My main research project concerns 'relaxed' normative realism. Since I am not quite as relaxed as some other non-metaphysical realists, I integrate the normative interpretation of normative objectivity with an inferentialist metasemantics and a modified metaontological approach of 'easy' ontology.
I also work on the normativity of rationality and the moral assessment of collective action cases. Moreover, I am interested in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of the social sciences and theories of democracy.
‘Through Thick and Thin: Seamless Metaconceptualism', Synthese (2023) 201:59. DOI https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-022-03913-6.
One major insight derived from the moral twin earth debate is that evaluative and descriptive terms possess different levels of semantic stability, in that the meanings of the former but not the latter tend to remain constant over significant counterfactual variance in patterns of application. At the same time, it is common in metanormative debate to divide evaluative terms into those that are thin and those that are thick. In this paper, I combine debates about semantic stability and the distinction between the thin and the thick by presenting a new inferentialist account of thin and thick evaluative terms which, despite subsuming them under the same metasemantic analysis, can nevertheless account for their varying levels of semantic stability. According to this position of ‘seamless metaconceptualism’, thin and thick evaluative terms do not belong to different categories, but are both understood as metaconceptual devices which do not differ in kind, but in scope. By providing the same analysis for both thin and thick terms, seamless metaconceptualism not only entails that the latter cannot shoulder the philosophical work that some have attributed to them, but also removes much of their surrounding intrigue.
‘Why Formal Objections to the Error Theory are Sound', Analysis, anac012, DOI 10.1093/analys/anac012 (2022), with G. Wheeler.
Recent debate about the error theory has taken a ‘formal turn’. On the one hand, there are those who argue that the error theory should be rejected because of its difficulties in providing a convincing formal account of the logic and semantics of moral claims. On the other hand, there are those who claim that such formal objections fail, maintaining that arguments against the error theory must be of a substantive rather than a formal kind. In this paper, we argue that formal objections to the error theory cannot be eschewed but must be met head-on.
In this paper, we present a new semantic challenge to the moral error theory. Its first component calls upon moral error theorists to deliver a deontic semantics that is consistent with the error-theoretic denial of moral truths by returning the truth-value false to all moral deontic sentences. We call this the ‘consistency challenge’ to the moral error theory. Its second component demands that error theorists explain in which way moral deontic assertions can be seen to differ in meaning despite necessarily sharing the same intension. We call this the ‘triviality challenge’ to the moral error theory. Error theorists can either meet the consistency challenge or the triviality challenge, we argue, but are hard pressed to meet both.
‘Metasemantics, Moral Realism and Moral Doctrines’, in: V. Kurki & M. McBride (eds.) Without Trimmings: The Legal, Moral, and Political Philosophy of Matthew Kramer. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2022): 189-204.
In this paper, I consider the relationship between Matthew Kramer’s moral realism as a moral doctrine and expressivism, understood as a distinctly non-representationalist metasemantic theory of moral vocabulary. More precisely, I argue that Kramer is right in stating that moral realism as a moral doctrine does not stand in conflict with expressivism. But I will also go further, by submitting that advocates of moral realism as a moral doctrine must adopt theories such as expressivism in some shape or form. Accordingly, if you do not want to accept positions such as expressivism, you cannot defend moral realism as a moral doctrine. Similarly, if you want moral realism to compete with expressivism, you cannot accept Kramer’s take on moral realism either. Hence, moral realism as a moral doctrine stands and falls with theories such as expressivism, or so I shall argue.
‘Metasemantics for the Relaxed’, in: R. Shafer-Landau (ed.) Oxford Studies of Metaethics, Vol. 16. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2021): 108-133.
In this paper, I develop a metasemantics for relaxed moral realism. More precisely, I argue that relaxed realists should be inferentialists about meaning and explain that the role of evaluative moral vocabulary is to organise and structure language exit transitions, much as the role of theoretical vocabulary is to organise and structure language entry transitions.
The moral error theory generally does not receive good press in metaethics. This paper adds to the bad news. In contrast to other critics, though, I do not attack error theorists’ characteristic thesis that no moral assertion is ever true. Instead, I develop a new counter-argument which questions error theorists’ ability to defend their claim that moral utterances are (typically) meaningful assertions. More precisely: Moral error theorists lack a convincing account of the meaning of deontic moral assertions, or so I will argue.
‘Konstruktivismus? Wirklich? Kommentar zu Constructing Practical Reasons’, Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 74: 560-565 (2020).
