The Wittgenstein Lectures were inaugurated 1987. It was one of the first steps towards internationalization of teaching at the University. Traditionally we invite a renowned philosopher to hold a week of lectures and colloquia on themes central to our Philosophy & Economics programme.
All philosophy teaching stops for a week and the first lecture is usually followed by a reception. At the end of the series there is a short exam. Students get 2 ECTS for module V1. Sometimes we offer advanced seminar courses on the work of the Wittgenstein Lecturer.
The Wittgenstein Lectures are open to the public and all members of the University.
Summer Semester 2023: The Normative Significance of Axioloy
May 08 - May 12 2023
University of Oxford
Abstract: Much work in moral philosophy and normative economics proceeds by considering axiological issues in isolation from any other facts that might have moral relevance. By “axiological issues”, I mean: issues of what counts as one state of affairs being better than another (and by how much), and of which of the available options in a given decision problem would lead to better outcomes (in expectation).Consequentialism is a moral philosophy according to which such betterness facts entirely determine the normative matter of what one ought to do. But consequentialism is highly controversial. Most moral philosophers, as well as common-sense morality, hold at the very least that sometimes other considerations, besides the impartial betterness of outcomes, have some relevance to how one ought, morally, to act. This raises the question of how significant axiological analysis is, at the end of the day, for morally appropriate decision-making. I will distinguish between three ways in which a non-consequentialist moral theory might answer this question. According to (what I will call) “moderate” non-consequentialism, there remains an important role for axiology; the departure from consequentialism is “only” that on this type of moral theory, non-axiological considerations (such as deontic constraints and agent-relative prerogatives) also have some moral relevance. “Extreme” non-consequentialism denies that axiological considerations play any role at all in the correct moral theory. “Dismissive” non-consequentialism allows that axiological considerations play some role, but holds that their role is very minor. Though there are few explicit defences of these latter two views, many contemporary non-consequentialists seem to me to be sympathetic to either an extreme or a dismissive approach. The aim of the lectures is to argue against extreme and dismissive non-consequentialism. All plausible forms of non-consequentialism must agree that axiology is one important part of the full normative story.
- Introduction [Mon I May 08 I 04-06 pm I H 24 (RW I) I reception]
This lecture introduces the overall theme of the lectures, and some of the key moral-philosophical concepts (for example, those of axiology, constraints and prerogatives) that will be presupposed in the later lectures.
- In defence of axiology [Tue I May 09 I 10-12 am I H 12 (NW I) I colloquium 02-04 pm H 12 (NW I)]
This lecture responds to various thoughts that the very notion of axiology is misconceived. Something that looks and behaves like axiology, I will argue, is both (1) unobjectionable, and (2) must have at least some role in any moral theory that gives plausible verdicts on various well-known problems of interpersonal aggregation.
- Oughts beyond obligations [Wed I May 10 I 10-12 am I H 35 (SPORT) I colloquium 02-04 pm H 26 (GW I)]
Some moral philosophers would concede that axiological considerations have some moral relevance, but hold that their relevance is extremely limited. This is the “dismissive non-consequentialist” picture. On this picture, (1) axiology grounds extremely little by way of moral obligations; (2) the significance of axiology is largely limited to the fact that one can perform supererogatory action (“above and beyond the call of (moral) duty”) by choosing to bring about better outcomes than the morally required minimum; and (3) unlike someone who fails to fulfil her moral obligations, someone who merely fails to supererogate is not thereby an appropriate subject of moral criticism. I argue against this picture. Either axiology is highly significant for determining moral obligations, or one can be morally criticisable without violating obligations, for failing to be sufficiently influenced by axiological considerations in addition to considerations of obligation.
- The third-party significance of deontic constraints [Thu I May 11 I 10-12 am I H 26 (GW I) I colloquium 02-04 pm H 36 (NW III)]
Most non-consequentialists accept deontic constraints: principles to the effect that in some circumstances, a given act is morally prohibited even if it would lead to the best available consequences. In this lecture, I consider the decision situation facing secondary agents. These are agents who face a choice of whether or not to intervene to prevent another person (the “primary agent”) from performing a morally wrong action. The question is whether (and if so to what extent) such a secondary agent has distinctively non-consequentialist reasons to intervene: reasons relating specifically to the fact that the primary agent’s action would be wrong, over and above reasons that arise from the (non-moral) goodness and badness of the (actual and/or expected) consequences. I suggest that at least in an important class of such cases, the answer is “no”, or “not significantly”. If this is correct, then axiological considerations are more significant - even more significant - for secondary agents than they are for primary agents.
- Axiology in public morality [Fri I May 12 I 10-12 am I H 18 (NW II) I exam 06-07 pm s.t. H 24 (RW I)]
21st-century moral philosophers often focus primarily on private morality: the morality applicable to decision-making by individual people, in their capacities as private citizens. But questions of public morality - the morality applicable to decision-making by society as a whole, as in the choice of policies by governments and other public bodies - it at least comparably important. Furthermore, it is plausible that public morality has a markedly different character, at the level of content, to private morality. In the final lecture, I will suggest that axiological considerations are more significant - even more significant - in public morality than they are in private morality.
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