. 13
( 38 .)


68 Wiggins (1991). There is little discussion of the problem of vagueness speci¬cally for ethical
concepts, but see Shafer-Landau, (1995).
69 Brink (1989), p. 30.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

noncognitivism cannot explain ethical error. Rather, the claim is that it can-
not do so in as simple and compelling a way as cognitivism; nor can its ersatz
notion of error capture the notion of deep error available to cognitivism.
The contextualist version of cognitivism that I have suggested is the
most plausible response to Williams™ non-objectivism tries to reconcile
two aspects of our critical practices: ¬rst, that speci¬c challenges to parts
of our on-going moral outlook have to presuppose a background context
to that enquiry taken as a “going concern,” as it were. Nevertheless, while
enquiry is always relative to particular problem solving contexts, reason has
a particular “context breaking” use that allows one to challenge any such
context, without iterating that thought to generate the idea of a standpoint
than which none other could transcend. (So nothing in the contexualist
model forces the adoption of the idea of a notional end point to enquiry.) It
does seem to me that this emphasis on localness and context relative holism
does support a general view of scepticism as an engine of ethical change and
as properly taking the form of a particular kind of critique of our ethical
ideas. That particular form of critique would be local, would subject some
of our ethical ideas to sceptical challenge on the basis of other ethical ideas
to which we are re¬‚ectively committed, and would increase in plausibility as
it was made more speci¬c and detailed. In that respect, contextualism seems
to offer a positive model of the kind of ethical critique of which Williams
himself was an exponent, re¬‚ecting the “need to be sceptical” central to his
account of ethical thought in particular, as opposed to the objective status
of the ethical in general.70 Williams™ critique of “the morality system” in
chapter 10 of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy seems to be an example of such
a local, detailed, and contextual critique of a limited range of our ethical
ideas, criticized from the standpoint afforded by certain others.71 There
are some respects, then, in which a form of “objectivism” that appeals to an
inferentially contextual model of moral knowledge can accommodate some
of Williams™ central claims, provided, of course, that they are detached from
his commitment to a “nonobjecti¬ed” view of the ethical.


In this chapter, I have presented the complex and intertwined lines of argu-
ment with which Williams raised serious problems for one leading form

70 Williams (1990).
71 As is made clear in Burt Louden™s contribution to this volume.
70 Alan Thomas

of cognitivist view, which he labeled objectivism. I also have evaluated one
response to his arguments that does not contest his sceptical undermining
of the objectivist position, but tries to limit the damage done to our aspi-
ration to treat parts of our ethical thought as objective. I have suggested
that any defence of moral cognitivism will be forced to contest Williams™
refutation of the view and ought to do so by developing a contextualist
epistemology for those parts of ethical thought that can be interpreted
as knowledge claims. Three key aspects of such a view have been high-
lighted. The ¬rst is that contextualism accommodates what has been called
the context-breaking role of reason, re¬‚ected in the particular claim that
a transition from one set of perspectival representations to another can be
interpreted as a rationally well grounded transition. Second, the contextu-
alist believes that there is an irreducible plurality of contexts, individuated
by the “hinge propositions” that function to set up a problem solving con-
text within which other propositions are the subject of rationally grounded
doubt. Third, the challenge of developing a theory of error can be met in
such a way as to address Williams™ challenge, and, in fact, so as to accom-
modate his “need to be sceptical” about our received ethical ideas.72


Altham, J. E. J. (1995). “Re¬‚ection and Con¬dence,” in Altham and Harrison (eds.),
pp. 156“169.
Altham, J. E. J. and Harrison, Ross (eds.) (1995). World, Mind and Ethics: Essays on
the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Berlin, Isaiah (1969). Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Blackburn, Simon (1984). Spreading the Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Blackburn, Simon (1993). Essays in Quasi-Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Blackburn, Simon (1999). Ruling Passions (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Brink, David (1989). Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press).
Gibbard, Allan (1990). Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Hare, R. M. (1952). The Language of Morals (Oxford, Clarendon Press).
Heal, Jane (1989). Fact and Meaning (Oxford: Blackwell).
Hooker, Brad, ed. (1996). Truth in Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell).
Hurley, Susan (1992). Natural Reasons: Personality and Polity (Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press).

