June 20, 2014

Leukemia sufferer needs a South Asian male, ages 17-35, as a stem-cell donor

My friend the philosopher Andrew Sepielli (Toronto) asked me to share this information about a family friend in need of help. If you fit the profile, or know someone who does, please take a moment to click the link. (There...

Tim Crane interviews John Searle

Here. (Thanks to Rik Hine for the pointer.) An excerpt: TC: You started your career at one of the high points of English-speaking, analytic, Anglophone philosophy. What’s your view of the state of philosophy at the moment? JS: I think...

June 17, 2014

JESP Discussions at PEA Soup: Daniel Whiting's "Keep Things in Perspective: Reasons, Rationality and the A Priori" with a Critical Précis from Errol Lord

My apologies for the slight delay - we thought it would be nice to give some extra time for Nomy Arpaly's wonderful post about moral concerns and praiseworthiness (and I hope that the discussion of that post will still continue). In any case, I'm delighted that we can now start our first Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy discussion. It will be on Daniel Whiting's (Southampton) brilliant paper "Keep Things in Perspective: Reasons, Rationality and the a Priori". To kick things off, here's Errol Lord's (Franklin & Marshall College/University of Pennsylvania) equally helpful critical intro to Daniel's paper.

Daniel's goal in this paper is to explicate and motivate a new theory of subjective reasons. He does in the service of indirectly defending a particular theory of rationality. According to this theory, what is rational is determined by one's subjective reasons. As Daniel notes, this theory of rationality has been prominently defended by Derek Parfit, Mark Schroeder, and Jonathan Way.

Daniel starts with the popular idea that normative reasons are provided by the facts--call this view factualism. It's plausible that factualism makes the troubling prediction that what we have most normative reason to do and what it is rational to do come apart. This will happen whenever reality and our perspective on reality come apart. To use Daniel's example, suppose that Holly knows that snow is likely today. She looks out the window and it appears to be snowing. She thus puts on winter clothes. As it happens, it is a warm sunny day outside. It seems like Holly is rational in putting on winter clothes, but it's also plausible she has no normative reason to put them on.

This motivates the idea that what it is rational to do is not determined by the facts, but rather by one's perspective on the facts. This in turn motivates the distinction between objective normative reasons and subjective normative reasons. Objective reasons are provided by the facts; subjective reasons are provided by one's perspective on the facts. If what it is rational to do is determined by one's subjective reasons, which are in turn determined by one's perspective, then it's plausible that Holly is rational to put on winter clothes.

Most theories of subjective reasons attempt to understand subjective reasons in terms of objective reasons. The natural idea is that the subjective reasons are the objective reasons that are entailed by one's perspective. By holding a view of this kind, the factualist has an of answer (of sorts) to the troubling prediction above. Although it's true that what one has most objective reason to do can come apart from what it is rational to do, there is still a (relatively) tight connection between what it is rational to do and objective reasons. This is because what it is rational to do is determined by one's subjective reasons and these are understood in terms of objective reasons.

This leads us to the heart of the paper. Daniel starts by considering the type of analysis that has dominated discussion in the literature. This is the counterfactual analysis. The basic idea is that the contents of one's beliefs provide subjective reasons if it is true that were those contents true, they would provide objective reasons. There are various ways of making this more precise. Daniel starts by considering (C):

(C) A subject has a subjective reason to x if and only if, were what she believes true, it would give her an objective reason to x (6).

Daniel mentions and puts aside the worry that one's beliefs do not provide subjective reasons when they are irrational. He puts this worry aside by qualifying (C) (and future analyses) so that only rational beliefs can provide subjective reasons. He points out that this blocks one from providing a reductive account of rationality in terms of subjective reasons. He sets this aside by pointing out that one needn't have reductive ambitions to sign on to a subjective reasons based account of rationality (more on this below).

Daniel then moves onto a more serious worry for (C). Consider Keanu: 'Keanu believes that there is a bomb on the bus with a timer counting down and the only way to leave the bus is by jumping through the window, though he is aware that he will hurt himself in doing so' (7). It's plausible that Keanu has subjective reason to jump. But now suppose that, unbeknownst to Keanu, the bomb is poorly wired and will not detonate. This fact undercuts the objective reason that would otherwise be provided by the fact that there is a bomb on the bus-- i.e., it makes it the case that the fact that there is a bomb is not a reason to jump. So Keanu has true beliefs that do not provide objective reasons. So they can't provide subjective reasons if (C) is true. This is a bad prediction.

After considering some possible responses and persuasively refuting them, Daniel suggests a better way. This is (C*):

(C*) A subject has subjective reason to x if and only if, were the facts of the situation as they appear to be, those facts would give her an objective reason to x.

The key thought behind (C*) is that not only should what you believe count in determining what you have subjective reason to do, what you \emph{don't} believe should also count. (C*) fleshes this out by way of the notion of how the world appears to be from your perspective. In the Keanu case, since Keanu has no beliefs about disabling conditions, it appears to him that the bomb will explode. This is why his beliefs provide subjective reasons to jump.

With (C*) in hand, Daniel turns to providing counterexamples to any counterfactual analysis. Before we get to these cases, it's important to point out that in order for the counterexamples to work, it has to be that counterfactuals with necessarily false antecedents are true. I'll grant this for the sake of argument.

Daniel starts by considering a case where one has inconsistent beliefs. When this happens, there is no metaphysically possible world where the world is the way it appears to be from the agent's perspective. It follows from (C*) that one has subjective reason to do everything and anything. This is a bad prediction.

One might think this type of problem can be solved by qualifying (C*) so that it only applies to consistent sets of beliefs. While this is tempting, it won't do. This is because one can have consistent sets of beliefs that nevertheless cannot be true in any metaphysically possible world. Consider this case: 'Mary believes Peter is Superman, that the world can only be saved by Superman, that Superman is fatally allergic to kryptonite and that Peter is wearing a kryptonite necklace' (9). It's plausible that Mary has a subjective reason to remove the necklace and has no subjective reason to leave it on. But (C*) predicts she does have a reason to leave it on. This is because there are no metaphysically possible worlds where the world is as it appears to her to be. This is the wrong result.

Daniel's diagnosis of what is going wrong with the counterfactual analyses is that they hold one's subjective reasons hostage to facts that are potentially outside of one's perspective. This is true of Keanu, whose subjective reasons are held hostage to undercutting defeaters outside of his perspective. It is also true in a way for Mary, whose subjective reasons are held hostage to facts about superheroes that are outside of her perspective. More generally, 'what is metaphysically possible, unlike what is rational, is not shaped or determined by a subject's perspective' (11).

This leads to Daniel's positive proposal. The key idea is that instead of understanding subjective reasons in terms of what is metaphysically possible, we should understand them in terms of what is epistemically possible. He fleshes this out with (E):

(E) A subject has a subjective reason to x if and only if it is a priori that, if the facts of the situation are as they appear to her to be, those facts give her an objective reason to x.

(E) replaces (C)/(C*)'s subjunctive conditional with an indicative conditional. The indicative conditional is tied to epistemic possibility. The idea behind (E) is that we consider the epistemic possibility of the world being as it appears to the subject to be. We then see if it follows a priori that facts in that world provide objective reasons to do certain things. If they do, then one has subjective reasons to do those things.

(E) is not complete without some additions regarding the a priori. Daniel holds that it needn't actually be known a priori that the facts provide objective reasons. It just has to be knowable a priori. For whom? This is a choice point for those who accept (E). Daniel seems to prefer the view that it must be knowable a priori for the subject referred to in the left-hand side. To bring it back to Mary, Daniel holds that it is knowable a priori for Mary that, if the facts are as they appear to be from her perspective, they provide objective reasons to take the necklace off of Peter.

Before some critical discussion, let me quickly mention two advantages Daniel highlights. First, the account 'dovetails straightforwardly with the plausible idea that knowledge of reasons-relations is a priori' (14). Second, 'the account promises to deliver more fine-grained judgments of rationality than counterfactual analyses of subjective reasons' (ibid). This is because of the relativity of what is knowable a priori. Agents with better normative reasoning skills will have different subjective reasons than those with worse reasoning skills. This will be an advantage in some cases.

I'll start my critical comments with this last point. I think there are at least two worries that can be brought out by thinking about Daniel's discussion of the relativity of (E). First, it's not clear what it is about the counterfactual analysis that precludes building in a knowability condition. Daniel's account has two innovations. The first is moving from the subjunctive to the indicative. The second is building in the knowability condition. But the counterfactual analysis could build in the knowability condition. One could hold that A has a subjective reason to x if and only if were the facts of the world as they appear to be, it would be knowable a priori that the facts provide objective reason to x. This would allow the counterfactual theorist to profit from the same advantages as (E) does when it comes to the relativity of the account. (It would also allow the counterfactual theorist to explain some hard cases.)

That said, I think the relativity point is a double edged sword. If Daniel ends up adopting the view that the agent for whom the facts about objective reasons must be knowable is the agent herself, it seems to follow that in order to have subjective reasons at all, one needs to have the concept <objective reason>. This is because it's plausible that for p to be knowable for A, A must be able to believe p. And in order to believe p, one must have the concepts involved with p. <objective reason> is a philosophers' concept. Although I think the folk is familiar with and often sensitive to objective reasons, most are not conceptually sophisticated enough to have explicit thoughts about such things. In any case, it would be surprising to me if it turned out that having this concept was a necessary condition for it being the case that one can be rationally required to do anything.

Another way to think of this objection is that while it is plausible that what is rationally required is constrained by some of our abilities, it is not clear that it is constrained by our abilities to reason about which facts are normative facts. To help bring this out, consider Bob. Bob is pretty good at thinking about the descriptive facts and moving from those to sensible actions and beliefs. But Bob is not a very good reasoner when it comes to the normative facts. Perhaps one of the sisters at his catholic primary school would constantly berate him when the class worked on normative reasoning. This has caused a kind of psychological block in Bob. He gets all muddled up when he starts reasoning about the normative facts. Consequently, he is just not capable (in some sense of 'capable') of making the inferences required to get knowledge about the objective reasons. Does this mean that the fact that his wife would like some chocolate is not a subjective reason for Bob to get her some? Does it mean his act of getting her some chocolate is not made rational by this consideration when he moves from a thought about what his wife likes to getting her some chocolate? This doesn't seem right to me. It seems to me that while the good sister made Bob a bad reasoner about the normative, she didn't make it the case that he cannot have subjective reasons.

These objections have, of course, been assuming various things about knowability. Daniel might not subscribe to these things, in which case this is an invitation for him to say more about knowability.

I'll close with two shorter worries. Daniel wonders on page 16 whether his account is vulnerable to the type of explosion problem he levels against (C) and (C*). To cut to the chase, if it's possible for some agent A to (i) rationally believe p and rationally believe some proposition q that is inconsistent with p and (ii) know a priori that this inconsistency exists, then it seems (E) will generate the result that in this case A has reason to do everything and anything. Daniel argues that whenever (i) is met (ii) is not and that whenever (ii) is met (i) is not. I'm not so sure.

Consider Vlad. Vlad is a professional mathematician. He, along with most professional mathematicians, believes p and q. We can assume that p has been proven and that q-- which is about an area that seems to nearly all to be quite distant from the area that p concerns--is highly likely given other things that have been proven. So it looks like Vlad rationally believes p and rationally believes q. It turns out that p and q are inconsistent. Vlad happens to working on a proof of something that, together with some other proven results, will prove not-q. He has not seen the connection yet, but once the proof he is working on goes through, he will be able to get to not-q relatively easily. It seems to me that (i) and (ii) are met in this case. Vlad now rationally believes p and rationally believes q. But the inconsistency of p and q is knowable a priori for Vlad. Indeed, within the next month he will come to know a priori that p and q are inconsistent. It does not follow that everything and anything is rational for Vlad.

I'll close with a worry that Daniel mentions at the end. As I said above, early on Daniel builds in the constraint that only rational beliefs go into determining one's perspective. This makes his account of practical rationality circular in a sense. 'Rational' will appear on both the left and the right hand side. Still, as he points out, 'rational action' will not be fleshed out in terms of 'rational action.' Moreover, one needn't have 'reductive ambitions' in order to be interested in this account. Fair enough.

