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what would these external reasons do to these people, or for our relations to
them? Unless we are given an answer to this question, I, for one, ¬nd it hard
to resist Nietzsche™s plausible interpretation, that the desire of philosophy
to ¬nd a way in which morality can be guaranteed to get beyond merely
designating the vile and recalcitrant, to trans¬xing them or getting them
inside, is only a fantasy of ressentiment, a magical project to make a wish
and its words into a coercive power.50

This criticism of “external” moral reasons has force precisely because it
can be made from “the moral point of view,” the view that follows from
(III) and (IV). It explains our desire to get people who have done obnox-
ious, vile, or terrible things “inside morality” as a resentful, indignant, or

it would necessarily retain it “ although what place he was willing to make for it, and for
whom, is an issue. In this respect the questions that concerned him, for example, about the
role of conscience, were exactly the ones that we have now come to. On this, see Frederick
Neuhouser (2000), ch. 7. Hegel also took “the moral point of view” to be a development
peculiar to post-Reformation European morality: for the shift, in this European setting,
from a conception of morality as obedience to a conception of it as self-governance see
Schneewind (1998) and Skorupski (2004).
50 Williams (1995b), p. 216.
100 John Skorupski

vengeful wish to hurt them, a wish that wishes to legitimate itself as the
wish to in¬‚ict due punishment. But due punishment connects to moral (not
just causal) blameworthiness, and blameworthiness connects to reasons: the
moral notion of punishment presupposes moral transgression and thus pre-
supposes that punishable persons are inside morality “ that moral reasons
are reasons for them.
What if they are unable to see these reasons, so that in virtue of (III),
these reasons weren™t reasons for them? Then we can™t blame or punish “
though we can still defend ourselves, of course. However we want more
than clear-headed self-defence, we also want to retaliate: the “fantasy of
ressentiment” moralises this want by saying that these people, really, can see
the reasons for not doing what they do. It needs to do so because punishment
in its ethical sense is an instrument of atonement, reconciliation, and thus
envisages that the criminal can be brought to re-cognise those reasons.51
Thus, the wish to hurt a bad person calls up the belief that they can see the
wrongness of what they do: if we gave up the belief we could not justify
hurting them as being what they deserve.
This is the darker side, and as we™ve noted, it is itself open to criticism
from the moral point of view. But surely there is also a more idealistic
motive at work (though one of which Nietzsche would have been scornful
as well). It is the democratic desire to give everyone equal respect. And
there is the feeling, not least among people who most have this desire, that
the kind of respect which is most worth having, or even the only kind that
is really worth having, is respect for one™s capacity to recognize the moral
law. The consequent desire to insulate this capacity from the actual facts
of human psychology creates ¬ctions. An immensely in¬‚uential example is
the Kantian ¬ction that rationality is, so to speak, a transcendental package-
deal, not an empirical matter of more or less “ a package-deal that equips
any practically rational agent with the capacity to recognize moral reasons.
Not that Kant™s “high” conception of moral agency as subjective or
positive freedom is itself a ¬ction. Its essential element, the capacity to
respond to moral reasons, does not depend on the transcendental setting he
gives it. If empirical psychology shows that this is a complex and unequally
distributed capacity, so that adhering to the “high” conception wars with our
wish to accord equality of respect, then the right response is to review what is
really important to us about equality of respect. It is not to transcendentalise
moral agency, and it is certainly not to level down instead of levelling up, by
pretending that these high notions of moral agency aren™t really ours, that
they were invented by Protestants, or German idealists, or are nowadays

