Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


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Should we obey God? What political theory tells us about faith.

Doing some tutoring in theories of political obligation has, to my surprise, prompted me to think about  God  over the last couple of days. Specifically, I’ve been asking myself what the existence of a creator being might mean and whether it might generate any obligations in us.

Assuming there is a creator being (a pretty big assumption, and one that simply moves the creation problem one step away and generates an infinite regress the moment we ask how the creator being came into existence). But, assuming there is a creator being (or beings), how should we act towards that being? What is the correct response to the creation of the universe and the conditions within which we came into being?

My first thought is that the fitting response cannot be reciprocation. It cannot be reciprocation because there’s simply nothing we can do to reciprocate for the creation of everything. Perhaps one might argue that the correct form of reciprocation is not to give something of similar value in return, but to obediently. Leaving aside the problem that there’s no evidence of any commands ever having been issued; should we obey if a command were to be issued?

If someone gives something to us does that give us a duty to obey them? Of course it does not. None of us has ever been in a position to ask for creation and nor have we been able to refuse it. Nozick, arguing about fair play as source of political obligation, famously described a scenario where a group of book-tossers lob books into people’s property and then demand obedience in return for the benefits of having free books. Even if I really like the book thrown at me, and I benefit from having read from it, the book-tosser has no right to demand anything from me. Perhaps I should thank her, but she certainly cannot demand that I pay her or obey her commands. Furthermore, it’s very hard to see what benefit a being powerful enough to create the universe might gain from having its commands followed. Fair play theories begin with the intuition that it’s wrong to share the benefits of cooperative endeavours, but not to share in the burdens generated by them. But, the creator isn’t bearing any burdens from our non-compliance with its wishes. Thus, since the ignoring of any commands costs the creator nothing, it does not seem unfair to disobey its commands.

Perhaps we should at least feel gratitude for creation. Falling back on political theory once more, this time in the form of A. D. M. Walker’s work on political obligation and gratitude: gratitude involves a sense of goodwill and respect for our benefactor. It requires both the communication of our appreciation of the benefit we receive and that we not act in ways incompatible with our attitudes of goodwill and respect.  Once again, it’s hard to see how that translates into a duty to obey. As above, it’s difficult to argue that disobedience harms the interests of a creator being, and nor is it clear how goodwill and respect translate into a right held by the creator to have its commands obeyed. I’m grateful to my parents for many things, but they have no right to command my obedience as a result.

If fairness and gratitude do not provide duties of obedience to a creator, then that leaves just three other possibilities that I can think of.

The first possibility is that we should obey commands because those commands are what it’s morally right to do. However, this just leads us to the edge of Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma: if we should do what the creator tells us because we judge its commands to be morally right then we’re simply doing what we judge to be right and our obligation comes not from the creator but from the rightness of the act. As an example of this principle: the reason we shouldn’t murder people is not because the law says murder is wrong, but because murder is wrong irrespective of what the law says.

That point leads to the second reason: we should obey the commands of the creator because it will punish us if we do not. This sense of ‘should’ provides us with a pragmatic rather a moral reason to obey the creator being. Whilst we might have a reason to obey such commands, they would not generate any duties: there is no duty to obey commands issued with threats.

The third possibility is also connected with the first: perhaps we should obey if we agree to do so. Initially, it seems pretty clear cut that if I consent to the authority of the creator being, then I should obey its commands. This means that only those who willingly consent take on duties (something only autonomous adults can really do). But (and here’s the link with the firs point), we cannot be bound by agreements to do things which are morally wrong. For example, if I agree to assist you in torturing your enemy and then have qualms and back out, you do not have a right to my assistance in your act of torture based on the earlier promise I made. Promises and contracts are constrained by other demands of morality – a promise is important, but not strong enough to overcome all other considerations. This means that the creator is limited in what it can demand of its followers (burning witches and persecuting homosexuals is right out).

The only real way to escape the first and second problems is to claim that the commands of the creator are synonymous with morality. Not only is it really odd to draw a logical connection between creating something and being morally right, but the Euthyphro Dilemma shows why this approach is problematic.

So, to conclude, only those adults who consent to the authority of a creator have duties to obey its commands and then only if those commands are to do what it morally permissible to do.  Hopefully, if the infinite creator regress is solved, and a creator being ever does start issuing commands, we now have an idea about how we should respond to it.

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Why should we conserve rhinos?