That said, I think that at the end of the day those pursuing this type of account should try everything they can to avoid the rational belief constraint (Mark Schroeder has already done quite a lot of work on this score). Nearly all of the motivations for understanding practical rationality in terms of subjective reasons will apply mutatis mutandis to epistemic rationality. But Daniel cannot be so sanguine about understanding epistemic rationality in terms of subjective reasons if he sticks to the rational belief constraint. For if you build in the same constraint into an account of epistemic rationality, then the account will be viciously circular. Not even those who lack reductive ambitions will want to have anything to do with it.

To be clear, I took Daniel's imposition of the rational belief constraint to be something like a simplifying assumption. This is fine for this particular paper. Daniel provides quite enough innovation in this paper to justify the simplifying assumption. So, again, I raise this issue in the spirit of drawing a bit more out of Daniel. If his replies are anything near the quality of this paper (as I'm confident they will be), then they will be very interesting indeed.

Errol Lord

June 15, 2014

Moral Concern De Dicto (Again)

Consider the following case:

Immanuel concludes that he must never lie – not even to save a life. Then a would-be-murderer shows up, asking after Gotlieb’s whereabouts. Immanuel, though quite tormented, lies to save Gotlieb. Immanuel believes he did wrong, but feels guiltily relieved, as he cares about human lives at least as much as you and I do, weird views about morality not withstanding. That is why he lied in the first place.

In the past, I have argued that someone like Immanuel – the sort of agent I labeled an Inverse Akratic many years ago – is praiseworthy for her action in so far as it is true that she acted for good moral reasons, even if she doesn’t think they are good moral reasons. In other words, in so far as she is motivated by the right-making features of her action. I emphasized the following: a good person acts for praise-conferring motives, but a good person does not have to have a true ethical theory or even be a good ethicist. To be praiseworthy for an action you need to do it for the sake of the right or the good - de re. I thus defended, among others, Huckleberry Finn and some rather kind young people who espouse Ayn Rand’s views. Here is one question that I get a lot:

“Ok, it’s praiseworthy to follow morality de re. But doesn’t one also get at least some moral credit for caring about morality de dicto? Not even a little bit?”. Relatedly, I get “isn’t Immanuel’s conscience also a good thing about him?”

 My answer to the second question is: yes, a modestly good thing (I’ll get there in a moment). However, my answer to the first question is: no. We can’t have it both ways. If caring about the right de re confers praiseworthiness then caring about the right de dicto doesn’t.

An analogy: suppose that to have good taste in novels you have to like good novels for their good-making features. Imagine someone who likes Redeeming Love. Why? Because it’s good, she says. What makes it good? It has a heartwarming Christian message and it expresses strong emotions.Isn't that what makes books good? This person has terrible taste (and if she likes Crime and Punishment for the same reasons, it doesn’t speak well of her taste either). Consider an Ayn Rand fan motivated to close a ruthless business deal. Why? Because it’s moral, he says. What makes it moral? It promotes the agent’s self interest.Isn't that what makes things moral? I think the moral case is analogous to the aesthetic case. This person is not well-motivated. If she saves a life for the same reason, it does not speak well of her.

Why does it often seem as if the very action of deliberating about the question “what is the right thing to do?” speaks well of the agent?

Immanuel deserves some kind of moral credit for what prompted his moral deliberation: roughly, caring about truthfulness, a consideration relevant to morality for real. Huck is more complicated: he is tormented by concern for Miss Watson’s imaginary rights over her slave. But this misguided torment is indicative of concern for real property rights. Unlike those whose motivation to return a slave was anger at the “uppity” slave, Huck is confused because he was told that helping a slave escape is stealing and he is averse to stealing – in itself a good thing. People who ask themselves “what is the right thing to do?” often start asking and deliberating because something morally relevant (for real) bothers them. They wonder, say, whether to tell someone his spouse is cheating - displaying concern for both truthfulness and another person’s wellbeing. They wonder whether they may have an abortion - because they treat killing seriously. All of these concerns are morally relevant and praiseworthiness-conferring. There is no value to moral fetishism (to use Michael Smith's term) -  but a real live moral fetishist is hard to find.

The less a person’s act of deliberating on the question “what is the right thing to do?” comes from morally relevant concerns, the less praiseworthy it is. Consider again the case of Gwendolyn, tempted to secretly lose her virginity with the man she promised to marry in two months. She asks herself “would it be morally wrong?” and thus torments herself. Why? Because having such sex might be slutty. Concern with not being a slut does not speak particularly well of anyone. Gwendolyn is a borderline case of moral deliberation. A person who suspects he is vicious simply because he lacks wit, say, isn’t concerned with morality anymore (or, in the case of Aristotle, isn’t concerned with morality yet). Wit is just too far removed from the right-making features of actions and the good-making features of people. Some people have metaethical reasons to object to my view here.

Still working. Contemplating the relationship between this and infamous moral ignorance cases. Would love to hear from you.

June 14, 2014

Wisconsin Metaethics Program


Wow, another must-see program at Madison. Congrats to PEA Soup's own Janice Dowell on winning the Marc Sanders prize!

This program (below the fold) and the rest of the info at the usual web site.



9am – 10:15am AGNES CALLARD (University of Chicago)
                         Proleptic Reasons 
                             Chair: David Faraci (UNC) 

10:45am – Noon ANDREW SEPIELLI (Toronto)
                          Moral Realism without Moral Metaphysics
                             Chair: Annette Bryson (Michigan)

1:45pm – 3pm JENNIFER HAWKINS (Duke)
                           Internalism and Prudential Value
                              Chair: Brad Cokelet (Miami)

3:30 – 4:45pm JANICE DOWELL (Syracuse)
                            Millikan, Metasemantics, and Moral Twin Earth
                            **WINNER, Marc Sanders Prize in Metaethics** 
                               Chair: Terence Cuneo (Vermont)

5:15pm – 6:30pm GRAHAM ODDIE (Colorado)
                            Fitting Attitudes, Value Bearers, and Solitary Goods 
                                Chair: Carlos Núñez (Stanford)

8pm – 11pm DRINKS PARTY
                        Memorial Union (room TBA)
                        No registration required; cash bar


9am – 10:15am ALEXANDRA PLAKIAS (Hamilton College)
                         Debunking, Diversity, and Doubt
                                Chair: Daniel Wodak (Princeton)

10:45am – Noon PHILIP STRATTON-LAKE (Reading)
                          Self-Evidence, Intuition and Justification
                                Chair: Eric Wiland (UMSL)

1:45pm – 3pm MATTHEW SILVERSTEIN (NYU Abu Dhabi)
                         Teleology and Normativity
                                Chair: Jack Woods (Bilkent)

3:30pm – 4:45pm GUY FLETCHER (Edinburgh)
                          Moral Testimony: Once More with Feeling
                                Chair: Joshua Schechter (Brown)

5:15pm – 6:30pm BILLY DUNAWAY (Oxford)
                           Expressivism and Normative Metaphysics
                                 Chair: Jada Strabbing (Fordham)

7pm – 9pm WORKSHOP BANQUET (more information below)
Samba Brazilian Grill 240 W. Gilman St.
Registration by Sept. 9th required


9:30am – 10:45am JUSTIN SNEDEGAR (St. Andrews)
                             Reasons, Oughts and Requirements
                                     Chair: Teemu Toppinen (Helsinki)

11:15am – 12:30pm BRIAN HEDDEN (Oxford)
                             Does MITE Make Right? On Decision-Making under Normative Uncertainty
                                      Chair: TBA

June 08, 2014

2014 RPE Essay Competition - Win an iPad..

It's back! The 2014 


First prize: a new iPad
Four Runners-up receive a £20 Amazon voucher

The winning essay will be published in RE Today magazine

Following the success of last year, the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (RPE) course  is pleased to announce the return of the RPE Essay Competition

The competition is open to all those currently studying for any AS or A2-level examinations (or equivalent) in the UK. The first prize is a new iPad, and there will be four runners-up prizes of £20 Amazon vouchers.

Entries must be no longer than 1500 words including footnotes but excluding references and can take any form e.g. essay, dialogue, etc. All sources must be referenced.

The deadline for the 1500 word essay is 5pm on 24st October 2014 and will be judged by RPE lecturers. The winner will be announced on the RPE Blog on 1st December 2014

To enter please choose one of the titles below and email your entry to

dwebster@glos.ac.uk (please note you may only submit one entry to the competition).

Entries must be written in as a Microsoft Word document. Entries will normally be acknowledged within 5 days. In your email, please put your name, the Sixth Form / FE college you attend, and the title you have chosen to answer. The subject of your email should be 'essay competition'.

Choose one of the following titles:

Q1: What is the proper role of religion in a modern, secular society?

Q2: If you had a time machine, would it be wrong to travel back and kill Hitler?

Q3: Does science give us an accurate picture of 'how the world is'?

·       1500 words maximum
·       Your essay must include the title/your name/contact email at the top of the page
·       The essay must be an attachment to the email as a Microsoft Word document
Any essay that does not satisfy these three conditions will not be considered by the judging panel.

The panel decision is final, and no correspondence will be entered into.


Course Facebook Group: https://ww.facebook.com/groups/RPEglos/        (open to all

Video Interview / Revision blog: http://philosvids.wordpress.com/

Program set for Second Annual Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy Workshop

The full schedule for the Second Annual Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy Workshop, to be held in Columbia, Missouri September 5-7, can be found below (you have to scroll down a bit to get to it).

Speakers include: Richard Arneson, David Eslund (keynote), Anna Stilz, Serena Olsaretti (keynote), Niko Kolodny, Amanda Green, Daniel Attas, Assaf Sharon, and Gina Schouten.

Commentators include: Andrew Lister, Cynthia Stark, Jonathan Quong, Tom Parr, Kevin Vallier, George Sher, and Daniel Weinstock.


An Ode to Hume's Skepticism

An Ode to Hume's Skepticism


Jason Zarri

The legacy of David Hume, like the appearance of the Moon, 
is sometimes waxing, sometimes waning, 
but hopefully never, forever fading.

The Treatise fell dead-born from the press,
The Enquiries had more success,
and the Dialogues should still impress
all those who in clerical garb do dress.

But be you "friend" or be you "foe";
please, do not betide him woe.
For concerning all subjects whatsoever,
he strove to be skeptical in equal measure.

Skepticism, being no exception,
itself came under his inspection.
At Pyrrho's doctrine he looked askance,
but in the Academy's he saw a chance
to get vain reason to abdicate its pride, 
letting humble experience show forth its light far and wide.
And Hume himself, though he could have been humbler,
helped to wake Kant from his dogmatic slumber.

So everyone, pray, of every school,
consider Hume may be errant, but surely no fool.
Would it not do us much good to admit,
'tis the height of folly to seek more knowledge than our nature will permit?
Finally, to any philosophers who meet this maxim with dread,
I say: Beware of rushing in where fools would fear to tread!

June 07, 2014

June 01, 2014

Open Days this Summer..

As Summer approaches, we look forward to welcoming Religion, Philosophy & Ethics applicants / guests to Open Days here at our FCH Campus in Cheltenham. There will be events on June 25th and June 28th (and more in September and October).

You can find out more, and book a place by going to:  http://www.glos.ac.uk/open/Pages/undergraduate.aspx 

In addition to Open Days, you can discover more about the Religion, Philosophy & Ethics undergraduate BA(Hons) degree over at our Facebook Group:

FCH Campus
To see the course map - details of the 'modules' which form the course - click HERE, or to see our Photo Gallery of trips, events and the campus, click HERE.

The tabs at the top of this page also allow you to explore the course via Twitter, find out who we are, and see video materials on topics related to the course.

May 30, 2014

Call for Abstracts: Tennessee Value and Agency Conference

Tennessee Value and Agency “TVA” Conference

2014 Conference – November 6-9, 2014
Practical Reason, Moral Judgment and Moral Sense, Sensibility and Sentiment in the Moral Life

Call For Abstracts

The 2014 Tennessee Value and Agency “TVA” Conference will take place November 6-9, 2014, on the University of Tennessee Campus, 1210 McClung Tower.  The conference will focus on (rethinking) the relationships between practical reason, moral judgment and moral sense, sensibility and sentiment in the moral life, with an eye toward bringing structure and clarity to the aims and ambitions of current work in moral psychology and moral theory.  Keynote speakers will be Amelie Rorty (Tufts) and Talbot Brewer (UVA). 

