Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of Philosophy

Committee Chair

Bridget Clarke


Bernard Williams, coercion, ethics, Philippa Foot, practical reason, Reasons for action, the morality system, virtue ethics


University of Montana


Understanding the nature of reasons for action and, specifically, how one can come to understand and criticize another’s reasons for action can help us to better understand what possible outcomes we can hope for when engaging another agent. Understanding reasons for action may even give us some insight into what shared ground ethical theory can offer. Bernard Williams’ treatment of reasons for action informs much of the contemporary discussion. Williams argues that there are generally two classes of statements about reasons: internal and external. An internal reason, according to Williams, is a reason which depends entirely on an agent’s motivations and perspective. Something about who the agent is and how she sees the world determines what internal reasons she has. An external reason is a reason to act no matter what motivations an agent might have or what her perspective. Williams focuses much of his thoughts on external reasons around disclosing their unintelligibility. The problem which I deal with is that through the course of trying to disclose external reasons’ unintelligibility, Williams claims that appealing to external reasons holds some inherent danger of coercion. Williams believes that if an agent who takes the role of advisor wants to convince another agent that an external reason applies to him, and rational persuasion fails, then he has to use coercion to persuade the agent to act. I argue that Williams’ claim about the relationship between external reasons and coercion is false. I show that he erroneously tangles external reasons with what he calls “the morality system”, making external reasons appear necessarily coercive. By separating external reasons from the morality system, I expose why external reasons need not entail any more coercive potential than Williams’ version of internal reasons.



© Copyright 2011 Joseph Stephenson