Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Determinism and the Stoics

I was choosing something to listen to whilst running on the treadmill at my local gym, and I chanced across a podcast on Stoicism on my laptop that I’d not listened to. Rather pleasingly, the first section of the podcast covered the topic of determinism that I addressed in my previous post. Not only did that section help clarify some of the compatibilist accounts for me, but the rest of the podcast was pretty interesting too – so I recommend you click the link and have a good listen to King’s College’s podcast on Stoic Ethics from its series on the history of philosophy:

Meanwhile – the History of Philosophy podcast series gets added to my list of favourite links.


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Freedom and Responsibility

One of the most problematic areas I’ve had to think about in moral philosophy is that of freedom and responsibility. The theory that the laws of nature are strictly deterministic makes the idea of free will is problematic. If every natural process is explainable then humans, as beings composed entirely of physical matter and obeying the laws of physics, cannot truly have free will. In other words, every action we’ve taken is explainable by reference to the physical processes proceeding it, and every action we will take results from those prior processes, and thus we cannot have free will. This thought has troubled moral philosophers a great deal. Fortunately, there are ways out of the deterministic bind, including one that relies upon quantum physics and the idea that there is a degree of randomness in the laws of physics, making the course of our actions probabilistic rather than deterministic. However, this isn’t entirely satisfactory, so for my reading today I’ve turned to Randolph Clarke’s chapter in the Routledge Companion to Ethics.

Clarke sets out to both uncover the nature of moral responsibility, and what kind of freedom it requires. Note here that the kind of responsibility we are concerned with is the sort that we use to apportion blame or praise following an act (and perhaps also thoughts, emotions, or intentions), rather than the sense of responsibility associated with being under a duty (being responsible vs having a responsibility).

Responsibility requires the exercise of freedom. We do not think someone is compelled to act in a certain way is responsible for their actions. But, we don’t think mere freedom is sufficient – a cat is responsible for the killing of a mouse in the sense that it’s actions caused the death, but it is not deserving of praise or blame for that act, and this is because it is not a moral agent. Thus, to be responsible an agent must be autonomous.

There problems immediately present themselves, I’ll raise a couple, but I won’t discuss them in any depth because I want to get on to the problem of determinism. One is that if I am under a duty to Φ then I am not free to Φ or not to Φ (I do not have a liberty to Φ). But, even though I am under a duty to Φ, it would seem that if I Φ then I am responsible for Φ’ing. A second and related problem concerns what is meant by compulsion: when conscientious objectors speak of their actions, they often claim that, due to the demands of conscience, they could not have acted otherwise. These two types of constraints are internal, and there are others like them, such a fear or phobia that prevents us from doing what we wish. So,when we speak of people acting freely, we should bear in mind that what we mean by this requires a great deal of clarification and thought.

On to determinism then. The first question Clarke addresses is whether we can have free will even if determinism is true. One position is that if determinism is true then we cannot have the kind of freedom necessary for responsibility – determinism is incompatible with having the necessary kind of freedom. This is a worrisome, but not exactly very interesting position. The theory that we can have the kind of freedom necessary for responsibility in a deterministic universe (compatibilism) strikes me as addressing a much more fascinating question. Could you have done other than read this blog post if the universe is truly deterministic? And even if we could not have done otherwise than that which we did, does responsibility require having been able to do otherwise?

The idea that we must have been able to have done otherwise than we did in order to be responsible for our actions is known as the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. If we reject it then it might be that we can be held responsible for our actions even in a deterministic universe. In response to this Clarke raises an interesting challenge taken from Frankfurt: if we do something of without being compelled, but we, without knowing it, could not have done otherwise – are we still responsible? It looks like I’d be responsible for doing something I chose to do, but at the same time I could not have done otherwise, which makes it seem like my choice doesn’t matter so much.

Responding to this, we could claim that what it is appropriate to blame or praise agents for actions that are attributable to them rather than that they are responsible for. If this is the case, however, it seems that there is no difference in blameworthiness between someone who acts whilst sleep-walking or insensible on drugs, and acting while conscious. However, there may be different kinds of responsibility that we can identify, which is where compatibilism comes in.

Compatibilists argue that it is possible for determinism to be true and for agents to be responsible for their actions.

