The York Philosophy Colloquium is run by the Department of Philosophy at the University of York. We meet most Wednesdays during term in the department’s seminar room SB/A009 in Sally Baldwin Building Block A, usually between 16:00 and 17:30. The colloquium is followed by drinks.
Programme 2017 / 2018
Seth Lazar (Australian National University)
‘Deontological Decision Theory and the Grounds of Subjective Permissibility’
What grounds deontological judgements of subjective permissibility? In virtue of what is an act subjectively permissible or impermissible? I will consider two possibilities: verdicts of objective permissibility; and objective moral reasons. On the first approach, subjective permissibility aims to optimally satisfy objective permissibility, given our uncertainty, and weighing risks and opportunities. On the second approach, subjective permissibility aims to optimally satisfy our objective moral reasons, given our uncertainty. An account of subjective permissibility adopts the verdicts approach if it takes objective verdicts as inputs. One example: 'minimise expected objective wrongness' (Graham ; Olsen ). The reasons approach is naturally associated with: 'maximise expected objective deontic value' (Colyvan et al. ; Oddie and Milne ). I will argue that the reasons approach is right, but that we have to put more of the 'deontological' into 'deontological decision theory', and rely less on the model of orthodox rational decision theory.
Jonathan Jacobs (CUNY)
‘Resentment and Civility: Keeping Criminal Justice Within Limits’
Despite respects in which resentment can be toxic as a sentiment and as a motive it can have a morally constructive role and there are reasons not to wish it away or always resist it as fully as possible. It can, as Adam Smith argued, reflect a concern to see justice done and it is connected with regarding persons—wrongdoers and victims—as voluntary, accountable agents. Properly ordered resentment can help sustain the civility of civil society. (P.F. Strawson gave a somewhat different account of resentment’s place in moral life.) I am not defending Smith’s moral theory though there are rich moral-psychological resources in it. The other main claim is that an approach to criminal sanction that is fairly austere and focuses on desert, censure, proportionality, and parsimony—rather than consequentialist aims—is a good candidate for being morally and politically justifiable. I outline the case for this and for the way that the considerations concerning resentment figure in making the case.
Peter Epstein (Cambridge)
‘A Priori Concepts in Euclidean Proof’
For over two millennia, Euclid’s Elements was seen as a paradigm of a priori reasoning. With the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries, and the eventual realization that our universe is itself non-Euclidean, the status of our geometrical knowledge was radically undermined. In the wake of this upheaval, philosophers adopted two revisionary interpretations of Euclidean proof. Some suggested that we understand Euclidean proof as a purely formal system of deductive logic – one not concerned with specifically geometrical content at all. Others suggested that Euclidean proof employs concepts derived from our sensory experience or imagination. I argue that both interpretations fail to capture the true nature of our geometrical reasoning. Euclidean proof is not a purely formal system of deductive logic, but one in which our grasp of the content of geometrical concepts plays a central role; moreover, our grasp of this content is a priori, rather than being derived from experience.
Heather Logue (Leeds)
The nature of gender is at the heart of ongoing public conversations occasioned by the increased visibility of transgender people—for example, when someone born with a Y-chromosome and a penis holds the sincere belief that she is a woman, what exactly does she believe herself to be? This question raises a dilemma. On the one hand, any theory on which sincerely believing that one is a woman isn't sufficient for being one entails that some women aren't women. On the other, we can avoid excluding any women by refusing to specify any condition on being a woman beyond believing that one is. But in this case, we wouldn't have a satisfying answer to the question of what someone who believes that she is a woman believes herself to be. We can respond to this dilemma by adopting fictionalism about gender. Broadly speaking, fictionalism is the view that some portion of our ordinary talk is best characterised as not aiming at literal truth, but rather as constituting a fiction. Just as we can be fictionalists about mathematical talk, talk of possible worlds, or talk of morality, we could be fictionalists about talk of gender. This enables us to say that there is simply no fact of the matter as to what womanhood (manhood, etc.) really is. On this view, being a woman can be a matter of believing that one is—it’s just that the belief ascribes a property posited within the scope of a fiction, and so there need be no deep, substantive answer to the question of what someone who believes she is a woman believes herself to be. The main task of this talk will be to develop the details of gender fictionalism, and to respond to some obvious objections.
Charles Pigden (Otago)
‘Two Arguments for Emotivism and a Methodological Moral: Russell, Ayer and Moore’
In 1913 Russell gave up on the Moorean good. But since naturalism was not an option that still left two alternatives: the error-theory and non-cognitivism. On the whole, Russell preferred non-cognitivism. Why? Because emotivism sorts better with Russell’s Fundamental Principle that the ‘sentences we can understand must be composed of words with whose meaning we are acquainted’. I construct an argument for emotivism featuring the Fundamental Principle that closely parallels Ayer’s verificationist argument in Langauge, Truth and Logic. I contend that Russell’s argument, like Ayer’s, is vulnerable to a Moorean critique. This suggests an important moral: revisionist theories of meaning such as verificationism and the Fundamental Principle are prima facie false. Ditto revisionist theories of the meanings of the moral terms such as emotivism.
