Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Lamont on the rights of animals, infants, and idiots


Delicious books

Not so long ago @Kantian3, editor of, pointed me at a section of Lamont’s Principles of Moral Agreement that concerns animal rights (thanks Gary). I’d not read Lamont before, but I’d seen him referenced in Feinberg’s influential paper ‘The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations‘ so I picked up a second-hand copy on Amazon for a couple of quid. A few days latter a pleasingly cloth bound copy arrived in the post. I’m glad I followed-up on Gary’s suggestion because Lamont’s short argument (Section 66, Chapter 3) is good.

In Section 66, Lamont engages with W.D. Ross on duties to and regarding non-human animals.i In The Right and the Good Ross argues that we have duties to non-human animals, he thinks also that, since non-human animals are not moral agents and so cannot have duties, they therefore cannot have rights for the same reason. Ross makes the claim that to have a right entails that an agent must be able to claim that right.ii

Lamont responds to Ross’ argument by asking: ‘is it true that the “owning of a right” and the “moving for its enforcement” must be united in the one person?’iii. Lamont answers his own question by pointing to criminal law and the ability of the public prosecutor to enforce the law in spite of the wishes of an individual victim of crime. In such cases victims cannot waive their rights, and have their claims pressed by another. Lamont also writes of the legal powers of guardians to press claims on behalf of their wards (he uses the examples of children and ‘idiots’).iv By denying rights to animals, Lamont thinks that Ross confuses possessing a right with the ability to ‘initiate proceedings for the defence of a right’.v Non-human animals are conative beings with interests that they pursue, and it is this, claims Lamont, that makes them the bearers of legal rights – the inability to press a claim presents no real practical or conceptual barrier to rights

What stuck me about Lamont’s argument with Ross is just how much it pre-empts contemporary debates between Will and Interest theorists of rights, and also just how influential it clearly was on Feinberg’s paper. I certainly recommend reading it – Lamont’s writing is clear and concise, and I’m definitely going to delve further into the book myself.

i I have a duty regarding my dog if I have a duty concerning my dog (such as to keep it on a lead), but which is not owed to it, and I have a duty to my dog if I have a duty which is owed to the dog directly (such as not to treat it cruelly).

ii William D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), 50.

iii W.D. Lamont, Principles of Moral Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946), 83.

iv Ibid., 84.

v Ibid., 85.

vi Ibid.



Animal Rights and the Predation Problem

The latest issue of the Journal for Applied Philosophy contains an excellent article by Ebert and Machan on what’s known as ‘the predation problem’. To summarise; the predation problem is supposed to demonstrate, via reductio ad absurdum, that animals cannot have rights because, if they did, moral agents would be required to defend animals against other animals. One early example of the argument is David G. Ritchie’s 1894 response to Henry Salt:

in our exercise of our power and in our guardianship of the rights of animals, must we not protect the weak among them against the strong? Must we not put to death blackbirds and thrushes because they feed on worms, or (if capital punishment offends our humanitarianism) starve them slowly by permanent captivity and vegetarian diet? What becomes of the “return to nature” if we must prevent the cat’s nocturnal wanderings, lest she should wickedly slay a mouse? Are we not to vindicate the rights of the persecuted prey of the stronger? or is our declaration of the rights of every creeping thing to remain a mere hypocritical formula to gratify pug-loving sentimentalists…(Ritchie 1894, 109–110)

More recently, the reductio has been deployed in a similar fashion by Carl Cohen (Regan and Cohen 2001, 30–31). By and large the response from those arguing for animal rights has been to accept the above reductio. As a result animal rights theorists have shied away from moving from the premise that suffering is bad for non-human animals to the conclusion that they are owed positive duties of aid. Instead, most have adopted an account of positive duties toward humans and negative duties towards other animals (the ‘let be’ approach) (cf. Simmons 2009 for an example). This ‘let be’ approach unfortunately suffers from pretty hefty flaws, not least because it’s often presented in ways inconsistent with many of the premises that the animal rights argument relies upon (such as that there’s no special moral significance to being a member of the human species).

In their recent paper, Ebert and Machan argue that the predation problem leads to the conclusion that we should either reject the concept of animal rights or adopt a ‘libertarian-ish’ theory of animal rights (more on this later). Ebert and Machan are right to contend that the predation problem has not been adequately dealt with in the literature (I’ve had a paper under review on the very subject for a lamentably long time ). They concentrate on work by (and inspired by) Tom Regan. Ebert and Machan correctly identify the flaws in Regan’s claim that; because animals are not moral agents, their harming of other animals is not unjust and therefore doesn’t obligate a moral agent to intervene. As Dale Jameison has pointed out (Jamieson 1990), a rock falling on a moral agent doesn’t constitute an injustice, but that doesn’t imply that someone placed to save that moral agent has no duty to aid if they can. In the case of predation, it’s not injustice that might obligate, but the prima facie duty to prevent harm where we can do so without incurring serious burdens. The problem as I see it is not that this leads to a reductio ad absurdum requiring man to police nature, but rather the connection with the wider theoretical issue of other-defence in cases of innocent attackers. Ebert and Machan also treat the issue as one of innocent threat, something I’ll discuss below.

