Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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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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Anatomy of a terrible social sciences paper

For various reasons I’ve been reading a considerable number of social sciences papers broadly falling within the fields of global political economy, human geography, sociology, and political science. A disappointingly large number of these papers have been so astonishingly woeful I’ve begun to doubt the value of peer review. On the plus side, that also means that publishing is must be easier than many people think. As a public service, I thought I’d lay out how you too might write in a way that seems popular right now. Maybe it will help you get published too.

1. Begin with the claim that gender, race, or class has been insufficiently analysed as a factor relevant to the understanding of X. With luck, this will be the first paper on the subject of X that your reader has read, so they won’t know just how many papers in the field make the same claim.

2. Pepper your paper with undefended normative claims. Treat egalitarianism is self-evidently synonymous with justice. Assume egalitarianism means equal distribution of resources.

3. Anthropomorphise any structural elements of your analysis in order to attribute intentions and agency to class, global capitalism, liberalism or whatever.

4. In the mid-point of your paper, reveal yourself as a Marxist. Whatever factor you initially identified as under-analysed turns out to really be the material base of global capitalism.

5. Assert that neo-liberalism is terrible. Leave a definition of neoliberalism and argument for your claim for another day.

6. Surprise! In your conclusion, include an utterly unsignposted and unexpected new claim, but, don’t bother to really justify it.

7. Finish with a request for funding in the form of an assertion that more analysis is needed. Of course more analysis is needed, the one made in the paper is terrible.

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Patriotic Purchasing: is there a duty to buy British?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the calls politicians and other public figures often make; that we should “Buy British!”. I can think of circumstances where it might be a good thing to purchase on patriotic grounds: for example, it might have all sorts of good consequences (economic, environmental, community-forming etc), or it might express the virtue of loyalty. It’s in this vein that Boris Johnson and Nick Clegg made the statements below in 2012 and 2009 respectively.

“Imagine if we all bought English wine, as well as British beef and British milk. Imagine if every government-funded function were refreshed with English wine, rather than Chilean cabernet sauvignon. Think of the boost for jobs and growth in the wine sector in this country. Think of the difference to the balance of trade – now about as bad as it has been in our lifetimes. Think of the difference to this country’s prospects if – ceteris paribus – we bought British.”

“economic recovery starts at home. Consumers should be proud to Buy British – and buy local – particularly at a time of recession.”

What I’ve been wondering however, is not whether it might be good to buy British, but whether we might be morally required to purchase patriotically.

Initially, I thought it pretty obvious that we can’t possibly have duties to buy stuff off our fellow citizens just because they are our fellows. In fact, the thought that we might ever have a duty to buy something full stop is intuitively implausible. Unless, of course, we’ve specifically made an agreement to do so by signing a contract or making a promise. None of us has made an agreement to buy British goods though.

However, I’m beginning to think that there are at least a few possible arguments that can be made. I’m not yet sure they are strong arguments, but they are at least a start and I won’t be sure of my position until I’ve found the strongest arguments for and against.

One thought is that purchasing from compatriots might be a way to fulfil an imperfect duty to them. If we have duties to protect and promote the well-being of others, then a way we could fulfil that duty is by buying from them. Perhaps my neighbour’s business is struggling, and I know that he’s invested everything in it – his shop is a central component of his conception of the good life. Richard Dagger has argued that we have a duty to protect and promote the ability of others to lead an autonomous life.1 Knowing that the success of his business is important to his being able to exercise his autonomy, I persuade my other neighbours to shop with him and in doing so his business survives and we all fulfil our duties.

I think this argument works, but what it doesn’t do is show that a) I have a duty to buy from businesses that are succeeding well, or b) that this is a duty which springs from my neighbour’s status as a compatriot rather than a general duty owed to everyone. Indeed, I might have a stronger duty to purchase goods from a distant stranger if I know their need is greater. Because of this, it can’t easily motivate a duty to “Buy British!”.

One reply to this could be to slot in an argument for preferring compatriots to non-compatriots. I shan’t outline such an argument here, but there are a few routes for claiming that we should give extra weight to the interests of compatriots. Doing this might at least provide a reply to point b) above. And, one could respond to a) by saying that the duty to purchase patriotically only obtains when the economy is in trouble. In fact, it seems like calls to “Buy British!” are usually made in hard times, so this reply has the virtue of making the analysis relevant to practice.

However, neither of these responses can escape the fact that if purchasing patriotically is merely a means of fulfilling an imperfect duty then if I can fulfil my duty to my neighbour in some other way I am permitted to do so. Perhaps we could make an argument that purchasing from compatriots is the only way to fulfil duties, or that we have an overriding reason to choose it as a means of fulfilling duties. Those seems like unlikely scenarios, but I’ll concede that they are at least possible. Another possible circumstance where we might have a duty to buy from compatriots is if we have good independent reasons for boycotting all alternative products. Again, this is unlikely but possible, and it only applies to goods we can’t live without (since we still have the option of not buying other goods and doing without).

