Wednesday, January 02, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0002: Thick and Thin Concepts

Here's a question you may be asking:

"Why should I waste my time reading this stuff?"

Well, actually, that is what this whole series is about. It is about the things that people should spend their time doing. It is about what it takes for something to be good or bad, for something to be that which "ought to be done" or "ought not to be done", to determine why it is the case that people should or should not do anything.

So, if you have any question that takes the form, "What makes something good, worth doing, or that which I should do?" then this is the place to be.

Value is so important to us that we have a wide variety of terms to use in talking about it. One distinction that we make is between "thick" and "thin" concepts. These terms are used to describe the various way in which something can be good - indeed, ways in which some person can be good (or bad).

"Thick" Evaluative Concepts

A "Thick" evaluative concept is one that blurs the distinction between fact and value. It contains a descriptive component and an evaluation. Consequently, the question comes up, "What is the relationship between the descriptive component and the evaluation?

Take, for example, the term "liar". A liar is somebody who tells lies. However, there are people who tell lies that we do not call "liars". Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Aaron Sorkin, and Joss Whedon are among my favorite providers of untruths. Yet, we do not call them "liars". To call somebody a liar, that person has to not only commonly make false claims, but to do so in a way that is worthy of condemnation. Consequently, "liar" is used to not only describe somebody as a person who knowingly makes false claims, but also to condemn that person. The term, at the same time, both describes and evaluates. That makes "liar" a thick term. Terms that simply evaluate (e.g., "good") are "thin" evaluative concepts. They do not have that descriptive part weighing them down.

For another example, take the term "selfish". It describes somebody who gives a priority to his or her own interests. But we all give a certain amount of priority to our own interests. We are not selfish unless we do so to such a degree that it is fitting not only to describe us as people who look after their own interest, but to also evaluate us negatively on those grounds. As with "liar", the term "selfish" both describes and evaluates the object.

Now, here is a puzzle. We have these terms that both describe and evaluate. Philosophers commonly argue that there is a distinction between facts and values. So how can we have a set of facts (a description) that also, at he same time, has a value? IF facts are different from values, how can a descriptive term also, at the same time, be evaluative?

The British Ethical Theorists

The problem of thick evaluative concepts came up at the start of Thomas Hurka's book: British Ethical Theorists. Hurka begins (Chapter 1) by noting that the British Ethical Theorist believed that there were just a few basic evaluative concepts, and that all other evaluative terms could either be reduced to these few concepts, or they were not actually evaluative.

What does all of this nonsense actually means?

Here's an example: There is only one basic concept "good", and every other evaluative term we use (right, beautiful, useful, healthy, dangerous, liar, murderer, hero, courageous, generous, kind, bigoted, just and unjust, abuse, rape, exploitation) are versions of the word "good". This is a plausible interpretation of what G.E. Moore argued in his book Principia Ethica.

Henry Sidgwick said the same thing, primarily in Methods of Ethics

W.D. Ross' most noteworthy contribution to this era was his book The Right and the Good. Ross had two basic concepts . . . known (shockingly) as "the right" and "the good". Everything else could be reduced to these two terms. Pritchard agreed with this and, according to Hurka, Moore later added "the right" as a basic concept.

A.C. Ewing and C.D. Broad argued that "fittingness" was the fundamental value.

Thick Evaluative Concepts and the British Moral Theorists

What do these facts about the British Ethical Theorists have to do with "Thick" moral concepts?

Well, if you hold that there are only a few basic evaluative terms, and all of the terms you say are basic are "thin" terms (i.e., they are 100% evaluative and contain no descriptive component), then you somehow have to either (1) reduce these thick evaluative concepts to the basic thin evaluative concepts, or (2) deny that the "thick" concepts are evaluative - asserting that they are purely descriptive.

If this thesis is correct, and we can figure out the details, we can figure out when somebody is telling the truth when he uses thick concepts to tell us when something that meets a certain description (is a lie, is a person who tells lies, is a reason for lying) is good or bad.


