Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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The Animal Court: animal ethics and political theory in 18th century Japan

animal court coverI’ve been doing so preliminary research into Japanese approaches to animal and environmental ethics. In many respects this has been something of a frustrating exercise. However, along the way I’ve discovered The Animal Court by Ando Shoeki, which is proving a real pleasure to read (my copy is a translation by Jeffrey Hunter). Shoeki’s work, written in the 18th century, is a rather biting satire directed at Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism. The book recounts various discussions held in each of the animal kingdoms (birds, beasts, crawling creatures, and fish), where the animals discuss how awful humans are. In one passage, he likens the Nichiren Buddhists to the Bird of Paradise, who says ‘I eat nothing but air, and do nothing but fart.’ Ouch.

Shoeki’s work is interesting for a political theorist and animal ethicist because, woven into the story, are interesting bits of normative moral philosophy (although his metaphysics is utterly bonkers). In the first chapter, he criticises the three religions above for depending upon exploitative labour relations and for exhibiting vices of greed, selfishness, and ignorance. And, he makes a claim, reminiscent of social contract theorists, that humans are born equal and thus no one possesses a natural right to rule: ‘among humankind there are no divisions into superior and inferior, noble and lowly, rich and poor.’ The three religions, he writes, have created social structures that have moved people away from their naturally virtuous selves, making them behave as animals and live in exploitative hierarchical structures. Here, I was reminded of Rousseau’s theory of human nature. Within the chapter are claims about the wrongness of inequality (because it brings suffering and exploitation), and about the badness of wars (with an implicit claim that those outside of national borders are worthy of moral concern). There’s even a notion of false consciousness sitting alongside the complaints about exploitation (only a century before Marx).

The chapter finishes by claiming that people who capture and keep millions of birds are evil. He writes: ‘What can they be thinking that they fail to understand how it would feel if they were put in the cage, if their wife and children were put in cages, and taken to be sold! No, they do not deserve to be regarded as human beings.’ In other words, to be human is to be able to empathise with non-human animals and treat them with respect and compassion.

Shoeki wasn’t exactly influential in Japanese ethical thought, which is a shame, but he provides a promising vein of thought to draw upon for contemporary theorising. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book..

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Poltical philosophy ought to feature in all politics courses

Today I had a very brief, but interesting, chat with some colleagues who teach on an introductory unit on international politics. Our discussion centred around teaching about security, terrorism, and piracy. That chat really brought home to me both how different theoretical perspectives inform teaching, and how very important political theory is across the broad spectrum of politics.I was interested, since my own research explores political violence and the issue of terrorism, on whether they did any conceptual work on terrorism. It turns out that this is not covered with the students at all, despite terrorism being a centre of discussion over several weeks.

One reason for the lack of conceptual analysis was concern that any attempt to conceptualise terrorism necessarily requires us to lay out the terms of acceptable violence. Obviously, I thought, but why would this be a bad thing? None of the people in the discussion were committed pacifists, we all thought that violence was sometimes justified and that some reasons for violence were better than others. Yes, it’s important to understand what’s at stake when doing conceptual work, but that shouldn’t make us fearful of doing it at all.

Another reason was that conceptualising terrorism made its meaning conform to the wishes of whichever dominant force was busy defining it. Better to not define the term at all (with the risk of allowing it to mean almost anything!) Again, a notion I found odd since my own work demonstrates that it’s important to define what counts as necessary and sufficient conditions for the correct ascription of the term precisely so as to prevent it being defined in accordance with a narrow political or social agenda. If a term is allowed to mean whatever an individual wants it to mean, then there really isn’t any scope for disagreement about what is or isn’t terrorism (we’re into subjectivism and the dominant power can say what it likes).

