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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 (

Fall 2023

Robert Tierney (University of Houston)

Retribution and Dignity

Oct 24, 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 regarding 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.

Andrew Werner (University of Houston)

Hegel’s Externalist Epistemology of Empirical Knowledge

Dec 1, 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 does this by showing that perceptual knowledge cannot stand alone but is rather dependent upon empirical explanatory knowledge. In turn, empirical explanatory knowledge is regressive in that the most basic empirical premises for one’s knowledge are always themselves in need of 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 which does satisfy us.

Spring 2024

Jeffrey Church (University of Houston)

Distributive Justice in J.G. Fichte


Fichte's political philosophy is often regarded as a form of "liberal socialism" that contains a volatile mixture of claims that does 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)

Toward a Kantian Political Realism? Rainer Forst on Normativity and Power


Rainer Forst's main contributions in political philosophy are widely considered to be focused on a normative justification of democracy that builds on Kant, Rawls, and Habermas. More recently, however, Forst has turned his attention to the complex relationship between normativity and power, seeking to enrich the Kantian framework of his previous contributions with a healthy dose of political realism. This is a surprising turn, since political realism is generally not seen as compatible with normative democratic theory in the tradition of either Kant or the Frankfurt School. With this realist turn, however, Forst seeks to address a particular blindspot in the Kantian tradition, namely the question of "power," which is central to the originally emancipatory project of the Frankfurt School. The question is whether there can be something like "Kantian realism," that is, whether the Kantian framework of Forst's normative justification of democracy really allows for a persuasive account of the reality of political power.

Niki Kasumi Clements (Rice University)


Past Talks

Kristi Sweet (Texas A&M University)

Morality and Politics in Kant’s Supposed Right to Lie

Apr 18, 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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