51 See Skorupski (1999), ch. VIII.
Internal Reasons and the Scope of Blame

beside the point, or even incoherent. We should accept that our notion of
moral responsibility is the high notion of subjective freedom, that it plays a
rightful role as a great ideal “ but that the capacities it involves are complex
and come in degrees, and that some people have more of them than others.
Recognizing the complexity and independent variability of these capaci-
ties is particularly important because it helps us to avoid a social and political
picture which simplistically divides people into sheep and shepherds: those
who just can™t attain responsibility and those who have it absolutely. Respon-
sibility “ responsiveness to moral reasons “ is a short word for a multiform
capacity which comes in degrees. It is not a package-deal. Developing the
various kinds of responsiveness it requires should not mainly be a matter of
communing in solitude with one™s private conscience (though the degree to
which it has to be is a matter of the society in which one lives). It should be
dialogical: I come to appreciate reasons that I wouldn™t have come to see on
my own by listening to what people I respect think. I am willingly recruited
into this deliberative community, seeing myself as a genuine member, not
a follower. This, surely, is the element of truth in Williams™ proleptic the-
ory of blame. A certain ruggedly conscience-driven and egalitarian attitude
would emphasise that doing the right thing to earn respect is doing it for
the wrong reason and thus cannot earn respect. The element of truth in
this makes it dif¬cult to see what is limiting and ungenerous in it. A more
forgiving and worldly wisdom says that motives can™t be so ¬nely discrimi-
nated, that the desire for respect shades into the desire to do those things
that command respect for the very reasons for which they command it, and
that the desire for respect, or even honour and glory, is in any case in no way
an ignoble desire.52 Respecting people is treating them, whenever possible,
as partners in dialogue, hoping, whenever possible, to learn from them, and
being prepared to embark on an honest effort to persuade them. Sadly, it is
not always possible.
In an essay on Nietzsche Williams praises what he calls Nietzsche™s
“realism” in ethics; by which he means not “the application of an already
de¬ned scienti¬c programme” but an approach that takes as its measure the
outlook of an “experienced, honest, subtle, and unoptimistic interpreter.”
Such “realism”:
can be said to involve, in Paul Ricoeur™s well-known phrase, a “hermeneu-
tics of suspicion™. As such, it cannot compel demonstratively, and does not
attempt to do so. It invites one into a perspective, and to some extent a tra-
dition (one marked by such ¬gures as Thucydides, for instance, or Stendhal,

52 On this, Hegel is acute against the purism of Kant and others: see, e.g., Hegel (1991a),
section 124 with its addition.
102 John Skorupski

or the British psychologists of morals whom Nietzsche described as “old
frogs™), in which what seems to demand more moral material makes sense
in terms of what demands less.53

This is really the old-fashioned injunction to clear your mind of cant.
Williams™ thinking about internal reasons and the scope of blame has done
service in just this way, by bringing some of the tensions that are concealed
under the conventional piety and wishful thinking of modern ethical ide-
als into the open. But this realism also could be turned on Williams. We
can, for example, ask whether a “hermeneutics of suspicion” is just another
romantic-modernist posture. Equally “ although Hume was one of the
wisest of old frogs, who certainly stands out as an “experienced, honest,
subtle, and unoptimistic interpreter” of human beings in society “ we can
ask whether the “sub-Humean model” is a product of experience or just
another dogma of empiricism.
In the end, both Hume and Nietzsche, and Williams so far as he follows
them, bring to their account of morality unconvincing theoretical prejudices
from outside morality. They end up removing moral material that is actually
there. In contrast, realism in Williams™ admirable sense “ seeing people,
their feelings, and their practices as they are, without undue optimism and
with the help of whatever empirical ¬ndings we have “ is something ethics
always needs and has too little of. It can help us to think more robustly,
with greater awareness of human diversity, about some dominant modern
conceptions of moral agency, and some powerful modern misuses of moral
valuation “ in ways Williams favours, even if we don™t follow him down all
the Humean and Nietzschean paths he wants to tread.54


Darwall, Stephen, Gibbard, Allan, and Railton, Peter, eds. (1997). Moral Discourse
and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Hegel, G. W. F. (1991a). Philosophy of Right, Allen W. Wood (ed.), H. B. Nisbet
(trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Hegel, G. W. F. (1991b). Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline, ed. Ernst
Behler (New York: Continuum International, 1991).
Hooker, Brad (1987). “Williams™ Argument against External Reasons,” Analysis, 47,
pp. 42“44.

53 Williams (1995), p. 68; cf Williams (1995a), p. 204.
54 I have bene¬ted from comments by Maria Alvarez, Krister Bykvist, Dan Callcut, Kent
Hurtig, Gerald Lang, Ingmar Persson, Thomas Pogge, Wlodek Rabinowicz, Simon
Robertson, Alan Thomas, and Kenneth Westphal, all of whom I thank.
Internal Reasons and the Scope of Blame

