Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


Business Ethics – a plea to ‘keep it simple’ in applied ethics

I’ve been reading a chapter on business ethics (from the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy). What struck me most, much more than the content, was the approach taken. There seems to me to be an unwelcome tendency present in applied ethics: a tendency to stick a discipline name in front of the word ‘ethics’ and then try and over-cultivate it as an academic field. I’ve felt this whilst delving into bioethics, and again, but more so, in business ethics.

Obviously, there are some very interesting problems associated with business ethics, things like:

  • problems of collective decision-making and responsibility;
  • about how to treat different kinds of stakeholders;
  • problems connected with globalisation;
  • how to balance competing duties;
  • the moral status of organisations;
  • and issues to do with behaving ethically when there are free-riders in abundance.

However, none of these issues and problems are restricted to business practices. Rather, they are the kind of problems moral and political philosophers grapple with all of the time in a variety of contexts. What the business ethicist seems to want to do (apologies to you if you are are business ethicist and I’m horribly mis-characterising you), is to develop special business ethics methodologies, frameworks, typologies, and terminologies, which they can illustrate with diagrams and figures. As an example, the chapter I’ve been reading contained one figure illustrating ‘The extended three-level conception of business ethics’, which ‘provides a framework to locate the plural affiliations of the economic actors in the current global context’.

This approach to an ethics sub-discipline looks more than a little forced and unnecessary to me. Part of the reason for this is that there seems to be a blurring between the descriptive and the prescriptive at work. It’s one thing to model how businesses view ethics and implement ethical codes, and to understand the various actors and interactions – that’s a nice empirical sociology project. It’s quite another to make claims about how agents and organisations should behave. In the latter case, all the various frameworks, typologies, methodologies, and terminologies seem much, much less relevant to issues at hand. For sure, in understanding how a business should treat its various stakeholders, it will be necessary to identify those stakeholders and find relevant differences between them, but I think I need convincing that that requires anything particular to the field of business ethics to get our ethical theorising going.

So, this post is my plea for applied ethicists to concentrate on the basics and to cut back on the field-specific frameworks and jargon. Ethical thinking is already complex enough: which moral theory should we adopt, who owes what to whom, how do we deal with conflicting duties, what values do we care about and how do we conceptualise them etc. I’d have thought that the last thing needed is an extra layer of complexity and a new specialist language to learn.


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Zoopolis: a political theory of animal rights – my review

My invited review of Donaldson and Kymlicka’s wonderfully thought-provoking recent book, Zoopolis: a political theory of animal rights has just been published in Global Policy. In addition to being lovely people, Donaldson and Kymlicka are great writers – I recommend you pick up a copy of their book, especially if you have any interest in what we owe to non-human animals and also to humans who lack full moral personhood.

Much of the debate in animal ethics/animal rights theory has focussed upon how individuals should treat non-human animals. Recently, researchers such as myself, the fantastic Alasdair Cochrane at the University of Sheffield, and John Hadley at the University of Western Sydney  have looked at applying concepts drawn from political theory to the question of what we owe to non-human animals. In Zoopolis Donaldson and Kymlicka do the same by exploring how political communities should interact with non-human animals.

Read my review here:


Abortion and Animal Rights

Recently I’ve been thinking about the badness of death, particularly for non-persons. One worry that’s nagged me is that the position I endorse: that there are strong constraints limiting what we may do to animals in order to gain benefits for ourselves, may lead to an anti-abortion position. I confess that I’ve found this troubling, because it clashes with my liberal intuitions. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with abortion, but I’ve considered it an issue where the rights of the woman take priority those of the foetus.

Today, I had some work producing a guided essay plan on the subject of abortion and infanticide and it finally spurred me to sit down and give some proper thought to the problem. Here are the two premises and the conclusion they lead to:

P1. Sentient beings are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

P2. Foetuses are sentient beings.

C1. Therefore, foetuses are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

This means that if you think, as I do, that we have duties not to harm non-human animals then we are also forbidden from aborting foetuses.

C2. If it is wrong to kill non-human animals then it is also wrong to abort a foetus.

