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  • What are Thick Concepts?
  • Matti Eklund (bio)


Many theorists hold that there is, among value concepts, a fundamental distinction between thin ones and thick ones. Among thin ones are concepts like good and right. Among concepts that have been regarded as thick are discretion, caution, enterprise, industry, assiduity, frugality, economy, good sense, prudence, discernment, treachery, promise, brutality, courage, coward, lie, gratitude, lewd, perverted, rude, glorious, graceful, exploited, and, of course, many others. Roughly speaking, thick concepts are value concepts with significant descriptive content. I will discuss a number of problems having to do with how best to understand the notion of a thick concept. Thick concepts have been widely discussed in the meta-ethical literature. But some important problems concerning what thick concepts are supposed to be have not been squarely addressed even in the most systematic of these discussions. Here I want to highlight these problems.

First I will present some puzzles regarding thick concepts. Then I will consider some proposed accounts of thick concepts and see how well they solve these puzzles. Later I will tentatively defend a particular positive account. But the account relies on the legitimacy of the potentially questionable notion of epistemic analyticity; and it also relies on a particular understanding of this notion. Special attention will be paid [End Page 25] to objectionable thick concepts: concepts somehow presupposing false evaluative claims. I will argue that objectionable thick concepts present problems for otherwise potentially attractive theories of thick concepts.

While the thin/thick distinction is wholeheartedly embraced in some parts of the literature, other theorists would be more skeptical of the claim that there is a significant distinction there. I will for the most part adopt the working assumption that there is a significant thin/thick distinction. But those inclined to reject that assumption might well take their view to be supported by the problems I here discuss.1

I Puzzle (I): What Makes a Concept Thick Rather than Thin?

Someone who holds that there are thick concepts in effect makes two substantive claims. One is that there is some sort of difference between evaluative and descriptive concepts. Already this is a quite substantive claim, and one that would be denied in some quarters. A second is that there is among the evaluative concepts a distinction between thin(ner) and thick(er) ones.

I will for now presuppose that there is a distinction between evaluative and descriptive concepts. Moreover I will, at least at the outset, make the seemingly reasonable assumption is that if C is a positive (negative) value concept then 'x is (pro tanto) good' ('x is (pro tanto) bad') follows analytically from 'x is C.'2 Even granted this much, there are problems regarding the thin-thick distinction. To see that there are problems here, note how certain characterizations given in the literature fail.

Here is Allan Gibbard's informal characterization:

(T1) A term stands for a thick concept if it praises or condemns an action as having a certain property.3 [End Page 26]

One may be uneasy already about the talk of terms (as opposed to users thereof) praising or condemning actions. But take such talk on board. There is still a problem. There is as much reason to think that 'good' satisfies this condition as that a term like 'courageous' does. 'Good' stands for the property of being good. And doesn't this term praise actions as having this property, just as 'courageous' praises actions for being courageous? On a non-cognitivist view, such as Gibbard himself defends, it can be denied that 'good' stands for a property. But it is clear that Gibbard does not mean his characterization only to be acceptable to a non-cognitivist.

It may be suggested that Gibbard must mean something like descriptive property. We get:

(T1') A term stands for a thick concept if it praises or condemns an action as having a certain descriptive property.

But what does 'descriptive property' mean? Here is a natural suggestion. Start with a distinction between descriptive and evaluative expressions (and since we are talking about properties we can focus on predicates). Then a descriptive property can be said to be one that can be ascribed...


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