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Thick Concepts and the Moral Brain

  • Gabriel Abend (a1)


Drawing on Williams’ distinction between thin and thick ethical concepts, I argue that current moral neuroscience and psychology unwarrantedly restrict their researches to thin morality only. Experiments typically investigate subjects’ judgments about rightness, appropriateness, or permissibility, that is, thin concepts. The nature and workings of thick concepts – e.g., dignity, integrity, humanness, cruelty, pettiness, exploitation, or fanaticism – have not been empirically investigated; hence, they are absent from recent theories about morality. This may seem like a minor oversight, which some additional research can redress. I argue that the fix is not that simple: thick concepts challenge one of the theoretical backbones of much moral psychology and neuroscience; they challenge the conception of a hardwired and universal moral capacity in a way that thin concepts do not. In the conclusion I argue that the burgeoning science of morality should include both thin and thick, and that it should include the contributions of psychologists and neuroscientists as well as those of anthropologists, historians, and sociologists.

Reprenant la distinction de Williams entre concepts éthiques profonds et superficiels, l'auteur affirme que les neurosciences et la psychologie actuelle n'atteignent que la moralité superficielle. De fait les expériences traitent de jugements des sujets sur le juste, l'opportun et le permis, tous concepts superficiels. La nature et le façonnage des concepts profonds : dignité, intégrité, humanité, cruauté, mesquinerie, exploitation, fanatisme sont complètements absents des théories récentes de la moralité. Ce n'est pas un oubli mineur aisément réparable car les concepts profonds mettent à mal, bien plus que ne peuvent le faire les concepts superficiels, un pilier de la recherche expérimentale actuelle à savoir la croyance en une capacité morale câblée de façon universelle. Il est temps de faire appel aux psychologues et auxneuroscientifiques, autant qu'aux anthropologues, historiens et sociologues.

Ausgehend von Williams Unterscheidung zwischen tiefgründigen und oberflächlichen ethischen Konzepten, behauptet der Autor, dass die Neurowissenschaften und die heutige Psychologie nur eine oberflächliche Moralität erreichen. In der Tat, die Erfahrungen handeln von Urteilen über das Richtige, das Opportune und das Erlaubte, alles oberflächliche Konzepte. Eigenart und Ausformung von tiefgründigen Konzepten (Würde, Unbestechlichkeit, Menschlichkeit, Gewalt, Neid, Ausnutzung, Fanatismus) fehlen gänzlich in aktuellen Moraltheorien. Wer dies übersieht, vergisst, dass die tiefgründigen Konzepte, weitaus mehr als die oberflächlichen, einen Grundpfeiler der heutigen experimentellen Forschung, nämlich den Glauben an eine universelle Moralfähigkeit, erschüttern. Beide Konzepte, profunde wie oberflächliche, müssen berücksichtigt und Beiträge von Psychologen, Neurowissenschaftlern sowie Anthropologen, Historikern und Soziologen hinzugezogen werden.



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Thick Concepts and the Moral Brain

  • Gabriel Abend (a1)


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