Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

1 Comment

Humanitarian intervention: humane not human

I’m on a train travelling down to Oxford. Tomorrow I’m presenting a paper to the Society for Applied Philosophy‘s annual conference. I’m a little nervous about this paper, as involves me dipping my toes into international ethics and law, and I’ve not really touched that since I did my MA. Plus, it’s pretty controversial, and my chair-commentator, who will respond to the paper before questions, is the fiercely sharp Zofia Stemplowska of the University of Warwick.

The argument I make is that principles of humanitarian intervention should extend to non-human animals, and I use the critically endangered orangutans of Sumatra as my case study. Just to give you a picture of how dire the situation for those orangutans is, and why I think something more drastic than traditional conservation approaches is needed, I’ve listed some potted facts below (apologies for the lack of references – my Internet connection is a bit too shaky to drag them up).

Orangutans have been protected under Indonesian law since 1931 and also have a protected status under international law. Conservationists have expended enormous efforts to save them from extinction. However:

  • Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered and decreasing in numbers.
  • In total there remained only 7,300 in 2004.
  • Only three populations of over 500 (the minimum size needed for genetic viability) remain.
  • Orangutan numbers have declined by 80% in the last 75 years.
  • Orangutans are frequently hunted for pets, and killed as pests or for food.
  • The greatest threat to them comes from the destruction of their habitat through both legal and illegal logging and forest clearance.

Orangutan communities possess cultures of their own, they use and produce tools, have a theory of mind, have been taught to use sign-language creatively, and to understand abstract symbols, and the Sumatran orangutans constitute a distinct racial group from those living in Borneo.

With this in mind, I argue in my paper that a species-blind principle of humanitarian intervention provides the international community with a duty to take action in defence of the orangutans. This is because Sumatran orangutans are under threat of extinction as a result of the deliberate acts of human beings. The consequences of these acts are known to the Indonesian state, and preventable by them. Furthermore, by licensing deforestation for palm oil production, the Indonesian government has become complicit in what amounts to the destruction of an ethnic or racial group. Conventional conservation methods and legal protections have been unsuccessful and it is likely that the Orangutans will soon become the first of the Great Apes to become extinct.

Obviously, there’s a fair bit of argument to get through for the underlying case for a non-speciesist account of positive duties of aid before the above argument can succeed. I’m not going to fill in the gap here (mainly because I want to read through my paper a few more times before I get to the conference). However, a good place to start for the sorts of issues at stake and arguments to be made is John Hadley’s lovely little paper The Duty to Aid Nonhuman Animals in Dire Need. Incidentally, reading John’s short paper was one of the main sources of inspiration for my PhD thesis (thanks John) – it’s definitely worth a gander.

Leave a comment

Job Opening at Animals and Society Institute (US)

I’ve just received an email about the job below – looks interesting.

AniCare/Rapid Response Project Director

Animals and Society Institute is a nonprofit organization located in Ann Arbor, MI

General: Part-time (12-18 hrs per week). September 1, 2012 start date. Opportunity to work in animal advocacy. Successful candidate can work off-site.

Position Summary: Administer two existing programs related to the cycle of violence. National in scope, the programs require interfacing with human service and criminal justice agencies.

Job Functions: Manage, further develop, and market existing programs; oversee production of bi-monthly e-newsletter, organize workshops, facilitate the development of coalitions of stakeholders, research funders and write grants, outreach to media. Oversee and update organization’s web pages related to the programs.

Education: Minimum: MA in human services or in criminal justice or related fields. Preferred: PhD in human service or JD; advanced degree in criminal justice or related fields considered; certification or degree in human-animal studies or related field.

Experience: Minimum: Program management and development, marketing Preferred: Work in human services and criminal justice fields.

Skills: Organizational ability, project coordination, writing, computer (Microsoft Office, Access, Adobe); ability to interact with professionals in human services and criminal justice fields.

TO APPLY: Send cover letter and curriculum vita or résumé to Kate Brindle.

Deadline for applications is August 15, 2012.