72 I am very grateful to Kathryn Brown, Adrian Moore, and John Skorupski for their help
with this chapter.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

Kirchin, Simon (2004). “Reasons and Reduction,” conference paper, The Space of
Reasons, Cape Town (July).
Lear, Jonathan (1982). “Leaving the World Alone,” Journal of Philosophy, 79/7 (July),
pp. 382“403.
Lovibond, Sabina (1983). Realism and Imagination in Ethics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
McDowell, John (1986). “Review of Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of
Philosophy,” Mind, 95/379, pp. 377“388.
McDowell, John (2001a). Mind, Value and Reality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni-
versity Press).
McDowell, John (2001b). “Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?,”
in McDowell (2001a), pp. 50“73.
Moore, Adrian (1985). “Transcendental Idealism in Wittgenstein, and Theories of
Meaning,” Philosophical Quarterly, 35/139 (April), pp. 134“155.
Moore, Adrian (1987). “Points of View,” Philosophical Quarterly, 37/146 ( January),
pp. 1“20.
Moore, Adrian (1997). Points of View (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Moore, Adrian (2003a). Noble in Reason, In¬nite in Faculty (London: Routledge).
Moore, Adrian (2003b). “Williams on Ethics, Knowledge and Re¬‚ection,” Philos-
ophy, 78/305 ( July), pp. 337“354.
Moore, Adrian (2005). “Maxims and Thick Ethical Concepts,” Proceedings and Add-
resses of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association, 78/4 (February).
Moore, Adrian (2007). “Realism and the Absolute Conception,” this volume.
Putnam, Hilary (1992). “Bernard Williams and the Absolute Conception of the
World,” in Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press),
pp. 80“107.
Nozick, Robert, (2001). Invariances (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Nussbaum, Martha, (1995). “Aristotle on Human Nature and the Foundations of
Ethics,” in J. E. J. Altham and T. R. Harrison (1995), pp. 86“131.
Quinn, Warren (1994). “Re¬‚ection and the Loss of Moral Knowledge,” in Morality
and Action, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 134“148.
Rorty, Richard (1989). Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press).
Shafer-Landau, Russ (1995). “Vagueness, Borderline Cases and Moral Realism,”
American Philosophical Quarterly, 32 (1995), 83“96.
Thomas, Alan (2005). “Maxims and Thick Concepts: Reply to Moore,” Central
Division of the American Philosophical Association. Available at: http://www.logical-
Thomas, Alan (2006). Value and Context: The Nature of Moral and Political Knowledge
(Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Timmons, Mark (1999). Morality without Foundations (Oxford: Oxford University
Wiggins, David (1991). “Moral Cognitivism, Moral Relativism and Motivating
Moral Beliefs,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, pp. 61“85.
72 Alan Thomas

Wiggins, David (2000). Needs, Values, Truth, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell).
Williams, Bernard (1981). “Wittgenstein and Idealism,” in Moral Luck (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press), pp. 144“163.
Williams, Bernard (1986). “Reply to Blackburn,” Philosophical Books, 27/4 (October),
pp. 203“208.
Williams, Bernard (1990). “The Need to Be Sceptical,” The Times Literary Supple-
ment (February 16“22), pp. 163“164.
Williams, Bernard (1991). “Terrestrial Thoughts, Extraterrestrial Science: Review
of Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face,” London Review of Books (February 7),
pp. 12“13.
Williams, Bernard (1995a). Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press).
Williams, Bernard (1995b). “Replies,” in Altham and Harrison, eds. (1995),
pp. 185“224.
Williams, Bernard (1996). “Truth in Ethics,” in Hooker, Brad (1996), pp. 19“35.
Winch, Peter (1958). The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy, (London,
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1975). On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers).
3 Internal Reasons and the Scope
of Blame

