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Environmental Ethics

Volume 34, Issue 3, Fall 2012

Kenneth Shockley
Pages 227-246

Thinning the Thicket
Thick Concepts, Context, and Evaluative Frameworks

When Aldo Leopold claimed that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” he made a conceptual connection between descriptive features of the biotic community and a normative judgment. In conjoining descriptive and normative elements within a single concept Leopold seemed to have been invoking what are now referred to as thick evaluative concepts. Two interpretations of thick concepts that have received increasing attention in environmental ethics are considered here. On one interpretation, the “particularist interpretation,” thick concepts are used to point to the way in which particular features of our environment move us to act. On the other, the “generalist interpretation,” thick concepts are used to invoke a default evaluative standing inseparable from a descriptively characterized kind. Although these interpretations are complementary, without the general interpretation we cannot make ethical sense of the particular instance that moves us to act. Even if particular instantiations of thick concepts have a central and crucial place in environmental ethics, they are only normatively significant within a framework shaped by comparatively thin concepts. Thus, appeals to particularity and locality must be tempered by a broader evaluative context, and the costs of failing to do so are not merely theoretical. As we address global problems through locally motivated action, we need an environmental ethic that makes sense of local values in broad global terms.