Jordi Fernandez (Adelaide)
‘The Functionalist Theory of memory’
The purpose of this paper is to determine what is to remember something, as opposed to imagining it, perceiving it, or introspecting it. First, I will discuss the two main existing conceptions of the conditions that a mental state must satisfy to count as an episode of remembering. The first of these approaches is backward-looking. It puts forward conditions that strictly concern the aetiology of the mental state. I will argue that the conditions offered by the backward-looking approach are both too strong and too weak: They rule out mental states which, intuitively, count as memories while including mental states which, intuitively, do not qualify as memories. The second approach is forward-looking. It puts forward conditions that only concern the use that the subject makes of the mental state while forming beliefs about their own life. I will argue that the conditions proposed by the forward-looking approach are both too weak and too strong as well. However, the discussion of the two approaches will allow us to extract some helpful lessons on the constraints that any proposal about the nature of remembering should respect. I will draw on the literature on functionalism to offer an alternative approach. I will argue that this approach can, on the one hand, accommodate as memories those mental states which indicate that the backward-looking approach and the forward-looking approach are too strict while, on the other hand, excluding those mental states which suggest that the two alternative approaches are too permissive. Accordingly, I will conclude that construing memory along functionalist lines is a satisfactory approach to the nature of remembering.
Catarina Dutilh Novaes (Groningen)
‘The Beauty(?) of Mathematical Proofs’
Mathematicians often use aesthetic vocabulary to describe mathematical proofs: they can be beautiful, elegant, ugly etc. In recent years, philosophers of mathematics have begun to ask themselves what these descriptions in fact mean: should we take them literally, as tracking truly aesthetic properties of mathematical proofs, or are these terms being used as proxy for non-aesthetic properties, in particular epistemic properties? Starting from the (largely dialogical) idea that one of the main functions of mathematical proofs is to explain and persuade an interlocutor, I develop an account of the beauty (or ugliness) of mathematical proofs that seems to allow for reconciliation of these apparently opposed accounts of aesthetic judgments in mathematics. I do so by discussing the role of affective responses and emotions in the practice of mathematical proofs, thus arguing that the aesthetic and the epistemic are intrinsically related (while not entirely coinciding) in mathematical proofs.
Alex Voorhoeve (LSE)
‘Epicurus on Pleasure, a Complete Life, and Death: A Defence’
Epicurus famously argued that: "death is nothing to us. For all good and evil lie in sensation, whereas death is the absence of sensation." Many leading philosophers, including Cicero, Nagel, Williams and Feldman, have interpreted this argument in a way that renders it invalid. All that Epicurus' argument establishes, these interpreters claim, is that death is not *intrinsically* bad. But, they continue, death can also be *comparatively* bad for us, by depriving us of more pleasurable time alive. I offer an interpretation of Epicurus' views of pleasure and the complete life which renders Epicurus' argument valid. On this view, one tastes the greatest pleasures when, as a consequence of philosophical reflection, adjusting one's desires, and choosing the right social and natural environment, one has made oneself sufficiently invulnerable to great evils. A necessary condition of such invulnerability is that one's central projects are such that they cannot be thwarted by death. From the perspective of an Epicurean sage who has achieved this state of invulnerability, more pleasurable time alive is welcome, but does not make one's life more complete. For such a sage, death is therefore neither an intrinsic nor a comparative evil.
Nicholas K. Jones (Birmingham)
‘How to Unify with Relational Glue’
The emergence of unity from plurality is central to our conceptual scheme, e.g.: you have many organs, the UK has many regions, and the set of integers contains many numbers. Graham Priest’s provocative recent book One begins by arguing that this phenomenon is inherently contradictory. Priest’s argument is, and is explicitly presented as, a version of Bradley’s regress and the problem of the unity of the proposition. This talk has two goals. The first is to show that Priest’s argument fails: it takes the form of a dilemma, neither horn of which is convincing. The second is to use the failures of Priest’s argument to clarify the proper solution to Bradley’s regress and the unity of the proposition, and to draw some more general lessons about the nature of unity more generally. Central to my proposal is a distinction between two fundamentally different forms of unity into which things can enter.
Alberto Voltolini (Turin)
‘Real Authors and Fictional Agents’
A suitable account of fiction must involve a conceptual distinction between (at least) the following three figures, or roles: real authors, fictional narrators, fictional authors. Real authors may (rarely) coincide either with fictional narrators or with fictional authors. Fictional narrators, however, never coincide with fictional authors, for either one or the other is the fictional agent, the contextual factor that contributes to provide a (truthconditional) content to the fictional tale that is told. Yet the reasons why we need all such figures just partly overlap with those Currie (1990) provides. We do need a fictional author for semantic reasons, that is, in order to account for the fictional truthconditions and truthvalues of fiction-involving sentences in their fictive, or fictional, use. Yet we do not need such an author for epistemic reasons, having to do with reliability in narration. As a result, the semantic reasons for why we need a fictional author do not coincide with those Currie (1990) advocates, which actually appeal to an ascription of omniscience (of a certain sort) to the fictional author.
Susanne Burri (LSE)
‘Morally Permissible Risk Imposition and Liability to Defensive Harm’
In this paper, I examine whether an agent can become liable to possibly lethal defensive harm if they morally permissibly choose to engage in a foreseeably risk-imposing activity that subsequently results in a threat of harm to an innocent other. I first investigate how we should best make sense of the notion of a foreseeably risk-imposing activity. I propose that whenever an agent may permissibly choose to engage in an activity only if she abides by certain duties of care, this renders the activity foreseeably risk-imposing. I then discuss whether an agent can become liable to defensive harm by engaging in such an activity. Those who answer this question in the affirmative argue that it is less unjust if the agent, as opposed to her victim, has to suffer harm that is a result of the agent’s choices. I show that this justificatory rationale is forceful only in the presence of demanding background assumptions.
Luke Elson (Reading)
‘Neither Sharp nor Stupid: Unsharpness and Compound Actions’
‘Unsharp’ preferences and degrees of belief seem to be rationally required or at least permissible. And yet they quickly lead to a diachronic puzzle. In this paper I will defend a solution to this puzzle, in terms of compound actions: if some action X would be impermissible to complete synchronically, then it is impermissible to complete a diachronic sequence of actions that amounts to X.