Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


In which philosophy of language proves somewhat soporific

It’s been a surprisingly busy week, and I’m rapidly learning that I should aim for just one of these readings per week and treat any I manage above that as a bonus.

Today I managed a chapter on the philosophy of language (by Martin Davies), which I selected because I find the field somewhat intimidating. I suspect that this is down to having studied politics for my degree and only come to philosophy during my PhD – philosophy of language is one of those areas that looks like it’s intimately connected with the very formal study of philosophy as an academic discipline.

Philosophy of language is concerned with linguistic meaning – whether of linguistic utterances or of the very idea of linguistic meaning itself. Davies’ chapter is clearly written, and its subject matter turned out not to be nearly as terrifyingly hard as I’d always imagined. However, I did come away from reading it with the realisation that this is definitely not an area of philosophy that I’ll be intentionally delving into again any time soon because, aside from its intersections with philosophy of mind, it seems astonishingly boring. I confess that, as a result, I skimmed several sections of the second half of the chapter. In my defence, it was a very long chapter and there wasn’t a single crazy hypothetical to snag my attention anywhere to be found!



Natural Law Theory and Gay Marriage

This past fortnight has seen frantic discussions on the extension of marriage to gay couples. I’ve seen repeated use of the argument against on grounds that ‘marriage is between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation’. But why use this apparently weak argument? For one thing, it appears to outlaw marriage for infertile people , and it seems to therefore require that marriages be ended when women reach the menopause. But religious groups aren’t arguing this – so are they being inconsistent? In spite of the evidence, they say not – and the reason is routed in their belief in natural law. It’s for this reason that I’ve picked the chapter (by Knud Haakonssen) on Early Modern Natural Law from the Routledge Companion to Ethics as my reading for today.

If you recall my previous post on Plato and Socrates, I mentioned Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. The arguments in that dialogue convincingly demolish the idea that what is morally right means what God commands (known as Divine Command Theory). The weaknesses in Divine Command Theory led to the adoption of Natural Law theory as a theory of ethics (particularly by the Catholic Church).

So what is Natural Law? The theory is that there are certain laws of nature, and things in nature have particular values and purposes (the Christian view being that these have been created by God). To determine if something is right (such as a law, or act) we ask ourselves if it is consistent with its natural purpose or the laws of nature. Probably the most famous articulations of Natural Law Theory is that provided by Thomas Aquinas – known as Thomism. Thomist thinkers were influential in the drafting of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – so this theory is pretty pervasive in moral thought.

From a Catholic natural law perspective (I’m going to say nothing on secular natural law theories in this post) gay marriage is wrong because the natural purpose of sex and marriage is reproduction, and therefore gay sex and gay marriage are unnatural and thus wrong (along with masturbation, oral sex, and a host of other sexual practices). But, why think that the purpose of sex is purely for procreation? And on what basis is marriage thought to be natural for humans in relationships? And why should we accept the idea that using certain bits of our bodies in ways that seem to be different from their evolutionary purpose (such as our feet for playing football, our voices for singing, mouths for whistling, hands for doing handstands etc.) is morally wrong? And how should we think of bodily parts that don’t function as they should due to disability? I’m not clear that the theory has any answers to these questions.

One of the more interesting (and in my view, wrong-headed) aspects of Natural Law Theory is the idea that ethical judgements about things are made at the category level, rather than individual level. For example, we say that human beings are the rational creatures and accord them rights based on that rationality regardless of whether a particular human is rational. This idea means that a human who has no brain function should have the same rights as a fully rational moral agent. It also means that what is known as the Argument from Marginal Cases (AMC) which is often used in animal rights theory cannot find purchase. In brief the AMC points to the fact that it is inconsistent to grant rights to humans and not to non-human animals if when there are no morally-relevant characteristics that all humans and no animals possess to the relevant degree. So, if we think intelligence or rationality are the capacities that make us worthy of moral concern, then we need to explain why we should treat those humans who have them to a lesser degree than the norm with more moral consideration than those animals that have those characteristics to the same or greater degrees. Why should a Dolphin be worthy of less moral concern than anencephalic infant for example? I’ve yet to figure out why we should judge a being’s moral worth according to the category of being they are in rather than on facts about the individual being, but that’s what Natural Law theory says we should do.