Anyway, the point I wanted to make in this post, is that teaching politics without ever discussing the features of concepts like terrorism risks students walking away without engaging in critical analysis or rigorous and examination of a topic. Do we really want students absorbing knowledge without reflecting on it or coming to a considered view of their own? Political theory – analytic political philosophy – needs to be embedded, even if only lightly, across the politics syllabus because words and concepts do have meanings, and understanding them helps us distinguish between facts and states of affairs both for our empirical research, and in order to make normative judgements about them.

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Post-doc position in animal studies, Queen’s University Canada

Queen’s University in Canada is currently advertising the post-doc position below – it’s a great opportunity for scholar interested in animal studies to work with Will Kymlicka (who’s asked me to publicise the postdoc). Last year’s fellow was Zipporah Weisenberg – you can see details of her research here:


The Department of Philosophy at Queen’s University invites applications for the Abby Benjamin Postdoctoral Fellowship in Animal Studies. This is a one-year non-renewable 12-month fellowship. The successful applicant will have a demonstrated expertise in animal ethics, law and public policy, show evidence of teaching potential, and be able to participate constructively in departmental and collegial activities. While we interpret animal ethics, law and public policy broadly, and welcome applications from various disciplines that study human-animal relations including political science, law, philosophy, sociology, geography, and environmental studies, we are looking in particular for research that critically examines the moral, legal and political dimensions of how human-animal relations are governed. A recipient of the Fellowship is expected to reside in Kingston, to teach a University course in animal studies, and to collaborate in developing initiatives related to the promotion of the analysis and understanding of animal rights (such as workshops, conferences, public lectures, etc.) The Fellow will work under the supervision of Prof. Will Kymlicka. The 2014-15 fellowship will start on July 1, 2014. Applicants must have submitted their doctoral dissertation by that date, and must be within five years of having received their doctorate. The salary for the postdoctoral fellowship will be $40,000, which includes remuneration for teaching a half-course in animal ethics or a cognate subject. Applications are due by February 1st, 2014. The fellowship is one of several new initiatives regarding Animals in Philosophy, Politics, Law and Ethics at Queen’s. For more information, visit, or contact Prof. Kymlicka (

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Bio-plastic, meat consumption, & global warming

If you listened to Costing the Earth on Radio 4 this afternoon, you will have caught an interesting program about the environmental problem of plastics, together with some creative solutions to those problems. Right at the end of the programme, there was a discussion about whether plastics and fuels produced from plants are a viable alternative to ones produced from fossil oil. The conclusion was that they are not.

Plastic production is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, plastics themselves make up a huge amount of our waste and hang around taking-up masses of space in landfill for a very, very long time indeed. So, there’s a pressing need to use less plastic created from fossil fuels.

Why then did the academic interviewed at the end of the programme claim that plant-based biodegradable plastics are not a viable alternative to fossil-fuel-based plastics? The reason he gave is that the amount of meat in diets is increasing, which in turn requires more land to grow food crops for the animals we are eating. Because of this, he argued, we can’t afford to give up agricultural land to grow plants for plastic production or bio-fuels.

It’s true that the amount of land required to sustain diets including meat is much greater than what’s required for a vegetarian/vegan diet (and much more environmentally damaging). But the alternative solution he proposed to the plastic problem shocked me because of the lack of how badly he’d failed to think about the issue critically.

His argument was that rather than grow crops for plastic and fuel production, which is we can’t do because we are using the land for meat production, we should use less plastic.

Well, of course we should use less plastic! But one wonders how he didn’t also conclude that we should also eat less meat? In fact, it looks likely that it’s more efficient to eat less meat than use less plastic! If we ate less meat we would have lots more land available for growing biofuels and creating biodegradable plant-plastics. What’s more, the pressure on land would be less, so the chance of sustainable biofuels being grown would be higher (biofuels are often currently being produced in environmentally damaging ways because of the pressure on land use).

It’s quite sad that the (ab)use of animals is so embedded in our culture that clever, educated people cannot even contemplate not eating meat, even when doing so is a really obvious solution to an incredibly serious threat to us all.


Is biodiversity valuable?

Coral reefThe other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

The other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability of living things. But, what is it about variety and variability that is valuable?

