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“Thought Experiments in Ethics” by Peter Kung (Oct 9)

Many compelling thought experiments have played a prominent role in the ethics literature: the transplant case, deciding on the best policies from the original position, being kidnapped and attached to a famous violinist. A wide range of thought experiments in ethics have a distinctive feature: they feature forced choices with fixed outcomes. In a typical ethics thought experiment, an agent A is faced with choice C1 and C2. If A picks C1, then O1¬ will occur. If A picks C2, then O2 will occur. The thought experiment forces the choice between C1 and C2: they are the only relevant options. To suggest another option, C3, is to violate the rules of the game. Likewise, O1¬ and O2 are the only possible outcomes. It is not merely probably that one will occur; it is definite. Suggesting that something other than O1 and O2 will occur is, again, not to play the game.

Starting with the plausible assumption that good thought experiments must be metaphysically possible, I explore whether thought experiments with forced choices and fixed outcomes are metaphysically possible. In my view, attending closely to features of imagination suggests that pessimism is warranted. I contend that the best account of our knowledge of metaphysical possibility is via imagistic imagination. I develop a key distinction between types of content in imagistic imagination, and use this distinction to analyze the metaphysical possibility of forced choices and fixed outcomes. I reach a pessimistic conclusion: we have no reason to think that forced choices and fixed outcomes are metaphysically possible.

I conclude that that any ethical view that counts outcomes as ethically relevant will have to take seriously moral risk, a result I thinks accords with common sense. In everyday ethical reasoning, choices are not forced and outcomes are not fixed. We take into account the chancy nature of our decisions: choosing C1 will likely lead to O1, but there is a chance it will lead to O1.1 or O1.2 or…. On my view, the methodology of thought experiments itself requires that we consider moral risk. This has the implication that some putatively devastating counterexamples in ethics prove to be less devastating than widely thought.

Philosophy Seminar Series
Date: Thursday, 9 Oct 2014
Time: 2pm – 4pm
Venue: AS3 #05-23
Speaker: Peter Kung, Pomona College
Moderator: Dr. Tang Weng Hong

About the Speaker:

PeterKungPeter Kung (Pennsylvania, B.S. in Computer Science & Engineering, Stanford, M.A. In Philosophy, NYU, Ph.D. In Philosophy) is Associate Professor of Philosophy and former Department Chair at Pomona College. He has held visiting or teaching appointments at New York University, Stanford University, Claremont Graduate University and now the National University of Singapore. Professor Kung’s research centers on two areas: the philosophy of mind, in particular the thought experiments, where is coediting a collection for Oxford University Press titled Knowledge Through Imagination; and epistemology, where he focuses on the limits of skeptical challenges and the proper treatment of probabilistic reasons. He is grateful to have the chance to explore Singapore with his wife, who is also visiting at NUS, and two young children.

Conference on Confucianism and Global Chinese Society (in Mandarin)

Organized by: The Nanyang Confucian Association, with presenters from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
Date: Thursday 18- Friday 19 September 2014
Venue: Furama Riverfront Hotel (405 Havelock Road, Singapore 169633)
Program attached as a pdf: 【南洋孔教會】國際儒學會議日程表.

Note: A/P LO Yuet Keung from NUS Chinese Studies, and joint appointment NUS Philosophy, will be giving his paper on Friday morning.

“Finality Revived: Powers and Intentionality” by David Oderberg (Sep 16)

Proponents of physical intentionality argue that the classic hallmarks of intentionality highlighted by Brentano are also found in purely physical powers. Critics worry that this idea is metaphysically obscure at best, and at worst leads to panpsychism or animism. I examine the debate in detail, finding both confusion and illumination in the physical intentionalist thesis. Analysing a number of the canonical features of intentionality, I show that they all point to one overarching phenomenon of which both the mental and the physical are kinds, namely finality. This is the finality of ‘final causes’, the long-discarded idea of universal action for an end to which recent proponents of physical intentionality are in fact pointing whether or not they realise it. I explain finality in terms of the concept of specific indifference, arguing that in the case of the mental, specific indifference is realised by the process of abstraction, which has no correlate in the case of physical powers. This analysis, I conclude, reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of rational creatures such as us, as well as only partly demystifying the way in which powers work.

