The challenge was a practical one, to be faced anew in every work. Williams was wary of any radical formal experimentation—he never published a novel or poem or dialogue, nor did he produce a Nietzschean catalogue of aphorisms. But though he retained his loyalty to the philosophical essay, every paragraph he wrote had a voice inimitably his own, unapologetically interested in what people are like. Even in Morality, the abstract prose abounds with human figures. As when, in considering how people sometimes dissociate themselves from their given roles, he described a bank clerk who, while “he may hate the bank, despise banking, and care only about his friend and growing chrysanthemums … could hardly say that he wasn’t a bank clerk (really).” Or as when he is considering what someone might say to an “amoralist” to bring them to accept the claims of morality, he suddenly wondered what such a person might actually look like: “Some stereotype from a gangster movie might come to mind, of the ruthless and rather glamorous figure who cares about his mother, his child, even his mistress. … With this man, of course … arguments of moral philosophy are not going to work … he always has something he would rather do than listen to them.”
The examples are schematic, lacking the narrative density of even a mediocre novel, but they have something (those chrysanthemums!) that redeems them from utilitarian banality: the shock of the concrete amid the abstract. Morality has no epigraph, but if it did, it should have been the superbly compressed final draft of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”:
I, too, dislike it …
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it,
after all, a place for the genuine.
I remained in Oxford over Christmas for fear of leaving the first place I’d been so happy. My college wouldn’t let me keep my room and I ended up subletting in a large Victorian house in leafy North Oxford with a small kitchen where I boiled eggs for breakfast and had cereal for dinner. Oxford in term-time is endlessly, shallowly, sociable; its vacations are long and lonely for those who stay. I saw my first modest snowfall that December. There was not much else to do, so I read the only novel I owned, a used paperback of E. M. Forster’s Howards End. I found myself fixated on the minor character of Tibby Schlegel, who is introduced as “an intelligent man of sixteen, but dyspeptic and difficile.” The first time Forster tells us much about him, he has
just been up to try for a scholarship at Oxford. The men were down, and the candidates had been housed in various colleges, and had dined in hall. Tibby was sensitive to beauty, the experience was new, and he gave a description of his visit that was almost glowing. The august and mellow University … appealed at once to the boy’s taste; it was the kind of thing he could understand, and he understood it all the better because it was empty. … His sisters sent him there that he might make friends … He made no friends. His Oxford remained Oxford empty, and he took into life with him, not the memory of a radiance, but the memory of a color scheme.
Tibby goes on to study Chinese but never shows the slightest interest in China. So much of the moral philosophy I was studying read like it might have been the work of an army of Tibbies, writing industriously when the students were away. If it was interested in people, it was as beings who might have, or to whom one might have, obligations.
I got over the loneliness of those early terms. The sun finally came out. My new country began to make sense to me. I enjoyed my exams, polishing off an essay an hour, each full of carefully prepared arguments mixed with the odd (rehearsed) epigram. I had, in the meantime, applied to stay at Oxford for grad school, largely unperturbed by careerist thoughts. I had vague ideas of becoming some sort of writer and had begun to publish reviews and essays. I reckoned that Oxford, small and full of libraries, would be a convenient place to carry on in this belletristic fashion, helpfully near (but not too near) the metropolis where all the magazines and publishers had their offices. No one asked me at that stage to be any more specific about my plans than that. All I had to do was send in two short papers, one of them a lightly polished version of that triumphant early essay on the ominous-sounding Frege-Geach problem, and three references. I was accepted and offered a very decent stipend.
My sense of not being fully of academia helped me, I think, to survive the next six years. The philosophy department itself I found deeply intimidating, confronting me with people my age who were terrifyingly well read in contemporary philosophy but whose conversation sometimes gave the defiant impression that they read nothing else. They liked to declare their opponents’ views irrational, or obviously false, and peppered their speech with a series of graphic metaphors (“Your second premise is doing the heavy lifting here” or “I’m happy to bite the bullet on that one”), all spoken with a robotic staccato cadence I’ve only ever heard in a philosophy seminar room. Invited to the house of one contemporary for coffee, I was struck by his empty bookshelves and asked him, in innocence, where he kept his books. He told me you could get most everything off JSTOR these days.
I should not give the impression that grad school was all bespectacled bros and chest-thumping. The effacement of the humanistic strand in the history of philosophy came along with something else generally thought a virtue: the effacement of the individual ego and its demands. I once heard a philosopher tell a story about a student who asked him what he ought to do with his life. “Do what you want,” the philosopher said. “But I don’t want to do what I want to do,” the student protested. “I want to do what I ought to do.”
