Here are some of the great people with whom I had the pleasure to work and with whom I am currently working on joint research projects.
As Williams (1985) suggested, two kinds of evaluative terms and concepts can be distinguished, namely thick and thin ones. Thin terms and concepts evaluate an object as, for instance, right, permissible, wrong, or blameworthy, yet they don’t explicate in which way the object is right or wrong. You might evaluate an instance of lying as wrong without conveying any information as to why you think so. You might think that people have a right to be told the truth, that you fear the person will make the wrong decisions based on the lie, that it ruins friendships etc. Thick ethical terms and concepts provide such information besides evaluating the object. For instance, to be a bit more precise as to why you consider an instance of lying wrong, you might call it “deceitful”, “disrespectful”, “treacherous”, or “patronising”.
Thick concepts like “deceitful”, “disrespectful”, “treacherous”, or “patronising” add a descriptive component to the negative evaluation. Other typical examples are “rude”, “courageous”, “trustworthy”, or “dogmatic”. Describing an agent as courageous makes a descriptive judgment that the agent is willing to take risks, and it evaluates taking risks positively – in contrast to being reckless.
It is exactly the combination of evaluative and merely descriptive elements of thick concepts that has attracted attention in the philosophy of language and metaethics, and thick concepts are often recruited to do important philosophical work. First, virtue ethics put particular emphasis on thick terms and concepts, as all virtue and vice terms are thick. It has often been argued that action-centred ethics, such as deontology and utilitarianism, provide a wrong and misguided approach to morality because they oversimplify the complexity of evaluative moral thought. Thin concepts, like “good” or “bad” only reflect a minor part of the way we morally think and talk and are, thus, ill-equipped to provide a psychologically realistic account of morality.
Second, some metaethical cognitivists argue that moral judgment, such as “torturing others for fun is bad”, can have truth-values in the same way as “The earth moves around its own axis”. Whether the judgment is true or false is determined by the world. In addition to this moral realism, some philosophers have also defended moral objectivism, the claim that the truth-values of moral judgments are universal and not culture-dependent. Thick ethical terms and concepts have an important function in arguments for moral objectivism, as they anchor values in non-evaluative descriptions.
Third, thick ethical terms and concepts seem to challenge the fact-value distinction and, therefore, the principle that an ‘ought’ can never be derived from an ‘is’. If thick concepts combine facts and values in an inseparable kind of way, as some have suggested, then the fact-value distinction does not seem to hold categorically. But this principle, also known as Hume’s law, is at the heart of normative-ethical debates about which rules we ought to follow, and it motivates normative logics as an independent research project.
Fourth, thick-ethical concepts raise important metaethical questions about the connection between moral judgments and reasons to act.
Because of this distinctive significance of thick ethical terms and concepts for a variety of philosophical debates, it comes as no surprise that much theoretical work has been done on understanding thick ethical terms and concepts. Two main questions guide the debate:
Interestingly though, these questions cannot only be answered by armchair philosophy but call experimental philosophers as well as experimental linguistics to the table. The aim of this research project is to investigate what we can do with thick ethical terms and concepts in ordinary language in order to answer the more fundamental question about the nature of thick concepts themselves. The results of this project have immediate implications for metaethical debates about cognitivism and non-cognitivism, the possibility of moral disagreement, and many others.
In this research project, I aim to provide an answer to the Evaluation and the Combination Question.
Terms and concepts which are a unity of evaluation and description are called thick terms and concepts (Eklund 2011, Väyrynen 2019), such as “rude”, “friendly”, “honest”, “manipulative”, “cruel”, or “compassionate”. Other evaluative terms and concepts which merely evaluate, such as “bad”, “good, “permissible”, “right”, “wrong”, are called thin ethical terms and concepts. Both types of concepts stand in opposition to descriptive terms and concepts whose function is to merely provide information on what the world is like, yet not to evaluate, such as “round”, “rectangular”, “blonde”, “Australian”, etc.
