USC’s Speculative Society provides an informal forum for graduate students both to practice presenting papers to each other in the conference/colloquium format (i.e. fielding questions and objections), as well as to run new ideas past one another and receive suggestions for their further development. It’s an excellent opportunity philosophy graduate students to get to know each other, and learn more about the diverse interests represented at USC. The series is currently organized by Brian Haas.


Recent Series

Spring 2023

  • January 17th, 2023
    Brian Haas (website), “What is Deception?”
    We all have been lied to, misled, tricked, hoodwinked, and duped, and many of us have done our fair share of each. Interpersonal deception, in one form or another, permeates our life. Not only is deception common, it is also important. Fake news, either in virtue of its content or presentation, is commonly thought to be deceptive. Lying is commonly thought to require an intention to deceive. Deception played a pivotal role in the Allies’ victory in World War II, cost Nixon his presidency, and laid the foundations of the Capitol insurrection on January 6th, 2021. Deception can start or end a war, save or doom a relationship, bring applause or ire. It can bring us together and keep us apart. Despite deception’s importance and prevalence, it hasn’t attracted nearly the philosophical attention which it deserves. One aim of this chapter is to help remedy this deficiency, the other is to shed some light on deception’s nature.
  • February 3rd, 2023
    Yasha Sapir (website), “Vague Communication”
    Epistemicists hold that vague declarative sentences semantically associate with just a single proposition for each context. Multipropositionists disagree, and hold that for each context vague declarative sentences associate with multiple propositions. A semantics for vague declarative sentences should have something to say about how hearers respond to speakers who use vague declarative sentences to straightforwardly communicate information, in situations where all goes well. Call this vague communication. I show that, in the final analysis, epistemicists and multipropositionists should give nearly functionally equivalent analyses for how hearers should update how they act in response to vague communication. In particular, both epistemicists and multipropositionists should say that hearers should update in response to vague communication as though their interlocutor had simultaneously partially asserted a basket of propositions. In light of this, the epistemicist’s posit that given a basket of a vague sentence’s meaning candidates, one of them must be privileged, begins to look like a posit that is doing little explanatory work.
  • February 10th, 2023
    Antonio Maria Cleani (website), “Dependence and Impredicativity”
    I spell out and motivate a notion I call dependence. Very roughly, a linguistic item is said to depend on a domain of a given type when its extension supervenes of which objects from that domain belong to the range of quantifiers of that type. In the non-linguistic case, a proposition or property is said to depend on a domain of a given type if the extension of that proposition or property supervenes on which among the entities from that domain exist. The notion of dependence, or something very close to it, is sometimes conflated with the rather ubiquitous yet not very clear notion of quantifying over, which appears in discussion of topics as diverse as absolute generality, ontological disagreement and impredicativity. But it pays to distinguish the two notions, and once one does one realizes that more than a few of these topics are better understood through the lense of dependence. This talk focuses on the case of impredicativity.
  • February 17th, 2023
    Paul Garofalo (website), “The Wrong of Colonization and the Claims of Future Generations”
    One account of how colonialism wrongs the colonized is that it unilaterally imposes a political association onto the colonized. Call accounts like this political imposition accounts of colonialism. These accounts aim to provide an essential wrong of colonialism, that is, a wrong that attends to all cases of colonialism. In this paper I raise the question of whether political imposition accounts provide the whole story of the essential wrong of colonization. I argue that the wrong of colonization gives rise to certain pro tanto claims on the part of the colonized and their descendants, in particular a pro tanto claim to independence against the authority of the state. The wrong identified by the political imposition account, though, is unable to explain how the descendants of the colonized could have such a claim. Correspondingly, there must be some other essential wrong of colonization beyond that identified by political imposition accounts.
  • February 24th, 2023
    Megha Devraj (website), “Civil Disobedience as an Imaginitive Challenge”
    What do protestors aim to communicate when they defy norms or break laws? In my view, we cannot answer the question by looking to the framework of Rawlsian civil disobedience. According to Rawls, civil disobedience is an appeal to reasonable, publicly accepted standards of justice through a non-violent and conscientious breach of law. But challenging unreflectively held public views is often the very point of lawbreaking. Rather than appealing to reasonable, publicly accepted norms, I argue, defiant protestors typically aim for us to recognise that our norms are unreasonable. I replace the notion of civil disobedience with the more expansive notion of collaborative defiant protests. An act is a collaborative defiant protest when it is a public and spectacular breach of norms or laws which (i) challenges some socio-political norm, institution, value structure, or hierarchy, (ii) aims for the audience to reimagine the socio-political norm, institution, value structure, or hierarchy in question. I argue that this expansive notion better captures the communicative purpose of most cases of civil disobedience.
  • March 3rd, 2023
    Weng Kin San (website), “Aggregating Value across Time and People”
    The central question of population axiology is: how do we aggregate welfare across people? But much of population ethics is “static”. They ignore the fact that people’s lives are extended across time. Welfare needs to be aggregated not just across people but also across time. I argue that the extra dimension of time raises problems for various axiologies. In fact, the only axiology that satisfies two plausible axioms concerning temporal aggregation is the axiology which simply adds up the welfare of each person at each moment in time.
  • March 10th, 2023
    Rachel Keith (website), “A Broader Account of Doxastic Wronging”
    Person A can doxastically wrong Person B in virtue of one or more beliefs Person A holds. In the literature, it is taken to be that, in order for Person A to doxastically wrong person B, Person A’s wrongful belief must be about Person B. I challenge this assumption. Some of our beliefs about the world can wrong others, even when those beliefs are not directly about the injured party. I argue that our identities are partly constituted by beliefs we have about the world, and we can be doxastically wronged by beliefs that deny our identity-constituting beliefs.

