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Departmental seminar series (2017): abstracts


October 11

TITLE: Rule-Following, Meaning and Primitive Normativity

SPEAKER: Alex Miller (Otago)

ABSTRACT: This seminar explores the prospects for using the notion of a primitive normative attitude in responding to the sceptical argument about meaning developed in chapter 2 of Saul Kripke’s Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. It takes as its stalking-horse the response to Kripke’s Wittgenstein developed in a recent series of important works by Hannah Ginsborg. In my 2016 seminar presentation I argued that Ginsborg’s attempted solution depends on an inadequate response to Kripke’s Wittgenstein’s “finitude” objection to reductive dispositionalism, and that it erroneously rejects the idea that a speaker’s understanding of an expression guides her use of it. In this seminar, I raise three additional problems for Ginsborg’s account. First, it threatens to collapse into either full-blown non-reductionism or reductive dispositionalism. Second, there are reasons to think that the normative attitude central to Ginsborg’s account is not primitive. Third, there is no motive for accepting Ginsborg’s view over forms of non-reductionism such as those developed by Barry Stroud, Crispin Wright and John McDowell.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, October 11, Richardson GS2


October 4

TITLE: Built on roles? Contemporary ethics and a Confucian example

SPEAKER: Cheryl Cottine (Oberlin College)

ABSTRACT: In this paper, I explore the implication of making the concept of roles the center of ethical inquiry. To do this, I turn to two early Confucian texts, the Mengzi and Xunzi, as they contain a robust account of roles. I argue that there is much to recommend itself in these early Confucian texts for thinking about what a role ethic is and may entail. I focus specifically on how these texts articulate the relationship between virtues and roles, paying particular attention to instances where virtue cultivation appears to depend on developing particular and multiple role relations. Focusing here accomplishes two things: First, it allows me to articulate why I think role ethics rather than virtue ethics is an appropriate label for early Confucian ethics. Second, it provides a working model for beginning to think about the sorts of considerations and concepts required for developing a contemporary role ethic.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, October 4, Richardson GS2


September 27

TITLE: The Conceptual Challenge of Biodiversity Loss for Democratic Theory

SPEAKER: Lisa Ellis (Otago)

ABSTRACT: Biodiversity loss presents at least as serious a challenge as climate change. Given the role played by democratically accountable information provision in securing the 2015 Paris Agreement, one looks for analogous sources for biodiversity policy. However, the structure of the problem itself confounds the estimation of the human impacts of biodiversity. Existing commentary focuses either on work-arounds or on explanations of why estimation is impossible. I argue that both the underlying problem and its possible solutions are rooted in democratic theory. I consider and reject Yrjö Haila's suggestion that we abandon the attempt to estimate biodiversity loss. Shifting our measures in a democratic direction while distinguishing among three levels of decision making could yield the kind of information about biodiversity loss that would help us prevent it.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, September 27, Richardson GS2


September 20

TITLE: Learning from the Imagination

SPEAKER: Greg Currie (York, UK)

ABSTRACT: Taking a naturalistic view of the mind's architecture, we should expect the imagination to have been selected because it played a role in prompting advantageous behaviour. Unless the imagination was a very late addition to the human cognitive toolbox it is unlikely that its successes were entirely the product of the use of fictional stories, and anyway we could hardly have fiction at all without a well developed imaginative capacity. Very likely, the imagination led us to useful knowledge in other ways, and there are plausible suggestions about what those ways were and are. I examine some of those ways, focusing on some apparently rather serious limitations on the imagination's reliability.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, September 20, Richardson GS2


September 13

TITLE: Alston and the Problem of Religious Diversity

SPEAKER: Tiddy Smith (Otago)

ABSTRACT: The problem of religious diversity, simply put, is that the diversity of global religious belief is evidence that the belief-forming practices of religious people are unreliable. William Alston has convincingly argued that although religious diversity is the most serious problem facing proponents of religious belief, the problem is not fatal. His argument runs that (1) religious diversity is not evidence of intra-practice unreliability, and (2) religious diversity is a fact which is silent on which of the competing religious traditions is getting things right. I dispute both of these claims.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, September 13, Richardson GS2


