Metaethics

The Sanders Prize in Metaethics is a biennial essay competition open to scholars who are within fifteen (15) years of receiving a Ph.D. or students who are currently enrolled in a graduate program. It is administered by Russ Shafer-Landau, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and editor of Oxford Studies in Metaethics. Independent scholars may also be eligible and should direct inquiries to Russ Shafer-Landau. This prize cycle is now closed and will re-open in 2023.

Current Competition Details

The award for the prize-winning essay is $5,000, and winning essays will be published in Oxford Studies in Metaethics. The 2021 recipient of the award will be expected to present his or her paper at the 16th Annual Wisconsin Metaethics Workshop (MadMeta), September 17-19, 2021, at UW-Madison. More information about the Workshop can be found at https://sites.google.com/site/wiscmew/home.

Submitted essays must present original research in metaethics. Essays should be between 7,500 and 10,000 words, inclusive of notes and references. Since winning essays will appear in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, submissions must not be under review elsewhere. Refereeing will be blind; authors should omit all remarks and references that might disclose their identities. Please submit papers and address all inquiries via email to prize administrator Russ Shafer-Landau at RussShaferLandau@gmail.com. When submitting your paper, please include its title in the subject line. Receipt of submissions will be promptly acknowledged. The winner will be determined by members of the Editorial Board of Oxford Studies in Metaethics. Participants in the Sanders prize competition are encouraged to also submit a 3-page anonymized abstract of their paper for consideration at MadMeta, whose review panel assesses only abstracts, not whole papers.

Prize Winners

2021 Winner

The Marc Sanders Foundation and Oxford Studies in Metaethics received 34 submissions and the selection committee, made up of prize director Russ Shafer-Landau (University of Wisconsin-Madison), chair David Enoch (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), and jurors Debbie Roberts (University of Edinburgh) and Joshua Schechter (Brown University) have selected the winning paper.

2021 Winner

Graham Bex-Priestley, University of Leeds

Title: "Expressivists Should be Reductive Naturalists" (PDF)

Congratulations to Graham Bex-Priestley (University of Leeds), the winner of the 2021 Sanders Prize in Metaethics. His prize-winning essay, “Expressivists Should be Reductive Naturalists,” will be published in Oxford Studies in Metaethics.

Winner Bio:

Graham Bex-Priestley studied philosophy at the University of Sheffield for his BA, MA and PhD, with a few years in between to be a maths teacher. His research centres around expressivism and disagreement, but he’s interested in many other areas of moral philosophy too. He is now a lecturer of inter-disciplinary applied ethics at the University of Leeds.

Abstract:

Quasi-realists claim there are moral facts and properties, but they don’t always make it clear what kind of facts and properties they are. I argue for two things. First, making sense of these claims requires expressivists to go hybrid. Second, if expressivism is true, there is no way to believe moral properties are irreducibly normative without believing something untrue. Expressivists are effectively compelled to reject non-reductivism. Instead, they should believe moral properties are natural and can be referred to with non-moral terms. This isn’t a bad thing; the combination of expressivism and reductive naturalism is an independently appealing metaethical theory.

2021 Runner-Up

Claire Kirwin, Clemson University

Title: "Value Realism and Idiosyncrasy" (Abstract PDF)

Runner-Up Bio:

Claire Kirwin works on the nature of value, broadly construed, and our relationship to it as minded creatures. Her work in this area is at the same time informed by her interest in a number of figures from the history of philosophy, most centrally Plato and Nietzsche. She joined Clemson University as an Assistant Professor in 2020; prior to this, she completed her PhD at the University of Chicago, and her BPhil and MMathPhil at the University of Oxford.

Abstract:

Even the most robust of value realists will typically allow that there are some parts of our lives as agents that should not be understood in realist terms. When it comes to those things that seem properly individual, personal to us—choosing a career, a spouse, a flavor of ice cream—realist and anti-realist alike have tended to suppose that the value that is on the scene here must stem from the agent’s own particular set of attitudes, values, likes, and preferences, rather than residing in the valued object. For in such arenas, it is not merely that we do differ from one another, but rather that it seems perfectly right and proper that we should differ in these ways: these parts of our lives are, as I put it, properly ‘idiosyncratic’. This fact has seemed to many philosophers to foreclose the possibility of realism in these areas. In this paper, I argue that this is a mistake: the phenomenon of idiosyncrasy is fully compatible with the reality of such value. Even such things as a preference for peanut-butter-cup ice cream can, I claim, be understood as a response to real value.

2019 Winner

Daniel Wodak, University of Pennsylvania

Title: “Approving on the Basis of Moral and Aesthetic Testimony” (PDF)

If a reliable testifier tells you that a painting is beautiful or that an agent’s act is right, do you thereby have a reason to approve of the painting or the action? Many insist that you don’t: there’s no reason to approve on the basis of normative testimony.

