NS Profile - Bernard Williams

Harold Wilson's philosopher of porn is our greatest thinker on ethics, offering a vision of truth as

British philosophy since the beginning of the 20th century has been a strange affair, at least to lay eyes. Abstruse, remote and technical, it has appeared to distance itself from the practical affairs of the world, reprising the era of the medieval schoolmen by losing itself in dense fogs of jargon devised to capture the last possible refinement of distinction-drawing and abstraction.

Success as a philosopher, in this professionalised version of the enterprise, has required not just high intelligence and rigorous academic training, but a special cast of intellect, consisting in power, style, finesse, subtlety and depth. The four outstanding figures in British academic philosophy during the past half- century - Michael Dummett, P F Strawson, David Wiggins, Bernard Williams - have been exemplars of these characteristics.

With the exception of Strawson, these doyens show that contemporary philosophers are not so remote from ordinary concerns after all. Wiggins once campaigned on transport in the south-east. Dummett gave many years to the struggle against racism. Williams advised Harold Wilson's Labour government on education, chaired the national committee on obscenity and film censorship, and has kept faith with his centre-left commitments.

True, these public engagements do not seem to flow directly from these thinkers' technical work - except in the case of Williams. Nor have they been easy and regular voices in the public media - except in the case of Williams. Nor have these thinkers strayed far from Oxford - except in the case of Williams, who has taught in Australia and Ghana and held distinguished professorships at Cambridge, Berkeley and London, as well as being a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford.

Williams, in short, has been more expansive than his fellow Parnassians in geographical and public respects, which is why he is more salient in the national consciousness - his departure for Berkeley in 1988 was a much-publicised addition to the "brain drain". An Essex boy (he went to Chigwell School before moving on to Balliol College, Oxford), Williams met Shirley Catlin in New York in 1955. She was a Labour activist (she had served as the first woman chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club) and had won a year's fellowship to Columbia University, after working in factories and as a waitress. It is difficult to speculate, given the couple's reticence on the subject (the marriage was dissolved in 1974), just how much Shirley's politics influenced her husband. He stood by her as she made her ascent through posts at the ministries of health, labour, education and the Home Office - ending up as Paymaster General, before her defection to found the Social Democratic Party. To this day, Williams has never questioned being labelled as "centre-left", though he has refrained from any political engagements since his work for Wilson.

Now aged 72, retired and not in the best of health, he has published another book, whose title, Truth and Truthfulness, captures themes that have always been central to his philosophical work. Most of that work has been about ethics. It has not exclusively been so; he wrote a brilliant study of Descartes, and contributed greatly to the debate about personal identity which has exercised philosophers since John Locke. But although discussion of neither of these subjects is complete without reference to Williams, his contributions to ethics are his best work.

Two messages ring out from it. One is that moral values are a function of circumstances. There are no independent, objective values as there are independent, objective scientific facts. Instead, what we should care about, and how we should live, depends on how we feel and what we seek in the social and historical situation we find ourselves in. Values are a function of emotions and desires, and luck has a large part to play in shaping both by setting the parameters within which they fluctuate.

The second message is that ethics is not a matter for moral philosophy alone. History, the sciences, sociology and politics all bear on how things are with people, and how, therefore, they choose to live.

The connection between the two messages is obvious. Equally obvious is what they mean for Williams's attitude to the major ethical theories of the past, particularly utilitarianism, which enjoins maximising benefit for the greatest number; and Kantian theory, which says that ethics is fundamentally about duty. Williams is hostile to both kinds of view. He rejects utilitarianism because he does not think that questions of value can be reduced to a single metric of benefits, and because it impugns individual integrity - for example, by requiring one to do wrong when the calculation of benefits says that doing so will maximise them elsewhere.

One reason Williams rejects Kantian ethics is that the motive it offers for action is an agent's recognition of an abstract rational demand. For Williams, only a desire felt by the agent himself can count as a genuine reason for action. He echoes David Hume in saying that the fact that something follows from a rationally apprehended principle cannot by itself motivate an agent; only the agent's own wishes can stir him into getting up and acting one way or the other.

Williams holds that our beliefs about what is valuable in the moral sense are many and inconsistent. There are similarities between this view and Isaiah Berlin's thesis that any society embraces a plurality of values and interests which are mutually unresolvable. But Williams is uncompromising about what that means: in the moral life, he says, there are only points of view.

But this does not mean that ethical practice is an arbitrary or, worse, a pointless thing. In Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), he argued that our ethical practice should be able to stand up to reflection. We should be able to use "reflective social knowledge", including history, to make a critique of our ethics. This amounts to "truthfulness". And truth and truthfulness thus understood together make sense of the idea, Williams says, that there can be meaningful individual lives, lived in society with others.

These ideas occur at the end of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. In his new book, the ideas of truth and truthfulness receive full-length treatment. Instead of linking them directly to the project left implicit in the earlier work, Williams reignites discussion of them by pointing to an apparent tension between our desire for truthfulness and a disbelief in (or at least doubt about) whether there is indeed such a thing as truth. The two points, and the fact that they are actually not inconsistent, are highly consequential - not just for ethics, but for politics and all intellectual endeavours outside the hard sciences.

From a rich blend of resources, Williams constructs a case for defending both truth and truthfulness as intellectual and practical values. Part of his case is made by showing what would be lost if the fashion for disbelieving in the possibility of truth were to take root. In the process, he identifies two fundamental concepts in the notion of truth: accuracy and sincerity, the first a requisite of the search for truth and the second a requisite in reporting it.

Williams takes a journey through a fistful of closely related debates, about authenticity, liberty, relativism and the narratives we use to make sense of things. His original two messages remain unchanged: we are still in the grey regions without hard ethical principles, where individual lives have to be negotiated in the midst of their circumstances. The values of truthfulness and truth are handholds in the uncertain light, which gives hope, Williams says, that those lives and institutions that depend on the virtues of truth will "keep going".

There is something bleak about Williams's outlook, yet hopeful, too; for it shows that notions treasured in traditional ethics, such as truth and truthfulness themselves, retain a central place in the barer landscape he describes. Perhaps that is why he chimes with our times, because, in the failure of faiths to reassure us, in the loss of old certainties that provided moral anchorage, and in the irrelevance and directionlessness of much intellectual endeavour, a sceptical but reflective view such as his gives hope that we still can find a workable way of living for the good.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Show trial: the left in the dock