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Photo of Dr Nigel Pleasants

Dr Nigel Pleasants

B.Sc. (Bristol); M.Phil., Ph.D. (Cambridge)

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Sociology


01392 723253

Amory 348

Office Hours:
Mondays 16.00 – 17.00 & Friddays 16.00 – 17.00
via Zoom (Meeting ID: 223 031 5715 ; Password: 220215)


My main areas of interest and work are in social and moral philosophy. Since my degree days I have been strongly influenced by the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially his very latest writings in On Certainty. I am a member of the British Wittgenstein Society and sit on its Honorary Committee. In recent years I have been attempting to work out ways in which Wittgenstein’s philosophy might help illuminate areas of moral philosophy, introducing and developing the idea of moral certainty. My other main interests are in reflecting philosophically on our historical and social scientific understanding of slavery and abolition, genocide, and the Holocaust. I also have an interest in the ethics and politics of contemporary animal exploitation. My primary orientation is philosophical, but I draw and reflect on findings, theories, explanations and ideas from history and the social sciences, and philosophy of social science. I have interests in moral psychology (moral agency, moral responsibility, moral certainty, moral perception, moral and morally relevant factual ignorance) and in the badness of death and the wrongness of killing. 

Selected Publications

Forthcoming: Philosophical Perspectives on Moral Certainty, edited by Cecilie Eriksen, Julia Hermann, Neil O’Hara, and Nigel Pleasants (Routledge) 

2022: ‘If You’re an Egalitarian…So What?’, Social Philosophy & Policy 39 (2) (forthcoming) 

2022: ‘Did Marx really think that capitalism is unjust?’ Philosophical Papers Vol 51 (1), 147 - 77

2021: ‘Excuse and justification: What’s explanation and understanding got to do with it?’ European Journal of Social Theory 24 (3), 338–355

2021: Review of Capitalism and democracy in the twenty-first century: a global future beyond nationalism, in Contemporary Political Theory 20 115–118

2019: ‘Free will, determinism and the “problem” of structure and agency in the social sciences’, Philosophy of the social sciences 49 (1), 3–30.

2018: ‘Would Aristotle have seen the wrongness of slavery if he had undergone a course of moral enhancement?’ Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 83, 87-107.

2018: 'The structure of Moral Revolutions’, Social Theory and Practice 44 (4), 567-92

2018: ‘Ordinary Men: Genocide, Determinism, Agency and Moral Culpability’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 48 (1) 3–32

2016: ‘The question of the Holocaust’s uniqueness: Was it something more than or different from genocide?’ Journal of Applied Philosophy 33 (3), 297–310.

2015: ‘If killing isn’t wrong, then nothing is: A naturalistic defence of basic moral certainty’ Ethical Perspectives 22 (1), 197 – 215.

2010: 'Moral argument is not enough: The persistence of slavery and the emergence of abolition', Philosophical Topics 38 (1),  159-180.

2009: ‘Structure, agency, and ontology for Political Scientists?’, Political Studies 57 (4), 885-891.

2009: 'Wittgenstein and Basic Moral Certainty', Philosophia 37 (4), 669-679 (Special issue: The Third Wittgenstein Conference, edited by D. Moyal-Sharrock).

2008: ‘Wittgenstein, ethics and basic moral certainty’, Inquiry 51 (3), 241- 67.

2008: ‘Institutional wrongdoing and moral perception’, Journal of Social Philosophy 39 (1), 96–115.

2008: ‘Structure and moral agency in the antislavery and animal liberation movements’, in D. Grumett and R. Muers (eds.) Eating and believing: interdisciplinary perspectives on vegetarianism and theology. London: T&T Clark, pp. 198-216.

2008: Review of P. Tabensky (ed.) Judging and understanding: essays on free will, narrative, meaning and the ethical limits of condemnation, Philosophical Papers 37 (1), 177-84.

2006: ‘Nonsense on stilts? Wittgenstein, ethics, and the lives of animals’, Inquiry 49 (4), 314-36

2004: ‘The concept of learning from the study of the Holocaust’, History of the Human Sciences 17 (2/3), 187-210

2003: ‘Social criticism for “critical critics”?’ History of the Human Sciences 16 (4), 95-100.

2003: ‘A philosophy for the social sciences: realism, pragmatism, or neither?’ Foundations of Science 8 (1), 69-87.

2002: ‘Towards a critical use of Marx and Wittgenstein’, in G. Kitching & N. Pleasants (eds.), Marx and Wittgenstein: knowledge, morality and politics. London: Routledge, pp.160-81.

2002: ‘Rich egalitarianism, ordinary politics, and the demands of justice’, Inquiry 45 (1), 97-118.

2000: ‘Winch and Wittgenstein on understanding ourselves critically: descriptive not metaphysical’, Inquiry 43 (3), 289-318.

2000: ‘Winch, Wittgenstein, and the idea of a critical social theory’, History of the Human Sciences 13 (1), 78-91.

1999: Wittgenstein and the idea of a critical social theory: a critique of Giddens, Habermas and Bhaskar. London: Routledge.


