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

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen, Kevin Reuter
Willemsen, Pascale; Reuter, Kevin (2021). 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.

Lying, Deceptive Implicatures, and Commitment

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Alex Wiegmann, Pascale Willemsen, Joerg Meibauer
In press with Ergo.
Publication year: 2021

Deceptive implicatures are a subtle communicative device for leading someone into a false belief. However, it is widely accepted that deceiving by means of deceptive implicature does not amount to lying. In this paper, we put this claim to the empirical test and present evidence that the traditional definition of lying might be too narrow to capture the folk concept of lying. Four hundred participants were presented with fourteen vignettes containing utterances that communicate conversational implicatures which the speaker believes to be false. We further collected several potential proxy measures of lying, to get a better understanding of when a deceptive implicature is considered a case of lying. The results indicate that most implicatures (ten out of fourteen) were evaluated as lies and that lie ratings were closely tracked by the degree to which speakers were considered to have committed themselves to the truth of the content conveyed by their deceptive implicatures.

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.

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.

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 31(4), 595-608. doi: 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.

Empirically Investigating the Concept of Lying

Journal PaperPeer-reviewed
Alex Wiegmann, Ronja Rutschmann, Pascale Willemsen
Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research 34, 591–609. doi: 10.1007/s40961-017-0112-z
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.