Separating the Evaluative from the Descriptive: An Empirical Study of Thick Concepts

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen, Kevin Reuter
Willemsen, Pascale; Reuter, Kevin (forthcoming). Separating the Evaluative from the Descriptive: An Empirical Study of Thick Concepts. Thought. A Journal of Philosophy.
Publication year: 2021

Thick terms and concepts, such as honesty and cruelty, are at the heart of a variety of debates in philosophy of language and metaethics. Central to these debates is the question of how the descriptive and evaluative components of thick concepts are related and whether they can be separated from each other. So far, no empirical data on how thick terms are used in ordinary language has been collected to inform these debates. In this paper, we present the first empirical study, designed to investigate whether the evaluative component of thick concepts is communicated as part of the semantic meaning or by means of conversational implicatures. While neither the semantic nor the pragmatic view can fully account for the use of thick terms in ordinary language, our results do favor the semanticist interpretation: the evaluation of a thick concept is only slightly easier to cancel than semantically entailed content. We further discovered a polarity effect, demonstrating that how easily an evaluation can be cancelled depends on whether the thick term is of positive or negative polarity.

Separability and the Effect of Valence An Empirical Study of Thick Concepts

Conference PaperPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen, Kevin Reuter
Willemsen, Pascale; Reuter, Kevin (2020). Separability and the Effect of Valence. Proceedings of the 42th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2020, pp. 794-800.
Publication year: 2020

Thick terms and concepts, such as honesty and cruelty, are at the heart of a variety of debates in linguistics, philosophy of language, and metaethics. Central to these debates is the question of how the descriptive and evaluative components of thick concepts are related and whether they can be separated from each other. So far, no empirical data on how thick terms are used in ordinary language has been collected to inform these debates. In this paper, we present the first empirical study, designed to investigate whether the evaluative component of thick concepts can be separated. Our study might be considered to support the view that separation is not possible. However, our study also reveals an effect of valence, indicating that people reason differently about positive and negative thick terms. While evaluations cannot be cancelled for negative thick terms, they can be for positive ones. Three follow-up studies were conducted to explain this effect. We conclude that the effect of valence is best accounted for by a difference in the social norms guiding evaluative language.

Can you lie by asking a question? An empirical investigation

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Emanuel Viebahn, Alex Wiegmann, Neele Engelmann, Pascale Willemsen
Viebahn, Emanuel; Wiegmann, Alex; Engelmann, Neele; Willemsen, Pascale (2020). Can you lie by asking a question? An empirical investigation. In press with Ergo.
Publication year: 2020

In several recent papers and a monograph, Andreas Stokke argues that questions can be misleading, but that they cannot be lies. The aim of this paper is to show that ordinary speakers disagree. We show that ordinary speakers judge certain kinds of insincere questions to be lies, namely questions carrying a believed-false presupposition the speaker intends to convey. These judgements are robust and remain so when the participants are given the possibility of classifying the utterances as misleading or as deceiving. The judgements contrast with judgements participants give about cases of misleading or deceptive behaviour, and they pattern with judgements participants make about declarative lies. Finally, the possibility of lying with non-declaratives is not confined to questions: ordinary speakers also judge utterances of imperative, exclamative and optative sentences carrying believed-false presuppositions to be lies.

The Relevance of Alternate Possibilities for Moral Responsibility for Actions and Omissions

Book ChapterPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen
Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy
Publication year: 2019

In this paper, I present three original, pre-registered experiments that test the relevance of alternative possibilities for the attribution of moral responsibility. Many philosophers have argued that alternative possibilities are required for an agent’s moral responsibility for the consequences of omitting an action. In contrast, it is argued that alternative possibilities are not required for moral responsibility for the consequences of performing an action. Thus, while an agent can be morally responsible for an action she could not have avoided, an agent is never morally responsible for omitting an action she could not have performed. Call this the Action/Omission Asymmetry Thesis. In this paper, I discuss various strategies to challenge the Action/Omission Asymmetry Thesis. I identify the predictions those strategies make about the conditions under which an agent will be held morally responsible for an unavoidable action or omission. These predictions are subsequently tested in three experiments to evaluate their respective plausibility. I demonstrate that whether there is an Action/Omission Asymmetry strongly depends, first, on the type of moral judgment we consider relevant for the Action/Omission Asymmetry Thesis, and, second, the scale we use to test the folk’s intuitions.

