Category Archives: Metaethics

The Silent Brilliance of Bernard Williams

To the thunder of applause the musicians take their positions. The applause trails off into silence as anticipation begins to build. There is art in this. One must hesitate long enough to build excitement and not so long to lose it, to allow anticipation to bubble over into boredom and restlessness.

An old wooden door loudly creaks and excitement breaks, sending sparks into the sky. Once again thunder roars. Musicians stand. There is life here despite the formalism of the stage. There is excitement and tension. The thunder trails off once again as people in the audience anxiously flip through their brochures and latecomers panic to find their seats.

This period, a period of great anticipation, a period of wonder and expectation, this is the best period of a concert. You never know quite how the experience will go—everything is all so contingent, all so risky. And yet you know nevertheless that your experience will be worthy of this grand temple to the wonders of artistic skill and explosions of creative brilliance.

The conductor bows and turns to face his orchestra. He raises his arms drawing the tension along with him. He pauses. He holds his position. Tension builds. And with a flick of his wrist, his arms drop.


There is silence.

Someone coughs. Another rustles her brochure. A child asks his mother when the music will begin. The sound of his small voice resonates off the stone walls of the hall. Another cough. Someone sniffles. More rustling, more tension, more restlessness. This is music.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds later the conductor lifts his arms. The musicians bow. The applause breaks the silence. You see, there is art in silence. There are lessons there and wisdom. Writing is like this. Philosophy is like this. Quite often the most brilliant thing that can be said is nothing. It is to allow the reader to fill the void, to populate the silence with their own life-sounds, with their own wills and interests and activities, in short with nature. Very often this is when philosophy speaks the loudest. And this—this quiescent deference to the lives of his readers—this is what makes Bernard Williams so powerful, so complete, so compelling as a writer and philosopher.

Williams stands against the predominant pretension of philosophers that they can redesign nature more effectively, more efficiently, better. And in doing so they create great and magnificent gardens in which to live. But if Williams shows us anything, it is that these Victorian gardens are diseased and pathological, that their beauty hides an ugly truth which harms those unlucky enough to have roots in their soil. Williams has come to smash the garden gnomes of philosophical ethics and their paving stones and fences. The result may be an eyesore to the “cultured”—so be it. Let our communities be ugly and healthy before beautiful and diseased.

Williams threatens theory. This is his main target. And not just any theory: his target is theory as theory. For theory attempts to rewrite nature, to upend it and improve upon it, which Williams takes to be a mistaken enterprise. His approach to this is deconstructive. He examines these heavily circumscribed theories and teases out tensions within them between their foundational assumptions and the worldview that they otherwise recommend—for as Williams reminds us, ethical theory is too an ethical activity. And this all means that Williams’s approach is foundationally anti-foundationalist. He rejects basic principles. He rejects the kind of philosophy which builds so high that it must dig downward. And this rejection is his own animating principle, which permeates and activates his own work.

There is great value in this. Williams reasserts the primacy of ethical life, of activity before the account. There is no mystery where the ethical agent fits in his philosophy; our own reflective capacities are placed front and centre flanked by the real, embodied demands of our own ethical environment. This is no garden. This is no vast expanse of agricultural cropland. This is nature. Williams sees no surplus in our ecosystem—and indeed who exists to pick the fruits and reap our souls? No: ethical lives exist for ethical lives, all together. All value is recycled within it, animating the whole. This is not typically the concern of ethical theory, which actively seeks to upset our natural embeddedness.

There is no greater picture for ethical philosophy: Williams stands guard as a park ranger, eliminating threats to the pristine condition of our ethical environment. He does not seek to order our ethical lives. He seeks only to preserve them. To this end, he gives no positive ethical recommendation. He does not destroy theory only to rebuild it. He speaks only to silence the chatter and noise of ethical theory.

But this is not to say that he locks his reader in a silent Cage. He provides harsh but quiet melodies to inspire and provoke. Williams too lives in the ethical environment. He too engages in ethical reflection. He is merely careful in what kind of reflection he promotes. For as he says, there are many sorts of reflection, some which foster flourishing and some which destroy the health of an ecosystem. Reflection which leads to theory is this sort. This kind of reflection concerns much more than individual and collective interest, value, self-conception and the like. “It is,” he says, “a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. ‘There cannot any one moral rule propos’d, whereof Man may not justly demand a Reason,’ Locke said, and this maxim, understood in a certain way, naturally leads to theory.” (ELP, 112) If we can avoid this, if only we can silence these foundational questions, he thinks, we can promote and preserve the kinds of ethical ecosystems we would be proud to call home.

