Sir Bernard Williams, the Oxford philosopher’s philosopher who died in 2003, would often frustrate his fellow moral philosophers by refusing to propose any substantial moral theory of his own. He would criticise the moral formulae of others, but without offering an alternative – at least, not any sort of comprehensive one.
But these complaints about his work missed a – if not the – crucial aspect of Williams’ contribution to ethics: that you cannot turn ethics into a neat and tidy system. Morality is messy because the world is messy. People are radically different over time and across cultures. And so a comprehensive moral system can’t ever work.
A student of the classics, Williams appreciated that Greek tragedy provided a crucial piece of moral wisdom: that in some situations, there is no “right” answer. Tragedy is that situation when all options available lead to moral harm. In other words, the idea that we might invent a second-order moral system – be it utilitarianism or Kantian deontological ethics or whatever – that properly adjudicates all our moral concerns, providing us with the right answer, is actually a mistake. Philosophers, Williams argued, “repeatedly urge us to view the world sub specie aeternitatis, but for most human purposes that is not a good species to view it under”.
Williams died before the culture wars really got going in this country. But how much we could do with his wisdom now: one of the many unhappy consequences of the belief that morality is easy once one subscribes to the right moral system is that it leads to the vilification of those who see the world in a different way. If morality is to be modelled in some way on science, or if it adopts a scientific turn of mind, then those who get the ‘wrong’ answer are either too stupid to get the right answer or they have malign motives to mislead – or have been gulled into their stupidity by malign forces. This attitude is clearly reflected in the ongoing nastiness of the Brexit debate.
Who let the thought police invade our universities?
As Paul Embery brilliantly exposed in his column for Unherd this week, Remainers often categorise Leavers as stupid (under-educated, beer-bellied northerners) or malign (racists) or persuaded by the lies of the malign (Russians, red buses). Indeed, if there really is only one (obviously) morally correct answer, what other options could there be? Fifty-two per cent of us are gullible fools or sinister wrong-uns.
Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with strong, even angry, debate. It’s often a good thing. But what now passes for moral debate – aka shouting – suffers from too many people who inhabit the well-lit room of the single idea. It’s like arguing with religious fundamentalists who only acknowledge one source of moral authority. And to be clear: the problem with fundamentalism is absolutely not their conservative take on moral issues; the problem is a refusal to accept that there are costs as well as gains to such a way of looking at the world.
To their mind, there can’t be a downside, because God is the guarantor of a neat fit between their morality and the world. But much the same can be said of those who adopt a more liberal world view: if there must be some sort of right answer to the questions of morality, then the right answer cannot have a substantial moral downside. Indeed, if the right answer fits into the world like a jigsaw piece into a puzzle, then there just isn’t any other way of doing it.
Williams understood morality as much more piecemeal, fractured, complicated, constantly contested, sometimes inconsistent, contingent, subject to luck and chance. Some values are incommensurable, incomparable on the same scale. Was Gauguin right to ditch his family, asked Williams, and run off to some Polynesian island to create some of the greatest twentieth century art? What sort of scale can set family life against aesthetic genius? Our attitudes are generally far more ambivalent than we would like to admit.
But during culture wars, ambivalence goes out of the window. Those who see the other side are traitors. Those who think an issue is difficult are weak-minded idiots. Culture wars turn morality into a question of separating the righteous from the unrighteous. And yes, absolutely: mea culpa.
For a number of years I have been a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze. The programme works best when it is precisely that: morality as a maze. It is less successful, however, when it is a gladiatorial clash of certainties. But even so, it is easy for moral debate to get channelled down that path. ‘Not sure’, and ‘Let me think more about that’, don’t make for successful Twitter hashtags – and they don’t make for very successful columns either. I joke to my friends that I probably have more (and stronger and less nuanced) opinions in public than I do in private. I suspect this is true of most people who engage in public debate.
Williams’ target was the idea that morality is something that first gets worked out at some meta level and then gets imposed from above. This top-down model (whether inspired by God or science) decides in the abstract and then considers individual questions – real life – simply as instances of a wider moral rule. Williams believed this trajectory distorts the way morality should operate, and that a richer morality should be more attentive to the particularities and complexities of real-life situations. The important points are immanent within the specifics of the situation, caught up within the narrative and flow of time: more like a novel than a science.
Imagine if we debated Brexit like that. Or abortion. Or the merits of capitalism.