To have a paper considered for presentation, please submit a 500 word abstract (for a paper no longer than 40 minutes presentation time; if you plan to read your paper this means a paper no more than 4000 words) by July 1, 2014, to 2014tvaconf@gmail.com.  The authors of abstracts/papers selected for presentation will be notified by August 15, 2014, and the conference program will be set and announced by September 1, 2014.  Please direct questions (but not abstracts) to David Reidy, dreidy@utk.edu.

The UT Philosophy Department’s annual Tennessee Value and Agency “TVA” Conference was inaugurated in the fall of 2012.  The Conference focuses on and advances work in two areas central to the Department’s research mission and graduate program:  value theory and agency/action theory.  Each year there is a conference theme, addressed by keynote speakers and roughly a dozen presenters selected by the conference organizers upon blind review of abstracts received in response to an internationally distributed call for abstracts.  (See the program for the 2012 “TVA” conference here, and the 2013 “TVA” conference here.)  The conference takes place over a Thursday through Sunday in the fall term.  The Conference is free and open to the public; students and scholars with special interests in the conference theme are encouraged to attend.  Participants and attendees enjoy high quality sessions with lively and productive discussions that typically spill over to receptions, meals, and so on.

May 27, 2014

Ergo, a new open access journal, publishes first issue.

Ergo is a general, open access philosophy journal accepting submissions on all philosophical topics and from all philosophical traditions.

This includes, among other things: history of philosophy, work in both the analytic and continental traditions, as well as formal and empirically informed philosophy.

Submission and publication are free. Authors retain the copyright of their work under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license. Papers are published as they are accepted; there is no regular publication schedule.


Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy Discussion - 16 June

Thanks everyone for the amazing discussion on Jack Woods's expressivism paper! On Monday the 16th of June, we'll be able to begin our first ever discussion of an article published in the Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy (JESP). This wonderful paper is by Daniel Whiting (Southampton) and it's entitled "Keep Things in Perspective: Reasons, Rationality and the A Priori" (you can access the paper from that link freely). Errol Lord (currently at Franklin & Marshall College, soon to begin at the University of Pennsylvania) has promised to write a critical précis to kick off the discussion. I very much look forward to a discussion of this paper - I hope you can join us!  

May 26, 2014

Wicca, Western Esotericism, UFO religion, Spiritism and more...

In preparation for the module H6502: Emergent Spiritualities - which starts the coming academic year- I've been adding some new material to www.philosvids.wordpress.com - such as this video on Wicca:


More will be added over the next few days - and all the ones for the new module will be tagged HM6502 if you want to find just this series of videos on this set of topics - click: http://philosvids.wordpress.com/tag/hm6502/

May 24, 2014

Philosophers' Imprint Discussions at PEA Soup: Jack Woods's "Expressivism and Moore's Paradox" with Critical Précis by Teemu Toppinen

My apologies about the delay and I do recommend also checking out Richard's Arneson's interesting post on moral luck below, but we are finally able to begin the discussion of Jack Woods's Philosophers' Imprint paper 'Expressivism and Moore's Paradox'. To start things off, here is Teemu Toppinen's critical intro to the paper. I'm looking forward to know what you all have to say about Jack's wonderful paper and Teemu's equally brilliant discussion of it!

Thanks for asking me to kick off the discussion of this terrific paper. Woods offers a neat, sharp argument against expressivism and discusses (and refutes) a number of potential objections. I first quickly outline Woods’s argument, and then explain why I don’t think that it succeeds.

Woods’s argument goes roughly as follows:

(i) If expressivism is true, then the parity thesis is true, that is, sincere moral assertions express desire-like states (e.g., being in favor of or against something) in exactly the same way as sincere non-moral assertions express beliefs.
(ii) The way in which non-moral assertions express beliefs explains why sentences of the form ‘p, but I don’t believe that p,’ where ‘p’ is a non-moral sentence, are Moore-paradoxical.
(iii) If the parity thesis is true, then the way in which moral assertions express desire-like states should explain why sentences such as ‘Murder is wrong, but I’m not against it’ are Moore-paradoxical.
(iv) These latter kinds of sentences are not Moore-paradoxical. So:
(v) The parity thesis isn’t true. So:
(vi) Expressivism isn’t true.

Woods’s focus is on arguing against the parity thesis. The conclusion that expressivism isn’t true is drawn only very tentatively. More precisely, then, the conclusion of the paper is that given the plausible assumption that expressivists should accept the parity thesis, expressivism isn’t true. (Two minor things: (a) Woods at one point (p. 6) seems to suggest that the familiar expressivist accounts of the expression relation, such as the one proposed by Mark Schroeder (e.g., in Being For), would involve rejecting the parity thesis. I’m not sure that this is right, but this doesn’t seem to matter much, as I agree with Woods that something like his objection would, in any case, apply to (at least most of) these accounts. (b) It is perhaps worth pointing out that Woods’s argument also seems to threaten some ‘ecumenical’ forms of cognitivism and besire-views.)

My main worry about this argument is due to its focus on moral assertion, in particular. To anticipate my main concern, I think that we should reject premises (i) and (iii). I’m fine with assuming that expressivists should accept a parity thesis of the relevant kind. If (i) and (iii) were formulated as claims about normative assertion, then perhaps expressivists should accept these theses. But if we make the required modifications to (i) and (iii), (iv) does not seem to be true anymore. And so the modified parity thesis and expressivism can both be saved.

It is best to begin with premise (iv), which Woods mostly concentrates on. Consider the following claims (p. 5):

(11) Murder is wrong, but I don’t believe it is wrong.
(3) Fuck the Yankees! I have no negative attitude toward the Yankees.
(8) Murder is wrong, but I’m not against it.

Woods suggests that (11) and (3) are incoherent in a way in which (8) is not. I’m inclined to agree. A possible, quite plausible explanation for why this is so is this: ‘Murder is wrong’ expresses a belief that murder is wrong, but might not express, in the same sense, any desire-like attitude against murder. This explanation might sound like it would be a bad fit with expressivism, but it seems to me that actually expressivists can accept this explanation. They can do this, assuming that ‘wrong’ is a context-sensitive term, which is often, but not always, used to make a normative judgment, consisting (at least in part) in a desire-like attitude. If something along these lines makes sense, and if the non-normative uses of ‘wrong’ are central and common enough, then it’s no wonder that sentences such as (8) are more easily given coherent readings than, say, (11) or (3).

In discussing possible objections, Woods acknowledges the possibility of broadly this kind of defensive move. He notes that someone might suggest that ‘Murder is wrong’ can be used in an inverted-commas sense, as making a claim to the effect that murder is wrong by the standards of the prevailing society. He also considers the possibility that this sentence could be used in a ‘theoretical’ sense to make a ‘cold and impersonal’ moral judgment. I’ll say some more on these suggestions and Woods’s objections below. But it is helpful to note, already at this point, that these ideas do not exhaust the options that expressivists have with regard to giving descriptive, non-normative readings of a sentence such as ‘Murder is wrong.’ The expressivist could suggest that when we use the sentence ‘Murder is wrong,’ we always, very roughly, characterize murder in relation to standards or norms of a certain kind. Perhaps the relevant kinds of norms are norms for when to feel guilt and resentment. (Perhaps they should be understood quite differently, but this should suffice for illustrative purposes.) However, just which norms of the relevant kind are relevant might vary from one context to another. In some contexts, ‘Murder is wrong’ might be used to make a claim about the relation of murder to the norms that have currency in the speaker’s own society. In others, this sentence might express, for example, a belief about the norms of some other, salient, society, or about the norms that the speaker used to endorse (perhaps before having suffered a severe brain damage). A very central, plausibly primary, use for this sentence would be that of relating murder to standards that the speaker herself endorses, or subscribes to. This, the expressivist might say, would be the genuinely normative use of the sentence. It would be this specific sense of ‘wrong’ which the expressivist would wish to give an expressivist account of. What’s been suggested here is very much inspired by Michael Ridge’s recent, relatively detailed and sophisticated account of the meanings of ‘good,’ ‘ought,’ etc., in his Impassioned Belief (OUP, 2014), but the basic idea of there being a variety of descriptive uses for terms well suited for making normative judgments is, of course, a familiar one.

If this line of response were correct, then there should also be senses of ‘wrong’ which would make sentences like (8) come out as incoherent. But this seems like a nice prediction to me. Let’s begin with some normative claims that aren’t specifically moral, and that are not so easily given non-normative readings. Consider:

(12) All things considered, we ought not to murder, but I’m not in any way against murdering.
(13) There’s some reason not to murder, but there’s nothing about murder that I’d be against.

These seem incoherent to me, just like, for instance, (11) or (3), above. That’s a neat prediction of expressivism. How about wrongness in a normative, ‘reason-implying’ sense?

(14) Murder is wrong – that is, wrong in a sense which implies that there are extremely weighty reasons not to murder –, but I’m in no way against murder.

Again, this seems clearly incoherent. So, it seems fine to allow that there are such readings of ‘Murder is wrong’ which would render something very much like (8) incoherent. (‘Murder is wrong [in the reason-implying sense], but I’m not against it’ might still sound coherent, because this claim could perhaps be understood as saying that even though there are extremely weighty reasons against murder, it’s still, on balance, okay.)

So, again, (i) and (iii) should only (possibly) be accepted once they’ve been modified so as to make claims about the relationship between normative assertions and desire-like states. However, once we modify these premises in an appropriate way, (iv) does not seem to be true anymore.

As noted, Woods (p. 7) considers some objections roughly along these lines. First, he acknowledges that one might object that the “relative felicity of the examples [such as (8)] is due to an inverted-commas use of ‘wrong’. When so used, ‘Murder is wrong’ means something like ‘Murder is wrong (by the moral standards of the prevailing society)’.”

Woods isn’t happy, at all, with the inverted-commas response. He suggests that “such an aberrant interpretation of the meaning of ‘Murder is wrong’ is implausible without conditions suggesting such an interpretation” (p. 7). I do not think, however, that this is a very aberrant interpretation. For instance, when I teach ethics, there often are people in the audience who have some difficulty seeing how ‘Murder is wrong’ could have any other kind of meaning. So, it seems to me that an inverted-commas reading of sorts is very much available for this sentence. In any case, I’ve suggested that there’s a wider range of descriptive ways of using ‘wrong,’ and not all of these seem aberrant. It also seems quite plausible that utterances of (8) themselves suggest a descriptive interpretation exactly because, in using this sentence, the speaker is reporting that she doesn’t have the attitudes that one would take ‘Murder is wrong’ to express when used normatively, as it is most commonly used.

Now, Woods does consider the idea that “it is the mere availability of an inverted-commas reading that renders the examples coherent” (p. 8). He notes that “inverted comma readings are often indicated by stress, but [(8) does] not require stress to be felicitous.” However, the inverted-commas (or the other non-normative) readings of sentences such as ‘Murder is wrong’ need not be indicated by stress, so this seems irrelevant.

Woods also argues that “the mere existence of an inverted comma reading […] is not sufficient for the coherence of such examples” because “predicates of personal taste, for example, clearly have an inverted commas reading, but ‘Broccoli is delicious, but I don’t like it’ is still strikingly incoherent” without an appropriate stage-setting. Now, it’s true that there just being a sensible inverted-commas reading for the relevant sentences is not sufficient to make them sound coherent. However, such readings may be more or less easily available or accessible to a hearer. ‘Wrong,’ it seems to me, is quite often used in an inverted-commas sense, or, anyway, in some descriptive sense. So, here a descriptive reading is easily available. ‘Delicious’? Not so often, it seems. Now that I have given the sentence ‘Broccoli is delicious, but I don’t like it’ some thought, I can easily hear it as coherent (perhaps the speaker has a history of being a broccoli-lover, or perhaps she’s deferring to those with a more ‘refined’ taste in order to be more helpful). However, this sentence was, at least in my case, somewhat more resistant to a coherent interpretation than ‘Murder is wrong, but I’m not against it.’ I wouldn’t say that one sentence sounds more incoherent than the other, but it’s easier (for me) to hear the latter as coherent. (As for the standard Moore-paradox sentences such as ‘Snow is white, but I don’t believe it is,’ these would seem to require truly aberrant interpretations in order to make any sense.)

So, I don’t think that Woods’s response to the objection from inverted-commas uses succeeds. Also, the objection from inverted-commas uses can be further strengthened by acknowledging a wider range of descriptive uses for terms like ‘wrong.’

