Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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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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Measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

When I first started this blog I needed a pretext to get writing. I forced my self to write by working through a few of those big philosophy books we all buy and then only read snippets of, and then writing reflections on those readings. I learned a lot doing this, but it turned out that writing summaries of other people’s summaries wasn’t all that interesting. I chose the blog’s title (The Thrifty Philosopher) on the basis that I was making good use of the things picking up dust on my bookshelf. I’d like to spend more time writing about my research, my teaching, and current affairs, so I think it’s time to change the name. I also need a full-time job (I’m having to be far too thrifty with more than just my book collection for my own liking right now), so I’m going to advertise myself whilst doing my best to live the life of theõria.

The strapline is from a quote from Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca: ‘measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun. Seneca was a cosmopolitan and his quote entreats us to give ethical consideration to all humans regardless of national boundaries. Seneca wasn’t just a cosmopolitan, he was also a vegetarian (at least until he feared people would think that made him a Christian and so persecute him for it). Given that I’ve written on a cosmopolitan approach to animal rights the quote seems fitting: you can read my paper on a cosmopolitan animal rights theory here: Perpetual Strangers: Animals and the Cosmopolitan Right.


Direct & Indirect Duties: Climate Change & the Left

Ever wondered about the difference between direct and indirect duties? When Kant says that duties to non-human animals are indirect, he means that any duties we owe to non-human animals are in fact duties owed to humans. If you take more than a passing interest animal ethics, you will often see research linking animal cruelty with domestic abuse or other forms of violent behaviour. This is what Kant was getting at – being cruel to non-human animals makes us cruel to humans, and that is what makes animal cruelty wrong. The animal itself doesn’t matter for its own sake in this argument. If the evidence showed that being cruel to animals provided an outlet for aggression that made individuals less likely to harm other humans, then Kant would have had to conclude that being cruel to animals was therefore good.

You might think that this argument is not really relevant to contemporary thought. Not so. In fact, it’s very similar to ethical arguments in contemporary climate change and conservation debates. I was reminded of this fact by a post today by the new Climate Change Editor at the New Left Project: Climate Change and the Left [the original post is gone, but it’s archived here]. The argument is interesting, and provides good reasons for people on the left to care about climate change. However, it’s also interesting to me for two further reasons: 1) because it highlights that the reason many people on the left care about the environment is not because the environment is considered valuable for its own sake, and 2) because it makes use of the strange argument that one cannot or should not care about both animals and humans at the same time.

The first of those reasons is interesting because it suggests that a whole lot of people professing to care about the environment might be quite willing to destroy it completely if benefits to humans could be accrued. It follows from the post that the same is true of the treatment of animals – so long as humans benefit, the interests of animals are not really considered.

The second reason is interesting because it’s one of those ubiquitous claims that is often made, but rarely carries an argument with it. The author of the post linked to gives a reason why the argument is flawed – much like the Kantian position – but it also seems very much mistaken if you think that non-human animals or the environment have final value of their own. At the most very basic level, the decision to become a vegan doesn’t exactly require us to stop caring about humans, or divert any significant energy away from doing so.

Truly caring about the environment, or about non-human animals requires thinking about more than the interests of just our own species. The indirect duty view is right in that it shows us that it’s in our interests to care about non-humans. But, to avoid the charge of specieism, there also needs to be an acknowledgement that we may also have direct duties, and that these may on occasion trump the indirect ones.


A flow chart for harming animals

I’ve just spent a chunk of my afternoon turning an ethical argument for vegetarianism into a handy flow chart. The structure of the argument is pretty rough and ready, and there are lots of nuances and important discussions and disagreements missing. However, I think the chart captures the essence of what I call the consistency argument against harming animals. Hopefully, it clearly illustrates where our basic intuitions and assumptions about the treatment of non-human animals and humans are inconsistent. If you follow it, and agree with the premises and conclusions then you either end up thinking, a) that it’s permissible to harm both non-human animals and also non-rational humans, or b) that it’s impermissible to harm non-human animals. Faced with that, most people prefer option b); I know I do.

The chart is below, apologies for the size. I should probably turn it into a tick-box quiz at some stage, a la the rather excellent scenarios at:

Arguing about animals

Click to see full size.



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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Animal Liberation: ethical approaches

I’m now just a week away from my viva, so I picked my reading for today strategically and went for Alan Carter’s entry on Animals in the Routledge Companion to Ethics.