Predatory animals, not being moral agents, cannot be considered responsible for harms caused to others (just the falling rock is not responsible for crushing the person beneath it). Rather, predators should be considered innocent attackers in a manner to the mind-controlled gun-man or knife-wielding mental patient.. For an animal rights theorist to maintain a consistent position, Ebert and Machan argue that their account will have to have to allow for, or require, the rights of innocent attackers to be violated. So far, I’m in agreement with Ebert and Machan: predatory animals should be considered innocent attackers, just as violent severely cognitively impaired humans, or violent human children should be considered innocent attackers. What innocent victims are permitted to do in their own defence against innocent threats is a difficult problem. Even more problematic is the question of what third-parties are permitted to do in defence of innocent victims under threat from innocent attackers.

Ebert and Machan’s solution is to push for choice-protecting rights for moral agents and interest-protecting rights for moral patients (those lacking moral agency, but worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes), and to suggest that the former include positive duties of aid whilst the latter do not. This is their ‘libertarian-ish’ position – it amounts to a non-speciesist ‘let be’ approach. Despite the attractiveness of their position, this is where Ebert and Machan and I part company, particularly because I’m unprepared to accept that positive duties to children and other human moral patients are of the special associative kind and not because children are valuable for their own sakes.

Instead, I have argued (in my as-yet unpublished paper) that, in cases of innocent threat to innocent victim there are morally relevant factors that can help determine how we should act. These include: whether it clear that the innocent threat initiated the attack and whether the innocent attacker is likely to go on to attack other innocents in the future. Where moral patients are in conflict and where either both parties are innocent attackers or where the attacker is unlikely to seek to harm other innocents in the future, the principle that harming is worse than allowing harm to occur can provide moral agents with a ceteris paribus reason not to intervene. Of course, this still leaves room for special associative duties of aid to moral patients, but it does not rely upon in the way that Ebert and Machan’s position does.

Does this require man to police nature? In my paper I argue that the duty to aid a particular moral patient does not translate either into a duty placed upon a particular moral agent, or into a general duty to bring about a particular situation where no such aggression occurs. This means that we are not required to go off into the wilderness and seek out cases where prey animals are being threatened, but rather that, if we encounter such a case, and are in a position to aid, we should do so (assuming that aiding will not be overly burdensome). Thus, my argument entails that cat-owners are obligated to release the birds that their cats bring home, and that we may be required to shoot lions in defence of the zebras.

Cue angry howls from conservationists!


Ebert, Rainer, and Tibor R. Machan. 2012. ‘Innocent Threats and the Moral Problem of Carnivorous Animals’. Journal of Applied Philosophy 29 (2): 146–159. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5930.2012.00561.x.

Jamieson, D. 1990. ‘Rights, Justice, and Duties to Provide Assistance: A Critique of Regan’s Theory of Rights’. Ethics 100 (2) (January): 349–362.

Regan, Tom, and Carl Cohen. 2001. The Animal Rights Debate. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ritchie, David. 1894. Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions. London: Routledge.

Simmons, A. 2009. ‘Animals, Predators, the Right to Life, and the Duty to Save Lives’. Ethics & the Environment 14 (1): 15–27.


Business Ethics – a plea to ‘keep it simple’ in applied ethics

I’ve been reading a chapter on business ethics (from the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy). What struck me most, much more than the content, was the approach taken. There seems to me to be an unwelcome tendency present in applied ethics: a tendency to stick a discipline name in front of the word ‘ethics’ and then try and over-cultivate it as an academic field. I’ve felt this whilst delving into bioethics, and again, but more so, in business ethics.

Obviously, there are some very interesting problems associated with business ethics, things like:

  • problems of collective decision-making and responsibility;
  • about how to treat different kinds of stakeholders;
  • problems connected with globalisation;
  • how to balance competing duties;
  • the moral status of organisations;
  • and issues to do with behaving ethically when there are free-riders in abundance.