As mentioned, to be responsible we have to be able to exercise freedom of the right sort. The right sort of freedom consists in autonomous action (i.e., it requires that we are acting as conscious, uncompelled, choice-makers). Compatibilist accounts attempt to show that we have this kind of freedom even if determinism is true. One version points to the capacity to act otherwise as the condition from which to hang responsibility. Another argues that the mechanisms that generate our behaviour are responsive to reasons – if there were sufficient reasons to have done otherwise than we did, then we would not have acted as we did, and therefore we are free even if those reasons are deterministically generated.

I can’t say I find either of these accounts very convincing or satisfying. If strikes me that they may well be little more than sophisticated ways of seeking comfort in the face of strong reasons to believe determinism. It also seems to me that this is one area where philosophers may have to wait for the physicists to tell them how the universe works before the philosophical questions can be satisfactorily answered. On the other hand, Clarke correctly points out that, if causation is probabilistic, then it would seem that how we act is to some degree a matter of luck – and we can no more be held accountable for bad luck than we can in the deterministic universe.

Here’s hoping that causation is not deterministic then, and that our decisions spring from ourselves in a way that is good enough to be described as free.

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Discovering bioethics

Today’s post is my first since passing my viva – so now that I’m a doctor (feel free to congratulate me in the comments section) my posts are bound to be more authoritative. For my reading today I’ve picked a chapter on ‘Bioethics, Genethics and Medical Ethics’ by Bennett, Erin, Harris, and Holm. John Harris works at the University of Manchester and I’ve enjoyed hearing him speak on ethical issues in the past – which is why I’ve picked this topic.

Bioethics, if you didn’t already know, looks at ethical issues in the life sciences. It’s always interested me that Manchester’s bioethecists tend to operate out of the law department rather than philosophy, and perhaps this is illustrate of how the subject draws in thinkers from many different fields. In spite of this, as the authors of the chapter explain, bioethics is a branch of applied ethics having its roots in moral philosophy. The fact that the methods and vocabulary of bioethics comes from moral philosophy, whilst its practitioners come from a wide variety of backgrounds, probably explains why I enjoy talking to bioethecists and find myself so interested in it. The importance of linking theory to practice makes it even more fascinating.

Because bioethics is simply the application of moral philosophy to practical issues in a particular discipline I wasn’t expecting to learn anything from the chapter. I’m happy to have been proved wrong by the discussion of The Four Principles approach (4PA), an approach particular to the field. The four principles 4PA takes its name from are:

  • Respect for autonomy
  • Non-maleficence
  • Beneficence
  • Justice

Between them the four are supposed to be able to mediate between conflicting moral theories such as deontological (rule based) and consequentialist theories, and further to reconcile those theories with common-sense morality. By the 4PA method, ethical dilemmas can be resolved by determining if a problem falls within the scope of one of the principles. If more than one principle is at stake then the content of each aspect and its relationship to the principles must be specified and a balancing act performed to reach a conclusion.

I can’t say that this is an approach that looks terribly attractive to me. For one thing, it risks reducing moral solutions to what can be most easily agreed rather than what is right, and for another all of the principles, particularly ‘respect for autonomy’ and ‘justice’ are highly contested. Nor am I at all sure how a proponent of the 4PA method might go about ranking or weighting considerations relating to the four principles. The apparent simplicity of the method makes it look attractive whilst masking some pretty big theoretical issues. It may seem desirable to try to ‘attempt to combine the ‘best’ insights from deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics in some form of coherent framework’ but I confess enormous scepticism.

I’ve encountered a degree of suspicion about bioethics in the past, particularly from specialist philosophers. This suspicion comes from the view that bioethecists are experts in non-philosophical fields who are dabbling part-time in moral philosophy. I happen to think that view is generally (although not always) misplaced – I’ve met some really excellent moral philosophers working in bioethics (The University of Manchester is a particularly good place to find them). However, approaches like the 4PA outlined above probably don’t help – they look like a rather shallow short-cut to solving a moral problem.

Fortunately there’s much more to bioethics than that one method, and its subject matter is utterly fascinating. Think about issues like euthanasia, abortion, organ donation, elective surgery, drug rationing, medical testing, animal experimentation, and all of the interesting questions provoked by advances in genetics. I can think of few more vibrant areas to take moral philosophy, and apply it to stuff that matters, than the field of bioethics. Reading this chapter has made me a little more envious of those working in it.