Philosophy Department Seminar
Date: Tuesday, 16 Sep 2014
Time: 3.30pm – 5.30pm
Venue: AS3 #05-23
Speaker: David Oderberg, University of Reading
Moderator: Dr. Tang Weng Hong

About the Speaker:

davidoderbergDavid S. Oderberg is Professor of Philosophy, University of Reading. His chief interest is metaphysics, but he also has a major interest in moral philosophy and has published in a number of areas, including philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and philosophical logic. His most recent book is Real Essentialism (Routledge, 2007, reprinted 2009). He is currently writing a book on the metaphysics of good and evil.

“Medicalization, ‘Normal Function’, and the Definition of Health” by Rebecca Kukla (Sep 9)

The concept of health is surprisingly difficult to define in a rigorous and satisfying way. I argue that biologically based ‘normal function’ accounts and thoroughgoing social constructionist accounts of health are both deeply unsatisfying, particularly if we want the concept of health to play a substantial role in policy and social justice projects. I propose what I call an ‘institutional’ definition of health, and argue that it retains the objectivity that is appealing in biological accounts, along with the social constructionists’ important insight that health and disease are partially constituted by social context and by contingent, historical processes of medicalization.

Philosophy Department Seminar
Date: Tuesday, 9 Sep 2014
Time: 3.30pm – 5.30pm
Venue: AS3 #05-23
Speaker: Rebecca Kukla, Georgetown University
Moderator: Dr. Tang Weng Hong

About the Speaker:

20110112 Rebecca Kukla_0002Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy, Georgetown University.  Her research interests include social epistemology (including the epistemology and methodology of medical research), philosophy of language, feminist philosophy, metaethics, reproductive ethics and the culture of pregnancy and motherhood, and research ethics. Much of her research bridges ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of language. She also has serious interests in eighteenth century philosophy, especially the work of Rousseau and Kant. She received her B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto in 1990 and her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh in 1996.  Her publications include R.Kukla and M. Lance, ‘Yo!’ and ‘Lo!’:  The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press 2009)

Philosophy Commencement and Alumni Party 2014 & 60th Anniversary of NUS Philosophy


For the second time running, the Department of Philosophy held its Commencement and Alumni Party at the Shaw Foundation Alumni House (1st August). The party saw a turnout of nearly 50 guests comprising honours and graduating students, Alumni, and Faculty members, all mingling over food and drink. This event also marked the 60th anniversary of the philosophy department, a significant milestone in its history.


The event was hosted by emcee Xue En, an honours student of the department. The festivities were officially kicked off by acting Head of Department, A/P Michael Pelczar. The food was a delicious spread of dishes ranging from Shepherds’ Pie to Laksa. All these were complemented by a mix of unique craft beers, kindly sponsored by several faculty members. Much as the night was about food and drink, it was also about philosophy and reconnecting with old friends: Alumni got to reacquaint themselves with old classmates and teachers, while graduating students were given an opportunity to forge new friendships with those that have graduated before them. The attendees spent the evening exchanging both philosophical ideas as well as snippets of their personal experiences, having fruitful discussions on all aspects of life.

IMG_9575During the party, Cheryl, a member of the graduating cohort delivered a speech on her own experiences in the Department of Philosophy, fondly recalling the unique experiences that she had during her time as a student and her year-long exchange in Edinburgh. Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the evening was a speech by former head of the Philosophy department, Prof. Ten Chin Liew, who treated everyone to reminiscences of his experiences at the department, both as a young undergraduate, and also as a faculty member. While acknowledging that some may be unhappy to have their youthful mischief so exposed, he thought the risk worth taking given that some of the people mentioned are already dead, or too far away to take their revenge, he said with a twinkle in his eye – much to the amusement of all who were present.


To commemorate the special occasion, a mug specially designed by A/P John Holbo, very much our resident artist, was presented to each guest. It carries the byline-”Come for the answers, stay for the questions”—familiar to several generations of philosophy students by now. The Office of Alumni Relations also generously sponsored gifts for each graduating student. A/P Holbo’s talents were further showcased on the design of the department’s 60th anniversary cake. If the mug bears the motif of an Athenian coin, the cake carries a quote from Confucius’ Analects passage 2.4, and a doodle of the Master himself. The juxtaposition of the two designs—one alluding to the beginnings of the discipline in the ancient West, the other to the parallel sources of wisdom’s study in the East—highlights the inclusive nature of the department. After a bout of photos with all the guests, the cake was cut by Professor Pelzar and Professor Ten and witnessed by members of the faculty present.


