Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Conference Notes Day 2

[Day 1 notes here.]

Saturday's notes...


Peter Railton led off with the questions: Why did Kant write a third Critique? He had already written about pure reason and practical reason, wouldn't that cover everything? Why address judgment separately?

Answer: in order to be responsive to reasons we need some capacity that doesn't reduce to reason and isn't required by reason. The discussion of aesthetics in the Critique of Judgment is meant as an area which highlights the psychological sensibilities that drive what we do with our reasoning.

Railton went on to characterize even ordinary belief as a combination of representation and attitude. (I suppose this is what's meant by "propositional attitude" but I hadn't thought so explicitly about it before.) Adjustments to the strength of our beliefs are then characterized as adjustments to our attitude toward some proposition. Railton put up a diagram of a Bayes-like "tuning circuit" to illustrate this point. When things are working properly, our belief-attitudes should adjust each time we're faced with a confirmation or a discrepancy. I thought about entrenched political and religious divides as being cases where this "circuit" has gone into a runaway cycle of attitude reinforcement, even for what we usually think of as purely descriptive beliefs.

I really liked Railton's presentation of intrinsic value. Using the aesthetics metaphor, we don't need to believe in an ontologically mysterious value in artistic works to make sense of most "intrinsic value" talk. Instead, we can understand it as taking a broader perspective. I can't remember his example, so I'll use troll dolls. Let's say I love troll dolls. As far as I'm concerned, these things are tops when it comes to aesthetic value. But if we take a wider survey of tastes around the world and through time, troll dolls aren't going to make any Top Ten lists. Broad human sensibility isn't strongly attuned to troll dolls, even if my personal sensibility is. Meanwhile, van Gogh paintings do very very well on the broadness test.

If I could sign up for lectures with any of this conference's presenters, Railton would be my immediate choice. He's so casually thoughtful and interacts well in dialogue.


Mark Schroeder presented his paper "Tempered Expressivism" which is more specifically about relational expressivism. I particularly like his concise definition of expressivism in this paper:
"The basic idea of expressivism is that for some sentences ‘P’, believing that P is not just a matter of having an ordinary descriptive belief. This is a way of capturing the idea that the meaning of some sentences either exceeds their factual/descriptive content or doesn’t consist in any particular factual/descriptive content at all, even in context."
Schroeder then introduces three labels for expressivist theories. Unrestrained expressivist theories allow any state of mind to be expressed by P. Restrained theories place some kind of limit, e.g. it might have to be a state of mind with which it's possible to disagree. Tempered theories have a special kind of restraint: the state of mind must be "belief involving"; there has to be a descriptive belief in there somewhere. This restriction on tempered expressivist theories helps them deal with traditional challenges to expressivism, such as how to make sense of compositions like, "If lying is wrong, then getting your little brother to lie is wrong." (See "What is the Frege-Geach Problem?").

Next, Schroeder highlights two ways descriptive beliefs can be "involved" which, in turn, leads to two forms tempered expressivism might take: hybrid expressivism and relational expressivism. The primary example Schroeder gives of hybrid expressivism is essentially Daniel Boisvert's Expressive-Assertivism, which I've written about before. There are other forms of hybrid expressivism in the literature. Relational expressivism, by contrast, hasn't really been explored. What's the difference?
hybrid expressivism — "moral sentences express states of mind that consist in both an ordinary descriptive belief and a desire-like attitude"

relational expressivism — "moral beliefs consist in a certain relation holding between one’s ordinary descriptive belief state and some kind of desire-like attitudinal state"
I'm still having a hard time fully grasping the distinction Schroeder is making here. At first, I took relational expressivism to be a more restricted form of hybrid expressivism, but this was wrong. Schroeder writes, "The key insight we’ll need is that hybrid expressivism is really just a special case of relational expressivism." From what I now understand, hybrid expressivist theories are more specific about which belief and which attitude a person must hold in order to accept a given moral sentence. Meanwhile, relational expressivist theories can get away with being less substantive about the identity of beliefs and attitudes in moral statements so long as a certain class of relationship holds between them.

Schroeder does give a rough example of relational expressivism, but then he says it's not a good example (because adding detail to the belief component shouldn't be able to flip the judgment in proper relational expressivist theories) and instead directs readers to Teemu Toppinen's paper "Belief in Expressivism" which will appear along with Schroeder's paper in Oxford Studies in Metaethics vol. 8.