September 6

TITLE: Discrimination, Prejudice and Artificial Intelligence

SPEAKER: James Maclaurin (Otago) (co-authors: C. Gavaghan and A. Knott)

ABSTRACT: A common view of prejudice is that it is “a negatively charged, materially false, stereotype targeting some social group and, derivatively, the individuals that comprise this group” (Begay 2013). If artificial intelligence makes probabilistic judgements about people based on correlations in large data sets, will it be more or less prejudiced than the judges, doctors, police officers etc. who take its advice? We argue that human prejudice is not a sort of epistemic irrationality. Rather it is an insidious form of epistemic bad luck which underpins counterfactually robust implicit bias. We analyse the prospects for the development of AI designed to minimise prejudice and we consider how we might legislate against distinctively different types of prejudice in humans and in the machines we make.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, September 6, Richardson GS2


August 23

TITLE: How generative can you get? Reconstruction and autonoesis in episodic memory knowledge

SPEAKER: Kourken Michaelian (Otago)

ABSTRACT: First-order generationism is the view that, in virtue of the reconstructive character of episodic memory, retrieved memories often include information that does not derive from the subject's experience of the corresponding events. Second-order generationism is the view, in virtue of the autonoetic character of episodic memory, retrieved memories inform the subject that they originate in his experience of the corresponding events. These two views are widely endorsed in the literature on the epistemology of episodic memory, but they have seldom been brought together. Bringing them together suggests that episodic memory is in an important sense systematically misleading. The talk will ask whether episodic memory is indeed systematically misleading and, if so, what are the implications for the epistemology of episodic memory.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, August 23, Richardson GS2


August 16

TITLE: Reason the slave of the passions: what Hume meant, whether he was right, why it matters

SPEAKER: Charles Pigden (Otago)

ABSTRACT: One of the most cited sections in Hume’s Treatise is 2.3.3 ‘Of the Influencing Motives of the Will’. This is the locus for Hume’s famous claim ‘that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will’ or (more picturesquely) that ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’. From this he draws the consequence that ‘since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition’, it is ‘incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion’ What does he mean by this? What are his arguments? What part does this thesis play in his overall polemic against moral rationalism? And what is its relevance to current concerns?

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, August 16, Richardson GS2


August 9

TITLE: Ethics and Intergenerational Extortion: On "Making the Grandchildren Pay" for Climate Action

SPEAKER: Stephen Gardiner (Washington)

ABSTRACT: This paper argues (1) that extortion is a clear threat in intergenerational relations, (2) that the threat is manifest in some existing proposals in climate policy, and (3) that it is latent in some background tendencies in mainstream moral and political philosophy. It focuses on some troubling undercurrents to recent arguments in climate policy and climate ethics for “making the grandchildren pay” for climate action. It also makes the case that intergenerational extortion raises issues about the appropriate limits to the sway of central values such as welfare and distributive justice.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, August 9, Richardson GS2


July 26

TITLE: Political realism and moral microfoundations

SPEAKER: Jacob Levy (McGill)

ABSTRACT: The debates over the last decade about the "political realism" advocated by the late Bernard Williams, and his characterization of the "political moralism" that is realism's contrast concept, have been marked by persistent frustration with those categories. If realism, as WIlliams maintains, includes a theory of political normativity and legitimacy, what makes it categorically different from moralism (or, simply, morality)? This amounts to a criticism of the realist approach: it cannot successfully develop a theory of legitimacy and political normativity without running afoul of its own indictment of moralism. I suggest a new way of thinking about what it is that realism criticizes, drawing on an analogy from economics: moral microfoundations, a political normativity that is reducible to moral rules of small-scale interpersonal conduct or intrapersonal virtue. I argue that the microfoundational status of political moralism has been overlooked because of a pervasive tendency to obscure the debt that theories of justice owe to private law concepts (including, but far from being limited to, metaphorical contracts). A productive realist research agenda does not depend on the rejection of morality, or the rejection of political morality, but rather on the rejection of a morality that is genuinely reducible to such small-scale moral categories. Large-scale social facts, historical developments, and emergent phenomena cannot sensibly be legitimated on the basis of moral microfoundations; this helps make sense of the special status Williams accords The problem of legitimacy in his distinction between realism and moralism. I suggest that it also helps us make sense of the special importance of disagreement in characterizing the problem of politics as such. The result is that we can identify a need for political normativity that is meaningfully distinct from traditional justice theorizing, without getting tangled in disputes about whether and when such normativity would count as moral.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, July 26, Richardson GS2


