© 2017 Max Lewis

§1. The Unifying Theme


The unifying theme of my research program is the use of language to create and alter personal relationships. In particular, I’m interested in how certain speech acts allow us to help one another (epistemically and morally). 



§2. The Dissertation


My dissertation has the twin goals of moralizing social epistemology and socializing moral epistemology. I take lessons from metaethics, moral psychology, epistemology, philosophy of language, and linguistics to develop accounts of what we do in asserting to others and in blaming them. I then argue for novel epistemic norms for assertion, moral assertion, and moral blame. In Chapter 1, I defend a novel version of the knowledge norm of assertion according to which one’s assertion that p must express one’s knowledge that p and one must be able to share the epistemic grounds of one’s knowledge that p. I defend the knowledge requirement by arguing that assertion has the doxastic purpose of producing knowledge in others and being able to reliably satisfy this purpose requires knowing the content of one’s assertion. What is unique about my account of the norm of assertion is that I argue that assertions are essentially social acts because they are moves in a conversation. This means, inter alia, there are conversational rules that govern assertions, e.g., cooperation. I argue that assertion has the dialogic purpose of providing sufficient or contributory grounds for answering the question under discussion in a way that every participant accepts. In order to be able to satisfy this purpose, an asserter must be able to share the epistemic grounds of their assertion. My preferred norm of assertion is partly determined by what constitutes a cooperative contribution to a conversation and thus has a moral tinge that extant accounts in the literature lack. This chapter provides a picture of assertion that allows me to unify several distinct accounts of what assertion is (e.g., Stalnaker (2012), Brandom (1983, 1994), MacFarlane (2011), etc.). It also allows me to put the literatures on assertion from philosophy of language and epistemology in conversation with each other. The result is that I’m able to provide a more social picture of assertion and its norm that I argue better explains all the data that proponents of other accounts of the norm of assertion appeal to.


Chapter 2 applies the methodology I use in Chapter 1 to the norm of moral assertion. I defend an understanding norm of moral assertion according to which an assertion that p is epistemically proper only if it expresses the asserter’s knowledge that p and the asserter has some understanding of why p. I defend the knowledge requirement by arguing that assertion has the doxastic purpose of contributing to other people’s moral understanding of why p without simultaneously putting them in a worse position to gain understanding of way p. In order to do this, I argue that one must be able to reliably produce knowledge that p in one’s audience. Moreover, like garden variety assertions, moral assertions are essentially moves in conversations and thus are governed by rules of conversation. The primary rule is cooperation. I argue that cooperation requires asserters to be able to share the epistemic grounds of their moral knowledge. However, because the purpose of moral conversation is to help others gain moral understanding, one must be able to share the right-/wrong-making features that one bases one’s moral knowledge on. This is because understanding requires knowing why a moral assertion is true, not just what evidence there is that it’s true. Moreover, in order to be able to share the epistemic grounds of one’s moral knowledge, one’s knowledge must be based on these grounds and basing one’s knowledge on the right-/wrong-making constitutes having some degree of moral understanding. Therefore, moral assertion requires moral understanding. This chapter helps develop the small literature on the norm of moral assertion by offering a novel view that importantly parallels what I take to be the most plausible norm of garden variety assertion. It also presents a norm of moral assertion that helps demarcate how moral assertion is different (in degree) to garden variety assertion. This norm also avoids objections to the most prominent view in the literature (which I present in my forthcoming paper in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice). 


Chapter 3 takes lessons from Chapters 1 and 2 to defend an epistemic norm on moral blame. I focus on blame in the sense of calling someone out for a moral failing. First, I provide a speech theoretic characterization of moral blame that situates it among related moral speech acts (e.g., advise, condemnation, etc.). I argue this speech act constitutively involves inviting the blamee to engage in a conversation about their moral failing. I then argue that the purpose of such conversations is to contribute to making the blamee a better person by increasing their moral understanding. I conclude that the speech act of blame, therefore, has the ultimate purpose of helping to make the blamee a better person. Finally, I argue that one must know that the blamee’s action constitutes a moral failing and sufficiently understand how severe of a failing it is in order to be able to properly convey the severity of one’s moral failing and to be able to completely participate in the conversation that follows being blamed. This chapter contributes to the literature on blame in a few ways. First, it draws on literatures in ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of language to develop a novel account of the speech act of blame and its purpose. Second, it puts the literatures from epistemology on the norms of speech acts in conversation with literatures from ethics and moral psychology on blame. Third, it adds a new view of the epistemic norm of blame to the growing literature on this topic.



§3. Further/Future Research


In “The Normative Significance of Address,” I explore the question: What, if anything, does a testifier (morally or epistemically) owe her addressee after the addressee has accepted her testimony? I argue that asserters take on certain moral responsibilities to their addressees. I argue that asserters have a pro tanto moral requirement to: (a) justify their assertion if appropriately challenged by the addressee and (b) to inform their addresses about changes in their evidence that affect the truth or justification of the addressee’s testimonial belief (all else being equal). This latter requirement provides a way of defending an “assurance view” of testimony which holds that there is an epistemic different between being told that p and merely overhearing that p. Because asserting generates or continues a relationship with one’s addressee(s), one has moral requirements to them that one doesn’t have to overhearers (with whom one doesn’t have any such relationship).


In my current book project, Sharing Values, I defend a moderate position on the moral and epistemic value of moral deference. I argue that there are pro tanto reasons for and against moral deference, but deference is most often morally and epistemically permissible. Chapter 1 introduces the logical space of the debate and introduces the key players. Chapter 2 argues that optimists haven’t raised sufficient reason to reject pessimism (a version of this chapter is forthcoming in Philosophical Studies). Chapters 3 and 4 offer two objections to the pessimists’ program. In Chapter 3, I argue that there is no meaningful incompatibility between moral deference and gaining moral understanding. I argue that moral deference will, in fact, often be a helpful way of gaining moral understanding. In Chapter 4, I argue that moral deference is not meaningfully incompatible with acting with moral worth. In fact, deference via accepting (as opposed to believing) can be a morally worth act itself, e.g., it can be an act of moral solidarity. Moreover, deference is instrumentally valuable to acting with moral worth, because it puts one in a better position to gain moral understanding than suspending judgment does. Chapter 5 draws on “The Normative Significance of Address” to argue that relying on moral testimony puts one in a better epistemic position to gain moral understanding than other opaque sources of belief, i.e., sources of belief that do not give believers access to the right-/wrong-makers features of actions.