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a “ready-made” world that conceptualizes itself, or imprints itself on our
minds unmediated by concepts or by our best standards of rational appraisal.
This not only misunderstands Williams™ position but also implies that given
that he has made such an obvious error we need not go on to consider further
his actual arguments about the ethical in particular. Moore also shows how
serious a mistake that view is, precisely because Williams does not import
into his account of the ethical a preconceived view of realism, particularly

4 The title of a review essay, Williams (1990).
5 Moore (1997); see also the discussion in Thomas (2006, ch. 6).

realism about the physical sciences, with the aim of thereby discrediting
the claim to objectivity inherent in ethical thought. That standard scepti-
cal strategy, so prominent in the catalogue of errors attributed to him by
his internal realist critics, seems to Moore entirely absent from Williams™
The good reason for the importance of Moore™s paper is that no other
interpretation of Williams brings out so clearly his overall strategy: that his
realism about the scienti¬c is at the service of a proper understanding of the
ethical and not vice versa.6 Moore downplays Williams™ arguments about
explanation as a means of motivating his “basic realism,” arguing instead
that there is a clear sense in which Williams™ basic realism “cannot be argued
for.”7 But Moore indirectly brings out the importance to Williams not of
scienti¬c understanding in general but of social scienti¬c understanding in
Williams brought to prominence in contemporary meta-ethics an idea
suggested by Gilbert Ryle and developed by Clifford Geertz, namely, that
some ethical concepts can be classi¬ed as “thick” ethical concepts as opposed
to others that are by contrast “thin.”8 The basic idea is that some ethical
concepts, when used in judgments, seem to give one more detail about
their circumstances of application and also, when used, to supply defeasible
reasons for action. To illustrate the contrast, the idea is that when used in
a judgment by a competent user, the thick ethical concept of blasphemy
gives you a more detailed grasp of its circumstances of application than a
contrasting thin ethical concept like wrong; furthermore, its users seem to
supply both themselves and others with reasons for action in the course of
classifying an action as blasphemous (if they do so correctly).
Given his particular interests in the philosophy of social explanation,
Williams also was concerned to understand how the explanation of the use
of thick concepts placed special demands on such explanations. His central
idea, namely, that repertoires of thick ethical concepts represent “different
ways of ¬nding one™s way about a social world” was directly connected both
to the obvious facts of the plurality of such sets of concepts in contemporary
social reality and to the question of the standpoint from which one can
explain thick ethical concepts.9 Deeply informed about social science and a
noted contributor to the philosophy of social explanation, Williams™ “basic
realism” afforded him a means of articulating how the mere possibility

6 Moore, this volume.
7 Moore, this volume.
8 Williams (1985), pp. 140“142, pp. 217“218, n. 7.
9 Williams (1986).
4 Alan Thomas

of a social scienti¬c explanation of the ethical raises a speci¬c challenge
to one means of characterizing its objectivity.10 That is the argument, put
forward by philosophers in¬‚uenced by the later Wittgenstein, that the mere
existence of “thick” ethical concepts places certain demands on how a practice
using those concepts needs to be explained. They argue that such concepts
demand an “internal” explanation from the perspective of a concept user
who can share with those in that practice a sense of the evaluative point and
purpose of those concepts.11
Williams believed that this claim was simply ambiguous: “sharing” cov-
ers both participation and, crucially, enough sympathetic identi¬cation
to make a social scienti¬c perspective on such practices possible without
requiring that the explainer share the practice in the sense of being com-
pletely identi¬ed with it. That seemed to him to cause problems for one neo-
Wittgensteinian strategy in recent meta-ethics, namely, the objectivism of
David Wiggins and John McDowell. They have argued that the use of thick
concepts frustrates any attempt to isolate an empirical-cum-classi¬catory
component within our ethical judgments from an evaluative component,
where the latter represents a psychological projection of values on to a
nonevaluative reality. That approach seemed to Williams merely to beg the
question in assuming that there was a stable core of shared thick ethical
concepts or, in what comes to the same thing, a stable core of shared agree-
ments in judgment.12 Only that presupposition would sustain the corollary
that to understand the shared use of a thick concept was to become identi¬ed
with those engaged in the practice.
Moore describes the framework for this debate while freeing Williams™
views from distortion. He also shifts attention to an alternative means of
securing the objective claims of morality that is different from that of the
objectivists whom Williams criticized. Moore points out that Williams™
position in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy suggests a different strategy,
that of “indirect vindication,” for characterizing the limited objectivity that
Williams considered ethical thought could achieve in the inhospitable cir-
cumstances of a modern society.13 In his own recent work, Moore has devel-
oped this line of thought in greater detail.14

10 Williams (1985), chapter 8, especially pp. 145“155.
11 Arguments put forward in Wiggins (2000) and McDowell (2001) and further developed in
Thomas (2006).
12 A suspicion ¬rst expressed in Williams, (1981b).
13 Williams (1985), pp. 167“173.
14 Moore (2003), (2005).