The question of why we should conserve rhinos popped up on Twitter earlier today. We tend to assume that it’s bad when a species is under threat of extinction, but it’s rare to see any defence of such claims. So what reasons might we have for thinking that poaching rhinos to extinction is bad? Below are five potential reasons why we should preserve a species, using rhinos as an example:

1. Because then there would be no more rhinos for us to enjoy

This reason sees rhinos as instrumentally valuable – they are the means by which we gain enjoyment, much as we would from viewing an aesthetically pleasing artwork or a beautiful sunset. If the loss of rhinos were a bad thing on this ground then we would have to show that there is a particular type of enjoyment that we can only gain from rhinos and which cannot be compensated for from other sources. Maybe there’s a special quality to the enjoyment of watching rhinos that we cannot gain from watching elephants or hippos, but it seems unlikely to me. Not a very strong reason then.

2. Because rhinos fulfil an important role in the ecosystem

Again, this reason views rhinos as instrumentally valuable insofar as they help preserve an ecosystem. Why we might want to preserve an ecosystem may be because we see ecosystems as valuable for their own sake (although I’m not sure what features of an ecosystem we could pick out to that would make it so), or because we judge ecosystems to be important in meeting human (or potentially other animal) needs. If we think the preservation of rhinos is important for ecological reasons, then that importance is contingent on no other animal being able to fulfil the same role in the ecosystem and the ecosystem being unable to adapt to the loss of rhinos. In other words the rhino must be a necessary component of the ecosystem for it’s extinction to be a matter of concern under this reason. Ecosystems are often quite resilient and adaptable, so whether rhinos are necessary in this way is something I’m sceptical of.

Edit: thanks to @AGBear for pointing out that the precautionary principle might apply here. Perhaps we cannot know what the negative consequences of the loss of a species on an ecosystem will be. Because those potential negative consequences might be very high – ecosystems are very complex beasts – we should do our best to preserve endangered species such as the rhino. This argument still doesn’t value rhinos for their own sakes though. Furthermore, the value of the species is also (as above) derived from the role played by individual non-human animals in the ecosystem. I’m also inclined to think that whilst we might not know the precise risks to an ecosystem that the loss of a species carries, we can know with greater or lesser degrees of certainty, and the accuracy of our predictions is likely to increase as numbers of a species decrease and we can see the effects of this decrease. In other words, our lack of perfect knowledge doesn’t provide a knock-down reason for saving a species.

3. Because rhinos fulfil an important economic role in a community

It’s not uncommon to see reference made to the valuable contribution certain wild animals make to poor communities through the attraction of tourists. Here again the reason to preserve a species is instrumental and contingent, this time upon the species being an irreplaceable source of income. That rhinos are the only way a poor community can gain wealth is a pretty strong claim – not one that I’m sure can succeed, so I think that this reason ultimately fails too.

4. Because the destruction of the species involves the destruction of individual members rhinos

Here we come to what I think is a much more plausible claim: the reason to save rhinos from extinction is that extinction involves the death and probable suffering of individual rhinos who are worthy of moral concern for their own sakes. This, of course, is where the argument for animal rights comes in – I’m not going to defend it here, but I think it offers the only truly convincing reason for saving a species, a reason that is derived from the moral status of the individual non-human animals making up that species. Thus, we care about saving rhinos not because we care about whether there are rhinos in the world or not, but because we care about the individual rhinos that do presently exist.

5. Because the species is valuable to individual rhinos

This fifth reason hangs of the fourth: the thought is that if an individual being is worthy of moral consideration for its own sake, and it values its own species, then that species might form part of the individual being’s good. Although I can see how we might see the preservation of a community or a family as important for the reason it plays in a creature’s life, I don’t see how the species can be analogous to the family in a way that is makes sense in this kind of argument. Furthermore, I suspect it will only be a subset of non-human animals that it can be convincingly claimed of that they value their communities. Perhaps the higher apes, dolphins, perhaps elephants etc. So, this reason also looks like it too fails.

The weird thing about the reasons I’ve given above is that the claim about the badness of a loss of a species usually appears to rest not on them, but on an implication that species are intrinsically valuable. That is to say that species are valuable for their own sake and not because of the individual members of the species that make them up. But that claim is very different from the potential arguments I’ve listed above. It seems like we have an intuition that species are intrinsically valuable, but I can’t think of how you might defend this claim convincingly.

Ultimately then, I’m not sure why the destruction of a species counts as a bad thing separate from the loss of the individual members of that species, so I’m minded to conclude that we should focus instead on the plight of individual non-human animals and on their communities.

Anyone got a good argument for the intrinsic value of species?