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Fricker, Miranda (2001). “Con¬dence and Irony,” in Edward Harcourt (ed.), Moral-
ity, Re¬‚ection, and Ideology (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Gibson, Roger F. (1986). “Translation, Physics, and Facts of the Matter,” in L. E.
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Philosophy of Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
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Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
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Series), 4.
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2 The Nonobjectivist Critique
of Moral Knowledge
ALAN THOMAS




In Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Bernard Williams developed a subtle
and intertwined set of arguments against a contemporary view that he called
“objectivism.”1 Williams is on record as having confessed that some of that
work is dif¬cult to follow, partly because of his stylistic trait of present-
ing arguments in compressed and allusive forms.2 Certainly, the argument
against objectivism is presented in a highly abstract way and while it is
clear that a serious obstacle has been placed in the path of an objectivist
view of the ethical, it is not entirely clear what that obstacle is. The aim
of this paper is to contextualize Williams™ arguments in order to bring out
their main lines, to explain their inter-relations and to assess their overall
cogency. I will argue that the only satisfactory way to respond to his pro-
found challenge to an objectivist form of moral cognitivism is to adopt a
certain approach to the underlying epistemology of morality, namely, infer-
ential contextualism.3 For those who do believe that a core of ethical claims
is indeed made up of claims to knowledge, contextualism offers the best
way of de¬‚ecting Williams™ criticisms while incorporating insights from his
critique that no form of moral cognitivism ought to neglect.


1. BETWEEN SUBJECTIVISM AND OBJECTIVISM

It is possible to be more precise as to where, and how, Williams™ arguments
seem puzzling and in places to verge on the paradoxical. In a footnote to

1 Williams (1985), ch. 8.
2 A confession Williams made during his exchange with Simon Blackburn in Philosophical
Books; see Williams (1986).
3 An argument presented at greater length in Thomas (2006). I use the phrase “objectivist
version of cognitivism” as, strictly speaking, it will become clear that Williams is himself an
ethical cognitivist: he believes that ethical judgments are truth-apt, often true, expressive of
a mental state of the general category of belief and can constitute perspectival knowledge.
However, all of those claims, Williams argued, were compatible with giving such knowledge
a nonobjectivist understanding, which he endorsed, and an objectivist understanding that
he rejected. See Williams (1985), pp. 147“155.


47
48 Alan Thomas


Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy Williams describes how he ¬rst encoun-
tered the idea of a “thick” ethical concept in a seminar given by Philipa Foot
and Iris Murdoch in Oxford in the 1950s.4 Williams took up this idea and is
responsible for the widespread discussion of such thick ethical concepts in
meta-ethics. The appeal to such concepts is based on the fact that a previ-
ous generation of meta-ethicists, including emotivists such as A. J. Ayer and
prescriptivists such as R. M. Hare, had represented some ethical concepts
as decomposable, under analysis, into two parts.5 One part was an empir-
ically grounded representation of the world. The other part expressed the
distinctively evaluative part of the judgment, which, under philosophical
analysis, proved to be an expression of emotion or an endorsement of a uni-
versalisable prescription. The aim of appealing to “thick” ethical concepts
was to demonstrate that for a central range of cases, an analysis of this kind
simply was not feasible. Without grasp of the evaluative interest underlying
the use of a concept, one could not characterize its extension such that one
could substantiate the claim that a theoretically insightful analysis could be
given of its two independently characterisable components.6
Williams was one of the moral philosophers responsible for placing
thick concepts and the special demands that they place on explanation at
the centre of meta-ethical discussion. A bene¬ciary of this emphasis was
the view, developed by David Wiggins and John McDowell, known as sen-
sibility theory or secondary property realism (more accurately, “objectivist
cognitivism”).7 This view was cognitivist because it took the mental state
asserted by a judgment using a thick concept as capable of being the mental
state of knowledge; virtue is a way of coming to know things, if an appro-
priate agent exercises her capacities well, and judges correctly. For a limited
range of judgments about that which Wiggins called “speci¬c evaluations,”
by using thick ethical concepts a virtuous person came to know facts about
the ethically salient features of a situation. Furthermore, she does so in
such a way as to come to accept certain defeasible reasons that necessitate
his or her will to act in response to the demands of that situation.8 The
linchpin of this argument is the characterisation of the nature of a virtuous