Fall 2022

  • September 2nd, 2022
    Brian Haas (website), “Lying and Apologizing”
    We all have lied. We all have also apologized. But is it possible to lie by apologizing? As I argue, not only are such lies possible, but a speaker can lie by apologizing in two different ways: (1) By apologizing for something they know they haven’t done, and (2) By insincerely apologizing—apologizing without feeling regret or shame for the action they apologized for. Both of these ways of lying pose problems for the orthodox view of lying on offer in the literature. According to orthodoxy, to lie is to make a believed false assertion. The possibility of lying by apologizing shows orthodoxy to be doubly wrong. First, a speaker can lie by presupposing—but not asserting—disbelieved information. Second, they can lie by expressing a state (i.e., regret or shame) which they are not in—not by asserting disbelieved information. These lies necessitates a dramatic shift away from the traditional, assertion-based accounts of lying which dominates the literature and towards a heterodox, expressing-based one.
  • September 9th, 2022
    Mitchell Barrington (website), “Superiority and Separability”
    Superiority is the view that there exists some pair of valuable objects x and y such that some quantity of x is better than any quantity of y; it is very plausible when x is an important good and y is trivial, such as in the Repugnant Conclusion. This paper shows that (given modest auxiliary assumptions) Superiority is incompatible with Separability—the principle that in comparing the value of two outcomes, we may ignore people whose welfare and existence are unaffected.
  • September 15th, 2022
    Zeb Dempsey, “The Puzzle of Victim Anger”
    I raise a puzzle that I call ‘the puzzle of victim-anger’ that is parallel to Bernard William’s puzzle of agent-regret. Suppose a truck driver is driving down the street when a child happens to walk in front of them. Through no fault of their own, the driver hits and kills the child. It is well understood that the driver will, and probably should, have some sort of guilt-like response, called agent-regret. However, it would also be unsurprising to find out that the child’s parents were angry at the driver for killing their child, and this observation has been largely overlooked in the literature on agent-regret. This anger is totally intelligible—we might even feel deeply alienated by a parent who didn’t feel it in the wake of their child’s avoidable death. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how this anger could be rationally defensible: aren’t the parents just lashing out at an innocent party? I show how the traditional philosophical account of anger fails to yield a satisfactory solution to this puzzle. As a result, I argue that we ought to reject the traditional account and outline a few challenges that any alternative account capable of solving the puzzle needs to meet.
  • September 21st, 2022
    Noah Gordon (website), “Humean Moral Laws”
    Humeanism about moral laws is the view that moral laws are mere summaries of particular matters of fact. In this talk, I will explain why Humeanism is an attractive view of the laws. Then, I will defend Humeanism from a recent objection which claims that the Humean cannot explain moral supervenience.
  • September 30th, 2022
    Levy Wang (website), “A defense of non-factive motivating reasons”
    I argue that there are three central principles prevalent in the discussion of motivating reasons, i.e., the agent’s actual reason for action. The principles are anti-psychologism — that motivating reasons are propositions, an explanatory constraint — motivating reasons must explain the agent’s action, as well as a deliberative constraint — the agent must deliberate from the motivating reasons. The first part of the talk will introduce the three principles and show that though individually plausible, cannot be satisfied together. The second part of the talk aims to show that we should relax the explanatory constraint and prioritize the deliberative constraint. This is because motivating reasons serve a unique (normative) role that distinguishes them from merely explanatory reasons. We often make some (normative) evaluation of an agent’s reasoning process in addition to assessing whether their action is right or wrong. For example, we evaluate whether they acted for good reasons or whether the reasoning leading up to the action is cogent. Similar kinds of evaluation have been explicitly discussed in the moral worth literature, but I think it should be extended beyond the moral domain.
  • October 6th, 2022
    Anja Chivukula (website), “Demystifying Conversational Relevance”