Leave a comment

Heraclitus and the art of car maintenance

I’ve just walked back from my local garage. Given that I did not walk to it, this is no good thing. My poor car has had a lot of repairs recently, and now it looks like some clutch related component is to be added to the list. As I walked back from the garage I thought first about how high labour costs in France mean that they end up skimping on build quality (I own Renault) and second, about the philosophy of the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

Heraclitus was interested in how our identities persist over time: given that we change over time, how is it that we remain can the same being?

Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.

This puzzle was later famously illustrated by Plutarch in the story of The Ship of Theseus.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Is my car more than a collection of parts, and, if it is, how many of those parts can be replaced before it is no longer the same car? If my car’s identity is rooted in something other than its initial components then what? How can it be that my car, made of of a different set of parts today than it was when it was built, remains the same car? Imagine that every time my car needed a repair that I took it to the same garage. Imagine also that they kept all of the replaced parts and used them to build another car. Which of the two cars is my car? Surely they cannot both be the same car?

After my nine year old son read Stephen Law’s excellent book, the Philosophy Files, he responded to a telling-off from his mum by saying: ‘but mum, you can’t blame me for that, I’m qualitatively a different person now than I was when I did it.’ Not only does this reveal the dangers of letting children anywhere near philosophy, but it also show how important the persistence of our identities over time is to the notion of moral responsibility.

There may not be easy answers to these questions, but philosophy certainly makes an otherwise disheartening walk back from the garage much more interesting!

Leave a comment

Conference: Wittgenstein, Enactivism & Animal Minds – 7th-8th July

The 5th BWS Annual Conference: Wittgenstein, Enactivism & Animal Minds looks interesting, I’m too skint to go, which is a pity because the chance to hear Peter Carruthers and Mark Rowlands at the same conference is quite enticing. Details below.

Saturday 7- Sunday 8 July 2012
University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield

Saturday: Animal Minds

Michael Tomasello<> If a chimpanzee could speak …
Dorit Bar-On<>  Mind: the Gap
Peter Carruthers<>  Animal minds are real, (distinctively) human minds are not
Hans-Johann Glock <> Animal minds: a non-representationalist approach
Colin Allen<> The Geometry of Partial Understanding

Sunday: Enactivism

Mark Rowlands Enactivism, Intentionality and Content
Ned Block<> The Challenge to Enactivism
Daniel D. Hutto<>  The Reach of Radical Enactivism
Daniele Moyal-Sharrock<>  Wittgenstein’s Razor
Jose Medina<> An Enactivist Approach to the Imagination

For other options and to register, please go to BWS Conference Registration
Conference program available at the conference page on the BWS website:


Is it wrong for vegetarians and vegans to keep pets?

@LouFederer requested that I write a post about the ethics of vegans and vegetarians keeping pets, particularly when those pets are carnivorous.

Some theorists think animal ownership is right out: ownership represents a system of slavery, exploitation, oppression and dominance. In short, the status of animals as property makes it impossible to extend justice to them: animals cannot be liberated until they are no longer regarded as property (cf. Francione, 1996). My own view is that, whilst the status of many animals as property does create conceptual confusion as to their moral status, and this is not helped by inconsistencies and contradictions in law, being property is not necessarily harmful to non-human animals. In fact, I think that ownership of an animal is compatible with humans and other animals living mutually enriching and beneficial lives together.

One reason I disagree with Francione is that the interest a non-person has in not being free is qualitatively different to the interest a person has in being free. Freedom is important for persons because it is necessary for them to be able pursue autonomous lives – to make and revise choices in pursuit of their goods. For a person to be the property of another not only harms their well-being, but it is also a denial of their nature as rational moral beings, for if I am a slave then I cannot directly respect the rights of others since that is under the control of my master. When we curtail the freedom of our pets we merely change their sources of potential pleasure or prevent instinctive behaviour. Whilst this may, in certain circumstances count as a harm, it is not by its nature harmful in the way that ownership of a person might be (cf. Cochrane, 2009).

