, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 3-32

Moral concepts: From thickness to response-dependence

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The paper examines three tenets of Dancy’s meta-ethics, finds them incompatible, and proposes a response-dependentist (or response-dispositional) solution. The first tenet is the central importance of thick concepts and properties. The second is that such concepts essentially involve response(s) of observers, which Dancy interprets in a way that fits the pattern of context-dependent resultance: thick concepts are well suited for the particularist grounding of moral theory. However, and this is the third tenet, in his earlier paper (1986) Dancy forcefully argues against response-dispositional accounts of moral concepts and properties. The present paper argues that an anti-dispositional view is incompatible with the first two points concerning thick concepts. If thick concepts and properties are paramount and ubiquitous in moral thought and reality, and if they are essentially tied to human responses, then anti-dispositionalism is false. Dancy himself avoids obvious contradiction by characterizing thick items (concepts) differently from the usual characterization of response-dependent items. Actions that satisfy thick concepts do so in virtue of meriting a determinate response. The (non-reductionist) response-dependentist usually puts it slightly differently: such actions satisfy a given moral concepts in virtue of eliciting a merited response. I have argued at length that this tenuous difference in formulation is too weak to support a relevant difference in rebus. If the argument is right, Dancy is implicitly committed to a kind of response-dependentism. Finally, the particularist should embrace thick concepts and properties, and reject anti-dispositionalism. However, this would bring back the analogy with color and other secondary qualities. Since there are ceteris paribus laws governing such properties, the analogy suggests that moral properties might also be best accounted for by a ceteris paribus, or hedged account, a compromise between traditional generalism and the particularism of Dancy’s variety.