Steve Finlay and Justin Snedegar presented their paper "One Ought Too Many" which defends the claim that the word 'ought' itself has a more-or-less uniform meaning, as opposed to having significantly different meanings in different kinds of sentences.

For example, suppose there's a party with the door prize of kissing Mary. Bill is holding the lucky ticket.

(1) It ought to be the case that Bill kisses Mary.
(2) Bill ought to kiss Mary.

Finlay and Snedegar (F&S) don't insist these two sentences have identical meaning as a whole (we communicate something different when we choose one form over the other). Rather, they argue that this difference can be explained without resorting to 'ought' itself meaning one thing in the first sentence and something else in the second sentence.

What's the difference between (1) and (2)? Well, sentences like (1) are more like an impersonal evaluation of the situation while sentences like (2) are much more directly concerned with an agent's deliberative choice of what to do. These are called evaluative readings vs. deliberative readings respectively. So why do "It ought to be..." forms (tend to) generate evaluative readings and "[Agent] ought to..." forms (tend to) generate deliberative readings? If 'ought' always has the same meaning, shouldn't both readings be equally available for both sentence forms?

F&S suggest that the social and linguistic context of 'ought' can imply different contrast classes for 'ought' to operate on. Certain kinds of contrast classes result in deliberative readings. So sentences like (1) tend to generate contrast classes which yield evaluative readings. Sentences like (2) tend to generate contrast classes which yield deliberative readings. For example:

It ought to be the case that [Bill | Tom | Lucy] kisses Mary.
Bill ought to [kiss Mary | ignore Mary | kiss Lucy].

If context suggests these as the alternatives on the table, notice how the second sentence — unlike the first — yields a set of options for a particular agent to deliberate about and choose.

It might seem like F&S are just trading one kind of complexity (multiple semantics) for another kind of complexity (adding the contrast class step), but not if the contrast class step is used in 'ought' semantics anyway, which it arguably is.


Finally, Connie Rosati gave a talk on what it means for one's life to have meaning. She spent of a lot of time criticizing Susan Wolf's views on the matter, which caused some audience consternation in the Q&A. Rosati's own views are a bit nebulous. She focused on the idea of communicating something through one's life, but didn't want to require that anyone actually receive this communication, nor did she want to allow just any sort of powerfully communicating life to count (someone had dragged out Hitler).

Provocatively, she said her own life isn't meaningful and that other accounts of meaning apply the label far too liberally to average lives. When asked whether this means average lives are meaningless, she also said 'no.' I was baffled. The closest analogy I can draw to this pattern of thinking is the way many religious people reserve "holy" for a few highly revered people or activities, but don't characterize mundane things as "unholy."


I missed the party Saturday night due to sudden illness and also missed Michael Smith's talk on Sunday morning because I had library class in Omaha (semester complete, yay!). Happily, his talk was loosely based on a paper available online: "The Rational Foundations of Morality."

Overall, I really appreciated the opportunity to hear from writers I already knew a little about (Dreier, Railton, Schroeder, Finlay, and Smith) and become acquainted with some new folks. From a sociological angle, I enjoyed observing the mix of personalities, clothing styles, gender and age demographics, and ratio of bearded vs. unbearded men.

I'll leave you with a quick practical reasoning anecdote from Jamie Dreier's talk. When he bought his coffee on Friday morning, the Starbucks employee insisted on putting the cup on the counter rather than hand it directly to him. He asked why. It's policy, she explained, Starbucks doesn't want to risk liability from burning customers on a bad direct handoff. Jamie held up his coffee and shook it for the audience. It was iced coffee.


  1. Thanks for the write-up. Sounds to me like day 2 was rather more interesting than day 1.

    I'm curious about Railton's definition/analysis of intrinsic value. Was he saying that:

    "X is intrinsically valuable" = "Human sensibilities are broadly attuned/attracted to X"

    Or was it something else. It seemed like your Troll doll example trailed off before answering the question: so, are troll dolls intrinsically valuable?.

  2. Yes, I think it was something like that. I took it to be a way of understanding "intrinsic value" talk as — at least often — having whatever it takes to provoke broad subjective valuing from humans. Troll dolls wouldn't have intrinsic value…or maybe they wouldn't have much. This topic was just a few minutes out of the talk, so there wasn't a lot of detail.

    I'm uncomfortable using "intrinsic value" since it's such an overloaded term, but it would be nice to have some tidy label for this concept.

  3. Yeah, actually, now that I think about, that kind of definition would be entirely in keeping with the tenor of the rest of Railton's naturalistic project.