Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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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.


Animal Rights and Environmental Terrorism

My paper ‘Animal Rights and Environmental Terrorism’ just been published in the Journal of Terrorism Research. In the paper, I argue that not only are many paradigmatic, putative acts of animal rights and environmental terrorism such as illegal animal liberation and tree-spiking not terrorism at all, but also that even those that are terrorism may justified nevertheless (or at least are not straightforwardly wrongful). In the paper, I also lay out a taxonomy of animal rights/environmental direct action, separating acts into civil disobedience, rescue acts, sabotage, and terrorism.

The Journal is Open Access and operates with a Creative Commons licence, so there’s no pay-wall to negotiate. Link:

The paper was written while I was employed as the Society for Applied Philosophy‘s 30th Anniversary Research Fellow, so thanks are due to them for funding my research.


The language of animal oppression

I’m finally getting some rest and relaxation (and by ‘rest and relaxation’, I mean ‘job hunting’) after three days of the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory conference. I co-convened a workshop at the conference, on ‘The Political Turn in Animal Rights’ – 12 really good papers from some top academics and brilliant students. Two things really struck me during the conference.

The first was the huge influence Donaldson and Kymlicka’s book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights has had on the field. Although many academics were doing political theory and animal rights for many years before the book, it’s really provoked a lot of research and wider engagement.

The second came as a result of a paper by Les Mitchell from Fort Hare, SA. Les drew our attention to the way in which language contributes to injustice towards non-human animals by directing our thought and expression. Two particular modes of expression were telling: the way we refer to animals by adjectives that refer to their purpose, and the use of mass nouns to remove individuality and identity from an animal. For example, we refer to chickens as ‘broiler hens’ or ‘layers’, to cows as ‘beef cattle,’ ‘dairy cows,’ ‘veal calves’. By using these adjectives we reinforce assumptions and cultural practices with an implication that the purpose or telos of a non-human animal is to be used by us. Additionally, mass nouns, nouns that do not permit counting as individual units,: beef, lamb, meat, pork etc., all divorce the product of the farming/meat industry from the individual life that was taken to provide it. When speak of chicken wing, beef rib, leg of lamb rather than ‘the wing of a chicken,’ ‘lamb’s leg,’ ‘cow’s rib’ it may make it easier to divorce the contents of our dinner from the individual that suffered and died to provide us with our gustatory pleasure.

One example Les gave really struck me; it concerned the expressions we use to discuss pets. There’s been a trend in animal rights literature and animal activism to refer to pets as ‘companion animals’. A pet is property, it exists as an instrument to provide its owner with benefits, but a companion animal is something different, something more. However, Les pointed out that even this way of referring to an animal makes us think that its existence is directed towards the purpose of being our companion. If we speak of ‘animal companions’ rather than ‘companion animals’ we are describing a friend rather than an object.

Of course you might be forgiven, reading this post, for being lulled into making the common mental distinction between humans and animals, forgetting for a moment that there is no such distinction (which is why scholars in my field try to refer to non-human animals or to ‘humans and other animals’).

Les’ challenge to our use of language in order to create a shift in perspective got me thinking, I thought it worth sharing.


Why should we conserve rhinos?

The question of why we should conserve rhinos popped up on Twitter earlier today. We tend to assume that it’s bad when a species is under threat of extinction, but it’s rare to see any defence of such claims. So what reasons might we have for thinking that poaching rhinos to extinction is bad? Below are five potential reasons why we should preserve a species, using rhinos as an example:

1. Because then there would be no more rhinos for us to enjoy

This reason sees rhinos as instrumentally valuable – they are the means by which we gain enjoyment, much as we would from viewing an aesthetically pleasing artwork or a beautiful sunset. If the loss of rhinos were a bad thing on this ground then we would have to show that there is a particular type of enjoyment that we can only gain from rhinos and which cannot be compensated for from other sources. Maybe there’s a special quality to the enjoyment of watching rhinos that we cannot gain from watching elephants or hippos, but it seems unlikely to me. Not a very strong reason then.

2. Because rhinos fulfil an important role in the ecosystem

Again, this reason views rhinos as instrumentally valuable insofar as they help preserve an ecosystem. Why we might want to preserve an ecosystem may be because we see ecosystems as valuable for their own sake (although I’m not sure what features of an ecosystem we could pick out to that would make it so), or because we judge ecosystems to be important in meeting human (or potentially other animal) needs. If we think the preservation of rhinos is important for ecological reasons, then that importance is contingent on no other animal being able to fulfil the same role in the ecosystem and the ecosystem being unable to adapt to the loss of rhinos. In other words the rhino must be a necessary component of the ecosystem for it’s extinction to be a matter of concern under this reason. Ecosystems are often quite resilient and adaptable, so whether rhinos are necessary in this way is something I’m sceptical of.