This method I think is the only one which respects those ethical communities which are not irreparably broken, which have undergone many iterations of productive dialogue to settle on a stable whole. And there was a time when we could think that these communities existed, that our ethical ecosystems were not plagued by invasive species and climactic revolution. But we live in the 21st century. We have lived through centuries of colonialism and imperialism; we have lived through decades of globalism and technological revolution. Our ethical lives are entirely conditioned by the consequences of these tragedies. The lives we lead are bound to the values of those who could not even conceive of our world. Our ethical ecosystems are deeply and profoundly corrupted—and uprooting ethical theory will never solve these problems.

When my life is crumbling down around me, when my family is drowning in debt, when my brother is murdered by a drone pilot ten thousand kilometres away, when my farmland has dried up from drought, when my mother has been beaten and raped, when my sister is denied appropriate medical care, when my father is denied employment for the colour of his skin, should I climb the mountain to visit the silent sage? What can he possibly tell me?

Function and Continuity

Humans are paragons of evolutionary success having conquered the world that once oppressed us. But why must we still enforce morality in this conquered world? We have left our huts and hunting parties, so why must we still feel indignant and dishonoured in response to the slights of anonymous peers as we shuffle between skyscrapers to our immoral occupations from our bountiful homes? Our lives are different now: why do we need the idols and relics of our old habitats? This is the question that Nicholas Smyth raises. Let us call this the discontinuity objection to moral functionalism. Where moral functionalism seeks to thread together the genealogy of morality with the present state of moral behaviour, Smyth seeks to show why that thread will always eventually fray and break as the conditions that explain both stretch and pull away from one another.

The discontinuity objection gets its force from the complexity of functional explanation, a matter to which few moral functionalists pay serious heed. Smyth begins by articulating what functions are and what they require. His main concern here is the etiology of some functional object. If some object A does x, we know that x is the function of A because of A’s etiology. That is, A exists because it did x reliably in the past and x is an effect that was selected for. Unlike Larry Wright, however, Smyth doesn’t want to say that this is all there is to functions for fear of falling prey to easy objections. Functions also have normative and dispositional dimensions that must be accounted for. Despite this, Smyth asserts a decisively Wrightian claim. “[N]othing,” he says, “has an intrinsic function,” which is to say “a role that it plays irrespective of the properties of [the] larger system of which it is a part.” (Smyth, 1132) Instead, the function of an object rests upon conditions extrinsic to the object itself. These Smyth calls enabling conditions.

A chair has a function depending upon the enabling conditions that are met in its environment. In normal conditions, a chair functions to support people’s bottoms. A broken chair, however, loses this function because it cannot perform it. This difference between the normal and broken chair represents a lack of continuity: the enabling conditions present in the case of the normal chair aren’t present for the broken chair. Were I to stack books on a chair, it would likewise lose its function not because it cannot support people’s bottoms any longer but because the system of which the chair is a part no longer demands that it support bottoms. Instead, it demands that the chair support books, becoming a rather ineffective and awkward bookshelf. This too is a loss of continuity. Of course, we ordinarily reject this kind of thought. A chair is a chair. If it is used to hold books, this is a deviation from its function. But if the chair has no intrinsic function, the function literally does change as its use changes. Non-intrinsic functions concern what objects do, and not what they are. Hence any etiology need only concern some explanation of what objects do. And if any such explanation can be given for some difference in action, continuity fails to obtain.

To his credit, Smyth seems to recognise how radical and implausible this view might seem and attempts to walk it back: “failure of continuity does not entail the loss of a function, but it does decisively weaken . . . the functional-genealogical inference.” (Smyth, 1134) This is a fine line to walk. Functions are individuated by their etiology, which typically takes the form of a functional-genealogical inference. So what Smyth is arguing here isn’t that the chair has lost its function when it is used to hold a stack of books. He is arguing only that we can’t know that a chair holding a stack of books is actually for supporting bottoms. For the orthodox philosophers of science for whom what is can be reduced to what can be known or explained, this is a distinction without a difference. The interruption of the functional-genealogical inference just is the loss of the function. But let us be kind to Smyth here, for there is a much greater problem to which we must attend: the possibility of functional plurality.