However, none of these issues and problems are restricted to business practices. Rather, they are the kind of problems moral and political philosophers grapple with all of the time in a variety of contexts. What the business ethicist seems to want to do (apologies to you if you are are business ethicist and I’m horribly mis-characterising you), is to develop special business ethics methodologies, frameworks, typologies, and terminologies, which they can illustrate with diagrams and figures. As an example, the chapter I’ve been reading contained one figure illustrating ‘The extended three-level conception of business ethics’, which ‘provides a framework to locate the plural affiliations of the economic actors in the current global context’.

This approach to an ethics sub-discipline looks more than a little forced and unnecessary to me. Part of the reason for this is that there seems to be a blurring between the descriptive and the prescriptive at work. It’s one thing to model how businesses view ethics and implement ethical codes, and to understand the various actors and interactions – that’s a nice empirical sociology project. It’s quite another to make claims about how agents and organisations should behave. In the latter case, all the various frameworks, typologies, methodologies, and terminologies seem much, much less relevant to issues at hand. For sure, in understanding how a business should treat its various stakeholders, it will be necessary to identify those stakeholders and find relevant differences between them, but I think I need convincing that that requires anything particular to the field of business ethics to get our ethical theorising going.

So, this post is my plea for applied ethicists to concentrate on the basics and to cut back on the field-specific frameworks and jargon. Ethical thinking is already complex enough: which moral theory should we adopt, who owes what to whom, how do we deal with conflicting duties, what values do we care about and how do we conceptualise them etc. I’d have thought that the last thing needed is an extra layer of complexity and a new specialist language to learn.


Abortion and Animal Rights

Recently I’ve been thinking about the badness of death, particularly for non-persons. One worry that’s nagged me is that the position I endorse: that there are strong constraints limiting what we may do to animals in order to gain benefits for ourselves, may lead to an anti-abortion position. I confess that I’ve found this troubling, because it clashes with my liberal intuitions. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with abortion, but I’ve considered it an issue where the rights of the woman take priority those of the foetus.

Today, I had some work producing a guided essay plan on the subject of abortion and infanticide and it finally spurred me to sit down and give some proper thought to the problem. Here are the two premises and the conclusion they lead to:

P1. Sentient beings are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

P2. Foetuses are sentient beings.

C1. Therefore, foetuses are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

This means that if you think, as I do, that we have duties not to harm non-human animals then we are also forbidden from aborting foetuses.

C2. If it is wrong to kill non-human animals then it is also wrong to abort a foetus.

Fortunately, taking a short amount of time out of my day to think about the issue carefully revealed that the problem I was worried about doesn’t really exist – my liberal intuitions and my views on duties to non-human animals are actually very simple to reconcile. The reason for this is that not all foetuses are sentient; only late-stage foetuses are. This means that the argument has to be re-formulated as follows:

P1. Sentient beings are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

P2. Late-stage foetuses are sentient beings.

C1. Therefore, late-stage foetuses are worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes.

This reformulation makes it morally wrong, other things being equal, to abort a late-stage foetus, which is pretty much in line with both the law and common-sense morality.

C2. If it is wrong to kill non-human animals then it is also wrong to abort a late-stage foetus.

Note, that if the conclusion is rearranged then non-human animals end up being granted much greater considerabilty they presently are:

C2a. If it is wrong to abort a late-stage foetus then it is also wrong to kill non-human animals.

If you want to refute C2a then you have to find some reason why the late-stage foetus is morally different from a non-human animal with similar levels of sentience. Such attempts often involve placing moral weight on the potential for personhood, making species membership morally relevant, or claiming human life is sacred in some way. Each of these claims requires some serious metaphysical voodoo, and I’ve yet to find anyone argue for their truth remotely convincingly.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way I can get back to reading Fred Feldman’s fascinating entry, ‘Life, death, and ethics’, in the Routledge Companion to Ethics: recommended.

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On Grief and Emotion

Yesterday I learned of the death of a very dear friend. She died very suddenly, and very unexpectedly, and a great gap has been left in the lives of all who knew her well. I’m still stunned, and I certainly don’t feel like doing teaching preparation or reading philosophy right now. Nevertheless, the former has to be done, and the latter might help, so I’m putting aside the anthologies I’ve been working through to read something on the nature of emotions. Hopefully, doing this reading will help put me in the right frame of mind for teaching prep. I’ve chosen to read Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Emotions as Judgements of Value and Importance’ from Thinking about Feeling, edited by Robert Solomon.

Rather poignantly, Nussbaum starts with a poem by Friedrick Ruckert (translated from the German):

Now the sun is going to rise, as bright as
if no misfortune had happened during the night.
The misfortune happened only to me.
The sun sends light our neutrally.

