Photo of Dr Nigel Pleasants

Dr Nigel Pleasants

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

Director of Education, Senior Lecturer


01392 723253

Amory 348

Office Hours (348 Amory):

Tuesdays 16.30 - 17.30; Fridays 12.30 - 13.30 

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

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 Topics38 (1), 139-60.

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 by criticising what I call the ‘intrinsically-ethical reading’ of his philosophy and making a case for the phenomenon of ‘moral certainty' in relation to the badness of death and wrongness of killing.

I am currently working on papers on the idea of moral progress, moral change and moral revolution, and the relation between wrongdoing and moral/factual ignorance. 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

  • Social, Moral, and Political Philosophy
  • Moral change, progress, responsibility
  • Social epistemology and ontology
  • Philosophy of the Social Sciences
  • Philosophical and Social Scientific issues relating to the Holocaust, Genocide and Slavery
  • Animal Ethics
  • Wittgenstein


External examining of PhDs

University of Manchester – Politics (twice)

University of Cambridge – (HPS) (twice)

University of Edinburgh – Science Studies

University of Bristol– Philosophy

University of Hertfordshire – Philosophy

Research students


Completed PhDs

Mattia Gallotti: ‘Naturally we: A philosophical study of collective intentionality

Ekiyor Welson: ‘John Rawl's political liberalism: Implications for Nigeria's democracy’

Patrick Cockburn: ‘Rhetoric at the margins of economic legitimacy’ (jointly supervised, Aarhus University, Denmark)

Alexander Scavone: 'Understanding the Phenomenon of Love'

Jessica Groling: Fox hunting and the Urban Fox – Appropriating a Moral Panic

Owen Abbott: The Social Self, Social Relations, and Social (Moral) Practice


Completed MA by Research

Jen Smith: Is rape an act of institutional wrongdoing?

Current MA by Research students

Raymond Auerback:Catastrophe Testimony: Epistemological and Ethical Challenges Beyond the Limits of Language and Experience

Tamara Leonard: What is the relationship between victimhood and autonomy, responsibility and power?