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G. Naturalism & Normativity > Thick Concepts and the Entanglement of Fact and Value

Hilary Putnam opens his section, "'Thick' Ethical Concepts," in his *The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy* (2002, pgs 34-43) by noting that "The entanglement of facts and values is not limited to the sorts of facts that the logical positivists recognized, and epistemic values." The positivists were wrong to hold that what they called the language of science was the *whole* of cognitively meaningful language. In *Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy* Bernard Williams also takes a focus on thin concepts in ethical theory to have been historically conditioned by the logical empiricist tradition where that is taken broadly enough to include C.L. Stevenson's two-component analysis of ethical judgments and Hare's treatment of thick concepts as "secondarily evaluative terms." To let Putnam speak for himself:

"[That the thick ethical concepts are counterexamples to the idea that there exists an absolute fact/value *dichotomy* has long been pointed out, and the defenders of the dichotomy have offered three main responses. (The resulting discussion has resulted in what I think of as some of the best ethical/ metaethical discussion of the last century...)
One response was contained in Hume's rhetorical question: "Where is that matter of fact that we call *crime*--Hume meant "grevious wrong" by *crime*--and his denial that one can point out any such "matter of fact." To accept this response would be to banish all thick ethical concepts to the same limbo as the "emotive" or "non-cogntivie," that the "thin" (or "thinner" ethical wrods ("good," "ought," "rights," and their opposites "bad," "must-not," "wronge," as well as "virtue," 'vice," "duty," "obligation," and so on) were banished by Hume and his successors....
The responses that non-cognitivists usually make today are rather the following two:

(1) To simply insist that the thick ethical concepts are plain factual concepts and not ethical or normative concepts at all...

(2) To claims that the thick ethical concepts are "factorable" into a purely descriptive component and an "attitudinal" component. The descriptive component then states the matter of fact that the predicate corresponds to, and the attitudinal component expresses an "attitdue" (an emotion or volition) exactly as in noncognitivist accounts of the function of "good," "ought," and son on.]"

Now I think that Putnam's point that, historically, the Stevensonian/emotivist plan of reductively analyzing ethical judgments including those that involve thick ethical concepts, is quite correct. However, others dispute the 'collapse of the F/V dichotomy' on account of it. Thomas Hurka, in particular, argues in "Two Easy Reduction Plans" that its a fundamental flaw in Bernard Williams argument that he assumes that "reductive" or "its factorable" position (roughly of (2) above, is attractive or can be held only by non-cognitivists (expressivists, emotivists).
Now the "proponents of entanglement," as Putnam described them, do not need to maintain the thesis that Putnam sees R.M. Hare as trying to burden them, that judging an action as "cruel" (his example), that this kind of judgment or action is "inherently motivational. As Hare himself puts it, "if it did not motivate us in this way, or otherwise touch our feelings, it would not be *that* kind of action (not, for example, cruel." But Putnam doesn't think this follows from the critique of the fact/value dichotomy present in the "reduction plan." What he instead says of "proponents of entanglement" is,

"What they maintain is that if one did not at any point share the relevant ethical point of view one would never be able to acquire a thick ethical concept, and that sophisticated use of such a concept requires a continuing ability to identify (at least in imagination) with that point of view. This is not to deny that someone may know that something is cruel and not be motivated to refrain from it...the attempts of noncognitivists to split thick ethical concepts into a 'descriptive meaning componenet' and a 'prescriptive meaning component' founders on the impossibility of saying what the 'descriptive meaning' of, say 'cruel' is without using the word 'cruel' or a synonym." (38)

Putnam here seems to turn the tables by interpreting the reductionists as holding something he himself finds implausible. I am sure that Hurka would have a response to this in defense of reducibility (Hurka's "three component" analysis is meant to respond to just such concerns). Hurka would perhaps contest the claim by Putnam that "The positions that are still defended by the proponents of a fact/value dichotomy are variants of noncognitivism and relativism" (42). And this would be to concede that noncognitivism founders once we appreciate the entanglement of fact and value, but to hold that a cognitivist account can maintain and indeed take over support of reductivism.

I can't pursue Hurka's counter-point here. But it seems to me that Putnam and Williams are quite close to one another over this (though each critiques the other on other issues). Indeed Putnam invokes this quote from Williams as further support:

"...It seems reasonable to be sceptical about whether the disentangling manoeuvre here envisaged [facotring into a descriptive and a prescriptive component] can always be effected."

