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Programme seminar series (2020): abstracts

September 30

TITLE: The Collective Implications of Discrete Decisions

SPEAKER: Lisa Ellis (Otago)

ABSTRACT: Isolated decisions, even isolated decisions made with high-quality procedures coordinating well-intentioned participants, sometimes produce outcomes that none of the participants would have endorsed. Without a mechanism to ensure that the collective implications of fragmented series of uncoordinated decisions are taken into account, it is all too easy to think we are making good choices all along, and later wonder how we failed to realize our intentions. Environmental policies provide multiple examples of this kind of dysfunctional decision-making: in species conservation, emissions reduction, and adaptation to sea-level rise, among many other areas, we see series and collections of discrete decisions producing wildly suboptimal outcomes. In this paper, I analyze some examples of decision failure in environmental policy, and I suggest some practices that might improve things.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, September 30, Richardson GS2

September 23

TITLE: Towards a Practice-Based Pluralist Theory of (Cultural) Knowledge

SPEAKER: Greg Dawes (Otago)

ABSTRACT: Are we likely to encounter or hear from extraterrestrial intelligent beings? No, we are not. One reason is that they are unlikely to have developed a science like ours, that would allow for interplanetary travel or communication. But does this matter? Wouldn’t any science, no matter how alien its starting point, eventually discover the same laws of nature? No, it would not. To defend this claim, I outline the elements of a practice-based, pluralist theory of (cultural) knowledge. This holds that the representations by which we know the world are shaped by the practices in which they are embedded: by their goals, their historical context, their character, and their target domain. So there is no reason to believe that terrestrial and extraterrestrial sciences would converge.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, September 23, St David A.

September 16

TITLE: Metaphysical and Epistemological Scepticism in Kripke’s Wittgenstein

SPEAKER: Alex Miller (Otago)

ABSTRACT: In her recent (2018) paper “Leaps in the Dark: Epistemological Scepticism in Kripke’s Wittgenstein”, Hannah Ginsborg develops a stimulating new interpretation of Kripke’s Wittgenstein’s discussion of meaning and rule-following according to which Kripke’s sceptic’s argument is more fundamentally epistemological in character than is acknowledged in standard interpretations of Kripke’s book. According to the standard interpretation, the argument of the sceptic in chapter 2 of *Wittgenstein and Rules and Private Language* is, although formulated in epistemological terms, fundamentally metaphysical or constitutive and thereby to be distinguished from the type of sceptical argument in e.g. the first of Descartes’ *Meditations*. In this presentation, I will defend the standard interpretation of Kripke’s sceptic’s argument against Ginsborg’s objections, and (time permitting) may venture some criticisms of Ginsborg’s claim that a notion of primitive normativity can be deployed to undermine the argument of the epistemological sceptic as she conceives it.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, September 16, St David A.

September 9

TITLE: An Analysis of Irrationality: Locke's Epistemology of Partisan Belief

SPEAKER: Mark Boespflug (Otago)

ABSTRACT: John Locke's concern with partisan belief was positively central to his philosophy. He viewed the political and religious strife of 17th century Europe into which he was born to be largely a product of irrational commitments to certain popular positons. His treatment of partisan belief pervades not only his magnum opus the Essay, but also his lesser works on politics. Locke's critique of partisan irrationality is, however, problematized by his commitment to belief not being under the direct voluntary control of the will--his doxastic involuntarism. In this talk, I show how Locke understood partisan irrationality to be, nonetheless, susceptible to deontological critique, while at the same time maintaining his commitment to doxastic involuntarism.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, September 9, in Richardson GS2, (Mark presenting via Zoom).

September 2

TITLE: Conscientious Objection and the Priority Thesis

SPEAKER: Steve Clarke (Charles Sturt University)

ABSTRACT: A lively debate is taking place regarding the ethics of accommodating conscientious objections in publicly funded healthcare systems. Mark R. Wicclair has introduced a taxonomy of the various different positions that have been articulated in this debate, and it has been influential. Here I identify and argue for a new position that is not captured by Wicclair’s taxonomy. I’ll refer to this position as ‘the priority thesis’. I’ll demonstrate that there are compelling reasons to accept the priority thesis and I’ll further demonstrate that some of the participants in the debate about the ethics of accommodating conscientious objections in publicly funded healthcare systems, who have been identified as proponents of one of the positions in Wicclair’s taxonomy, his “incompatibility thesis”, offer arguments that are better described as instances of the priority thesis. I’ll also identify three sets of circumstances in which conscientious objections should be accommodated, according to the priority thesis.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, September 2, in Richardson GS2, (Steve presenting via Zoom).

August 19

TITLE: What is it like to be a bot?