Thick terms have sparked the interest of philosophers, not only because of their hybrid structure. Another reason is their potential to guide our actions by providing us with reasons to act. As Williams said,
“The way these notions are applied is determined by what the world is like (for instance, by how someone has behaved), and yet, at the same time, their application usually involves a certain valuation of the situation, of a person or actions. Moreover, they usually (though not necessarily directly) provide reasons for actions.” (Williams, 1985, p. 143 f.; own emphasis)
The idea that thick concepts are action-guiding goes back to Bernard Williams, but many philosophers have followed his reasoning. While this is a quite plausible and seldomly disputed assumption, no empirical evidence has been offered in its support. In this paper, we investigate the use of thick concepts in ordinary language and how they relate to reasons for actions. More specifically, we investigate whether statements containing thick terms provide normative reasons for action.
While experiments investigating people’s intuitions about moral cases differ along various lines, they are similar in one crucial respect: in all experiments, participants are asked questions or are supposed to indicate their agreement with statements that contain thin concepts, such as “good”, “permissible”, “appropriate”, “bad”, “evil”, “impermissible”, and the like. For instance, in several studies by Greene and colleagues (2001, 2008), participants need to judge the vignette regarding how appropriate or inappropriate the agent’s behaviour was. Follow-up studies in other languages, such as German (Heekeren and colleagues 2003, p. 1216; 2005, p. 889) or Italian (Ciaramelli and colleagues 2007), use the same test queries. Other researchers, such as Wiegmann and colleagues (Waldmann 2010) asked participants whether an agent should act or refrain from acting. Waldmann and Dieterich used the same wording (2007). In later studies by Greene and colleagues (2009), participants had to indicate whether it was morally acceptable for the agent to act in a certain way. Other thin terms that frequently figures in experiments are “permissible” or “morally permissible” and “obligatory” (Cushman et al., 2006, pp. 1083-1084; Hauser et al., 2007, pp. 18-19). Young, Nichols and Saxe (2010) as well as Nichols (2007) asked participants how blameworthy the agent was. Alfano and colleagues (2012), but also Knobe and colleagues or Hindricks, Douven, and Singmann had a slightly different formulation and asked whether the agent deserved praise or blame for their actions. Haidt and Baron (1996) asked participants to rate the agent’s “goodness or virtue” on a scale from extremely bad” to “extremely good”. In other experiments, Haidt and colleagues used queries asking whether it was “Ok” or “wrong” for the agent to act in the way they did (Haidt 2001, p. 814; Haidt et al., 1993, p. 617; Schnall et al., 2008, pp. 1107-1108).
These experiments test people’s moral intuitions related to thin ethical concepts, such as wrongness and goodness, (im)permissibility, (in)acceptability, blame- and praiseworthiness, etc. The methodological approach to moral psychology so far has provided important empirical insights into how people make moral judgments. However, conclusions drawn from these insights have gone way too far and have oversimplified moral psychology.
Thin moral psychology is not enough. Moral psychology has operated under the implicit assumption that thin concepts are sufficient to investigate people’s morality. There are several reasons why this seems an acceptable and even plausible assumption. On the one hand, action-focused ethics such as deontology and utilitarianism have been extremely influential in the philosophical tradition. In addition, deontology and utilitarianism often make very different predictions about what people should deem morally acceptable, especially in moral dilemmas. Testing such intuitions is relatively easy and relies on a sparse and intuitively understandable vocabulary, namely thin concepts. Therefore, psychologists have good reasons to start off from deontological and utilitarian ethics and, thus, to focus on thin concepts.
However, limiting empirical research to action-focused ethics ignores the complexity of the debate in moral philosophy and is likely to neglect an important aspect of moral psychology. Many normative-ethical schools have objected against deontology and utilitarianism that their conception of morality is oversimplified, psychologically implausible, or even misguided and fruitless. Other traditions, such as Virtue Ethics, Discourse Ethics, and Buddhist and Confucian ethics, deny that focusing on actions is of any moral interest and can answer important practical questions. However, virtue ethical intuitions cannot be examined by using thin concepts. They require thick concepts, such as courageous, trustworthy, kind, selfless, and rude, nasty, or cruel instead. Given the importance of these alternative conceptions of morality, they deserve the same attention in empirical research to allow for an unbiased and fair examination of which normative theories seem to be in line with actual moral judgments.
This is a joint project with Jan Alejandro Garcia Olier.
