Course Notes – Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The last unit of my introductory level “Ethics and Contemporary Issues” course is devoted to the question of moral concern for non-human animals.  We begin with excerpts from Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, then move on to Cora Diamond’s “Eating Meat and Eating People” (which I discussed in a This Week’s Special some time ago (1)), and finish with Bernard Williams’ “The Human Prejudice.”  It is a fitting way to end the course, for not only is Williams’ essay easily the most interesting and thought-provoking piece we read over the semester, Williams himself was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking philosophers to have worked since the Second World War.  Another such person, my former teacher, Jerry Fodor, died just a few days ago, and sadly, as philosophers of this caliber leave us, they are not being replaced by people of similar quality, and the discipline is suffering for it.  A combination of crude, almost adolescent politics, exceedingly narrow and largely insignificant technical performances, and insufferable, precious personalities have come to define much of professional philosophy in recent years, which may make its increasing marginalization in both the academy and the broader society unsurprising, but no less lamentable.

Peter Singer likes to brandish the word ‘speciesist’ in order to force a comparison between our tendency to give greater moral consideration to one another than to non-human animals and racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism.  It is this comparison and the conclusion Singer draws from it that Williams rejects.  But beyond merely defending our inclination to give greater consideration to human beings than to non-human animals, Williams maintains that what moral consideration we do extend to non-human animals is dependent on the very human prejudice that Singer and his ilk want to stamp out.  Indeed, for Williams, moral consideration of any sort, directed towards anyone or anything, is only intelligible in light of our reserving our greatest moral consideration for human beings and human concerns.

Early in the essay, Williams observes that historically – at least in the West – the human prejudice  has been grounded in the idea, common to the Abrahamic religions, that we are made in the image of God and have been given dominion over nature, something that remains true whether one’s version of the story is optimistic, in the manner of Renaissance humanists like Pico, or pessimistic in the manner of Lutheran Protestantism.

Whether the views were positive and celebratory, or more sceptical or pessimistic, there was one characteristic that almost all the views shared with one another.  For a start, almost everyone believed that human beings were literally at the centre of the universe.  Besides that purely topographical belief, however, there was a more basic assumption, that in cosmic terms, human beings had a definite measure of importance.  In most of these outlooks, the assumption was that the measure was high, that humans were particularly important in relation to the scheme of things.  This is most obviously true of the more celebratory versions of humanism, according to which human beings are the most perfect beings in creation.  But it is also present in outlooks that assign human beings a wretched and imperfect condition – Luther’s vision, for instance, in which man is hideously fallen and can do nothing about it simply by his own efforts.  The assumption is still there – indeed, it is hardly an assumption, but a central belief in the structure – that that fact is of absolute importance… The human condition is a central concern to God, so central, in fact, that it led to the Incarnation, which in the Reformation context too plays its traditional role as signaling man’s special role in the scheme of things. (p. 136)

But what is left of the human prejudice, if we no longer accept the idea that it is grounded in God’s overriding concern with us and our affairs?  Williams rightly observes that the notion that human beings just are more important than any other creature, as if it was a matter of objective fact, or that we are of the greatest significance “to the universe” or “mother nature” or some other such thing is hardly credible, but he also maintains (it seems to me, again, rightly) that no such cosmic or objective importance is required.  “We do not have to be saying anything of that sort at all,” Williams explains.  “These actions and attitudes need express no more than the fact that human beings are more important to us, a fact which is hardly surprising.” (p. 139)

Of course this is precisely what Singer deplores and why he associates the human prejudice with prejudice against black people, women, and Jews.  And it is because he thinks that such prejudices have no epistemically respectable ground, resting on nothing but a naked, unreasoned preference for one’s own, that he believes them to be pernicious.