Another related objection, discussed by Woods, distinguishes “between cold and impersonal moral judgments issued in the course of theorizing and heated moral judgments issued in the course of criticizing others’ actions or guiding our own” (p. 9). Woods suggests that if uses of terms like ‘wrong’ don’t always express desire-like states, “it is unlikely that such attitudes will play a serious role in the account of their meaning” (p. 9). His proposal is that moral assertions often conversationally imply that the speaker has the relevant desire-like state. However, as argued above, there are other, more expressivist-friendly, options available for capturing the distinction between those uses of terms like ‘wrong’ that express desire-like states and those that don’t.

I’ve focused on what I found to be problematic about this very nice paper. The rest seemed pretty convincing to me. Finally, I cannot resist noting that I appreciated the decadent air of p. 5, which contained, within one spread of a philosophical article published in a top notch journal, uses (or, anyway, mentions) of ‘Yay for drinking a lot of beer tonight’ and a sentence of the form ‘Fuck the x,’ plus, in a footnote, a description of drug-induced hallucinations.

Teemu Toppinen

May 20, 2014

Reminder: Upcoming Philosophers' Imprint Discussion

Just a quick reminder that on Thursday the 22nd of May we'll start the online discussion on Jack Woods's wonderful Philosophers' Imprint article "Expressivism and Moore's Paradox" (please follow the link in the title to the article itself) here at Pea Soup. This discussion will begin with Teemu Toppinen's critical introduction which will appear at this blog on Thursday. I hope you can take part! 

Edit: We have moved the date of this discussion by one day to the 22nd because of the problems there were with typepad on Monday. Our apologies and thanks for your patience.

Featured Philosopher: Richard Arneson

Hi all,


After an agonizing, frustrating, delay (curse you, Typepad!), I hope you'll all join me in welcoming Richard Arneson to PEA Soup!  Dick is Distinguished Professor, and Valtz Family Chair of Philosophy at UC San Diego.  Without further ado, then, I give you his post, titled "Moral Worth and Moral Luck".


In a famous essay, Thomas Nagel wrote, “Kant believed that good or bad luck should influence neither our moral judgment of a person and his actions, nor his moral assessment of himself.” He added, “Prior to reflection it is intuitively plausible that people cannot be morally assessed for what is not their fault, or for what is due to factors beyond their control.”


 Moral luck occurs when someone is correctly morally assessed for aspects of her agency that lay beyond her power to control.  The Control Principle denies that such moral luck occurs.  But some moral assessments subject to moral luck seem unproblematic.   So consider a Narrowed Control Principle (NCP): we are assessable as moral praiseworthy or blameworthy (worthy or unworthy, deserving or undeserving) only to the extent that the feature of our activity that is the target of these assessments lies within our power to control.  Moral praiseworthiness should be distinguished from admirable excellence at moral/practical reasoning and execution of its deliverances.  We should also keep in mind a close consort to NCP: the more difficult and painful it would be to do what I see is morally right, and the more cost I see I incur if I do it, other things being equal, the less blameworthy I am if I fail to do it, and the more moral credit I earn if I do it.


The crucial idea here is moral blameworthiness.  One can’t be morally blameworthy for what lies beyond one’s power to control.  Blaming the person might still make sense, insofar as doing so might bring about good consequences.  Criticizing the person’s conduct as morally faulty in various ways might still make perfect sense.  But if one doing the evil deed was beyond one’s power to control, the doing cannot be one’s fault.  The same goes for moral praiseworthiness when that is specifically the opposite of moral blameworthiness. 


In Groundwork section 1, Kant seems to be attracted by the no-moral-luck constraint, but does not accept it.  He instead holds that the morally worthy agent does what is morally right for the reason that it is morally right.  But consider agents who are innocently ignorant of facts or of moral principles that are needed for choice of right action in their circumstances.  For example, consider innocent unjust aggressors.  Factors beyond my power to control may bring it about that I am ignorant of correct moral principles or embrace false ones, and so fail to do what is morally right, so it’s plausible to hold that I can qualify as being morally worthy by doing what is morally wrong.


Is there an account of moral worth that satisfies the NCP?  Consider the subjective account.  Conscientiousness (version 1): The conscientious agent tries wholeheartedly to make her conduct conform to requirements of morality.  Her concern is noninstrumental.  Her concern is to do what is actually right, not what she happens to think right, so she wholeheartedly tries to discover what is morally right.  The more conscientious effort she puts forth, the more morally praiseworthy she is.


Here’s a bad objection against Conscientiousness (version 1):  So, there can be conscientious Nazis and Viking marauders, who qualify as morally worthy for their thuggery?  This scenario should not faze us.  The answer on the view being advanced is, in principle, yes, this is possible, and may occur.  If one is tempted to doubt this, one might be holding the background belief that anyone who seeks the moral law will discover it.  There is no reason to think this is true.  Moral truth might be complicated, hard to discern, and my mental faculties may be not up to the task, try as I may.  Anyway even if the optimistic view that anyone who looks for moral truth will find it were true, this would not impugn the subjective account.  The upshot would be a denial that as a matter of fact there are morally worthy Nazis and Viking marauders.


Here’s a better objection: Someone knows her search to discover moral truth is going to be fruitless, but keeps trying and trying anyway.  Someone else knows she can’t do what she morally ought, but pointlessly keeps trying anyway (resistance to torture example).  Someone knows she is going to do the right thing without effort, but pointlessly puts in lots of effort anyway.  –This defeats our proposal. We need to go back to the drawing board.


Conscientiousness (version 2).  Same as version 1, with this addition.  The conscientious agent makes efforts to learn what is morally right to the degree she thinks doing so is appropriate, sensible, and she makes efforts to bring it about that she conforms to what is morally right by her lights to the degree she thinks doing so is sensible, appropriate. Also, she tries (to the extent she thinks appropriate) to bring it about that her beliefs about appropriateness are correct, and so on.  (There is a regress here; harmless I hope.)


A worry: Suppose you live in a society, a hunter-gatherer society perhaps, that lacks the concept of morality.  There are just rules laid down; no distinctions drawn between types of rules.  So it is a matter of luck after all that you do or do not have the opportunity to be conscientious, to become morally praiseworthy according to the subjective account.


Response to worry:  Trying hard to obey all social rules does not make you morally praiseworthy, unless you (nonculpably) believed they all had effectively moral status.  But I suggest any rational agent to some degree will recognize the moral question, what behavior one owes others, this issue to be assessed from impartial perspective, even if the recognition is inchoate.  The rational agent not only can recognize the moral question but does.  One might speak of protomoral concern.  That one’s culture lacks a full conceptual repertoire in this regard renders it more difficult for one to be conscientious, so not being conscientious is to that degree excusable (affects one’s adjusted conscientiousness score; more on this later).


What if one has views like those of Bernard Williams, so does not think morality is supremely important?  I assume in this essay such views are wrong, but an agent might nonculpably embrace them and this will again be an impediment to achieving conscientiousness, so requires adjustment in one’s “score.”  If Williams is right, all the questions I consider must be differently posed.


Another worry.  Morality might require that one act in a way that corrupts one’s character.  Consider cases described by Gregory Kavka.  It is morally right, assume, to form the conditional intention to retaliate massively against a nuclear first strike, in stalemate between superpowers.  This means one is disposed conditionally to do wrong.  So one is in this respect lacking in conscientiousness and morally undeserving.  But how can deciding to do what is morally right and doing it make one morally undeserving? 


Response: If doing the right thing (as one sees it) sets one’s will, to some extent, against doing what is morally right in future in some range of cases, we can still appraise the person’s overall conscientiousness (version 2) and the assessment might come out positive or negative.  First, the agent might succeed in orienting her will toward doing what is right in domains of choice apart from the conditional retaliation intention, and score moral worth points for that.  Second, it will continuously be right to renew and strengthen one’s commitment to conditional evildoing, because in these circumstances doing so is necessary to bring about the overwhelmingly good consequences that flow from deterrence.  So one will have a continuous excuse, complete or partial, for having a malign will in this limited domain of conditional intention to retaliate.  Third, if things go badly and the fatal moment when the disposition to retaliate is triggered, one might fight against it, and get moral worth points for appropriate struggle to quash the urge wrongfully to retaliate, whether or not one’s attempts are successful.  The example is disturbing, but so far as I can see does not generate reasons to reject the subjective account of moral worth under review. 


There is an obvious rival to the subjective account of moral worth/praiseworthiness/deservingness.  This is the objective account: an agent becomes morally worthy (her actions have moral worth) to the degree that she is moved to do what is morally right by perception of the moral reasons that actually are the reasons that make what she does right.  Also, the greater the agent’s concern to act on correct reasons (not reasons she merely deems correct), the more morally praiseworthy she is for doing the right thing.  Nomy Arpaly has done excellent work that articulates and defends just this view.  My discussion here borrows from hers.


Examples: Huck Finn, the character in the Mark Twain novel, who decides not to care about morality, not to follow his conscience, but instead to act as he pleases, and in particular to help his friend Jim escape from slavery rather than do what he thinks morality commands, return property to its owner.  But his act here is actually morally right, and he does what is right because he is moved by the reasons that make it right.  The objective account gives the right answer here about how to assess Huck and the subjective account gives the wrong answer.  Or so one might claim.


Second example, a John LeCarre novel character, son of businessman who turns out to be gangster, working for dad, decides after deliberation to be loyal son and keep working for what he now knows is immoral enterprise.  Through weakness of will he impetuously snitches, does the right thing, while trying to do the wrong thing.  Arpaly suggests he is morally praiseworthy, because after all, he does the right thing for the right reasons.


The flat-footed but nonetheless correct response to Arpaly is that on the objective view of moral worth, people become morally praiseworthy and blameworthy for what lies beyond their power to control, and this is unacceptable.  With this thought in mind let’s return to her examples.


Huck: Huck has attractive qualities, but we should not regard a person as morally praiseworthy for what he is (that smacks of a natural aristocracy view). Huck displays admirable virtue and practical reasoning success, should be praised for this, but this is not specifically moral praiseworthiness in the sense we are trying to delineate..  Regarding the latter, the case is hard to assess.  Is Huck blameworthy for not engaging in critical reflection concerning the acceptability of the morality of his society?  Probably not, or not much, given his upbringing and circumstances.  Does Huck identify conventional morality as what “they” think, not normative for him?  Probably not.  If he did, then turning against convention would not be turning against morality as he conceives it to be.  Subjective account assessment of the case seems OK.


LeCarre:  First, one can try to do something without being aware one is trying.  So maybe the character is consciously trying to do wrong and unconsciously trying to do right, and the overall verdict on the tryings, according to subjective view, should be mixed.  Agent is not very blameworthy for resolving to do wrong, given that circumstances are so adverse for making choice of right.  In agent’s circumstances, doing what is right (as he thinks) is hard and painful and likely to be costly, so his doing right is very praiseworthy, on subjective account.  Subjective account says we should say same if he decided via weakness of will to do what is actually wrong but believed by him nonculpably to be morally right.  Note that whether one actually does the right act, by one’s lights, is not per se important on subjective account.  One can try very conscientiously, against big forces impelling one to do wrong, and be more praiseworthy, even though one does wrong, than someone who faces lesser adverse forces, puts forth less effort, but does right anyway (it’s easy).


However, everything said so far in defense of the conscientiousness account of moral praiseworthiness and blameworthiness dances around what many will regard as the decisive, knockdown objection. This criticism holds that  anyone’s disposition to put forth wholehearted efforts toward knowing what is morally right and doing it is affected causally by all manner of empirical factors that vary from individual to individual.  So the subjective account, even if otherwise plausible, flamboyantly fails to satisfy the no-moral-luck constraint.


Comment: This nonstarter claim is correct on a hard determinist view, which this essay sets aside.  If hard determinism is correct—and it may well be—then the idea of moral worth that this essay seeks to uphold is just a lost cause.  But even setting hard determinism to the side, the problem persists.


Just suppose we have libertarian free will.  (The same point will hold on a soft determinist version of subjective account, which distinguishes among causes, and says that some—abnormal vs. normal, or those external to the agent vs. those internal—render one’s activity in relevant respects beyond one’s power to control and some causes don’t.)  Even so, our free will is beset by causal forces, of many sorts, varying from individual to individual.   These rule out achieving conscientiousness in some cases and in others render it more or less hard, painful, and costly to achieve conscientiousness.  Call this the problem of variable causal entanglement.   Whether any agent actually achieves conscientiousness and so becomes morally praiseworthy on subjective account varies with factors that lie beyond her power to control.