July 19

TITLE: Transitional justice

SPEAKER: Colleen Murphy (Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

ABSTRACT: Societies emerging from periods of conflict or repression and trying to democratize characteristically try to address past wrongs using processes other than criminal punishment. There is, however, deep disagreement as to whether justice is achieved with alternate measures such as amnesty or a truth commission. What are the appropriate standards of justice to use when evaluating various responses to wrongdoing in transitional circumstances? To answer this question, I first articulate the circumstances of justice characterizing transitional societies, and contrast these with the circumstances of stable democracies. I then argue that justice in transitional circumstances is not aimed at giving perpetrators what they deserve, but rather is aimed at transforming a society in a just manner.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, July 19, Richardson GS2


July 12

TITLE: Descartes' Wax Example

SPEAKER: Michael LeBuffe (University of Otago)

ABSTRACT: So that we might arrive at genuine knowledge, Descartes's method requires us to work against the habit of relying on the senses. A natural objection to this method is that the senses are our best source of knowledge: "The most distinct knowledge we can have is the knowledge of objects that we gain in experiencing them in good conditions. For example, that this wax is yellow and cold is some of the most distinct knowledge that I have." It is natural to read the wax example, then, as a reply to this sort of objection, in which Descartes raises and then addresses common sense empiricist concerns about his method. I argue here that this natural interpretation is radically incomplete. Although the wax example does purport to show that we do not have distinct knowledge of bodies in experience, its purposes are not mainly epistemological but metaphysical: to show that body is extended, flexible, and changeable; that mind and body are distinct; and that the human mind is a substance. Each of these is a premise in an argument, which extends beyond the scope of the Meditations, to the conclusion that the human mind is immortal.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, July 12, Richardson GS2


May 31

TITLE: Substitution Failures in Plural Logic

SPEAKER: Manuel Lechthaler (University of Otago)

ABSTRACT: Plural logic is a formal framework that aims to capture the phenomena of plural terms from natural language. It has been noted that the substitution of identicals raises difficulties for such a logic. Contrary to the received view, I suggest substitution fails in plural logic because plural contexts are non-­extensional and some plural terms are non-­rigid designators. I will spell out the difficulties for the standard account and eventually compare and connect my suggestion of how to overcome substitution failures in plural logic with Ben-­Yami’s theory of Articulated Reference (2013).

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, May 31, Richardson GS2


May 24

TITLE: Where to you get your Protein? Or Biochemical Realization

SPEAKER: Tuomas E. Tahko (University of Helsinki)

ABSTRACT: Biochemical kinds such as proteins pose interesting problems for philosophers of science. They can be studied both from the point of view of biology and chemistry, but these different perspectives may result in different classificatory practices. I will examine the tension that such classificatory differences produce. The reducibility of the biological functions of biochemical kinds to the chemical structures that realize these functions is a key question here. This leads us to a more general discussion of multiple realizability and realization at the biology-chemistry interface. On the face of it, the case of biochemical kinds motivates a dual theory of chemical and biological kinds, hence a type of pluralism. But it will be argued that a dual theory is not necessary and genuine multiple realization at this interface may be rare. I conclude with a defence of natural kind monism.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, May 24, Richardson GS2


May 17

TITLE: The Development of Medieval Empiricism

SPEAKER: Greg Dawes (Otago)