    Relevance is a key part of some of our most basic tools in analytic philosophy of language, like Gricean inference and the Stalnakerian common ground. However, pinning down exactly what it means for an utterance to be relevant has proved elusive. Thus far, there have been approaches to relevance which work for contexts of inquiry (QUD, discourse goals) or for casual conversation (SDRT, coherence relations), but none that can explain conversational relevance as a more general phenomenon. In this talk, I propose that we can combine approaches based on discourse goals and on coherence relations in order to get an account of conversational relevance which is independently motivated, can explain some of our intuitions, and can fill the necessary role in conversational mechanisms like the common ground. Connections to generative linguistics and Relevance Theory will be discussed, time permitting.
  • October 21st, 2022
    Matthew Wiseman (website), “Justifying Democratic Representation for Future Generations”
    In response to the climate crisis, recent years have seen increasing calls from activists and academics alike for the representation of future generations within democratic institutions. Imagine, for example, proxy representatives in congress deliberating and voting on behalf of future people, alongside the usual representatives acting on behalf of present people. A natural thought is that such proxy representatives can be justified by appeal to the All-Affected Principle – the claim that all those whose interests are affected by a democratic decision should have their interests represented in the making of that decision. Some, however, have suggested that the fact that the decisions of democratic institutions will change the identities of those who come into existence in the future means such future people are not affected in the relevant sense. In this talk, I draw on and develop recent work in population ethics to offer an interpretation of the All-Affected Principle that can justify proxy representatives for future generations despite the non-identity problem.
  • October 28th, 2022
    Anthony Nguyen (website), “Grounding the Wrong of Colonialism in Self-Respect”
    Colonialism is always seriously pro tanto wrong. But why? Is colonialism wrongful for merely contingent reasons? If so, then, in principle, colonialism could be wholly unobjectionable. I argue against this possibility. Colonialism always involves political subjugation of the colonized people. By politically subjugating the colonized, colonial institutions treat them as inferior with respect to the Rawlsian moral powers for a conception of the good or for a sense of justice. By treating the colonized in this way, colonial institutions seriously threaten their social bases of social respect. But the social bases of self-respect are the most important social primary good, the most important good to distribute justly. Colonialism is therefore unjust and, at the very least, pro tanto wrong. I conclude by comparing my view to the two most influential existing accounts of why colonialism must be necessarily wrongful: Stilz’s (2019) political autonomy account and Ypi’s (2013) political association account. I argue that the self-respect approach has advantages over both.
  • November 10th, 2022
    Jin Zeng (website), “Classical Normativity”
    Classicism identifies provable equivalence in classical higher-order logic with identity. It implies intensionalism, according to which two propositions/properties/relations are necessarily co-extensive in the broadest sense only if they are identical. Over the past two decades, many philosophers have argued that intensionalism gives us no interesting metaethics. But this is not the case. In this talk, I first develop a concrete theory of normativity within a picture of Classicism, the core of which consists in a characterization of the property of being normative as well as the operation of normative necessity. This theory vindicates the widely accepted thesis that every normative truth holds in virtue of some non-normative truth. As a bonus, it also provides us a straight way of understanding Hume’s law that one “can’t get an ought from an is”. Yet my theory is far from the whole story. I then briefly mention several theoretical degrees of freedom allowed by Classicism. We will end up with a very general framework of doing metaethics within a very coarse setting of grain: on the one hand, it shows that inquires about normativity can be based, with formal rigor, on a maturely developed world view; on the other hand, we gain some abductive reasons for Classicism.
  • November 18th, 2022
    Stephanie van Fossen (website), “Comparing Claims to Benefit”
    There are some cases where it seems permissible to perform a rescue at someone’s expense, and other cases where it seems impermissible to do so. Existing explanations for our asymmetric moral judgments about such cases either fail to provide intuitive moral verdicts or lack a satisfying rationale. In this paper, I propose a new explanation of what is morally problematic about certain rescues that is subject to neither issue. My proposal is a version of the so-called means principle which adds the essential caveat that there is no moral presumption against using someone as a means to benefit herself. By attributing moral significance to the victim’s relationship to the beneficiary rather than the agent alone, my solution points to a new underlying rationale for the means principle as well as extensional and explanatory inadequacies in competing theories.

