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.

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

Programme for Hilary 2020

Important change: We meet Fridays 1:30 - 2:30 pm in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Ryle Room.

Week 1
24 January
Chair: John Fan
Sasha Arridge (Mansfield)
Moral Responsibility as a Necessary Presupposition of Action: A Solution to the Problem of Constitutive Moral Luck

The problem of Moral Luck suggests that we cannot consistently hold the following:

The Control Principle: An agent can be held morally responsible for all and only those things (such as character traits and actions) that are under their control.


Our Considered Intuitions suggesting that, in certain cases, an agent can be held morally responsible for things that are (seemingly) not under their control.

Most philosophers accept that some form of “control” is necessary for responsibility, but argue that the Control Principle properly understood does not undermine our considered intuitions. As such, moral responsibility is saved and the problem of Moral Luck is defused.

In this paper I first argue that all accounts of moral responsibility that accept some form of the Control Principle are doomed to incoherency. Yet, instead of accepting that we therefore cannot be “realistically” morally responsible at all (as Strawson famously argues) I argue that moral responsibility is “realistically” grounded independently of control. The majority of the paper is devoted to outlining and defending a novel account of moral responsibility, which holds that moral responsibility emerges in the first instance as a necessary presupposition of action. Taking influence from Korsgaard’s Kantian argument for the emergence of value, I argue that moral responsibility similarly emerges as a matter of practical necessity.

In the last part of the paper I defend this account, showing it to be no more liable to objection than Korsgaard’s Kantian account of value, and show how it can defuse the problem of Moral Luck by accommodating our Considered Intuitions.

Week 2
31 January
Chair: Denis Kazankov
Sam Williams (New College)
Supervaluationism and Higher-Order Vagueness; or, Supersupervalutionism

According to supervaluationists, a sentence in a vague language is true iff true on all reasonable ways of making it precise, false iff false on all reasonable ways of making it precise, and neither true nor false otherwise. Supervaluationist treatments of vagueness face difficulties in accounting for higher-order vagueness. In particular, an argument from Graff Fara (‘Gap principles, penumbral consequence, and infinitely higher-order vagueness’, 2008) shows that the standard supervaluationist semantics is inconsistent with the possibility of higher-order vagueness. Cobreros’s region-valuationism (‘Supervaluationism and Fara’s Argument Concerning Higher-Order Vagueness’, 2011) adjusts the supervaluationist semantics to avoid this problem. This approach stresses the similarities between the standard supervaluationist semantics and the possible-worlds semantics for the modal logic S5, and avoids Graff Fara’s paradox by restricting the accessibility relation to reflect the fact that whether or not a particular precisification of the language is reasonable is itself a vague matter. However, as Graff Fara argues (‘Truth in a region’, 2011), region-valuationism leaves us without a defensible notion of truth in the intended model.

In this presentation, I outline an alternative approach. Second-order vagueness, reflected in the vagueness of the metalinguistic predicate ‘x is a reasonable precisification’, ought to be captured by providing many different candidate accessibility relations and supervaluating over the resulting models. We might call the resulting model a supersupervalutation. This process may be iterated to account for third- and higher-order vagueness

Keefe (Theories of Vagueness, 2000) suggests that higher-order vagueness ought to be accounted for by ascending up a hierarchy of metalanguages. My approach differs from hers in that we continue to discuss a single object language, by using a single metalanguage. Rather than ascending up a hierarchy of languages, higher-order vagueness is captured by ascending up the levels of a single hierarchical supermodel for the object language. The ‘definitely’ and ‘borderline’ operator are understood as devices for ascending up the levels of this hierarchy.

I discuss some concerns with this approach; in particular, I ask whether this semantics can furnish us with satisfactory notions of truth and validity. I tentatively suggest that they can. I suggest that my semantics can explain our ordinary conceptions of truth and validity as norms that admit of degree. However, we can also define notions of absolute truth and validity, should we so wish.

