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re¬‚ection can destroy knowledge, but will not always do so.) It supports this knowledge
by preventing its loss; however, con¬dence was never intended to replace lost knowledge.
In response, I would reiterate Altham™s concern that con¬dence in that which has already
survived re¬‚ection is unnecessary; therefore, if con¬dence is necessary, it is necessary to
support those commitments not grounded on thick ethical concepts.
53 Thomas (2005).
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

thick knowledge sustained by their thick concepts and another kind of
knowledge sustained, however indirectly, by con¬dence.


I have suggested that if those sympathetic to the claim that we have moral
knowledge do not contest Williams™ description of the predicament of the
hypertraditionalists, then there is no way back from that concession. If
Williams is right, then there will not be enough available to those who
want to take up his option of an indirect vindication of the ethical. Is there
no way of avoiding this pessimistic conclusion?
I suggest that there are three points that the moral cognitivist may
develop in order to formulate a response, although this is not the place
to supply all the necessary details.54 The ¬rst point is that if one wants
to resist Williams™ conclusion that a modern society will, typically, sustain
only a nonobjecti¬ed ethical life then one ought to examine the role that
absolute representations are called upon to play and to argue that some
ethical representations, highly perspectival though they are, could also play
that role. The second point involves developing a different description of
what knowledge is, such that the perspective of the hypertraditionalists
turns out to be an impossible one. The third point is that one can resist
Williams™ pessimism about the prospects for a theory of moral error. I will
set out each of these three kinds of counterargument in turn.
First, then, an important part of the argument for the absolute concep-
tion of the world is envisaging a certain kind of role for absolute representa-
tions, namely, one that ties them very closely to their being representations
of a single and unitary conception of the world that itself re¬‚ects the fact that
reality itself is single and unitary. Such representations perform the cogni-
tive role of tiebreaker when we are unable to reconcile a con¬‚ict between
two perspectival representations.55 The process of perspectival ascent, in
which we subsume a more perspectival representation under a less perspec-
tival one, is the central way in which we construct an absolute conception of
the world.56 However, it is worth pointing out that while this is an important
way of working up to the idea of a conception of the world maximally inde-
pendent of our perspective and its peculiarities, the process of perspectival

54 I try to do so in Thomas (2006), chs. 6, 7, and 8.
55 A central part of Moore™s motivation for the possibility of absolute presentations, as pre-
sented in Moore (1987) and Moore (1997).
56 Moore (1997).
64 Alan Thomas

ascent uses much less, simply a comparison in terms of “more perspecti-
val” and “less perspectival.” Those terms of comparison, and the idea of an
intellectual gain in moving from a less to a more perspectival conception
seem equally available at the level of those interest relative and perspectival
materials that are typical of ethics and to which Williams did not deny the
title of “knowledge.”
This point can be combined with the second point to which a moral
cognitivist might appeal in trying to undermine Williams™ description of
the hypertraditionalists™ predicament. An inferential contextualist argues
that Williams™ treatment of the idea of ethical pluralism is mistaken.57 One
response to Williams™ argument from his internal realist critics was to argue
that he had misconstrued, in his description of a hypertraditional society, the
relations between objectivity and detachment. That charge does not seem to
me to be fair in quite that form, but there is something to it. Williams himself
was a pluralist about the contents of ethical thinking; an emphasis on the
plurality of values and the possibility of tragic con¬‚ict between them runs
throughout his work, re¬‚ecting the in¬‚uence on Williams™ work of Isaiah
Berlin.58 (It is clearly demonstrated by Williams™ admiration for the work
of Sophocles in Shame and Necessity.)59 However, that is a pluralism that
one might describe as within the ethical; it seems radically different in kind
from the situation in which the hypertraditionalists ¬nd themselves. They
are confronted by a range of what appear to be complete alternative schemes
of ethical concepts, from a perspective in which they have none, as they have
lost their faith in their merely local ways of going on because they are merely
local. I think it is illuminating to contrast this kind of radical pluralism with
the objective value pluralism that is an interpretation within morality of the
plurality of values and of ethical considerations more generally. The way
forward, I think, is to challenge the underlying model of knowledge that
makes this look like a predicament that a group of concept users could ¬nd
themselves in.
This will involve adapting a general claim to the particular circum-
stances of ethical thought, but the basis of the general claim is that there
is an irreducible plurality within knowledge: The structure of enquiry is
a useful guide to the underlying structure of knowledge itself. The infer-
ential contextualist argues that the particular questions that drive enquiry
forward serve also to structure knowledge.60 Those questions give point
to structuring our knowledge into problem solving situations where, as