4 Williams (1985), p. 218 n. 7.
5 Hare (1952), p. 121. For a later development of a view of this kind, see Blackburn (1984),
p. 148“149.
6 Williams (1985), pp. 141“143.
7 I will refer mainly to the papers in Wiggins (2000); McDowell (2001a); my own version of
this theory, that builds on their work, is Thomas (2006).
8 Thomas (2006) esp. ch. 3, discusses this aspect of the view and draws some further dis-
tinctions between McDowell™s and Wiggins™ approaches to moral motivation that are not
needed for the present discussion.
49
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge


person. Such a person has two related features. She has the capacity to
respond to the evaluative features of situations using an appropriate range
of thick ethical concepts and has an appropriate understanding of those con-
cepts.9 She also treats the defeasible reasons arising from such judgments
as especially authoritative in her practical thinking.10 Given the irreducible
connection between this characterisation of the nature of a virtuous person
and the proper characterisation, using thick concepts, of the ethical proper-
ties involved in such judgments, Wiggins and McDowell characterized the
latter as both anthropocentric and real. They are anthropocentric in that
they cannot be characterized independently of the interests and concerns
of the ethical perspective of human beings, a perspective that is presupposed
in any particular ethical judgment.11 They are real in the sense in which any
property counts as real, namely, by being irreducible and indispensable in
certain canonical explanations. There is nothing else to think, for example,
but that “slavery is unjust and insupportable.”12
This judgment is backed up by appropriate standards of rational
appraisal. It can feature in a wide range of explanations, personal, social, or
historical. An examination of its grounds reveals that it is based on more spe-
ci¬c evaluations about cruelty, humiliation, and exploitation. These proper-
ties are made available to us by our presupposed, human, ethical perspective
with, to borrow a Williams expression, its “distinctive peculiarities.” The
role of such properties in explanations cannot be dislodged for reasons that
Williams took from Foot and Murdoch and developed with great sophisti-
cation. The starting point of this argument is phenomenological: it is simply
the case that there are concepts of this kind. Used by an appropriate judger,
such concepts ¬gure in judgments that both express knowledge and sus-
tain defeasible practical reasons. Their explanation places special demands
on social explanation that explaining the use of the concept of a hawk or
handsaw does not because of this unique combination of features.13 Any
attempt to decompose the use of such concepts in judgments into a sensi-
tivity to “empirical,” “descriptive,” or nonevaluative features of a situation
characterisable independently of the evaluative interest underlying the use

9 This is clearest in McDowell (2001b).
10 McDowell takes the minority view that in an appropriate agent moral considerations
“silence” other practical considerations; for criticism of this claim in general terms, see
Williams (1985), pp. 183“184, in which the con¬‚ation of importance and deliberative pri-
ority is taken to be one feature of “the morality system.”
11 Wiggins (2000), p. 107, in which Wiggins establishes that red is “not a relational property.”
Judgments of colour, like judgments of value, presuppose the human point of view but this
does not make either class of judgment implicitly relational.
12 For this category of “vindicatory explanations,” see Wiggins (1991), p. 70.
13 Thomas (2006), ch. 2, pp. 36“38.
50 Alan Thomas


of the concept will not succeed. This raises special issues about what it is to
grasp the point of a concept used in an evaluative judgment independently
of any wider theory of concept use in general.14 However, Williams is quite
clear that an appeal to thick concepts and their use in ethical judgments
suf¬ces to refute any “two factor” analysis of ethical concepts, such as that
proposed by the emotivist, prescriptivist, or expressivist.
Yet Williams did not go on to draw Wiggins™ and McDowell™s conclusion
that one ought, therefore, to become a secondary property realist: that is
why he drew his important further distinction between an objectivist and
nonobjectivist form of cognitivism. When Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy
states that there are two ways of conceiving of a set of practices using ethical
concepts, an objectivist way and a nonobjectivist way, the former model is
clearly intended to represent Wiggins™ and McDowell™s position and this
view is rejected.15 Objectivism is undermined by a perplexing fable of a
hypertraditional society, in which a group of thick concept users who con-
scientiously make ethical judgments in the light of reasonable standards ¬nd
their whole practice destabilized when re¬‚ection gives them one thought
that undermines their “ways of going on.” This destabilising thought is that
this form of ethical life is just one way of going on amidst a range of equally
viable alternatives. Williams seems to claim that this is a case where re¬‚ec-
tion, far from making justi¬ed true beliefs secure as knowledge, undermines
the knowledge that our imagined group of concept users was presumed to
possess. That seems straightforwardly paradoxical: if re¬‚ection can under-
mine their knowledge then these concept users could not have expressed
knowledge in the ¬rst place.16
To add to the puzzlement in understanding Williams™ position, both he
and the secondary property realist clearly share a common opponent. As
I have noted, those who believe that ethical concepts can receive a two-
factor analysis in the way suggested by Ayer and Hare have developed this
line of thought. More recent developments of this kind of view are much

14 Simon Kirchin, quite reasonably, presses the congitivist to explain the features attaching to
ethical concepts in particular, as opposed to concepts in general, in Kirchin (2004).
15 Williams (1985), pp. 147“148.
16 For further discussion, see Moore (2003b). A question that seems terminological but which
is actually substantive is whether, on thinking the destabilizing thought, we are still talking

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