First, it seems strange, at least to me, to think that we can create or increase value by making things less alike and/or producing more of them. Conversely, similarity and rarity don’t seem intuitively disvaluable (indeed, rarity can increase the value of many things).

Second, claiming that biodiversity is valuable leads to difficult questions. For example: do types of species matter: are a few more complex species (in terms of genetic material) more valuable in their contribution to biodiversity than a great variety and number of simple organisms? These sorts of problems cause me to question that biodiversity is valuable for its own sake.

Imagine a modern-day Dr. Moreau destroys all living creatures on an island, places a dome over the island and populates it with a new ecology of his own fiendish bioengineered creation. Imagine further that the variety and variability of the organisms that Dr. Moreau’s clone creates is greater than what had been there before. To say that the crazed doctor’s creation is potentially more valuable than the lifeforms it replaced is rather counter-intuitive (although a utilitarian would likely simply reject this intuition). But, why would whether organisms were created by man matter for the value of variety or variability?

It’s more plausible to think that biodiversity is valuable in terms of the benefits it brings for the organisms that comprise it: it instrumental value. However, there are a huge mass of complex problems that accompany this thought too. Members of ecosystems interact dynamically; they prey upon one another, compete for resources, may have varying moral value of their own and so forth. This means that the value of biodiversity will be different depending upon whether you are the one being eaten by another organism or the one doing the eating, and it will be constantly changing. Thus, is seems impossible to place a value on biodiversity that is not qualified in some way with details of the point of time it is valuable and the entity for which it is valuable. This doesn’t seem all that controversial, but it doesn’t appear to map to the ordinary way in which we talk of the importance of biodiversity. We don’t think ‘today biodiversity is valuable for clams, lions, and humans, tomorrow it may be valuable for thrushes, the flu virus, and banana trees.’ Nor does that description of the value of biodiversity appear all that interesting.

What’s more, returning to our Dr. Moreau clone above: what if not all of functions of the engineered ecosystem were fulfilled by living things? Perhaps our doctor has replaced many of the trees with carbon absorbing fakes? It would seem here that reducing the variety of living things reduces the number of potential conflicts whist preserving the instrumental value of the ecosystem to those remaining organisms. Why would that be a worse state of affairs than a greater variety of living things engaged in more competition?

The sorts of reasons given above cause me to question whether biodiversity is valuable either intrinsically (for its own sake) or instrumentally. Two ways to solve these problems would be either to adopt a speciesist ethic and value biodiversity solely in terms of its values to humans, or to deny the value of individual organisms and adopt something like Leopold’s land ethic. Neither of those two options is terribly appealing to me, so I’m initially minded to just reject the claim that biodiversity is valuable entirely. It’s certainly an interesting topic to return to.

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Measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

When I first started this blog I needed a pretext to get writing. I forced my self to write by working through a few of those big philosophy books we all buy and then only read snippets of, and then writing reflections on those readings. I learned a lot doing this, but it turned out that writing summaries of other people’s summaries wasn’t all that interesting. I chose the blog’s title (The Thrifty Philosopher) on the basis that I was making good use of the things picking up dust on my bookshelf. I’d like to spend more time writing about my research, my teaching, and current affairs, so I think it’s time to change the name. I also need a full-time job (I’m having to be far too thrifty with more than just my book collection for my own liking right now), so I’m going to advertise myself whilst doing my best to live the life of theõria.

The strapline is from a quote from Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca: ‘measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun. Seneca was a cosmopolitan and his quote entreats us to give ethical consideration to all humans regardless of national boundaries. Seneca wasn’t just a cosmopolitan, he was also a vegetarian (at least until he feared people would think that made him a Christian and so persecute him for it). Given that I’ve written on a cosmopolitan approach to animal rights the quote seems fitting: you can read my paper on a cosmopolitan animal rights theory here: Perpetual Strangers: Animals and the Cosmopolitan Right.