Understanding Society

Tilburg University has been a reliable provider of high-quality education and research for more than eighty years. We specialize in the social sciences and humanities and we seek to make a structural contribution to society.

Research Seminar in Ethics

The Research Seminar in Ethics is a forum for all those who have research interests in ethics and social philosophy. The seminars can be taken for credit by research master students.


Upcoming seminars

Tuesday, 29 May, 16:45-18:00

Room D 119

Speaker: Caroline Harnacke (TiLPS)

Title and abstract: tba


Recent seminars

Tuesday, 12 September 2017, 16:45-18:00

Room: PZ 002

Speaker: Sarah Potasi (University of Puget Sound)

Title: The Perfect Bikini Body: Can We All Really Have It? Loving Gaze as an Antioppressive Beauty Ideal

Abstract: In this paper, I ask whether there is a defensible philosophical view according to which everybody is beautiful. I review two purely aesthetical versions of this claim. The No Standards View claims that everybody is maximally and equally beautiful. The Multiple Standards View encourages us to widen our standards of beauty. I argue that both approaches are problematic. The former fails to be aspirational and empowering, while the latter fails to be sufficiently inclusive. I conclude by presenting a hybrid ethical–aesthetical view according to which everybody is beautiful in the sense that everybody can be perceived through a loving gaze (with the exception of evil individuals who are wholly unworthy of love). I show that this view is inclusive, aspirational and empowering, and authentically aesthetical.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017, 12:45-14:00

Room: D 125

Speaker: Thomas Wells (TiLPS)

Title: How to tell if a society is flourishing: a purpose-driven account

Abstract: There are all sorts of reasons for wanting to know how well a society is doing, from government accountability to voters to governments' selection of policies (such as which variety of capitalism to foster). Many international indexes are published that purport to meet this need. Unfortunately most suffer from significant methodological problems, such as arbitrary selection or aggregation of data; ideological circularity; or excessive dependence on available data. This early stage paper is part of a Templeton funded project investigating whether 'good markets' make for 'good societies'. Its contribution will be to the philosophy (concepts, values) and methodology of the evaluation of flourishing. It takes a multi-dimensional, purpose-driven approach inspired by Amartya Sen's work on the evaluation of social well-being (for example in his capability approach).

Thursday, 5 October 2017, 12:45-14:00

Room: D 119

Speaker: Tomasz Żuradzki (Krákow, Poland)

Title: The normative significance of identifiability

Abstract: According to psychological research, people are more eager to help identifiable individuals than unidentifiable ones. This preference significantly influences many important decisions, both individual and public, regarding for example vaccinations or the distribution of health care resources. This paper aims at presenting a critical analysis of main philosophical arguments regarding the normative significance of this preference, which refer to: 1) ex ante contractualism (Frick 2015); 2) fair distribution of chances and risks (Daniels 2012), and 3) anti-aggregationist principles that recommend the distribution of bad effects and the concentration of good ones (Hare 2012). I will show that those arguments, although connected with interesting philosophical problems regarding e.g. aggregation and probability, are unconvincing.

Thursday, 19 October 2017, 12:45-14:00

Room: D 119

Speaker: Huub Brouwer (TiLPS)

Title: The Neutrality Dilemma for Luck Egalitarianism (joint work with Julien Kloeg, Erasmus University College)

Abstract: Should society provide for those who can work and have the opportunity to do so, but choose not to? A common objection to Rawls’s Theory of Justice (1971) is that it requires transfers to the undeserving—to those who are needy because of their indolence and the laziness. Luck egalitarianism, which was first proposed by Ronald Dworkin (1981a, 1981b), accommodates the concern about transfers to the undeserving through responsibility-sensitivity. The theory only requires transfers to the badly off if they are not responsible for their plight. G.A. Cohen would later remark on this that 'Dworkin has, in effect, performed for egalitarianism the considerable service of incorporating within it the most powerful idea in the arsenal of the anti-egalitarian right: the idea of choice and responsibility' (1989, p. 933). A common critique of luck egalitarianism is that, in fact, the theory takes too much from the anti-egalitarian right. It is too harsh on those who are responsible for being badly off (cf. Anderson 1999, Scheffler 2003, Wolff 1997). Luck egalitarians have responded by arguing that critics of the theory wrongfully assume that they subscribe to a harsh, contextualist principle of stakes to identify the consequences of peoples' voluntary choices (Olsaretti 2009, Stemplowska 2009). There are, however, other principles of stakes (such as desert-based or consequentialist ones) that could avoid the harshness charge. We argue that principles of stakes that prevent worries about harshness are not neutral — that is, they rely on theories of value that conflict with the liberal-egalitarian commitment to not privileging certain conceptions of the good. This poses a neutrality dilemma to luck egalitarians: either they remain neutral towards conceptions of the good and have to bite the bullet on the harshness charge, or they avoid the harshness charge and are no longer neutral towards conceptions of the good.