The trouble is that it really isn’t true that sexism, and racism, and anti-Semitism are based in nothing more than a naked preference for white, male gentiles.  If one asks sexists or racists or anti-Semites why they privilege white, male gentiles above others, they don’t simply say, “because they are white, male gentiles.”  Rather they give reasons, like  “Women are emotionally unstable” or “Jews are devious and clannish.”  Of course, these reasons are terrible, because they are untrue, and it is precisely because they are grounded in the slander of their targets that racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are pernicious.  (pp. 139-40)

In the case of the human prejudice, however, substantive reasons typically are not offered, when one is queried about it.  If you ask someone why he so prioritizes a stranger’s life that he is about to run into a burning building to save him, it is very likely that the only answer you’ll get is that he’s a human being.  “What, are you kidding?There’s a person in there!”  And it’s worth noting that it makes no difference who it is inside the burning building, whether a Nobel laureate, modest  laborer, or a child with Down’s syndrome.  Indeed, there would be something quite weird, bordering on the grotesque, if one were to give reasons that went beyond the humanity of the individual trapped inside.  Imagine if the person said in response to your query, “Well, he is a Nobel laureate after all.”  You would wonder about him and with good reason.

The question returns, then, to whether the human prejudice is bad and why.  For Singer, it would appear, a naked preference for one’s own is as bad as a preference based in a slanderous view of the other.  Hence his view that we should turn to moral philosophy – specifically, to Utilitarianism – to determine to whom (or to what) we should extend moral concern.  Such a vantage point is supposed to give us an impartial, rational, objective account of moral obligation free from pernicious prejudices.

Williams thinks this is a delusion on Singer’s part, one that is shared by many – probably most – moral philosophers.  Consider the quality that the Utilitarian selects as the ground upon which the extension of moral concern should be based: the capacity for suffering.  Why should this be the relevant quality?  Consider that in various parts of the tree of life, we find creatures that have no capacity for suffering – microbes; insects; worms; arachnids; etc.  For the Utilitarian such beings are not deserving of our moral concern.  But why should this be?  What is so special about the capacity for suffering?  Why shouldn’t the possession of a certain kind of carapace be what determines moral concern or having a certain kind of eye or whatever?  The moral philosopher will, of course, answer that such qualities are morally irrelevant.  But why?  Is what’s morally relevant something that can be determined objectively; neutrally; logically?

The answer, lurking just beneath the surface, is that the Utilitarian’s chosen quality, suffering, is a major human concern.  As is autonomy and dignity, which, of course, is at the heart of Kantian moral philosophy.  And so, the grounds on which moral philosophers instruct us to give moral consideration to non-human animals turn out to be an expression of the human prejudice, not some neutral, objective standard that hovers somewhere above it, in logical space.  The animals to whom we extend this consideration, it turns out, are the ones most like us.  (It is worth noting, here, as Williams does, that the word we use to describe the kind treatment of animals is ‘humane’. (p. 147))  To deny this is simply to return to the unsustainable notion addressed earlier – that suffering or dignity or whatever just matter objectively, from no perspective.

Beyond moral concern for animals, then, it is Williams’ view that ethical concern of every type and variety can only be understood in light of the human prejudice and ultimately, as an expression of it.  It is people who have ethical concerns and we do so as a result of the things that we care about.

We can act intelligibly from these concerns only if we see them as aspects of human life.  It is not an accident or a limitation or a prejudice that we cannot care equally about all the suffering in the world: it is a condition of our existence and our sanity.  Equally, it is not that the demands of the moral consciousness require us to leave human life altogether and then come back to regulate the distribution of concerns, including our own, by criteria derived from nowhere.  We are surrounded by a world which we can regard with a very large range of reactions: wonder, joy, sympathy, disgust, horror.  We can, being as we are, reflect on these reactions and modify them to some extent… But it is a total illusion to think that this enterprise can be licensed in some respects and condemned in others by credentials that come from another source, a source that is not already involved in the peculiarities of the human enterprise. (p. 147)







20 responses to “Course Notes – Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice””

  1. s.wallerstein

    There’s a video in YouTube where Williams speaks about these issues, and at one point he notes that Peter Singer is Professor of the Center for Human Values at Princeton.

    Williams wonders how Singer can belong to a Center for Human Values, which for him must be like a Jew belonging to a Center for Aryan Values.

    First class British wit.

  2. How do we explain the everyday occurrence of the blue state progressive who walks by the filthy tent encampment of human beings living in utterly inhuman conditions in order to purchase their expensive vegan food?

