Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Moore and Quine – everything but the ethics

Today I read Strawson’s chapter on Moore and Quine (around delivering a couple of tutorials on consequentialism for an introductory political theory unit). The chapter re-examined the question ‘what is philosophy?’ and a considered the relationship between ontology (theories of being), epistemology (theories of knowing), and logic (concerning truth and falsehood). One of the things Strawson is (was) very good at is flattering the reader without assuming too much about their level of knowledge – it makes you feel good about learning.

My interest in philosophy is firmly anchored in the category of ethics, but my reading today dealt with all of the major sorts of things philosophy is concerned with other than ethics, so it was a bit of challenge. Interesting nevertheless as questions about things, such as states of consciousness, or areas like epistemology and logic do tend to end up creeping into ethical discussions. To illustrate this, in animal ethics it is often argued that because animals can suffer, they are owed moral consideration. But this claim depends upon how suffering is defined, which is related mental states – bringing in theories of mind. Some theorists think suffering is only possible in beings that are self-conscious, some think suffering requires self-reflection, or language and so forth. And the question of why suffering should matter hinges on the nature of value – what is value, how does it arise, what makes things valuable etc.

Somehow, considering ethical questions always seems to lead me on a journey into meta-ethics (the distinction is as between ‘what would be the right thing to do’ compared with ‘what do we mean by the concept of rightness’ – the former is an ethical question, the latter a meta-ethical one), theories of mind, value theory or some other difficult area of philosophy. In fact, attempting to answer a philosophical question often feels like opening a series of Russian dolls. That’s probably why I love it so much.



The Oxford Old Boys’ Network

Lincoln College, Oxford UniversityToday, whilst writing my reading reflection I got one of my daily jobs bulletin emails. This one notified me of a post-doctoral fellowship available in Oxford. A post-doc position is something I’d dearly love; I’ve spent the last 10 years doing my degree, MA, and Ph.D. because I’m passionate about learning, research, and education. But especially – research. The problem is, that for someone with a family to help support, very many post-doc positions don’t offer enough. I don’t really mind that so much – after all, I made my choices in life. However, every so often I see a post-doc offered that looks so blatantly exploitative, and so geared toward privileging the rich, that it makes my blood boil. One that I received today was the worst of such adverts that I’ve seen (why do they always seem to come from Oxford or Cambridge?).

Exhibit A:

An institutional affiliation with Oxford is prestigious and useful, as is a post-doc award from there, so no doubt lots of people will want such an opportunity, and it is a significant benefit to their long-term career prospects. But who, other than the already rich can afford to take a one-two year position that only gives access to the Common Room and £200 per year? The answer is – only the rich (I love the little ‘Lincoln College is an Equal Opportunities Employer’ disclaimer at the bottom of the ad). So here’s a fabulous opportunity to further your career in academia, but one that’s completely unavailable unless you’re already wealthy. Well done Oxford for doing so well to combat the impression that you’re a university of entrenched privilege.


Favourite Philosophy Books

This blog is about the reading of books, and I was thinking earlier about the books that I’ve most enjoyed reading, or have complimented my studies the most, since starting my journey into academia. For some reason, these sorts of lists are usually end up being multipliers of ten – mine is not. So here they are – the books that I love:

  1. The Right and the Good, W.D. Ross – I just love this book to bits. Ross is a wonderfully gentle writer, and I’m fascinated by intuitionism (one day I’ll convince someone to fund me to develop an intuitionist approach to non-human animals). I bought this on a whim, having come across a reference to Ross in a footnote of something I was reading, and fell in love with it immediately.
  2. Rights, Peter Jones – if there’s a better introductory book on Rights I’ve yet to find it. A book I’ve gone back to again and again over the last five years.
  3. Applied Ethics, Peter Singer (ed) – this little collection of incredibly influential papers is endlessly useful and thought provoking.
  4. What does it all mean?, Thomas Nagel – 101 perfectly formed pages of engaging writing on some of biggest philosophical problems there are. It’s been my recent lunch-break companion.
  5. Doing Philosophy, Joel Feinberg – this excellent guide to writing philosophy papers also contains some good chapters on logic, advice on grammar (I should read that again), and a short section on ‘the irrelevance of most library research’.
  6. An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Jonathan Wolff – Wolff’s book is really well written and covers a lot of ground. I use it to inform my teaching.
  7. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels – I’m working my way through this slim volume at the moment, and am already in awe of Rachels’ ability to write clearly, comprehensively, and succinctly.

