The New Philosopher-Kings: Conceptual Engineering and Social Authority

Abstract

Many philosophers have recently become interested in conceptual engineering, or the activity of producing better conceptual schemes in human populations. But few, if any, are asking the question: what would it mean for actual human agents to possess the social authority to modify a conceptual scheme in this way? This paper argues for a deontological approach to conceptual engineering, wherein we have to secure social authority qua engineers before attempting to modify social concepts. I show that the dominant, consequentialist conception of engineering violates basic rights that concept-users have, particularly over their own identity-constituting concepts. Using examples from the philosophy of race and sexuality, I show that conceptual engineers cannot authoritatively modify social concepts if they employ consequentialist reasoning about those concepts.

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Nick Smyth
Fordham University

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