Korsgaard, Christine (1986). “Scepticism about Practical Reason,” Journal of Phi-
losophy, 83, pp. 5“25.
Millgram, Elijah (ed.) (2001). Varieties of Practical Reasoning (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Neuhouser, Frederick (2000). Foundations of Hegel™s Social Theory: Actualizing
Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Par¬t, Derek (1997). “Reasons and Motivation,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society,
Supplementary Volume, LXXI, pp. 98“146.
Scanlon, Thomas, M. (1999). What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press).
Schneewind, Jerome, B. (1998). The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press).
Skorupski, John (1999). Ethical Explorations (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Skorupski, John (2004). “Morality as Self-Governance: Has it a Future?,” Utilitas,
16, pp. 133“145.
Williams, Bernard (1981). Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Williams, Bernard (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana Paper-
Williams, Bernard (1995). “Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame,” Making
Sense of Humanity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 35“45.
Williams, Bernard (1995a). “How Free Does the Will Need to Be?,” Making Sense
of Humanity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3“21.
Williams, Bernard (1995b). “Replies,” In J. E. J. Altham and Ross Harrison
(eds.), World, Mind and Ethics, Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 185“224.
Williams, Bernard (2001). “Postscript: Some Further Notes on Internal and Exter-
nal Reasons,” in Elijah Millgram (ed.), Varieties of Practical Reasoning, pp. 90“97.
4 The Critique of the Morality System

Underneath many of Bernard Williams™ sceptical attitudes and arguments
in ethics is his ¬‚at-out rejection of what he calls “the morality system.” On
his view, “we would be better off without it.”1 But before we can assess this
claim, we need to get a better sense of what exactly it is.


To begin with, it is fundamentally important to keep in mind that for
Williams the words ethics and morality are not at all synonymous. Rather,
he treats the latter as an unfortunate modern offshoot of the former. As he
notes in Chapter 1 of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy:
I am going to suggest that morality should be understood as a particular
development of the ethical, one that has a special signi¬cance in modern
Western culture. It particularly emphasizes certain ethical notions rather
than others, developing in particular a special notion of obligation, and
it has some peculiar presuppositions. In view of these features it is also, I
believe, something we should treat with a special scepticism.2

We can see already that Williams™ thesis about the morality system is in
no small part historical. He believes that human beings™ thinking about how
they should live and act has changed drastically between ancient and modern
times.3 At the same time, in so far as he is particularly concerned with the

1 Williams (1985), p. 174.
2 Williams (1985), p. 6. Williams™ distinction between ethics and morality is analogous in
several respects to Hegel™s famous contrast between Sittlichkeit (ethical life) and Moralit¨ t
(abstract morality). In both cases, a more concrete “world-guided” (or, to put it closer
to Hegel™s language, a social-role-and-community-guided) conception of ethics is being
contrasted to an abstract, universal one, and in both cases the villain defending the latter is
Kant. See, e.g., Hegel (1991), §135.
3 Ancient here effectively means pre-Socratic. In Williams (1993), it is argued that “the basic
ethical ideas possessed by the Greeks were different from ours, and also in better condition,”
p. 4. But the Greeks he has in mind are not the philosophically familiar Plato and Aristotle.

The Critique of the Morality System

concepts, presuppositions, and justi¬cations (or lack thereof) employed by
people past and present in their thinking on these matters, his position is
also plainly philosophical. Needless to say, some readers may disagree with
the historical facets of his position, some with the philosophical, and some
with both.4
What are the de¬ning features of the morality system? At the end
of Chapter 10 of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (in a chapter entitled,
“Morality, the Peculiar Institution”), Williams summarizes his discussion
as follows:
Many philosophical mistakes are woven into morality. It misunderstands
obligations, not seeing how they form just one type of ethical considera-
tion. It misunderstands practical necessity, thinking it peculiar to the ethical.
It misunderstands ethical practical necessity, thinking it peculiar to obliga-
tions. Beyond all this, morality makes people think that, without its very
special obligation, there is only inclination; without its utter voluntariness,
there is only force; without its ultimately pure justice, there is no justice.
Its philosophical errors are only the most abstract expressions of a deeply
rooted and still powerful misconception of life.5

Four broad philosophical mistakes are highlighted in this passage. Let us
examine each one in a bit more detail.
Obligation. Obligation “ people™s sense that they have a duty to do X
or must do X (e.g., render aid to an accident victim, when they are in a
position to do so) is, Williams claims, the central concept in the morality
system. And this in itself constitutes a major distortion in modern assump-
tions about what to do and how to live. In a society less distorted by the
morality system, people™s thinking about what to do and how to live would
involve many different concepts, only a few of which could be captured
by the snare of obligation-language. Other concepts here would include
the nice-but-less-than-obligatory, the great-but-more-than-obligatory (the

Rather, as one reviewer notes: “Williams refers most often to Homer; Sophocles comes a
distant second, then Aeschylus and Euripides. Roughly speaking, Williams concentrates his
gaze on Homeric Troy and Periclean Athens. Plato and Aristotle are also on show “ but they
are not on the side of the angels. On the contrary, with Plato the rot set in: he and Aristotle


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