Ethics and Explanation Workshop

October 12, 2015
Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham

University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD
United Kingdom


  • funded by AHRC


University of St. Andrews
Rebecca Stangl
University of Virginia
Frans Svensson
Umeå University
Kenny Walden
Dartmouth College


Uri Leibowitz
University of Nottingham
Neil Sinclair
University of Nottingham

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Thanks to Speakers, Commentators, and Chairs for a fantastic workshop! Some photos from the event are available here:

Ben Sachs – Moral Theorizing as an Explanatory Project

Abstract: It is uncontroversial that all normative ethical theories contain generalizations; a minimum of one, specifically.  (For instance, Benthamite utilitarianism contains a generalization relating moral permissibility/obligatoriness to utility-maximization.) Therefore, if our moral theorizing is to bear fruit we need to know how to express those generalizations and by what criteria we should assess them.  I begin by pointing out that normative ethical theories, conceived of as sets of generalizations, seem to be underdetermined by our verdictive intuitions—i.e. our intuitions about which actions are impermissible, obligatory, etc.  And I argue that to avoid the underdetermination problem it is necessary and sufficient that we construe moral generalizations as explanatory claims, where an explanatory claim is a claim to the effect that X non-normative fact explains Y verdictive fact.  This shows us, I submit, that moral theorizing is an explanatory project.

Having established my thesis I go on to extract implications from it.  First, it’s a good thing we have explanatory intuitions, because if we didn’t then sound moral theorizing would be impossible for us.  Another implication is that it is a mistake to construe the generalizations contained in normative ethical theories as conditionals or categoricals.  So Benthamite utilitarianism should not be understood as the claim “an action is permissible iff it maximizes utility”.  Furthermore, the problem of exceptions—that is, the apparent fact that all moral generalizations have exceptions—isn’t the sort of problem we thought it was.  Conditionals and categoricals are the kinds of claim that can have exceptions in the classic sense, but explanatory claims don’t universalize and so are susceptible to an exceptions problem only in a non-standard (and much less troubling) way.   Finally, although moral theorizing and scientific theorizing are both explanatory projects, they are importantly different.  For one thing, the theoretical virtue of simplicity should count for a lot more in science than in morality.  And for another, whereas scientific theorists should be much more hesitant to reject what seem to them to be the particular facts than to reject what seem to them to be the general facts, moral theorists should be equally hesitant in the two kinds of case—a fact that has implications for the method of reflective equilibrium.

Frans Svensson – Why Subjectivism About Meaning In Life Might Not Be So Bad After All

Abstract: Several philosophers have argued recently that subjectivism about meaning in life ought to be rejected because “it has seriously counterintuitive implications” (Metz 2013: 175). In this paper I try to show that once we take a closer look at the illustrations provided of these allegedly counterintuitive implications, we find that neither of them is especially convincing—at least not against the background of one particularly attractive form of subjectivism. For those of us on whom subjectivism about life’s meaning exerts a significant pull, this should come as good news since it means that (in at least one of its forms) subjectivism remains a live option.

Rebecca Stangl - Neo-Aristotelian Supererogation

Abstract: In this talk, I develop and defend the following neo-Aristotelian account of supererogation:

An action is supererogatory iff it is overall virtuous and either (a) the omission of an overall virtuous action in that situation would not be overall vicious or (b) there is some overall virtuous action that is less virtuous than it and whose performance in its place would not be overall vicious.

This account is non ad hoc insofar as it is based on virtue-ethical accounts of right and wrong action that are motivated from within the tradition.  And I shall argue that it is intuitively defensible and fully compatible with the doctrine of the mean.

Kenny Walden – Holism about Fact and Value

Abstract: I argue for confirmation holism about fact and value judgments. Unlike previous arguments for this thesis that offer particular examples of fact/value "entanglement", my argument depends on a claim about how explanations of action must go. I say that because of how we are situated as explainers, our best explanations will inevitably deploy fact and value judgments in concert. I then suggest that this thesis is incompatible with some popular metaethical views.

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October 8, 2015, 1:00pm BST

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Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
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