We might think that treating non-human animals as property is intrinsically wrong because it may licence treating them as mere objects rather than as beings with a good of their own and worthy of moral concern for their own sakes. I agree that this is a real problem, after all, there’s nothing in the law, for example, to stop dog owners from having a vet kill their dog if they decide the dog’s fur doesn’t match their new sofa covers. The separation of the world into persons and things, for which we have Kant to thank (Steiner, 2002, p. 184), leaves animals in a precarious position. However, property rights need not be absolute: if I own land I am limited in what I can do to it – I cannot poison it, build without permission, close off rights-of-way etc. There’s nothing in the concept of property that prevents animal ownership from being benign (cf. Cooke, 2011). This means that vegetarians and vegans need not take a stand against the idea of owning a companion animal. Neither does it seem likely that a refusal to own a companion animal would lead to a change in the inadequate laws that presently exist.

However, in owning a companion animal, there are still duties that owners have, both to their pets and to other animals. First, they must ensure that the animals enjoy the conditions necessary to flourish and live a minimally decent life. I doubt, for example, that a bird can flourish whilst kept cooped-up in a cage. Second, owners, being responsible for their companion animal, must ensure that it does not harm others. This means that if the animal is carnivorous, it should be fed an acceptable vegetarian diet, and reasonable steps should be take to prevent it from killing other animals. Fortunately there are some very good vegetarian pet-foods out there and some very easy steps that can be taken to prevent animals harming one another (such as a bell round the neck of a cat). Nor is it difficult to simulate the kind of hunting activities that predators such as cats so clearly enjoy (as anyone who has trailed a piece of string for their cat, or bought it a catnip-infused toy mouse, will attest).

So long as companion animals are kept in conditions that allow them to flourish and live a decent life, and they are respected by their owners as beings with their own inherent value, and so long as ownership does not entail harm to others, then I see no strong reason why vegans and vegetarians cannot own non-human animals in good conscience.


Cochrane, Alasdair (2009) ‘Do Animals Have an Interest in Liberty?’, Political Studies, 57(3), pp. 660–679.

Cooke, Steve (2011) ‘Duties to Companion Animals’, Res Publica, 17(3), pp. 261–274.

Francione, Gary L (1996) ‘Animals as Property’, Animal Law, 2, p. i.

Steiner, Hillel (2002) ‘Silver Spoons and Golden Genes: Talent Differentials and Distributive Justice’, In The Moral and Political Status of Children, Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Why vegetarians should support GM crop production

In a comment responding to my previous post seajay23 wrote the following:

Full-scale vegetarianism also implies extensive agricultural development. Agriculture requires control of pests such as rodents and crop-eating birds and insects. Control means either direct killing or removal leading to likely starvation of said pests. Furthermore alienating natural environments for human agricultural needs necessarily requires the displacement of animals native to the land that is converted to farmland. Modern agriculture usually requires extensive mono-cropping and soy is probably the best (worst) example; can we justify the destruction of complex ecosystems to sustain universal human vegetarianism?

There are some interesting claims in there that deserve serious thinking: I’ll split the argument up and deal with the claims separately.

P1. ‘Full-scale vegetarianism also implies extensive agricultural development.’

For the purpose rest of the post I’m going to assume that this premise is true.

P2. ‘Agriculture requires control of pests such as rodents and crop-eating birds and insects.’

Again, I will assume this to be true, although I do think that things may not be so clear cut.

P3. ‘Control means either direct killing or removal leading to likely starvation of said pests.’

OK, here’s where I think things become interesting: P3 is definitely worth challenging. For starters, ‘control’ might mean something very different: it could mean planting sacrificial crop, it could mean producing pest resistant crops, and it could mean introducing species that feed on pests. Wait a minute, I hear you thinking, didn’t my last post say that we should interfere to prevent predation? True, I did argue that, but I’m going to go a little further in a moment and say why I think there’s a morally relevant difference in the pest case. Let’s continue by assuming that none of these forms of control are viable – which leads to conclusion below.

