Sir Bernard Williams

Sir Bernard Williams

On this date in 1929, English moral philosopher Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams was born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, to Hilda (Day) and Owen Williams. His mother was a personal assistant and his father was chief maintenance surveyor for the Ministry of Works.

He was educated at Chigwell School, Essex, and Balliol College, Oxford (B.A. 1951, M.A. 1954). “Virtually the only subject in which one could ever get a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge was classics,” he later wrote. “So I went to Oxford to study classics and, unlike Cambridge, it had a philosophy component and I became completely transported by it.” (The Guardian, Nov. 30, 2002)

His national service was spent flying Spitfire fighter planes in Canada for the Royal Air Force, after which he returned to Oxford to become a fellow at its New College. In 1955 he married Shirley Brittain, whom he met while both were taking classes at Columbia University in New York. They had a daughter, Rebecca, in 1961 after four miscarriages before the marriage ended in 1974 when the Catholic Church annulled it at Shirley’s request despite its 19-year length.

“While Shirley was (and is) a devout Catholic and so took the marriage as a commitment for eternity, Bernard, an atheist, had not done so when he made the wedding vows,” stated The Guardian’s 2002 story. According to her, “The Church and Bernard had a wonderful time debating all this. The theologians were so thrilled to be discussing it with a leading philosopher. … I was influenced by Christian thinking, and he would say ‘That’s frightfully pompous and it’s not really the point.’ So we had a certain jarring over that and over Catholicism.”

She would go on to lead the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and was married for 16 years to American political scientist Richard Neustadt, who died in 2003 (four months after Bernard Williams died). Earlier, as a Member of Parliament, she was not liberal on reproductive choice, being one of only two women in the House of Commons to vote against legalizing abortion in 1967.

Williams had started living with Patricia Law Skinner in 1971 and they wed soon after his marriage was dissolved. She was philosophy editor at Cambridge University Press. They had two sons, Jacob (b. 1975) and Jonathan (b. 1980).

Williams lectured and held professorships at several universities while publishing widely during this period. His first book was “Morality: An Introduction to Ethics” (1972), termed by The Guardian as “an incendiary critique of British philosophy’s obsession with meta-ethical questions … at the expense of first-order ethical questions concerning abortion, famine and feminism.” He was a strong supporter of women in academia.

“He might be described as an analytical philosopher with the soul of a general humanist,” wrote Colin McGinn in the New York Review of Books (April 10, 2003). “He opposes the widespread contemporary desire to model philosophy on science, preferring to locate philosophy within its historical and cultural context.”

“He argued in a later book, ‘Shame and Necessity’ (1993), a study of ancient Greece, that Hellenic ethics allowed for a wider scope of praise and blame than did Christian-based morality, concluding that the sense of shame can be more in tune with our intuitions than moral guilt, and permits more latitude for living a whole life well.” (New York Times obituary, June 14, 2003)

Williams became a member of the Institut international de philosophie in 1969, a fellow of the British Academy in 1971, an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983 and was knighted in 1999. He died of heart failure at age 73 while on vacation in Rome, where he was cremated. (D. 2003)

Freedom From Religion Foundation