At first sight, there seems to be a blatant contradiction between Bernard Williams’s two central theories: his view about thick concepts and his existence-internalism about reasons (many others have hinted at this too – Gibbard and Scanlon, for instance). I want to quickly sketch what that tension is. I mainly wanted to know if anyone’s seen or can come up with an interpretation of Williams's theories that dissolves the contradiction. I’ll suggest a couple, but I’m not very happy with them.
Reasons first. According to Williams’s internalism, A has a reason to phi only if A could reach the conclusion to phi by a sound deliberative route from the motivations he already has. The subjective motivational set should be understood broadly, and the sound deliberative route means correcting beliefs, making motivations more coherent, using imagination, and the like.
Here’s what Williams says about the famous husband-wife case: “Suppose, for instance, I think someone (I use ‘ought’ in an unspecified sense) ought to be nicer to his wife. I say, ‘You have a reason to be nicer to her’. He says, ‘What reason?’ I say, ‘Because she is your wife.’ He says – and he is a very hard case – ‘I don’t care. Don’t you understand? I really do not care.’ I try various things on him, and try to involve him in this business; and I find that he really is a hard case: there is nothing in his motivational set that gives him a reason to be nicer to his wife as things are. There are many things I can say about or to this man: that he is ungrateful, inconsiderate, hard, sexist, nasty, selfish, brutal, and many other disadvantageous things.”
So, the theory of reasons does not ascribe any reason to this man to be nice to his wife. However, all the thick ethical concepts still apply to him. And, here is what Williams says about thick concepts: “…there are enough left in our own: coward, lie, brutality, gratitude, and so forth. They are characteristically related to reasons for action. If a concept of this kind applies, this often provides someone with a reason for action, though that reason need not be decisive reason and may be outweighed by other reasons… Of course, exactly what reason for action is provided, and to whom, depends on the situation, in ways that may well be governed by this and by other ethical concepts, but some general connection with action is clear enough. We may say, summarily, that such concepts are ‘action-guiding.’”
It thus looks like, whilst the internal reasons theory states that the husband does not have a reason to be nicer, the thick concepts account does ascribe such a reason to him. This is because his act is brutal and ‘brutality’ is one of the action-guiding concepts that are characteristically related to reasons for actions. If a concept of this kind applies, this often provides someone with a reason for action… So, according to one theory, the husband does not have a reason to be nice, and according to the other he has.
There’s also another inconsistency. According to the first view, only elements in his motivational set provide reasons, whereas according to the second, that a thick concept applies provides reasons. These things (what’s in a motivational set and that a concept applies) seem to belong to different categories.
So, the question is, is there any way to understand both of these theories together consistently?
First proposal: we could emphasise the word ‘often’ in Williams’s account of thick concepts. Their applicability only often provides reasons, but perhaps not always – maybe not in the cases in which the agent to whom the concept applies does not have the suitable elements in his motivational set to have reasons. I worry about this view for two reasons: first, it seriously undermines the ‘action-guidingness’ of thick concepts. If actions are guided by reasons, then, according to this reading, thick concepts seem to be guiding only very specific set of agents with suitable motivations. In fact, it could be that, if no one had the suitable motivations, thick concepts would still apply to them, but no one would have reasons to act accordingly. Thus, no actions would be guided by the thick concepts. This means to make the relation between thick concepts and reasons too contingent. Second, it does not seem to get rid of the second inconsistency related to what provides reasons: elements in motivational set or the applicability of thick concepts.
Second proposal: When Williams talks about reasons in the thick concepts passage, he is talking about external reasons. On this view, it is part of the content of thick-concept claims that the agent to whom the concept is applied has an external reason to act, or it is a presupposition that he has such a reason. Williams’s work on reasons then shows that, all external reason statements are either false (there are no external reasons) or meaningless. This would mean that he has revealed that thick-concept statements are also either all false or meaningless (given that part of their content is false or meaningless, or their presuppositions are).
This interpretation would fit Williams’s Socratic conclusion ‘that, in ethics, reflection can destroy knowledge.’ It only now turns out that Williams underwent that destructive reflection himself. The two views would now be theoretically consistent however. The thick concept theory would only hold that, when we apply thick concepts, we assign external reasons to the husband (as Williams does himself when he uses these concepts), whilst the internal reasons theory would only deny that he does not have internal reasons. Of course, the internal reasons view would also deny that the agent has external reasons but this would make it no less true that we assign them. Not completely happy with this solution, so I would be very interested to hear other takes on this.