This paper is a short comment on Andreas Müller's book Constructing Practical Reasons, in which I argue that Müller's constructivism risks collapsing into expressivism or an error theory.
As with all other moral realists, so-called relaxed moral realists believe that there are moral truths. Unlike metaphysical moral realists, they do not take themselves to be defending a substantively metaphysical position when espousing this view, but to be putting forward a moral thesis from within moral discourse. In this paper, I employ minimalism about truth to examine whether or not there is a semantic analysis of the claim ‘There are moral truths’ which can support this moral interpretation of one of moral realism’s key theses. My results are both discouraging and encouraging: Whilst I will argue that the claim ‘There are moral truths’ cannot be shown to be both moral and capable of demarcating relaxed realism from irrealism on the basis of a convincing semantic analysis that would be compatible with relaxed commitments, the moral interpretation of moral realism can be secured by modifying our understanding of what distinguishes relaxed realism from error-theoretic irrealism. Yet, we will see that this moral interpretation of moral realism does not ‘tumble out’ of the semantics provided for its central claims. Rather, hard work needs to be done before we can fully relax.
In his new book Unbelievable Errors, Bart Streumer argues that there is no way round the result that all metaethical views other than the error theory fail either for the same reasons as metaphysical normative realism or expressivism. In this contribution, I show that this is false: we can avoid this result by ‘relaxing’ about normative truths. Even if Streumer were right about the fate of other metaethical positions, then, relaxed realism remains immune to the problems he raises.
‘Saving which Differences? Creeping Minimalism and Disagreement’, Philosophical Studies 176: 1905-1921 (2019).
Much thought has been devoted to how metaethical disagreement between moral realism and expressivism can be saved once minimalism starts creeping. Very little thought has been given to how creeping minimalism effects error-theories’ disagreement with their metaethical competitors. The reason for this omission, I suspect, is found in the belief that whilst locating distinctive moral realist and expressivist positions within a minimalist landscape poses a severe challenge, no such difficulties are encountered when differentiating error-theories from moral realism and expressivism. In the first part of this paper, I show that this belief is mistaken: Insofar as moral realists and error-theorists are still taken to disagree, creeping minimalism renders their disagreement moral, making these positions metaethically indistinguishable. In the second part of the paper, I present a modified inferentialist solution to the problem of creeping minimalism which seeks to put error-theories back on the metaethical map. Yet, this too comes at a cost, in that it significantly modifies our interpretation of error-theories. Whichever way we turn, then, creeping minimalism not only forces us to re-phrase metaethical positions in a way that is compatible with minimalism, but also requires us to change our very understanding of these positions.
‘Error-Theory, Relaxation and Inferentialism’, in: D. Machuca (ed.) Moral Skepticism. Milton Park: Routledge (2018): 49-70.
This contribution considers whether or not it is possible to devise a coherent form of external skepticism about the normative if we ‘relax’ about normative ontology by regarding claims about the existence of normative truths and properties themselves as normative. I answer this question in the positive: A coherent form of non-normative error-theories can be developed even against a relaxed background. However, this form no longer makes any reference to the alleged falsity of normative judgments, nor the non-existence of normative properties. Instead, it concerns a specifically inferentialist construal of error-theories which suggests that error-theorists should abstain from any claims about normative ontology to focus exclusively on claims about the inferential role of normative vocabulary. As I will show, this suggestion affords a number of important advantages. However, it also comes at a cost, in that it might not only change the letter, but also the spirit of traditional error-theories.
‘Inferentialist Metaethics, Bifurcations and Ontological Commitment’, Philosophical Studies 173: 2437-2459 (2016).
According to recent suggestions within the global pragmatism discussion, metaethical debate must be fundamentally re-framed. Instead of carving out metaethical differences in representational terms, it has been argued that metaethics should be given an inferentialist footing. In this paper, I put inferentialist metaethics to the test by subjecting it to the following two criteria for success: Inferentialist metaethicists must (1) be able to save the metaethical differences between moral realism and expressivism, and (2) do so in a way that employs understandings of these metaethical accounts which would be acceptable to moral realists or expressivists who endorse an inferentialist theory of meaning. Two results follow from my discussion. The first concerns inferentialist metaethics more narrowly, casting doubts on inferentialists’ ability to fulfil the two criteria for success by showing that proposed metaethical demarcation attempts either meet the first criterion but violate the second, or pass the second criterion but fail the first. The second upshot pertains to the global pragmatism debate more widely, pressing the point that inferentialists have not as yet provided a convincing account of ontological commitment.
