Home > Ethics, Philosophy > The Moral Route and the Amoralist: An Exegesis of Bernard Williams’ “The Amoralist”

The Moral Route and the Amoralist: An Exegesis of Bernard Williams’ “The Amoralist”

Williams constructs a picture of a person who poses, perhaps, the greatest objection to the necessity of morality. The amoralist is a person who, despite acquiescing to the public’s claims of moral considerations, holds no such considerations himself. In other words, the foundational principles of morality, which guide—for the most part—the actions of others, do not have the same sway on the amoralist’s decisions. For example, an amoralist may choose not to lie, but he would not do so from a moral principle that defines lying as bad; rather, the amoralist would choose not to lie from self-interest or any other non-moral consideration. In short, Williams argues that an amoralist is one who is not bound by any sort of morality.

Williams uses the example of a stereotypical gangster to illustrate his point. This man “one might picture … as having some affections, occasionally caring for what happens to somebody else. … He is still recognizably amoral, in the sense that no general considerations weigh with him, and he is extremely short on fairness and similar considerations. Although he acts for other people from time to time, it all depends on how he happens to feel” (Williams 9). The gangster—the amoralist—is not convinced by the necessity of morality for humanity. He will argue that all morality is simply “social conditioning” and therefore invalid as sufficient for a general and obligating consideration (Williams 6).

However, even if we were to grant that all morality is simply social conditioning, Williams argues that this would not dismiss the relevance of morality to everyday living within society. Extending the amoralist’s claim, Williams claims that, if because of social conditioning he dismisses morality from relevance, then he must necessarily dismiss “his language, his methods of thought, his tastes, and even his emotions” (Williams 6, 7). He would be forced to dismiss these things necessarily, because they too would be derived from social conditioning. The amoralist must be consistent here if desires to be rational.

But, the amoralist would counter that there are more foundational, animalistic impulses that are self-interested contra other-centric values found in morality. Williams, though, finds these claims to be insufficient. For he questions why the Hobbesian State of Nature ought to be standard by which we judge “what men are really like,” if men are rarely placed into that position. Nevertheless, Williams finds that the amoralist’s impulses to be Hobbesian in nature, in the sense that they are interested in self-preservation and the preservation of others insofar as they suit his whims. (Williams 7)

Williams contrasts the amoralist, the one who is not bound by morality, with the psychopath. He defines the psychopath as the one who is unaffected by the sufferings or distresses of anybody other than himself. The fundamental difference between the psychopath and the amoralist is the ability and desire to care for somebody other than one’s self. Even if such a care is wholly self-interested and contingent on how one is feeling on a particular day, this fleeting feeling distinguishes the amoralist from the psychopath (Williams 8). And for this reason, Williams dismisses the psychopath as being a possible alternative to living a moral life. The psychopath merely “appalls” us, and he leads us to seek to understand why (Williams 9).

And so, having dismissed the psychopath from the conversation, Williams claims that the amoralist remains a viable opponent to moral living. Nonetheless, the amoralist is absolutely dependent on the moral systems already in place. In Williams’ word, the amoralist is a “parasite” on the moral framework (4). This parasite would be nonexistent and ineffective unless others were bound by a specific framework, around which he could maneuver and within which he could take refuge from being taken advantage of himself. The gangster illustration is apt here as well:  a gangster would find it much harder to exist in a Hobbesian reality; the gangster has certain rights secured to him, even if he were to be arrested—because he violated the laws, or the moral rules, of the state—because he lives within the social contract already established; and the gangster can operate with greater impunity because he knows that others do bind themselves to the moral considerations of society as a whole. And so, as the parasite is dependent upon another, the amoralist necessarily needs others to live morally so that he can live peacefully. However, Williams does not consider these worries to be particularly troubling for the amoralist, as society does not seem as if it will devolve into a State of Nature.

