Conceptual Responsibility

Dissertation, University of Sheffield (2018)
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Abstract
This thesis concerns our moral and epistemic responsibilities regarding our concepts. I argue that certain concepts can be morally, epistemically, or socially problematic. This is particularly concerning with regard to our concepts of social kinds, which may have both descriptive and evaluative aspects. Being ignorant of certain concepts, or possessing mistaken conceptions, can be problematic for similar reasons, and contributes to various forms of epistemic injustice. I defend an expanded view of a type of epistemic injustice known as ‘hermeneutical injustice’, where widespread conceptual ignorance puts members of marginalized groups at risk of their distinctive and important experiences lacking intelligible interpretations. Together, I call the use of problematic concepts or the ignorance of appropriate concepts ‘conceptual incapacities’. I discuss the conditions under which we may be responsible for our conceptual incapacities on several major theories of responsibility, developing my own account of responsibility in the process, according to which we are responsible for something just in case it was caused by one of our reasons-responsive constitutive psychological traits. However, I argue that regardless of whether we are responsible for something, we may still be required to take responsibility for it. Whether or not we are responsible for our conceptual incapacities, we are required to reflect critically upon them in a variety of scenarios that throw our use of those concepts into question. I consider the method of conceptual engineering — the philosophical critique and revision of concepts — as one way we might take responsibility for our concepts, or at least, defer that duty to experts. But, this top-down model of conceptual revision is insufficient. Using a pragmatist model of the social epistemology of morality, I argue that conceptual inquiry is a social endeavour in which we are all required to participate, to some degree.
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