Moore is not inclined, either in his exegesis of Williams™ position or in
his working out of a position compatible with the form of indirect vindi-
cation that Williams left open as a possibility for ethical thought, to chal-
lenge Williams™ central argument against the objectivist views of Wiggins
and McDowell. In my own contribution to this volume, I suggest that
those more sympathetic to the existence of moral knowledge cannot allow
Williams™ central arguments against what he called “objectivism” to go
unchallenged. If all that is left to us is the form of indirect vindication that
Moore explores, I think that this argument arrives too late, as it were. Fur-
thermore, it is an argument that is not going to deliver anything like that
which the cognitivist set out to defend.15 I examine in some detail Williams™
various and intertwined arguments against an objectivist interpretation of
cognitivism in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. In an argument developed
at greater length elsewhere, I suggest that Williams™ critique of objectivism
makes assumptions about the structure of ethical thinking that unfairly
prejudice the case for a cognitive and objectivist understanding of a central
core of moral claims.16 Williams makes the assumption that if we are talk-
ing of belief in the case of ethical thinking, then the relevant structure of
justi¬cation is, in his presentation, tacitly presumed to be foundationalist.17
The cognitivist/objectivist is represented as seeing a group of thick concept
users, who make claims using those concepts that are world-involving and
yet also involve defeasible reasons for action, as standing entirely outside a
repertoire of thick ethical concepts, comparing alternative sets and asking
how to go on from this “hyper-re¬‚ective” standpoint.
A denial that this is a realistic situation for a group of such users to ¬nd
themselves in is, in my view, best supported by a realistic description of
an epistemology for moral cognitivism that views our ethical knowledge
as devolved into particular problem solving contexts. These contexts are
structured by which claims to knowledge are held ¬xed in that context and

15 An argument put forward in Thomas (2005a).
16 Thomas (2006), chapter 6. There is an issue here that appears terminological but quickly
becomes substantive. The term “cognitivist” is usually used to refer to any meta-ethical
view in which ethical judgments are truth-apt, expressions of belief, and capable of being
knowledge. (As a general label it does not distinguish, for example, moral realists from
constructivists.) In the present case, there is a new complication: there is a clear sense
in which Williams is a cognitivist. However, he argues that cognitivism itself can receive
both an “objectivist” and a “nonobjectivist” explanation and argues in favour of the latter.
I ignore this complication here in this Introduction but do discuss it in my contribution to
this volume and in Thomas (2006). The distinction between objectivist and non-objectivist
cognitivism is drawn in Williams (1985), p. 147 ff.
17 Thomas (2006), chapter 7.
6 Alan Thomas

which are open to doubt, prompted by some speci¬c question that has to be
addressed. This kind of description, derived from the inferential contextu-
alism sketchily presented by Wittgenstein in On Certainty, seems to me the
best route to avoiding Williams™ pessimistic conclusions about the possibil-
ity of moral knowledge.18 I brie¬‚y set out that argument before evaluating
the indirect vindication escape route explored by Moore and suggesting
that it will not give the cognitivist what he or she wants. Williams™ “need to
be sceptical” focused in particular on the need to avoid false consciousness
and other familiar kinds of distortion to which ethical outlooks are subject.
I conclude with the observation that a moral contextualism placed at the
service of cognitivism can accommodate that need.19 (No sensible form of
cognitivism is going to emerge from Williams™ critique entirely unscathed.)
If Williams™ critique of objectivism has had a continuing in¬‚uence, his
most controversial thesis in meta-ethics, the internal reasons thesis, also has
been of continuing interest but only in so far as it remains highly contro-
versial. Freeing Williams™ actual views from widely held misunderstanding
and connecting apparently disparate themes in his work is John Skorupski™s
concern in his discussion of the internal reasons thesis as much as it was
Moore™s in his discussion of the absolute conception. The thesis is that all
practical reasons are, in a proprietary sense that Williams coined, “internal
reasons.”20 (Strictly speaking, it is statements about reasons that are “inter-
nal” or “external.”) The basic idea is that practical reasons, to be such, have
to be reasons that are either part of an agent™s current motivations or a moti-
vation that the agent could acquire by engaging in one of the sound types
of practical reasoning that Williams speci¬es, an account supplemented by
noting the important role that Williams believed the imagination plays in
practical reasoning. An external reasons theorist denies that this captures
all that there is to the idea of a reason for action for an agent. Once again,
however, the problem lies not with the internal reasons thesis but with
other views to which it has been assimilated. In the course of his exposi-
tion, Williams elected to structure his dialectic by beginning with what he
called a “sub-Humean” model of reasons.21 Whatever the dialectical merits
of this, it has proved disastrous to the reception of Williams™ ideas as he
is widely understood to have advanced a Humean belief/desire theory of