However, and into the mind of the amoralist we go, he faces a number of problems. First, according to Williams, what distinguishes the amoralist from the psychopath is the potential to care for other people, especially in their distress or their suffering (8). This potential is the springboard into moral thinking (10, 11). Once the amoralist begins to grant in his mind that “[t]hey (the others) need help,” then he may begin to think morally. As Williams explains, “This man is capable of thinking in terms of others’ interests, and his failure to be a moral agent lies (partly) in the fact that he is only intermittently and capriciously disposed to do so. But there is no bottomless gulf between this state and the basic dispositions of morality” (Williams 10). It is a short step between acknowledging that others have needs, desiring to help them, and morally considering their plight. Williams argues that, if we push the amoralist to at least imagine someone else’s plight, he may begin to consider and acknowledge their situation as something that exists apart from him and his interests. Upon this consideration and acknowledgment, “we extend his sympathies. And if we can get him to extend his sympathies to less immediate persons who need help, we might be able to do it for less immediate persons whose interests have been violated, and so get him to have some primitive grasp on notions of fairness” (Williams 10). Once this occurs, our amoralist will no longer be an amoralist.

A second problem facing the amoralist is that of universalization. The amoralist cannot, without forsaking his amoralism, think that it is okay, permitted, right, or proper, in a moral sense, for others to behave as he does. Once he approaches the arena of obligatory and permitted actions and calculating those within his mind, the amoralist has entered the realm of morality (Williams 3). And if he sees his amoralism as a courageous act and worthy of consideration, then the amoralist has undoubtedly placed himself firmly within the moral realm. As the amoralist’s reasons concerning the way he lives begin to develop into universal ought and ought nots, the amoralist has moved out of amoralism, for his particular considerations have evolved into general considerations for the way others ought or ought not live.

In universalization, the amoralist faces particularly difficult problems. The mental hoops through which the amoralist must jump, Williams suggests, are impossible to count. By extension of Williams’ argument, the amoralist may neither suggest nor accept that others’ ways of life are as good or acceptable as his own, for then he would approach cultural relativism, a moral position. Considering the mental tasks and fortitude required of an amoralist, it seems that he is at least a theoretical implausibility.

Williams seems to suggest throughout this article that an amoralist is theoretically possible but altogether practically impossible. He sets up a trichotomy between the psychopath, the amoralist, and the moralist. He points out that the difference between the psychopath and both the amoralist and moralist is the fact that the psychopath is unable and unwilling to care for another, even in periods of great suffering and distress. Nevertheless, the difference between the amoralist and the moralist is not so great as it may seem. Williams exaggerates the gap when he explains that it is not a bottomless gulf; in fact, the difference is quite small. Once the thought in the amoralist’s mind has shifted from I like this person and he is in trouble; so I should help them to This person is in trouble; so I should help them, the amoralist is on the slow, but steady, path to moralism. Williams claims that the man with “extended sympathies” to those outside of his “own immediate involvement” is clearly within the realm of morality (Williams 11). For Williams, the amoralist merely has to begin to consider the needs of those not immediately tied to him, whether societally, geophysically, or economically, and, when he has begun to consider those people, he approaches morality.


Williams, Bernard. Morality:  An Introduction to Ethics. New York:  Harper and Rowe, 1972. “The Amoralist.” 1-12. You may purchase the book cheaply here.


Do not attempt to copy this and use it as your own. It has been submitted into the TurnItIn Database, and I need not explain to you how foolish it is to steal a paper for an ethics course.

  1. Leon Orlet
    April 8, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    Great stuff. Kudos \o

  2. Samuel Wratten
    May 21, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    Thank you very much it is very informative , I do though have a quick question – if Williams is an internalise about reason (which he is), how can he think that the amoralist is conceptually possible? I guess the point that I am trying to make is why would he even right this paper? Or is he moving aside that debate for a second and pretending to be an externalist about reason? Many Thanks

  1. March 23, 2012 at 5:42 am
  2. March 23, 2012 at 5:50 am

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