Past Series

Spring 2019

  • Michael Fiorica — How to be Gay with Words: Coming Out as an Illocutionary Act
  • Andrew Stewart — Responsibility, Rationality, and Determinism
  • Nicola Kemp — The Ethics of Failing to Make Happy People: Why Deontologists Don’t Escape the Problem of the Procreation Asymmetry
  • Jaime Castillo Gamboa — Towards a Reductionist Account of Linguistic Expressions
  • Brian Haas— Debugging Lewis’ Convention Based Semantics
  • Lisa Bastian — Conceptual Injustice
  • Zach Goodsell — Instrumental Modals
  • David Clark — The ‘So What?’ Objection to Normative Realism
  • Laura Nicoară — Pornography, Speech Acts and Fiction
  • Vilma Venesmaa — The Conceptual Truth of Normative Supervenience as an Explanation Problem for Analytic Reductionism
  • Eleonore Neufeld — Meaning Externalism and Causal Model Theory

Fall 2018

  • Brian Haas — Grice & Herod: Cases of Showing are Cases of Speaker’s Meaning
  • Jaime Castillo Gamboa — Epistemicism and Robust Moral Realism
  • Isaiah Lin — From Ontological Pluralism to Mereological Pluralism
  • Paul Garofalo — Liberty and Obligation in Hobbes: Against a Causal Theory
  • Takasaki Shohei — An Argument Against the Methodology of the Manipulation Argument
  • Philip Li — Individual Responsibility in Global Warming as a Kantian Imperfect Duty
  • Weng Kin San — Disappearing Diamonds: Results in Bi-modal Logic and Their Implications
  • Andrew Stewart — Anger, Revenge, and Tort Law
  • Anthony Nguyen — The Radical Account of Bare Plural Generics

Selected Abstracts

  • Eleonore Neufeld — Meaning Externalism and Causal Model Theory
    One of the main insights the philosophical community has drawn from Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiments and Kripke’s modal arguments for a theory of direct reference is that meaning is individuated externalistically. In this paper, I propose an account of the structure of concepts that correctly predicts the Putnam-Kripke intuitions, while preserving an internalist conception of meaning. After presenting and systematizing the Putnam-Kripke data, I propose and defend a Causal Model Theory of conceptual structure, on the basis of which we can model the semantics of natural kind terms and predict the key Putnam-Kripke intuitions.
  • Paul Garofalo — Liberty and Obligation in Hobbes: Against a Causal Theory
    Hobbes claims that obligation and liberty are inconsistent with one another. This claim generates two questions: how is obligation inconsistent with liberty? and what is the sense of “liberty” with which obligation is inconsistent? There are two main interpretations answering the “how” question: obligations might be inconsistent with liberty because they cause us to lose liberty or because they constitute the loss of liberty. Each interpretation then invokes a different sense of “liberty” to answer the “what” question. In this paper I explore the claim that obligations cause us to lose liberty and argue that this is an implausible interpretation of Hobbes. This answer either makes obligations too strong such that their violation is impossible or makes liberty too weak such that any influence causes us to lose liberty. I conclude by offering preliminary remarks concerning how to pursue the claim that obligations constitute the loss of liberty.
  • Laura Nicoară — Pornography, Speech Acts and Fiction
    Radical feminists want to argue that pornography wrongs women in general – that is, possibly all women, and certainly not just the women who are harmed as a result of being involved in the production of pornography, or those who are hurt by men whose attitudes and beliefs have been causally influenced by pornography consumption. In this paper I aim to do four things: (1) describe and motivate a popular approach to arguing for this claim within the analytic tradition, i.e., the idea that pornography performs speech acts that are harmful to women; (2) formulate an objection to the speech act approach which shows it cannot adequately support the anti-pornography thesis; (3) in light of the objection, provide a condition that speech act-based anti-pornography arguments must satisfy; (4) attempt a new argument against pornography that satisfies this condition.