Thursday, 2 November 2017, 12:45-14:00

Room: D 119

Speaker: Tim Klaassen (TiLPS)

Title: The (Nonideal) Constitution of Society: A Korsgaardian Approach

Abstract: Rawlsian-inspired political philosophy has been accused of being out of touch with sociopolitical reality (e.g., Geuss 2008). One reason for this is its general focus on ‘Ideal Theory’ (Simmons 2010, Valentini 2017). An ‘Ideal Theory’ is typically a normative theory that articulates an abstract model of an ideal (just) society – sub specie aeternitatis. One limitation of ‘Ideal Theory’, therefore, is that it abstracts from the practical reality that exists, as it were, in between the ‘is’ of a pre-given social ontology and the ‘ought’ of a normative ‘ideal theory’; i.e., the reality of finite and historically situated human beings that find themselves confronted with the problem of social living right here and now. Moreover, it remains silent about what it means for finite and practically situated human beings to bring about and realize this ideal conception. For that, one would need to have a ‘Nonideal Theory’; a theory that ‘…fills the gap […] between the theoretical ideal and political reality’ (Stemplowska and Swift 2012, p. 381). The aim of this talk will be to sketch the possible contours of (part of) such a theory. A guiding principle here is that a ‘Nonideal Theory’ should not only specify which normative ideals apply under various nonideal conditions; it should tell us something about their relation to processes of collective action and the ontology of a society at large. For this purpose I take Korsgaard’s Theory of Self-Constitution (2009) as a promising starting point. Hers is a theory in which normativity, action, and the ontology of persons turn out to be constitutively interrelated to one another. A similar ‘Theory of the Constitution of Society’ might be obtained by extending her arguments to the sociopolitical domain. The result would be a theory that is ‘nonideal’, or at least decisively sensitive to our nonideal reality.

Thursday, 30 November 2017, 12:45-14:00

Room: D 119

Speaker: Wim Dubbink (Tilburg University)

Wednesday, 6 December 2017, 12:45-14:30

Room: RTZ 501 (Reitse Toren)

Speaker: Jeffrey White (Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology)

Title: Machine Ethics – developing a fully autonomous artificial moral agent

Long abstract: Machine ethics involves first understanding human morality in a way that may in principle be engineered into an artificial agent, in a way that machines may be held in evaluation in traditional human terms, and secondly involves adapting such a schema in the design and construction of artificial moral agents given adequate technology. It is not to be confused with robot ethics, which concerns the effects of semi-autonomous and robotic agents on human beings and their society, for example worker displacement due to robotic automation of the workplace and the broader economic consequences thereof, or safety and liability issues related self-driving automobiles. The distinction between the two, robot and machine ethics, can be drawn roughly along the lines of autonomy, with machine ethics focused on developing genuinely autonomous agents and robot ethics focused on what is much more limited.

Traditionally, machine autonomy and moral agency has been approached from the “outside-in”, with researchers focused on how to program digital computers with rules and principles derived from human experience and rendered in purely symbolic terms in some sort of logical framework. The fragility of such systems is well-known, and the subject of popular adaptations for example in Asimov’s famous four laws of robotics. However, this has not stopped researchers from pursuing exactly this tact. More than fifty years ago, Hubert Dreyfus famously analyzed the problem, as researchers tried to apply methods successful in relatively simple, formal contexts to increasingly complex, informal contexts, only to be met with disappointment. And, he was able to bring this assay to bear over the generations of AI developed since – good old fashioned artificial intelligence, expert systems informed by millions of individual explicit facts, and even relatively recent efforts in dynamical systems inspired neural network models. All have aspired to what is now discussed under the heading of “artificial general intelligence” and have failed – and will fail – for the same reasons. All lack authentic subjective grounds for moral agency. None are genuinely autonomous.

This brings us to what I feel is a fourth distinct generation of AI and with it an era ripe for an “inside-out” rather than an “outside-in” approach to morality in an artificial agent. The bulk of this talk concerns this approach and with it an appreciation of the research platform that facilitates its pursuit. First, we will review the inherited (Western) view on moral agency as articulated by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago and then as transformed by Kant for an increasingly liberal Christian Europe more than two hundred years ago. These views deeply influenced the framers of the US Constitution, for example, and continue to fundamentally shape ethical and moral discourse, so they remain important in understanding artificial agents in terms equivalent with human beings today. At root of this view is a general model of agency within the constraints of a natural world with others situated in the same terms. We will isolate this basic model of agency, and explain how Kant’s famous categorical imperative emerges through its normal exercise rather than being programmed into a machine as a primitive principle externally and without authentic subjective grounds. Finally, we will specify what is required of an artificial agent that it might embody such a moral capacity, and speculate briefly what it might mean for us to live amongst fully autonomous artificial agents when we finally do develop an essentially moral machine.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017, 11:45-13:00

Room: D 119

Speaker: Annemarie Kalis (Utrecht University)