As already highlighted, how thick concepts are defined has far-reaching implications on various debates in metaethics. The joint aim of my other research projects is to provide a new characterisation. Getting back to the debate’s philosophical roots, this project examines the implications of this new, empirically grounded characterization of thick concepts for metaethics. Two debates are of particular interest:
Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism. Thick concepts have played one of their most prominent roles in arguments against non-cognitivism or expressivism. Expressivism, very briefly, is the view that the primary function of moral language is to express non-cognitive attitudes such as preferences or likings and dislikings. The most famous argument against expressivism is the Disentanglement Argument, which claims that expressivism requires thick concepts to be separable into a descriptive component and a non-cognitive attitude to be expressed. Since, as some philosophers have argued, thick concepts cannot be separated in the way expressivism requires, expressivism must be false.
Many have taken issue with the Disentanglement Argument, and many defences have been proposed. In this project, these theoretical debates shall be set aside for the moment. Instead one might argue if the Disentanglement Argument even has empirical legs to stand on. If it turns out that the evaluative and the descriptive can easily be disentangled, then the challenge loses its force.
Fact-Value Distinction. Most philosophers believe that there is a hard-to-pin-down but important distinction between describing and evaluating. One of the most influential arguments explicating this distinction is Hume’s Law. According to Hume (1739/40), we can never derive an ought from an is, and we cannot make any justified, non-trivial inferences from what the world is like to what it ought to be like. Given these widely shared assumptions, it would be both theoretically fascinating and challenging if thick concepts combined descriptive and evaluative content in a way that calls this distinction into question.
When philosophers discuss thick concepts, they usually discuss thick ethical concepts. Most of my research is also dedicated to the moral domain. However, thick concepts have recently received increasing recognition in other areas of philosophy, namely in epistemology, aesthetics, legal philosophy, and social philosophy. To provide a more comprehensive account of thick concepts, not just thick ethical concepts, I am involved in various collaborations in which other types are explored.
Philosophers assume that in addition to describing or representing the world, language can also evaluate it. When we say that the cake was delicious or that Jim’s behaviour yesterday was a disgrace, we evaluate the cake and Jim’s behaviour. In my research, I try to understand how exactly evaluation is conveyed in ordinary conversational contexts.
In many of my other projects, I have used experimental studies to answer philosophical questions. However, when we want to understand how people use language, a less artificial and more natural context promises mor reliable results. The analysis of linguistic corpora can help us gain such reliable results. A linguistic corpus, roughly speaking, is a collection of spoken or written text. Technically, everything you consider worth investigating can constitute such a corpus, for instance the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophie, Google, the New York Times, or an online blog. Together with my collaborators Kevin Reuter and Lucien Baumgartner, we attempt to understand evaluative language by analysing such corpora.
Before we can start analysing, we need to determine what we are actually searching for and how we believe to find it. So far we lack the means to identify and measure a wide range of evaluative concepts. In this project, we develop corpus-linguistic methods that allow us to distinguish thick adjectives like ‘courageous’ from descriptive adjectives like ‘tall’, and value-associated adjectives like ‘sunny’.
We argue that the connective ‘and’ provide a useful means. We show that evaluative adjectives behave diﬀerently to descriptive adjectives when being combined with other adjectives through the connective ‘and’. In addition, the modiﬁers “truly” and “really” highlight the evaluative dimension of thick and thin concepts, allowing for them to be uniquely classiﬁed.
You can watch a video of Kevin and Lucien explaining the tools we developed at the Corpus Fortnight 2020.
This is a joint project with Lucien Baumgartner, Lucien Frohofer, and Kevin Reuter.
Legal professionals need to be objective in many respects. For instance, each defendant has a constitutional right to be given a fair trial, independent of any personal liking or disliking the legal professionals involved might have for the defendant. This involves an objective, unbiased treatment of the available evidence, and, especially on the side of the defense, a fair representation of the defendant. Besides, legal professionals must only follow the law and cannot allow their own norms and ideals to affect their legal judgment. Whether or not legal professionals object to anyone’s personal lifestyle and decisions must not affect their judgment as long as these issues are not in violation of the law. Because of this particularly high need for objectivity, one might suspect that the legal discourse is devoid of verbally expressed evaluations. The legal system is there to reveal the truth and, relatedly, legal processes seem to be characterized by a strictly regulated, objective, impersonal and unbiased adjudication to not distort the quested facts. Accordingly, so one might assume, this must also be reflected in the language.
