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Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985)
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What is ethical thought about? What can philosophy do for it? Bernard Williams takes up these questions in a radically new way, claiming that the modern world makes unprecedented demands on ethical thought, demands which philosophy, with its present resources, cannot meet. He explains the theories that moral philosophy typically presents, asks what the point of such theories is, and suggests that they suffer from a 'rationalistic conception of rationality', which is merely a reflection of the modern world, rather than something that can help us to live in it. Bernard Williams strikingly relocates many central issues of ethics, such as relativism, objectivity, and the possibility of ethical knowledge. He claims that to face modernity, we in fact need some older ideas, which owe more to ancient Greece; and that we should reject as no longer helpful that particular form of ethical thought which is centred on the idea of obligation and is known as 'morality'. The argument is rigorous, but it does not demand a philosophical training to follow it. Writing clearly and forcefully, Williams gives here a wide-ranging account of what ethical philosophy is, challenges current conceptions of its powers, and suggests what it needs to become.
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