Omissions and Their Moral Relevance. Assessing causal and moral responsibility for the things we fail to do

BookPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen
Mentis
Publication year: 2019

This book empirically investigates the social practice of ascribing moral responsibility to others for the things they failed to do, and it discusses the philosophical relevance of this practice.

In our everyday life, we often blame others for things they failed to do. For instance, we might blame our neighbour for not

watering our plants during our vacation. Interestingly, the attribution of blame is typically accompanied by the attribution of causal responsibility. We do not only blame our neighbour for not watering our plants, but we do so because we believe that not watering the plants caused them to dry up and die. In this book, I investigate how we make moral and causal judgments about omissions. I discuss different philosophical perspectives on this matter, and I outline to what extent the actual social practice is in line with philosophical theories.

Recent empirical work on the relationship between causal judgements and norms

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen, Lara Kirfel
Philosophy Compass 2018, https://doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12562
Publication year: 2018

It has recently been argued that normative considerations play an important role in causal cognition. For instance, when an agent violates a moral rule and thereby produces a negative outcome, she will be judged to be much more of a cause of the outcome, compared to someone who performed the same action but did not violate a norm. While there is a substantial amount of evidence reporting these effects, it is still a matter of debate how this evidence is to be interpreted. In this paper, we engage with the three most influential classes of explanations, namely, (a) the Norm‐Sensitive Cognitive Process View, (b) the Normative Concept View, and (c) the Pragmatics View. We will outline how these theories explain the empirical results and in what ways they differ. We conclude with a reflection on how well these strategies do overall and what questions they still leave unanswered.

Causal attribution and corpus analysis

Book ChapterPeer-reviewed
Justin Sytsma, Roland Bluhm, Pascale Willemsen, Kevin Reuter
(2) Sytsma, Justin; Bluhm, Roland; Willemsen, Pascale; Reuter, Kevin (2018). Causal attribution and corpus analysis, In: Methodological Advances in Experimental Philosophy, Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication year: 2018

A new look at the attribution of moral responsibility: The underestimated relevance of social roles

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen, Albert Newen, Kai Kaspar
Philosophical Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2018.1429592
Publication year: 2018

What are the main features that influence our attribution of moral responsibility? It is widely accepted that there are various factors which strongly influence our moral judgments, such as the agent’s intentions, the consequences of the action, the causal involvement of the agent, and the agent’s freedom and ability to do otherwise. In this paper, we argue that this picture is incomplete: We argue that social roles are an additional key factor that is radically underestimated in the extant literature. We will present an experiment to support this claim.

Marbles in inaction: Counterfactual simulation and causation by omissions

Conference PaperPeer-reviewed
Simon Stephan, Pascale Willemsen, Tobias Gerstenberg
Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2017, pp. 1132-1137
Publication year: 2017

Consider the following causal explanation: The ball went through the goal because the defender didn’t block it. There are at least two problems with citing omissions as causal explanations. First, how do we choose the relevant candidate omission (e.g. why the defender and not the goalkeeper). Second, how do we determine what would have happened in the relevant counterfactual situation (i.e. maybe the shot would still have gone through the goal even if it had been blocked). In this paper, we extend the counterfactual simulation model (CSM) of causal judgment (Gerstenberg, Goodman, Lagnado, & Tenenbaum, 2014) to handle the second problem. In two experiments, we show how people’s causal model of the situation affects their causal judgments via influencing what counterfactuals they consider. Omissions are considered causes to the extent that the outcome in the relevant counterfactual situation would have been different from what it actually was.