So that’s my little list of indispensable books – it probably says a lot about me that all of them are quite short. If my academic books were all stolen, I’d probably replace those seven first – what about you?


Infuriated by Husserl and Heidegger

In order to take my philosophical adventure further into the unknown, I decided today to read the chapter from the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy on Husserl and Heidegger. I’m determined to overcome my irrational aversion to continental philosophy and I’d hoped this reading might help. I figured better this chapter than the following one on Satre, Foucault and Derrida as, whilst I quite like Foucault, and have enjoyed Satre’s plays, reading Derrida has convinced me that he’s nothing more than an fraud – obfuscating his lack of anything meaningful to say by tossing profound sounding but utterly unclear gibberish at the page and affecting an air of smug mystery. That chapter will have to be saved for when I am drunk or something.

I knew nothing about Heidegger and Husserl until I’d read this chapter, and I knew next to nothing of the movement known as phenomenology that Husserl founded either. Now, I’ve learned that Husserl built his theory of intentionality (directed conciousness) on the distinction between the objective contents of logic – logical facts are exact and knowable a priori – and the subjective content of experience, which is inexact and discovered by induction.

So far so good, but after that I was somewhat overwhelmed by new vocabulary. Things became a little clearer upon repeated re-readings and careful reflection, but in the end I was left wondering ‘so what’ to much of the theory. I’m not sure what agreeing with Husserl that intentionality is ‘a mental directness that obtains and has content whether or not the objects of our attitudes themselves exist’ leads to. Unfortunately, the discussion then moved on to Husserl’s theory of sense perception and everything became clear as mud once more. Sentences such as the following did not help:

“While still repudiating what he calls ‘corrupt forms of ego-metaphysic’, Husserl now considers it phenomenologically evident that pure consciousness exhibits a structure of ownership, centred around a pure, transcendental ‘I’, which is ‘essentially necessary’ and remains ‘absolutely identical’ through the whole of one’s experience (Husserl 1983: 132), but which ‘is not a piece of the world’ (Husserl 1960: 25).”

Say again? On the plus side, I did up taking a detour to read about propositional attitudes, which was interesting and fruitful.

Six pages in and I was losing the will to live. The author asked ‘Does Husserl adequately describe our intentional relation to others?’ and I found myself wondering if he adequately describes anything. Does the adequacy of a description require that it be intelligible? If so, the I’m afraid Husserl failed me.

Onwards to Heidegger then. Sadly, learning about Heiddegger’s association with Nazism did not immediately endear him to me. And Heidegger turned out to be just as wedded to inventing an infuriating new vocabulary to express himself as Husserl. But I persevered, grinding my teeth at sentences like the following nevertheless:

“Like the founding of a state, the presence of God, and genuine philosophical thinking, Heidegger says, works of art let truth ‘happen’ in their own way by disclosing the grounds and limits of intelligibility in an historical world.”

I wish I hadn’t persevered to be honest.

The chapter finished with some suggestions for further reading – I think I’ll pass. Mission failure I’m afraid.

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A cosmopolitan theory of animal rights

The other day I was writing a review of Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s thought provoking new book Zoopolis: A Political Theory Animal Rights, and it got me thinking about Kant’s principles of cosmopolitan hospitality towards strangers. It strikes me that so much of what marks out our humanity rests in how we behave towards strangers. It’s easy to act with compassion towards those nearest and dearest to us, and it’s easy to wrongly favour those we love or identify with, but it is where doing the right thing is hard that the importance of morality comes often comes to the fore. Animals, it seems to me, are the ultimate strangers; they cannot and do not identify with us, or communicate as we do with each other. They cannot cry out from across the world for our help. Nor can they speak up and beg us us not to slaughter them. And this is why I’m beginning to think that animal rights theory should be thought of as beginning from a cosmopolitan expansion of universal human rights. Humanitarian principles should be principles that spring from our nature as moral beings – that are about being humane towards others rather than about simply protecting humans. Hopefully this post will act as the first steps in clarifying my thoughts prior to writing a paper on the cosmopolitan duty towards non-human animals.

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In which Arabic Ethics meanders into Animal Ethics

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.