Research

 

 

I am an analytic philosopher with a special interest in inter-disciplinary and empirically informed philosophy. Since my bachelors, I have always been curious about how the human mind works. Among the many fascinating things in the world, humans, what drives them, how and why they interact with each other in the way they do, and the philosophical implications this has, strikes me as the most wonderful research project. During the last five years, my research has focused on the philosophy of moral psychology, so the question of how we make moral judgments about others. More recently, my work has shifted towards issues related to moral actions and motivation.

In my research I use tools from philosophy, experimental psychology as well as linguistics. I have conducted several studies to examine what judgments philosophically relevant scenarios elicit. In addition, I investigate the ordinary meaning of concepts such as “causation” by means of corpus studies.

I enjoy working in teams – the more interdisciplinary, the more fun. I have worked with philosophers and psychologists with various backgrounds, lawyers, and linguists, both in rather small and larger teams.

Areas of Specialisation

  • Moral Psychology
  • Philosophy of Action
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Experimental Philosophy

Areas of Competence

  • Ethics
  • Metaphysics of Causation

Research Projects

  • Alternative Possibilities, Moral Responsibility, and Free Will

    I address questions such as whether the ability to act other one actually did is relevant for the attribution of moral responsibility and free will.

    The question of how moral responsibility and free will are undermined by the truth of determinism is one of the most extensively, but also most controversially discussed ones in philosophy. Many philosophers hav come to believe that the truth of determinism does not threaten moral responsibility and free will, as they reject the necessity to the ability to act other than one actually did.

    However, while many philosophers reject the Principle of Alternate Possibilities for actions, they still believe it to be essential when it comes to moral responsibility for omissions. The fact that an agent could not have saved a drowning child because, had he tried, he would have been hindered by a strong, indurmountabale current, seems to render the agent blameless. He might be to blame for not trying to save the child or for being the kind of person who doesn’t feel the strong urge to help, but he is not morally responsible for the child’s death.

    Various arguments have been presented as to why there is an asymmetry between actions and omissions with respect to alternate possibilites. And also, there is much debate about the conditions under which the agent is relevantly unable to act other than he actually did. One predominant and extremely influential tool used in the debate are philosophical thought experiments about hypothetical cases. And philosophers using these cases often make claims such as “in this case, we all have the clear intuition that alternate possibilities are irrelevant” or that “here, the lack of alternate possibilities undermines responsibility”.

    In this research project, I investigate whether these empirical predictions actually hold. To do so, I sift through the libraries written in the debate about determinism and free will and moral responsbility. I identify the most commonly used cases and compile the empirical predictions as to what intuitions “we all have” about them. I then methodologically revise these cases to make them suitable for systematic experiments. I then conduct controlled experiments on laypeople’s intuitions about these cases and evaluate the extent to which they confirm or question philosophical theories.

    For a draft of my latest empirical research on alternative possibilities click here.

  • Omissions

    Things we don't do play an important role in our ordinary life. We are blamed for failing to do things, punished and often considered causally responsible for them. Why and how is that?

    Omissions broadly speaking are things that don‘t exist. They are your failure to water my plants, the accident you luckily never got involved in or the pony your parents never allowed you to have. And typically, when we highlight the absence of an action, an event, or a physical object, we do so in order to do something else. We blame people who fail to water our plants, and very often, we ascribe causal relevance to omissions, such as when we say that the lack of rain caused the drought, my not hitting the brakes caused the accident etc.

    But omissions are weird little biests. What exactly are we talking about when we say that my notting hitting the brakes caused the accident? What is the ontological status of omissions? The fact that it is not clear what kind if thing the absence of an action is creates further problems. According to many philosophers, causation is a relation in the world, holding between events. However, is my not doing a certain thing an event? And how can something that didn’t happen cause anything in the world?

    These and other questions motivate my work on omissions. In particular, I am interested in the relevance of omissions of actions for moral issues. It is typically assumed that moral responsibility presupposes that the agent has caused what she is blamed for. And this assumption has some great prima facie plausibility, considering hoe easy it is to defend oneself by saying “But I didn’t do it! I wasn’t even there. Here, this guy caused it, blame him!”. But if omissions are denied causal efficacy, it seems that we cannot blame agents for the consequences of their omissions. According to such a view, a mother who fails to feed her child cannot be held responsible for the child’s death, as she didn’t caused her child to die. This view, of course, strikingly contradicts our ordinary moral judgments.