You must not fold the night into yourself.
You must drown in eternal light.
In my tent a small lamp went out.
Greetings to the joyful light of the world.

Already I’m struggling with this, but I’m determined to proceed, and I have this hope that I’ll come to better understand the emotions I’m currently feeling too. I’m a great lover of Nussbaum’s writing, but I’ve never read anything as personal and moving as this work – an essay in which she speaks of her own grief at the death of her mother. Somehow, by chance I’ve selected a reading exploring the very emotions I’m experiencing as I read it.

Nussbaum’s premise is that emotions are a form of judgement about things we value and ‘in which we acknowledge our neediness and incompleteness before those elements we do not fully control’. She contrasts her neo-Stoic view with that of a picture of emotions as ‘unthinking movements’ which push at us in ways we struggle to control. Nussbaum concedes the strength of this view – the death of her mother, like the death of my dear friend, is accompanied by emotions that seem to assail her. The onslaught of emotions leaves us feeling like we are passively and powerlessly trying to weather a storm – an account she compares to that of Seneca. Nevertheless, Nussbaum argues that we should reject this view and adopt her account of emotions as a form of evaluative judgement instead. She gives the following reasons:

1. Emotions have an object: my grief is not mysterious and directionless, it is about the loss of my friend.

2. The object is an intentional object: the loss I feel includes an view of my departed friend as valuable within it. In this way, my emotions are not merely directed, but include an interpretative aspect. Nussbaum writes ‘What distinguishes fear from hope, fear from grief, love from hate—is not so much the identity of the object, which might not change, but the way the object is perceived: in fear, as a threat, but with some chance for escape; in hope, as in some uncertainty, but with a chance for a good outcome; in grief as lost; in love as invested with a special sort of radiance.’

3. Emotions are more than ways of seeing their objects, they also embody beliefs about them: I don’t just see that my friend is gone, I believe that her loss to the world is a permanent and terrible thing. Beliefs are essential to emotions because they help distinguish between them. For example, I may feel sadness and loss, but it is the beliefs that accompany those feelings that makes my emotion identifiable as grief.

4. The beliefs and intentional perceptions characterising emotions are connected to judgements of value. Because I saw my friend as valuable to me, her absence is of extra significance. This value that I placed upon her, and our friendship, helps explain why her death causes me to grieve in a way that the deaths of others do not. I know those others to be valuable also, but their lives and projects are not entwined with mine – they are not partly constitutive of my good.

It’s in this last point that Nussbaum really strikes a chord (and I feel myself welling up again). She writes of how the death of a loved one, because we value that loved one as a constituent of our own happiness, feels like ‘tearing the self apart’.

Nussbaum’s claim is that emotions are a kind of evaluative judgement, that they are the combination of beliefs and perceptions. But, it is possible that these beliefs and perceptions might play a role in emotions without at the same time being those emotions, and so she spends a portion the latter part of her essay assessing (and rejecting) accounts of emotions which take this weaker position. I don’t really have the heart at the moment to go through this section here – it’s very much in the formal philosophical mode, exploring logical connections and testing for validity, and my scattered thoughts are making concentration difficult. Nevertheless, I’m going to push on and work through Nussbaum’s final section, which concerns the Stoic’s account of judgement.

Nussbaum describes judgement as a response to appearance. When something appears to us, we can accept that appearance and thus form a judgement. Or we can reject the appearance with the thought that things are not as they appear and so judge in contradiction to the appearance. Or we can acknowledge how things appear without committing to a view – we can suspend judgement. It is our reason that features in the decision about how to respond to an appearance and accept it as a belief. There were moments when I first heard of my friend’s death, and afterwards when I was thinking about it, that it just didn’t seem real or possible. You ask yourself if it’s a terrible joke, or if someone might be mistaken. How could someone young and vibrant just die all of a sudden? And then you examine the facts and you come to know that, no matter how awful it seems, it is true nonetheless. This is the assent to appearance. I have assented to the appearance the my friend has died, and with that I am plunged into sadness – I cannot believe that she has died and be unmoved, to do so would deny the value I placed upon our relationship.

At this point, Nussbaum begins to bring in the second part of her definition of emotion – that emotions are concerned with ‘vulnerable externalities’. The claim here is that the judgement I have made is concerned with events that I cannot control: the unexpected, the irreversible, the unchangeable. This fact, Nussbaum argues, reveals that we allow our goods to depend upon factors we cannot control – leaving us somewhat at the mercy of external events, and this brings us to Nussbaum’s characterisation of emotions as ‘upheavals of thought’ (the title of her book on the subject of emotions). The functioning of our reason in the experience of emotion is not some cold, dispassionate process – it is ‘an upheaval’. The cognitive act of judgement – the assent to appearance – is the emotion, the upheaval. In terms of grief, Nussbaum writes of the death of her mother:

Internal to the grief must be the perception of the beloved object and of her importance; the grief itself must quantify the richness of the love between us, its centrality to my life. It must contain the thought of her irrevocable deadness.

