Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


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I know I should be vegan, but bacon is sooo tasty…

One of the things vegetarians often hear from meat-eaters is a claim along the lines of ‘Oh, I think I should probably be vegetarian, but I like the taste of meat too much; I couldn’t give it up’. Similarly, vegans often hear a claim from vegetarians about the impossibility of giving up cheese. Do vegetarians and meat-eaters who accept the soundness of the argument for animal rights really mean that they are unable to give up consuming flesh and cheese? If their claim were true, then presumably the old moral rule of ‘ought implies can’ would mean they out not be considered blameworthy because they cannot act otherwise than they do. If we cannot ϕ, then it is not wrong for us not to ϕ.

I’m not convinced this really is a case of ‘cannot’ though. In fact, I’m confident that were a gun pointed at them, veggies and meat eaters would be able to resist the pleasure of consuming animal protein quite easily. In other words, it’s not that they cannot give up meat/bacon/cheese, but that they feel insufficiently motivated to do so. What’s really at work, is that individuals judge the burdens associated with giving up animal products to be greater than the benefits they receive from doing so.

It’s true, there are burdens that go with going vegan: you have to devote more time and effort to shopping, people constantly challenge you about your ethical choices, you are mocked and excluded by society, many cultural practices revolve around killing and consuming animals, it’s impossible to buy a really nice suit, etc.. Good ethical theories are sensitive to the burdens that come with making moral choices. Deontological (rule-based) theories, for example, distinguish between acts that are required, acts that are permitted, and acts that are forbidden. Some acts are morally praiseworthy, but nor required of us; the classic example is the soldier who throws him or herself on a grenade in order to save his or her fellows from the blast. Such an act carries such great burdens, that it cannot be required. Similarly, whilst we may be required to rescue a drowning child if the cost to us is little more than having our shoes ruined, if we cannot swim, or the pond the child is drowning in is filled with crocodiles, then it is too much to require us to act – we may do so, but it would be wrong to force us.

Giving up on causing animals to suffer and die for our pleasure is not analogous to a duty of rescue however. We cannot point to the burdens associated with being vegan as good reasons for continuing to eat meat. In the case of the duty of easy rescue outlined above, the burdens are associated with action rather than inaction. We take on burdens by acting to save another, which is rather different from taking on burdens by ceasing to harm someone. The benefits I might gain by harming another are impermissible benefits, and so they ought not be counted in determining my duties. I cannot cite denial of the pleasure I get from spending money I steal as a burden to be factored-in when considering whether I ought not steal.

It is true that we can sometimes count burdens associated with negative duties (duties to refrain from things) not to harm when considering whether we are required to act in a certain way. If we are forced to chose between killing a loved one or a stranger, we would not be blameworthy if we chose to kill the stranger because it is simply too much to ask that we put aside our love – the burden of doing so would be too high. But using animals is not like this – it is not what’s known as a ‘forced choice’ situation. Rather, we are making a choice causing the death of another for our pleasure and not causing the death of another for our pleasure.

When thinking about whether the burdens we take on are sufficient to overcome a duty to act or refrain from acting, giving up benefits derived from causing harm should not count as a burden. The benefits gained from causing animals to suffer and die for our comfort and pleasure are impermissible benefits, and they therefore ought not count positively in a moral agent’s deliberations about how to act. The claim: “I know I should, but I just can’t” simply isn’t sufficient to excuse wrong-doing in this case. In other words: selfishness is a crappy justification for causing harm.

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Is it wrong to employ skilled immigrants?

This morning I read a tweet by Rupert Read, Green Party transport spokesperson and fellow philosopher:

Rupert Read tweet on immigrationIt’s an intuitively appealing argument and I admit that it’s one I’ve also made in the past: by employing skilled workers from other developing nations, we deprive those nations and thereby harm them. My train journey was dull, so I started to think about the claim a little more, and the more I thought about it, the more the implications disturbed me.

Employing skilled workers from developing nations deprives those countries of the skills they need to develop further. Therefore, employing skilled workers from developing nations harms developing countries. This argument implies that when a community is developed below a certain minimum, it’s wrong for people with skills that could improve the community up to that level to leave it. After all, if it’s wrong for one ‘developed’ nation to employ them, then it seems that would be wrong for any developed nation to employ them. And, if the wrong is connected with the deprivation of a skill, then it is wrong for them to leave and wrong for the country to allow them to leave, so long as the country hasn’t developed to the level of sufficiency and a shortage of skills remains.

One thought might be that a country has a claim on the labour of workers it has helped to train, and therefore it is wrong to leave until the debt incurred in gaining the skills is paid off. But that’s not really what seems to be motivating the argument. It’s not about debt, it’s about harm due to deprivation. This means that so long as there is a skill shortage, a worker ought to remain (or be prevented from leaving), regardless of whether they’ve worked for long enough to pay of social debts connect with obtaining the skills. Meanwhile, people who have obtained skills which the country has no need for, or has a surplus of, do no wrong by leaving their community. Thinking about this made me wonder how we ought to determine which of the people possessing a skill that the community has sufficient of ought to be allowed to leave. Perhaps two people wish to leave, but there is only sufficient skills-base to allow one to go before the skill-level drops below the sufficiency threshold. Ought there be a lottery to see who may leave? Ought the ‘brightest and best’ be required to remain? We might also conclude from this argument that if we have a skill that a developing nation has need of, then we ought to leave our own community and travel there – indeed, according to this argument, we harm those in developing nations if we do not . Lucky for Rupert and I that there isn’t an urgent need for philosophers anywhere.

Effectively, people in developed nations do wrong to leave in search of a better life when doing so deprives their fellows of the skills they possess. The individual has become a means to benefit the community. One then starts to ask how big the community is: would I be wrong to leave my town, or my neighbourhood, if my skills benefit the locality?

All of this is a negative argument against refusing to employ skilled immigrants, and I’m not going to provide any positive claims in an already long blog post, but it does send an Orwellian chill down my spine. One reply might be to say that whilst it may be wrong for people to leave their community whilst they possess a skill it has need of, and it is wrong for another country to employ them, it would be a greater wrong to deprive individuals of their freedom to move and work. We could also argue that individuals have a right to do wrong: it’s wrong for them to leave their community, but they have a right to do so nevertheless; it’s wrong for us to deprive other countries of skills by employing immigrants, but we have a right to be able to do so. I can see something in this claim, but I remain uneasy about it.

Anyway, I’m glad Rupert and Robert gave me something to think about on a boring train-ride. I wish I had all the answers, but moral reasoning continues to be tricky, and unpicking a claim often leads to a whole host of new questions to answer. Perhaps I shall ponder some more on the return journey!