Reasons for action

Today’s post is brought to you by the letters W for ‘work avoidance behaviour’, A for Audi, and R for Reasons for Action.

My reasons for selecting Robert Audi’s entry in the Routledge Companion are to do with my interest in his work on ethical intuitionism, and in the subject matter itself. Plus work avoidance of course!

Reasons, Audi tells us, are central to the understanding of personhood and of moral obligations. Audi’s project is to explore different kinds of reasons and their relationships with other elements in moral motivation, judgement, and action. His initial exploration is of normative, motivational, and explanatory reasons for action.

Normative reasons (also called practical reasons) are reasons there are for doing something (whether prudential or moral), like using an umbrella or giving to charity. Motivational reasons are reasons someone possesses, like giving you a lift because I promised to do so (my promise partly explains why I give you a lift). And explanatory reasons are reasons why someone acts, reasons that are more than merely causal explanations (such as I did X because I was drunk). If this is not very clear, don’t worry, at this stage it wasn’t for me either.

Luckily (for me at least) Audi offers further explanation. Normative reasons, he explains, tend to correspond to facts. My reason for opening my umbrella is connected with the fact that I will get wet if I do not. My reason to open my umbrella is that I will get wet if I do not, and that reason holds even if I do not decide to open the umbrella.

Talking about umbrellas doesn’t seem all that important to moral thinking, and it isn’t. But, normative reasons include moral reasons. To say that one should or ought to Φ is to say that one has a normative reason to Φ. The really tricky bit is determining the role played by moral reasoning in providing motivation for action. If I judge that I ought to Φ does this mean that I have some motivation to Φ? If I am not motivated to Φ even though I think I have strong reasons to Φ, then am I irrational and thus not a moral agent? There are a number of theories about the interaction between motivation and normative reasons – Audi mentions a few – but there definitely isn’t space to go into them here (and I’m insufficiently knowledgeable in any case).

Audi’s commentary after this is extremely dense and very, very interesting. But it’s also so tightly written that I can’t think of any way to easily summarise it. However, you can get an idea of the issues at stake by thinking about an example. Suppose I believe that a pie is poisoned, giving me a reason not to eat it. However, it turns out that the pie is not poisoned. My reason not to eat the pie rests on a false belief. Now imagine the pie is actually the property of a very angry psychopath who really, really likes pie. If I eat the pie he will kill me, however I am unaware of this fact. Now, I have a reason, based on a false belief not to eat the pie, but is nevertheless true that my eating the pie will result in my death. It’s true that I do not eat the pie because I believe I will die because of it. And it’s true that I will die if I eat the pie. But, my reason for not eating the pie is based on a false belief. The connection between motivations, reasons, and truth is pretty complex. This is relevant to morality because I might act in an apparently praiseworthy way but for all the wrong reasons – have I done the right thing in such circumstances, say I push you out of anger, but in doing so move you out of the path of an oncoming car? And if I act for the wrong reasons, but I believe them to be the right reasons – such when I give you a pill thinking it will cure you and it turns out to be arsenic – am I praiseworthy in those circumstances?

There’s much more to reasons than I had been aware of – they can motivate, justify, and explain actions. They can refer to the content or aspects of beliefs and desires or mental states. I’m keen to dig further, and luckily there are still plenty of chapters that touch on these issues still to read. Definitely an aspect of moral philosophy worthy of careful consideration.

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Animal Liberation: ethical approaches

I’m now just a week away from my viva, so I picked my reading for today strategically and went for Alan Carter’s entry on Animals in the Routledge Companion to Ethics.

Carter has written some really interesting stuff – I love his paper on radical disobedience for example, but he starts – this chapter with the puzzling claim that the history of Western thought has largely disregarded the interests of non-human animals. I’ve mentioned the works of Porphyry in previous posts, but he was not alone – the ancient Greeks had plenty to say about non-human animals, and this has continued through to today. I’m not sure it’s fair to call Porphyry, Plutarch, Pythagoras, Bentham, Montaigne, Shopenhauer, Mill, Spira, Salt, Schweitzer, Nozick, Brophy, Singer, Regan, Midgley, Korsgaard, Hills, Nussbaum and so on, ‘notable exceptions’ as Carter does. However, it is fair to say that philosophical consideration of the moral status of non-human animals has really taken off since Peter Singer published Animal Liberation in the 1970s.