57 Thomas (2006) chs. 6 and 7.
58 Berlin (1969).
59 Williams (1993).
60 Thomas (2006), ch. 7.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

the epistemological coherentist has pointed out, knowledge claims that are
doubted and come up for question are challenged on the basis of knowl-
edge claims that are not. Unlike the coherentist, however, the contextualist
denies that these plural contexts of enquiry are merely contexts of discov-
ery, underlying which is a single and unitary context of justi¬cation (a claim
to which coherentism is committed). Like the pragmatist, the contextualist
grounds his or her position in phenomenology in this sense: it begins from
a realistic and unprejudiced description of the actual process of enquiry.
That process seems to reveal a plurality of distinct problem solving situ-
ations and the contextualist argues that this surface appearance does not
mislead. It is no part of this view to deny signi¬cant disanalogies between
the scienti¬c and the ethical; in particular, the scienti¬c seems to give clearer
evidence of self-correcting mechanisms internal to the practice of science
as a whole that encourages, even if it does not vindicate, the idea that scien-
ti¬c enquiry converges on a substantial and unitary view of reality. But the
absence of that external point to ethical enquiry and the absence of conver-
gence on a single, identi¬able, best life for all communities of enquirers is
not an objection to ethical cognitivism, simply a misconstrual of the kind
of objectivity available in the ethical case. There remains a viable distinc-
tion between the scienti¬c and the ethical but this is not a demarcation of
knowledge from nonknowledge or of the world-guided from the merely
The fundamental motivation for adopting inferential contextualism has
to lie outside ethics; my own view is that it offers a uniquely satisfying
response to philosophical scepticism. A general reason like this is needed
to avoid the charge that adopting the view solely to escape the predicament
of Williams™ hypertaditionalists “ a comparatively local dif¬culty within
meta-ethics “ is opportunistic. However, given that there are such general
reasons, one can appeal to inferential contextualism to question the implicit
foundationalism about ethical justi¬cation that seems to underlie Williams™
account of the hypertraditionalists. He sets up the objectivist for this kind
of refutation in passages such as the following:

The very general kind of judgement that is in question here “ a judgement
using a very general concept “ is essentially a product of re¬‚ection. . . . In
relation to this society, the question now is: Does the practice of the soci-
ety, in particular the judgements that members of the society make, imply
answers to re¬‚ective questions about that practice, questions they have never

61 Williams 1985, p. 146.
66 Alan Thomas

Before he transferred the onus of proof in answering this question to the
There are two different ways in which we can see the activities of the hyper-
traditional society. They depend on different models of ethical practice. One
of them may be called an “objectivist” model . . . we shall see the members of
the society as trying, in their local way, to ¬nd the truth about values. . . . We
shall then see their judgements as having these general implications. [emphasis
Is this not, in the present case, too controversial an assumption? On a more
realistic picture of moral cognitivism, people take themselves to be ¬nding
out the truth about ethical questions from within established traditions of
enquiry. As in other forms of enquiry, propositions that come into question
are not doubted until some concrete concern is raised that problematizes
them against a set of relevant alternatives. This process of enquiry proceeds
in the light of those taken for granted “hinge propositions” whose unique
functional role was described by Wittgenstein™s On Certainty.63
In representing transitions between such contexts of enquiry as rational,
the cognitivist appeals to the ¬rst point I mooted in response to Williams,
namely, that the role of tiebreaker in con¬‚icts between rationally warranted
representations is one guaranteed to maximally nonperspectival represen-
tations, from which it does not follow that no perspectival representation
can play such a role. If such representations can do so, then it is possible to
represent ethical thought as progressive, in the incremental sense captured
by Nozick in the following passage.
If it is said that Reason itself, rather than any particular statement of its con-
tent, must remain as the ¬nal arbiter, then we must wonder what precisely
that is. If not as particular content, then the only sense in which reason
must endure is as an evolving chain of descent. Reason will endure as what-
ever evolves or grows out of the current content of reason by a process of
piecemeal change that is justi¬ed at each moment by principles which are
accepted at that moment (although not necessarily later on), provided that
each evolving stage seems close enough to the one immediately preceding
it to warrant the continued use of the label “reason” then. (The new stage
may not seem very similar, however, to an earlier, step-wise stage.) That
degree of continuity hardly seems to mark something which is a ¬xed and
eternal intellectual point.64

62 Williams 1985, p. 147.
63 Wittgenstein (1975).
64 Nozick (2001), pp. 2“3.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