Research interests

From the beginning of my studies as an undergraduate, my outlook has been philosophical and oriented towards social, political and ethical issues, informed by social scientific and historical inquiry. My PhD advanced a reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy and a critical examination of how contemporary social and political theorists have drawn upon that philosophy for their own ideas. This was developed into my first book, Wittgenstein and the idea of a critical social theory: a critique of Giddens, Habermas and Bhaskar (Routledge, 1999). I developed further my thoughts on how social and political criticism might more fruitfully proceed in 'Winch and Wittgenstein on understanding ourselves critically: descriptive not metaphysical' (Pleasants, 2000), in my chapter in Marx and Wittgenstein: knowledge, morality and politics (Routledge, 2002), and 'Social criticism for "critical critics"?' (Pleasants, 2003).

The overall theme that motivates and guides my current research is the relationship between social structure and moral agency. Within this context I have explored a range of issues arising from reflection on the phenomenon of 'institutional wrongdoing', including both explanation and moral evaluation, principally focussing on: the Holocaust and genocide; the exploitation of non-human animals; slavery, abolition and the anti-slavery and animal liberation movements. I have also been exploring the relevance and usefulness of Wittgenstein’s philosophy for ethical inquiry via the concept of ‘moral certainty'. I have drawn on this concept in critical engagement with philosophical theories on the badness of death and wrongness of killing, and in explanation of large-scale progressive moral change.  In the near future I hope to produce a book manuscript consisting in philosophical reflections on the Holocaust and genocide and their wider social implications.

Research supervision

Please feel free to email me to discuss any ideas you have for possible research projects – my main research interests and expertise are in:

  • Social, moral, and political philosophy
  • Moral change, progress, responsibility
  • Moral psychology (moral perception, moral responsibility, moral ignorance, institutional wrongdoing)
  • Relations between individual moral agency and social/historical context
  • Social epistemology and ontology
  • Philosophy of the Social Sciences
  • Philosophical and Social Scientific issues relating to the Holocaust, Genocide and Slavery
  • Animal Ethics
  • The badness of death and the wrongness of killing
  • Wittgenstein


External Examination of PhDs

University of Southampton -  Philosophy

University of Hertfordshire – Philosophy

University of Bristol – Philosophy

University of Edinburgh – Science Studies

University of Cambridge – History and Philosophy of Science (twice)

University of Manchester – Politics (twice)


Research students


Principal supervisor for completed PhDs

2021: Ray Auerback, 'Catastrophe testimony: bearing witness to the epistemological existential and moral chasm between survivors and the world'.

2017: Owen Abbott, ‘The Social Self, Social Relations, and Social (Moral) Practice’. Funded by ESRC.

2016: Jessica Groling, ‘Fox hunting and the Urban Fox – Appropriating a Moral Panic’.

2014: Alexander Scavone, ‘Understanding the Phenomenon of Love’.

2011: Ekiyor Welson, ‘John Rawls’s political liberalism: Implications for Nigeria’s democracy’

2010: Mattia Gallotti, ‘Naturally we: A philosophical study of collective intentionality’.


Joint supervisor for completed PhDs

2012: Patrick Cockburn, ‘Rhetoric at the margins of economic legitimacy’. Jointly Supervised, Aarhus University, Denmark. 


Principal supervisor for completed MA by Research

Tamara Leonard, ‘The relationship between victimhood and power: disempowering, over-empowering and empowering’.

Jen Smith, ‘Is rape an act of institutional wrongdoing’


Principal supervisor, current PhDs

Joshua Jarvis-Campbell, ‘The Ethics of Low-Income Animal Agriculture’. Funded by AHRC.

 Benedict Lane, ‘Moral Progress and its Problems’. Funded by AHRC.

 Lara Andre, ‘Making Sense of Sentience: A Non-Anthropocentric Account of our Obligations to Future Generations’.

 Callum Downes, 'Epistemic Injustice and the Radical Right: An exploration into testimonial and hermeneutical injustice'


 I left school at 16 - as one did at the Secondary Modern school I attended (having been classified as unsuited for academic pursuits by the selection test of the tripartite education system that used to operate in the British State sector before comprehensivisation). I did various jobs for the next eight years: mink farm, road haulage company, meat-processing factory. In the last two of those years I took evening classes in 'O' level maths and 'A' level sociology (my education had supposedly given me practical life-skills, and prepared me for the world of semi-skilled work, but hadn't given me much formal qualification apart from a few CSEs). Having liked the taste of academic education, I resigned from my job in a well-known Suffolk turkey processing factory (a very sweet act) to embark on a programme of full-time 'A' level study at my local Further Education College (in Lowestoft, Suffolk). I went on to do a degree in Sociology & Philosophy at the University of Bristol, and then to the University of Cambridge for an M.Phil in Social and Political Theory, followed by a Ph.D. (A Wittgensteinian critique of critical social theory).I came to Exeter in 1997, to what was then the Department of Sociology. I was centrally involved, with other colleagues, in reinstating philosophy at Exeter via the Department of Sociology. The department continued to grow and broaden with the addition of anthropology and criminology. Throughout this time I have served for many years as Director of Undergraduate Studies and Director of Education.

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