Natural law theory fails because it commits Moore’s naturalistic fallacy by trying to derive ought from is. And it fails because it relies upon a questionable metaphysic that derives those moral facts from natural facts at the category rather than individual level. Additionally, Natural Law Theory says we should be able to grasp moral laws through the exercise of our reason (since this is part of our purpose as rational and free agents) – but this means that religious authorities have no special access to truth – they must supply and respond to good reasons in the same way as the non-believer. On the issue of gay marriage, I can’t say that I see this being the case – there’s a lot of irrational, bigoted and arbitrary nonsense from those opposed to letting two people who love each other publicly cement their relationship through marriage. Mini-rant over (go sign this petition for equal marriage rights).

The nice thing about reading that chapter was that not only did it explain natural law theory well, but it also provided a historical overview of its development too. This has meant that I’ve learned a little more about several important philosophical figures that I have on my list of people to discover in more depth – Grotius, Pufendorf, Spinoza, and, especially, Leibniz.

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Evolutionary moral skepticism

Reading and writing has been rendered rather difficult this week by a parental visit and the fact that it’s half term. Still, I’ve managed to squeeze in a short read on what the science of biology can bring to ethics.

I had wondered whether the chapter (by Michael Ruse in the Routledge Companion to Ethics) would address the famous difficulty of deriving moral principles from natural facts (ought from is), or whether it would perhaps focus on how biology goes some way to determining what the good life for a being might be. Instead, the chapter concentrated on evolutionary ethics – the idea that moral behaviour can be explained in terms of its evolutionary function. In other words, the theory that we act in ways that seem morally motivated, but which sees the underlying reason for our behaviour in the subconscious urge to ensure the survival and propagation of our genes. My first thought on reading this was to wonder if Ruse would discuss the problems that this raises for thinking that we have free will and are thus responsible agents, but sadly there’s no consideration given to this at all.

Ruse does mention Moore’s naturalistic fallacy (the problem mentioned above of getting from ‘is’ to ‘ought’), but only to say that evolutionary ethics generally “don’t care how clever it is and what it proves, they know it is wrong”.1 Moore is wrong, apparently, because (so the argument runs) “the evolutionary process itself promotes value, and therefore our ethical duty is to work with and within this process to see that it is realized as fully as possible”.2 I confess that I don’t see how this amounts to an argument of any kind that’s familiar to me, and Ruse thankfully doesn’t give it much credence either. However, where he goes after that (dismissing Kant as ‘an ageing bachelor in East Prussia in the late eighteenth century’ who relies upon his intuitions, and Mill as nothing more than a ‘Victorian English gentleman’ who goes on ‘gut feelings’ while ‘his wife was nudging him in the right direction’3) is not much better.

Instead, Ruse gives us with an evolutionary explanation for human social behaviour (not exactly a surprise), and an assertion that evolutionary behaviour might show that ‘there is no justification of morality in the way that philosophers have traditionally sought.’4 The reason given in support of this claim is that the pre-theoretical intuitions used in a good deal of ethical reasoning have evolved in us as a result of adaptation and natural selection. However, over-playing the importance of pre-theoretical intuitions in utilitarianism or Rawlsian contractualism (the two ethical theories Ruse focuses on) is something of a travesty. Each of these theories seeks consistency in moral reasoning and is more than happy to abandon an intuition that proves mistaken upon reasoned consideration. Secondly, I’m not sure how tying an initial intuition used to prime a process of moral theorising to an aspect of human biology in any way demonstrates that there is no basis for the ‘traditional’ justification of morality. Take the intuition that suffering is bad for a being that suffers – I’m not sure how showing that that intuition is a result of natural selection counts as proof that there is no basis for a philosophical argument that causing suffering is wrong, or that that intuition cannot figure in the process of reasoning that leads to that conclusion.

