Beliefs shouldn’t be ridiculed they should be challenged

June 17, 2003
the times logo1

Published in The Times, 17th June 2003

Sir Bernard Williams, who died last week, was one of the great moral philosophers of our time. One of his contemporaries called him “the cleverest undergraduate who had ever been to Oxford”. At the age of 38 he became the Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge, and it was there that I came to know him. He was my first doctoral supervisor. Ours was not an easy relationship, but it taught me what is at stake in intellectual engagement at its best.

I had just returned from a religious seminary in Israel, where I had gone after completing my first degree. I had not yet decided to become a rabbi — that came several years later, but I already had mystic longings.

Professor Williams, as he was then, may or may not have described himself as an atheist, but he was certainly critical of religious belief. He regarded as incoherent the idea of a God who is above space and time and yet communicates with us who live in space and time.

He believed that we are alone in a world indifferent to our existence. As he put it eloquently in one of his later works. “We know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells no purposive story, and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities.”

He knew I believed otherwise. But he did not ridicule those beliefs. He challenged them. He candidly acknowledged that he was not himself sure how to write or think about ethics (this was a year before he published his first work on the subject, a short book entitled Morality).

He wondered whether, given his views, he was sympathetic enough to be the best guide to my research. Eventually he took me to Oxford to meet a philosopher — Philippa Foot — who had a more positive attitude toward religious ethics. He was kind, honest and helpful, and I admired him.

I learnt much from his work. He taught us that the wish to be someone else was a contradiction in terms. As one of the Jewish mystics, Zushya of Hanipol, put it: “When I get to Heaven, they will not ask me, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you Zushya?’”

He taught us that utilitarianism — judging an act by its consequences — failed to take account of personal integrity. There are some acts we should not do even if they have beneficial results, and even if someone else will do them anyway.

He also taught us that there are limits to rational choice. His famous example was Gauguin, who gave up everything to go and paint in Tahiti. What if he had suffered injury or illness and been unable to paint once he got there? What if he turned out to be only a mediocre artist?

There are certain decisions that are only vindicated by events we could not be sure of in advance. He drew one conclusion from this, namely that morality can never be immune to luck. I draw another, that all creativity demands faith. But it was a powerful point.

What I learnt from Bernard Williams and his work was that whatever we believe, we should test in the arena of free debate, rigorous argument and a willingness to confront positions antithetical to one’s own.

That is why academic boycotts and the refusal to give certain views a respectful hearing are unacceptable, a denial of academic freedom and intellectual integrity alike.