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Proceedings of the XXII World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 10, 2008


Sunny Yang
Pages 469-479

Moral Emotions and Thick Ethical Concepts
A Critical Notice of Gibbard’s Non-Reductive Noncognitivism.

My aim in this paper is to illuminate the limitations of adopting thick ethical concepts to support the rationality of moral emotion. To this end, I shall first of all concentrate on whether emotions, especially moral emotions are thick concepts and can be analysed into both evaluative and descriptive components. Secondly, I shall examine Gibbard’s thesis that to judge an act wrong is to think guilt and anger warranted. I then raise the following question. If we identify moral considerations with anger in particular, it overly emphasizes one seemingly arbitrary emotion. In other words, I doubt whether ‘other’s anger’ can be the general concept corresponding to thick concepts such as courage or generosity. My doubt about the objectivity of Gibbard’s moral emotion depends on Bernard Williams’ doubt about ethical objectivity in terms of a critical notice of the distinction between thick and thin ethical concepts. Finally, I shall pose a challenge to the distinction between thick and thin ethical concepts on the ground that it is not in fact a clear one. I shall argue that it is impossible clearly to classify various ethical concepts either as thick or thin. This is because, I shall argue, as Scheffler points out, “any division of ethical concepts into the two categories of the thick and the thin is itself a considerable oversimplication.” Indeed, I shall argue, our ethical vocabulary is tragically rich with an irreconcilable plurality of values. If my analysis is right, I argue Gibbard’s attempt to appeal to thick concepts to explain the rationality of moral emotion is open to question.

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