This is not the place to give a comprehensive description of a view of this
kind; I have attempted to do so elsewhere.65 However, it is clear that a major
concern that Williams had about views of this sort was the ambitiousness
of their presupposed theory of error. A theory of this kind is taking on the
burden of explaining some of the divergence between ethical thought in
different times and places as involving an error and Williams thought that
making out this case convincingly was going to be very dif¬cult.
This is the third point that I think can be developed to help those sym-
pathetic to an objectivist understanding of cognitivism to resist Williams™
critique. I will conclude with some remarks intended to make this chal-
lenge for cognitivism look precisely like a challenge, not an unsurmount-
able obstacle. Any satisfactory response to the nonobjectivist challenge is
going to have to avoid in¬‚ating the cognitive credentials of ethics; it is more
prudent to concede to Williams that traditions of moral enquiry cannot be
modeled as research programmes each independently seeking the moral
truth, such that we can expect them, in the long run, to converge on a sin-
gle answer. But that is not to concede that such moral traditions are not
concerned with knowledge at all.66 Once the radical and destabilising plu-
ralism that destabilized the knowledge of the hypertraditionalists has been
rejected as based on a false model of enquiry, one can appeal to a reasonable
objective pluralism within morality itself that would go some way to explain
why ethical enquiry lacks an “external” point. The ends of living virtuously
are set within a life virtuously lived, and ethical enquiry as a whole can rea-
sonably be expected to exhibit this feature, too. Another point to be made in
defence of cognitivism is that perhaps, compared to truths available at the
cutting edge of scienti¬c research, moral knowledge is more easily acces-
sible than scienti¬c truths. If that implies that moral traditions are more
concerned with articulating competing visions of the good, then that also
supports a more realistic view of the contrast between the scienti¬c and the
ethical. However, once again, this does not imply that articulation is not
concerned with knowledge. Throughout these analogies and disanalogies
Williams might insist that one has yet to have made plausible the claim that
there can be moral error; to which I would reply that this challenge is in
fact deeply ambivalent. Mark Timmons has also recently argued that the
existence of moral error is an argument that supports cognitivism.67 That is
because cognitivism alone acknowledges the possibility of deep moral error,

65 Thomas (2006), parts II and III.
66 The following discussion recapitulates some of the arguments of Thomas (2006), ch. 10.
67 Timmons (1999), ch. 3. See also Brink (1989), pp. 29“36.
68 Alan Thomas

namely, error that cannot be given a noncognitivist explanation in terms of
our current critical practices, or how we might extend such practices.
Before I develop that point, let me also make some remarks intended
to make the task of a theory of moral error look more tractable: ¬rst, many
moral disagreements are clearly traceable to disagreements over nonmoral
beliefs. False scienti¬c, metaphysical or religious beliefs may lead people to
hold false moral views, or bias their enquiries. Another point is that people
may hold false moral beliefs because they make errors in reasoning. We
are also re¬‚ectively aware that even in contexts where moral knowledge
is, as it were, reasonably easily accessible in the sense that we do not need
to expend large sums of money on research teams and equipment, there is
another sense in which it is hard to get things right. For example, sometimes,
to get things ethically right, you must be emotionally engaged; at other
times, detached. Sometimes you need to react spontaneously, at other times,
after long and careful thought. Cognitivism only claims that a central core
of ethical claims are claims to knowledge. That central core is Wiggins™
category of “speci¬c evaluations” and general features of cognitive claims
can be expected to apply in this particular case, such as the dif¬culty of
deciding when we do have two genuine competitor views, because of the
problems of vagueness and indeterminacy.68
Williams™ challenge, then, poses a genuine problem for cognitivism,
but not necessarily an insoluble one. Indeed, the cognitivist can respond
that only his or her view can give an explanation of the possibility of deep
error in our moral outlooks, a possibility that common sense seems to
countenance. As Mark Timmons has pointed out, our ordinary critical
practices presuppose that one can speak truly of moral agreement, dis-
agreement, and genuine error. However, only cognitivism can redeem that
commitment: all varieties of noncognitivism, Timmons argues, substitute
an ersatz conception of moral error for the deep error recognized in our
ordinary critical practices. The expressivist, to take a representative exam-
ple, tries to represent the idea of improvements of moral sensibility in
terms of improved sets of attitudes, viewed as self-correcting from within
the perspective set by those attitudes themselves. However, this is too psy-
chologistic an idea to capture the idea of a deep ethical error that transcends
any such set of attitudes: any transition between sets of attitudes can be rep-
resented as simply that “ a psychological change.69 This is not the claim that


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( 38 .)