Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Collective responsibility for harming animals.

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Tomorrow, I’m responding to a paper at a conference of the idea of secular evil jointly organised by the Manchester Centre for Political Theory and Manchester Centre for Emotion and Value. The paper I’m responding to, by Newport’s Gideon Calder, is fascinating stuff, and is particularly concerned with how we explain and describe collective atrocities.

Back when I was beginning my thesis, I did some work on the concept of cruelty and I spent a little time wondering whether those who eat meat are culpable for the cruelty of the meat industry, or if it’s some other wrong that’s done. Connected with this, I considered the duties and culpability of ordinary citizens in a democratic society which doesn’t merely condone, but actively supports, both emotionally and with huge quantities of public money, unimaginable levels of cruelty to animals. My response to Gideon’s paper has got me thinking about this issue again, and I wonder once more if members of our society are individually or collectively responsible for the evil that is done to non-human animals.

Like Rawls, I’m inclined to the view that says we have natural duties of justice, not just to avoid injustice, but also to prevent injustice, and to act so as to bring about more just states of affairs. If we do have these duties, and if you accept my claim that the way we treat animals is unjust (I’m going to leave that undefended), then most people in liberal democracies are responsible for acts that is so harmful that I have no hesitation in calling them evil (my post here should help illustrate my feelings on the matter). That means not only that otherwise decent people are responsible for evil, but additionally, those individuals who merely seek to avoid harm (such as vegans) are failing in their duties to prevent evil or make society more just. There are reasons to think that most of us are not really culpable or blameworthy for causing the harm – but I think I don’t think any of the reasons I’ve seen succeed (John Hadley has a couple of papers offering reasons, but I won’t lay out why I think his arguments fail here). However, my response to Calder’s paper on evil drew my attention to the thought that individuals might be excused for inaction in putative cases of collective responsibility if a) they can only prevent harm by acting together, and b) there is no co-ordinating institution that enables joint action. This is an interesting thought, and it’s one I’m keen to come back to after the conference is over.

I’m sure there are masses of problems with excusing people on the grounds above, but the general point is that it’s sometimes surprising what relevance one can get out of a conference that ostensibly unconnected with one’s own field. Go to more conferences!

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Author: Steve Cooke

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

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