ABSTRACT: Was there such a thing as medieval empiricism? Distinguishing between three kinds of empiricism -- genetic, explanatory, and justificatory -- I argue that there was. The uptake of Aristotle's thought in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries encouraged a form of genetic empiricism, which held that the (potential) intellect begins the process of cognition as a "blank slate." But this was commonly offset by an emphasis on the role of the active (agent) intellect, which was sometimes coupled with a version of the doctrine of divine illumination. During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, there emerged a more thoroughgoing empiricism. Factors favouring an empiricist attitude included the study of natural magic, the idea of intuitive cognition, and the growth of nominalism. By the mid-fourteenth century the foundations of early modern empiricism were already in place and the problems to which it would lead already evident.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, May 17, Richardson GS2


May 10

TITLE: Confucius and Kant on Ethics

SPEAKER: Ole Doering (Freie Universität Berlin)

ABSTRACT: This talk will introduce an ongoing project to engage the philosophical methodologies from Kantian and Confucian core theories. Kant's Transzendental-Ethics and the Two-Fold Epistemology in the Classical works, Daxue and Zhongyong, will be described as supporting a practical teleology that stimulates intellectual creativity and moral resolve, while also cultivating the capabilities to address challenges of human lives. The talk will argue that, based on a revised understanding of Confucius and Kant, development is possible towards an integrated system of epistemic and practical integrity.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, May 10, Richardson GS2


May 3

TITLE: The self-supervenience of well-being

SPEAKER: Andrew Moore (Otago)

ABSTRACT: The self-supervenience thesis (SST) is that there is difference in one's well-being only if there is difference in one's being. This paper argues that: (1) various 'experience requirement', 'sentience requirement', and 'body or mind' requirement theses are ambitious expressions of SST, (2) consistency with SST is desirable, and inconsistency with SST is undesirable, in any theory of well-being, and (3) some leading theories of well-being have this desirable feature, but others have the related undesirable feature.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, May 3, Richardson GS2


April 26

TITLE: Ordinary paradox

SPEAKER: Zach Weber (Otago)

ABSTRACT: In the face of logical paradoxes, one proposal due to Priest and Routley is to accept that there are true contradictions—dialetheism. A persistent criticism of this approach, called the "just true” problem, is that if we accept some true propositions are also false, then it becomes impossible to say that any proposition is only true, and not also false. I will present a reply to this and related problems, by providing a more general account of what the paradoxes are when understood through a completely non-classical framework.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, April 26, Richardson GS2


April 12

TITLE: Hare, Disagreement, and Normativism about Meaning

SPEAKER: Jon Keyzer (Otago)

ABSTRACT: In recent history, some philosophers have attempted to use our intuitions about certain cases of moral disagreement as evidence for their metaethical views. Some notable works in which this argumentative strategy appears include Horgan and Timmons (1992) and Smith (1994). More recently, critics have attempted to dissect and question the plausibility of the strategy (cf. Chalmers 2011, Plunkett and Sundell 2013). I look at perhaps the most classic example of an argument of this kind, from R.M. Hare’s The Language of Morals (1952), and evaluate whether a semantic analogue of this argument, pioneered in Gibbard (2012), can be successfully deployed in the philosophy of language. According to Gibbard, a semantic analogue of Hare’s argument supports the view that MEANING is a normative concept, and thus that the meaning-ascribing predicate ‘means’ shares a similar normative status as moral predicates like ‘good’. In this talk, I defend the idea that an analogue of Hare’s argument can be successfully applied in the meaning case from one recent objection, advanced in Baker (2016).

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, April 12, Richardson GS2


April 5

TITLE: Are there global collective duties?

