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University of Houston

Ethics and Normativity Seminar Series

Sponsored by the Liberal Studies Program in CCS and the Philosophy Department

Convenors: Luca Oliva, Luis Oliveira, and Robert Tierney

The Ethics and Normativity Seminar Series aims to present and discuss the findings of scholars specialized in normative ethics, social or cognitive normativity, and related topics. Its meetings welcome faculty, graduate students, and senior undergraduates with competence or interest in the field. A Zoom Link is available upon registration. For the latter or any other inquiries, contact Dr. Tierney (

Spring 2024

Jeffrey Church (University of Houston)

Distributive Justice in J.G. Fichte

Feb 23 (2024), 1-3 pm | Agnes Harnold Hall, AH210

Fichte's political philosophy is often regarded as a form of "liberal socialism" that contains a volatile mixture of claims that do not remain stable. Drawing on Michael Walzer, I argue that Fichte's seemingly conflicting principles of justice in his political philosophy - egalitarian, libertarian, welfare-based, desert-based - should be understood to govern distinct spheres of a liberal socialist society - above all, the public sphere, the private sphere, and the mediating sphere of laboring associations or estates. I raise some problems with Fichte's approach, especially in cases where spheres clearly overlap, but conclude that such a synthetic view of justice is valuable since most major modern theories of justice contain at least a portion of the truth.  

Christian J. Emden (Rice University)

Democracy and Poverty: Hegel on the Importance of the Welfare State

Mar 29 (2024), TBD

This talk revisits Hegel’s reflections on the political dimension of the welfare state in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820). I will argue that behind Hegel’s model of civil society stands a surprisingly realistic understanding of the importance of welfare organized by the state, especially concerning poverty, to safeguard civil society’s emancipatory potential. Nevertheless, Hegel has often been read to hold a communitarian position centered on the role of “corporations” in civil society in contrast to the function of the state. Some more recent interpretations have also emphasized the centrality of the market economy for Hegel’s understanding of civil society, which, to some extent, undercuts his seemingly communitarian commitments. Regardless of whether we view Hegel as a communitarian or place him in a more liberal tradition, the starting point is an approach to his philosophy of right from an ethical perspective. In this talk, I will contend that Hegel’s argument in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right is of a political kind and thus responds to very specific historical and socio-economic contexts. At the same time, I will suggest that much of what Hegel has to say about the role of the welfare state continues to hold today under the conditions of a neoliberal economy and an obvious crisis of democracy.

Past Talks

Andrew Werner (University of Houston)

Hegel’s Externalist Epistemology of Empirical Knowledge

Dec 1 (2023), 3-5 pm | Old Science Building, S102

I argue that Hegel was an epistemic externalist about empirical knowledge. Epistemic externalism is the denial of epistemic internalism, the view that to know, I must know (or be in a position to know) that my justification is good enough for knowledge. I show that Hegel argues that a believer cannot know that her perceptual justifications and explanatory justifications for empirical beliefs are good enough for knowledge but rather must have faith that they are. He shows that perceptual knowledge cannot stand alone but depends on empirical explanatory knowledge. In turn, empirical explanatory knowledge is regressive in that the most basic empirical premises for one’s knowledge always need justification. This regress means that our empirical explanatory knowledge always rests on premises with a justification that we do not know to be good enough, which in turn means that we do not know that the justifications for our conclusions are good enough. Unlike typical contemporary externalists, Hegel accepts a significant aspect of internalism: the fact that within empirical knowledge, we cannot know that our justifications are good enough means that we cannot be satisfied with empirical knowledge – we must also possess another kind of knowledge that does satisfy us.

Robert Tierney (University of Houston)

Retribution and Dignity

Oct 24 (2023), 3-5 pm | Old Science Building, S115

Hegel famously argued that retributive punishment annuls the crime. His theory was derided as incoherent since a crime that occurred in the past cannot be undone. To meet this objection, I propose amending Hegel’s theory by arguing that, post-punishment, the situation is such that the offender faces two distinct options in terms of how they will be valued as a person. On the one hand, the offender may maintain the stance of a purported independent source of right, which stance is implicit in the criminal act. Here, the form of self-value is honor. Such would require the offender to regard the state as having inflicted a wrong upon them that diminishes their value as a person, remaining in an agonistic relationship with the state and making an effort to redeem that loss of value that would ultimately end in humiliation. Alternatively, the offender may abandon their prior stance and accept the status of equal dignity as a citizen within the just liberal state. Since the state necessarily regards the offender as a rational being, it is rationally warranted to impute to them a repudiation of their criminal will and the acceptance of right. Such repudiation and acceptance constitute the nullification of the criminal will (essential to the crime) and the affirmation of right.

Kristi Sweet (Texas A&M University)

Morality and Politics in Kant’s Supposed Right to Lie

Apr 18 (2023), 3-5 pm | Roy Gustav Cullen Bldg, 132A

In his “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy,” Kant notoriously says we do not have a juridical right to lie to a murderer at the door. This claim has long been the source of objections to his moral theory. In this talk, I reconstruct Kant's best argument for why he holds such a position and show the inextricable and grounding relation between morality and politics at the heart of his claim. Also, I develop the corrosive consequences Kant foresees if we admit the possibility of lying in the public sphere: the dissolution of the trust constitutive of the social contract itself. Ultimately, while we may disagree with Kant, we should seriously consider his argument and grounds, including the alternative to his idea that humans are morally self-legislating (especially in comparison with Hobbes's absolutism).

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