Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Changes to the English Literature GCSE will stunt our children’s imagination.

I recently attended an evening at my eldest son’s school to discuss his GCSE options. At that evening I learned that the English literature GCSE will from next year only contain plays, novels, poetry, and prose written by English authors (I’ve since discovered a couple of Scots on the list). My initial response was to be shocked, disappointed, and a bit disgusted. It seemed to me that such a selection seemed profoundly parochial and marked an insular, nationalistic attitude of closed-minded superiority. There’s a vast body of brilliant English-language literature from across the world – to rule out anything written by an Irish, Australian, Canadian, American, African, Caribbean, or an Indian author (for starters) is a bizarre decision and leaves an impoverished curriculum.

The effects of a decision like the one taken on English Literature are wide ranging. It is through literature, poetry, and art that we cultivate the imagination. Cultivating the imagination is hugely important in order to promote flourishing citizens and human progress. When we reason on both moral and non-moral matters, we do so by constructing mental representations of alternate scenarios. We imagine how things might be, or how they might have been. We imagine and compare potential outcomes in order to evaluate them. We look back on the past and consider what might have been done differently; on the basis of this we make judgements about praise or blame, shame or pride. When we imagine the sort of world we want to live in, we construct our imagined endpoint and our route to travel to it using a set of imaginative building blocks. It’s hard to imagine things out of nowhere – we must rely upon what we know to some degree, combining elements and making new things from them. Think of the way mythical creatures like the unicorn, hippogriff, dragon, Pegasus etc. – those beings are constructed out of elements we already have access to. In much the same way, we reason about how society ought to be by drawing upon the experiences we have. These we draw from our history and culture. We also use our imagination when we experience sympathy for the plight of others. When we see another suffering, we imagine how we would feel were we in their shoes, and if we judge that we too would suffer then we sympathise. Our sympathetic imagination creates a connection that allows us to recognise the humanity in others.

The decision to limit the GCSE curriculum marks the stamp of the conservative mindset on education. It marks the conservative belief that the persistence of historical practices is evidence that they are good or right, and the belief that there is a special value in place-bound communities. Conservatives encourage the study of literature in order to instil respect for the history of a place and its culture. The change to the GCSE limits the range of possible worlds our children can imagine and the set of experiences of others that they can access. By limiting the range of literature to material written only on the shores of England and Scotland, the government stunts the ability of our children to exercise their imagination and thus to develop their powers of reasoning, sympathising, and becoming good moral agents.

On the surface, a change to the scope of the literature taught to our children is a small thing, but its potential impact when combined with other social and policy influences is extremely troubling. Those of us who are parents and guardians have a duty to broaden the imagination of our children by introducing them to the lives and experiences of others from outside of our borders. With that in mind, I’d welcome any suggestions readers might have.


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Taking offence, and the limits of sympathy

On Another's Sorrow, William Blake

From ‘On Another’s Sorrow’, by William Blake

A discussion amongst friends has caused me to tie together some threads in a couple of papers I’ve written recently, and to think about how we ought to respond to when we upset others. I’m particularly interested in how we should respond when the upset another feels is unjustified, and in whether we ought to feel sympathy towards them nevertheless.

Sympathy is an important and interesting emotion. It functions to make another’s unhappiness our own. When we see another distress, we imagine ourselves in their shoes. If our imagined feelings match those of the object of our imagination, then we are in sympathy with them. The belief that we would suffer similarly were we in their shoes leads to a judgement that their distress is therefore bad. Sympathy is thus an evaluative emotion.1

One interesting question is how we ought to respond to the unhappiness that we judge to be unwarranted. This sort of upset is prevalent in debates about how we ought to treat people who are offended by what we say, even though we think we have every right to say the words that have upset them. How should we feel about people who are upset by a picture of the Prophet, or because they have misinterpreted an innocent or well-meaning comment as an insult? Often, our response to upset that we judge to be unwarranted is hostility. “Stop taking offence!” we say, “it’s not my fault if you’re offended by my words.”

When we imagine ourselves in the other’s shoes we sometimes conclude that if we them then we would feel upset. But we may also take with us the belief that their reason to feel upset is wrong. When we decide that the other’s upset is ill-fitting then our sympathy evaporates. We no longer feel the other’s pain because we judge it to be the wrong response to circumstance.2 Perhaps this is wrong though.

Sometimes the cause of an agent’s distress is good for them (such as when I make a trip to the dentist), and sometimes it is deserved (such as when a criminal looses his liberty). But there are also cases where an agent may suffer distress as a result of the exercise of another’s agency in ways that are bad for the agent, but where no wrong is done to them. Such cases may occur when a person’s identity is bound up in a mistaken or unfalisifiable belief. When that belief is challenged, the agent feels a threat to their sense of self. Although the distress felt is unjustified it is no less hard-felt just because it is grounded in a mistaken belief. Because of this, the agent’s distress remains bad for them.

It is for this reason that I think that our sympathy should not be restricted to those whose distress is based on true beliefs. We ought to feel compassion towards those we offend, even if our intention was not to cause offence, or if offence was unavoidable, or if the reason for taking offence is bad.

That isn’t the whole of the story however. Just because we feel sympathy for the other does not mean that we ought to be motivated to end their distress or to act differently. That the other’s distress is bad for them does not imply a duty to change the state of affairs or even that it would be right to do so. For one thing, the avoidance of upset may impose wrongful costs on a third party, or it might require the restriction of rights. Rather, I want to claim that insensitivity to the offence or distress caused to another, even if they were wrong to be offended, is a moral failing. To care nothing for another’s distress unless that distress is truly unwarranted shows a lack of humanity. Although it wrongs nobody, it can be taken as evidence of bad character.

One last puzzle remains. How ought we feel when confronted by someone who is upset by a rightful act? What of the person who claims offence because a wicked belief or practice of theirs has been challenged? When we sympathise with another, we recognise the value within them: we acknowledge that because their suffering matters to them, it matters also to us, and indeed should matter to all. It seems to me that a truly good person would not remain indifferent to the distress of another even if that distress is deserved. A truly good person would find that the strength of their compassion overcomes indifference (or pleasure) in a wrong-doer’s distress. This is because, an agent retains inherent value in spite their actions or character.

Whilst there ought to be no limits to the extent of our compassion, there are limits on how it should motivate us to act. Compassion may always be a fitting response to distress even if action to avoid or alleviate that distress is not. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we ought not be motivated to act in any ways when confronted with ill-fitting distress. It could be that respecting the moral status of the other requires us to express some form of regret or sympathy. Of this, I remain unsure.

1See Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 302.

2See D. D. Raphael, The Impartial Spectator (Oxford University Press, 2007), 14–15.


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’:

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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.


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!