Fortunately, taking a short amount of time out of my day to think about the issue carefully revealed that the problem I was worried about doesn’t really exist – my liberal intuitions and my views on duties to non-human animals are actually very simple to reconcile. The reason for this is that not all foetuses are sentient; only late-stage foetuses are. This means that the argument has to be re-formulated as follows:

P1. Sentient beings are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

P2. Late-stage foetuses are sentient beings.

C1. Therefore, late-stage foetuses are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

This reformulation makes it morally wrong, other things being equal, to abort a late-stage foetus, which is pretty much in line with both the law and common-sense morality.

C2. If it is wrong to kill non-human animals then it is also wrong to abort a late-stage foetus.

Note, that if the conclusion is rearranged then non-human animals end up being granted much greater considerabilty they presently are:

C2a. If it is wrong to abort a late-stage foetus then it is also wrong to kill non-human animals.

If you want to refute C2a then you have to find some reason why the late-stage foetus is morally different from a non-human animal with similar levels of sentience. Such attempts often involve placing moral weight on the potential for personhood, making species membership morally relevant, or claiming human life is sacred in some way. Each of these claims requires some serious metaphysical voodoo, and I’ve yet to find anyone argue for their truth remotely convincingly.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way I can get back to reading Fred Feldman’s fascinating entry, ‘Life, death, and ethics’, in the Routledge Companion to Ethics: recommended.

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Fully funded PhD Studentship: The Political Representation of Non-Human Animals

The Centre for Animals and Social Justice, in conjunction with the University of Leicester’s Department of Politics and International Relations, is funding a PhD Studentship at Leicester – there’s not a lot of time to apply, but it looks like a fantastic opportunity to do some interesting research. See: for full details.

“The Department of Politics and International Relations and the Centre for Animals and Social Justice are pleased to offer a funded studentship for October 2012 entry to the Department’s Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme. The studentship is fully funded by the College of Social Science, the Department of Politics and International Relations, and an external partner – the Centre for Animals and Social Justice– and, subject to satisfactory progress, will pay full-time UK/EU fees for three years together with an annual maintenance grant.

The successful applicant will be expected to devote a proportion of their time – about 40 hours per quarter – to contributing to the Centre for Animals and Social Justice’s research and policy engagement work, which may involve activities such as presenting papers at academic/stakeholder conferences and preparing policy briefings.”

The deadline for applications is 28 May 2012.

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Undergraduate writing & academic feedback

At last: I’ve spent far too many days marking student essays and seminar participation, and now I have finished. A quick check reveals that for the fifty ‘ish essays I’ve marked, I’ve written over 12,000 words of feedback. Hopefully, it will be useful for my students, who’ve been a really good bunch this year.

Apropos of this, I was chatting about feedback with a colleague earlier today; specifically the kind of responses to poor feedback that academics get from their students. I suspect that all academics will be used to the odd angry and baffled email from a student who has had a bad mark, or some feedback that they disagree with. I dread those accusatory emails, especially when they’re from a good student who I know should have done much better, and there are always one or two of those. Interestingly, I recently got a rather snippy response to my comments as an anonymous peer reviewer – so I guess not all academics eventually learn to take criticism entirely on the chin.

Anyway, our chat concerned how different the undergraduate writing experience is to the process they’ll go through if they go further in academia. For the undergraduate, the process is a solitary one – they receive an essay title, write their essay alone, submit, receive a mark and some feedback, and then that’s the end of it. However, for academics, the writing process often seems collaborative (well, it does for me anyway), and the initial feedback is only the beginning. We write something (often after a discussion with colleagues), present it at a seminar or conference, respond to audience comments, rewrite, repeat, submit to a journal, receive horrible feedback, rewrite, resubmit, receive more feedback, and then (if we’re lucky) finalise our paper and publish.

Now, the sensible undergraduate student will send an essay plan to their tutor, maybe talk through it with them, and email them questions – it’s just a shame that more don’t do this. They may even get a better taste of how academics write if they do a dissertation. But, it seems to me that the way undergraduates write – the way the structures we set in place shape how they write – is probably not the way that will benefit them the most either in terms of experience or learning. So, this evening I’ve found myself thinking about how we can make writing more collaborative for undergraduates, whilst also being able to assess them easily. I have some ideas: like undergraduate peer review of weekly tutorial questions, but suggestions from others would be gratefully received! How would you engage students in collaborative writing,is it a terrible idea?