Week 3
7 February
Chair: Steven Diggin
Abigail Whalen (Magdalen College)
Does Justification of Political Authority Entail Political Legitimacy? Contra Simmons’ Philosophical Anarchism

Is there a prima facie obligation of citizens to obey the reasonably just laws of a legitimate polity or state in which they find themselves members? The intuitive starting point of many western accounts of legitimate political authority is political voluntarism, rooted in Lockean liberalism. A. John Simmons, himself, somewhat a consent theorist, extends Locke’s argument to argue for philosophical anarchism, since consent or some other meaningful voluntarist arrangement is not given by individuals to the states in which they find themselves. In this paper, I argue instead that political authority should not be derived from political voluntarism. I will present an argument that the political relationship is sui generis, thus denying the comparison on which Simmons relies between transactional consent in personal relationships and consent in relationships between citizen and state. I then will use the distinction drawn here to motivate an account to establish the legitimacy of some state authority.

Week 4
14 February
Chair: Pietro Cibinel
Richard Roth (New College)
Preservation + Anti-Moore = KK

In this talk, I show that two seemingly plausible conditions entail the KK-principle. The KK-principle says that if one knows something, one knows that one knows it. The two seemingly plausible conditions are Preservation and Anti-Moore. Preservation says that if one knows one thing p and leaves open another thing q, one knows p conditional on q. Anti-Moore says that one cannot know p conditional one q while also knowing conditional on q that one does not know p conditional on q. Anti-Moore encodes the thought that no knowledge state can know one thing p while knowing that it does not know p. I discuss various possible reactions to the result, in particular whether plausible weakenings of Preservation or Anti-Moore are available.

Week 5
21 February
Chair: Lucas Didrik Haugeberg
Maurice Grüter (Lincoln)
How to ground Stoic ethics without appealing to providence – and why we perhaps shouldn’t

The notion that the universe is ordered rationally and providentially for the good of the whole features prominently in both the early as well as the late Stoic authors and constitutes a central aspect of their ethics and indeed their philosophical system as a whole. The doctrine has however always been deeply contentious, and, needless to say, has since become a philosophical non-position, being highly implausible if not morally offensive to the vast majority of contemporary readers. Yet the ethical doctrines of Stoicism have remained attractive, as is perhaps best evidenced by the recent resurgence in public as well as academic interest in the theory’s therapeutic aspect. This raises the question: Is it possible to dissociate Stoic ethics from the context of a providential cosmos?

In contributing towards an answer to this question, this talk will propose a non-providential eudaimonist argument for the axiological core of Stoic ethics, i.e. the claim that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. This argument will be based on one of the most prominent passages in the Stoic corpus, namely the very first sentence of Epictetus’ Encheiridion: “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” (Epict., Ench. 1.1, trans. Oldfather 1928). I will then examine the plausibility of the arguments’ premises, arguing that it crucially relies on the distinctively Hellenistic assumption that the happy life is a life characterized by what the Stoics call serenity (εὔροια). I will conclude that this thesis appears to be of central importance to the project of constructing a Stoic ethics without providence. Finally, I will note that, as the Stoics reliance on providence is extensive, this general approach however faces difficulties in doing justice to the Stoic preoccupation with nature and being in accordance with it. This in turn leads to problems of justification in several areas of ethics, which must be addressed by any comprehensive non-providential Stoic ethical theory. We thus have reason to be skeptical about the project of constructing a “Modern” Stoicism.

Week 6
28 February
Chair: Sam Williams
Alexander Read (St. Hilda's)
Representational Opacity

Substituting co-referential terms seemingly fails to hold salva veritate within the scope of an attitude verb, modal auxiliary, or quotation. Saul (1997; 2007) presents examples of seeming substitution failures in simple sentences, ones that lack the aforementioned syntactic features. This is a problem for all solutions to Frege’s Puzzle, which require the presence of an attitude verb or associated ‘that’-clause to explain (intuitions of) substitutivity failure. In this paper, I present a solution to the puzzle of simple sentences. Any utterance of a declarative sentence j represents that the speaker believes the proposition expressed by j relative to the context of utterance. Anti-substitution intuitions track these opaque representations, so simple sentences don’t pose a distinct theoretical challenge to Frege’s Puzzle. They can be handled by standard explanations of opacity.

Week 7
6 March
Chair: Abigail Whalen
Amy Thompson (St. Anne's)
'Recht oder Unrecht – Mein Vaterland': Is patriotism a virtue?

