The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics


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Sometimes the linguistic intuitions on which we rely in assessing competing explanations may also be less firm or not as widely shared as we would like. Some of these mechanisms operate on other features besides truth-conditions which terms may have in virtue of linguistic conventions, others operate through distinct conversational mechanisms. How exactly presuppositions of utterances are related to their truth-conditions is a complex topic. Among writers on thick concepts, Allan Gibbard and Gopal Sreenivasan speak of the evaluations conveyed by T-utterances as presuppositions, but without developing the view in detail Gibbard ; Sreenivasan A more detailed and sophisticated development can be found in Cepollaro and Stojanovic But another worry is that the evaluations normally conveyed by objectionable thick concepts have no prospect of being shared by those addressees who find them objectionable, whereas presupposition is often characterized as something that is, or will readily become, mutually taken for granted.

Utterances can communicate further information by way of conventional implicature Grice The implicature is widely regarded as conventional because the contrast seems to be part of the standing meaning of but in English; a speaker who finds no difference between what and and but communicate is in some sense not fully competent with but. Hare the evaluative content of thick terms is detachable in this sense. If the evaluations normally conveyed by T-utterances were conventional implicatures or semantic presuppositions, for that matter , then thick terms would be inherently evaluative in meaning, but not as a matter of truth-conditions.

A third way for utterances to communicate further information is conversational implicature. Imagine the following conversation at the campus cafeteria:. All that B says is that she has to work.

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Grice 26— Among writers on thick concepts, Simon Blackburn occasionally suggests that the evaluations normally conveyed by thick terms are conversational implicatures Blackburn ; his is harder to read this way; see also Zangwill So the conversational implicature view about the relationship between thick terms and evaluation cannot explain either set of the linguistic data in section 4. The other two do better. Both presuppositions and conventional implicatures project in ways suggested by 4a—d.

Pragmatic presuppositions also promise to be defeasible in the ways the evaluations normally conveyed by T-utterances may be taken to be on the back of examples like 5 — 7. However, we have also seen worries about thinking that the evaluations normally conveyed by T-utterances are either presuppositions or conventional implicatures.

He proposes:.


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  • Thick Concepts.

It is common knowledge that those who use a given thick term for the most part accept certain evaluations and their utterances for the most part accurately reflect their acceptance of those evaluations. Such social facts may also help explain why thick terms seem more intimately connected to evaluation than other non-evaluative terms that are often used evaluatively, such as chocolatey and athletic.

The main point is to assert that the thing in question falls under the term, against the background evaluation that things falling under the term tend to be bad in a certain sort of way. Insofar as the presence of the evaluation can be explained conversationally, we can expect it to be open to be denied or suspended by objectors in the ways suggested by the defeasibility data above.

And a general feature of various kind of backgrounded contents is that they project in ways illustrated by 4a—d. If this kind of Pragmatic View is correct, thick concepts seem to lack the broader significance that some have assigned to them. The evaluations normally conveyed by T-utterances will be separable from thick terms in whatever way pragmatic not-at-issue implications are in general separable from the utterances that generate them.

However, the relationship between language and concepts is vexed in this area, and may interfere with the implications of Pragmatic Views for the significance of thick concepts. The overall plausibility of the Pragmatic View depends on several further issues. One concerns its implications regarding thin terms.

For instance, if thin terms are also open to being regarded as objectionable, then the behavior exhibited by objectionable thick terms in section 4. Insofar as we are convinced that thin terms are semantically evaluative, this result might be bad news for the Pragmatic View. This leads us to our last topic: how do thick and thin concepts differ from one another?

A crucial feature of the intuitive characterization of thick terms and concepts with which we began is that they differ from the thin with respect to the non-evaluative information each encode. Even if cruel acts are bad, not all bad acts can be cruel; cruel acts must involve, and are distinguished from other bad acts by, non-evaluative qualities such as taking pleasure in causing others to suffer. The thickening agent in thick terms is non-evaluative description. This contrast with the thin may be understood in two kinds of ways: as a difference in kind, or as a difference in degree.