Thursday, 1 February 2018, 12:45-14:00

Room: D 313

Speaker: Jenny Slatman (Tilburg University)

Title: Mind the Body: Rethinking Embodiment in Healthcare

Abstract: Based on the Cartesian legacy of body-mind dualism, contemporary healthcare conceives of the body as a biological or neurological thing. This view causes healthcare professionals to lose sight of the body as it is experienced and to jump to types of explanations that obscure embodied dimensions of health problems. Frequently, psychological explanations are provided for physical problems without a clearly identified somatic cause (“psychologization”) and mental problems tend to be explained in terms of some brain deficiency (“neuro-reductionism”). Criticisms of dualism often lead to monistic materialist views, thus failing to provide a broader perspective on embodiment. This project aims at tackling both dualism and monistic materialism from a phenomenological materialist perspective. To conceptualize the body’s materiality in contemporary healthcare beyond dualism and monistic materialism, the proposed project employs an empirical-philosophical methodology. It will explore the meaning of the body’s materiality against the background of current theoretical discussions on materialism, while also examining practices that target three major health problems: (1) Medically unexplained physical symptoms (MUPS), (2) Obesity, and (3) Depression. These cases are each in their own way marked by a problematic dualistic legacy, and this calls for alternative views and vocabularies on embodiment. The three cases will be studied in three PhD-subprojects that involve qualitative fieldwork (interviews, observations). This fieldwork combines phenomenology (unraveling experiences) and ethnography (analyzing broader context) to map relevant views of patients and professionals and to uncover how embodiment is framed in patient-professional interactions. In addition, two post-doc researchers develop philosophical analyses of “psychologization” and “neuro-reductionism” regarding the three cases. Finally, the overall project’s synthesis, to be performed by the applicant, relies on these same case-studies to offer a philosophical analysis of materialism. The project will thus produce an empirically sound theory of embodiment, to be implemented in healthcare practices in collaboration with healthcare professionals.

Thursday, 15 February 2018, 12:45-14:00

Room: D 119

Speaker: Benjamin Matheson (Stockholm University)

Thursday, 1 March 2018, 16:00-17:30 - CANCELLED

Room: RTZ 304 (Reitse Toren)

Speaker: Elinor Mason (University of Edinburgh)

Thursday, 15 March 2018, 12:45-14:00

Room: D 119

Speaker: Bart Engelen (Tilburg University)

Title: Nudging and Rationality

Abstract: The literature on nudging has rekindled normative and conceptual debates surrounding the goals and means liberal and democratic governments can legitimately pursue and employ. An oft-heard objection to government nudging is that it exploits psychological mechanisms, manipulates people and thereby insufficiently respects their rational decision-making capacities. Bypassing and/or perverting people’s rational capacities, nudges are said to undermine agency. In this paper, I analyze and deflate these criticisms. After disentangling the different conceptions of rationality that pervade the arguments of both nudging enthusiasts and critics, I critically assess how and under which circumstances nudging can be said to undermine, pervert, bypass but also strengthen people’s rationality. Only in a limited set of cases, I argue, does it make sense to object to nudges for making people less rational than they are, can be or should be. Crucial in this respect will be the distinction between outcome-oriented and process-oriented conceptions of rationality.

Thursday, 29 March 2018, 16:45-18:00

Room: RTZ 304 (Reitse Toren)

Speaker: Seirol Morgan (University of Bristol)

Thursday, 26 April 2018, 12:45-14:00

Room: RTZ 201 (Reitse Toren)

Speaker: Andreas Schmidt (RU Groningen)

Title: Domination without inequality? Republicanism, mutual domination and gun control

Abstract: Republicans defend non-domination as the central value in normative political theory. Most examples of domination revolve around power inequalities, such as those between men and women. But I show how republican arguments against such power relationships, both non-instrumental and instrumental, can apply to equal power too. I introduce the concept of mutual domination: two agents mutually dominate each other, if both hold equal power over each other yet both problematically depend on each other’s wills. In such cases, republican institutions should typically not equalize power or intensify its reciprocal control but abolish or reduce it instead. Through various examples – nuclear deterrence, collective unfreedom, data privacy, and others – I show how republicanism helps us identify cases of mutual domination, brings out what makes them problematic and suggests ways to tackle them. In this, republicanism has an advantage over alternative, purely egalitarian theories which fail to account for mutual domination. In a more detailed case study, I develop a new argument for gun control. If republicans focussed only on equalizing and reciprocally controlling power, they could endorse widespread equal gun ownership. However, I argue that widespread gun ownership involves mutual domination and that republicans should therefore back prohibition instead.

Thursday, 17 May 2018, 12:45-14:00

Room: D 313

Speaker: Pilar Lopez-Cantero (University of Manchester)

Tuesday, 29 May, 16:45-18:00

Room D 119

Speaker: Caroline Harnacke (TiLPS)