SPEAKER: James Maclaurin (Otago)

ABSTRACT: New Zealand’s animal welfare legislation reflects the fact that we, like many many other countries, accord moral status to a wide variety of non-human animals. This raises the question of whether we might at some point have to accord weak artificial intelligence some sort of limited moral status. A recent proposal from John Danaher and Rob Sparrow suggests we deploy an ethical equivalent of the Turing test. This paper analyses the idea of ethical behaviour and argues that the proposed test is fundamentally ill-suited to detecting moral status in entities with simple mental and emotional lives.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, August 19, via Zoom (not in-person; link available via email to

August 12

TITLE: What ethical values best inform our response to a pandemic?

SPEAKER: Andrew Moore (Otago; Chair of NEAC 2002 - 2010)

ABSTRACT: In 2007, the National Ethics Advisory Committee (NEAC) offered the Minister of Health and the public of its day a nationally and internationally recognised answer to the above question. It did so through: Getting Through Together: ethical values for a pandemic (Wellington: Ministry of Health). This talk informally assesses NEAC's answer in the light of current responses to Covid-19, and vice versa.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, August 12, via Zoom (not in-person).

July 29

TITLE: Making Memories Together: Why Social Epistemologists Should Care About Memory

SPEAKER: Chloe Wall (Victoria UoW)

ABSTRACT: Social epistemology takes as its starting point the claim that (at least some) knowledge is not individual, but social. However, to the extent that epistemologists have accepted this claim, they have not done so for memory, instead opting to deal primarily with testimony when conducting social epistemology. One reason for this trend is that testimony is unlike other sources of knowledge because the resultant beliefs are dependent on the mental operations of another person, and so are obviously social. Yet, there is convincing empirical evidence that memory is susceptible to social influence, and, like testimony, turns out to be dependent on the mental operations of others. Thus, in this talk, I argue that social epistemologists ought to think more broadly than testimony: they ought to take memory seriously as a social source of knowledge. I show that at least some of the epistemological considerations that pertain to testimony ought to be applied mutatis mutandis to memory. Finally, I suggest some new directions for the social epistemology of memory.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, July 29, in Richardson GS2.

July 22

TITLE: Causality and the Solipsistic Prison

SPEAKER: Charles Pigden (Otago)

ABSTRACT: ‘But now [the universe] has shrunk to be no more than my own reflection in the windows of the soul through which I look out upon the night of nothingness. The revolutions of nebulae, the birth and death of stars, are no more than convenient fictions in the trivial work of linking together my own sensations, and perhaps those of other men not much better than myself. There is no splendour, no vastness, anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing. Why live in such a world? Why even die?’ (Autobiography ch. 11 p. 393).

Three doctrines confined Russell to his solipsistic prison: a) the Fundamental Principle, ‘that [the] sentences we can understand must [ultimately] be composed of words with whose meaning we are acquainted’ b) the idea that we only perceive our own perceptions (sense-data), and c) the Logical Atomist principle that we should substitute logical constructions for inferred entities. I take it that the basic project of his later philosophy is to escape the prison by retaining a) and b) but dropping principle c). I argue that he has to drop either a) or b) as well.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, July 22, in Richardson GS2.

July 8

TITLE: New proofs with old tools

SPEAKER: Zach Weber (Otago)

Joint work with Guillermo Badia (University of Queensland) and Patrick Girard (University of Auckland)

ABSTRACT: In his PhD thesis in 1929, Kurt Gödel (at the age of 23) proved the completeness of classical first-order logic. He used a `low-tech’ argument, introduced a few years earlier by Löwenheim and Skolem. Later elaborations of Gödel's result used increasingly `high-tech’ tools, that are now more familiar to logicians. In this talk, we are interested in proving the completeness of a non-classical first-order logic—and proving it by only non-classical means. We argue that this can be done, but only if we return to the original `low tech’ methods. I will focus on the motivations for trying to solve this newfangled problem, and the philosophical questions that arise from its surprisingly old-fashioned solution.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, July 8, in Richardson GS2.

May 27

TITLE: Moral obligations to future generations and the non-identity problem

SPEAKER: Heather Dyke (Otago)

Concern about climate change, rising sea levels, and depletion of the planet’s resources is often expressed in terms of our obligations to future generations. But to whom are these obligations owed? Since future individuals do not now exist, and relations such as ‘owing a moral obligation to’ must obtain between existing individuals, there is a prima facie obstacle to the attribution of these moral obligations. It has been argued that this problem can be resolved if we adopt an eternalist temporal ontology. Future individuals do not now exist, but they tenselessly exist, so they are capable of possessing rights and being owed obligations. I argue that this solution fails for reasons to do with Parfit’s non-identity problem. How can my action harm someone who, had I acted differently, would never have come to exist? I follow Annette Baier and argue that we should think of rights and obligations as possessed by people, not in virtue of their unique individuality, but in virtue of the roles they fill. I argue that this approach can account for our obligations to future generations, and that it does not, like the eternalist approach, succumb to the non-identity problem.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, May 27 (virtual online seminar).

