WHAT THEY LEARNED: Luke Jensen ’16

The philosophy major’s thesis on moral value was inspired by the work of philosopher John McDowell.

The summer before his senior year Luke Jensen ’16 received funding from the Philosophy Department to conduct independent research on a topic of his choosing related to ethics. He chose to focus on a debate between the philosophers John McDowell and Simon Blackburn over the nature and reality of value.

“They argued over whether or not things like beauty, wrongness, dangerousness, goodness, and courage are real properties of things in the world, and over whether our evaluative claims about things in the world can be true or false,” says the philosophy major.

That work primed the pump for the research he began back at school that resulted in his own capstone paper, “Perceptible Value: Toward a Weak Realist Account of Moral Properties.”

“The research I did into [the McDowell/Blackburn] debate set the stage for my thesis in which I argue that values, specifically moral values like rightness and wrongness, are real and perceptible properties of things in the world,” he says.


What did you learn from working on your thesis?

I learned that taking on a project of this size requires a lot of work! At a basic level, I got better at managing my time, setting deadlines for myself, and either writing or reading when I had free time. Moreover, it helped prepare me for the kind of work I will have to do at the graduate level. Perhaps most importantly, it secured my conviction that philosophy is something that I want to pursue at the graduate level. And, more personally, the way of thinking that I defend in my thesis is a way of thinking that I don’t think I could have engaged with four years ago. Four years ago I think I would have been unable to see how the views I articulate in my thesis could possibly be right. So, I’d like to believe that my thesis marks a philosophical maturation in the way I think.

What are the implications for your research?

My thesis aims to give an account of moral value that defends what I take to be our common-sense or non-philosophical view of the moral dimension of the world. I take it that we commonly think that certain actions, agents, and events are morally wrong, repugnant, horrendous, or morally right, good, noble, etc. Thus, my account aims to vindicate this broad way of thinking. And, if my account is correct, some implications would be that things really can be right or wrong, we can sometimes just see that things are right or wrong, and our moral claims about the world can be true or false. However, I also argue that moral properties are not real in the same sense that the properties discovered in the natural sciences are real, and therefore need not be visible to beings radically different from us (or discoverable by physicists). I also argue that they would not, or need not, rationally constrain what beings with radically different bodies and forms of life ought to do. They are real, but real for us. That is, I argue: 1) that moral properties could not be grasped by beings with a radically different form of life than our own; 2) that moral properties depend for their existence on our existence; and 3) that awareness of moral properties is essentially connected with the possession of certain motivational, emotional, and affective capacities and tendencies. Far from undermining the reality of moral properties, I argue that points one, two, and three reveal the kind of real properties they arewhat I call “weakly real” ones that essentially engage human concerns and are linked to certain motivational tendencies.


“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.