it is the key to understanding Williams' skepticism about moral theory and about systematization in ethics. The difficulty for moral philosophy, Williams believed, is that ethics looks one way to embodied, active agents, but looks entirely different when considered from the standpoint of theory. This, in turn, means that following a moral theory is a sure route to practical alienation. I argue that once we see it for what it is, we can see that Williams own skepticism undermines his later attempts to vindicate Truthfulness. Moreover, given the pervasiveness of reflective practical alienation in ordinary life, it leaves us with a difficult question: what would a non-alienated ethical existence even look like for us?

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Nick Smyth
Fordham University

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