Back to the drawing board:  Conscientiousness (version 3).  Incorporates versions one and two and adds this: the determination of how morally praiseworthy/blameworthy a person is proceeds in two stages.  At stage one, the extent to which the person exhibits conscientiousness version 2 is assessed.  This yields a raw conscientiousness score.  Each person’s raw conscientiousness score is then adjusted to reflect appropriately the ways in which the circumstances of each agent, beyond her power to control, affect her level of cosnscientiousness actually exhibited.  This yields true conscientiousness score.  Compare to ideal handicapping of golfers for tournament, so any golfer of any ability and whatever particular obstacles to a good game afflict her that day, has same opportunity to win.   (Question: does version 3 solve the problem under review or just restate it in other words?)


The revised account of moral worth, conscientiousness version 3, is clearly cut loose from any connection to our actual responsibility practices.  In many social settings, associations, and contexts, we hold each other responsible in various ways, attaching negative and positive sanctions to conduct that is desirable or undesirable from the standpoint of association goals.  We hold each other’s feet to the fire, and clearly these practices broadly speaking can claim instrumental justification.  They advance enterprise goals, and if enterprise is innocent, or just, the responsibility practices serve good goals.  Notions of moral blaming and praising are ancillary to these responsibility practices.  We can criticize existing responsibility practices—e.g. criminal justice system, at the margins, suggest reforms, but clearly many such practices are instrumentally justified.


The conscientiousness account of moral worth, shaped by the Narrow Control Principle, will clearly lead to very revisionary judgments as to who is morally praiseworthy and morally blameworthy.  The serial killer and child molester who fights hard for years against persistent strong urges to do horrible deeds and succumbs to the urges just occasionally might well turn out to be  less morally blameworthy than the ordinary middle-class person who faces less severe temptations and succumbs often, committing such evils as getting embarrassingly drunk and spoiling his brother’s wedding party.  The serial killer might even turn out to be morally praiseworthy for his failed attempts to suppress his evil urges.


So what confers moral worth on the subjective account is pretty much never knowable in practice and is anyway  irrelevant to any sensible responsibility practices.  So what is the point?


It is not exactly true that owing to entanglement the subjective account is irrelevant to responsibility practices, since many of these do not rest content with instrumental justification but claim to be regulated by appropriate deservingness/blameworthiness/praiseworthiness norms.  This is so also for the responsibility practice of morality as a human institution, on the ground.  But the subjective account occupies the space in which these practical rival accounts of moral worth and deservingness claim to be situated.  The subjective account stands in the way of our anxious tendency to elaborate weaker accounts that dispense with the Narrow Control Principle and to rely on these weaker accounts to provide less crude rationalizations of our responsibility practices than we can glean from instrumental rationales.  But that way lies illusion—comforting illusion perhaps, but still illusion. 

May 16, 2014

A puzzle about belief reports

Consider a long list S1...Sn of sentences such that (a) each Si is trivially equivalent to its predecessor and successor (if any), and (b) S1 is not trivially equivalent to Sn.

For example, S1 might be a complicated mathematical or logical statement, and S1...Sn a process of slowly transforming S1 into a simpler expression. For another example, S1...Sn might be statements in different languages, where each Si qualifies as a direct translation of its neighbor(s) but S1 is not a direct translation of Sn.

Next imagine a series of belief reports R1...Rn (in possibly different languages) whose complement sentences are S1...Sn respectively. So, if Si is in English, then Ri has the form 'x believes that Si'.

Since the equivalence between S1 and Sn is far from obvious, one can easily think of cases in which R1 is true and Rn false (or vice versa), for a fixed subject x.

The puzzle is that R1...Rn then looks a lot like a sorites series. For each Si with i<n, one might think that if one can truly attribute to an agent a belief with complement Si, then one can also truly attribute to her a belief with complement S{i+1}.

Informally, the point is that in ordinary contexts, belief reports are not sensitive to minor variations in the complement sentence. If you believe that Caesar conquered Gaul, you also believe that Gaul was conquered by Caesar; if you believe that it's raining one can also report, in French, that tu crois qu'il pleut. But a lot of minor variations can add up to a major variation, and belief attributions are sensitive to major variations. You can believe that 237 * 78 = 18286 without believing that 0 = 1.

The puzzle is not that 'believe' is vague. That is hardly surprising. The puzzle is that 'X and Y are minor variations' is intransitive while 'X and Y attribute the same belief' is transitive. So the following principle must be false:

Replacing the complement sentence in a belief report by a minor variation or translation does not affect what belief is attributed.

Since we can't say that, what can we say instead?

One option is to say that beliefs are much more fine-grained than we might have thought, so that different belief reports practically never attribute the same belief: believing that Caesar conquered Gaul is not the same as believing that Gaul was conquered by Caesar; the belief attributed in English with 'believes that it rains' cannot be attributed in French; and so on. Each element of R1...Rn thus attributes a belief with a different content. The puzzle can then be resolved by assuming that 'believe' is vague, so that it is indeterminate whether or not the agent believes some of contents attributed in between R1 and Rn.

But this looks unsatisfactory. Can't we say that at least some minor variations or translations in the complement sentence make no difference to the attributed belief? We surely can. For example, we could say that R1 and R2 attribute the same belief, but not R2 and R3. Or that R1 through R10 all attribute the same belief, but not R10 and R11. Note the trade-off between these proposals. If we want to maintain that minor variations in complement sentences often don't correspond to different beliefs, we have to say that there are longish sub-sequence of R1...Rn all members of which attribute the same belief, while their immediate neighbours outside the subsequence do not. This also looks implausible. After all, the difference between S1 and S10 is much bigger than the difference between S10 and S11; yet only the latter difference is supposed to correspond to a genuine difference in belief!

I think the best answer is to return to a version of the first option. On this view, 'believe' semantically expresses a relation R between a subject and a very finely individuated entity -- the complement sentence itself, or a combination of the sentence and its truth-conditions, or something like that. But R isn't a very natural relation, and we shouldn't think of it as the "belief relation". Rather, there's a diverse list of factors that determine whether, in a given context, one can truly utter 'x believes that S'. Among them are, very roughly: (i) Is x disposed to assent to S, or a close translation of S? (ii) Is x disposed to act in a way characteristic of ordinary people who are disposed to assent to S? (iii) Is x in a state whose function is to occur under conditions which, together with certain facts we currently take for granted, entail the truth of S? And so on. There are many ways to make these questions precise, and to balance them against each other. None of them is once and for all privileged by our linguistic conventions. This is why belief reports are (context-sensitive) and vague.

May 15, 2014

Satanic Statue in Oklahoma Controversy

You've maybe heard about this? The crowdfunded bid by The Satanic Temple to place a Satanist Statue at the Oklahoma Capitol Building - partly in protest at a public building having a Ten Commandments monument..

Over at http://philosvids.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/the-satanic-statue-controversy-an-interview/ I interview an expert - and try to see what issues are behind all the recent headlines..

(In related news - the Harvard 'Black Mass' event has is being reported as having been cancelled: read more HERE..)

May 05, 2014


I recently accepted a Chancellor's Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. So it looks like the next stop, after six years in Australia, will be Scotland. Woop!

May 02, 2014

Week of victory!

It's been quite a week for RPE..

Firstly - Professor Melissa Raphael's book The Female Face of God in Auschwitz (2003) has been listed by the American website Theology Degrees Online as one of the top 99 most important works of theology: 'Even the most dedicated scholar couldn't read all of the books covering Christian theology, but there are some we feel that every student of theology should read.'  Melissa's book comes in at 69, at the top of the 'Women and Theology' section.

Then we had the University of Gloucestershire Staff Awards event. RPE students came to support us - we had numerous nominations...
In the end - with lights, music, balloons and excitement - we walked away with a armful of awards!

Roy was awarded a University Teaching Fellowship (as was Dr Debby Thacker from English Lit - in the pic too), Will received an award for Most Engaging Module (in the whole Uni, voted for by students, for his module on Spinoza), and Dave won the 'Inspiring Colleague' award.

April 24, 2014

New Age excursion..

One of our RPE first year students visited a New-Age fair - and kindly wrote up her experiences for the blog: thanks SK...  Here is her personal account:

To gain an insight into the ever-changing ‘New Age’ scene I decided to attend a Mind, Body and Spirit event in Manchester earlier this month. Set in a beautiful, historic Monastery located in the middle of an industrial area, I arrived early to find the 500+ car park already full and guarded by men in fluorescent jackets. Finding a side street to park in I followed the crowds to the Monastery and was shocked at the size of the queue to pay on the door. Luckily I’d pre-booked my entry ticket and sidled past the queue to the back door. I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of people who were in attendance were of a certain…caliber; a certain age, gender and societal class, all searching for a similar thing. A coincidence maybe but I wasn’t convinced.  

Greeted by a man thrusting leaflets into my hands whilst explaining an itinerary of the numerous workshops taking place, I followed the herd into the main part of the Monastery. The room was filled with exhibitors and stalls promoting ‘New Age’ therapies, products and techniques and I found myself overwhelmed. Without any expectations I wandered aimlessly and moved with the flow looking at the beautiful ornaments, jewellery and sparkly things for sale.

There were different types of massages on offer, including Reiki (which was the only one I’d previously heard of), claiming to reduce stress and make for a calmer, less hectic life. One masseuse said that he was a ‘Guru’ and the price for a 20-minute massage with him was noticeably more than others who offered what looked like the same service.
A therapy that centered around hundreds of coloured bottles standing on a shelf baffled me and was told that whichever one I was drawn to was the ‘special one’. Why it was special I had no idea and I doubt I was ‘drawn’ to it, I merely liked the pink colour.
Crystal healing stalls were popular amongst the crowds alongside little knick-knacks and keepsakes including pocket-angels to keep you safe and worry dolls to disperse your worries.

There was a heavy Eastern influence and I saw many Buddha figures and singing bowls for sale which seemed to enforce the idea that ‘New Age’ was a mixture of established religions as opposed to a new concept. I felt slightly uncomfortable with this and was disheartened by the amount of Pagan tokens that were amongst it all. There was a fine line between ‘New Age’ and Paganism and I couldn’t help but feel the line was getting very blurred. I consider Paganism an actual religion and ‘New Age’ appeared to be a ‘counterfeit’ version of it, almost disregarding its’ validity.

Stereotypical Mediums, psychics, tarot readers, astrologers, palm readers flooded the Monastery, all glammed up looking like Z-list celebs. For a smallfee (note: emphasis on ‘small’) you could have a reading. The cheapest I saw was £40 for a 30-minute session. Need I say more? Whilst walking past one particular woman, I heard her say to her customer, “you know a woman with a cat, possibly black”. At this point, my inner-cynicism was outwardly shown with a shake of my head in dismay.
Posters and banners were all over the place all saying where a particular psychic or medium had been featured, for example, “As seen on TV” or “Featured in ‘Take a Break’ magazine”. This raised my suspicions once again because it was as though they had to justify themselves for being there before anyone could question their validity.

It was a brilliant experience and I had a wonderful time but I must admit instead of enforcing the ‘New Age’ concept as a religion or certified, genuine way of life, I saw it to be a moneymaking idea, preying on the same type of vulnerable person who is searching for something more in their unsatisfactory life. As a placebo though I believe that what ‘New Age’ offers can and does work, positive thinking and all that jazz. However it’s slightly depressing to think that the whole business focuses on the negative side of life; everything is rubbish, why is my life like this, where can I get the answers, by doing this my life will be better. The lack of originality annoyed me slightly as everything was a mash up of Paganism, Hinduism and Buddhism mixed with 1960’s hippy-culture and a dash of Mystic Meg.

Much Madness, Such Sanity: Growing in the Garden of Humanities, 14th April Lecture

Click to enlarge..

May interest students - a free event, 14th May:
Much Madness, 
Such Sanity: 
Growing in the Garden of Humanities

Professor Shelley Saguaro

 Admission free, but booking essential
Email: inaugurallectures@glos.ac.uk
Tel: 01242 714582
University of Gloucestershire, 
The Park, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 2RH

Click to enlarge..

