Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


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Animal experimentation and the lie of ‘high welfare standards’

Yesterday the Medical Research Council (MRC) released a press story boasting that ‘animals used in research are provided with the highest standards of care and welfare.’ The ricidulousness of this statement should be plain to anyone with half a brain, but sadly it’s a pervasive myth that animals are treated ‘humanely’ and to high welfare standards.

To have high welfare standards means to look after an animal’s wellbeing. Seriously harming a being is not compatible with wellbeing: it’s simply incoherent to claim that you are providing high welfare standards whilst causing harm. Similarly, to be humane is to show compassion or benevolence: causing severe harm is not compatible with showing compassion or kindness.

The science industry cuts up live animals, it gives them diseases and disabilities, it breeds them with terrible conditions, it inflicts chronic pain, and it makes them suffer physically and psychologically. None of those things are compatible with high welfare and nor are they humane.

The cognitive acrobatics required to believe that seriously harming an animal is compatible with high welfare standards are impressive, but the MRC is kidding itself and lying to us. By all means, argue that the harms are permissible, or that they are necessary (I happen to disagree, but that’s an entirely separate argument), but the lie that animals are treated humanely or with regard to their wellbeing is so absurd a lie that it really ought to stop.

This is the reality of Britain’s ‘high welfare standards': https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=jIMDUEEIlII


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Occupy & the right to free education

As I write this, a group of students are occupying a cafe in the Sheffield student union building and are demanding, among other things, ‘free education’. Lots of people think we ought to have a free education, and that the state ought to redistribute wealth in order to pay for it; I’m inclined to agree. The students aren’t really campaigning for free education though. After all, they’ve already had around fifteen years of free education offered or provided to them by the state. No, what the students want is ‘more free education’, paid for through redistributive taxation. Whilst there might well be a strong case for some free education, I don’t think the case for a right to eighteen years of it is self-evident.

What sorts of justifications are there for a right to free education? The strongest reason, I think, is the sort of argument made by J.S. Mill: in order for us to live decent human lives we need to be free. Freedom, for rational agents, requires being able to make choices and pursue life plans and in order to do this we need sufficiently developed rational capacities. Education helps us become sufficiently good reasoners and gives us sufficient knowledge to evaluate our choices, so it is necessary to enable us to be properly autonomous. In other words, education is a necessary condition acting autonomously and so being free.

Another good reason for thinking we ought to provide free education, is that education is a social good. A society of uneducated people is likely to be worse than a society of educated people, and we all benefit from universal education. Therefore, society ought to pay for education.

Both of these are good reasons, but it’s not clear to me that either fully justifies free higher education. We might ask how much education is necessary for us to be able to reason and evaluate choices? The answer is probably not eighteen years worth. What higher education almost certainly does is make us better at those things, but that doesn’t mean that we have a right to it. If I have a right to sufficient food to live a minimally decent life, it doesn’t mean I have a right to enjoy gourmet food or enough food that can barely move for having stuffed myself. Presumably we don’t we think we ought to have a right to as many years of free education as we wish?

However, it is true that higher education provides a social good: we are better off as a society for the presence of trained doctors, engineers, chemists, creative artists, programmers, therapists, architects, and so forth. The social good of higher education comes at a cost: money has to be redistributed to those currently in education. That means that those not in higher education are likely to be paying for those enjoying it. Perhaps this would be OK if all in higher education contributed positively to the social good, and if all in society benefited equally from it, but they don’t. Some higher education produces more social good than other higher education (although which subjects produce most, and by how much is an almost impossible question to answer). Recipients of higher education simply don’t contribute equally. Nor does everyone in society benefit equally from it. Partly, this is because higher education is also a private good: having a degree increases earning potential. If education is free, it may well mean that my local postman is having his earnings taxed in order to pay for the education of someone studying to become a banker (boo hiss!). That doesn’t seem fair to me.

It seems to me that the first reason supplied means that we ought to have a right to free education up until the point that we are regarded as autonomous adults. Given that higher education is a public good, it also seems to me that the state should contribute towards its cost. However, since higher education is also a private good – one that not everyone is able to avail themselves of, and in the interests of fairness, the individual should also contribute towards its cost. Since some education is more of a public good than others, perhaps the state should contribute variable amounts depending upon the subject. In practice, determining comparative social goods may well be too complex to do this in many cases – but it might be an argument for greater or lesser subsidy in clear cases. More money for nursing, less for the study of air-guitar!

