BookThe Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty: A Study of Thick Concepts in Ethics
In addition to thin concepts like the good, the bad and the ugly, our evaluative thought and talk appeals to thick concepts like the lewd and the rude, the selfish and the cruel, the courageous and the kind — concepts that somehow combine evaluation and non-evaluative description. Thick concepts are almost universally assumed to be inherently evaluative in content, and many philosophers claimed them to have deep and distinctive significance in ethics and metaethics. In this first book-length treatment of thick concepts, Pekka Väyrynen argues that all this is mistaken. Through detailed attention to the language of thick concepts, he defends a novel theory on which the relationship between thick words and evaluation is best explained by general conversational and pragmatic norms. Drawing on general principles in philosophy of language, he argues that many prominent features of thick words and concepts can be explained by general factors that have nothing in particular to do with being evaluative. If evaluation is not essential to the sort of thinking we do with thick concepts, claims for the deep and distinctive significance of the thick are undermined. The Lewd, the Rude and the Nasty is a fresh and innovative treatment of an important topic in moral philosophy and sets a new agenda for future work. It will be essential reading to anyone interested in the analysis and the broader philosophical significance of evaluative and normative language.
(Oxford University Press, 2013; paperback October 2015.)
PapersDoubts about Moral Perception
This paper defends doubts about the existence of genuine moral perception, understood as the claim that at least some moral properties figure in the contents of perceptual experience. Standard examples of moral perception are better explained as transitions in thought whose degree of psychological immediacy varies with how readily non-moral perceptual inputs, jointly with the subject’s background moral beliefs, training, and habituation, trigger the kinds of phenomenological responses that moral agents are normally disposed to have when they represent things as being morally a certain way.Reasons and Moral Principles
This paper is a survey of the generalism-particularism debate and related issues concerning the relationship between normative reasons and moral principles.The Supervenience Challenge to Non-Naturalism
This paper is a survey of the supervenience challenge to non-naturalist moral realism. I formulate a version of the challenge, consider the most promising non-naturalist replies to it, and suggest that no fully effective reply has yet been given.Thick Ethical Concepts
Evaluative terms and concepts are often divided into “thin” and “thick”. We don’t evaluate actions and persons merely as good or bad, or right or wrong, but also as kind, courageous, tactful, selfish, boorish, and cruel. The latter evaluative concepts are “descriptively thick”: their application somehow involves both evaluation and a substantial amount of non-evaluative description. This article surveys various attempts to answer four fundamental questions about thick terms and concepts. (1) A “combination question”: how exactly do thick terms and concepts relate evaluation and non-evaluative description? (2) A “location question”: is evaluation somehow inherent to thick terms and concepts, such as perhaps an aspect of their meaning, or merely a feature of their use? (3) A “delineation question”: how do thick terms differ from the thin and from other kinds of evaluative terms? (4) Given answers to these questions, what broader philosophical significance and applications might thick concepts have?Shapelessness in Context
Many philosophers believe that the extensions of evaluative terms and concepts aren’t unified under non-evaluative similarity relations and that this “shapelessness thesis” (ST) has significant metaethical implications regarding non-cognitivism, ethical naturalism, moral particularism, thick concepts and more. ST is typically offered as an explanation of why evaluative classifications appear to “outrun” classifications specifiable in independently intelligible non-evaluative terms. This paper argues that both ST and the outrunning point used to motivate it can be explained on the basis of more general factors that have nothing in particular to do with being evaluative. If so, there is no reason to expect ST to carry the sorts of metaethical implications that get attributed to it. I also show that my main argument is robust across certain complications that are raised by the context-sensitivity of many evaluative terms but have so far been ignored in discussions of ST and related matters.Essential Contestability and Evaluation
Evaluative and normative terms and concepts are often said to be “essentially contestable”. This notion has been used in political and legal theory and applied ethics to analyse disputes concerning the proper usage of terms like democracy, freedom, genocide, rape, coercion, and the rule of law. Many philosophers have also thought that essential contestability tells us something important about the evaluative in particular. Gallie (who coined the term), for instance, argues that the central structural features of essentially contestable concepts secure their evaluativeness. I’ll argue that these (widely held) central features are exemplified by many evaluative and non-evaluative terms alike, owing to more general factors (such as multidimensionality) which have nothing in particular to do with being evaluative. The role of these factors in semantic interpretation is subject to a certain kind of “metasemantic” disputes which have the features of the disputes characteristically admitted by essentially contestable concepts (whether evaluative or not) and which can be similarly substantive and worthwhile. In closing I’ll discuss how my argument shows that our understanding of evaluative disagreement needs refinement. The overall upshot is that essential contestability shows nothing deep or distinctive about the evaluative in particular.Grounding and Normative Explanation