Abstract:

I argue that once we correct for a common methodological mistake in how people reach this conclusion, normative testimony must give us some reason for attitudes like approval. I then argue that we can build up from this result to challenge a variety of common solutions to the puzzle posed by normative testimony.

2019 Winners

Luca Incurvati, University of Amsterdam (L)
Julian J. Schlöder, University of Amsterdam (R)

Title: “Inferential Expressivism and the Negation Problem” (PDF)

We develop a novel solution to the negation version of the Frege-Geach problem by taking up recent insights from the bilateral programme in logic. Bilateralists derive the meaning of negation from a primitive *B-type* inconsistency involving the attitudes of assent and dissent. Some may demand an explanation of this inconsistency in simpler terms, but we argue that bilateralism’s assumptions are no less explanatory than those of *A-type* semantics that only require a single primitive attitude, but must stipulate inconsistency elsewhere.

Abstract:

Based on these insights, we develop a version of B-type expressivism called *inferential expressivism*. This is a novel semantic framework that characterises meanings by inferential roles that define which *attitudes* one can *infer* from the use of terms. We apply this framework to normative vocabulary, thereby solving the Frege-Geach problem generally and comprehensively. Our account moreover includes a semantics for epistemic modals, thereby also explaining normative terms under epistemic modals. Honorable mention goes to Tristram McPherson (Ohio State) for his paper “Deliberate Authority and Representational Determinacy.”

2018 Winner

MDaniel Z. Korman, UC Santa Barbara (L)
Dustin Locke, Claremont McKenna College (R)

Title: “Against Minimalist Responses to Moral Debunking Arguments” (PDF)

The Marc Sanders Foundation and Oxford Studies in Metaethics join in congratulating Daniel Z. Korman (UCSB) and Dustin Locke (Clarement McKenna College) as the winners of the Sanders Prize in Metaethics for their jointly authored paper “Against Minimalist Responses to Moral Debunking Arguments.” The paper will appear in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 15, with a publication date of summer 2020, and both will deliver a presentation based on the paper at MadMeta in September.

Abstract:

Moral debunking arguments are meant to show that, by realist lights, moral beliefs are not explained by moral facts, which in turn is meant to show that they lack some significant counterfactual connection to the moral facts (e.g., safety, sensitivity, reliability). The dominant, “minimalist” response to the arguments—sometimes defended under the heading of “third-factors” or “pre-established harmonies”—involves affirming that moral beliefs enjoy the relevant counterfactual connection while granting that these beliefs are not explained by the moral facts. We show that the minimalist gambit rests on a controversial thesis about epistemic priority: that explanatory concessions derive their epistemic import from what they reveal about counterfactual connections. We then challenge this epistemic priority thesis, which undermines the minimalist response to debunking arguments (in ethics and elsewhere). The runner-up in the 2018 competition is Nils Franzén (Uppsala University, Sweden), for his paper “Evaluative Discourse and Emotive States of Mind.”

2017 Winner

Chris Howard, UNC Chapel Hill

Title: “The Fundamentality of Fit ” (PDF)

The Marc Sanders Foundation and Oxford Studies in Metaethics join in congratulating Chris Howard (UNC) as the winner of the Sanders Prize in Metaethics for his entry “The Fundamentality of Fit.” Chris’s paper will appear in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 14, with a publication date of summer 2019. Chris will deliver a presentation based on his paper at MadMeta in September.

Abstract:

The review panel–chaired by Jamie Dreier (Brown), with Sarah McGrath (Princeton) and Jussi Suikkanen (Birmingham) also on the team–unanimously selected Chris’s paper from 46 submissions. Chris will receive his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona this summer, and is taking up a Philosophy, Politics and Economics post-doc at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill this fall. Congratulations are also in order to our two runners-up in this year’s competition: Berislav Marusic (Brandeis), for his paper “Accommodation to Injustice,” and Matthew Lutz (Wuhan), for his entry “The Reliability Challenge in Moral Epistemology.” Abstract: Many authors, including Derek Parfit, T.M. Scanlon, and Mark Schroeder, favor a “reasons-first” ontology of normativity, which treats reasons as normatively fundamental. Others, most famously G.E. Moore, favor a “value-first” ontology, which treats value or goodness as normatively fundamental. I argue that both the reasons-first and value-first ontologies should be rejected because neither can account for all the normative reasons that, intuitively, there are. I advance an ontology of normativity, originally suggested by Franz Brentano and A.C. Ewing, according to which fittingness is normatively fundamental. The normative relation of fittingness is the relation in which a response stands to an object when the object merits—or is worthy of—that response. I argue that my “fittingness-first” ontology is no less parsimonious than either the reasons- or the value-first ontology, but it can plausibly accommodate the existence of all the normative reasons there are. It therefore provides a superior ontology of normativity.