May 13

TITLE: Faith in Science, Science without Scientia and the Social Epistemology of Scientific Belief

SPEAKER: Mark Boespflug (Otago)

From Augustine to Hume, faith has been understood to extend beyond religious belief to believing many kinds of things that one does not see to be the case for oneself on the basis of the testimony of an authority. On this conception of faith, I argue that almost all of our scientific beliefs qualify as an exercise of faith. Now faith has often been understood to involve a serious epistemic violation: namely, believing with a degree of credence that outstrips, or is disproportionate to, one’s evidence. I clarify the nature of this objection as it developed out of conceptions of faith and scientia (or knowledge in the most strict sense) dominant from the 13th to 17th century. I, then, explore whether the objection has any purchase on our scientific beliefs. I find that it does have considerable purchase on some of our rather important scientific beliefs. It must be mentioned that this is not to cast doubt on those beliefs, but rather to highlight a puzzle in social epistemology: namely, that while scientific beliefs seem to be epistemically good or rational beliefs, they nevertheless appear to be subject to a rather serious epistemic indictment.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, May 13 (virtual online seminar).

April 29

TITLE: Acting Well: A Leibnizian Account

SPEAKER: Michael LeBuffe (Otago)

An agent who acts well does so regardless of whether she attains her end in acting. The most familiar defender of this basic principle of normative ethics explains acting well in terms of autonomy and deontology. In a good will, Kant argues, an agent adheres to a law that she gives herself without compromising herself by the consideration of anything else that she might value or desire; such adherence gives the action value even if it is inefficacious. This use of autonomy and deontology is a weakness in Kant's ethics because it is an explanation of a clear principle with broad appeal by means of further theses that are obscure and controversial. In this presentation, I develop and recommend an account of acting well in Kant's predecessor, Leibniz, that also vindicates the basic principle but that is free of such commitments. Taking the utterly singular action of God's creation of the world as a model, Leibniz suggests that an agent acts well in a given circumstance to the extent that she considers her alternatives appropriately and pursues value in one of them. Emphasis on differences among agents and circumstances, I argue, is a strength of the Leibnizian account. In a conclusion I consider the extent to which such a particularized view of acting well can accommodate now complementary further commitments to autonomy and deontology.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, April 29 (virtual online seminar).

March 11

TITLE: How do we fix mathematical language if the universe has too many objects? (Joint work with Chris Menzel)

SPEAKER: Guillermo Badia (U of Queensland)

ABSTRACT: In the 1990s, Vann McGee showed that if the ordinary things in the universe (such as cows, koalas, coffee machines, etc.) are not "too many", then there is a unique way in which the world of mathematics is structured. This notion of "not too many" is cashed out in terms of the collection being a set, in contrast to a plurality without a definite size. Famously, in David Lewis' metaphysics, there are too many things around, too many to be counted in a consistent manner. So the question arises: can we fix the structure of mathematical reality in a Lewisean world?In this talk, we'll discuss the possibility of extending Vann McGee's arguments to this context, while keeping the world hopefully consistent.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, March 11, in Richardson GS2.

March 4

TITLE: Sidgwick, Moore and Supervenience: The Metaphysics of Robust Moral Realism

SPEAKER: Charles Pigden (Otago)

ABSTRACT: G.E Moore thought that it was logically or conceptually possible that Sidgwick might be right: that nothing might be good in itself besides pleasurable states of consciousness. He thought this despite his belief that it was in some sense necessary that unobserved beauties were good and observed beauties even better. He also thought that it was conceptually necessary that if Sidgwick were right he would be necessarily right , that if only pleasurable states of consciousness were good it would be some sort of necessity that that only pleasurable states of consciousness were good . These views are difficult to reconcile with common conceptions of supervenience. I also argue that Moore’s moral epistemology commits him to something like Platonism including the thesis that what ought to be can have a causal influence on what is. Nihilistic arguments for Queerness and Impotence beckon.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, March 4, in Richardson GS2.

February 26

TITLE: Aspects of Maori philosophy

SPEAKER: Carl Mika (Waikato)

ABSTRACT: In this presentation I consider the term ‘whakaaro’ and its relationship to thought and existence for Maori. Whakaaro, usually translated as ‘thought’ or ‘to think’, has to it a prior sense of inclination or drive, which has implications for how we philosophise. Emotion and uncertainty, for instance, would be privileged in how we represent things.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, February 26, in Richardson GS2.