It’s for these reasons that I will not be accepting the polite invitation sent to me earlier today to provide free seminars to the occupying students.


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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!


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Can men spot misogyny?

Earlier today a lovely friend of mine shared this picture in response to an objectionable arse who was trying to deny that women suffer oppression in all sorts of ridiculous ways – many of which constituted a flat-out refusal to accept the reality of women’s lived existences.
Men don't get to decide what is misogynistic.

That guy was clearly wrong to deny that women suffer from sexism, misogyny and injustice. However, the response, although common and very popular, was also wrong. We can see how wrong it is by looking at what it is premised upon and what it leads us to conclude.

  • Only Ps get to decide if Ps are suffering injustice.

This claim is made on the basis of the fact that Ps know what they experience, but other people do not. If a P claims that they suffer injustice, and a Q denies it, then the Q is wrong because they lack access to the standpoint that the P comes from. Thus:

  • Only Ps can know if Ps are suffering injustice.

And:

  • If you are not a P, then you cannot know if a P is suffering an injustice.

If a P claims to be suffering injustice, then a Q must either accept their claim or remain agnostic; the Q cannot deny it unless another P says that Ps are not suffering an injustice. But then the Q cannot know which P is correct. If Ps disagree about whether they suffer injustice then Qs can only ever remain agnostic. If Ps can disagree about whether Ps suffer injustice, then it seems like:

  • Ps can be wrong about whether they suffer injustice.

At the same time:

  • Only a P can know if a P is wrong about suffering injustice.

So, if a P says that they suffer injustice, a Q knows that that P may be wrong, but cannot know whether they are wrong. At the same time, the Q would be wrong to say that either of the Ps is wrong about it. If another P says that the first P is wrong, then Q knows that it’s possible that either of them could be wrong, but that it would be wrong to agree with either. If Ps can be wrong about injustice, and Qs have no way of knowing whether Ps are wrong or right when they claim to be suffering injustice, then, even if all Ps agree that they suffer injustice, Qs cannot know that they do and can neither agree nor disagree with their claim. To me, this seems ridiculous.

I can see why people make the argument: women feel oppressed (because they are oppressed), but then someone says that they aren’t oppressed, and the natural response is to say ‘I know how I feel, how dare you tell me how I feel! ’ This is because being oppressed is often accompanied by feeling oppressed, and denying oppression seems like it also denies feeling, and we can’t be wrong about how we feel. But, people can be oppressed without feeling oppressed (they might not know that they are oppressed for example), and people can feel oppressed without being oppressed (they can be mistaken about being treated unjustly). The claim can also be: ‘You haven’t experienced what I have, therefore you don’t know what I do.’ – which is also true; we none of us experience what others experience. However, the fact that only we experience what we experience doesn’t make us infallible about moral claims connected with those experiences. Nor does it mean that other people can’t observe the experiences of others and correctly make moral claims about those experiences. I may not be Jewish, but I know that that the horror, indignity, and injustice written about by Primo Levi in If This is a Man was wrong, and if I met a Jew who denied the wrongness of the Holocaust I’d have no hesitation in disagreeing with him or her.

Effectively, the kind of argument I’m addressing here entwines with the subjectivist approach that says morals statements are simply statements about feelings, and we cannot be wrong about our feelings. This means that when someone says: ‘Killing is wrong’, they are really saying ‘I disapprove of killing’. Thus, when two people disagree, they are really disagreeing about how they feel, not about whether killing is wrong. We can’t be wrong about our feelings, therefore we are infallible when we make moral claims, and, what is more, we cannot disagree (so long as we sincerely report our feelings). The upshot of this kind of moral reasoning is that when someone says: ‘P say is being treated wrongly’ their statement must be true, and when someone else says ‘P is not being treated wrongly’ their statement must also be true. One is saying ‘I approve of this treatment’ the other is saying ‘I disapprove of this treatment’, but they have no basis for argument or disagreement – people can have different feelings without their being any contradiction. But, when I say ‘women are systematically treated unjustly because of their sex’ I am not expressing mere feeling, I am making a claim that women are treated wrongly regardless of whether anyone else feels differently. Simple subjectivism just doesn’t capture moral argument; we aren’t infallible when it comes to making moral statements, and we do disagree about moral claims.