One of Bernard Williams™ most in¬‚uential themes has been the claim that
there are only “internal” reasons. It is an important element in his moral
philosophy, constituting, in particular, the main thrust in a striking critique
of “modern morality,” a critique that has interesting af¬nities with that of
Nietzsche.1 Yet despite the very extensive discussion this theme has pro-
duced, it also has been surprisingly elusive. Critics have found it hard to pin
down the difference between “internal” and “external” reasons, and even
harder to get clear about what bearing the claim that there are only internal
reasons has on modern morality. What is it about this thing that Williams
wishes to reject?
Here we shall set ourselves a twofold aim: to examine (§§1“3) Williams™
argument for “internalism” “ the thesis that there are only internal reasons “
and to assess (§§4“6) what bearing internalism has on modern moral ideas,
or on modern ideas about the nature of the moral.
Williams often seems to weave his internalism into a Humean model
of practical reasons “ a model that has struck many philosophers as uncon-
vincing, and indeed seriously misleading. However I shall suggest that
Hume™s conception of practical reasons is neither the only possible starting
point, nor the best starting point, for Williams™ questions about morality “
notably, about the scope of blame. In Williams™ own account of what it is
for something to be an “internal” reason the Humean conception some-
times retreats into the background, although it never quite disappears from
view. And in fact something like Williams™ internalism, with similar impli-
cations for modern morality, can arise from a thought that is not connected
with Hume™s particular model of practical reasons. It is that agents cannot
be said to have reasons for acting which they are unable to recognize as
reasons (even when they know the relevant facts). Not that this form of

1 Other aspects of this critique, which will not concern us here, relate to voluntariness and
moral luck. I shall say more about what ˜modern morality™ is shorthand for, that is, what is
being criticized, in §6.

74 John Skorupski

internalism about reasons produces any direct challenge to morality itself.
For a guiding thread in our idea of the moral is its spontaneity: moral agents
are accountable in so far as responsible “ able to respond for themselves to
moral considerations, recognize and act on them without having to be told
by others what they are. Morality, at any rate in this common modern
conception of it, is a matter of self-governance, not external command. A
corollary is that inability to recognize moral reasons as reasons removes an
agent from the scope of responsibility and blame, to an extent proportion-
ate to the degree of the inability. Not only is the internalism about reasons
of the kind I have just mentioned consistent with this: the conception of
morality as self-governance is a special case of it. Yet that is not the end of the
story. When this internalism is combined with a realistic view of people it
challenges certain cherished modern moral assumptions: egalitarianism and
universalism about the scope of responsibility and blame, rigorism about
the bases of respect. The resulting diagnosis of the tensions in our con-
ception of morality at least overlaps with that of Williams™ critique. More
ambitiously, I will argue that it captures everything that is sound in it, while
leaving out the unsound elements which derive from Hume. But let us begin
by considering Williams™ account of internal and external reasons.


In a paper published in 1980 Williams suggests that sentences of the form
“A has a reason to •,” or “There is a reason for A to •” (where “•” stands
in for “some verb of action”) might be interpreted in two ways:2

On the ¬rst, the truth of the sentence implies, very roughly, that A has some
motive which will be served or furthered by his •-ing. . . . On the second
interpretation . . . the reason-sentence will not be falsi¬ed by the absence of
an appropriate motive.3

The ¬rst interpretation takes these sentences about reasons to express what
Williams calls internal reasons. The second allows that they may express
what he calls external reasons. Explaining the contrast further, Williams
notes that internal reasons always display a relativity to the agent A™s “sub-
jective motivational set,” which Williams labels “S,” and that comprises

2 Williams (1981).
3 Williams (1981), p. 101.
Internal Reasons and the Scope of Blame

A™s existing motivational states: “An internal reason statement is falsi¬ed
by the absence of some appropriate element from S.”4 He also holds that
such a statement is veri¬ed by the presence of an appropriate element in S,
although, as he notes, that is not so important in his argument.5
What about external reason statements? Williams agrees that we some-
times talk as though there were external reasons “ as though agents could
have reasons which weren™t relative to the motives in their S “ but he denies
that this talk has any clear meaning. The only clear notion of a reason is
the internal notion: A has a reason to • if and only if A has some motive
which will be served or furthered by his •-ing.
If this biconditional is to be plausible we must exclude motives based on
false beliefs about the facts. Williams imagines someone who wants a gin
and tonic and believes the stuff in this bottle to be gin, whereas in fact it is
petrol.6 Does he have a reason to mix it with tonic and drink it? He probably
thinks he has, but if he does then as Williams plausibly says, he is wrong.
(Assuming there is no other reason to drink it.) This agent wants to drink
gin and he also wants to drink the stuff in this bottle. The ¬rst motivational
state, let™s assume, is not based on a false belief about the facts, whereas the
second is “ and that strips it of reason-giving force. So we should restrict S


. 13
( 38 .)