I’m no scholar of emotions, but Nussbaum’s account certainly seems more appealing and accurate than the one she contrasts it with. But most of all, I’m grateful to Nussbaum for sharing her grief with me: it must have been a hard thing to take the death of her mother as the starting point for academic inquiry and by doing so, she has helped me a little with my own sense of sadness and loss.

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Getting cosy with David Hume

David Hume's ancient face.

Famous quotations please me, and Hume had some clever things to say - so here are a couple of his:
"Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous" and "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence."

I’ve been up to my neck in metaethical texts and readings on political obligation recently, but sadly, none of it’s been part of my reading project. Tonight I’m remedying that with a reading by James Harris on the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume.

One thing I regret about the time spent doing my PhD is that I didn’t spend enough of it reading people like Hume. Since I had no intention of taking more than three years to finish, I became ruthless in my selection of relevant readings (or, rather, I did after year one). My own research is focussed on political theory and applied ethics – so during my PhD questions of moral judgement and motivation, and of human nature, addressed by Hume, didn’t grab my attention. Now that I’ve finished the PhD I’ve been making time to read more widely and more carefully. I’m pleased to have learn (from Harris) that Hume wrote an applied ethics essay ‘On Suicide’, which I’ve now added to my reading list.

I’m conscious already that I’ve yet to give any flavour of what Hume has to say about morality. I’ll remedy that in a moment, but I’m also conscious that so far I’ve violated all of the principles of writing for the web that I took care to follow in my previous incarnation working for ten years as a web developer. So, I’m going to try to keep it simple.

One area I don’t plan to get into is how we should interpret Hume’s words. Harris is forced by the format he’s writing for to discuss different interpretations of Hume’s work. I find disagreements over whether a particular author meant this, that, or the other, pretty tedious. I’d rather know whether the argument revealed by a particular interpretation is a good one, than whether it was an argument genuinely advanced by an author that nobody can ask for verification from in any case.

Nor am I going to discuss the ground-breaking influence Hume had on utilitarianism (the ethical theory that we should act so as to maximise utility, and minimise disutility, where utility is expressed as happiness, pleasure, well-being or some-such, and disutility is expressed as suffering, unhappiness etc.). And I’m not going to write much about his treatment of virtues, despite his thought-provoking claim that virtues can be divided into those whose value is derived from their social utility – promise keeping, allegiance, and justice, and those we accept without reflection – beneficence, generosity, clemency, etc.

Rather, it is Hume’s theory of moral motivation, and the threat it poses to the idea that there can be objective moral truths, that fascinates me most (sadly not discussed in any detail by Harris). The argument below leads to non-cognitivism (the theory that there are no moral properties or moral facts – see:

It starts with two premises:

1. Moral judgements are intrinsically motivating (i.e., if we judge something to be the right thing to do, we are motivated to act by that fact alone and not because we possess a desire or disposition to do what we judge to be right). This is known as moral judgement internalism.

2. Beliefs cannot motivate by themselves, they require additional conative states (desires, emotions, feelings etc) to generate motivation. As an example, take the belief that people in France tend to speak French – this is a true belief, but it doesn’t motivate me to do anything. Similarly, the belief that there is chocolate in the cupboard doesn’t motivate me to eat that chocolate without an accompanying desire, perhaps provoked by hunger, to eat chocolate. Beliefs are subject to tests for truth – it is a matter of truth or falsity that people in France tend to speak French, and that there is chocolate in my cupboard (there isn’t).

Since, if moral judgements are intrinsically motivating, and beliefs are not, the two premises together lead to the conclusion that moral judgements are not beliefs. Furthermore, if moral judgements are not beliefs, then they cannot be true or false, and therefore moral judgements cannot be true.

There are some very good responses to this little argument, which aim to show that moral judgements express propositions (and hence are truth-apt), or that morality can be objective (or at least that its objectivity cannot be ruled out by the argument). Some challenge premise one ( Svavarsdóttir’s written some wonderful stuff), and others premise two (Kant is the paradigm example), but, in the spirit of not over-writing, I’ll leave it to you to investigate for yourself.

Alternatively, you can tear me to bits in the comments section (or Hume, Kant or Svavarsdóttir if you prefer). Hopefully, you’ll at least have seen why I find all of this philosophy malarkey interesting.