What is the Ockham Society?

The Ockham Society provides a forum in which graduate students in philosophy (particularly BPhil, MSt, and PRS students) may present their ideas to their peers at the University of Oxford. Our aim is to provide every Oxford graduate student with the opportunity to present their ideas in a friendly environment at least once during their time in Oxford. It is an ideal opportunity to gain feedback on your essays, and to gain first experiences in academic presenting. Small, experimental and unfinished papers are just as welcome as more advanced ones.

For Hilary 2018 we meet Wednesdays 13:00 - 14:00 PM in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Lecture Room.

If you would like to present a paper to the society please send a title and abstract of 150 words maximum to Charlotte Figueroa (firstname.lastname(at)philosophy.ox.ac.uk). Oxford DPhil Philosophy students are highly encouraged to present at the DPhil seminar.

Programme for Hilary 2018

Week 1
17 January

Beatriz Santos (Lincoln), chaired by AJ Gilbert
The Metaphysics of De Re Modality and Modal Paradoxes
Transworld identity and counterpart theory are competing analysis of de re modality. Whilst modal paradoxes, focusing on the transitivity of identity, threaten transworld identity, counterpart theory avoids them altogether. Counterpart theorists hold that this is evidence for adopting counterpart theory, but transworld identity theorists argue that they too can easily solve the paradoxes. Particularly, Salmon (1979, 2005) arguably solves the paradoxes focusing on the transitivity of identity by rejecting the modal logic S4. I will argue that the stand-off between counterpart theory and transworld identity can be broken in favour of counterpart theory. To do this, I put forward a new modal paradox - the "Two-Worlds Paradox" - which focuses on the symmetry of identity. To consistently solve my paradox, Salmon would have to reject the modal logic B. I argue that Salmon cannot provide independent motivation for rejecting both S4 and B, and thus cannot solve all the paradoxes that threaten transworld identity. The counterpart theorist, on the other hand, can easily avoid my paradox too. I conclude that this is evidence for abandoning transworld identity and accepting counterpart theory.
Week 2
24 January
Reuben Oreffo (Mansfield), chaired by Laurenz Casser
Colour dispositionalism as a common-sense theory
In this presentation, I identify three theses that are indisputably part of a common-sense conception of colour. A desideratum for any tenable colour theory is most plausibly (I argue) that it can accommodate these theses. Against the dispositional theory, it has been alleged that it precludes our common-sense claims. I maintain, however, that dispositionalism is in fact the only of the four dominant theories of colour - dispositionalism, physicalism, primitivism and eliminativism - to successfully accommodate them. My discussion can be thought to provide a first step in a systematic defence of the dispositional theory.

Week 3
31 January

Tomi Francis (St Catherine's), chaired by Sean Troxel
Can we avoid human axiological replaceability?
Peter Singer's replaceability argument appears to show that for some consequentialists, certain animals are replaceable: under certain conditions, they may permissibly be killed and replaced by other animals which are morally equivalent in the right sort of way. Although this argument does not seem to support modern practices of factory farming, it does seem to entail the permissibility of what I shall call humane farming: the practice of raising, animals who lead on the whole good lives, killing them, and replacing them with other animals leading similarly good lives.

A worrying feature of the replaceability argument is that, if correct, it is not obvious how to explain why the argument does not generalise to humans. Assuming that humans are not replaceable, one then faces the challenge of explaining why either the replaceability argument fails, or why its results apply only to (perhaps not all) non-human animals. If a certain sort of consequentialist cannot meet this challenge, then this seems to provide a powerful argument against the consequentialist's view: it seems that either consequentialism must be false, or their theory of the good must be false.