April 23, 2014


 7.45 p.m. Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Future of Ecumenism in the UK

Speaker: Revd. Dr. David Cornick (General Secretary of Churches Together in England and Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge)

Main Lecture Theatre, Elwes Building, The Park Campus, University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham GL50 2RH


For more information, contact Professor Robert Daniels bobdan773@btinternet.com or Revd. Dr. Alison Evans, malcolm.alison@btinternet.com

April 15, 2014

Dr Roy Jackson interviews Professor Aaqil Ahmed.

Over  on our video-blogDr Roy Jackson interviews Professor Aaqil Ahmed, Head of BBC Religion and Ethics. Click the image below to go to the entry in the video-blog:

April 09, 2014

How The Light Gets In Philosophy Festival

The annual How The Lights Gets In philosophy festival will soon be coming around again. Here are some highlights:

24th May - The Limits of Logic
Logicians don’t rule the world or get the most done. Could it be that a logically-consistent world view is neither desirable nor achievable? Would abandoning the straightjacket of rationality lead to a more exciting future, or simply to madness? With Simon Blackburn, Iain McGilchrist, Beatrix Campbell.

27th May - New Gods
Evidence and reason are supposedly the basis of our beliefs. Yet religion continues to flourish, and new gods conquer even the most rational minds. Is unjustified, groundless belief an essential part of human nature? Or can we banish faith forever? American anthropologist Scott Atran, Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn and human rights advocate Peter Tatchell examine the foundations of thought.

31st May - The Ultimate Proof
We think evidence decides the matter. Yet even suicide bombers think they have evidence to support their cause. Should we see independent evidence as an illusion? Would this lead to a chaotic world without foundations or constraint? Or open us to the richness of reality? Laurie Taylor asks philosopher Nancy Cartwright, Templeton Prize-winning cosmologist George Ellis and American anthropologist Daniel Everett to consider the evidence.

Revision resources on video?

As A-level (and other) exam season approaches - you may be interested to note that we have a range of videos on topics that may be of use. Our video blog is at http://philosvids.wordpress.com/  - and down the right hand side you'll find a range of topics - or just browse through the (approx. 100) videos there.

We are always happy to record more if there are topics that people really want to focus on - use twitter to tell us what topics you'd like to see covered - we are at https://twitter.com/RPEatGlos.


See more about the RPE team at : http://r-p-e.blogspot.co.uk/p/rpe-staff-who-are-we.html 

April 07, 2014

A Correction

In a previous post I said that the study of Shakespeare was well outside the bounds of philosophy as it is practiced, though it easily have been inside. This was a mistake. Klaas Kraay pointed out to me that there is even an upcoming conference on Shakespeare: The Philosopher.

I’m very happy to have been proven wrong about this. Shakespeare’s connection to philosophy seems like a rich and interesting field of study, and I’m thrilled to see people working on it.

It is a little interesting that the conference doesn’t look like it is growing out of work in history of modern philosophy, or even history of Renaissance philosophy, but out of aesthetics. That wasn’t what I expected either, though perhaps I should have. I suspect in general there are interesting connections to be drawn between the work of the leading poets, playwrights and, eventually, novelists. I wonder if we’ll think of work looking at those connections as being part of aesthetics, or part of history of philosophy? Either way, it’s wonderful to see this kind of work being done.

April 06, 2014

Higher-Order Evidence and Pascal’s Wager

I’ve been thinking a bit about the ways in which Higher-Order Evidence cases might be like Pascal’s Wager. In each case, an agent is presented with a reason for changing their doxastic state that isn’t in the form of evidence for or against the propositions in question.

Since most philosophers don’t think that highly of Pascal’s Wager, this isn’t the most flattering comparison. Indeed, some will think that if the cases are analogous, then the discussion of higher-order evidence isn’t really part of epistemology at all. Even if Pascal had given us a prudential reason to believe in God, he wouldn’t have given us an epistemic reason. I suspect, though, that this is a touch too quick. There are a variety of Pascal like cases where it isn’t so clear we have left epistemology behind.

Melati and Cinta are offered epistemic deals by demons. Here is the deal that Melati is offered.

There is this proposition p that you know to be true. I have a method M1 that will yield great knowledge about subjects of great interest. It is perfectly reliable. The only catch is that to use the method, you first have to firmly believe that p is false. If you do, you’ll get lots of knowledge about other things, indeed you’ll learn over 100 things that are of similar interest and importance to p.

And here is the deal that Cinta is offered.

Here are 100 propositions that you believe to be true. As you know, most people are not that reliable about the subject matters of those propositions. I can’t say whether you’re better or worse than average, though your accuracy rate is comfortably above 50%. Here’s what I can say. I have a method M2 that will yield very reliable beliefs about these subjects. People who have used it are 99% reliable when they use it. And given the subject matter, that’s a very high success rate. The only catch is that to use M2, you have to start by doubting every one of those propositions, and then only believe them if M2 says to do so.

There are two big parallels between Melati’s and Cinta’s deals. Both of them are asked to change their attitudes because that is necessary for commencing to use a method. At some level, they are asked to change their beliefs on prudential grounds. But note the payoff is not Pascalian salvation; it is knowledge. And the payoff is pretty similar in the two cases; probably around 100 pieces of new knowledge, and 1 false belief.

Yet despite those parallels, the cases feel very very different. Melati has no epistemic reason to believe that p is false. Indeed, it isn’t clear that she has all things considered reason to believe that p is false. And if she’s anything like me, she wouldn’t be capable of accepting the deal. (Carrie Jenkins, Selim Berker, Hillary Greaves and several others have discussed versions of what I’m calling Melati’s case, and the intuition that Melati has no epistemic reason to accept the deal seems incredibly widespread.)

Cinta’s situation is quite different. After all, the deal that the demon offers Cinta is very similar to the deal that Descartes offered his readers. Doubt a lot of things, including some things that you surely know, apply my method, and you’ll end up in a better position than where you started. In Descartes’s case, it wasn’t clear he was able to keep up his end of the bargain. That is, it wasn’t clear that he really had the magic method he claimed to have. But if he did have such a method, it wouldn’t be clear he was offering a bad deal. Moreover, we teach Descartes inside epistemology. If Cinta is being offered a version of Descartes’s deal, then it is arguable that she really has an epistemic reason to accept the deal.

What interests me about the cases of Melati and Cinta is that they suggest a way to capture the asymmetry in intuitions about higher-order evidence. Many people think that higher-order evidence can be good grounds to lose a belief. But I’ve never seen a case where the natural intuition is that higher-order evidence gives the agent grounds to adopt a belief where the first-order evidence is insufficient. Here’s a hypothesis that explains that. Higher-order evidence should be grouped in with things like Descartes’s motivation for doubting all one’s prior beliefs, if not with Pascal’s motivation for belief in God. And it is plausible that these kind of considerations in terms of epistemic consequences can provide reasons, perhaps even epistemic reasons, to lose a prior belief, without providing reasons to adopt a previously unheld belief.

April 04, 2014

Applicant Day!

Friday the 4th April sees us hosting another Applicant Day for RPE (and History/RPE) applicants, here at our Francis Close Hall Campus in Cheltenham.

All are very welcome - and we hope you find out everything you need to about the course.

Here are some pictures of the campus.. I'm hopeful it'll be dry tomorrow - but can't guarantee golden sunshine...

Another good way to get a sense of what we offer is to browse through our blog and other online resources - by using the tabs above..

Another way to get a good sense of what it's like to be a student here is to look at our Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/RPEglos/ - and see students talking to each other and to us, or click the pic below for our photo gallery:

Click to see our Flickr gallery..

April 03, 2014

Meditation visit..

Many thanks to Justin Whitaker, who came to do a meditation practice with year 2 yesterday. The meditation was a metta-bhavana practice, and we had a discussion of the practice before and after.  Justin is also the author of the influential American Buddhist Perspective blog, and students can read more there...

I also interview Justin about meditation in Buddhism on our video-bloh here too: http://philosvids.wordpress.com/2013/08/06/meditation-in-buddhism/

The Prezi from last week's class on Meditation is also available.

April 01, 2014

RPE Staff Portrait...

Some of the RPE staff - as perceived by our third years..
I hope you can tell who is who...

March 28, 2014

Cordoba 2014...

So - we set of at 3am on 11th March for Spain - and after some exciting coach, plane, coach and walking: we arrived at our Hotel in Cordoba by early afternoon. We went on our usual orientation tour, featuring supermarkets, chemists, museums, fast and slow food outlets and a general bit of wandering around - culminating in Plaza Corredera for an early evening drink..

Looking back from Calahorra Tower towards the Mezquita
That allowed for an early start on the Wednesday at the Torre de la Calahorra museum - this is a museum (with audio headphone guides!) that covers the 'Golden Age' and talks of Mulsim, Christian and Jewish life in the region - it culminates on the roof of the tower - where we have 5 years of pictures (only one in actual rain!) 
Also on the Wednesday - we went to the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos to look at the site used for the Alcazar - and get a sense of its history. Then to the Archaeological Museum - for a glance at Cordoba's more ancient (mostly Roman) past.

Imma with students in the Mezquita / Cathedral of Cordoba
We met Imma – our expert tour guide – for the tour of the Mezquita / Cathedral – which is a highlight of the trip for many.

The tour took us from the Mezquita courtyard to the Jewish quarter, to see a ruined synagogue, as we hear about the history of the town and region: we then entered the Mezquita and had a wealth of detail from Imma about the amazing building.

Thursday afternoon saw us head to the Bath-house of the Caliphs, a small underground museum - with some bloody tales...

Then we walked to the Museum of Jewish life –  for our guided visit: The tour guide, Alex, not only gave us a lot of detail - but also finished the visit by singing to us!

We then - on Friday - had a day in Seville to see the Royal Alcazar there - and the huge, huge Seville Cathedral.. - most students even did the massive walk to the top of the tower for the views..  Everyone made the late train back - as we returned to Cordoba.

Saturday was the day of our trip to the ruined Islamic city of Medina Azahara - about 8km from the city - with a really detailled and informative museum at the site. After coaches, shuttle buses, gift shops and sunshine (with lots of learning thrown in) - we returned for an afternoon of gift shopping (Mosque snow-domes anyone?) - before walking back over the roman bridge at 6.30 am on Sunday to begin our journey home...

Cats on Campus?

The mysterious FCH cat..
I noticed yesterday that when I post important matters on the RPE Facebook group, I get a few likes - some intelligent comment - but when I post a picture of a cat on FCH campus: the likes go wild...

Now - everyone knows that I like cats, have cats, and have been known to include cat memes in presentations - but this fever for the campus cat seems beyond reason?

If you spot the cat on site - email me a picture and I'll pop it on our course Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/58244916@N00/

March 17, 2014


Moved -> you should be redirected shortly !

March 10, 2014

RPE Cordoba Trip 2014..

We will be leaving for Spain shortly - meeting in just over ten hours, at 2.30am - to study the Islamic, Christian and Jewish history, philosophy and culture of Andalusia, via our base in Cordoba.

You can follow the trip via our photo gallery: HERE, and via Twitter HERE...

March 04, 2014

Anger kills...?

Over at the Guardian's Comment is Free you can find me wondering about different types of anger..


Just some speculation, wondering about perhaps thinking more about different types of anger, but it seems to have generated plenty of comment (which was probably the point...)

February 23, 2014

February 21, 2014

Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil: Chapter Three and the Eternal Recurrence

Given that Nietzsche has a reputation for being an atheist, this chapter may come as something as a surprise to many, as it demonstrates Nietzsche’s own ‘religiosity’. In looking at religious belief, Nietzsche is more concerned with why people believe what they do, not what they believe. It is the psychology of religion that is his main concern.

Here I want to focus on the key Section 56, as this presents his notion of the ‘eternal recurrence’. Apart from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the doctrine of the eternal recurrence only gets a few mentions in his later works. However, the doctrine was first elaborated in The Gay Science (S341) where Nietzsche presents a ‘what  if’ image.  He asks what if a demon were to creep up to you one night when you are all alone and, feeling lonely, and were to say to you that the life you have lived and continue to live will be the same life you will live again and again for infinity. This life will be exactly the same; no additions, and no omissions, every pain, every joy, every small and great event.  If this were the case, would you cry out in despair over such a prospect, or would you think it to be the most wonderful outlook ever? Though not mentioned specifically, this ‘what if’ scenario sums up the eternal recurrence: whatever in fact happens has happened an infinite number of times in the exact same detail and will continue to do so for eternity. You have lived your life an infinite  number of times in the past and will do so an infinite number  of times in the future.