I should also say something about how desirism fits into this system. Recall that desirism holds that all evaluative terms can be reduced to non-evaluative terms. "Good" = "Is such as to fulfill the desires in question." Indeed, all evaluative terms contain four elements: (1) a set of objects of evaluation, (2) a set of desires fulfilled or thwarted by that object of evaluation, (3) whether the object of evaluation fulfills or thwarts those desires, and (4) whether the object of evaluation fulfills or thwarts those desires directly or indirectly.

So, if we take the thick concept "liar" it's descriptive component is "one who tells lies". I have identified liars as a type of parasite - a creature that plants beliefs in others that the liar knows to be false as a way of manipulating the victim - who thinks he is acting in ways that fulfill his own desires - to act in ways that fulfill the liar's desires as well. Consequently, the evaluative component of "liar" reers to the fact that liars tend to thwart desires both directly and indirectly.

Though not all of those who lie are bad. I have mentioned the person who lies to the Nazis about the Jews she is hiding in her attic or who lies to the slave catchers about the runaway slaves currently hiding in a hidden room at the back of the root cellar. An analysis of thic evaluative concepts is going to have to handle cases such as these.

Desirism actually says that there are often (though not always) three components to the use of an evaluative term. There is the object of evaluation - the descriptive element. There is the evaluation itself (whether that which meets the description tends to fulfill or thwart the desires in question). There is the emotive component - the actual praise and condemnation that is often included in the use of a term such as "liar". Calling somebody a liar - particularly when done with feeling does not just describe him as somebody who has attempted to plant a "belief bug" in another person for his own benefit. It also makes a statement that such people tend to thwart the desires of others - that others have reason to condemn and, perhaps, punish such people in order to reduce the disposition to plant "belief bugs". But it is also often a statement of the very contempt and condemnation it says is justified. This third part is optional. One can say, "You are the type of person that people generally have reason to condemn and to punish, but I don't care." That is to say, one can use "liar" in an evaluative sense but without condemnation.

Similarly, to call somebody selfish not only says that he favors his own interests, or that people generally have reason to condemn and, perhaps, to punish people who have so much self-regard (or so little other-regard), it also often expresses the very condemnation it says is justified.

An Ambiguity in Thick Concepts

I see in this idea of thick concepts a type of ambiguity. There is a descriptive element of a thick concept - it refers to a certain range of things. Known as the "extension" of the term, it picks out a certain range of things that exist in the real world. A "liar" refers to the set of people who plant belief bugs in other people in order to manipulate their behavior. It also evaluates them - identifies them as things that tend to thwart other desires. So, what is the relationship between the descriptive extension and the evaluation?

There are two possible relationships.

(1) The description and the evaluation are co-extensive. That is to say, "All who meet the description also tend to thwart the desires in question and, as such, are worthy of condemnation."

We see that this does not work out so well with respect to "liar" since we have already seen that the extension of the phrase, "those who plant belief bugs in other people to manipulate their behavior" includes the person planting belief bugs in the brains of Nazi soldiers looking for the Jews one has hiding in the attic.

This leaves us with another option:

(2) The evaluative term refers to that subset of the descriptive range that tends to thwart the desires of others (or, in a more detailed analysis, is of a type that is deserving of condemnation). In other words, the evaluative element alters the extension of the descriptive criteria, narrowing it someone so as to exclude that which meets the descriptive criteria but which is not worthy of condemnation.


It turns out that there is a lot more that can be said on this topic. This should suffice to be an introduction into the topic. Thick evaluative terms are both descriptive and evaluative. This raises questions about the relationship between the descriptive criteria and the evaluative criteria. Desirism holds that the evaluative criteria has to do with that which meets the descriptive criteria being "such as to fulfill (or thwart) the desires in question." Plus, one has to include an emotive criteria - the fact that the thick term also includes the very same praise or condemnation that "being such as to fulfill or thwart the desires in question" makes reasonable.

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