, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 339-351
Date: 05 Oct 2012

How Liberals Can Explain the Moral Errors of Past Eras and Answer Bernard Williams

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Unhistorical Liberalism or Moral Relativism: An Unwelcome Dichotomy

Bernard Williams takes liberals to task for lacking a theory of moral error and simply attributing to past thinkers and eras a gross deficiency to explain practices such as slavery which are now deemed beyond the pale. As he puts it: “The outlook of liberal universalism holds that if certain human rights exist, they have always existed, and if societies in the past did not recognize them, then that is because either those in charge were wicked, or the society did not, for some reason, understand the existence of these rights.”

Bernard Williams, “Human Rights and Relativism,” in Geoffrey Hawthorn, ed., In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 65.

Williams attributes this view to Thomas Nagel and adds: “Nagel’s outlook poses a question which it cannot answer: If liberalism is correct and is universal in the way that Nagel takes it to b ...