Importantly, like seemingly the doctrine of the will to power, Nietzsche presents the eternal recurrence as a thought experiment,  not a provable truth. In his unpublished notes of the time (which should always be treated with caution) he argues for it as a cosmological thesis. However, it is most appropriately (given what we know about Nietzsche’s epistemological views) seen as an existential challenge: given this burdensome thought how can we turn it into something joyful? It is essentially the same kind of question that has preoccupied a number of existential thinkers, most notably Camus. Nietzsche goes beyond Schopenhauer’s pessimism here in expressing the need for a human being to be world-affirming: you have to be well-disposed towards yourself, not full of world-weary pessimism or hoping for the next life. You have to look at your life and, like seeing a drama or hearing a musical, declare ‘de capo’ (‘from the beginning’): wanting it again and again. Saying ‘yes’. Nietzsche ends S56 with ‘a vicious circle made god?’, but this is the god Dionysus, not the Christian God.

The eternal recurrence is meant to have a transforming effect, which requires a revaluation of all values. It requires us to be proud of our achievements because they are our creation. Nonetheless, like religious belief, adopting the eternal recurrence is a matter of ‘faith’. Where it differs from religious belief is that it does not place that faith in something other-worldly, but in this life.

February 18, 2014

Every Blog Has Its Day

The FSPB has had a good run, but it’s been a while since it has been the active place for student discussions “of issues philosophical, religious, moral, political, and scientific” that it once was. So, it’s time for the blog to sign off. There will be no new posts, but all of the old material will […]

Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil: Chapter Two and the Will to Power

The ultimate concern of this chapter is the possibility of philosophy.  If we accept that our ‘truths’ are merely the prejudices of philosophers, then we are led to scepticism.  However, Nietzsche believes that there is a role for the genuine philosopher, and this involves a ‘free spirit’ (‘spirit’ [geist] also translated as ‘mind’) that goes beyond scepticism and involves a new insight into nature.  This leads to a new philosophy, a new ‘religion’ that also entails a new morality and politics.

The ‘free spirit’ is what anticipates the ‘philosopher of the future’. Here Nietzsche asks us to see the world differently – ultimately as expressions of the will to power. A key section of Chapter 2 on the topic of the will to power is Section 36. Note how Nietzsche uses terms such as ‘assuming this’ and ‘supposing that’, so this passage presumably cannot be seen as a straightforward statement of what the will to power is (keep in mind what Nietzsche has already said about the will to power in Sections 13 and 22, in particular that all is ‘interpretation’). To some extent then, what Nietzsche is presenting is a thought-experiment and is highly speculative. Having said that, Burnham points out that, given that truth equals representation for Nietzsche, then Section 36 – and all of Nietzsche’s views for that matter – are both statements of what is and are highly speculative.

Whereas scholars such as Arthur Danto argue that this is Nietzsche’s ontology, other scholars such as Maudemarie Clark, points out that this view would conflict with what Nietzsche says in Sections 13 and 22, which is why the passage is deliberately set out in hypothetical form. Having said that, as Janaway notes, Nietzsche is nonetheless presenting his view; not so much ‘ontological’ as ‘psychological’.

In Section 36, Nietzsche presents a series of hypothesis:

1.    Suppose that one ‘representation’ (i.e. what is ‘real’) of the world is that it consists of drives and passions and nothing else. Thinking (intellect) is only a relationship between these drives. Thinking is not a representation of these drives, but the drives themselves!
2.    Suppose also that the ‘material world’, the world of mechanistic cause and effect, is also part of this model and so is actually an organic unity. i.e. drives, the will, etc. are not something separate from the physical. So the physical world is not delusion, not ‘appearance’ but, rather, part of Nietzsche’s  model (which is itself an ‘appearance’)
3.    All organic functions can be ‘traced back’ to the will to power in the sense that all things are a power relationship, to achieve mastery and dominance (not something separate from the drives, but rather that which consolidates the drives). This includes thought itself (and philosophy): it is the will to power spiritualized! It is abstract ideas etc. that, ironically, often set out to disguise the will to power by giving other explanations for the world.

The key thing to note here is that the scientific view of the world sees everything in terms of physical cause and effect, whereas Nietzsche speculates that it is will; a kind of ‘instinctual life’ which includes emotions. Even physical process, such as animals or plants feeding on other animals or plants, involves the will to power, of matter acting on (and taking over or consuming) other matter. In an existential (phenomenological) sense, Nietzsche is saying that we experience the world this way, not that this is the way the world really is.

February 14, 2014

New book out by RPE tutor

Roy Jackson’s new book What is Islamic Philosophy? has just been published by Routledge. It offers a broad introduction to Islamic thought, from its origins to the many challenging issues facing Muslims in the contemporary world. The chapters explore early Islamic philosophy and trace its development through key themes and figures up to the twenty-first century.

Topics covered include:
  • ethical issues such as just war, abortion, women’s rights, homosexuality and cloning
  • questions in political philosophy regarding what kind of Islamic state could exist and how democratic can (or should) Islam really be
  • the contribution of Islam to ‘big questions’ such as the existence of God, the concept of the soul, and what constitutes truth
    "This excellent book provides a user-friendly introduction to the emergence and subsequent developments of Islamic philosophy. Jackson’s problem-oriented approach also shows, in a skilful manner, the relevance of this philosophy to some of the most pressing issues of our time in important fields such as politics, ethics and religion." - Ali Paya, University of Westminster (UK), Islamic College (UK), and National Research Institute for Science Policy (Iran)

Applicant Day..

There will be an Applicant Day for people who've applied for the RPE (Religion, Philosophy & Ethics) course on Wednesday 19 February.
It’s a chance to get a feel for the University of Gloucestershire, for what it would be like to study here, and to ask any nagging questions about the course (if you have them). One of the sessions will offer a taste of what RPE students experience in lectures, and the subjects they explore:

Religion, Philosophy and Ethics: The Examined LifePlato famously said that an unexamined life was not worth living. But what is an unexamined life? How would you live a life that had no religion, philosophy and ethics in it, and if you did, would that really be a problem? 

Don’t worry if you can’t make 19 February, there will be another Applicant Day on 04 April.

Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil: Chapter One

Chapter 1, The Prejudice of Philosophers, is concerned with considering the history of philosophy and declaring that traditional philosophy now lies in ruins. Before moving on to consider key themes presented in Chapter 1, be aware that BGE (Beyond Good and Evil) has a clear structure to it.  It is in nine parts: beginning with a Preface and ending with a ‘Concluding Ode’, it is broken up with the first three parts dealing with philosophy and religion, Chapter 4 as an ‘Interlude’ of very short aphorisms, and Chapters 5-9 are concerned with politics and morality. The importance of Chapter 1 rests in Nietzsche’s belief that his works can only be appreciated and understood by the few: if you can get through Chapter 1 and have survived then you can be initiated into the next stage.

Section 1 of Chapter 1 is one of the most famous in the book.  It begins with something of a bombshell, “Given that we want truth: why not prefer untruth?”  Nietzsche here is bringing into question what is regarded as the fundamental drive of philosophy: the will to truth.  To assume the value of truth for human beings is to assume that there is a concord between truth and our nature; that truth is integral to our nature.  However, for Nietzsche, truth is deadly. The philosophical quest for ‘truth’ is nothing but a myth, a lie that has become indispensable for our survival.  Nietzsche, early on, is laying out the task before him:  if mankind has lived on the ‘lie’ that we must look for ‘truth’ then how are we to break away from that belief? 

Nietzsche, like all of us, is trapped by the limitations of language. As a philologist, Nietzsche recognised the power of language and is an early precursor of Wittgenstein in his views of language as imposing a ‘reality’ upon the world. Much of our language, containing such concepts as ‘God’, ‘truth’, ‘soul’ and so on are a product of primitive psychology and we are yet to accept that these terms are redundant.  As Nietzsche points out:

“Language, at its origin, belongs to an age of the most rudimentary form of psychology.  We enter a realm of gross fetishism when we become conscious of the fundamental presuppositions of the metaphysics of language or, in plain words, of ‘reason’…I am afraid we shall not get rid of God until we get rid of grammar”
(Twilight of the Idols, III)

Readers often find Nietzsche confusing when he criticises the quest for truth or, as in Section 12, talks of the need to get rid of the concept of the soul, yet also calls for “new and refined versions” of the concept of the soul.  When Nietzsche talks of “untruth” he is not suggesting that we all should live a life of falsehoods, rather that what is regarded as ‘truth’ is a falsehood. The trick, when reading Nietzsche, is to know when he is talking about his view on truth and when he is using the word in reference to the quest of past philosophers such as Plato and Kant.  Ideally, Nietzsche would like to be rid of such terms as ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ altogether for, as he says in Section 4, “We do not object to a judgement just because it is false; this is probably what is strangest about our new language.  The question is rather to what extent the judgement furthers life, preserves life, preserves the species, perhaps even cultivates the species…” 

Nietzsche attacks Plato and Kant because of their methods of questing for truth, yet, because Nietzsche believes that philosophy has a future, that it can act as a guide for mankind, he does have views on what is truth.  These views are tied in to the Will to Power, the basic drive of mankind.  The Will to Power is mentioned four times in  Chapter 1, with reference to philosophy itself, then in respect of biology (the ‘science of life’), to physics (the ‘science of nature’) and to psychology (the ‘science of the human soul’).  It is the latter, the human ‘soul’ - bearing in mind what Nietzsche understands by the term ‘soul’…back to the problem of language again – that Nietzsche believes gives us privileged access to a ‘reality’, to a ‘truth’ shared by all beings.  It is curious that, whereas Nietzsche is often critical of Plato, he also shares many of the same aims and methods, both in terms of the rehabilitation of the philosopher and his importance, and, for those of you who are familiar with Plato’s famous cave allegory, the Socratic ‘turning’ towards the truth.

This ‘turning’ however, is not seemingly a metaphysical one, not pointing towards the stars for answers.  For Nietzsche, psychology is the “queen of the sciences” and, indeed, Nietzsche was as much a psychologist as a philosopher.  Nietzsche took it upon himself to discover what it meant to be truly human.  His criticism of such one-time friends as Wagner is that they ceased to be disgusted by the falsehoods and, instead, indulged in them.  Again, not unlike the prisoners in Plato’s cave, it is far more comfortable to live in the world of shadows than to be dragged up towards the real world.  For Nietzsche, this meant an existence that was jobless, wifeless, childless, homeless and stateless.  Ultimately, it may have cost him his sanity, although, prosaically, this may well have been an unavoidable medical condition.

In Section 6, Nietzsche claims that the “instinct for knowledge” that is, the will to truth, is not the “father of philosophy”, but that there is a more basic instinct.  “Every instinct is tyrannical; and as such seeks to philosophise.”  Philosophies (and philosophers) are seeking one thing: mastery, to be the ultimate purpose for all existence.  This mastery is what Nietzsche means by the Will to Power, although he reserves using the term itself until Section 9.  Philosophy is driven by the lust to rule, a lust that can be utilised for good as well as bad.  This is why Nietzsche gives philosophy such importance for, unlike other “scholars” (that is, the scientists), philosophers have the added bonus of being spiritual and intellectual.  For Nietzsche, the best philosophy is ‘science with a soul’. 

Nietzsche’s understanding of the Will to Power is best understood with reference to his own background.  Nietzsche studied and taught philology, which is the study of language and literature.  In particular, Nietzsche was concerned with classical philology.  It is said that when he gave lectures at Basel University his students felt that this man had literally been transported through time from ancient Greece; such was his knowledge and explication of the subject.  A key endeavour of BGE is to recover a Greek wisdom prior to Socrates and Plato; a ‘Homeric vision’ celebrated in its tragedies.  Nietzsche believed that the Platonic distinction between the real and apparent worlds, for a metaphysical truth, replaced this pre-Socratic wisdom not because it is true, but because it is safe.  Nietzsche believes his philosophy is a risk-taking adventure, a series of “dangerous maybes”.  The science of the psyche, especially, he believed could make actual discoveries that are both dangerous and promising.  It is the voyage of a new Odysseus who risks the danger of shipwreck for the hope of a whole new continent of discoveries. The theme of a ‘new voyage’ was a recurrent one with Nietzsche, as can be seen from this quote in The Gay Science:

“We philosophers and free spirits in fact feel at the news that the ‘old God is dead’ as if illumined by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, astonishment, presentiment, expectation – at last the horizon seems to us again free, even if it is not bright, at last our ships can put out again, no matter the danger, every daring venture of knowledge is again permitted, the sea, our sea again lies there open before us, perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’”
(The Gay Science, 343)

Nietzsche is not a nihilist in the sense that he does not conclude that, as there is no God, then ‘nothing matters’.  He does not talk of the end of all values, but the transvaluation of all values. In Section 13, Nietzsche asserts, “life itself is the will to power”.  Biology is wrong in believing that self-preservation is the primary instinct.  Rather than preserve life, “A living being wants above all else to release its strength.” 