The event concluded with closing words by A/P Loy Hui-Chieh, and the promise of an even better party next year. As the guests reluctantly prepared to leave, they ended the evening by taking pictures with specially prepared Polaroid cameras, taking home a personalised memoir of their time at the party, which was nothing short of a rousing success.

For more photos, please visit our facebook photo album of the event.


“How Predictive Brains Might Distinguish Between Appearance and Reality” by Malcolm Forster (Aug 14)

In philosophy, the problem of appearance and reality is the problem of saying why the appearance of an object to us gives us information about the way the object really is, even though the same object appears different to different people at different times.  A parallel can be drawn between that problem and a hotly debated topic in neuroscience, about which features of neural activities inside the brain (the “appearances”) carry information about the external world (the “reality”).  The problem of explicating a semantic notion of “carrying information” has also been tackled by philosophers in the past (Fred Dretske, Denny Stampe, Jerry Fodor, and more recently, Brian Skyrms, 2010, Signals).  This talk will argue that the general approach to this problem taken by neuroscientists and these philosophers is fundamentally wrong.  The argument is premised on recent work on causality known as Bayesian causal networks (e.g., Judea Pearl, 2000, 2009).  Once neural networks are re-described as Bayes nets, there is a sharp distinction between internal probabilistic dependencies that can be explained by internal causal connections and those that cannot.  Only those that cannot be explained internally carry information about the external world. The talk will end with a discussion about how this version of naturalistic semantics, Wisconsin style, bears on the philosophical problem of appearance and reality.

Philosophy Department Seminar
Date: Thursday, 14 Aug 2014
Time: 3.30pm – 5.30pm
Venue: AS3 #05-23
Speaker: Malcolm Forster, University of Wisconsin at Madison
Moderator: Dr. Tang Weng Hong

About the Speaker:

forsterProfessor Malcolm R. Forster is Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin at Madison. His research has focused on issues in the methodology of science, particularly the role of simplicity and unification in confirmation and in statistics, as well as William Whewell’s methodology of science applied to planetary astronomy (the latest publication being M. Forster (2011) “The Debate between Whewell and Mill on the Nature of Scientific Induction”, in Stephan Hartmann (ed.), The Handbook of the History of Logic, Volume 10: Inductive Logic (Elsevier Science, pp. 91-113.). In 2010, he also applied Whewell’s consilience of inductions to quantum physics (“The Miraculous Consilience of Quantum Mechanics”, in Ellery Eells and James Fetzer (eds.), 2010, Probability and Science), and he is now expanding and developing an earlier project applying the method of Bayes Causal Nets to understanding various results in the foundations of quantum mechanics.

Philosophy Commencement and Alumni Party 2014

The NUS Philosophy department cordially invites all alumni and graduating students to the Philosophy Commencement and Alumni Party 2014. Come reconnect with old friends and teachers on an evening of fun, great food and friendship! This year’s party will be extra special as we are also commemorating the department’s 60th anniversary. The party will be held at the Shaw Foundation Alumni House on Aug 1st (Friday) from 6 – 9.30 p.m. RSVP by July 25th at the following link:


Please help us spread the word, and we look forward to having you!


“Valuable Asymmetrical Friendship” by Thomas Brian Mooney and John Williams (24 Apr)

Aristotle distinguishes three sorts of friendship. There are friendships of pleasure or of utility, in which the friend takes the other—even as an object of care—as a person qua bearer of characteristics conducive to pleasure or utility. Then there are much more valuable character friendships in which the friend cares for the other qua person for the other’s own sake. These are held by Aristotle and a variety of contemporary thinkers who broadly follow his account of friendship to involve various fairly strict equalities, or as we prefer to put it, symmetries between the friends. Roughly, such friends are fairly strictly symmetrically autonomous in relation to each other, fairly strictly symmetrical in their separateness of identity from each other, fairly strictly symmetrical in the degree to which they identify with each other, and are fairly strictly symmetrical in the degree to which they are virtuous. There is a fourth important sort of friendship that has been overlooked in the philosophical literature. We call this asymmetrical friendship. This is not friendship of pleasure or of utility, being much more valuable. Like character friendships but unlike friendships of pleasure or utility (that may also be largely asymmetrical) these involve each friend caring for the other for the others’ own sake. Unlike character friendships, they may be largely asymmetrical. So they are unlike Aristotle’s fairly strictly symmetrical and certainly valuable character friendships which seldom appear at all in our imperfect lives, lived as they are in an imperfect world.