    The moral sense towards their own species is completely deadened, but somehow they are so deeply concerned with the welfare of animals?

  3. 1970scholar

    One of the thing I loved most about Williams’ writing was his prose, which was exemplary in the 20th century for its – yes – beauty – and clarity. I am happy you included lengthy excerpts alongside your welcome notes.

  4. Dan,
    just getting to Williams; but have to say on initial response that the reasoning here is so plain, I am disheartened that the argument has to be made.

    Sure I’m ‘humano-centric;’ why would any human be otherwise?
    There is some justice to be done to other species; but not at the cost of denying ourselves and our own species – that just doesn’t make sense.

  5. Hmm, I’m sorry you’re not impressed. I really love the essay.

  6. […] via Course Notes – Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice” — The Electric Agora […]

  7. Dan,
    you misunderstood me – I am still reading Williams, so am not yet commenting on his essay. I mean that it is disheartening to have arguments like Singers’ and others that seemingly dismiss the centrality of the human experience in determining value.

  8. Ah, I see. Yes, I agree about that.

  9. Björn Carlsten

    I agree with ejwinner. I’ve also experienced dispiriting episodes where I have people say, with a straight face, that it would be “better for nature” if humanity never was (or even, ceased to be). I try to ask what sense there is to the term “better” without humans (or creatures like humans), but I’ve never received any satisfactory answer.

    In regards to the post, I’m still reading the article, but judging from what Dan K says, Williams’s perspective makes a lot of sense.

  10. Chase Burghgrave

    Hey Dan,
    I love that you are thinking more about Bernard Williams work. Discovering him changed a lot of my views on ethics and politics the last few years. I really recommend his work “realism and moralism in political theory,” which I will link below.
    Keep up the good work.


  11. alandtapper1950

    Thanks Dan, this is a great essay and I’m glad your students read it. Williams’s wit and intelligence are something special. The deadpan opening line expresses so much, for example.

    The YouTube version is spoiled by terrible filming (and by a sycophantic introduction), but it is still worth viewing for the bits that are not spoiled, I think. His perfect timing and expression can still be appreciated.


  12. davidlduffy

    From the Wikipedia on “Cattle slaughter in India”:

    “By mid 1st millennium BCE, all three major Indian religions – Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism – were championing non-violence as an ethical value…by about 200 CE, food and feasting on animal slaughter were widely considered as a form of violence against life forms, and became a religious and social forms exist in different levels of development, some life forms have more developed sensory organs…non-violence towards fellow man and animals who experience pain and suffering is an appropriate ethical value…one’s guiding principle should be conscientious atmaupamya (literally, “to-respect-others-as-oneself”)…” An irrational religious diktat, or an ethical argument?

    As to Singer’s response to WIlliam’s argument – you can easily imagine them:

    ..This seems to me to be a very dangerous way to argue, precisely because of the parallel to which I adverted above. I do not see that the argument is really different from a white racist saying, when it comes to a question about how one should treat people of different races, “Well, whose side are you on? We’re the ones doing the judging here, why don’t we simply prefer our kind because it is our kind?” We cannot claim that biological commonality entitles us to superior status over those who are not members of our species.

    I don’t think the rationalisations that bigots provide about the inferiority of others are sufficient to block this, because ultimately they do retreat to Williams’ “us” argument.

    More generally:

    … “dignity” is a vague term. We are prepared to use the term “best interests” for animals without too much hesitation; we know what
    that means. We are less willing to speak of an animal’s dignity, because it is not clear what cognitive capacities might be required for a being to have dignity.

    As to burning buildings etc, there are plenty of cases of humans reflexively endangering themselves to protect (wild) animals in the same way they will for other humans.

    If you don’t see partiality to humans as being absolute, then there are going to be some levels of environmental destruction or animal cruelty that are unacceptable even if they lead to a small improvement in human flourishing. This is aside from pragmatic say longer-term concerns about humans. Then we start looking for considerations that can anchor our ethical decision making in these matters – for individuals, rationality, sentience etc; for species or landforms either an aesthetic or a more basic respect for the world, independent of what goods it offers to humans.