This paper concerns non-causal normative explanations such as ‘This act is wrong because/in virtue of__’. The familiar intuition that normative facts aren’t brute or ungrounded but anchored in non- normative facts seems to be in tension with the equally familiar idea that no normative fact can be fully explained in purely non- normative terms. I ask whether the tension could be resolved by treating the explanatory relation in normative explanations as the sort of ‘grounding’ relation that receives extensive discussion in recent metaphysics. I argue that this would help only under controversial assumptions about the nature of normative facts, and perhaps not even then. I won’t try to resolve the tension, but draw a distinction between two different sorts of normative explanations which helps to identify constraints on a resolution. One distinctive constraint on normative explanations in particular might be that they should be able to play a role in normative justification.Thick Concepts and Underdetermination
Thick terms and concepts in ethics somehow combine evaluation and non-evaluative description. The non-evaluative aspects of thick terms and concepts underdetermine their extensions. Many writers argue that this underdetermination point is best explained by supposing that thick terms and concepts are semantically evaluative in some way such that evaluation plays a role in determining their extensions. This paper argues that the extensions of thick terms and concepts are underdetermined by their meanings in toto, irrespective of whether their extensions are partly determined by evaluation; the underdetermination point can therefore be explained without supposing that thick terms and concepts are semantically evaluative. My argument applies general points about semantic gradability and context-sensitivity to the semantics of thick terms and concepts.Thick Concepts: Where's Evaluation?
This paper presents an alternative to the standard view that the evaluations that the so-called “thick” terms and concepts in ethics may be used to convey belong to their sense or semantic meaning. I describe a large variety of linguistic data that are well explained by the alternative view that the evaluations that (at least a very wide range of) thick terms and concepts may be used to convey are a certain kind of defeasible implications of their utterances which can be given a conversational explanation. I then provide some reasons to think that this explanation of the data is superior to the standard view, but a fuller assessment must await further work. In closing I briefly survey the largely deflationary consequences of this account regarding the significance of thick terms and concepts for evaluative thought and judgment.Moral Particularism
This paper is a survey of the generalism-particularism debate in ethics.A Wrong Turn to Reasons?
This paper argues that the recent metaethical turn to reasons as the fundamental units of normativity offers no special advantage in explaining a variety of other normative and evaluative phenomena, unless perhaps a form of reductionism about reasons is adopted which is rejected by many of those who advocate turning to reasons.Thick Concepts and Variability
Some philosophers hold that so-called “thick” terms and concepts in ethics (such as ‘cruel,’ ‘selfish,’ ‘courageous,’ and ‘generous’) are contextually variable with respect to the valence (positive or negative) of the evaluations that they may be used to convey. Some of these philosophers use this variability claim to argue that thick terms and concepts are not inherently evaluative in meaning; rather their use conveys evaluations as a broadly pragmatic matter. I argue that one sort of putative examples of contextual variability in evaluative valence that are found in the literature fail to support the variability claim and that another sort of putative examples are open to a wide range of explanations that have different implications for the relationship between thick terms and concepts and evaluation. I conclude that considerations of contextual variability fail to settle whether thick terms and concepts are inherently evaluative in meaning. In closing I suggest a more promising line of research.Objectionable Thick Concepts in Denials
So-called “thick” moral concepts are distinctive in that they somehow “hold together” evaluation and description. But how? This paper argues against the standard view that the evaluations which thick concepts may be used to convey belong to sense or semantic content. That view cannot explain linguistic data concerning how thick concepts behave in a distinctive type of disagreements and denials which arise when one speaker regards another’s thick concept as “objectionable” in a certain sense. The paper also briefly considers contextualist, presuppositional, and implicature accounts of the evaluative contents of thick concepts, but finds none clearly superior to the others.Normative Appeals to the Natural
Surprisingly, many ethical realists and anti-realists, naturalists and not, all accept some version of the following normative appeal to the natural (NAN): evaluative and normative facts hold solely in virtue of natural facts, where their naturalness is part of what fits them for the job. This paper argues not that NAN is false but that NAN has no adequate non-parochial justification (a justification that relies only on premises which can be accepted by more or less everyone who accepts NAN) to back up this consensus. I show that we cannot establish versions of NAN which are interesting in their own right (and not merely as instances of a general naturalistic ontology) by appealing to the nature of natural properties or the kind of in-virtue-of relation to which NAN refers, plus other plausible nonparochial assumptions. On the way, I distinguish different types of ‘in virtue of claims. I conclude by arguing that the way in which assessment of meta-ethical hypotheses is theory-dependent predicts the failure of non-parochial justifications of NAN.A Theory of Hedged Moral Principles