I claim that the problem cannot lie with consequentialism. The reason is as follows. Call the claim that a human replacement scenario is no worse than a non-replacement scenario, Human Axiological Replaceability (HAR). Call the claim that it would be impermissible to bring about a human replacement scenario rather than a non-replacement scenario, Human Deontic Replaceability (HDR). Consequentialism would only allow a move from HAR to HDR. But even if we abandon consequentialism to deal with this problem, we are still left with HAR. If HDR is not a significantly worse result than HAR, then human replaceability is a concern for any moral theory -- even non-consequentialist ones -- which places importance on axiology.

In this talk, I shall examine several potential strategies for evading HAR. These are: disputing welfare internalism, adopting a person-affecting view, adopting a population-asymmetric view, including an agent-neutral axiological penalty for killing, and adopting a variable-value theory of population ethics. I argue that only the first and last of these strategies offer a plausible way out of having to accept Human Axiological Replaceability.
Week 4
7 February
Joshua Pearson (Trinity), chaired by Tomi Francis
Lewisian Contextualism and Knowledge of Necessary Propositions
Lewisian contextualism is the view that, for a subject S , proposition p, and context C:

S satisfies 'knows p' in C iff S's evidence eliminates every relevant ~p-world.

This view is implausible when considering any reasonably complex necessary proposition. Fermat's Last Theorem (FLT), for example, was known to us only through thorough investigation and reasoning. However, Lewisian contextualism implies FLT is trivially known. Since FLT is necessarily true, it is true in all possible worlds, meaning S's evidence automatically eliminates every relevant ~FLT-world. Lewis notoriously bites the bullet on this issue. Others argue it can be solved by extending our notion of metaphysical possibility to include 'impossible worlds'. Both approaches open a large can of philosophical worms. Alternatively, I argue the Lewisian contextualist can better accommodate knowledge of complex necessary propositions by including an additional context-sensitive constraint which entails that knowledge must be 'properly based'.
Week 5
14 February
Farbod Akhlaghi-Ghaffarokh (Oriel), chaired by Rhys Southan
Ethics, Meta-Ethics, and Constraint: On What to Do When Ethics and Meta-Ethics Conflict
The relationship between normative ethics and meta-ethics is vexed. Questions regarding their relationship, with some notable exceptions, have rarely received sustained attention. This may seem unproblematic, with any dispute over their relationship amounting to a merely verbal one. The failure to address their relationship, however, is a mistake. In particular, one question regarding their relationship has received almost no sustained treatment: how are we to proceed if and when meta-ethical theories (or claims) and ethical theories (or claims) conflict? In this paper, I first motivate concern with both the relationship between normative ethics and meta-ethics simpliciter, and with the particular question of ethical and meta-ethical conflict. Then, I provide the first sustained attempt to answer this latter question by providing a novel argument for the view that neither meta-ethical or normative ethical theories provide constraints on, or have priority over, one another. After distinguishing between two versions of this view and arguing for one of them, I conclude by examining the implications of this view for the motivation provided to address cases of conflict, and for methodology in ethics and meta-ethics more generally.

Week 6
21 February
Simone-Pierre Chevarie-Cossette (University), chaired by Michael Bruckner
Free will and self-defeat
Free will scepticism is the doctrine that we do not have the power or set of powers necessary for moral responsibility or blameworthiness, and perhaps praiseworthiness. It is a doctrine in the sense that it also offers a practical program. Following the doctrine of free will scepticism includes abandoning or reforming certain practices (like blame and punishment) because they are unjustified if no one is morally responsible for their actions and omissions. In the face of such a radical doctrine, some have argued that free will scepticism is so strong that it is self-defeating. Free will scepticism is often based on the thought that we do not have certain powers because we, just like the atoms which compose us, are moved by external forces or blind laws. Perhaps are we thus excluded from the realm of reasons; perhaps are we also therefore deprived of control. But if we do not have control or if we do not act for reasons, and so on, how could we follow a doctrine or come to know it?

