Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

In which Arabic Ethics meanders into Animal Ethics

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My choice for this reading should have been between readings on Metaphysics, Socrates and Plato, or Moore and Quine. None of these provoked eager anticipation. Philosophy tends to have been taught one of two broad ways – either by focussing upon the history of philosophical ideas and arguments, or by focusing upon the ideas themselves. These readings reflect those two traditions. Usually, I prefer the latter method since I get irritated when I hear people arguing about whether X thinker meant P or Q rather arguing about than whether P or Q is the most convincing position to take. I realised whilst writing this that am in danger of turning my project into a chore rather than an adventure – and I decided to pick a chapter that looks interesting rather than read them in order. So – out with Metaphysics, Socrates and Plato, and Moore and Quine (I’ll invite them back another day), and in with ‘The Arabic Tradition’ from The Routeledge Companion to Ethics (by Peter Adamson).

I’m glad I picked this chapter as it was extremely interesting. I’d not realised how much Greek and Arabic philosophers interacted with one anther. Aristotle seems to have been particularly influential to some significant Muslim philosophers. And I was interested to see that that the works of Porphyry were consulted by the philosopher Miskawayh. Porphyry is particularly interesting to me because he wrote some fascinating arguments extolling vegetarianism and pre-empted many arguments that are seen in contemporary literature on animal rights. In response to the argument that animals might not suffer as much as humans, or lack rationality, I often find myself thinking of Porphyry’s quote from On the Abstinence of Eating Flesh:

…it does not follow, if we have more intelligence than other animals, that on this account they are to be deprived of intelligence; as neither must it be said, that partridges do not fly, because hawks fly higher…

I uncovered that quote whilst writing a piece on animal suffering for the Manchester Salon as part of the Manchester Science Festival: if you’re interested, you can read it here.

One of the interesting things about the chapter on Arabic Ethics was learning how some early Muslim philosophers divided human nature along Aristotelian lines into ‘rational, sensitive, and vegetative faculties’. That rational faculty is what separates us from other animals. This got me thinking about some of the neo-Kantian arguments in favour of increased moral standing for non-human animals developed by Korsgaard, O’Neill, and Wood. Very (very) roughly, Korsgaard’s argument is that the possession of a rational nature, rather than demonstrating (as Kant held) that we have duties only to other beings with rational natures, allows us to recognise the good of others. For persons, that good is partly constituted by our rational nature, but is not encompassed by it. Respect for others (and ourselves) requires respecting more than simply the rational components of their beings – it also requires respecting the elements of their good that do not depend upon rationality. Rationality is a component of our good, just as swimming is for a dolphin, or communal living is for a chimp. O’Neill and Wood make a similar point, that rationality has other components of well-being (being alive for example) as necessary preconditions, and therefore we should respect the humanity in persons by also respecting conditions upon which it rests. This latter point isn’t very convincing as a route to respecting non-persons because it only gives us reasons to respect the non rational aspects of a being’s good where those aspects are the conditions for rationality.

This is the first reading I’ve done that’s really got me thinking about my own research. Hopefully there’s more like that to come. I can’t help thinking that delving into early Arabic philosophy to see what it has to say about animals, and if scholars consulted more and Porphyry’s lost Ethics, has the potential to lead to an interesting paper.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

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