This is a brief introduction to quasi-realism.
Metaethics has traditionally been understood as a non-moral discipline that examines moral judgements from a standpoint outside of ethics. This orthodox understanding has recently come under pressure from anti-Archimedeans, such as Ronald Dworkin and Matthew Kramer, who proclaim that rather than assessing morality from an external perspective, metaethical theses are themselves substantive moral claims. In this paper, I scrutinise this anti-Archimedean challenge as applied to the metaethical position of expressivism. More precisely, I examine the claim that expressivists do not avoid moral commitments when accounting for moral thought, but instead presuppose them; that they do not look at ethics from the outside, but operate from within ethics. This paper defends the non-moral status of expressivism against anti-Archimedeanism by rejecting a new anti-Archimedean challenge which, on the basis of Hume’s Law, aims to exploit expressivist explanations of supervenience in order to show that expressivism is a substantive moral position.
Expressivism, Minimalism and Moral Doctrines. Doctoral Thesis, catalogued by the University Library of the University of Cambridge (2011).
Quasi-realist expressivists have developed a growing liking for minimalism about truth. It has gone almost unnoticed, though, that minimalism also drives an anti-Archimedean movement which launches a direct attack on expressivists’ non-moral self-image by proclaiming that all metaethical positions are built on moral grounds. This interplay between expressivism, minimalism and anti-Archimedeanism makes for an intriguing metaethical encounter. As such, the first part of this book examines expressivism’s marriage to minimalism and defends it against its critics. The second part then turns to the anti-Archimedean challenge to expressivism and shows how to ward off this challenge by securing expressivism’s non-moral, metaethical status without having to abandon minimalism about truth.
According to moral realists, ethics concerns matters of fact. According to naturalist moral realists, moral facts just are natural facts. In this book, I put naturalist moral realism under close scrutiny by providing an in-depth analysis of its ontological, epistemological, semantic and psychological foundations.
‘Why the Realist-Instrumentalist Debate about Rational Choice Rests on a Mistake’, in: Uskali Mäki, Ionnis Votsis, Stéphanie Ruphy and Gerhard Schurz (eds.) Recent Developments in the Philosophy of Science: EPSA13 Helsinki. Heidelberg: Springer (2015): 99-109.
Within the rational choice debate in the social sciences, much controversy exists about which status to ascribe to the postulated rationality assumption that is said to underlie human action. Whilst realists argue that the rationality assumption is an empirical claim which describes real, albeit unobservable, processes that cause individual action, instrumentalists maintain that it amounts to nothing more than an analytically set axiom or ‘as if’ hypothesis which helps in the generation of accurate predictions. In this paper, I argue that this realism/instrumentalism debate about rational choice theory can be overcome once it is realised that the rationality assumption is neither an empirical description—as realists would maintain—nor an analytically set axiom or ‘as if’ hypothesis—the preferred reading of instrumentalists—but a normative claim.
‘Auf die Couch: Beziehungsprobleme zwischen Rational Choice und Politischer Psychologie’, in: Thorsten Faas, Cornelia Frank und Harald Schoen (eds.) Politische Psychologie. PVS Special Volume 50. Baden-Baden: Nomos (2015): 506-527, with J. Marx.
Political psychology and rational choice approaches are often regarded as being in direct competition with one another. In this paper, we put this postulated rivalry to the test by examining the conditions which would need to be fulfilled so as to set up a conflict between political psychology and rational choice. Since our analysis shows that the perceived competition rests on a mistaken conception of the respective approaches, we argue that our main aim should be to investigate how to combine these approaches so as to maximise their fruitfulness for political science.
‘Rationalität und Normativität’, Zeitschrift für politische Theorie 6: 19-37 (2015), with J. Marx.
The concept of rationality, predominantly in the guise of rational choice theory, plays a key role in the social sciences. Yet, whilst rational choice theory is usually understood as part of positive political science, it is also widely employed within normative political theories. In this paper, we examine how allegedly positive rational choice arguments can find application within normative political theories. To this effect, we distinguish between two interpretations of rationality ascriptions, one empirical, the other normative. Since, as we demonstrate, empirical readings of the rationality assumption cannot convincingly explain the role of rational choice arguments in normative theories, we argue that the rationality assumption should be given a normative interpretation. We conclude by considering what this result implies for the use of rational choice arguments in normative and positive political science.