Nietzsche was interested in Darwinian theory, and also had an attraction towards scientific knowledge, hence his tribute to Copernicus and Boscovich. Nietzsche is neither an idealist nor a materialist, but a philosopher who aims to provide an explanation of the world grounded in the interpretations of physics and biology. Buried as he was in ancient Greek wisdom, Nietzsche interprets physics as a rational inquiry into the way of human beings, as ‘physis’: he is not a proponent of modern physics, on the reliance upon materialism, but on the ‘psyche’ and human nature, on what it means to be a human being. 

What is Islamic Philosophy?

One of the greatest philosophers is the German Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant is, of course, a ‘Western’ philosopher and not an Islamic philosopher, although I might add that it is quite possible to be ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ at the same time, but it is a curious fact that there exists a copy of Kant’s doctoral thesis certificate (see picture), dated 1755, which has inscribed at the top of the title page the Arabic words bismillah al-rahman al-rahim (most common translation: ‘in the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate’). This short and poetic phrase is regarded as containing the true essence of the Quran (the Islamic holy scripture) and, it is frequently cited at daily prayers and other contexts by Muslims. Why this Arabic phrase should appear at the top of Kant’s doctoral thesis is a puzzling one, and we will likely never know the answer. It is unlikely Kant placed it there himself, for he makes little mention of Islam in his writings, but I remark upon the existence of this thesis here because, in many ways, it raises the question of the relationship between the firmly-established Western philosophical tradition - with such giants as Kant - and the perhaps more fragile existence of Islamic philosophy. Is it really possible to propose that there is congruence between such philosophical system-builders as Kant and what Islamic philosophers have to say in their great volumes or, for that matter, what can be found in the Quran? Or does this bismillah merely poke fun at the very idea that Islam could offer anything of value to philosophical discourse when compared to such earth-shattering contributors to modern thought that Kant, amongst others, represents? This is why I say that Islamic philosophy seems more ‘fragile’ in this respect, for the ground upon which it rests seems more slippery. But why is this the case, and does it really make any sense at all to even speak of an ‘Islamic philosophy’?

February 12, 2014

Crossing Boundaries in Religious Studies: take for instance that detestable 'Malleus Maleficarum'...

Despite the ‘methodological agnosticism’ our discipline has been… constructively criticised for and despite the phenomenological egg-shells some of us still tread on with care, the exciting thing about being a religious studies scholar today is that one has the freedom to cross the boundaries between more established disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, history or psychology. Most of my students do this without even thinking, although with premeditated intent!  They are stimulated by being able to ask the sort of questions that may not be interesting (nor possible) in other fields of study.

For example I have recently been talking about witches with some of my students – witches of the very fictional and medieval sort – and I found myself reading to them from none other than the infamous MalleusMaleficarum, the textbook of the Inquisition. Better known in its English translation as The Hammer of Witches, this book aimed to justify the persecution of hundreds of thousands of women – the use of the feminine gender for the adjective maleficus (feminine malefica/ maleficarum), Latin for wicked or criminal, being a clue for which of the two sexes might have been considered more susceptible to demonic influences.

Authored by two German clergymen in 1487 Malleus does not match what literary critics call ‘the horizons of expectation’ of its age – the historical, scientific or cultural context towards which a literary text naturally aspires and is in turn received and decoded by its readers. Dogmatic and brutal, this is perhaps not the sort of popular text one would expect to find in Germany, or Europe more widely, during the Renaissance. In fact it may have just providentially ended up quarantined on some dusty old shelf, had it not been concomitant with the development of the printing press.  As it turns out over the next two centuries it was going to be reprinted almost thirty times. Alas, the printing press was the Internet of its day: used for both good and evil.

The Hammer of Witches is shocking in many ways, but perhaps what is deeply unsettling about it is the extent of its heretical beliefs about the human body. Although the authors pretend not to be fooled by such ‘devil work and illusion’, we may still enquire into what sort of processes may have allowed many educated clergymen and laymen alike to entertain these sort of wild ideas? What might be the reason or reasons for such an irrational fear as having one’s sexual organs secretly stolen? What may be the emotional or social link (not intended to mean a sequential link) between monasticism and the inquisition? Religious traditions abound in norms, customs and symbolism about human sexuality and it seems that the accompanying emotions have often been sublimated in ways intended to leave no trace of their existence. Luckily students always ask about what is missing or hidden from view.

And so for those students out there who want to ask the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions of social sciences as well as the ‘yes but, what do they really believe?’ and the ‘what do they do?’ or ‘what does it mean?’, I would say: come cross some boundaries in religious studies!

Craig Tuffin + wet plate photography

There is an upcoming Wet Plate Collodion Gathering in Australia, which is designed for both novices and those more practiced at using this antiquarian technique at Gold Street Studios, Trentham, Victoria. It is run by Craig Tuffin. Craig Tuffin, The Separation of Eve', 2012, 11"x14" Clear Glass Ambrotype Tuffin's image...

February 11, 2014

2nd CFP: Second Annual Philosophers' Cocoon Philosophy Conference

Note: new deadline! (March 15th)

I am pleased to announce this call-for-papers for the Second Annual Philosophers' Cocoon Philosophy Conference (PCPC), which I have tentatively scheduled to occur at the University of Tampa on Saturday July 19 through Sunday July 20th, 2014. As was the case at this year's conference, the Second Annual PCPC will be unique in several respects:

  • Although attendance at the conference and participating as session chairs or commentators will be open to all members of the profession, paper presenters must be early-career philosophers -- basically, anyone who doesn't have tenure (e.g. graduate students, post-docs, VAP, TT Assistant Profs, independent scholars, etc.)
  • Due to the kinds of travel-funding issues that early-career philosophers often face, several paper sessions (the exact number of which will be determined later) will be reserved for Skype presentations in which the author will be projected, and field audience questions, in real time over the internet (these went very well this year!).
  • Although commentators and audience members are encouraged to present objections to papers, a guiding aim of the conference will beconstructive criticism, i.e. helping authors to improve problems (e.g. by not only raising objections, but offering and discussing possible solutions).
  • Because successfully navigating the publishing world is one of the most difficult capacities for early-career philosophers to develop, and typical conference-length papers are too short (3,000 words) to publish, we will welcome submissions the length of any typical journal article (20-30 pages double-spaced) -- the aim being to help early-career philosophers develop full-length papers into publishable quality. As a rule of thumb, the longer the paper, the higher the standards for acceptance to the conference. Extremely long papers are discouraged.
  • In order to defray costs of attendance (once again out of concern for the needs of early-career scholars), there will be no registration fee, and consequently no official banquet, snacks, etc. Tampa is awesome, and there are many affordable places to meet, eat, and congregate around the university.

It would be great to have some experimental philosophy talks. I hope to stream all talks live via the internet and, if time permits, take some audience questions from internet viewers by email. 

To submit a paper to present at the PCPC, please email the following to marvan@ut.edu by MARCH 15th, 2014: (1) a blinded (i.e. anonymized) paper, (2) a separate title page with the author's name, contract information, and brief paper abstract, and (3) a statement concerning whether you intend to attend the conference in person or only via Skype.

Decision emails indicating whether your paper has been accepted should be sent out around May, 2014. Finally, please bear the following in mind: In order to ensure that the conference is well-attended, there will be relatively few Skype sessions -- so the probability that your paper will be accepted is higher should you state in your submission email that you can attend in person.  Submission of a paper comprises a tacit agreement to serve as a commentator or session chair should your paper be accepted and you accept the invitation to present.

February 10, 2014


So - we now have an official twitter account for the course at @RPEatGlos  - we will no doubt tweet endlessly, it'll be a constant stream of wisdom..

February 01, 2014

Richard Stringer: Queensland architecture

Richard Stringer has spent a lifetime photographing Queensland’s built environment, both modern and historic, in Brisbane and throughout the state. He is the author of Vanishing Queensland, a body of monochromatic photographs of the old buildings in Queensland. Richard Stringer, Andrew Petrie stonemasons, 1980, printed 1987, Gelatin silver photograph He...

January 29, 2014

Claudia Terstappen: bush fire landscapes

Claudia Terstappen's Northern Territory landscapes are intriguing as they are about fire: Claudia Terstappen, Bushfire III (Northern Territory, Australia), 2002, Bushfire III (Northern Territory, Australia) 2002, From the series Our ancestors 1990- This is a landscape that is shaped by fire: Claudia Terstappen, After the fire (Northern Territory, Australia), 2002,...

January 28, 2014

Speaking Well of the Dead: Maps of Human Values

Just a quick note to let y'all know that, together with Andrew Higgins and Jacob Levernier, I've started to map human values by data-mining obituaries.  The basic idea is to display networks of the traits and other good-making features attributed to people in their obituaries.  Here's an example, based on obituaries from Eugene, Oregon:

Test Descriptions

The size of the words indicates the number of other words that co-occurred with them in a single obituary. The thickness and brightness of the edge connecting a pair of terms indicates how many times those terms co-occurred. Terms that share their color grouped together in much the same way that items in a factor analysis group together: they tend to co-occur with each other and not with other terms.  The pink and light-blue groups are probably too small to interpret, but the others seem to meaningful.  For instance, the green group is centered on humor and agreeableness.  The red group seems to be mostly a matter of political liberalism.  And the dark-blue group seems to be about commitment to the local community.

I'll be putting up more of these and discussing them at my blog.

January 27, 2014

John Davies: the shock of the old

John Davies is known for his north of England landscapes.and the industrialisation of space. Those made between 1979 and 2005 show the complex scenery of post industrial and industrial Britain. He is widely regarded as Britain's leading landscape photographer, and has spent 30 years photographing the industrial and post-industrial landscapes...

January 21, 2014

The Sundance Film Festival Portraits

Photographer Victoria Will wet plate (Tintypes) portraits made at The Sundance Film Festival of some of Hollywood's current film stars. Victoria Will, Mark Ruffalo, Sundance portraits The results are unpredictable because of the finicky nature of the chemistry but the process does suit portraiture: Victoria Will, Michael Shannon, Sundance portraits...

January 14, 2014

Claude Cahun: surrealism

Originally and most publicly a writer, Cahun rarely published and never exhibited her photographs which were not created, for the most part, for public consumption. Although recognised for her literary contribution in France, in the English-speaking world Cahun has come to be known primarily for her performative self portraits of...

January 13, 2014

Francesca Woodman: self, femininity and photography

Francesca Woodman was an America photographer who lived from 1958 until 1981. Her interest was in female subjectivity, seriality, Conceptualist practice, and photography’s relationship to both literature and performance. Though she experimented with various types of camera and formats of film while working, many of her pictures were made using...

January 12, 2014

picturing the cosmos

This composite image is from NASA's Dawn mission and it shows the flow of material inside and outside a crater called Aelia on the giant asteroid Vesta. The area is around 14 degrees south latitude. The images that went into this composite were obtained by Dawn's framing camera from September...

January 08, 2014

acquisition's in the tech industry: iPhoneography

I hate this. A small company develops good software, gets bought out by a giant tech company, and the software is taken off the market. A case in point is the KitCam app for the iPhone made by GhostBird Software. It is an iPhone camera app that augments apple’s built-in...

December 29, 2013

ravaged landscapes

From Lewis Baltz's Candlestick Point-- a book of stark photographs of a ravaged, ugly land that is far removed from an heroic vision of America. This is the wasteland. Lewis Baltz, Candlestick Point, #45, 1989 This is conceptual rigorous work premised on groups of images or a series. As a...

December 17, 2013

aerial views of the Australian landscape

The aerial view of the landscape offers a different perspective to earth-bound landscape photographers. The former has been photographically explored by Richard Woldendorp. He works from small aircraft such as a Cessna flying between 500 and 1,000 metres above the ground and uses three different cameras, a Pentax 6x7, a...