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that some concepts “ thick ethical concepts “ equip those who possess them with certain
reasons for doing things.”
31 Williams (1981). One of his targets here, if not by name, is Winch (1958), for example, on
page 158.
32 Williams (1981), p. 160.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

(Not “from inside” as there is no contrasting “outside.”)33 This transcen-
dental interpretation of some of Wittgenstein™s remarks has been worked
up into a compelling interpretation of his later work by, among others,
Jonathan Lear and Adrian Moore.34 However, this approach was not, in
Williams™ view, going to come to the rescue of secondary property real-
ism as it suggests a model of a single necessary and universal structure to
thought that is an appropriate model for ethical thought.35
If phenomenology shows that we have thick concepts, it equally shows
that history gives evidence of different and divergent schemes of concepts,
in which a group of concepts function holistically to structure alternative
ways, as Williams metaphorically puts it, of “¬nding one™s way around”
a given social world. This inherent pluralism, answerable to the different
point or function of our having thick ethical concepts, also poses prob-
lems for two other strategies to which a secondary property realist might
appeal. One argument uses the work of Donald Davidson to argue that
there are limits to how much inexplicable disagreement there can be in
interpreting other groups of concept users, such that we can be con¬dent
on a priori grounds that a core of their representations will be true.36 The
other argument appeals to the commonalities of human nature as a sim-
ilar basis for a denial that there will be signi¬cant divergences between
groups of ethical concepts.37 Williams™ ground for objecting to the ¬rst of
these strategies was that it was too blunt an instrument; whether or not
ethical discussion is conducted in terms of thick or thin ethical concepts is
itself an ethical matter and partially determined by historical circumstances
that fall outside the scope of justi¬cation.38 In the latter case, Williams
objected to a particular development of this idea, taken from Aristotle; his
objection was that our conception of the natural world has changed too
drastically for us to be able to resurrect this kind of argument in good
These considerations form the context for Williams™ actual argument
against objectivism in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy that proceeds very
obliquely via the perplexing fable of a hypertraditional society. I think
the way to interpret this thought experiment is by seeing it as giving the

33 Williams (1991).
34 For a positive development of this interpretation of Wittgenstein, see, as representative of
their respective positions, Moore (1985) and Lear (1982).
35 Williams (1985), p. 152.
36 One of the many complex arguments of Hurley (1992).
37 Nussbaum (1995).
38 Williams discusses views of this kind in, inter alia, (1995a), pp. 184“186.
39 See the Reply to Nussbaum in Williams (1995b).
58 Alan Thomas

objectivist all that he or she wants: the members of such a society meet the
constraints that the objectivist places on those who claim moral knowledge.
The hypertraditionalists conceptualize their moral experience using thick
ethical concepts. They make judgments and withdraw them in the light
of mutual discussion and criticism. However, they do not have one key
thought: that their way of going on, ethically, is merely local. This prepares
the way for Williams™ apparently paradoxical thought that when they do
have that thought, from what one may call a “hyperre¬‚ective standpoint,”
their practice is destabilized and they lose their knowledge.
I think it is important, in order to avoid ¬‚agrant paradox, to inter-
pret Williams™ claim as implying that the hypertraditionalists lose not their
truths “ the property of truth is stable and cannot be lost “ but their thick
concepts and hence their knowledge. (They lose their ethical knowledge,
but nothing that was true before the destabilizing re¬‚ection takes place is no
longer true.) Endorsing those concepts could now, from the hyperre¬‚ective
standpoint, only be ironic. The case is analogous to one of presuppositional
failure.40 There is an illuminating comparison between this non-objectivist
thought experiment and the explicitly Hegelian interpretation of secondary
property realism in Sabina Lovibond™s rich and insightful Realism and Imag-
ination in Ethics.41 In the course of developing her own version of the sec-
ondary realist™s position, she independently motivates a position very like
that of the hypertraditionalists and invites them to embrace a “transcen-
dental parochialism,” described as:

A renunciation of the (ascetically motivated) impulse to escape from the
conceptual scheme to which, as creatures with a certain kind of body and
environment, we are transcendentally related.42

Set Williams™ and Lovibond™s arguments side by side and it is clear that it is
precisely this kind of reimmersion into our local and particular perspective
that the hypertraditionalists are unable to achieve if they want to think
of their particular way of going on with thick ethical concepts as a way
of acquiring objective knowledge. Having set out Williams™ fundamental
motivations for his criticism of objectivism I will assess one way in which
a moral cognitivist might respond to his arguments before suggesting an
alternative, I think far more promising, strategy based on the adoption of
inferential contextualism.

