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Thick Evaluative Concepts: Value, Reasons, and the Natural World

Final Report Summary - THICK VALUE CONCEPTS (Thick Evaluative Concepts: Value, Reasons, and the Natural World)

The "Thick Value Concepts" project concerns an area of moral philosophy known as as metaethics. One central topic of metaethics is the meaning and function of evaluative language and concepts. This project focuses on the distinction between "thick" concepts (e. g. cruelty, courage), which somehow hold together evaluation and non-evaluative description, and "thin" concepts (e. g. moral goodness or wrongness), which are somehow more purely evaluative. The main objectives are two. The first is methodological: the project aims to bring the literature on thick terms and concepts that has been burgeoning since the 1980s to a new level of rigor by applying and extending methods and techniques from linguistics and philosophy of language. The second is substantive: the project aims to establish a radical novel theory of the relationship between thick terms and concepts and evaluation. It is commonly assumed that thick terms and concepts are inherently evaluative in meaning; for instance, it is somehow built into the meaning of the word'selfish'that nothing counts as selfish unless it is bad in a certain way. On this basis thick terms and concepts are often claimed to have deep and distinctive significance for a wide range of issues in moral philosophy, ranging from the nature of reasons for action to worries about objectivity and relativism in ethics, the collapse of various fact-value distinctions, a misguided emphasis on thin concepts over the thick in moral theory, and more. This project argues that this is all mistaken. Evaluation is better treated as a certain kind of pragmatic implication of the use of thick terms and concepts which can be explained on the basis of general principles of communication and that various features of thick terms and concepts can be explained on the basis of more general principles that have nothing in particular to do with being evaluative. If this is right, then a wide range of claims for the deep and distinctive significance of thick terms and concepts are undermined.

The work carried out to achieve the project's two main objectives divides into five stages. (1) Work began with collecting and analyzing extensive linguistic evidence to the effect that the evaluations which thick terms and concepts may be used to convey do not behave in the way that semantic and other conventional meanings or entailments behave. This is the primary result against the standard semantic views on the relationship between thick terms and concepts and evaluation. (2) A better explanation of the linguistic evidence is provided by the hypothesis that the relevant evaluations are a certain kind of generalised pragmatic implications of utterances involving thick terms and concepts. (3) Further support for this hypothesis comes from a conversational explanation of how evaluation can be expected to arise in thick evaluative discourse, if not thanks to the meanings of thick terms and concepts. (4) The hypothesis also gains significant indirect support from results to the effect that various other phenomena concerning thick terms and concepts which have been taken to support treating them as inherently evaluative in meaning- such as their semantic underdetermination, the impossibility of analyzing them in independently intelligible non-evaluative terms, the non-evaluative "shapelessness" of their extensions, and the "essential contestability" of their applications- can in fact be explained without that supposition, on the basis of more general principles that have nothing in particular to do with being evaluative. (5) The project finishes by explaining why the results under (1)-(4) show that thick terms and concepts don't have deep or distinctive significance for the wide range of issues in moral philosophy which they have been claimed to impact. For instance, thick terms and concepts cannot be used to question various fact-value distinctions or objectivity in ethics, nor can they be used to charge traditional moral theory with a mistaken emphasis on thin terms and concepts over the thick.

Points (1)-(4) above summarise also the final results of the project. The results have been achieved in full on time, and their reporting has been largely completed. The output objectives that remain to be completed outside the grant period are the finalisation of the project monograph (under contract with Oxford University Press) and the staff researcher's PhD thesis (expected submission date: July 2013).

The work that has already appeared is disseminated on the highest levels in the profession: in prestigious conferences (both refereed and invited), in some of the top peer-reviewed journals in the field, in an edited volume with a top slate of contributors, and in a forthcoming monograph from the top academic publisher in the field. The project is also starting to achieve its aim to become a "game-changer" in the field. The work that is already published is already setting agenda for other researchers by impacting the questions they seek to address and by attracting critical responses.