However, consider the following case. In 1978, Ted Bundy was convicted for murder, attempted murder, and burglary and sentenced to death. In his statement, Judge Edward Cowart said:
“The court finds that of both these killings were indeed heinous, atrocious, and cruel, and that they were extremely wicked, shockingly evil, vile, and the product of a design to inflict a high degree of pain and utter indifference to human life. This court independent of, but in agreement with, the advisory sentence rendered by the jury, does hereby impose the death penalty upon the defendant, Theodore Bundy.”
While this statement does not appear to be particularly unusual and many people might sympathize with its general message, the statement demonstrates a very explicit display of, arguably, the judge’s contempt of the defendant and, so one might think, reflects the judge’s very personal opinion. The trial was special not just because of the severeness of the allegations. It was also the first trial in which a dental impression was used as evidence. One of the victims showed a bite wound on her body, and it was argued that the particularities of Ted Bundy’s teeth would match it, thereby relating him to the crime. Forensic odontologists matched the wound to the castings of Bundy’s teeth. The defense attorney objected to the acceptability of this evidence by saying:
“The evidence in this case presents many reasonable doubts. It is a sad day for your system of justice that can put a man’s life on the line because they say he has crooked teeth. How tragic it would be if a man’s life were to be taken from him because 12 people thought that he was probably guilty, but they were not sure.”
Should we take issue with this statement? If the legal system understands itself as a non-evaluative business in which personal approval and disapproval should have no place, shouldn’t then phrases like ‘a sad day for our system of justice’, and ‘how tragic it would be’ make us rather uncomfortable? Perhaps, you might say, we cherrypicked the Ted Bundy case in which Judge Cowart was a bit over the line. Perhaps, you might think, evaluative statements in extreme cases like the Ted Bundy trial are hardly avoidable but are less common in more mundane cases.
If these points are correct, we should be able to find evidence that legal discourse is indeed more descriptive and less evaluative than public discourse. Surprisingly, little evidence has been collected in support of that view. The few studies that have investigated evaluativity in legal texts, have brought to light interesting findings and suggest that the legal discourse is evaluative in various ways. However, these studies have two shortcomings. First, they usually address very particular ways of being evaluative and the linguistic phenomenon under investigation is rather limited. Second, almost all studies lack a direct comparison between legal and some form of baseline or control discourse, such as the ordinary public discourse. As a consequence, it is very hard to determine how evaluative the legal discourse is and if it is more or less evaluative than other discourses.
In this research project, we compare legal and public discourse in terms of the evaluative extent and intensity of its contents, focusing on a linguistic phenomenon with broad applicability using corpus analysis. We created two corpora. Our legal professional corpus is based on court opinions from the American Court of Appeals; the public corpus is based on blog discussions on the internet blog Reddit and serves as our control discourse. The linguistic phenomenon we investigate is the use of adjectives and, more specifically, so-called thin and thick adjectives. In the philosophical literature, thin terms are said to be merely evaluative and to merely express approval or disapproval. Those terms include, among others, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, or ‘wrong’. Thick terms are said to combine evaluative and descriptive content, such as ‘generous’ (combining a positive evaluation with the descriptive feature ‘willingness to share limited resources with others in need’) and ‘rude’ (combining a negative evaluation with the descriptive features ‘causing offense by violating rules of good manner’). Because thick terms have both a descriptive and evaluative aspect, they are the perfect items to examine the evaluative intensity and extent of legal contexts.
Our corpus analysis suggests that thick terms are used more descriptively by legal experts than when ordinary people interact. At least, when we look at how thick terms function in legal contexts, they are more often used in conjunction with less evaluative terms. The empirical results we present are exploratory and the methods we used will need to be adapted for more fine-grained and theory-driven research questions. Nonetheless, we believe they provide an interesting starting point for such a project.
Willemsen, Pascale; Baumgartner, Lucien; Frohofer, Severin; Reuter, Kevin (2023). Examining thick concepts in the legal discourse using corpus analysis. In Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Law, London: Bloomsbury Press.
