Free Will and the Tragic Predicament: Making Sense of Williams

In András Szigeti & Matthew Talbert (eds.), Morality and Agency: Themes From Bernard Williams. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Usa. pp. 163-183 (2022)
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Free Will & The Tragic Predicament : Making Sense of Williams The discussion in this paper aims to make better sense of free will and moral responsibility by way of making sense of Bernard Williams’ significant and substantial contribution to this subject. Williams’ fundamental objective is to vindicate moral responsibility by way of freeing it from the distortions and misrepresentations imposed on it by “the morality system”. What Williams rejects, in particular, are the efforts of “morality” to further “deepen” or “refine” the notion of the voluntary, with a view to securing “ultimate justice”. It is these aims and aspirations, he argues, that take us to the precipice of scepticism. In Shame and Necessity (1993) Williams advances a vindicatory genealogy that unmasks the “illusions” and “fantasies” of our current ethical ideas as they relate to agency and responsibility. What we are then left with is the task of “recasting our ethical conceptions” . It is here that Williams is especially insistent on the importance and value of historical consciousness and reflection. The role of our reflections about the Greeks and tragedy is precisely to show that in order to move forward, into the future, we need to first look back at where we have come from. The value of these “untimely” observations is that they provide us with alternatives and options that we might otherwise lack. What we discover, when we consider the Greeks, is their commitment to a “pessimism of strength” that rests on rejecting scepticism. It is this two-sided perspective on our ethical predicament that delivers a more truthful account of our human situation, one that will help us discard those illusions and fantasies of "morality" that we are “better off” without. An account of this kind refuses to accept an optimism that insists that any form of responsible ethical life must be one that is immune to the influence of luck and fate. This is the fundamental lesson that we can learn from the ancient Greeks and that Williams seeks to “recover” for us.

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Paul Russell
Lund University


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