    In my research on omissions, I investigate how people think about omissions in both ontological terms as well as in terms of their causal relevance.

    Please see my list of publications for two papers about the moral relevance of omissions. You can find a draft of my latest, not yet published research here.

  • Moral Responsibility

    I try to identify the factors relevant for the attribution of moral responsibility.

    I am interested in the factors that affect moral responsibility attribution. I start off from a rather classical philosophical stance on moral responsibility which philosophers have defined by means of necessary and sufficient conditions.

    For instance, it has been argued that causal responsibility is a necessary pre-condition for moral responsibility — if you haven’t caused it, you’re not to blame for it. In my research on omissions, I have worked quite intensively on whether causal responsibility plays a role in the attribution of blame for omissions.

    In contrast, it has been argued that several factors are irrelevant for moral responsibility, such as the agent’s social status.  However, empirical research indicates that this is not the case and social status and hierarchies do matter for the attribution of moral responsibility.

    The aim of my research is to work out the relevant factors for the attribution of moral responsiblity, and to discuss this everyday practice in light with the normative philosophical definitions.

  • The Folk Concept of Lying

    I empirically investigate under what conditions an agent is judged to have lied to another person. What are the necesssary conditions for something to count as a lie?

    My research on lying is in full collaboration with Alex Wiegmann.

    Lying is an everyday moral phenomenon about which philosophers have written a lot. 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. 
    One of the supposedly four necessary, and jointly sufficient conditions is the Statement condition, according to which lying requires the utterance of a statement that the speaker believes to be false at the level of what is said. This, however, excludes many relevant phenomena in which one might have the intuition that the speaker lied despite not having said anything false at the level of what is said. Rather, the agent lied by implying or presupposing something that he believed to be false. For instance, think about cases in which speakers intentionally leave out relevant information from a conversation: “Where were you last night?” – “I had a drink with a new colleague”. Imagine that what the speaker said is completely true. Going beyond what is said, such an answer further seems to imply that the speaker went to a bar and just had drinks (plus the typical social interaction one has while having a drink). However, if the speaker actually had champaign with his new affair in a hotel room, it seems that the speaker willingly deceived the addressee. But is such an utterance also a lie?
    For an answer to this question, see: Wiegmann & Willemsen (2017)
  • Intercultural Perspectives on Social Roles and Hierarchies

    Cultural difference are often reflected in people's reasoning strategies. Do cultural differences also affect whether and to what extent we blame and praise others?

    There is also plenty of evidence that folk intuitions vary among cultures. Such effects show up for intuitions about moral issues, knowledge, norms of assertation, intentions and intentionality, as well as about causation, and there are different ways of explaining them.

    In this research project, initiated by Albert Newen (Ruhr-University Bochum), we investigate one very specific factor of which we know that is varies across cultures, namely social roles and the hierarchical differences created by them. We are convinced that the social context in which a morally relevant action occurs is of crucual importance for how much blame is ascribed for this action. The aim of this research project is to investigate whether this effect is best explained by social roles and hierarchies themselves, so whether they should be considered an independent, irreducible factor that influences moral judgments. Alternatively, one might think that the effect occurs because social roles and hierarchies affect the interpretation of other, more basic factors.

    Based on the research in social psychology, we know that cultures can differ in how collectivistic or individualistic they are, so whether they emphasize the interests of groups or individuals. Also, cultures differ in how strong social hierarchies interpreted; they might be rather vertical or horizontal.