This paper offers a general model of substantive moral principles as a kind of hedged moral principles that can (but don’t have to) tolerate exceptions. I argue that the kind of principles I defend provide an account of what would make an exception to them permissible. I also argue that these principles are nonetheless robustly explanatory with respect to a variety of moral facts; that they make sense of error, uncertainty, and disagreement concerning moral principles and their implications; and that one can grasp these principles without having to grasp any particular list of their permissibly exceptional instances. I conclude by pointing out various advantages that this model of principles has over several of its rivals. The bottom line is that we should find nothing peculiarly odd or problematic about the idea of exception-tolerating and yet robustly explanatory moral principles.Slim Epistemology with a Thick Skin
The distinction between “thick” and “thin” value concepts, and its importance to ethical theory, has been an active topic in recent meta-ethics. This paper defends three claims regarding the parallel issue about thick and thin epistemic concepts. (1) Analogy with ethics offers no straightforward way to establish a good, clear distinction between thick and thin epistemic concepts. (2) Assuming there is such a distinction, there are no semantic grounds for assigning thick epistemic concepts priority over the thin. (3) Nor does the structure of substantive epistemological theory establish that thick epistemic concepts enjoy systematic theoretical priority over the thin. In sum, a good case has yet to be made for any radical theoretical turn to thicker epistemology.Some Good and Bad News for Ethical Intuitionism
The core doctrine of ethical intuitionism is that some of our ethical knowledge is non-inferential. Against this, Sturgeon has recently objected that if ethical intuitionists accept a certain plausible rationale for the autonomy of ethics, then their foundationalism commits them to an implausible epistemology outside ethics. I show that irrespective of whether ethical intuitionists take non-inferential ethical knowledge to be a priori or a posteriori, their commitment to the autonomy of ethics and foundationalism does not entail any implausible non-inferential knowledge in areas outside ethics (such as the past, the future, or the unobservable). However, each form of intuitionism does require a controversial stand on certain unresolved issues outside ethics.Usable Moral Principles
One prominent strand in contemporary moral particularism concerns the claim of “principle abstinence” that we ought not to rely on moral principles in moral judgment because they fail to provide adequate moral guidance. I argue that moral generalists can vindicate this traditional and important action-guiding role for moral principles. My strategy is to argue, first, that, for any conscientious and morally committed agent, the agent’s acceptance of (true) moral principles shapes their responsiveness to (right) moral reasons and, second, that if so, then those principles can contribute non-trivially to some reliable strategy for acting well that is available for use in the agent’s practical thinking. My defense of these two claims appeals to an account of moral principles as a kind of hedged principles which I defend elsewhere, but my general line of argument should be acceptable to many other forms of generalism as well. I defend the epistemic significance of hedged principles in moral deliberation, and argue that the need for sensitivity to particulars in moral judgment doesn’t supplant principles in moral guidance. I finish by arguing that the generalist model of moral guidance developed here isn’t undermined by evidence from cognitive science about how we make moral judgments in actual practice, and that it compares favorably to particularism with respect to its capacity to offer adequate moral guidance.Moral Generalism: Enjoy in Moderation
I defend moral generalism against particularism. Particularism, as I understand it, is the negation of the generalist view that particular moral facts depend on the existence of a comprehensive set of true moral principles. Particularists typically present “the holism of reasons” as powerful support for their view. While many generalists accept that holism supports particularism but dispute holism, I argue that generalism accommodates holism. The centerpiece of my strategy is a novel model of moral principles as a kind of “hedged” principles that incorporate an independently plausible “basis thesis” concerning the explanation of moral reasons. The model implies that moral reasons requires the existence of a comprehensive set of true hedged principles, and so it captures generalism. But the model also offers an alternative explanation of holism, and so it undercuts much of the motivation for particularism. I defend this moderate (because holism-tolerating) form of generalism against a number of objections, and show how it can be used to defeat three distinct arguments from holism to particularism.Ethical Theories and Moral Guidance
Let the Guidance Constraint be the following norm for evaluating ethical theories: Other things being at least roughly equal, ethical theories are better to the extent that they provide adequate moral guidance. I offer an account of why ethical theories are subject to the Guidance Constraint, if indeed they are. We can explain central facts about adequate moral guidance, and their relevance to ethical theory, by appealing to certain forms of autonomy and fairness. This explanation is better than explanations that feature versions of the principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. In closing, I address the objection that my account is questionable because it makes ethical theories subject not merely to purely theoretical but also to morally substantive norms.Resisting the Buck-Passing Account of Value
I first distinguish between different forms of the buck-passing account of value and clarify my target in other respects on buck-passers’ behalf. I then raise a number of problems for the different forms of the buck-passing view that I have distinguished.
A full list of publications is in my CV.