Bottom line – guys denying clear injustice against women are wrong. They are factually wrong, and they are usually morally wrong too. Responding to their wrongness with unsound arguments based on subjectivism is a mistake. Doing so is actually counter-productive to the cause of advancing justice: how do we stop men from behaving unjustly, or dismantle patriarchal structures if men cannot know that injustice occurs?

Edit: it was remiss of me not to link to a couple of excellent related blog posts:


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Why calling ‘False Consciousness’ is dangerous and unreasonable

One of the things marks out a liberal democratic political community is that it’s presaged on the idea of the moral equality of members of the community. One way that a citizen shows his or her commitment to equality is by giving reasons to other moral agents. Political decisions must be justified to the citizenry; to enact them without the giving and receiving of reasons would be to act in a paternalistic manner and thus constitutes a denial of equality. Similarly, when citizens of a largely just liberal democracy engage in civil disobedience, they must express their reasons for doing so. They must do so in order to demonstrate that they act in ways which show fidelity to democratic principles and the rule of law. If the civil disobedient does not act civilly, by offering her reasons, then she behaves in a way which places her preferences above the rule of law and so expresses a belief in her superiority over others (cf. Rawls). In other words, if I am willing to breach or enact laws which constrain you, and I don’t think I ought to offer you a reason (one which is intelligible to you) or give consideration to counter-reasons you might have, then it cannot be that I regard you as an equal citizen. Such a person is willing to unilaterally impose their will upon others, and a willingness to impose views on others like this is incompatible with a belief that you and they are owed equal consideration. If you don’t think the views of others count, whilst yours do, then you are rejecting the principle of democratic equality.

The moment that someone believes that another agent suffers from false conscious, then they risk denying the equality of citizens. If someone believes that another suffers from false consciousness, then they can discount any reasons the other gives. The agent believes that they have special access to the truth, which others do not. Once you have special access to the truth, by being part of the Marxist Vanguard, by possessing faith, by being situated in the correct Standpoint, etc, then your reasons automatically count and another’s can automatically be discounted. The principle of equal consideration goes out of the window. Those suffering from capitalist false consciousness, Privilege, a lack of faith, etc. simply don’t have to be listened to: any disagreement can be put down to their lack of access to the truth. The only way to prove that you don’t suffer from false consciousness is to wholeheartedly agree with the one who believes that you suffer from it. Effectively, you are regarded as fallible, and they as infallible. This kind of thinking can easily provide a justification for them to impose their will upon you (this is the sort of problem that Isaiah Berlin worried about in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ when he spoke of the slide into totalitarianism).

It is for these reasons that deploying an argument that your opponent is wrong because they suffer from some form of false consciousness risks being profoundly patronising and obnoxious. It leads to a strand of unpleasant anti-democratic fundamentalism. What’s worrying is how prevalent cries of false consciousness are in contemporary (esp. online) debates. Instead, we should engage with others under the acceptance of what Rawls referred to as ‘the burdens of judgement.’ That is, we should accept that we are fallible beings with imperfect reasoning ability and imperfect access to the truth, and that reasonable people in possession of the same sets of facts can reasonably come to different conclusions.


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Inequality in the UK

I read some interesting facts about inequality in the UK today, including the alarming fact that the UK is the fourth most unequal country for income distribution in the OECD and most unequal in Europe (although, interestingly levels of wealth inequality are comparatively low). That’s pretty bad. However, when I looked at the list of countries with lower income inequality than the UK, I quickly realised that I’d rather be at the bottom of the UK income bracket than in many of the countries that do better than us.

Inequality is a good indicator of a problem, but it’s not necessarily what really matters. What matters more is well-being, and whilst inequality is certainly an important contributing factor for well-being, its not everything.

The UK is fourth worst in the OECD for income inequality and the worst in Europe, but it also ranks well for quality of life. The US rates worse than the UK for inequality, but better for quality of life. Russia ranks better than the UK for inequality, but much, much worse for well-being. As an alternative to the OECD’s Better Life Index, you can also check out the Social Progress Index (we rank pretty well in that too). The OECD also provide a really interesting tool for viewing regional well-being, that too casts a different light on the inequality figures.

Inequality isn’t bad for its own sake, it’s bad because it can indicate or contribute to other things which are bad: poverty, social stigma, ability to influence political community etc. So, whilst it’s bad that we have high levels of various types of inequality compared to other developed countries, the UK is actually good place to live and we ought to think carefully about whether the measures being used to support various arguments tell the whole story.

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