I presented recently in the undergraduate portion of the Northern New England Philosophical Association (NNEPA) annual conference. My paper, “Behavioral Limitations of School Choice,” presented an interdisciplinary critique of school choice policies using relevant evidence from cognitive psychology. Whether or not to adopt school choice policies is an important application of concepts from the philosophy of education, to which balancing the authority of the state with the authority of parents is crucial. This was a very interdisciplinary project, and so I was originally uncertain how a primarily philosophy-oriented audience would receive it, but it ultimately went well. I am continuing this research into the current semester, as an Honors Interdisciplinary Thesis project. Two other Northeastern students participated as well.
After the undergraduate session, which was on Friday morning, we spent the rest of Friday and all day Saturday in sessions presented by graduate students and philosophy faculty at schools in the New England area. Topics ranged widely, from topics in logic to philosophy of language to metaethics. I was actually surprised by how well prepared I was by my Northeastern coursework to follow and mostly understand the content of the talks. Some of my favorite talks were an analysis of gendered slurs; an expansion of deontic logic to address concepts such as “the least you could do”; and an argument in favor of “if know P then you know that you know P” based on some undesirable consequences of the principle’s rejection. The keynote speech by Stephen Darwall was about the nature of moral reasons, and it was followed the next day by a plenary session of presentations concerning Darwall’s theory of the second-person perspective. I particularly enjoyed presentations on topics that tangentially related to my coursework at Northeastern, but that expanded upon the material or further developed it in a new direction.
Overall, it was a great experience for my first philosophy conference, a good culmination of my undergraduate coursework as I prepare to graduate. It was very enjoyable to meet other students working on similar or different topics, and I was exposed to many new ideas.
What was the conference you attended?
I attended the 12th annual Undergraduate Philosophy Conference at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, which coincidentally is the institution where Professor Sandler taught before coming to Northeastern University.
What was the topic of the paper you presented?
The paper I presented was entitled “A Taxonomy of Moral Autonomy: Logical, Epistemological, and Metaphysical.” The paper presents three interpretations of the thesis that morality is autonomous from other disciplines or domains of inquiry. The first claims that one can never construct a valid argument that has all non-moral premises and a moral conclusion. The second claims that non-moral theses are irrelevant to the justification of fundamental moral principles. The third claims that no moral fact is grounded or explained solely by non-moral facts. The paper demonstrates some problems that come with each of these interpretations and ultimately concludes with the modest claim that we should maintain some doubt about the autonomy of morality.
What challenges came up while presenting?
The main challenge that came with presenting this paper was being able to clearly articulate each of the three theses. In a sense, they all say the same thing, just in different ways. So highlighting what made them distinct was difficult. They are also relatively complex, so presenting them succinctly added to the challenge. I found myself repeating a bit in my presentation, but I think that it was helpful for the audience; it helped them see which points I really wanted to emphasize. Nonetheless, this presentation showed me that going forward I need to focus on being able to clearly and succinctly present these topics without relying too much on repetition. Facing these challenges helped me better understand some of the nuances of the topic, and gave me a lot to consider with respect to revisions for the paper.
What were some other topics presented at the conference?
There was an amazingly wide range of topics presented at the conference. One student presented a paper on the criteria of personhood for artificial intelligence. Another defended logical pluralism, the view that there are multiple ‘correct’ logics. Other topics included Kant’s view of nature, the possibility of Marxist-feminist analysis, and a Heideggerian interpretation of Plato’s cave. All of the topics were incredibly interesting, and all of the presenters did a great job. It was an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating experience. I was introduced to a number of topics I had not considered before, and I was pushed to think more carefully on a number of topics that interest me.
In particular, there was one presentation on free will from which I learned a lot. The presenter argued that the libertarian view of free will can only be ruled out if we accept a certain theory of causation, which he then argued against. Some of the metaphysics was a bit over my head, but it got me thinking about different theories of causation. Causation is a topic that I haven’t studied much, but I’m definitely interested in learning more as a result of that presentation! This presentation also led to some discussion between myself, the presenter, and some professors in the audience about the phenomenology of free will – i.e. what it is like to experience free will. We ultimately got into a debate whether the feeling of free will counts as evidence of free will. It was a great conversation, and now I have a lot of new questions to consider about free will! I gained a lot of new ideas and interests from just this one presentation.
The keynote address was given by Professor Philip Kitcher from Columbia University, who has contributed greatly to the philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, and the philosophy of biology. His talk was on the topic of “the human project” – essentially a pragmatist approach to the good life. Professor Kitcher’s talk was really interesting, and he provided great feedback to all of the presenters.
How does this experience relate to your academic/career goals?
I am currently in the process of applying to graduate school, with the hopes of pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy. This experience was beneficial for me and my future career goals in a few ways. First, it is nice to talk about in my statement of purpose for my application. It may help my chances, if only a little bit! But, more importantly, it was great exposure to learn some of the responsibilities of a professional academic philosopher. Conferences are an important part of the job, and this experience gave me a taste of that aspect. It also provided me with an opportunity to get some solid feedback on this paper. The discussion that followed my presentation gave me some great new ideas, which will definitely be helpful if I decide to turn this into a bigger project.
Any last comments?
I want to give a big thank you to the Philosophy Department for supporting me in this endeavor!
The idea for the paper was a result of a reading group in which I participated this past summer. I want to give a special thanks to Professors John Basl, Branden Fitelson, and Ben Yelle, as well as Aja Watkins, Dan O’Leary, Trent White, and Sammy Hirshland who all participated in the reading group and contributed to the great discussion that led to this paper. The paper would not exist, and I never would have gone to this conference, if it were not for them!
After my first philosophy class in fall 2015, Moral and Social Problems in Healthcare, my professor encouraged me to submit an abstract of my final paper, which was about practical harms of so-called “disability-positive” positions in psychiatry, to a graduate conference at the University of Essex in Colchester, England. Since it was my first semester, I was barely aware of what an abstract was, let alone how to write one. I spent most of my winter break learning about what to include in an abstract and eventually submitted it in early January. About a month later, the conference organizers had notified me that my abstract had been selected as one of eight, out of fifty applicants. My professor suggested I practice the talk I would give at the conference by guest lecturing in another section of the class I had written the paper for. I also got feedback on a draft of my speech from my Business and Professional Speaking classmates and Professor.
I went into the experience without many expectations, since at that point; I did not know students who had done anything similar. My main purpose in attending was to learn more about what academic philosophy was like at the graduate level. The other participants were all masters and Ph.D. students in Philosophy, and many of them exposed me to new ideas that were useful when I went back to revise my paper when I returned to Boston.
Going to a conference so early in my college career was good preparation for writing long papers and participating in upper-level seminars. I am still using concepts that I’m learning in my current classes to refine my position on the topic. I am now able to understand what it’s like to work on a long-term academic project. I’m excited to see many other students in the department attending similar conferences.
Here is a link to the program and abstract from the conference: https://www1.essex.ac.uk/philosophy/documents/madness-disorder-society-programme.pdf