So for Putnam "What is characteristic of 'negative' descriptions like 'cruel,' as well as of 'positive' descriptions like 'brave,' 'temperate,' and 'just' ...is that to use them with any discrimination one has to be able to identify imaginatively with an *evaluative point of view. That is why someone who thought that 'brave' simply meant 'not afraid to risk life and limb' would not be able to understand the all--important distinction that Socrates keeps drawing between mere *rashness* or *foolhardiness* and genuine *bravery*. It is also the reason that (as Iris Murdoch stressed...) it is alway possible to *improve one's understanding* of a concept like 'impertinence' or 'cruelty.' This dependence of even 'descriptive' uses of 'cruel' upon evaluation is what Mackie was *denying* when he referred to the fact that someone is cruel as simply a (metaphysically unproblematic) natural fact." (39-40)

So to conclude the post and to ask for your thoughts on the ideas it raises, Putnam's section "'Thick' Ethical Concepts" concludes by reiterating that the "entanglement" found in thick ethical concepts everywhere subverts a fact/value dichotomy. The dichotomy gives rise not only to noncognitivism, but often to relativism. We need to abandon the dichotomy in order for other, more "real world" issues to come into view. According to Putnam's later chapters in the book, "an enormous amount of our descriptive vocabulary is and has to be 'entangled.'" Distinguishing between an ordinary distinction and a metaphysical *dichotomy*, "I pointed out that if the fact/value distinction is intended as a mere distinction, it is not univocal; we get one 'partitioning' of a space of judgments if we take value judgments to be judgments in which certainly relatively abstract or 'thin' ethical concepts figure (for example, 'good,' 'bad,' 'ought,' 'should,' 'duty' 'virtue,' 'obligation,' 'right,' 'wrong,') a somewhat different partitioning if we take value judgments to be judgments that praise or blame some person or persons, and we get still other possible interpretations of the distinction." (60) Likely tying in richly to his account of 'ethics without ontology,' Putnam holds that the fuzziness caused by recognition of entanglement and hence of multiple possible partitionings, does not make the distinction unusable, and that "the possibility of distinguishing a class of 'value judgments' in one way or another does not, by itself, have any implications at all as to whether value judgments can or can not be *true or false, justified or unjustified* do or do not have descriptive content, and so on. Nor does it have any implication as to whether the complementary class of *non-value judgments* has any unity at all" (60-61)
February 15, 2008 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
It is a shared position of Williams and Putnam that the preocuppation with the F/V distinction imposes a concentration on the most general features of moral language. Since I focused on Putnam's account last time, let me here add some additional notes on Williams' account, drawing from *Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy* (1985) as well as his much earlier classic paper "Morality and the Emotions" (Chapter 13 of *Problems of the Self*, 1973)

Williams mentions that “The idea that it might be impossible to pick up an evaluative concept unless one shared its evaluative interest is basically a Wittgensteinian idea. I first heard it expressed by Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch…in the 1950s” (ELP 218, note 7).Williams says it is essential to the prescriptivist/Stevensonian account that the “specific or ‘thick’ character of these terms is given in their descriptive element, while the value part is expressed, under analysis, “by the all-purpose prescriptive term ought.” If there is no reason to believe that a descriptive equivalent will necessarily be available, then reduction would be in trouble. For “Prescriptivism claims that what governs the application of the concept to the world is the descriptive element and that the evaluative interest of the concept play no part in this. All the input into its use is descriptive, just as all the evaluative aspect is output” (ELP 141). It would mean that how we “go on” from one application of a concept to another is a function of the kind of interest that the concept represents, and we should not assume that we could see how people ‘go on’ if we did not share the evaluative perspective in which this kind of concept has its point” (ELP 141).

For Williams, “a society in which ethical life is understood and conducted in such general terms is socially different from one in which it is not,” (ELP 130), and an ethical theory that is focused around thin concepts is philosophically different than one that is thick-concept focused. But the more specific reasons for the neglect of the emotions and the negative consequences of that neglect are Williams’ first point, and tie in nicely with Putnam. Given the recent linguistic turn, a preoccupation with the fact/value distincion was ‘inevitable,’ but valuable in some ways. Still, many of these consequences have been “unfortunate.” “ Since the preoccupation is one with fact and value as such, it has imposed on the linguistic enterprise a concentration on the most general features of moral language, or indde, yet more widely, of evaluative language” (208). The ensuing ‘thin-focused’ ethical theories helped to push the emotions out of the picture, at least until emotivism took center stage away from the class between cognitive approaches. These seemed to offer a response to that exclusion, by asserting “a connexion between moral language and ethe emotions as strightforward and as general as could be conceived…” (208) But the failings of emotivism are pointed out clearly by the centrality of thick concepts to our understanding of emotional dispositions, character traits, and moral judgments. Again *Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy* Williams writes, critical of the “linguistic enterprise,” that those who have engaged typically “have brought the fact-value distinction to language rather than finding it revealed there.What they have found are a lot of those ‘thicker’ or more speciifc ethical notions…which seem to express a union of fact and value. The way these notions are applied is determined by what the world is like (for instance, by ho someone has behaved), and yet, at the same time, their application usually involves a certain valuation of the situation, of persons or actions’ (129). When this is the case—when world-guidedness and action-guiding aspects are both present, the judmgent involving the thick concept provides reasons for action (130).

Now I have been focusing on explicating the similarities of Williams and Putnam, and the contours of the debate over the centrality of thick concepts in ethical theory. But as a final comment, I would say that while it may not be often that “the application of these concepts is at the same time world-guided and action-guiding” (141), the times in which this is the case, should be seen as an *achievement*. It is reflective of someone who has inculcated the virtues, or in some related way, is willing and able to make judgments involving thick ethical concepts in the "engaged way," and a way the fits with our overtly *normative* interests in the agent and her actions.
February 17, 2008 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell