Alumni Dissertations and Theses

 
 

Alumni Dissertations and Theses

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  • Factitious Virtue

    Author:
    Mark Alfano
    Year of Dissertation:
    2011
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    Jesse Prinz
    Abstract:

    The primary aim of this project is to argue that empirical challenges to moral theories like virtue ethics should be co-opted rather than resisted. Virtue ethics has much to offer. Its vision of a flourishing life seems a better object of moral contemplation and evaluation than the sometimes dry rules of deontology and consequentialism; its focus on "thick" concepts like honesty and courage seems to bridge the is/ought gap; its weaving together of reasons and motivations obviates concerns about moral schizophrenia. Furthermore, the virtue ethical account of action paints a detailed picture of sensitivity to reasons, careful and correct construal of ambiguous information, and thoughtful deliberation. Recently, however, philosophers informed by the situationist tradition in social psychology have begun to question the empirical presuppositions of virtue ethics, and a cottage industry has grown up around attacking and defending their arguments. To move the debate forward, I develop a comprehensive list of the empirical presuppositions of virtue ethics, the most contentious items of which are consistency (if an agent possesses a virtue sensitive to reason r, then she responds to r whenever it is relevant), explanatory power (if an agent possesses a virtue, then reference to that virtue sometimes explains her behavior), predictive power (if an agent possesses a virtue, then reference to that virtue sometimes enables prediction of her behavior), and egalitarianism (almost anyone can be virtuous). The empirical challenge relates to the conjunction of these four claims. Nearly a century of studies in social psychology has shown that most people respond primarily not to the reasons there are for them to act on a given occasion but to situational factors like ambient sounds, ambient smells, moods and emotions, and presence of bystanders. These morally irrelevant but causally powerful factors can be unified under the heading of attentional focus: loud and annoying sounds, unpleasant smells, negative moods and emotions, and the presence of bystanders all lead to the focusing of attention on a small number of situational features, while their opposites lead to the dilation of attention. When their attention is focused, people exhibit inattentional blindness, which leads them to miss or misconstrue important moral features of their situations. Insensible to the reasons there are for them to act, they deliberate poorly (if at all) and act in violation of virtue. Situationist psychology does not just deny character traits. It also explains away the strongly felt intuition that there are character traits, invoking a virtual pantheon of gods of error and ignorance that includes the power of (mis)construal (misinterpreting ambiguous information as evidence for character traits), selection bias (using non-representative samples of behavior, thus overlook cases where people act in violation of traits), availability bias (assuming that first impressions are representative), and confirmation bias (seeking and using only evidence that confirms first impressions). These mechanisms guarantee that intuition would lead us to believe in traits even if traits did not exist. Since one does not know that p if one would believe p were it false, we cannot know on the basis of intuitions that character traits exist. Three primary responses to the situationist critique can be identified in the literature. The dodge: virtue is a rare ideal, so data showing that most people are not virtuous is moot. The counterattack: the data do not support the situationist critique. The retreat: although the situationist critique shows that global traits do not exist, a naturalistic theory of virtue can still be formulated in terms of actions or local traits. Unfortunately, most versions of these arguments are either unsound or give up the consistency, explanatory power, predictive power, or egalitarianism of virtue. The dodge, for instance, is an outright denial of egalitarianism. Most versions of the counterattack fail to individuate virtues by their characteristic reasons, and thus are morally inadequate; others appeal to unreliable intuitions. Two compatible tactics for dealing with the challenge, however, do emerge from this literature: an emphasis on what I call the portability of context and a shift from situation-consumerism to situation-producerism. By recognizing the power of situations and identifying the types of situations (not) conducive to behavior in accordance with virtue, one can strategically seek (avoid) situations likely to lead to (non-)virtuous actions. And by recognizing the causal dialectic between agents and situations, one can shift to thinking of agents as active producers rather than passive consumers of situations - a point of view that encourages the creation of situations conducive to action in accordance with virtue. Along these lines, I argue that virtue (though not vice) attributions of the right sort should be made regardless of their truth-value. Drawing on formal work in multi-agent epistemic logic and empirical studies in social psychology, consumer research, and behavioral economics, I show that the plausible, public attribution of virtuous traits induces both identification with those traits and belief that others expect one to act in trait-consonant ways, which in turn leads to trait-consonant behavior. The notions of placebo effects and self-fulfilling prophecies are instructive parallels to virtue-labeling. Thinking of virtue attributions merely as true or false is too limited. We must recognize in addition a third category: factitious attributions, which become true by being plausibly, publicly announced. In another example of the portability of context and situation-producerism, I present a novel theory of social distance in terms of potential for interaction, group identity, and information. This theory draws support from recent work by experimental psychologists and economists, as well as an experiment that I myself conducted. By manipulating heuristics that track social distance, agents can be led systematically to underestimate it, which in turn leads to elevated levels of behavior in accordance with virtue.

  • Factitious Virtue

    Author:
    Mark Alfano
    Year of Dissertation:
    2011
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    Jesse Prinz
    Abstract:

    The primary aim of this project is to argue that empirical challenges to moral theories like virtue ethics should be co-opted rather than resisted. Virtue ethics has much to offer. Its vision of a flourishing life seems a better object of moral contemplation and evaluation than the sometimes dry rules of deontology and consequentialism; its focus on "thick" concepts like honesty and courage seems to bridge the is/ought gap; its weaving together of reasons and motivations obviates concerns about moral schizophrenia. Furthermore, the virtue ethical account of action paints a detailed picture of sensitivity to reasons, careful and correct construal of ambiguous information, and thoughtful deliberation. Recently, however, philosophers informed by the situationist tradition in social psychology have begun to question the empirical presuppositions of virtue ethics, and a cottage industry has grown up around attacking and defending their arguments. To move the debate forward, I develop a comprehensive list of the empirical presuppositions of virtue ethics, the most contentious items of which are consistency (if an agent possesses a virtue sensitive to reason r, then she responds to r whenever it is relevant), explanatory power (if an agent possesses a virtue, then reference to that virtue sometimes explains her behavior), predictive power (if an agent possesses a virtue, then reference to that virtue sometimes enables prediction of her behavior), and egalitarianism (almost anyone can be virtuous). The empirical challenge relates to the conjunction of these four claims. Nearly a century of studies in social psychology has shown that most people respond primarily not to the reasons there are for them to act on a given occasion but to situational factors like ambient sounds, ambient smells, moods and emotions, and presence of bystanders. These morally irrelevant but causally powerful factors can be unified under the heading of attentional focus: loud and annoying sounds, unpleasant smells, negative moods and emotions, and the presence of bystanders all lead to the focusing of attention on a small number of situational features, while their opposites lead to the dilation of attention. When their attention is focused, people exhibit inattentional blindness, which leads them to miss or misconstrue important moral features of their situations. Insensible to the reasons there are for them to act, they deliberate poorly (if at all) and act in violation of virtue. Situationist psychology does not just deny character traits. It also explains away the strongly felt intuition that there are character traits, invoking a virtual pantheon of gods of error and ignorance that includes the power of (mis)construal (misinterpreting ambiguous information as evidence for character traits), selection bias (using non-representative samples of behavior, thus overlook cases where people act in violation of traits), availability bias (assuming that first impressions are representative), and confirmation bias (seeking and using only evidence that confirms first impressions). These mechanisms guarantee that intuition would lead us to believe in traits even if traits did not exist. Since one does not know that p if one would believe p were it false, we cannot know on the basis of intuitions that character traits exist. Three primary responses to the situationist critique can be identified in the literature. The dodge: virtue is a rare ideal, so data showing that most people are not virtuous is moot. The counterattack: the data do not support the situationist critique. The retreat: although the situationist critique shows that global traits do not exist, a naturalistic theory of virtue can still be formulated in terms of actions or local traits. Unfortunately, most versions of these arguments are either unsound or give up the consistency, explanatory power, predictive power, or egalitarianism of virtue. The dodge, for instance, is an outright denial of egalitarianism. Most versions of the counterattack fail to individuate virtues by their characteristic reasons, and thus are morally inadequate; others appeal to unreliable intuitions. Two compatible tactics for dealing with the challenge, however, do emerge from this literature: an emphasis on what I call the portability of context and a shift from situation-consumerism to situation-producerism. By recognizing the power of situations and identifying the types of situations (not) conducive to behavior in accordance with virtue, one can strategically seek (avoid) situations likely to lead to (non-)virtuous actions. And by recognizing the causal dialectic between agents and situations, one can shift to thinking of agents as active producers rather than passive consumers of situations - a point of view that encourages the creation of situations conducive to action in accordance with virtue. Along these lines, I argue that virtue (though not vice) attributions of the right sort should be made regardless of their truth-value. Drawing on formal work in multi-agent epistemic logic and empirical studies in social psychology, consumer research, and behavioral economics, I show that the plausible, public attribution of virtuous traits induces both identification with those traits and belief that others expect one to act in trait-consonant ways, which in turn leads to trait-consonant behavior. The notions of placebo effects and self-fulfilling prophecies are instructive parallels to virtue-labeling. Thinking of virtue attributions merely as true or false is too limited. We must recognize in addition a third category: factitious attributions, which become true by being plausibly, publicly announced. In another example of the portability of context and situation-producerism, I present a novel theory of social distance in terms of potential for interaction, group identity, and information. This theory draws support from recent work by experimental psychologists and economists, as well as an experiment that I myself conducted. By manipulating heuristics that track social distance, agents can be led systematically to underestimate it, which in turn leads to elevated levels of behavior in accordance with virtue.

  • Referring and Describing: Three Essays on the Meaning and Use of Definite Descriptions and Complex Demonstratives

    Author:
    FELIPE AMARAL
    Year of Dissertation:
    2010
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    Michael Devitt
    Abstract:

    This dissertation is composed of three independent essays, and it investigates the meaning and use of definite descriptions and complex demonstratives and the form of complex demonstratives. In the first essay, I tackle the referential-attributive status of definite descriptions. I argue that these expressions are referential-attributive ambiguous in the sense of semantic polysemy - as opposed to homonymy or pragmatic polysemy. In the second essay, I turn to complex demonstratives and argue on methodological grounds that they are non-quantificational terms that refer and describe, descriptive designators I dub them. I also provide arguments against the idea that demonstratives, from a syntactic point of view, are articles in disguise. And in the third essay, I argue against `direct reference' theorists and quantificationalists alike, claiming that complex demonstratives and referential descriptions are descriptive designators. This hypothesis provides the simplest explanation of the full semantic significance of nominals in both expressions.

  • Referring and Describing: Three Essays on the Meaning and Use of Definite Descriptions and Complex Demonstratives

    Author:
    FELIPE AMARAL
    Year of Dissertation:
    2010
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    Michael Devitt
    Abstract:

    This dissertation is composed of three independent essays, and it investigates the meaning and use of definite descriptions and complex demonstratives and the form of complex demonstratives. In the first essay, I tackle the referential-attributive status of definite descriptions. I argue that these expressions are referential-attributive ambiguous in the sense of semantic polysemy - as opposed to homonymy or pragmatic polysemy. In the second essay, I turn to complex demonstratives and argue on methodological grounds that they are non-quantificational terms that refer and describe, descriptive designators I dub them. I also provide arguments against the idea that demonstratives, from a syntactic point of view, are articles in disguise. And in the third essay, I argue against `direct reference' theorists and quantificationalists alike, claiming that complex demonstratives and referential descriptions are descriptive designators. This hypothesis provides the simplest explanation of the full semantic significance of nominals in both expressions.

  • Three Essays on Bentham

    Author:
    Arnon Ben-David
    Year of Dissertation:
    2009
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    Douglas Lackey
    Abstract:

    The dissertation was written in the three essay format. In Essay One I discuss the elements of Bentham's philosophical method, both as described by Bentham and as implied or exemplified by a variety of Bentham's texts. It will show that Bentham's principles of morals and legislation, though intended to have practical (political) effect, have also methodological significance, as they are grounded in grammatical and semantic constructs (constructs that affect `method' - the form of one's enquiry). In Essay Two I describe the elements of Bentham's conception of justice, based on Halevi, Sidgwick and other historical sources, and as they appear in Bentham's work. Bentham's approach to `justice' hinges on his theory of fictions, primarily because `justice' is, according to Bentham, a `fictitious entity' - not having a superior genus. It is for this reason that Bentham introduces a new kind of definition - paraphrasis, and I hope to show that this is where a distinction made in Bentham between `adjective' and `substantive' terms helps explain the necessity of this new kind of definition and also helps us define `justice' in itself. One of the conclusions of the second essay will be that there is a great similarity between the terms defining Justice in Bentham and the terms defining Method. In other words, `doing the right thing' and `having chosen the right method' seem to amount to the same thing. This also demonstrates the way Bentham employs the term `right' - primarily in its `adjectival' form. In Essay Three I discuss the conception of `right' in Bentham in the context of the French and American declarations of rights, and we see how Bentham presents the notion of `political rights' in stead of `natural rights'. Benthams' idea of `political rights' derives its validity from the `principle of the artificial identity of the interests of governors and the governed', or in other words, from the authority given to government by the governed. In the second part of Essay Three I show how, contrary to some critics, Bentham's theory of justice and rights does provide adequate individuation of persons. The dissertation as a whole, I hope, shows the continuity between what traditionally belongs to the `content' of political theories and what belongs to their `form' or method. This is being achieved primarily by offering to replace the traditional `content/form' (or `substance/method') distinction with the distinction between `substantive' and `adjective' terms, which also allows us to see the similarity between the definitions of `method' and `justice' and the proper employment of the term `right'. Both `method' and 'justice' are highly abstracted entities, and as such cannot be defined in themselves by the traditional terms and formulas of definition (definition by genus and difference). It is the emphasis on `adjectival' terms, which are compatible with the new kind of definition - paraphrasis - that allows us to arrive at a partial definition of `method' and `justice'. And since with `paraphrasis' the `adjectival' terms are being employed in a new way, their meaning changes. This change of the meaning of the terms used to define `method' and `justice' helps us see that `justice' is a transformative entity by nature. I also arrive at the conclusion that the mere initiation of the enquiry into `justice' causes a transformation of the terms of the enquiry, its mode (method), and the person of the one conducting it.

  • EVOLUTION AND ETHICS

    Author:
    FRANKLIN BENNETT
    Year of Dissertation:
    2014
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    STEVEN CAHN
    Abstract:

    Does evolution inform the ancient debate about the roles that instinct (emotion/passion/sentiment/feeling) and reason do and/or should play in how we decide what to do? Evolutionary ethicists typically adopt Darwinism as a suitable explanation for evolution, and on that basis draw conclusions about moral epistemology. However, if Darwinism is to be offered as a premise from which conclusions about moral epistemology are drawn, in order to assess such arguments we must assess that premise. This reveals the highly speculative and metaphysical quality of our theoretical explanations for how evolution happens. Clarifying that helps to facilitate an assessment of the epistemological claims of evolutionary ethicists. There are four general ways that instinct and reason can function in moral deliberation: descriptive instinctivism asserts that moral deliberation is necessarily a matter of instincts because control of the instincts by our faculty of reason is regarded (descriptively) as impossible; descriptive rationalism asserts that moral deliberation is necessarily a matter of reasoning, which (descriptively) must control instinct; prescriptive instinctivism asserts that moral deliberation can involve both rationality and instinct but prescribes following our instincts; prescriptive rationalism also asserts that deliberation can be either instinctive or rational but prescribes following reason. Micheal Ruse (2012), Peter Singer (2011), and Philip Kitcher (2011) each adopt Darwinism and on that basis arrive at descriptive instinctivism, descriptive rationalism, and prescriptive instinctivism, respectively. Our current level of understanding about evolution implies that prescriptive rationalism is a more practical approach to ethical deliberation than the other three alternatives described. Evolution can inform moral epistemology, but only very generally by helping to inform us of what we can justifiably believe about ourselves and nature.

  • A Holistic Approach to Representationalism

    Author:
    Jacob Berger
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    Jesse Prinz
    Abstract:

    Perhaps the most promising account of the qualitative character of experience available is representationalism--the view that the qualitative character of a mental state is identical with (or supervenes on) that state's representational properties. According to representationalism, for example, the reddish qualitative character of a perception is (or is determined by) the property of the state's qualitatively representing red. But representationalism is incomplete without an account of how experiences represent what they do--that is, an account of the psychosemantics of qualitative content. To date, most representationalists have endorsed versions of so-called tracking theories of content, according to which a state represents a property just in case the state tracks that property. Such views are atomistic insofar as a state's content does not depend on its relations to other mental states. Versions of representationalism which depend upon such atomistic psychosemantics are, however, open to criticism. Some representationalists have therefore concluded that qualitative representation is primitive or resists reductive explanation. But this reaction may be too hasty. This dissertation develops a form of reductive representationalism according to which qualitative content is individuated in a holistic way. To develop this view, Chapter 1 addresses introductory issues regarding qualitative character and representation. Chapter 2 argues that standard forms of representationalism of the sort defended by Fred Dretske, William Lycan, and Michael Tye fail primarily because of theiratomistic approach to qualitative content. Recently, some representationalists have offered more sophisticated versions of the view, principally to accommodate phenomena such as undetectable quality inversion. Chapter 3 argues that these more complex accounts--including Sydney Shoemaker's dispositionalist representationalism and David Chalmers's Fregean representationalism--are unworkable. One might think that the failures of these views suggest that the chief rival to representationalism, the traditional qualia theory which holds that there are nonrepresentational qualitative aspects of perceptions, is correct. Chapter 4 argues that such a qualia theory is problematic because it cannot provide an account of our knowledge of qualia, even from the first-person perspective. In light of these considerations, Chapter 5 proposes a version of representationalism wherein qualitative content is individuated in a holistic way. This holistic theory of qualitative content--what is dubbed here `perceptual-role semantics'--builds upon a burgeoning theory of qualitative character, versions of which have been defended by, among others, Austen Clark, David Lewis, David Rosenthal, and Shoemaker. On the view developed, a qualitative state's content is determined by its relative location in a space of states that matches the corresponding quality spaces of perceptible properties to which those qualitative states provide access. For example, an experience of red represents red because the experience occupies a location within a space of experiences of color that corresponds to the location occupied by red within the quality space of colors. The resultant holistic version of representationalism avoids the problems that plague other versions of it, resolves a host of philosophical puzzles about qualitative character, fits with a range of recent empirical findings about perception, and opens the phenomena up to fruitful further study.

  • Moving Beyond Mirroring - A social Affordance Model of Sensorimotor Integration during Action Perception

    Author:
    Maria Brincker
    Year of Dissertation:
    2010
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    Jesse Prinz
    Abstract:

    The discovery of so-called `mirror neurons' - found to respond similarly to own actions and the observation similar actions performed by others - have been enormous influential in the cognitive sciences and beyond. Due to the self-other symmetry these neurons have been hypothesized as underlying a `mirror mechanism' that lets us share representations and thereby ground core social cognitive functions from intention understanding to linguistic abilities and empathy. I argue that mirror neurons are important for rather different reasons. Rather than a symmetric ubiquitous or context-independent mechanism, I propose that these neurons are part of broader sensorimotor integrative circuits, which help us navigate and predict the social affordance space that we meet others in. To develop both the critical and positive project I discuss the interpretive choices and the debate surrounding the mirror neuron research and show how the field is marred by highly questionable assumptions about motor and social cognition. The very discovery of mirror neurons and the broader sensorimotor fronto-parietal circuits of which these neurons are a part, actually challenge many of these tacitly held assumptions empirically. The findings of sensorimotor goal representations at levels of abstraction well beyond the actual sensory information and kinetic movements challenge the idea of motor cognition as primarily output production. Additionally, the focus on social cognition as a process of 3rd person mindreading and attribution of hidden mental states seems misguided given that sensorimotor processes precisely suggest a developmentally primary 2nd person understanding of the mental lives and actions of others. I propose a Social Affordance model suggesting that the broader sensorimotor findings in fronto-parietal circuits support representations not just of other people's actions but of the overall social affordance space. It is a process that monitors concrete goals and teleological possibilities that the environment affords respectively oneself and other present agents. With this model I hypothesize that the complex spectrum of parallel sensorimotor integrations are indeed essential not only to normal action choices but also to social cognitive abilities, as the sensorimotor teleological representations let us relate to others and understand their action choices in a shared pragmatic and intentional context.

  • Moving Beyond Mirroring - A social Affordance Model of Sensorimotor Integration during Action Perception

    Author:
    Maria Brincker
    Year of Dissertation:
    2010
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    Jesse Prinz
    Abstract:

    The discovery of so-called `mirror neurons' - found to respond similarly to own actions and the observation similar actions performed by others - have been enormous influential in the cognitive sciences and beyond. Due to the self-other symmetry these neurons have been hypothesized as underlying a `mirror mechanism' that lets us share representations and thereby ground core social cognitive functions from intention understanding to linguistic abilities and empathy. I argue that mirror neurons are important for rather different reasons. Rather than a symmetric ubiquitous or context-independent mechanism, I propose that these neurons are part of broader sensorimotor integrative circuits, which help us navigate and predict the social affordance space that we meet others in. To develop both the critical and positive project I discuss the interpretive choices and the debate surrounding the mirror neuron research and show how the field is marred by highly questionable assumptions about motor and social cognition. The very discovery of mirror neurons and the broader sensorimotor fronto-parietal circuits of which these neurons are a part, actually challenge many of these tacitly held assumptions empirically. The findings of sensorimotor goal representations at levels of abstraction well beyond the actual sensory information and kinetic movements challenge the idea of motor cognition as primarily output production. Additionally, the focus on social cognition as a process of 3rd person mindreading and attribution of hidden mental states seems misguided given that sensorimotor processes precisely suggest a developmentally primary 2nd person understanding of the mental lives and actions of others. I propose a Social Affordance model suggesting that the broader sensorimotor findings in fronto-parietal circuits support representations not just of other people's actions but of the overall social affordance space. It is a process that monitors concrete goals and teleological possibilities that the environment affords respectively oneself and other present agents. With this model I hypothesize that the complex spectrum of parallel sensorimotor integrations are indeed essential not only to normal action choices but also to social cognitive abilities, as the sensorimotor teleological representations let us relate to others and understand their action choices in a shared pragmatic and intentional context.

  • Knowledge Ascription and Traditional Epistemology

    Author:
    Jon Buckwalter
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    Philosophy
    Advisor:
    Jesse Prinz
    Abstract:

    The principle thesis of this dissertation is that understanding the psychological factors that underlie epistemic judgment through knowledge ascription is essential for progress in traditional epistemology, and that the tools developed across the cognitive sciences are necessary for collecting accurate evidence concerning the nature of these factors. Chapters are displayed as cumulative proof of concept for this thesis. Chapter 1 begins with a discussion of the role of ascription and ordinary language practices in epistemic arguments. The subsequent sections of the dissertation then present experimental evidence advancing new understanding of the judgments we ordinarily make about knowledge ascription, together with a discussion of how this understanding comes to bear on a series of significant and ongoing debates in contemporary epistemology. Chapter 2 displays evidence for the claim that the ordinary concept of knowledge is factive. Chapter 3 explores the ways in which pragmatic factors like stakes, error salience, or attributor accommodation influence knowledge ascription, and subsequently, the implications these findings have for adjudicating between certain arguments given in support of contextualism and interest-relative invariantism. Chapter 4 gives evidence for a moral component of knowledge attribution, and shows how this effect of normative judgments on epistemic judgments may provide new insight into enduring philosophical puzzles like Gettier problems. Lastly, Chapter 5 surveys recent evidence suggesting that epistemic judgments are prone to performance errors and demographic variation, that may well threaten to undermine a substantial set of epistemic projects unless the empirical study of epistemic intuitions is incorporated into methodological approaches to the study of knowledge. Chapter 6 is a brief conclusion suggesting areas for further study, as well as how applying these new methods may relate to larger research programs in psychology and cognitive science.