There are many ways to take this—paradoxical—statement, but we all understand at some level what the student was saying, something that the ambiguous English word “want” makes it hard to express precisely. The idea is that Socrates’ question—how to live—can be answered in a way that takes any fact about what you actually are or want or value as strictly incidental. Oxford is not alone among college towns in breeding a radically ascetic, almost monastic, subculture of counter-narcissism. Someone has a vegan epiphany every other day, insisting loudly that they don’t want to eat what they want to eat. Someone is constantly “calling out” someone else for failing to check their privilege, with a zeal reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. Morality, curiously enough, is in.
At Oxford, I confronted the new moralism most conspicuously in the form of the “effective altruists,” students pledging to give away a sizeable portion of their future incomes to charity. Some among them for example hold their noses and take up jobs as consultants so they’ll have more to donate to charities that (for instance) supply the poorest Africans with medicated mosquito nets. Some very smart people have been doing the math and this is, apparently, among the ways to do the most good with the least money. To settle for less, they say, would be irrational, even immoral.
The rhetoric of the effective altruists tends on the whole to be gung ho. It eschews guilt-tripping for an emphasis on the extent of the good it’s open to us to do. Not everyone in the movement shares the fundamental beliefs of its founders, and some don’t have any philosophical beliefs as such, but the founders themselves tend to be utilitarians of a fairly old-fashioned sort, committed to considering things from what the most brilliant of them, the nineteenth-century philosopher Henry Sidgwick, called “the point of view of the universe.” The basic question is how it would be best for the world to be, and the (rough) answer is that it would be best for the world to be full of happy sentient beings. From this comes a simple formula: act so as to promote the happiness of all sentient beings.
It isn’t only philosophers who’ve found this a compelling project. To be in global terms one of the very rich is to live with the guilty burden of privilege, that most first-world of problems. At once pious and rational, comforting and selfless, effective altruism promises a life free from all the hokeyness involved in the business of finding ourselves and our deepest impulses. It promises to shield our do-gooding from the temptations of faddish causes and poignant advertising. It promises an unsoppy, no-bullshit morality. The fact that it seems to require an astonishing degree of self-abnegation, foresight and mathematical ability does not faze the effective altruist any more than it did the Victorian utilitarian. On the contrary, it poses just the sort of technical challenge likely to galvanize a movement spearheaded by graduates in philosophy, math and computer science, who are already disposed to want to do only what they ought, rationally, to do.
One of the movement’s founders, the philosopher Toby Ord, responds sharply to the charge that his moral philosophy asks for too much:
Morality can demand a lot. Let’s say you’ve been falsely accused of murder, you’ve been sentenced to death, and you realize that you can escape if you kill one of your guards. Morality says you can’t kill him, even though it means you’re going to lose your life. That’s just how it is. Well, it turns out that we can save 1,000 people’s lives. If you don’t do that, then you have to say that it’s permissible to value yourself more than 1,000 times as much as you value strangers. Does that sound plausible? I don’t think that sounds very plausible. If you think that, your theory’s just stupid.
I have heard Ord at seminars a few times and read his work, which is scrupulous and even-tempered, but this uncharacteristically truculent off-the-cuff remark, quoted by the journalist Larissa MacFarquhar in the Guardian, is nicely revealing of his outlook. “Morality” appears here as a tyrant who can “demand” or “permit” things. To resist is to expose yourself as holding a “stupid” theory, one that insists your own life matters more than the lives of a thousand strangers.
What made the years of grad school bearable was the jokey solidarity among those of us unsympathetic to this understanding of ethics, the ones who wrote on Aristotle and Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, on ambivalence, alienation and anger, and who didn’t see morality wherever they looked. Of the contemporary philosophers I read, Williams alone offered a model of a life in academic philosophy that held any appeal.
As Williams saw it, we come to ethical reflection from a life we’re living already, with our own ways of thinking and feeling and valuing: this is what it is to have an ethical point of view at all. Altruism may well be part of such a life, but an outlook in which the demands of morality trump everything else has no means of preventing the demands of altruism from dominating life altogether. In such an outlook, if it’s ever okay to take some time off from morality, it’s only so that you can do more good after the R&R.
I returned during my early years at grad school to these arguments, first set out in Williams’s 1973 essay “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” with a deep sense of urgency. The utilitarian was no longer a theoretical construction to do dialectical battle with; he was knocking at the door armed with pamphlets, asking me to sign away 10 percent of my income (I was happy to oblige) and, in the seminar room, claiming authority over how I was to live (which I respectfully declined to concede to him). It was in Williams’s essays from the Seventies that I found what I missed in this picture of moral reflection as arbitration between the claims of different people, one of whom just happens to be me. In this picture, it seems like the fact that I’m me has been declared, right at the outset, irrelevant. To direct my charitable donations to training guide dogs for the blind (an obscenely inefficient way of doing good, the effective altruists say) would be to treat (mistakenly) the fact that I happen to care about this cause as if it meant something.