Now, I happen to find the idea that moral emotions derive from natural selection fascinating, and I’m increasingly amazed by their presence in other animals (see the work of the brilliant primatologist Frans de Waal for instance), but all I’m left with after reading this chapter is the feeling that evolutionary biologists should be less hasty to pronounce on moral theory (or that more space should have been devoted to developing an argument). I’m also a little disappointed that I’m beginning to flag a little after a long day, because this is a topic that could really do with some clear and detailed analysis of the sort that I’m too tired to give, and which is also so wide ranging as to be a little ill-suited to the blogging medium.

1John Skorupski (ed), The Routledge Companion to Ethics (Routledge, 2009), 401.

2Ibid., 402.

3Ibid., 403.

4Ibid., 404.

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If it moves, hit it with metaphysics!

So, metaphysics then, with an extra section on time for added confusion. Yesterday I read a chapter by Strawson on logic, epistemology, and ontology (with a focus on ontology) – I can’t say I gained much more than a tentative grasp of what was being said, I think more background knowledge than I possesses was assumed. I figure the best way to deal with my confusion is to hit it repeatedly with some metaphysics until comprehension dawns. Thus, my reward for doing teaching prep (topic this week is deontology) was to read Simon Blackburn on metaphysics.

The meaning of metaphysics is contended, but I understand it to be concerned with reality and existence – what are the general features of the world and how do we come to know and understand them? Some of the most interesting metaphysical questions are how we are to understand the nature of human beings and their relationships both with other beings, and with each other.

Metaphysical enquiry can help us resolve the tension between the ideas that on the the one hand we have free will, yet on the other we are governed by deterministic laws of nature (there’s still a way to go in answering that one for good). And, it can help us come to understand puzzles such as how the mind and the body relate to one another.

Obviously, it’s going to take more than a couple of readings to make me a metaphysician, but I’m going to keep plugging at it until I at least feel more than vaguely conversant in the subject. Next stop – one of the excellent podcasts from Philosophy Bites.


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CFP: MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory, Session on “Animals in Political Theory”

MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory – Ninth Annual Conference

Manchester Centre for Political Theory (MANCEPT), University of Manchester, 5th – 7th September 2012

Workshop on Animals in Political Theory

Convenor: Steve Cooke (University of Manchester)

Abstracts are invited for a workshop on Animal in Political Theory at the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory. Potential topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Animal Rights
  • Animals and Global Justice
  • Animals and Democratic Theory
  • Animal Liberation
  • Liberalism and Animals
  • Animals and Political Thought

If you would like to present a paper at this workshop, please send a 500-word abstract (or a full paper) to by 15 May 2012.

Contributions are welcome from the fields of political theory/philosophy, history of philosophy, and ethics.

Conference website:

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Socrates and Plato

PlatoBack to a bit of philosophical history today. I’ve spent the week reading Kant, and had a thoroughly good time writing the first draft of a paper on extending Kant’s cosmopolitan duty of hospitality to non-human animals. Now I fancy a bit of Socrates and Plato, so it’s back to the Routeledge Companion to Ethics and a chapter on the two by Richard Kraut.

One of the things I like about Plato is the method of teaching philosophy through dialogue. Most people in academia accept the received wisdom that lectures are a pretty poor way to teach people, but engaging them in a conversation is a very good way. Much of Plato’s writing on philosophy is written in the form of discussion – it’s a bit like reading a philosophical play. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates (his teacher) plays the main part. In fact, most of what we know of Socrates’s thought comes not from his own writings, but from Plato and his fellow student of Socrates, Xenophon.

Kraut’s chapter is interesting and easy reading – whilst I’ve read some Plato (the Republic (what politics student hasn’t?), Euthyphro, Crito (go read it), and Phaedo), I hadn’t realised just how big his body of preserved work is. Having read it, I’m definitely spurred to read more Plato, although I should probably re-read the Republic and Crito as well.

Anyone got a favourite dialogue I should read?