C1. Killing or causing suffering to agricultural pests is wrong, therefore large scale agriculture is wrong.

The flaw in this argument, I think, is that it fails to account for the fact that the biggest threat to agricultural production (aside from drought, flood, fungus, disease etc) comes from insects. Unlike the impala in the previous example, insects are not what Tom Regan calls ‘experiencing subjects of a life’. They do not have a biographical existence over time. Indeed, they almost certainly lack the ability to feel emotion. When we experience pain we not only have a physiological response to the noxious pain-causing stimulus (the shying away), we also experience a feeling of pain. Pain consists of nociception (the physical response) and also has a phenomenological component (the feeling of pain). Whilst insects have the physical response to pain, they do not experience the phenomenological content. If we think animals worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes, it is because they can feel pain, suffer, and/or are harmed by death. Insects therefore probably aren’t worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes, and thus any wrong we do by ‘controlling’ them is indirect.

If, after all of that, there’s still an argument to be made that controlling pests by killing them is wrong, then our best option may be to genetically engineer crops to be more pest resistant. Yes, you read that right: we may be morally required to grow GM crops so as to avoid causing suffering to non-human animals through farming.

Finally, seajay23 wrote:

Modern agriculture usually requires extensive mono-cropping and soy is probably the best (worst) example; can we justify the destruction of complex ecosystems to sustain universal human vegetarianism?

The problem with this argument is that the environmental harms cause by crop production are far less than those caused by breeding animals for food. The energy needed to breed animals is much greater than that needed for crop production. So assuming the claim above is true (again, I think this is actually an open question), it’s still a better option than breeding animals for food. And the same arguments holds true when you consider the suffering caused to animals in growing crops for direct consumption vs breeding animals for consumption – animal breeding results in more suffering in that case too. Whilst we may be faced with two undesirable situations, that doesn’t mean that should not be ambivalent about which undesirable outcome we pick – this is not a Hobson’s Choice where we’re faced with equally bad outcomes: growing food for direct consumption is demonstrably less bad than breeding animals for food.


Animal Rights and the Predation Problem

The latest issue of the Journal for Applied Philosophy contains an excellent article by Ebert and Machan on what’s known as ‘the predation problem’. To summarise; the predation problem is supposed to demonstrate, via reductio ad absurdum, that animals cannot have rights because, if they did, moral agents would be required to defend animals against other animals. One early example of the argument is David G. Ritchie’s 1894 response to Henry Salt:

in our exercise of our power and in our guardianship of the rights of animals, must we not protect the weak among them against the strong? Must we not put to death blackbirds and thrushes because they feed on worms, or (if capital punishment offends our humanitarianism) starve them slowly by permanent captivity and vegetarian diet? What becomes of the “return to nature” if we must prevent the cat’s nocturnal wanderings, lest she should wickedly slay a mouse? Are we not to vindicate the rights of the persecuted prey of the stronger? or is our declaration of the rights of every creeping thing to remain a mere hypocritical formula to gratify pug-loving sentimentalists…(Ritchie 1894, 109–110)

More recently, the reductio has been deployed in a similar fashion by Carl Cohen (Regan and Cohen 2001, 30–31). By and large the response from those arguing for animal rights has been to accept the above reductio. As a result animal rights theorists have shied away from moving from the premise that suffering is bad for non-human animals to the conclusion that they are owed positive duties of aid. Instead, most have adopted an account of positive duties toward humans and negative duties towards other animals (the ‘let be’ approach) (cf. Simmons 2009 for an example). This ‘let be’ approach unfortunately suffers from pretty hefty flaws, not least because it’s often presented in ways inconsistent with many of the premises that the animal rights argument relies upon (such as that there’s no special moral significance to being a member of the human species).

