Williamson’s Anti-Contextualism

Contextualism is the view that the expression relation is sensitive to context of utterance, where the expression relation is that relation between a sentence and a proposition. Contextualism maintains that we should distinguish between the character of a sentence or utterance and the proposition expressed by a sentence in a given context, which is the result of the function from contexts to propositions.

Williamson claims that in cases of action, there is a distinguished context for each agent and action, a context in which the agent forms an intention to perform action A iff it would be wrong not to A. The context is distinguished since no contextualist account of ‘wrong’ can penetrate this context, somehow explaining how both the sentence ‘it is wrong to A’ and ‘it is not wrong to A’ can be true. At the end of the day, the agent has to act, and the significance of this point makes the actor’s own context privileged or distinguished in this way. Williamson makes this point regarding an agent Clare, who wonders whether it would be wrong for her to resign:

Equally unappealing would be a contextualist resolution of the apparent disagreement between two commentators, one saying ‘It would be wrong for Clare not to resign’ while the other says simultaneously ‘It would not be wrong for Clare not to resign’.

There is the distinguished context, defined in terms of the practical situation of the actor at the moment of action. That is the agent’s context, and there is the agent’s proposition which is the one expressed by ‘it would be wrong to A’ in the distinguished context. If that sentence is used by anyone, either actor or observer, to express any other proposition, they are “no longer concentrating on the relevant practical problem.” From this point, Williamson concludes that the distinguished context in question forces the sentence ‘it would be wrong to A’ to be context-invariant.

Williamson says, finally, “The argument is suggestive rather than irresistible.” So what’s the argument and where can it be resisted?

As I see it, there are two crucial premises of the argument. The first involves the quoted phrase above, concerning whether one is still concentrating on the relevant practical problem when employing the term ‘wrong’. The second involves the way in which the relevant practical problem in question–the context of the agent deciding what to do–is fundamental for a proper understanding of ‘wrong’: as Williamson says, “In some sense ‘Would it be wrong?’ is above all a question for the agent, in the context of agency (which is not to deny that the agent may fail to raise it); it is a question for others, or for the agent in other contexts, because it is a question for the agent in the context of agency.”

Let’s take the second claim first. The idea, I take it, is that there is a “distinguished” context with respect to determining the meaning of ‘wrong’, that what is fundamentally important from a moral point of view (or “all-things-considered” point of view) in the use of the word ‘wrong’ concerns the context of agency, the context in which an agent is deciding what to do, especially when the decision regarding what to do is taken by the agent to imply and be implied by what is not wrong to do.

1. The meaning of ‘wrong’ as it is used to express what is fundamental from the moral point of view is a matter of what is important in terms of action, in particular its use in situations in which an actor is deciding what to do on a particular occasion in terms of ascriptions of what would not be wrong to do.

The other point about no longer concentrating on the practical problem is, I take it, a remark about whether a particular use of ‘wrong’ is still a use of the same term with the same meaning. According to Williamson, if S, in the context of agency, says truly “it would not be wrong for S to A,” and S’ says truly “it would be wrong for S to A,” then S’ is not using the term ‘wrong’ in the same sense as S. So, I think Williamson is committed to:

2. If (1) is true, then if S, in the practical context of deciding what to do, says truly, “It would be wrong for S to do A,” then if S’ in some other context truly says, “it would not be wrong for S to do A,” the meaning of ‘wrong’ in the mouth of S’ is not the same as that in the mouth of S.

Therefore, contextualism for ‘wrong’ is mistaken. The reason for this is, in short, that there is a moral use of this term that is governed by what is of distinguished, or fundamental, importance from the moral point of view, and that is the context of agency: the context of finding an answer to the question “what should I do now?” The moral point of view requires the primacy of this context, and as a result, no contextualist resolution of contradictory sentences can do justice to the moral use of ‘wrong’.

So, before transposing into epistemic key, I’ll stop to give moral contextualists a chance to resist away…


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