18 An argument developed for epistemology generally in M. Williams (1991).
19 See Thomas (2006) chapter 10 for an attempt to respond to Williams™ concerns about the
possibility of a plausible ethical error theory.
20 Williams (1981a).
21 Williams (1981a), p. 102.

motivation and a purely instrumentalist characterization of the practical use
of reason, and no more.22
Skorupski attempts to defend Williams™ thesis from misunderstanding
and to connect it to the deepest theme of Williams™ late work, namely, his
neo-Nietzschean critique of what he called the “morality system,” a critique
that I will describe in more detail later.23 In his meticulous reconstruction of
Williams™ arguments, Skorupski points out that a commitment to a Humean
desire/belief theory of motivation forms no essential part of it. There is a
lively debate as to the nature of the rational motivation of action and whether
or not desires play an essential role in motivation. The central point of
dispute is whether or not a Humean desire/belief theory can be defended
against a purely cognitivist view, in which beliefs motivate alone, or against
motivated desire theory, in which the invocation of desire is a merely formal
requirement of a particular explanatory schema in which it is belief that does
all the justi¬catory and most of the motivational work, motivating as it does
both the action and the desire.24 Skorupski points out that this issue is simply
orthogonal to the question of whether all practical reasons are internal or
external in Williams™ sense: they are simply two different issues, obscured
by taking Williams to be a representative “Humean” in the theory of moral
Skorupski begins by demonstrating that a narrowly conceived Humean
thesis plays no essential role in Williams™ argument by showing that the
belief that one has a reason, independently of the presence of a desire, sup-
plies a reason for action in a way that Williams acknowledges (although he
also takes this kind of reason to be an internal reason in his sense). How-
ever, in so far as Williams is committed to the idea that a person™s reasons
depend on his or her preexisting motives, Skorupski ¬nds reason to resist
that claim. Instead, he suggests that the best response is to change the way
Williams™ argument is usually interpreted. The focus should be, Skorupski
argues, on the dual claim that reasons statements must be particularized to
agents and should be “effective” in the sense that reasons for an agent must
be reasons that an agent could act on.
Understood in this way, what is doing the work in Williams™ argument
is the claim that “agents cannot be said to have reasons for acting which

22 For a representative statement of this criticism, see Millgram (1996).
23 Williams (1985), chapter 10. This has proved to be another of Williams™ most controver-
sial sets of claims, assessed in this volume by Robert B. Louden. For a discussion more
sympathetic to Williams, see Charles Taylor (1995).
24 A view ¬rst developed in Nagel (1970).
8 Alan Thomas

they are unable to recognize as reasons.”25 That, Skorupski argues, can-
not be a threat to one central modern moral idea, that of the spontaneous
autonomy of the moral agent who acts on reasons that he or she endorses,
on the grounds that it is an expression of that very same idea. (This explains
why Williams took Kant to be the “limiting case of an internal reasons the-
orist.”)26 However, if that is Williams™ thesis how can it be a challenge to
certain of our distinctively moral ideas? Skorupski explains how: by bring-
ing in a psychologically realistic view of people and their motivations, the
internal reasons thesis challenges our ambition to bring all human beings
into the scope of moral reasons. As Thomas Nagel once put it, when it
comes to moral reasons we do not want to allow people to “beg off.”27
Williams connected a characteristic use of external reasons statements
to our practices of praise and blame: our practice of blaming people depends
not simply on acknowledging that they are at fault, but also that they are to
blame for being at fault. That depends on there always being a reason that
they could have acted on, in other words, the “¬ction” as Williams put it,
that all reasons are external:

Under this ¬ction, a continuous attempt is made to recruit people into a
deliberative community that shares ethical reasons. . . . But the device can
do this only because it is understood not as a device, but as connected
with justi¬cation and with reasons that the agent might have had; and it
can be understood in this way only because, much of the time, it is indeed
connected with those things.28

So, because part of our ordinary moral practices is not transparent, its
workings depend on a device that cannot re¬‚ectively be acknowledged to
be such. We want to blame people even when the reason that they failed to
acknowledge was not a reason for them in a sense that the internal reasons
thesis itself articulates. Skorupski insightfully comments that the truth of
this thesis depends on a correct account of the moral emotions involved in
blame. Combined with our ambition to place everyone within the scope of
blame and the form of internalism that Skorupski has endorsed in Williams™
work, Skorupski also argues that when it comes to reconciling the correct
view of practical reasons with the universal scope of blame “we must resort


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