Patriotism has at once a lamentable and laudable history. The quote with which we begin epitomises this, having first appeared in 1879 in a speech given by Carl Schurz which invoked the duty of citizens to set and keep their country right. By the 1940s, the same phrase would appear above the gates at Buchenwald.

In the background of this troubled history is an interesting series of philosophical questions about the moral status of patriotism: are we required, or allowed, to be patriotic? How, if at all, does patriotism fit into a globalised world?

This paper gives an account of a liberal (maybe even 'deflated') patriotism which I suggest is compatible with cosmopolitanism and fit for a globalised world. From there, I examine the common analysis of patriotism as a type of loyalty and the various criticisms of patriotism thus conceived. I argue that this analysis is unsuitable for our liberal patriotism, and therefore that this criticism should not be taken as damaging to the concept of patriotism in toto. I propose an alternative account, which seeks to vindicate patriotism as a virtue, namely that it is better and more fundamentally understood as pride than it is as loyalty.

Alessio Vaccari (St. Peter's)
David Hume on Resentment

This paper analyses the connection between Hume’s notion of resentment and the contemporary analysis of this passion, in particular that of P. Strawson (2008) and M. Nussbaum (2015). The paper has two goals. On the one hand, by examining Hume’s theory in the light of contemporary discussion, it helps us to understand whether his conception is plausible or not. On the other hand, by showing what Hume can offer to contemporary analysis, it seeks to contribute to a theory of resentment that has greater explanatory capacity than that developed so far.

On the basis of an examination of the philosophical psychology worked out in Book II of the Treatise and in the Enquiry concerning the principles of Morals, the paper argues that Hume’s notion of resentment is similar to the one put forward by Nussbaum and Strawson on four crucial points. First, resentment is a painful feeling caused by a typically intentional behaviour perceived as a violation of something normative. Second, although it is typically caused by the belief that the injurer has a malevolent intention to offend us, resentment can arise when either this judgment is not explicitly present or even when this intention is clearly absent. Third, the violated norm can be moral but it doesn’t have to be so. Indeed, resentment can and is often caused by actions that we perceive as wrong because they do not respect or degrade our social status. Finally, resentment is associated with the desire that the author of the injury experience suffering. The connection between this passion and this desire does not seem simply contingent but of a conceptual nature, something without which one cannot say one is experiencing resentment. By showing that Hume’s description agrees with the contemporary discussion on these four points, the paper argues that Hume presents a coherent and plausible account of resentment.

The paper also shows that Hume’s approach can help to improve contemporary analysis of resentment by enabling it to have greater explanatory capacity. The paper suggests two directions in which this enrichment could be done. First, by describing resentment as an instinct, Hume can better explain the link between this passion and the desire for revenge without running into Nussbaum’s mistake of confusing the desire for revenge with the consequence of the satisfied desire. Second, through the notion of sympathetic resentment, Hume is able to explain not only the fact that we feel resentment even when other people are subject to humiliation, but that sometimes we do not feel it despite perceiving an injury done to others.

Week 8
13 March
Chair: Richard Roth
Rescheduled to Trinity term due to UCU strike
Patricia Elena Cipollitti (Wolfson College)
Towards an account of vulnerability in social relations

What is vulnerability, and why does it matter morally? In contemporary political and social thought, a number of concepts are called upon to help us identify and understand situations that generate moral and political responsibilities: deprivation, disadvantage, oppression, exploitation, and so forth. In this talk, I will argue that an independently salient notion of vulnerability is often latent in these discussions. From this basis, I will offer a constructive account of vulnerability as it occurs in social relations. I will distinguish between dependence vulnerabilities, which derive from particular relations of dependence between agents, and status vulnerabilities, which derive from structural social conditions. In examining the normative contours of both categories, I will suggest that vulnerability matters morally and politically not only by virtue of the idea’s relationship to harm, but also because of the power-ridden ways in which agents relate to each other within relations of vulnerability. I aim to demonstrate vulnerability’s distinct conceptual merits and thereby make the case for its place among ideas that illuminate injustice.

Rescheduled to Trinity term due to UCU strike
Livia von Samson-Himmelstjerna (St. Peter's)
Hermeneutical Justice, Genealogy and Feminist Worldmaking