All in all, it looks like that although we might have reasons ceteris paribus for favouring our compatriots in our purchasing decisions, the circumstances where we could have duties to do so are very narrow. When it comes to it though, other things are rarely equal – a very great number of the products we buy could benefit distant strangers in far greater need than our nearby compatriots. Unless the arguments for preferring compatriots are strong, then calls to purchase on patriotic grounds will have little moral force.

1. Richard Dagger, “Rights, Boundaries, and the Bonds of Community: A Qualified Defense of Moral Parochialism,” The American Political Science Review 79, no. 2 (June 1, 1985): 437.


Compensating for historic wrongs: intergenerational justice and rectification

I’ve been reading a very interesting paper on environmental groups whilst on the train down to Cornwall. Part of the paper is devoted to a discussion of the Environmental Direct Action Group (EDAG), whose political statement argues that the north should repay its ‘ecological debt’ to the south. [Edit: a chat with the author of the paper in question has revealed why I didn’t recognise the name EDAG – it’s a pseudonym].

The idea that current generations should repay debts owed by their forefathers is a common one; it occurs in environmental discourses, in discourses around colonialism, and, of course, in political theory literature. Nozick, for example, includes a principle of rectification for past unjust acquisition of property, and this principle stretches back through the generations. Nozick doesn’t really specify how best to resolve who owes whom what, and he admits that that’s something of a gap in his theory. I dislike those sorts of gaps, so when the paper I’ve been reading made passing reference to this principle of intergenerational restitution I stopped for a moment to consider.

Imagine your great grandfather stole some land from my great grandfather. Later he gave it to his son – your grandfather. Later, your grandfather planted some apple trees on the land, and cared for them for many years. When your grandfather grew old, he gifted the orchard he’d created to his son. Your father took the apples from the by-now flourishing orchard and sold them at a local market. He became a successful apple seller. Later, your father sold his stall at the market, and gave the profits, together with the orchard and his accumulated savings, to you.

Now, recall that the land was initially unjustly acquired from my great-grandfather. If the rectification principle holds then what do you owe me? At the very least we might think that you owe me the plot of land. Given that land ownership typically also comes with usufructory rights – rights to enjoy its fruits – we’d probably also want to say that so you should pay also pay me the value of the trees and apples grown on it while your family possessed it. But, it doesn’t seem right for you to also pay me the value of the labour that your forefathers put into growing those fruits; their labour was not itself unjustly acquired, even if the object of it was. Thus, compensation owed to me is the value of the initially unjustly acquired land, plus the value of what it produced, minus the value of the labour that went into that production: land + fruit – labour.

That all looks fairly straightforward, but sadly I think things are a good deal more complicated. Why should I think that you owe me anything because of the actions of your grandfather? After all, he was responsible not you. We don’t think people are responsible for the actions of people they have even met! And, surely any compensation is owed to the initially wronged party, not to his descendants. You’ve not wronged me, so why do you owe me? How can you owe me for a wrong done to my great grandfather by your great grandfather?

One response might be to claim that I’ve been deprived of a good I otherwise would have had. Whilst you are not to blame for the initial theft, by nevertheless holding on to what isn’t really rightfully yours (since your great grandfather was never entitled to it), you still wrong me. If a thief steals a my car, and gives it to a stranger, that stranger should return it to me – they have no right to keep it, it’s mine. All of that looks plausible. However, there’s a big problem lurking because  a presently existing thief stealing my car is not like a thief in the past stealing my grandfather’s car.

The problem lies in thinking that I own what was stolen from my great grandfather: that I would otherwise have come to own the land had it not been for the theft. The difficulty becomes apparent when we consider what’s known as ‘The Non-Identity Problem’ (from Derek Parfit). The Non-Identity Problem draws our attention to the fact that very small variations around the time of a conception result in the baby conceived growing up to be a different person than they otherwise would have. Anyone who has watched Back to the Future or Quantum Leap (I’m revealing my age here) knows the risks associated with altering the timeline even slightly! What this means for the problem above is that your great grandfather’s act of theft could have changed the circumstances of my grandfather’s conception. As a result of your great grandfather’s theft the ‘I’ who would have otherwise benefited from a good is not the same as the ‘I’ that presently exists. In fact, it rather seems that I owe my existence in part to your grandfather’s theft and so I should perhaps be grateful to him. On top of this are a series of built-in assumptions that my great grandfather would have otherwise gifted the land to his son, and he to his, and he to me, and that they each would have profited from it, that they would not have sold it, gambled it away, ruined it, or given it to someone else. Those are a lot of assumptions to make. All in all, it doesn’t look promising for the principle of intergenerational rectification.

I started thinking about this problem with the opinion that presently existing people ought to make recompense for the wrongs of their forefathers. Now it seems that whilst the north has no just entitlement to the benefits gained at the historical expense of the south, neither does it owe the presently existing south anything by way of compensation for those benefits. I’m still tempted to think that it would be good for the north to compensate the south, but I’m minded to think this is out of a sense of benevolence rather than because anything is actually owed as a matter of justice. This is quite an unsatisfactory and unexpected conclusion, and goes against my intuitions rather, so perhaps someone out there can provide a better one in response?

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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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