We should distinguish different self-defeat accusations against free will scepticism, in the history of the free will problem. The accusation may rest on the sceptic's negation of, firstly, rationality or sensitivity to reason; secondly, control or choice; and thirdly moral responsibility or reactive attitudes. Some of these arguments explicitly use the terminology of 'self-defeat' while some do not; some are interested in the allegedly self-defeating belief in free will scepticism, while some focus on the allegedly self-defeating action of following the doctrine of free will scepticism. Nevertheless, a careful examination of the arguments warrants placing them in one 'block', and what a venerable block it is.

This presentation will however focus on only one such family of accusation: the accusation that free will scepticism is self-defeating because it is incompatible with rationality or sensitivity to reasons. This family of arguments echoes Epicurus's early formulation; but it is contemporary in that since the seventies, more than half a dozen philosophers have tried to revive this argument.

What is specifically interesting about these arguments is that even if they are unsound, they give unappreciated lessons to the sceptic. These lessons have not been always made obvious because the arguments that I will examine were often used against determinism rather than against free will scepticism. This difference is crucial. Unlike the non-sceptical determinist (the soft determinist), the sceptic must try to have it both ways. She must, like the soft determinist, demonstrate that her doctrine is not self-defeating to follow or to believe in. But, unlike the soft determinist, she must also show that endorsing determinism has serious implications. Differently put, the free will sceptic must secure the rationality, the control, or the responsibility necessary for avoiding self-defeat while rejecting some rationality, control, or responsibility. The two tasks involve some subtle distinctions which sometimes look ad hoc. I will explore this sceptical stretch and show that it is worth our attention.
Week 7
28 February
Ruby Shao (Exeter), chaired by Tomi Francis
Questioning Egalitarian Justice
Egalitarian justice holds that justice requires substantive equality--of access to public office, opportunity, welfare, or other goods. Proponents include almost all political theorists since Aristotle, especially liberals influenced by John Rawls. Yet for Plato, justice requires that everyone do his or her part in society. Bolstering Plato with contemporary considerations, my paper critiques egalitarian justice. Section I shows that egalitarian justice lacks a foundation. Sections II and III attribute egalitarian justice to harmful, implausible assumptions: 1) natural differences among humans need not constrain their roles in the state, and 2) no common good exists. The Conclusion discusses the future of discourse concerning justice.
Week 8
7 March
Jonathan Egid (Wadham), chaired by Chiara Martini
Absolutism, Relativism and 'Other-mindedness'
Can there be genuinely alternative ways of thinking about and understanding our common world? The answer, when observing the diversity of beliefs, morals and customs, seems to be an obvious "yes", but such observations have at many points been radicalised into claims of cultural or linguistic relativism and incommensurability. One strategy for opposing these claims is to deny that there is any coherent notion of alternative conceptual schemes or frameworks of thought to which truth, morality, justification or whatever could be relative. This is the anti-relativist strategy of Jonathan Lear and Donald Davidson, who have argued against the existence and possibility of alternative ways of 'being minded'. Lear claims that they are mere 'illusions of possibility', whilst Davidson famously said about the doctrine of their incommensurability that it was "a heady and exotic doctrine, or would be if we could make good sense of it. The trouble is, as so often in philosophy, it is hard to improve intelligibility while retaining the excitement".

In part 1 I aim to improve the intelligibility of this idea whilst retaining its excitement. To this end I criticise some arguments owing to Lear and Davidson, concluding that genuinely alternative ways of 'being-minded' are possible, or at least that we have not been provided strong enough reasons to reject this possibility. In part 2, I consider what this commits me to metaphysically, arguing that the view need not imply, as it has sometimes been taken to, a perspectivism or relativistic anti-realism. Rather, the existence of alternative perspectives is perfectly compatible with a robust realism, and I demonstrate how Bernard Williams' notion of 'the absolute conception' can help us get a grip on this. I then outline in part 3 a Quinean dilemma that besets this absolutist rehabilitation of alternative schemes, and consider whether to accept that my position is closer to Davidson's than it originally seemed, or whether an element of perspective has snuck into the absolute conception.