    However, it has been pointed out that these constructs are polythetic rather than distinct (Triandis, 1995); that is, they embrace individuals having many but not all properties in common. Therefore, it has been argued that additional distinguishing features are necessary. As a suitable extension of the model, it has been proposed that individualism and collectivism may be horizontal or vertical (Singelis et al., 1995; Triandis and Gelfand, 1998), wherein horizontality emphasizes equality and verticality stresses hierarchy. Accordingly, Triandis and Gelfand (1998) proposed that in vertical individualism (VI), people are in individual competition with others as they want to be distinguished and strive toward a high status. Individuals see each other as different and expect inequality across individuals of a group. By contrast, in horizontal individualism (HI), people also want to be unique and autonomous in order to be distinct from groups, but they do not strive toward a higher status. In vertical collectivism (VC), the integrity of the in-group and interdependencies within it are emphasized, and people support competitions between their in-group and out-groups. However, Triandis and Gelfand (1998) point out that inequality and differences in status are accepted. High VC means that members of the in-group show a tendency to submit to the will of the authorities of the in-group if they want members to act in a way that is beneficial for the in-group overall but extremely disadvantageous for the members themselves. In contrast, in horizontal collectivism (HC), people also emphasize common goals with others, interdependence, equality, and sociability; yet, they see themselves as being similar to others and do not easily submit to the authorities’ will.

    The aim of this research project is to systematically collect data on people’s moral intuitions in cultures that differ quite strongly in their interpretation of social roles and hierarchies. So far, we conducted experiments in the US, Germany, Poland, the United Arab Emirates, and China.

    For research on the relevance of social hierarchies and the role of causal responsibility, please see our paper A new look at the attribution of moral responsibility: The underestimated relevance of social roles.

    There was also an article about this project: http://news.rub.de/english/press-releases/2018-02-20-philosophy-why-boss-always-gets-blame

    or further information on the intercultural dimension, please send me an email or contact Albert Newen.

  • Counterfactual Reasoning and Causal Responsibility

    How to laypeople make causal judgments and what are the factors influencing them? What are the philosophical implications?

    This could be a full decription about the project

Collaborators

Here are some of the great people with whom I had the pleasure to work and with whom I am currently working on joint research projects.

Kevin Reuter

Kevin Reuter

Lecturer and Post-doctoral Researcher in Philosophy

Kevin's research interests are in the Philosophy of Mind & Psychology, Cognitive & Social Sciences and Experimental Philosophy. Currently, he studies the nature and concepts of pains and emotions, introspection, social role concepts, assertion conditions as well as (ir)rational decision-making processes. Follow
Karolina Prochownik

Karolina Prochownik

Post-doctoral Researcher in Law

Emanuel Viebahn

Emanuel Viebahn

Post-doctoral Researcher in Philosophy

Emanuel am a lecturer in philosophy at the Humboldt University of Berlin. His main research areas are the philosophy of language, metaphysics, the ethics of communication and the history of analytic philosophy. He is currently working on issues in metasemantics, semantics and pragmatics, on the philosophy of time and on theoretical and ethical aspects of lying and misleading.
Simon Stephan

Simon Stephan

Doctoral Researcher in Psychology

Lara Kirfel

Lara Kirfel

Doctoral Researcher in Psychology

Lara's PhD research focuses on how norms, e.g. moral norms or statistical norms, influence our judgements about causation. She aims to investigate how normative aspects change the way we think about the cause of an event, and whether (and, if so, to what extent) counterfactual theories of causation can capture the influence of norms on causal judgements. Her general research interests lie in the area of causal judgement, decision making and counterfactual reasoning, and she aims to combine philosophically informed theories of causation with empirical research to understand how we think about norms and causes. Her further research interests include the philosophy of science and theories of causation. Follow
Tobias Gerstenberg

Tobias Gerstenberg

Post-doctoral Researcher

Tobias is interested in causality, counterfactuals, and responsibility. In his work, he investigates the ways in which these different concepts are linked. Follow
Alex Wiegmann

Alex Wiegmann

Post-doctoral researcher

Follow
Neele Engelmann

Neele Engelmann

Doctoral Researcher in Psychology

Kai Kaspar

Kai Kaspar

Junior Professor in Psychology

Albert Newen

Albert Newen

Professor in Philosophy

Justin Sytsma

Justin Sytsma

Professor in Philosophy

Dave Lagnado

Dave Lagnado

Professor in Psychology

Dave's research focuses on the psychological processes that underlie human learning, reasoning and decision-making. A major theme is the central role played by causal models in cognition. He has extended this work to the area of juror decision-making, showing that people use their causal knowledge to organize legal evidence and make decisions. Another key theme in his research is the interplay between causal thinking and judgments of responsibility. Follow
Edouard Machery

Edouard Machery

Professor in Philosophy