The big question asked in this chapter is why do we assume that it is morally permissible to treat non-human animals in a completely different way than we do humans? In some ways, the answer seems obvious – animals can’t act morally; they cannot restrain their desires, keep promises, make agreements, control their violent urges and so forth. They are not rational. However, it seems very strange to think that just because something can’t act morally we are entitled to farm and eat it. After all, not all humans are moral agents, and we don’t think it’s OK to eat them on account of their irrationality. It’s hard, as Carter points out, to discover a morally relevant difference between humans and other animals that includes all humans and excludes all animals, and even if we can find such a difference it doesn’t follow that such a difference licences free-reign. In other words, even if we could establish that all humans are morally superior to all animals, it doesn’t follow from this we can do what we like to those animals.

However, as Carter points out, we do need to draw some lines – we don’t think it immoral to kick a stone, or break a stick – so what capacity should we ground moral standing in? Utilitarians, from Bentham through to Singer have traditionally argued that the capacity to experience pain and feel pleasure, or to suffer mark out whether a being is worthy of moral consideration. Those beings that can suffer should have their interests considered equally and impartially when moral decisions are to be taken.

Utilitarians generally measure goodness by how much happiness is produced in the world, which permits (in principle) pretty much any action so long as that action produces a greater amount of happiness overall. This is where deontolgical (or rule-based) ethics comes in. These forms of ethical code claim that there are constraints on what can be done to individuals in the name of the greater good – individuals are not to be sacrificed to benefit others. We often see these rules expressed as rights. My own approach to animal ethics is to argue that the well-being of animals places constraints upon our treatment of them in this way, constraints that forbid us from eating them, experimenting upon them, or otherwise using them as the means to our own ends. As such, my position is similar to that of Tom Regan, who Carter uses to illustrate the deontological approach to animal ethics.

If animals are worthy of moral concern, then the ethical questions are: what may we permissibly do to them and, what do we do when our interests conflict. To the first question I answer ‘nothing that treats them as a mere means to our ends’, and the latter question is answered by applying familiar theoretical approaches such as self-defence theory, theories of justice, ethics of moderate partiality and so forth.

Carter’s final section deals with criticisms of the two approaches by appeals to the value of relationships (at the familial and broader political and social levels). Under this approach humans count because they can form relations with one another in ways that animals cannot. Not only does this approach look question-begging, but again it doesn’t really address the complaint that not all humans can form the sorts of meaningful relationship that is set as the bar for moral considerability (nor is it clear that all animals cannot – great apes and dolphins may well be able to).

Another argument against animal liberation is to make use of the ‘natural kinds’ argument I discussed in my post on gay marriage and claim humans are of a special kind of being that ordinarily has capacities that make one worthy of moral consideration. Now I’ve never understood how this argument functions – it looks like a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it to me. On the one hand we want to say that all humans are worthy of consideration because they are the sorts of beings that ordinarily have certain capacities – like language use or rationality – and, on the other we want to treat those humans that don’t have rationality differently by giving them different rights (we don’t allow them to vote, or drive, or get married and have children for example). Linking moral status to characteristics that an individual being doesn’t in fact possess just looks like transcendental mumbo jumbo to me – you might as well posit a soul and link it to that.

Carter goes on to discuss the Kantian idea that duties to animals are indirect, i.e. that they are really duties to other humans (if we are cruel to animals it’s likely we’ll end up being cruel to humans), and Carruthers’ contention that animals may not be able to suffer. He also covers Frey’s arguments that animals lack desires (because desires require conventional language capacity) and so do not have morally relevant interests. None of these approaches are very convincing – although they probably deserve a further post in the future at least.

Carter’s chapter finishes with a very brief review of more recent theorising – including in contractualist political theory. I’m left impressed by the surprising amount he’d managed to cover in such a short amount of space and left prompted to read more of his work in the future.

I’m now 17 readings into my structured reading project and I’m really enjoying it, and, as an unexpected side effect, it seems to have spurred me to read more in general. Reading appears to provoke more reading.