Pre-print (2021) available here: https://psyarxiv.com/yxsp9/
The most common approach to understanding the semantics of the concept of pain are third-person thought experiments. By contrast, the most frequent and relevant use of the folk concept of pain concerns a first-person perspective in conversational settings. In this project, we are interested in how people talk about pain: The semantic content of the folk concept of pain consists of information about both an unpleasant feeling and a disruptive bodily state. Pain linguistics thus provides an interesting challenge to the dominant unitary views of pain, as well as new insights into ordinary pain language.
My research on lying is in full collaboration with Alex Wiegmann.
Moral responsibility, causation, and the Entailment Claim
Just recently, Justin Sytsma, Kevin Reuter, and I started a research project on the concept of causation. Most experimental research on causation investigate causal cognition, that is the mechanisms underlying causal judgments and the factors that can affect this mechanism. In this project, we examine the folk concept of causation or, more precisely, what people wish to express when they use the lemma ’cause’.
Norm Effects and the Semantics of Lexical Causatives
Experimental philosophers and other researchers interested in causal cognition have provided striking insights into how we make causal judgments. An explicit or implicit assumption that these researchers share is that the best way to understand causal cognition is to engage with how laypeople use the lemma “cause”, as in “Tom caused the accident. In this research project, we question this assumption and argue that most ordinary causal judgments are not communicated by “cause”. Phrases like “Jenny caused the window to break” sound unnatural. Instead, people use causatives such as “to break” to say “Jenny broke the window”. In our research, we replicate the most influential experiments in causal cognition by using causatives instead of the lemma “cause”. We further investigate the semantics of the folk concept of “causation” and how it relates to moral and other forms of normative judgments.
Do the folk believe omissions to be causally relevant?
My research on causal judgments is closely connected to my interest in moral responsibility attribution. It is widely held that in order to be morally responsible for an outcome, an agent must have caused that outcome. If she didn’t cause it, it seems absurd to ascribe moral responsibility for it.
It has recently been argued that causal judgments are sensitive to norms and expectations. For instance, whether an outcome was produced by an agent violating a norm will affect the causal evaluation of the agent’s causal relevance. Also unexpected actions and omissions are considered to be more causal. Some researchers have suggested that this effect can be explained by the underlying cognitive process that leads to causal judgments. Causal judgments are made on the basis of counterfactual simulations in the sense of “What would have happened, had the agent acted differently?”. Those considerations are, however, heavily dependent on norms on expectations.
In my research, I investigate what factors actually affect causal judgments and why that is. I have published three papers on causal judgments, putting emphasis on causation by omissions.
Is there an Action/Omission Asymmetry?
The question of how moral responsibility and free will are undermined by the truth of determinism is one of the most extensively, but also most controversially discussed ones in philosophy. Many philosophers hav come to believe that the truth of determinism does not threaten moral responsibility and free will, as they reject the necessity to the ability to act other than one actually did.
However, while many philosophers reject the Principle of Alternate Possibilities for actions, they still believe it to be essential when it comes to moral responsibility for omissions. The fact that an agent could not have saved a drowning child because, had he tried, he would have been hindered by a strong, indurmountabale current, seems to render the agent blameless. He might be to blame for not trying to save the child or for being the kind of person who doesn’t feel the strong urge to help, but he is not morally responsible for the child’s death.
Various arguments have been presented as to why there is an asymmetry between actions and omissions with respect to alternate possibilites. And also, there is much debate about the conditions under which the agent is relevantly unable to act other than he actually did. One predominant and extremely influential tool used in the debate are philosophical thought experiments about hypothetical cases. And philosophers using these cases often make claims such as “in this case, we all have the clear intuition that alternate possibilities are irrelevant” or that “here, the lack of alternate possibilities undermines responsibility”.
In this research project, I investigate whether these empirical predictions actually hold. To do so, I sift through the libraries written in the debate about determinism and free will and moral responsbility. I identify the most commonly used cases and compile the empirical predictions as to what intuitions “we all have” about them. I then methodologically revise these cases to make them suitable for systematic experiments. I then conduct controlled experiments on laypeople’s intuitions about these cases and evaluate the extent to which they confirm or question philosophical theories.
For a pre-print of my latest empirical research on alternative possibilities click here. The paper will appear in the 2019 volume of Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy.
Are we causally connected to situations which we could not have avoided?