40 I say “analogous” as Williams argued against this literal interpretation in Williams (1996).
41 Lovibond (1983).
42 Lovibond (1983), p. 210.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge


One strategy that a cognitivist might adopt in response to Williams™ cri-
tique of objectivism is one of damage limitation: accept Williams™ critique,
but try and work within the criteria that he develops. I have already noted
that in his sympathetic treatment of Williams™ work Moore has tried to
explore a loophole in the arguments on Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy,
namely, that Williams allows the possibility of an indirect vindication of
ethical judgments. Williams did not deny that his “grammatical” analy-
ses of the different forms of thought and language permit us to say that
we assert ethical truths and possess perspectival ethical knowledge. How-
ever, our understanding of this knowledge would have to be a nonobjective
In his contribution to this volume and in other work, Moore tries to
build on this concession. He notes, correctly, that Williams was always
careful to argue that re¬‚ection can destroy ethical knowledge, not that it
always will; he also concedes that a question remains as to whether the
possibility of indirect vindication allows a return to what one might call
a state of “pre-re¬‚ective innocence.”43 My own view is that this damage
limitation strategy is not going to work; you cannot accept the situation
that Williams describes as the inevitable predicament of the objectivist and
recover from that situation a nonobjecti¬ed form of moral knowledge. The
objectivist is, in Williams™ dialectic, represented by the hypertraditionalists
who are driven into the ethical equivalent of a “view from nowhere” in which
awareness of a set of alternative complete schemes of ethical concepts makes
a return to any particular point of view an exercise of bad faith. If they are
permanently estranged from any set of thick concepts, then it seems to me
that not even indirect vindication of any outlook is going to be available to
them. Conversely, in explaining what is wrong with the disaster scenario that
befalls the hypertraditionalists I think we already have suf¬cient resources
to provide a robust epistemology for moral knowledge, one that pre-empts
the need to develop an indirect vindication of what it is to have ethical
knowledge that is given a “nonobjecti¬ed” explanation.
This does not mean that Moore™s work is not of the greatest independent
interest as the development of a distinctive meta-ethical position in its own

Williams™ realism gives us . . . a richer understanding . . . of the nature of our
ethical experience. . . . [It enables] us to see that our ethical knowledge is

43 Moore (2003a; 2005; this volume).
60 Alan Thomas

from a point of view that admits of equally legitimate and compatible alter-
natives, in a way in which our scienti¬c knowledge is not “ and [enables] us
to see how history, psychology and/or anthropology are needed to explain
why we have the ethical point of view we have, where this is not itself a
matter of knowing anything.44

This nonobjectivist picture may seem “disenchanted” in contrast to its
objectivist competitor, but even in these conditions we can know partic-
ular things. Whether or not a given society relies more or less heavily on
thick ethical concepts is a matter that philosophical analysis cannot deter-
mine. As I have noted, Moore builds on Williams™ concession that re¬‚ection
can destroy ethical knowledge, but that this is not inevitable. However, it
seems to Williams true that in a modern society such as ours we do rely
more heavily on thin concepts, supplemented by those thick concepts that
have survived the corrosive effects of both re¬‚ection and the nature of a
modern society.45 If we are still to be able to know particular ethical truths,
we need to appeal to con¬dence, a phenomenon that is itself social and that,
once again, lies beyond philosophy to bring about:

What is done by con¬dence? The answer I had in mind was that, granted
the nature of modern societies, we would face a good number of ethical
tasks with the help of unsupported thin concepts, and, since there was not
going to be knowledge in that connection, it would be as well if we had

Philosophy cannot bring about a situation where we have this con¬dence.
However, assume that, as a contingent matter of fact, we do. Then there
are particular things that we can know, as Moore points out:

The concept of being intrinsically wrong is not itself a thick ethical concept.
Its applicability is not “world-guided” in the way that, say, the concept of
being a racist is. My conviction that racial discrimination is intrinsically
wrong is not an item of knowledge. But “ and this is the point “ it does
enable me to know such things as that Wagner was a racist. The clumsy
appeal to the fact/value distinction obscures this. Williams™ more layered
view makes it very clear.47

44 Moore, this volume.
45 Williams (1985), pp. 170“173.
46 Williams (1995b), p. 207.
47 Moore, this volume.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

