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Wolthuis, F.T.

Department of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

(How) does Bernard Williams beg the question against external reasons?

Bernard Williams is often accused of begging the question against external reasons. However, begging the question is a general term which is used to describe different kinds of faults. What the accusation therefore involves, remains unspecified without further clarification. Unpacking and investigating the criticism will provide clarity and answer if, where and on what conception of the fallacy this criticism is true.

Williams’ understanding of internalism contains three conditions which he argues to be true for internal reasons for action. Namely, the explanatory dimension, the subjective motivational set, and the rational deliberative process. However, these proposed three conditions for internal reasons also figure in Williams’ argument against external reasons. This has made his argument vulnerable to the charge of begging the question.

In order to investigate this charge I will turn to the different ways in which begging the question can be conceptualized; the circularity, epistemic, dialectical, or probative interpretation. The last conception of begging the question sees the fallacy as the denial, without argument, of something that is central to the opponent's conception of the topic. I will discuss where and on which of the conceptions Williams can be seen to beg the question against external reasons. I will argue that Williams can be seen to beg the question on the conception of the fallacy as denying something that is central to the opponent’s conception of the topic. I will also discuss why this move is wrong; namely because one incurs the burden of proof. Additionally, I will suggest that a reason Williams might make this move anyway is that he could argue that he can meet this burden of proof. I will argue, by comparing the views of Williams, Derek Parfit and John McDowell, that William cannot maintain that he has the weakest burden of proof.

Last modified:30 March 2015 12.25 p.m.