Many philosophers believe that in order to be morally responsible for something, you need to be causally responsible for this thing. For instance, if I were to hold you morally responsible for the broken window in my bathroom, I would have to demonstrate that you are causally responsible for the broken window. If you can prove that someone else broke it, you are off the hook. This supposedly necessary connection between moral and causal responsibility is supposed to hold for both actions and omissions alike.
While this claim is not much debated when it comes to actions, metaphysicians do have some trouble to explain the causal relevance of omissions. How could you cause anything by not doing anything? I have argued elsewhere (Willemsen & Reuter 2016; Willemsen 2016; Stephan, Willemsen & Gerstenberg 2017; as well as Willemsen 2019) that the folk believe omissions to be causally relevant and that people are causally responsible for the consequences of omissions. So it might seem as if Necessity is empirically supported and indeed all moral judgments are supported by a causal judgment about the agent.
Interestingly, the causal (ir)relevance of omissions plays a key role in some versions of the Action/Omission Asymmetry Thesis. Carolina Sartorio recently argued that both actions and omissions can be causes of an outcome, and agents can be held morally responsible for both actions and omissions — but only as long as the outcome could have been avoided. In Frankfurt-style scenarios, so when an agent could not have avoided a negative outcome, she can only be held responsible for her actions, yet not her omissions. The reason, so Sartorio argues, lies in the causal connection of the agent with the outcome. The consequences of an agent’s unavoidable action are still causally connected to the agent. For omissions, this causal connection is missing. Assuming Necessity to be true, this means that agents cannot be causally and thus not morally responsible for the unavoidable consequences of an omission.
Building on my most recent paper on Alternative Possibilities, I test the explanatory power of this suggestion. Is it possible, that moral differences between actions and omissions can be explained by a difference in their causal status? We will find out!
[Spoiler: Pre-tests suggest that there are differences in omissions’ and actions’ causal status. However, this difference is merely a difference in the degree to which they are judged causes of the outcome. At no point is it denied that omissions whose consequences couldn’t have been avoided are causally relevant.]
I am interested in the factors that affect moral responsibility attribution. I start off from a rather classical philosophical stance on moral responsibility which philosophers have defined by means of necessary and sufficient conditions.
For instance, it has been argued that causal responsibility is a necessary pre-condition for moral responsibility — if you haven’t caused it, you’re not to blame for it. In my research on omissions, I have worked quite intensively on whether causal responsibility plays a role in the attribution of blame for omissions.
In contrast, it has been argued that several factors are irrelevant for moral responsibility, such as the agent’s social status. However, empirical research indicates that this is not the case and social status and hierarchies do matter for the attribution of moral responsibility.
The aim of my research is to work out the relevant factors for the attribution of moral responsiblity, and to discuss this everyday practice in light with the normative philosophical definitions.
The moral status of omissions
Omissions broadly speaking are things that don‘t exist. They are your failure to water my plants, the accident you luckily never got involved in or the pony your parents never allowed you to have. And typically, when we highlight the absence of an action, an event, or a physical object, we do so in order to do something else. We blame people who fail to water our plants, and very often, we ascribe causal relevance to omissions, such as when we say that the lack of rain caused the drought, my not hitting the brakes caused the accident etc.
But omissions are weird little biests. What exactly are we talking about when we say that my notting hitting the brakes caused the accident? What is the ontological status of omissions? The fact that it is not clear what kind if thing the absence of an action is creates further problems. According to many philosophers, causation is a relation in the world, holding between events. However, is my not doing a certain thing an event? And how can something that didn’t happen cause anything in the world?
These and other questions motivate my work on omissions. In particular, I am interested in the relevance of omissions of actions for moral issues. It is typically assumed that moral responsibility presupposes that the agent has caused what she is blamed for. And this assumption has some great prima facie plausibility, considering hoe easy it is to defend oneself by saying “But I didn’t do it! I wasn’t even there. Here, this guy caused it, blame him!”. But if omissions are denied causal efficacy, it seems that we cannot blame agents for the consequences of their omissions. According to such a view, a mother who fails to feed her child cannot be held responsible for the child’s death, as she didn’t caused her child to die. This view, of course, strikingly contradicts our ordinary moral judgments.
In my research on omissions, I investigate how people think about omissions in both ontological terms as well as in terms of their causal relevance.
Here are some of the great people with whom I had the pleasure to work and with whom I am currently working on joint research projects.