Is Challenging the Amoralist an Exercise in Futility?
Maybe Not, but Beating One’s Head against a Brick Wall is Less Painful
In The Amoralist, Bernard Williams seeks to make the point that even if one only has limited, and even intermittent, capricious sympathy for others it becomes possible to include that person into the world of morality because it provides a starting point for moral considerations. While this is Williams’ point with The Amoralist, he concludes by saying “It does not follow from this that having sympathetic concern for others is a necessary condition of being in the world of morality…It does not follow from what has so far been said; but it is true.” The Amoralist is an exploration in how one might be able to convince someone who has no conscious moral considerations to be moved to consider morality as a decision making tool. Considerations of biology, psychology, socialization and cultural inculcation are used by Williams throughout the piece to probe for openings in the amoralist’s reasoning, and are used, in turn, by the amoralist to dismiss considerations of morality. After a close reading it becomes apparent that the amoralist forces the individuals in the society he is a part of to look at their own basis for choosing whatever moral code they live by, and garner a better understanding of where those beliefs come from and then question those beliefs themselves, perhaps using the amoralist as a tool for understanding the ramifications of whatever choice they make. The end result of this exploration will likely be an acceptance of some moral theory, or theories that aren’t destructively antithetical to each other in a society, that tends to secure and strengthen the social institutions that make up a society at large.
Williams begins his characterization of the amoralist by juxtaposing the presumption that the amoralist is indifferent to moral considerations with the presumption that the amoralist does have motivations, such as caring about some things, and has some preferences, aims, and passions for some desired ends. Williams further explains that these ends do not necessarily exclude an acknowledgement of morality, though in the case of the amoralist one will hard pressed to get him to admit to such a thing. The amoralist will need to avoid several potential pitfalls in order to avoid moral considerations. The pitfalls initially listed by Williams are, “caring about other people’s interests, having an inclination to tell the truth or keep promises if it does not suit him to do so, being disposed to reject courses of action on the ground that they are unfair or dishonorable or selfish.” Caring about other’s interests would tend to lead to moral territory as it can cause action to be judged on the basis of what is right, fair, or even obligatory depending on the relationship, the circumstances, and the considerations made prior to any action. Having an inclination for truth telling and keeping promises tends toward moral territory in the same way, and in order to avoid moral considerations there cannot be a preference for either of these as that preference, or inclination, implies a preconceived rule for behavior regardless of the circumstances involved. To reject courses of action based on a belief that they are unfair, dishonorable, or selfish would move the amoralist fully into the realm of moral consideration as such beliefs are, by definition, the result of personal, moral value judgments.
Further, according to Williams, the amoralist needs to not be disposed toward thoughts that some actions are ‘all right’ as these dispositions imply there are actions that are not ‘all right,’ and would lead to a comparison of what it is that makes an act either ‘all right’ or not ‘all right,’ or perhaps even ‘all wrong,’ again requiring a moral value judgment. Williams leaves the amoralist a way out of this particular dilemma by allowing the amoralist to define acts that are termed ‘all right’ as acts that he is not going to moralize about. Of course, if it is assumed that the amoralist in question is truly an amoralist then he would not be moralizing about anything at all, would he? Also, Williams rightly notes that the amoralist must avoid consistent resentment and disapproval of people treating him in the same manner he treats them. Not liking such treatment, and even fighting back, is acceptable as those reactions do not necessitate moral considerations, but resentment and disapproval are attitudes that generally result from moral considerations, and the more consistent the attitudes are the more likely it is that they stem from some moral precept. It seems obvious, but Williams goes on to explain that the amoralist must avoid considering himself, or anyone else, as courageous, splendid, or excellent. Each of these beliefs could put the amoralist firmly in the field of moral value judgments, as they are each representative of a kind of virtue and reflect an absence of vice as their opposing terms would show. In this case, if one is the opposite of courageous, he is cowardly; the opposite of splendid, unremarkable; the opposite of excellent, inferior. For the amoralist to use descriptive terms like these, with a common understanding of the meanings, it would show that he may have embraced the belief that some characteristics are better than others. This is true unless the amoralist is merely identifying certain characteristics and applying the appropriate term based on what he knows or believes everyone else thinks, applying no value to the terms himself but acknowledging that others do. It seems possible that the amoralist might be able to consider himself to be virtuous by others’ definitions based on the characteristics he’s shown them, or know they’ve seen from him, yet not care one whit about virtue or vice, and again refrain from moralizing about it or paying much attention to it at all.
According to Williams, the amoralist who thinks of himself as courageous will result in a false conclusion, “that the more moral citizens would be amoral if they could get away with it, or if they were not too frightened, or if they were not passively conditioned by society-if, in general, they did not suffer from inhibitions.” Perhaps Williams sees his assertion here as self-evident. Perhaps the falsity of the amoralist’s conclusion is not self-evident, but Williams think that an explanation is irrelevant or unimportant for the purposes of his discussion. Regardless of how Williams reaches this conclusion, this author sees the amoralist’s claim as possibly true, but unlikely, and that if there were a change in moral behavior by removing these inhibitions, it would tend to shift toward egoism and not amoralism.
The discussion regarding a likely source of people’s motivations, while relevant to understanding how it might be possible to move the amoralist to an honest consideration of moral reasoning, provides evidence that the amoralist might well be incapable of such considerations, and not just unwilling. The amoralist reasons that behavior is merely the result of biological predispositions and social conditioning, which, if taken to its logical end is an argument over the origins of morality, and if the amoralist has reasoned correctly, any belief in morality is nothing more than a programmed belief. This would allow the amoralist to continue to refuse to moralize about things, but would require him to admit that it is possible some stimuli might eventually cause a reaction in him that moves him from amoralism to morality of some type.
Williams seems to have a particularly strong desire to have the amoralist use reason to move away from his current belief system, and while I’m sure he understands that reason and emotion are two discrete influences even though they interact with each other, it isn’t until near the end of the piece that Williams is willing to move away from the focus on reason and toward a stronger focus on the drives caused through emotion; specifically by refocusing on the amoralist’s capacity for sympathy toward others, and being moved to act by that sympathy. Unfortunately, if the amoralist is going to maintain consistency, instead of an exploration of actions caused by emotions in the hopes that such an exploration might lead to the amoralist providing reasons or justifications that open to door for moral considerations, Williams approach is likely to be stymied again by the amoralist dismissing the entire cause and effect chain reaction as having absolutely nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with biology and the social conditioning (the sum of all stimuli up to that point in time) Williams allowed for earlier. In this way the amoralist is able to, thanks to Williams’ help, erect and perpetually maintain a nearly impenetrable obstacle keeping the amoralist firmly justified, and perhaps even factually right, in his amoralistic beliefs. It is obvious here that Williams believes an answer can be found in sympathy, but in this piece he did not make his case, even stating (as mentioned earlier), “It does not follow from this that having sympathetic concern for others is a necessary condition of being in the world of morality…but it is true.”