  13. I see no argument against Williams here whatsoever. None. And nothing in Williams’ piece suggests that we have no ethical obligations to animals. Indeed, he thinks we do, which is why he discusses the meaning of the word ‘humane’.

  14. Oh, also, Singer has replied. The reply can be found in “Peter Singer Under Fire.”

  15. labnut

    Oh, also, Singer has replied. The reply can be found in “Peter Singer Under Fire.”

    Thanks for that reference. Singer remains unconvincing.

  16. labnut

    Williams opens with the following:-

    Once upon a time there was an outlook called “humanism.” In one sense there still is: it is a name given these days to a movement of organized, sometimes militant, opposition to religious belief…Humanism in the sense of militant atheism encounters an immediate and very obvious paradox. Its speciality lies not just in being atheist—there all sorts of ways of being that—but in its faith in humanity to flourish without religion; moreover, in the idea that religion itself is peculiarly the enemy of human flourishing.

    Noah Hariri expands on this(Homo Deus, ch 7) by claiming that humanism is becoming the new religion, with a new object of worship, which of course is a supreme irony. Celebrity worship, accompanied by worship of the self are some of the remarkable manifestations of this new religion. Harari says:

    The antidote to a meaningless and lawless existence was provided by humanism, a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries. The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism. Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles, and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the great cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.

    It is this draw[ing] from within their inner experiences which lies at the heart of the confusion that Williams criticises. We have theory of mind and thus we can perceive the inner experiences of our fellow beings by referring to our own. But the remainder of the animal kingdom cannot do that. They cannot infer the suffering of others from their own suffering. Thus we have sights, such as that below, where predators kill with no concept of the suffering they inflict. Their behaviour is purely instrumental in the service of their own imperatives. Suffering, as we understand it, permeates the entire animal kingdom. It is normal and pervasive. Life ends in suffering. One cannot attach a moral judgement to that. It is what it is.

    But then, some 60 to 100 thousand years ago cognition took root in our brains, giving us theory of mind and the ability to make moral judgements. This recent change in our brains/minds did not suddenly make the suffering of the animal world immoral. This is something we project onto the animal world. With the adoption of humanism as the new religion we are probably doing this because we need a trinity to worship, celebrities, self and nature.

  17. labnut

    Bernard Williams says:

    The assumption I am considering, as I put it, is that in cosmic terms human beings have a definite measure of importance. The most common application of that assumption, naturally enough, has been that they have a high degree of importance; and I have suggested that that itself can take two different forms: the Petrarchan or celebratory form, in which man is splendidly important

    I subscribe to the ‘Petrarchan or celebratory form, in which man is splendidly important‘. Consider this, we alone among the some 8.7 million species, create a magnificent edifice of ever growing cultural and scientific knowledge. We alone, among all these species can create. And our creativity is seemingly unlimited. We are adding something unique to the universe that was never contained in any arrangements of its particles and cannot be explained by appealing any arrangements of its particles.

    This places us so far and above any other living forms that it is hard to reach any other conclusion.

  18. I have a high regard for Williams also, and agree with the gist of what he is saying in the linked piece. Like Dan, I regret that people like Williams (and Fodor) are gone. (I’m thinking of academics who can communicate effectively with a general educated audience and are not (like Singer) on some kind of moral or political crusade.)

  19. s.wallerstein

    The problem with Singer isn’t that he’s on a moral or political crusade. There are very justifiable crusades: the struggle against global warming, human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, etc.

    Singer is on a one man crusade: he sees himself as a prophet and that generally is weird. He seems to have a need to lead the crusade instead of joining a number of already existing decent crusades and using his obviously considerable intelligence to further them.

    Now there are prophets from time to time, people way ahead of their time, but Singer doesn’t strike me as one of them.

  20. labnut


    While I agree with your comment I will add one important qualification. He sees moral conduct as central to the way we behave in the world. In this I think he is right even though his utilitarianism appals me. I wish more philosophers both understood the centrality of ethics in society and actively worked for a more ethical world.