This represents the best case scenario for ethical knowledge in the con-
ditions of a modern society. It is notable how much of this scenario it
lies beyond philosophy to engender. Certainly much of it cannot even be
recognized and described by the limited resources of much contemporary
meta-ethics, which needs to supplement its limited resources with those of
sociology and history. The general picture is of a set of non-world guided
thin principles generating, given the presupposition of social con¬dence,
knowledge of particular cases. If this looks like a particularly subtle form of
Kantianism, in its contemporary contractualist variant, then that is precisely
how Moore has developed the argument.48
It follows that if we can foster con¬dence in our ethical point of view,
then we can still be committed to ethical principles cast in thin, non-world
guided vocabulary that represent an unshakeable conviction, such as that
racism is wrong. However, that conviction allows us to know particular
things. This scenario is what it is to live in the light of the truth of our
nonobjecti¬ed circumstances: the relationship between our re¬‚ection and
our practice is, in that sense, transparent. Our moral convictions are being
supported by the phenomenon that, in a closely related context, Richard
Rorty called “solidarity.”49
Deeply interesting though this response is to Williams™ powerful cri-
tique of objectivism I am not ultimately convinced of its feasibility. Williams™
explanation of a non-objecti¬ed ethical life seems to me to make the hyper-
traditionalists™ predicament both unavoidable and, as it were, the ¬nal word
when it comes to the prospects for moral knowledge.50 When re¬‚ection
destroys our knowledge, there is no way back from this, not even the way
back explored by those sympathetic to the indirect vindication of our eth-
ical commitments. In explaining why I believe this, I think the point to
start with is Williams™ belief that even in the nonobjecti¬ed conditions of
a modern society, some isolated pockets of knowledge using thick ethical
concepts will survive. However, as J. E. J. Altham ¬rst pointed out in an
insightful discussion of Williams™ appeal to con¬dence, that now places this
appeal in a peculiar light. Coexisting side by side are knowledge claims for-
mulated using thick ethical concepts that do not have to be supplemented
by con¬dence and other ethical commitments sustained not by knowledge
but by con¬dence.51 Altham objects that if we have knowledge, we don™t
need to appeal to con¬dence, and if we do not have knowledge we do need

48 Moore (2003a; 2005).
49 Rorty (1989).
50 Thomas (2006), ch. 6.
51 Altham (1995).
62 Alan Thomas

con¬dence. However, it seems inconsistent both to have some knowledge
reinforced by an appeal to con¬dence while at the same time replacing lost
knowledge with con¬dence. These two roles are simply too divergent to be
covered by the same concept.52
In the indirect vindication model that Moore develops, we accept the
existence of principles using thin ethical concepts that are “not items of
knowledge, but allow one to know particular things.” It is not clear to me
how this is possible. If we lose our thick concepts then “how we go on”
with our ethical concepts cannot be guided solely by how the use of such
judgments gave rise to defeasible practical reasons. The inherent practi-
cality of such judgments was made possible only by the conceptualisations
that made “world guidedness” and “action guidingness” two aspects of one
and the same judgment.53 If the strategy of indirect vindication rests on
an appeal to con¬dence, then it is not going to succeed for the kinds of
reason Altham has highlighted. If it fails, then we cannot be in a situa-
tion where we are committed to “thin” principles, in the light of which we
know particular things, without those thick conceptualisations that secured
moral cognitivism alongside the practicality of judgment. If thick concepts
have been lost in the way that the hypertraditionalist scenario seems to
make inevitable, then both the indirect vindication theorist and the more
orthodox cognitivist are equally in trouble.
The real dif¬culty of understanding knowledge in nonobjecti¬ed con-
ditions is precisely that Williams envisages indirectly vindicated knowl-
edge coexisting in the same social space with knowledge acquired through
the responsible use of thick concepts. If we can make sense of the hyper-
traditionalists, then we can make sense of a society that has objective
moral knowledge expressed by judgments using thick concepts. If we accept
Williams™ thought experiment, we can see how they lose their knowledge.
In those new, nonobjecti¬ed conditions we could understand the hyper-
traditionalists as falling back on thin, nonworld guided principles. What is
totally unclear is how they could use, within the same social space, some

52 There is an exegetical-cum-interpretative dispute between, on the one hand, Altham™s view
and my own and, on the other, that of Adrian Moore on this point. Moore argues (personal
correspondence) that the role of the invocation of con¬dence is to support that thick
ethical knowledge that, contingently, survives re¬‚ection. (Bearing in mind the point that


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