SPEAKER: Anne Schwenkenbecher (Murdoch University)

ABSTRACT: Many scholars have argued that large-scale global problems such as poverty and climate change trigger a collective duty held by the global affluent or humanity as such. But in doing so, they have employed very different notions of ‘collective duties’ and ‘collective agency’ – some of which are more plausible than others. This paper attempts to answer the question: In what sense – if any – can duties to combat global moral challenges be considered collective? This argument is meant to compliment the view that group agents such as states, supranational institutions and international organisations must primarily address such problems. The question this paper asks is what kind of duty ordinary citizens hold while those institutional agents fail to solve global challenges like poverty and climate change, and given the fact that collectively we can make a difference to either problem. That we do have some such duty is beyond doubt, however, construing duties as collective is often thought to help avoid collective action dilemmas and other moral impasses. But is this a legitimate move?

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, April 5, Richardson GS2


March 29

TITLE: Filling duty gaps

SPEAKER: Stephanie Collins (University of Manchester)

ABSTRACT: A duty gap arises when a group has caused harm that requires remedying, but no member did harm that can justify the imposition of individual remedial duties. Examples range from climate change to aeroplane crashes. This paper starts by examining two recent proposals for filling duty gaps. I argue that both proposals covertly require individuals to ‘take up the slack’ for others’ actions or inactions. This raises the question of whether such slack-taking duties can be justified. I argue that this question can’t even get off the ground in non-agent groups (such as the affluent, the polluters, or the international community), though it can in group agents (such as states, corporations, and non-profits). This is because slack-taking is a category error in non-agent groups, but is not a category error in group agents. And, worse, in both agent and non-agent groups, we need a positive justification for gap-filling duties (whether or not they are conceived of as slack-taking duties). I argue that this positive justification lies in the normative force of commitments individuals make, to others, to ends. Applying this to both agent and non-agent groups, the result is that many, but probably not all, duty gaps can be filled.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, March 29, Richardson GS2


March 15

TITLE: Rational Meta-ethics

SPEAKER: Professor Shaun Nicols (Department of Philosophy, University of Arizona)

ABSTRACT: Recent work indicates that people think that some moral claims are objectively true and others are only relatively true. Furthermore, there is a correlation between judgements of objectivity and the extent to which the claim is regarded as widely accepted. When there is high consensus about a moral claim, people tend to think that it’s objectively true. In this paper, I’ll argue for a rationalist account of this phenomenon. People take high consensus as evidence for objectivity, and they take low consensus as evidence for relativism. I argue that these judgements are appropriate given standard principles of probabilistic inference.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, March 15, Richardson GS2


March 8

TITLE: What kind of program is a genetic program?

SPEAKER: Dr Brett Calcott (Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney)

ABSTRACT: Do genes resemble a computer program? The idea is commonly expressed in both the popular press and in biological journals. Yet a number of philosophers and biologists have argued that, once we understand how genes work, they are not at all alike, and that thinking of genes as a program is misleading and even harmful to research. I shall argue that there is much more to the analogy than is commonly supposed once we upgrade our view of what a program is. For despite a sophisticated discussion of genes, the debates continue to draw on a limited view of what programs are and how they work. I draw on ideas from modern software architecture to broaden our conception of a program, and outline three key changes to the way we think about programs that can clarify the link between genes and programs. Focusing on these issues explains why the analogy is so persistent, shows how programs have some of the very properties they been accused of lacking, and connects the debate to recent work on causal specificity.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, March 8, Richardson GS2


March 1

TITLE: Justice, Paradox and Values: Some Investigations in AI & Philosophy

SPEAKER: Professor Jeremy Pitt (Imperial College London)

ABSTRACT: In earlier work, we responded to the problem of resource allocation in open systems with a solution based on the formalization (in computational logic) of Elinor Ostrom’s eight design principles. That earlier work also provides foundations for several inter-disciplinary research directions in Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy and Law. Those discussed in this paper are: computational justice (the attempt to implement some form of ‘correctness’ in algorithmic decision-making and deliberation); the paradox of self-amendment concerning ‘Suber’s Thesis’ that any rule-based system allowing unrestricted self-modification ends in paradox; and computational axiology, how qualitative human values should be understood, represented, reasoned with, preserved and generated by technology (without commodification or monetisation). At the end of the talk I also discuss the convergence of justice and values in the consideration of “democracy”.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11:00-12:30, March 1, Richardson GS2