An early version of this proposal is due to Bernard Williams: thin terms are wholly action-guiding whereas thick terms are both action-guiding and world-guided Williams For a more recent version, see Dancy 47— In its general form, this proposal presupposes the Semantic View but is available to both Separabilists and Inseparabilists. Similarly, although Williams denies Thin Centralism concerning the relations of conceptual and explanatory priority between thick and thin concepts, the general proposal could be combined with Thin Centralism or the No Priority view.

The application of admirable , for instance, is non-evaluatively constrained only by the non-evaluative features of admiration.

The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics

As noted in section 3. But competence with at least certain concepts ought can be used to express may well require that if we think you ought to do something, we would accept that you can do it if the question came up. Another way to think that thick and thin differ in kind is generated by Pragmatic Views. Insofar as thin terms are evaluative as a matter of truth-conditions, they will clearly differ in kind from the thick. Here the difference in kind would be such as to support Non-Centralism. However, as noted above, some arguments for Pragmatic Views might imply that thin terms are equally not evaluative as a matter of truth-conditions but only used evaluatively.

There would then be no difference in kind in this respect, anyway between thick and thin. It would remain a separate question whether there are any interesting relations of conceptual or explanatory priority between thick and thin concepts. The second view about the relationship between thick and thin is that they differ only in degree, not in kind. He observes that there are many evaluative terms that are hard to classify as either thick or thin, such as just , fair , impartial , rights , autonomy , well-being , and consent.

They are less rich in non-evaluative content than terms such as cruel or tactful , although richer than good or right.

2. Do Thick Concepts Have Distinctive Significance?

On the thin end we might either allow that some thin terms are purely evaluative and treat them as a limiting case, or we might hold that even the maximally thin concepts are a little bit thick. Those holding the latter view have advocated either Thin Centralism Smith or Thick Centralism Chappell , but the latter view, unlike the former, seems compatible also with the No Priority View. This concession allows a binary distinction between purely thin evaluative concepts and thick evaluative concepts that are characterized by having some or other degree of non-evaluative content cf.

Dancy 48—9. In the latter case a paradigmatic thin term such as ought might be a little bit thick if it implied can , and yet lack a kind of non-evaluative content that is possessed only by thick terms proper. If thin terms are evaluative as a matter of truth-conditions, then any version of the difference-in-degree view requires that the Semantic View is true of thick terms. It fits with Pragmatic Views only if these take thick and thin terms both to be related to the evaluations they convey in the same way whether as a matter of presupposition, implicature, or some kind of not-at-issue content.

Again the question whether thick and thin differ in degree or in kind has no theory-neutral answer but depends on the correct substantive theory of thick terms and concepts. Hare denies that thin terms are purely evaluative; actual usages of thin terms like good will always carry some descriptive meaning. Instead, thick and thin terms both incorporate evaluative and non-evaluative information.

The idea is that evaluative terms can be distinguished in terms of which sort of meaning is less likely to change when speakers alter their usage of a term. If laissez-faire capitalists begin to use selfish positively, we are much more likely to still understand them than if they started using selfish to describe generous acts. We would be less likely to be accused of misusing kind and generous if we began to use them negatively to condemn bleeding hearts than if we started using them to describe cruel and selfish acts.

Hare takes this to suggest that the non-evaluative meanings of thick terms are more firmly attached to them than their evaluative meanings.


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Thin terms display the opposite behavior. We will understand those who use good to evaluate promise-breaking, torture, and enslavement of their enemies positively, whereas we would be liable to be misunderstood or accused of misusing the word if we started using good to express negative evaluations of helping and respecting others.

Such descriptive ossification of thin terms, while not impossible, would seem very much like an exception rather than the rule. Hare notes that a good effluent functions as a descriptive technical term in sewage disposal manuals. So the evaluative meanings of thin terms in particular, their action-guiding function seem to be more firmly attached to them than their non-evaluative meanings.

For instance, a speaker who uses selfish to evaluate positively acts which we typically describe as selfish would be more likely to be understood than a speaker who uses selfish to describe generous acts and evaluate them negatively, whereas the opposite pattern holds for thin terms. This version of the proposal seems compatible with Inseparability. Nor does the proposal entail the Semantic View. Instead of taking evaluative and non-evaluative meanings both to be semantic meanings, the less firmly attached meaning can be taken as a speaker meaning instead.

