One of the most annoying things about Bernard Williams was his deep suspicion of assertions of normativity which separate themselves from practice. For example, in the posthumously published In The Beginning Was The Deed, along with asking what the point of being Kant at the court of King Arthur might be, he quotes Habermas demanding that participants in the political process
drop the role of the private subject... The combination [of facticity and validity] requires a process of law-making in which the participatory citizens are not allowed to take part simply in the role of actors oriented to success
and himself goes on to say
But what is this "are not allowed to"? It cannot be blankly normative. Suppose, one is bound to say, that they do? It may be replied: it will defeat the point. But what if it does? And how can we be sure, in the light of the possibility, what the point really is?
Since this is in the course of making an argument about how political philosophers ought to theorize, this is in a certain sense a little bit rich. If we ignore that what political decisions do is not "announce that the other party was morally wrong or, indeed, wrong at all [but that] they have lost", then he had better think that there is a sense in which we have gone wrong, or else it is unclear what point he thinks he is making. In the sense that it is an interpretative point in favour of a refusal to admit certain kinds of normativity to politics, it is fairly elliptical, and in the sense that it is just a blunt refusal to admit that we might reasonably want things to go other than they do, it not only undermines his own position but is deeply unphilosophical.
On the other hand, one of the most wonderful things about Bernard Williams was his deep suspicion of assertions of normativity which separate themselves from practice. There's an early passage either in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy or Morality: An Introduction to Ethics where Williams pours utter scorn on the idea that what people are really like is the way that they would behave in a lifeboat which is sinking because it is overfull. The idea is that just as we would not expect to see what a tropical plant is like by placing it in the Antarctic, we hardly find out what humans are like by imagining them under conditions where cooperation and compromise are pretty likely to result in them dying. Similarly, the integrity objection to utilitarianism importantly relies on the thought that it matters to use what we as individuals do, rather than how the world ends up being once are acts and omissions are endlessly mediated through the agency of others. The thought seems to have been that philosophy is an account of what we do as humans, and if it stops being intelligible as such an account, then it has failed. Philosophy is a humanistic discipline, and the ones we really ought to hate are the reductionists, just as relativism - and I think this is probably my favourite of Williams' aphorisms - is either too early or too late; because either it answers the question, should we tolerate those people we have no straightforward way of persecuting, or because it does not answer the question, given that you and I have some practical disagreement about the moral status of some act, how do we and ought we to resolve that disagreement without bloodshed.
All this is by way of objecting to another way of understanding philosophy. One of my colleagues was talking a couple of weeks ago about some research which claims that children are much more philosophical than adults. Unlike adults, apparently children go round constantly questioning things; they're forever asking about the sources of authorities they encounter, demanding causal histories of events or explanations that they're given, and so on. They always want to know why, are resolutely independent, critical inquirers, whereas adults are in contrast dupes, with both the ability and the will to tear back the veil and see what lies beneath atrophied, beaten down by time and the need to get by in a world which has limited patience for a refusal to acquiesce in the way things are. Time and the need to get by in world which had limited patience for a refusal to acquiesce in the way things are, at least for some values of 'the way things are', though, are central features of human existence. The reason children don't (always: children don't go round asking why their parents love and care for them, or not usually at least, or, minimally, don't usually behave like they've been asking that question, for example; one should always ask which questions aren't being asked, what forms of life are being privileged) behave like beings which have got used to them is because they aren't beings which have got used to them. That, though, doesn't mean that no-one should have got used to them, that the presumption should be against having got used to them, that philosophy is constituted by not having got used to central features of (adult) human life. Who would this philosophy be for, which goes round always demanding why? What would it not demand why of? Would it demand why it wants to know why, and what answer would it accept to that question? Where would it begin from, and who would recognise the world the answers to its questions left?
Another way of expressing this worry is to wonder about the conditions which might fulfil what Williams called the Basic Legitimation Demand, which requires that political orders are intelligible to those who live under them as solutions to the problem of providing order - without themselves becoming a problem in precisely those terms. I spoke to another colleague about this some time last week, who was fairly insistent that the work that intelligibility was doing there was not just a black box in the general sense which Williams obviously intended it to be - so that we could be Lancelot at Camelot and John Rawls at Harvard - but similarly indeterminate in any concrete situation - who could tell whether we ought not to be Lancelot at Harvard and Rawls at Camelot? In particular, they wanted to insist that Robert Nozick's right-libertarianism was a viable answer to Williams' question; that if the sorts of political orders we have round here now could tell all those they exercise their coercion over that in some imagined state of nature, they would not be worse off, that in the midst of riches being in the same state as a hunter-gatherer is sufficient to legitimate (being coopted into ensuring) coercive denial of access to those riches. I saw the tail end of a BBC4 documentary on the Miner's Strike this evening: I would have liked to see someone walk up to a striking miner in 1984, and tell them that since they weren't yet starving to death, the political order they lived under was legitimate. It's hard to explain to a crying child, after all, and we shouldn't make people do it unless we have to.