How the truth can make a great lie: An empirical investigation of lying by falsely implicating

Conference PaperPeer-reviewed
Alex Wiegmann, Pascale Willemsen
Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2017, pp. 3516-3521.
Publication year: 2017

Is it possible to lie despite not saying anyhing false? While the spontaneous answer seems to be ‘no’, there is some evidence from ordinary language that a lie does not require what is said to be believed-false. In this paper, we will argue for a pragmatic extension of the standard definition of lying. More specifically, we will present three experiments which show that people’s concept of lying is not about what is said, but about what is implied by saying it that way. We test three Gricean conversational maxims. For each one of them we demonstrate that if a speaker implies something misleading, even by saying something semantically true, it is still considered lying.

Empirically Investigating the Concept of Lying

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Alex Wiegmann, Ronja Rutschmann, Pascale Willemsen
Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research
Publication year: 2017

Lying is an everyday moral phenomenon about which philosophers have written a lot. Not only the moral status of lying has been intensively discussed but also what it means to lie in the first place. Perhaps the most important criterion for an adequate definition of lying is that it fits with people’s understanding and use of this concept. In this light, it comes as a surprise that researchers only recently started to empirically investigate the folk concept of lying. In this paper, we describe three experimental studies which address the following questions: Does a statement need to be objectively false in order to constitute lying? Does lying necessarily include the intention to deceive? Can one lie by omitting relevant facts?

Empirically investigating the concept of lying

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Alex Wiegmann, Ronja Rutschmann, Pascale Willemsen
Wiegmann, Alex; Rutschmann, Ronja; Willemsen, Pascale* (2017). Empirically investigating the concept of lying. Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research.
Publication year: 2017

Omissions without Expectations – A New Approach to the Things We Failed to Do

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen
Synthese
Publication year: 2016

Imagine you and your friend Pierre agreed on meeting each other at a café, but he does not show up. What is the difference between a friend’s not showing up at your meeting and any other person not coming? In some sense, all people who did not come show the same kind of behaviour, but most people would be willing to say that the absence of a friend who you expected to see is different in kind. In this paper, I will spell out this difference by investigating laypeople’s conceptualisation of absences of actions in four experiments. In languages such as German, French, Italian, or Polish, people consider a friend’s not coming an omission. Any other person’s not coming, in contrast, is not considered an omission at all, but just a mere nothing. This use of the term omission differs from the usage in English, where ‘omission’ refers to all kinds of absences. In addition, ‘omission’ is not even an everyday term, but invented by philosophers for the sake of philosophical investigation. In other languages, ‘omission’ (and its synonyms) is part of an everyday vocabulary. Finally, I will discuss how this folk concept of omission could be made fruitful for philosophical questions.

Is there really an omission effect?

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen, Kevin Reuter
Philosophical Psychology, 29(8)
Publication year: 2016

The omission effect, first described by Spranca and colleagues (Spranca, Minsk, & Baron, 1991), has since been extensively studied and repeatedly confirmed (Cushman, Murray, Gordon-McKeon, Wharton, & Greene, 2012). All else being equal, most people judge it to be morally worse to actively bring about a negative event than to passively allow that event to happen. In this paper, we provide new experimental data that challenges previous studies of the omission effect both methodologically and philosophically. We argue that previous studies have failed to control for the equivalence of rules that are violated by actions and omissions. Once equivalent norms are introduced, our results show that the omission effect is eliminated, even if the negative outcome of the behavior is foreseen and intended by the agent. We show that the omission effect does not constitute a basic, moral disposition but occurs exclusively in complex moral situations. Building on these empirical results, we cast doubt onto two influential explanations of the omission effect, the Causal Relevance Hypothesis and the Overgeneralization Hypothesis, and provide a novel explanation of the phenomenon. Furthermore, we discuss various ramifications of the interplay between our understanding of omissions and legal systems.