We typically think that chairs have only one function. They are functionally unitary. Chairs may be able to hold stacks of books or allow us to stand upon them to reach high shelves, but these capacities are accidental to the chair’s singular function of supporting people’s bottoms. In the natural world, however, functional unity is the exception, not the rule. The parts of living things are complicated and interrelated. Consider Smyth’s own example of polar bear fur. Suppose a population of polar bears were relocated to the Amazon rain forest. In the rain forest, their white fur clearly can’t serve as camouflage. Yet suppose also that this population of polar bears retains its white fur for a hundred generations. By that time, we need some other explanation for the bears’ fur colour than that it’s camouflage. Smyth’s point here is that after a hundred generations, the camouflage function of the polar bears’ fur cannot reasonably explain its persistence. Instead, their fur has gained some other function that does reasonably explain its persistence in the much darker and greener environment. If polar bears’ fur has only this one function, Smyth’s analysis is correct. But it does not and cannot have only one function. Biological traits are elements of complex biological systems and therefore interact with any number of other elements. In each interaction, a trait will have a unique function determined by an independently successful etiology at the level of development, gene transcription, or what have you.

So the polar bear may lose out on one enabling condition, the white snow of the Arctic, but there remain uncountably many other enabling conditions that explain the persistence of the polar bears’ white fur. As such, while the fur may no longer be able to express one function, there is no explanatory gap that arises necessarily from that loss. This remains especially true in the case of human morality. Human societies may be large and wealthy today, but humans still persist within relatively small social circles and compete amongst each other for finite resources. And in this we must remember that morality evolved in the context of competition for status in addition to and much more than mere resources. So we have lost some fairly central enabling conditions for morality, but we retain even more fundamental enabling conditions. And this is not even to mention whatever genetic or developmental processes morality might impact at the cellular or system levels. Smyth’s discontinuity objection is therefore not sufficiently sensitive to address moral functionalism. At best, he can say that some of the many functions of human morality remain unexpressed in modern human societies. This is a fairly uncontroversial opinion.

We should not, however, merely dismiss Smyth’s contribution in this way. The discontinuity objection at its introduction looks like an impressive coup de grace of moral functionalism. And in truth, it is an incredibly powerful objection to the accounts of most moral functionalists. Smyth has merely mistaken what it is about functions that typically grants them their explanatory force. That thing is narrativity. The structure, use, and validity of narrative explanation are serially underexplored in the philosophy of science, but it is nearly ubiquitous when it comes to ascriptions of functions. And it is this that is problematic.

When we describe the etiology of a given function, we do so by telling a story. In the case of the polar bear, the brown bear migrated north and discovered seals and other fairly nimble swimming prey. Catching these animals was difficult, and many bears failed to find sufficient food. This halted brown bear migration into the north. However, at some point, some bears began to display a white colouration. This colouration allowed the bears to escape the notice of the seals, and hence they were more proficient at catching them. This success allowed bears to survive and reproduce in the Arctic, and hence we have polar bears as they exist today. In this story, the bears’ white fur becomes a character distinct from the bears themselves. And more than that, it becomes the hero that swoops in to save the day for the starving brown bears. But in this narrative, the details surrounding the hero are obscured. Where does it come from? How does it have this power? Who really is White Fur?

And here we have a jump cut. The bears are introduced to the Amazon, accompanied by our hero. But the change in perspective reveals something to us. White Fur had no power of its own. It has the power of camouflage only in the presence of the ice and snow of the Arctic. Without that ice and snow, we might then expect the demise of White Fur. But no: after a hundred generations, our hero remains. But Nature writes nothing badly. For White Fur to remain relevant in the story, it must have discovered some other power, one better suited to the demands of the Amazon. That is, the function of the bears’ white fur has changed.

As an objection to typical accounts of moral functionalism, discontinuity of this sort is powerful. The weaknesses of the hero in our own story, Morality, have been shown to us by our own jump cut. The narrative must change, and in so doing, the function must change with it or perish. This is an eventuality that standard accounts of moral functionalism simply can’t admit. But beyond this, we are made aware of the deficits of narrative as a form of explanation. Details are forgotten because nature isn’t linear. We don’t really know where Morality came from. We only know that it one day swooped in and saved the day. But Morality has a source, a body that we can examine for its strengths and weaknesses. It has friends and family. It has enemies and obstacles. It has fears and curiosities. But an itemised list of all of these is irrelevant for the sort of narrative employed by those who seek to vindicate Morality as the hero of our story. And all of this comes from this singular commitment: that Nature writes nothing badly. But in truth, Nature neither writes anything well. Nature does not write. But this means nothing about the functions of traits. It means only that our justifications for these functions are in need of revision. This is the importance of the discontinuity objection. If we are to maintain moral functionalism, or any sort of functionalism, the etiologies to which we appeal must attend to the minutia, to the gritty details that situate a trait within its multifaceted biological systems.


Works Cited

Smyth, Nicholas. “The Function of Morality.” Philosophical Studies 174(5), 2017, pp. 1127-1144