The ‘no-difference problem’ challenges us to explain in which way the occurrence of an aggregate effect gives us reason to act in a specific way, although our individual actions make no difference to the effect’s occurrence. When discussing this problem, philosophers usually distinguish between so-called ‘triggering cases’, where the aggregate effect in question is brought about upon reaching a precise threshold, and ‘non-triggering cases’, in which no such precise threshold exists. Still, despite their relevant differences, it is not only widely assumed that both categories of cases confront us with the same moral problem, but also that this problem should be solved in the same way no matter which category we are considering. In this paper, I argue that this assumption is mistaken by showing that non-triggering cases pose very different moral problems than triggering cases unless very specific and, arguably, unlikely assumptions in neighbouring debates about causation and decision-making under indeterminacy hold.
‘Why Making No Difference Makes No Moral Difference’, in: K. Marker, A. Schmitt & J. Sirsch (eds.) Demokratie & Entscheidung. Beiträge zur Analytischen Politischen Theorie. Wiesbaden: Springer VS (2019): 231-244.
In this paper, I present a new argument — the argument from moral arbitrariness — in order to deal with ascriptions of moral responsibility in collective action cases.
For an elaboration of this argument, please see [anonymised for blind review].
Domesticated animals need to be treated as fellow citizens: Only if we conceive of domesticated animals as full members of our political communities, can we do justice to their moral standing – or so Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka argue in their widely discussed book Zoopolis. In this contribution, we pursue two objectives. Firstly, we reject Donaldson and Kymlicka’s appeal for animal citizenship. We do so by submitting that far from paying due heed to their moral status, regarding animals as citizens misinterprets their moral qualities and thus risks treating them unjustly. Secondly, we suggest that Donaldson and Kymlicka’s reinforced focus on membership should draw our attention to the moral standing of a further ‘species’ living in our midst, namely robots. Developments within artificial intelligence have advanced rapidly in recent years. With robots gaining ever greater capacities and abilities, we thus need to ask urgent questions about the moral ramifications of these technical advances.
‘Rationality, Reasons and Inferentialism’.
In this paper, I make the novel suggestion that inferentialism provides a new and very fruitful vantage point from which to investigate current discussion about the normativity of rationality. More precisely, I show that we can gain purchase on certain intuitions about rationality’s normativity through inferentialism’s key tenet that normative vocabulary functions to make explicit language exit transitions within the practice of giving and asking for reasons. Based on this inferentialist treatment of concepts such as ‘rational’, ‘reason’ and ‘ought’, I argue that inferentialism implies that, at least initially, norms of rationality do not provide reasons for action, but explicate them. If so, it is indeed right to claim that rationality is not normative in John Broome’s strong sense, such that the fact of X-ing being rational does not provide additional reason to X. Yet, once we understand how the rationality concept functions, this finding should neither surprise nor upset us, or so I argue.
‘No Room for Error? Why the Error Theorist’s Sorrow Might Be the Non-Representationalist’s Joy’
In this paper, I will make tentative steps towards defending the following three theses: Firstly, normative error theorists have a hard time in providing an account for the meaning of deontic normative claims. Secondly, normative error theorists have less of a hard time in providing an account for the meaning of evaluative normative claims. Thirdly, from these two theses we can derive interesting conclusions about the function of normative language. From the first, we can conclude by inference to the best explanation that the function of deontic notions is non-representational. From the first and second, we can deduce that deontic and evaluative notions perform different functions, where this can but need not entail that deontic and evaluative notions require different metasemantic interpretations. Since this result has important implications for our understanding of metaethical debate, we need to have a much closer and more open-minded look at which part of normative language fulfils which function.
‘From Is to Ought and Back Again? ‘Rationality Wars’ and Debunking’.
Rational choice theories are often said to fulfil a dual function, in that they are employed both within normative evaluations of how we ought to act and empirical explanations and predictions of how we do and will act. This dual function is rather perplexing. After all, neither does the fact that we ought to act in a specific way entail that we will act accordingly, nor does observing that we act in a certain manner imply that we ought to do so. At the same time, empirical studies show that people often do not act in accordance with normative theories of rational choice. Should we react to this result by changing these normative theories so as to bring the ought and is of rationality back in line, as the Panglossians of evolutionary psychology suggest? Or should we conclude that — maybe not always, but still sufficiently often — the human mind simply is irrational, as the Meliorists of the ‘heuristics and biases’ tradition submit? Put differently, what must give in light of these empirical findings: our normative theories of rationality, or our belief in our own rationality? In this paper, I deliver answers to these questions by showing how best to understand the relation between the is and ought of rationality.
Papers under review