2016 Winner

Neil Sinclair, University of Nottingham

Title: "Belief Pills and the Possibility of Moral Epistemology" (PDF)

The Marc Sanders Foundation and Oxford Studies in Metaethics join in congratulating Neil Sinclair (Nottingham) as the winner of the Sanders Prize in Metaethics. Neil’s paper will appear in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 13, with a publication date of summer 2018. Neil will deliver a presentation based on his paper at the Chapel Hill Metaethics Workshop in early September.

Abstract:

I argue that evolutionary debunking arguments are dialectically ineffective against a range of plausible positions regarding moral truth. I first (§1) distinguish debunking arguments which target the truth of moral judgements from those which target their justification. I take the latter to rest on the premise that such judgements can be given evolutionary explanations which do not invoke their truth (§§2-3). The challenge for the debunker is to bridge the gap between this premise and the conclusion that moral judgements are unjustified. After briefly discussing older attempts to bridge this gap (§§4-5), I focus on Joyce’s recent attempt, which rests on the claim that ‘we do not have a believable account of how moral facts could explain the mechanisms and forces which give rise to moral judgements’ (§6). I argue that whether or not there is such an account depends on what it is permissible to assume about moral truth in this context. Further, I suggest that it is reasonable to make assumptions about moral truth which allow for the possibility of at least partial moral epistemologies (§6.2). The residual challenge for the debunker is to show that these assumptions are unreasonable in a way which doesn’t render their debunking argument superfluou

2015 Winner

Alex Silk, University of Birmingham

Title: "Normative Language in Context" (PDF)

The Marc Sanders Foundation and Oxford Studies in Metaethics join in congratulating Alex Silk (Birmingham) as the winner of the Sanders Prize in Metaethics for his entry “Normative Language in Context.” Alex’s paper will appear in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 12, with a publication date of summer 2017. Alex will deliver a presentation based on his paper at the Chapel Hill Metaethics Workshop in late October.

Abstract:

The review panel–chaired by Connie Rosati (Arizona), with Matt Bedke (British Columbia) and Ralph Wedgwood (USC) also on the team–unanimously selected Alex’s paper from a large number of exceptionally good submissions. Alex received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2013 and joined the Birmingham department shortly thereafter. We’d also like to congratulate Ralf Bader (Oxford), whose paper “The Grounding Argument against Non-Reductive Moral Realism” was judged as the runner-up in this year’s competition. Ralf is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and a fellow of Merton College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews and was a Bersoff fellow at NYU before joining the faculty at Oxford.

2014 Winner

Janice Dowell, Syracuse University

Title: "The Metaethical Insignificance of Moral Twin Earth" (PDF)

The Marc Sanders Foundation and Oxford Studies in Metaethics join in congratulating Janice Dowell (Syracuse University) as the winner of the Sanders Prize in Metaethics for her entry “The Metaethical Insignificance of Moral Twin Earth.” Jan’s paper will appear in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 11.

Abstract:

We received 41 submissions for this year’s prize competition in metaethics. The review panel, comprising Connie Rosati (Arizona), Terence Cuneo (Vermont) and Mike Ridge (Edinburgh), unanimously selected Janice Dowell’s paper, “Millikan, Metasemantics and Moral Twin Earth,” from a large number of exceptionally good papers. Jan received her Ph.D. from Pittsburgh and has taught at Bowling Green State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at Syracuse University. Abstract: One prominent type of objection to a Descriptivist semantics for moral terms relies on the assumption that our intuitions about the possibility of disagreement with rival and hypothetical speech communities, or about the intertranslatability of our terms with theirs, are probative for semantic theorizing about such terms. The objections based upon consideration of Smith’s “rival speech community”, Horgan’s and Timmons’ Moral Twin Earth, and Hare’s missionary are all of this type. The diverse, existing responses to these thought experiments share this assumption. Here, in contrast, I provide principled grounds for its rejection. As a consequence, our intuitions in these cases should be accorded no probative value either against pure Descriptivist semantic theories of moral terms or in favor of any semantic theory designed to accommodate them.

2013 Winner

Errol Lord, Franklin & Marshall College

Title: “Acting for the Right Reasons, Abilities and Obligation” (PDF)

The Marc Sanders Foundation and Oxford Studies in Metaethics join in congratulating Errol Lord (Franklin & Marshall College) as the winner of the Sanders Prize in Metaethics for his entry “Acting for the Right Reasons, Abilities and Obligation.”

Abstract:

Errol’s paper will appear in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 10. We received 52 submissions for this year’s inaugural prize competition in metaethics. The review panel, comprising Mark van Roojen (Nebraska), Sigrún Svavarsdottir (Ohio State), and Pekka Väyrynen (Leeds), unanimously selected Errol Lord’s paper “Acting for the Right Reasons, Abilities and Obligation” from the very keen competition. Errol graduated last year from Princeton and is currently a post-doc at Franklin and Marshall College.

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