The Pragmatic View is well suited to treating the evaluations normally conveyed by T-utterances as speaker meanings, especially if they are best explained by conversational mechanisms. You might think the latter: how firmly two things are attached is a matter of degree. However, the distinction between semantic and speaker meaning makes a difference-in-kind reading available. Thick concepts have been a stable topic of debate among moral philosophers since the seminal discussion in Williams and have enjoyed something of a resurgence in ethics since or so. Thick concepts are also receiving increasing attention in such other areas of philosophy as epistemology, aesthetics, legal philosophy, and more.

Such attention is often motivated, as in ethics, by dissatisfaction with the extant state of the field. For some while now, aestheticians and philosophers of art have paid attention to thick aesthetic concepts such as garish, delicate , and balanced , in addition to thin ner concepts such as beautiful and ugly. Discussions of thick aesthetic concepts often mirror discussions in ethics about whether thick terms are evaluative as a matter of truth-conditions or only pragmatically recent examples includes Bonzon , Zangwill , and Stojanovic Of particular interest and potentially broader significance is the emerging exploration of whether also thin aesthetic terms might be plausibly treated as only pragmatically evaluative Sundell There has been increasing attention in epistemology to thick epistemic concepts such as gullible, quick to jump to conclusions , and open-minded.

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Whether focusing on thick epistemic concepts can lead to a preferable epistemology is the topic of several papers in a special issue of the journal Philosophical Papers Kotzee and Wanderer ; see also Battaly These are different distinctions even if epistemic content is often evaluative and non-epistemic content often non-evaluative.

These discussions almost invariably assume that knowledge is a thin concept.

But Brent Kyle argues that knowledge is better understood as a thick concept and uses its thickness to cast light on why the so-called Gettier problem for definitions of knowledge arises Kyle b. Beyond ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology, attention to thick concepts has been more scattered. In legal philosophy, David Enoch and Kevin Toh suggest not only that legal statements often express concepts that seem thick, such as crime and inheritance , but also that legal is itself a thick concept. Specifically, it involves both a representation of certain social facts and a kind of evaluative endorsement.

Treating legal as a thick concept allows debates about the nature of law to draw on the broader philosophical context of debates about thick concepts in ethics, and in this way has potential to introduce new input into and options for thinking about the nature of law. Enoch and Toh In metaphysics, Gideon Yaffe argues that if we treat free will as a thick concept that involves positive evaluation of items that fall under it, we are better able to explain certain facts about freedom of will than if we proceed with the more standard assumption that freedom of will is a non-evaluative concept Yaffe Finally, the idea of a thick concept has also been invoked to do significant work in various areas of applied philosophy.

Empirical research on moral judgment in psychology and neuroscience may be criticized for having restricted its studies to judgments involving thin concepts and ignoring thick concepts, especially if thick concepts are irreducibly thick Abend ; see also FitzGerald and Goldie In environmental ethics, classifying concepts such as ecological integrity as thick might be thought to buttress their normative significance Shockley Time will tell whether thick concepts will come to make a greater impact in these and other areas.

Attention to thick concepts in various areas of philosophy is often inspired by dissatisfaction with dominant lines of research and the hope that thick concepts will redirect the work in these areas. We have seen that cashing out this hope often requires substantial assumptions regarding issues such as the anti-disentangling argument, shapelessness, the inseparability of evaluation and description, and the location of evaluation in the semantics and pragmatics of thick terms.

A plausible theory of thick concepts may then not give thick concepts the significance their fans take them to have, and either way these assumptions attract substantial resistance in their own right. On the other hand, those who find thick concepts to have little distinctive significance nonetheless must ensure that evaluative and normative domains can be accounted for in terms of thin concepts in a way that addresses the concerns that inspire interest in thick concepts. Any complete theory of normativity and value must therefore reckon somehow or other with the fundamental issues concerning thick concepts.

The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics
The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics
The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics
The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics
The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics

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