In their recent paper, Ebert and Machan argue that the predation problem leads to the conclusion that we should either reject the concept of animal rights or adopt a ‘libertarian-ish’ theory of animal rights (more on this later). Ebert and Machan are right to contend that the predation problem has not been adequately dealt with in the literature (I’ve had a paper under review on the very subject for a lamentably long time ). They concentrate on work by (and inspired by) Tom Regan. Ebert and Machan correctly identify the flaws in Regan’s claim that; because animals are not moral agents, their harming of other animals is not unjust and therefore doesn’t obligate a moral agent to intervene. As Dale Jameison has pointed out (Jamieson 1990), a rock falling on a moral agent doesn’t constitute an injustice, but that doesn’t imply that someone placed to save that moral agent has no duty to aid if they can. In the case of predation, it’s not injustice that might obligate, but the prima facie duty to prevent harm where we can do so without incurring serious burdens. The problem as I see it is not that this leads to a reductio ad absurdum requiring man to police nature, but rather the connection with the wider theoretical issue of other-defence in cases of innocent attackers. Ebert and Machan also treat the issue as one of innocent threat, something I’ll discuss below.

Predatory animals, not being moral agents, cannot be considered responsible for harms caused to others (just the falling rock is not responsible for crushing the person beneath it). Rather, predators should be considered innocent attackers in a manner to the mind-controlled gun-man or knife-wielding mental patient.. For an animal rights theorist to maintain a consistent position, Ebert and Machan argue that their account will have to have to allow for, or require, the rights of innocent attackers to be violated. So far, I’m in agreement with Ebert and Machan: predatory animals should be considered innocent attackers, just as violent severely cognitively impaired humans, or violent human children should be considered innocent attackers. What innocent victims are permitted to do in their own defence against innocent threats is a difficult problem. Even more problematic is the question of what third-parties are permitted to do in defence of innocent victims under threat from innocent attackers.

Ebert and Machan’s solution is to push for choice-protecting rights for moral agents and interest-protecting rights for moral patients (those lacking moral agency, but worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes), and to suggest that the former include positive duties of aid whilst the latter do not. This is their ‘libertarian-ish’ position – it amounts to a non-speciesist ‘let be’ approach. Despite the attractiveness of their position, this is where Ebert and Machan and I part company, particularly because I’m unprepared to accept that positive duties to children and other human moral patients are of the special associative kind and not because children are valuable for their own sakes.

Instead, I have argued (in my as-yet unpublished paper) that, in cases of innocent threat to innocent victim there are morally relevant factors that can help determine how we should act. These include: whether it clear that the innocent threat initiated the attack and whether the innocent attacker is likely to go on to attack other innocents in the future. Where moral patients are in conflict and where either both parties are innocent attackers or where the attacker is unlikely to seek to harm other innocents in the future, the principle that harming is worse than allowing harm to occur can provide moral agents with a ceteris paribus reason not to intervene. Of course, this still leaves room for special associative duties of aid to moral patients, but it does not rely upon in the way that Ebert and Machan’s position does.

Does this require man to police nature? In my paper I argue that the duty to aid a particular moral patient does not translate either into a duty placed upon a particular moral agent, or into a general duty to bring about a particular situation where no such aggression occurs. This means that we are not required to go off into the wilderness and seek out cases where prey animals are being threatened, but rather that, if we encounter such a case, and are in a position to aid, we should do so (assuming that aiding will not be overly burdensome). Thus, my argument entails that cat-owners are obligated to release the birds that their cats bring home, and that we may be required to shoot lions in defence of the zebras.

Cue angry howls from conservationists!


Ebert, Rainer, and Tibor R. Machan. 2012. ‘Innocent Threats and the Moral Problem of Carnivorous Animals’. Journal of Applied Philosophy 29 (2): 146–159. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5930.2012.00561.x.

Jamieson, D. 1990. ‘Rights, Justice, and Duties to Provide Assistance: A Critique of Regan’s Theory of Rights’. Ethics 100 (2) (January): 349–362.

Regan, Tom, and Carl Cohen. 2001. The Animal Rights Debate. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ritchie, David. 1894. Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions. London: Routledge.

Simmons, A. 2009. ‘Animals, Predators, the Right to Life, and the Duty to Save Lives’. Ethics & the Environment 14 (1): 15–27.