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Utilitarianism and animal ethics

First up, I should say that this post is going to mostly consist of other peoples’ words. It will be so because those words are very powerful words, more powerful than any I can manage. Before I share them with you, I should explain that I’ve spent my morning reading a chapter on utilitarianism from James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialist moral theory; consequentialism holds that the rightness of an action is to be judged by its consequences. In those terms, utilitarianism claims that we should aim to maximise the good (usually expressed as happiness) and minimise the bad (usually expressed as harm or suffering). The theory is influential in animal ethics debates, which is how I came to it, because some utilitarians, most famously Peter Singer, argue that species membership is not a morally relevant characteristic. What matters, say utilitarians, is not what species a being is, or whether it is rational, but whether it can suffer. Singer argues that if a being can suffer then we ought to count its interests equally with those of other beings when we calculate overall utility. So now that I’ve got the context out of the way, here are the two passages I mentioned at the outset. The first is used by Rachels to illustrate the utilitarian argument I’ve outlined above, and comes from Singer’s famous 1973 book Animal Liberation. The passage describes a set of experiments carried out in the 1950’s to understand ‘learned helplessness’. Be prepared from some pretty disturbing stuff.

‘Harvard University R. Solomon, L. Kamin, and L. Wynne tested the effects of electric shock on the behavior of dogs. They placed forty dogs in a device called a “shuttlebox” which consists of a box divided into two compartments, separated by a barrier. Initially the barrier was set at the height of the dog’s back. Hundreds of intense electric shocks were delivered to the dogs’ feet through a grid floor. At first the dog could escape the shock if they learned to jump the barrier into the other compartment. In an attempt “discourage” one dog from jumping, the experimenters forced the dog to jump into shock 100 times. They said that as the dog jumped he gave a “sharp anticipatory yip which turned into a yelp when he landed on the electrified grid.” They then blocked the passage between the compartments with a piece of plate glass and tested the same dog again, The dog “jumped forward and smashed his head against the glass.” Initially dogs showed symptoms such as “defecation, urination, yelping and shrieking, trembling, attacking the apparatus” and so on, but after ten or twelve days of trials dogs that were prevented from escaping shock ceased to resist. The experimenters reported themselves “impressed” by this and concluded that a combination of the plate glass barrier and foot shock were “very effective” in eliminating jumping by dogs.’ (I couldn’t find an online copy of their paper, but there are plenty that make use of it; here’s one that’s not behind an publisher’s paywall – read the abstract)

I was pretty shocked by that example, and it was followed up by a matter of fact description of the awful conditions that veal calves are kept in – I’ll spare you the details. Although Solomon, Kamin, and Wynne’s monstrous experiments were carried out in the 1950s, the horrors that we visit upon non-human animals today remain unbelievably cruel, and in almost incalculable numbers (approximately 75,000,000 tonnes of bovine, sheep, and goat meat per year are ‘produced’ in farms across the world1, add in poultry, fish, and other animals killed for food, along with the millions of animals experimented upon and you begin to see the scale of our actions). Reading about Solomon, Kamin, and Wynne’s experiments immediately brought to mind a passage from J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello, which is one of the most powerful things I’ve read. The passage follows a scene where Elizabeth’s daughter-in-law, Norma, expresses her resentment at Elizabeth’s vegetarianism to Elizabeth’s son, which she sees it as nothing more than a way of undermining her with her children. I suspect most vegetarians and vegans will be familiar with the air of resentment that springs up when people learn of their refusal to eat meat. Here Elizabeth speaks to her son of her feelings:

‘…I no longer longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, “Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s the best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.” And then I go to the bathroom and the soap wrapper says, “Treblinka – 100% human stearate.” Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this? Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?

There are days when I feel like Elizabeth Costello, and on those days it makes the resentment that people feel towards vegetarians and vegans all the more difficult to understand. On those days I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about the ‘banality of evil‘. And it strikes me, thinking about Elizabeth Costello, that although moral theory can go a long way go a long way towards helping us know how we should act, sometimes we need the force of great literature to bring the importance of right action home to us. I may not be convinced by utilitarianism (for one thing, it permits the actions described in the first passage if the overall happiness created is higher than the level of suffering caused), but I’m convinced that non-human animals are worthy of moral consideration, and that their moral standing should place constraints upon our treatment of them. Constraints that, at the very least, forbid us from using them as Solomon, Kamin and Wynne did, and forbid us from doing as the veal farmer does. I’ll explain why I think those constraints should go much further some other day. But for now, I’m going look to the nicer facets of human existence by soaking up some spring sunshine and enjoying the company of my children.

1. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, FAO Statistical Yearbook, 2010.