Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Phenomenologically Thick Concepts
Some time ago, I gave a talk to our department. I maintained several things, but I hinted at two implicit intuitions I'd like to bring into relief now.
A) Relevant moral properties are never thin properties, that is, no moral property is ever just evaluative.
B) All relevant moral properties/considerations are thick properties, that is, all moral properties have a descriptive and evaluative component to them.
I also stated that virtues, or virtue considerations are thick, and here's my reasoning. Virtues describe the reliable trait I have or ought to have as a state intrinsic to the practical "who" I am. These virtues are better described as practical abilities I exercise and grow into. That's the descriptive element. As a teenager, I might not be as patient as I now am, especially regarding things I want from things I need. However, in my 31 years of life, I have more wisdom to be patient for things, and can readily distinguish between what I need from what I want. In this way, it is descriptive of the practical "who" I am that one might describe me as "patient".
Notice in the above example that the description of the agent possessing patience is pregnant with evaluative meaning. The fact that there is a difference in description between my impatient teenager self and the more refined 31 year-old PhD student carries with it the message that only now do I realize that as a teenager I ought to have distinguished between the patience virtuous demands generally and how impatient I really was. By all accounts, I should have been different; I should have had more patience as a teenager. In this way, the virtue of patience is both a trait I now have, and reflection about patience independent of my possession of the trait has evaluative significance.
Now, the fact that agents possess a trait and ought to have it occur simultaneously in reflecting on a given virtue. The truth is that virtues are never abstracted from the practice of agent's possessing them. Virtue ethics is an ethics of realizing a balanced life where the virtues facilitate our growth. There is no moment when we can call upon a morally thin property to parse out the difference between the descriptive (having a virtue) and the evaluative (the practical wisdom stemming from a virtue). In order to see this, let me first discuss the opposing view of thin properties.
Normative theories advance rightness as the model thin property. So an act consequentialist might accept that an act is right if and only if it generates more good, but in order to believe in such a morally thin property as rightness, the act consequentialist is forced to value only one element in an action. Rightness is forced upon only the action, and that action is either right or wrong. More peculiar, right and wrong are simple predicates that can only attach to actions. An action could not be described as brutal. Brutality intimates the presence of the doer with the deed. Under such a view, the doer is not distanced from action. Instead, the agent comes to possess a quality with the use of "brutal" that the act consequentialist cannot stand for, and yet this is the theoretic advantage of morally thick concepts. It brings to light the unforeseen level that it is the agent and action that are morally valuable, and if we dare say so, the type of person I ought to be is the source of why an action is brutal in as much as it is wrong. Put another way, wrongness is a minimal level of moral evaluation. It says something different if I call an action brutal. The act consequentialist has cleaned up morality to be so thin that it makes for a highly precise measure of the value of an act, but that precision is maintained at a level no normative theory can describe (even though they think they can). My chief reason for thinking that precision is general in ethics is a demonstration that moral properties are actually thick, incapable of inspiring certainty as thin ones do.
However, it can be argued that I have removed the certainty of at least our common intuitive judgments about what we are morally certain about. Leaving an infant alone in a trash heap is wrong, and the criterion of wrongness offered by act consequentialists or Kantians might differ. Yet, it is the fact that these theories try to establish one overall principle that best explains why it is that we are certain about some of our common intuitions. The certainty flows from their actually existing a certain method of testing for rightness and wrongness. It can be done to any action. However, actions are not simply the product of a self-contained moral agent. Instead, an action is a display of the responsive strategies of the type of person who I am. When a mother abandons a baby to a trash heap, it is not as if the action were the only thing to have a value. Such an action is a realizing of the type of the mother is. A mother that discards her baby in a trash heap is morally deficient in her being. She lacks the ability to care for her child in the way someone ought to care for their child. Our judgment of the mother would be lessened if the mother abandons the baby at a convent in the foundling wheel. In fact, the sacrifice to abandon one's child to the church may be a sign of great love. The mother knows she cannot provide for her child in the same way that the church can.
The recognition of these judgments about the type of people revealed in action takes place within intentionality. This is the phenomenological connection. There is a conceptual space as intentional living subjects that can be captured by phenomenological analysis. It is the description of how it is that I live out the structure of moral experience through the possession of morally salient virtues versus vices. I do not have all the answers about such an experience, but it is one that I am interested in opening up in future phenomenological descriptions.