Philosophy Seminar Series.
Date: Thursday, 24 Apr 2014
Time: 2 pm – 4 pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speakers: T. Brian Mooney, John Williams, Singapore Management University
Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

About the Speakers:

BRIANMOONEYT. Brian Mooney is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at Singapore Management University and has just been appointed as Professor of Philosophy and Head of School of Humanities and Creative Arts at Charles Darwin University.  Brian’s research interests are in Ancient and Mediaeval Philosophy, Moral Philosophy and the Theory and Practice of Education.  Brian is the author, co-author and co-editor of 9 books and over 50 articles in philosophy.

JOHNWILLIAMSJohn N. Williams (PhD Hull) works primarily in epistemology and paradoxes, especially epistemic paradoxes. He also works in philosophy of language and applied ethics. He has published in Acta Analytica, American Philosophical Quarterly, Analysis, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Journal of Philosophical Research, Philosophy East and West, Mind, Philosophia, Philosophical Studies, Religious Studies, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, Synthese and Theoria. He is co-editor of Moore’s Paradox: New Essays on Belief, Rationality and the First Person, Oxford University Press together with Mitchell Green. He researches and teaches in the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University.


“Are Modal Conditions Necessary for Knowledge?” by Mark Anthony Dacela (17 Apr)

I argue in this paper that modal conditions, particularly sensitivity and safety, are not necessary for knowledge. I do this by first investigating problem cases for both modal conditions, noting that they point to an internal glitch that even a revised similarity ranking or ordering of worlds, which others proposed, cannot fix. I then demonstrate, by way of a set theoretical profiling of the problem cases, and a set theoretical analysis of the modal semantics at work in both sensitivity and safety, that these modal conditions fail whenever necessary links that are constitutive of epistemic circumstances actually obtain but are not modally preserved; and since there are instances when knowledge only requires this, I conclude that modal conditions are not necessary for knowledge.

Philosophy Seminar Series.
Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014
Time: 2 pm – 4 pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speaker: Mark Anthony Dacela, De La Salle University – Manila
Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

About the Speaker:

319712_392841890739992_440416927_nMark Anthony Dacela is Associate Lecturer of Philosophy at De La Salle University – Manila. He obtained his PhD at the same university and his research is primarily in the area of epistemology.

“Procedural Fairness and the veil of Ignorance” by Anantharaman Muralidharan (15 Apr)

Rawls’s veil of ignorance is supposedly justified because it makes the initial choice situation procedurally fair. It supposedly does this by preventing parties from using morally irrelevant information about the persons they represent to obtain an unfair bargaining advantage over others. The success of this argument rests crucially on the idea that at least some rational mutually disinterested parties without a veil of ignorance would in fact successfully use information about the persons they represent to obtain an unfair bargaining advantage over other parties. I will argue in this paper that even in a choice situation identical to Rawls’s Original Position except for the lack of a veil of ignorance, no party has any bargaining advantage over the other. I analyse the notion of a bargaining advantage in terms of the best alternative to negotiated agreement (BATNA) and the propensity towards unacceptable outcomes. A difference in BATNA between two parties is necessary in order for there to be a bargaining advantage of one over the other. Also, plausibly, outcomes that are unacceptable to only some of the parties contra-indicates equality of bargaining power. I show that all parties in a choice situation without a veil of ignorance have equally bad BATNA. I will show that the veil of ignorance is neither necessary nor sufficient to prevent unacceptable conceptions of justice from being agreed to in the Original Position. If the analysis of the Original Position is correct, there is no reason to think that a choice situation without a veil provides some parties a bargaining advantage over others. The analysis of Rawls’s argument also suggests an alternative justification of the veil of ignorance: that it is an appropriate simplification of another choice situation which would necessarily deliver the correct principles of justice.

Graduate Seminar Series.
Date: Tuesday, 15 Apr 2014
Time: 2 pm – 3 pm
Venue: Philosophy Resource Room (AS3 #05-23)
Speaker: Anantharaman Muralidharan

About the Speaker:

murali anna 2Murali’s thesis is concerned with trying to find a more general justification for the Rawlsian framework. He isinterested in broadly trying to derive and defend a free-standing theory of justice. At the same time he isinterested in democracy and justifications for it. He is also interested in social epistemology and its implications for democracy.