Carter has written some really interesting stuff – I love his paper on radical disobedience for example, but he starts – this chapter with the puzzling claim that the history of Western thought has largely disregarded the interests of non-human animals. I’ve mentioned the works of Porphyry in previous posts, but he was not alone – the ancient Greeks had plenty to say about non-human animals, and this has continued through to today. I’m not sure it’s fair to call Porphyry, Plutarch, Pythagoras, Bentham, Montaigne, Shopenhauer, Mill, Spira, Salt, Schweitzer, Nozick, Brophy, Singer, Regan, Midgley, Korsgaard, Hills, Nussbaum and so on, ‘notable exceptions’ as Carter does. However, it is fair to say that philosophical consideration of the moral status of non-human animals has really taken off since Peter Singer published Animal Liberation in the 1970s.

The big question asked in this chapter is why do we assume that it is morally permissible to treat non-human animals in a completely different way than we do humans? In some ways, the answer seems obvious – animals can’t act morally; they cannot restrain their desires, keep promises, make agreements, control their violent urges and so forth. They are not rational. However, it seems very strange to think that just because something can’t act morally we are entitled to farm and eat it. After all, not all humans are moral agents, and we don’t think it’s OK to eat them on account of their irrationality. It’s hard, as Carter points out, to discover a morally relevant difference between humans and other animals that includes all humans and excludes all animals, and even if we can find such a difference it doesn’t follow that such a difference licences free-reign. In other words, even if we could establish that all humans are morally superior to all animals, it doesn’t follow from this we can do what we like to those animals.

However, as Carter points out, we do need to draw some lines – we don’t think it immoral to kick a stone, or break a stick – so what capacity should we ground moral standing in? Utilitarians, from Bentham through to Singer have traditionally argued that the capacity to experience pain and feel pleasure, or to suffer mark out whether a being is worthy of moral consideration. Those beings that can suffer should have their interests considered equally and impartially when moral decisions are to be taken.

Utilitarians generally measure goodness by how much happiness is produced in the world, which permits (in principle) pretty much any action so long as that action produces a greater amount of happiness overall. This is where deontolgical (or rule-based) ethics comes in. These forms of ethical code claim that there are constraints on what can be done to individuals in the name of the greater good – individuals are not to be sacrificed to benefit others. We often see these rules expressed as rights. My own approach to animal ethics is to argue that the well-being of animals places constraints upon our treatment of them in this way, constraints that forbid us from eating them, experimenting upon them, or otherwise using them as the means to our own ends. As such, my position is similar to that of Tom Regan, who Carter uses to illustrate the deontological approach to animal ethics.

If animals are worthy of moral concern, then the ethical questions are: what may we permissibly do to them and, what do we do when our interests conflict. To the first question I answer ‘nothing that treats them as a mere means to our ends’, and the latter question is answered by applying familiar theoretical approaches such as self-defence theory, theories of justice, ethics of moderate partiality and so forth.

Carter’s final section deals with criticisms of the two approaches by appeals to the value of relationships (at the familial and broader political and social levels). Under this approach humans count because they can form relations with one another in ways that animals cannot. Not only does this approach look question-begging, but again it doesn’t really address the complaint that not all humans can form the sorts of meaningful relationship that is set as the bar for moral considerability (nor is it clear that all animals cannot – great apes and dolphins may well be able to).

Another argument against animal liberation is to make use of the ‘natural kinds’ argument I discussed in my post on gay marriage and claim humans are of a special kind of being that ordinarily has capacities that make one worthy of moral consideration. Now I’ve never understood how this argument functions – it looks like a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it to me. On the one hand we want to say that all humans are worthy of consideration because they are the sorts of beings that ordinarily have certain capacities – like language use or rationality – and, on the other we want to treat those humans that don’t have rationality differently by giving them different rights (we don’t allow them to vote, or drive, or get married and have children for example). Linking moral status to characteristics that an individual being doesn’t in fact possess just looks like transcendental mumbo jumbo to me – you might as well posit a soul and link it to that.

Carter goes on to discuss the Kantian idea that duties to animals are indirect, i.e. that they are really duties to other humans (if we are cruel to animals it’s likely we’ll end up being cruel to humans), and Carruthers’ contention that animals may not be able to suffer. He also covers Frey’s arguments that animals lack desires (because desires require conventional language capacity) and so do not have morally relevant interests. None of these approaches are very convincing – although they probably deserve a further post in the future at least.

Carter’s chapter finishes with a very brief review of more recent theorising – including in contractualist political theory. I’m left impressed by the surprising amount he’d managed to cover in such a short amount of space and left prompted to read more of his work in the future.

I’m now 17 readings into my structured reading project and I’m really enjoying it, and, as an unexpected side effect, it seems to have spurred me to read more in general. Reading appears to provoke more reading.