Edit: thanks to @AGBear for pointing out that the precautionary principle might apply here. Perhaps we cannot know what the negative consequences of the loss of a species on an ecosystem will be. Because those potential negative consequences might be very high – ecosystems are very complex beasts – we should do our best to preserve endangered species such as the rhino. This argument still doesn’t value rhinos for their own sakes though. Furthermore, the value of the species is also (as above) derived from the role played by individual non-human animals in the ecosystem. I’m also inclined to think that whilst we might not know the precise risks to an ecosystem that the loss of a species carries, we can know with greater or lesser degrees of certainty, and the accuracy of our predictions is likely to increase as numbers of a species decrease and we can see the effects of this decrease. In other words, our lack of perfect knowledge doesn’t provide a knock-down reason for saving a species.

3. Because rhinos fulfil an important economic role in a community

It’s not uncommon to see reference made to the valuable contribution certain wild animals make to poor communities through the attraction of tourists. Here again the reason to preserve a species is instrumental and contingent, this time upon the species being an irreplaceable source of income. That rhinos are the only way a poor community can gain wealth is a pretty strong claim – not one that I’m sure can succeed, so I think that this reason ultimately fails too.

4. Because the destruction of the species involves the destruction of individual members rhinos

Here we come to what I think is a much more plausible claim: the reason to save rhinos from extinction is that extinction involves the death and probable suffering of individual rhinos who are worthy of moral concern for their own sakes. This, of course, is where the argument for animal rights comes in – I’m not going to defend it here, but I think it offers the only truly convincing reason for saving a species, a reason that is derived from the moral status of the individual non-human animals making up that species. Thus, we care about saving rhinos not because we care about whether there are rhinos in the world or not, but because we care about the individual rhinos that do presently exist.

5. Because the species is valuable to individual rhinos

This fifth reason hangs of the fourth: the thought is that if an individual being is worthy of moral consideration for its own sake, and it values its own species, then that species might form part of the individual being’s good. Although I can see how we might see the preservation of a community or a family as important for the reason it plays in a creature’s life, I don’t see how the species can be analogous to the family in a way that is makes sense in this kind of argument. Furthermore, I suspect it will only be a subset of non-human animals that it can be convincingly claimed of that they value their communities. Perhaps the higher apes, dolphins, perhaps elephants etc. So, this reason also looks like it too fails.

The weird thing about the reasons I’ve given above is that the claim about the badness of a loss of a species usually appears to rest not on them, but on an implication that species are intrinsically valuable. That is to say that species are valuable for their own sake and not because of the individual members of the species that make them up. But that claim is very different from the potential arguments I’ve listed above. It seems like we have an intuition that species are intrinsically valuable, but I can’t think of how you might defend this claim convincingly.

Ultimately then, I’m not sure why the destruction of a species counts as a bad thing separate from the loss of the individual members of that species, so I’m minded to conclude that we should focus instead on the plight of individual non-human animals and on their communities.

Anyone got a good argument for the intrinsic value of species?

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New book: Animal Rights without Liberation

My good friend and all round excellent scholar Alasdair Cochrane has just published a new book. You should all buy it – I know I’m going to.  To give you a flavour, here’s a review by another great scholar, John Hadley:

“Readers unfamiliar with animal rights may find the very idea perplexing. Aren’t rights reserved for human beings only? Come to think of it, aren’t rights reserved for only certain kinds of human beings, namely, persons—people who possess sophisticated psychological capacities?

Animal rights philosophers like Alasdair Cochrane (Department of Politics, Sheffield University) are in the business of challenging the orthodox view about rights. In Animal Rights without Liberation he offers a qualified position—animals have a right not to suffer and a right not to be killed but they do not have a right to liberty. In other words, people may continue to own and use animals so long as they do not kill them or cause too much pain in the process….”

Read the rest of the review here:


On zoos, chimpanzees, and rights for Great Apes

This morning I spotted a video on the Telegraph’s website of a chimpanzee in a welsh zoo communicating with visitors.

Welsh Mountain Zoo doesn’t say much about how it came by its chimps. They have eleven; three taken from the wild, three transferred from other zoos, and the rest are two generations of children born in captivity. I have a feeling that the zoo would say if their chimps were rescue animals, so the fact that they haven’t is a good indication that the chimps that weren’t born in the zoo were captured in the wild in order to be exhibited for human entertainment in a zoo.

The chimpanzee in the video appears to be asking a visitor to release him, using sign-language to communicate his desire to leave his enclosure, meanwhile the zoo’s visitors laugh at the hilarity of it all. Watching the video, and thinking about the lives of chimpanzees in zoos, I just can’t see the funny side myself.

In 1997 Goodin, Pateman, and Pateman wrote a brave, and ground-breaking paper titled ‘Simian Sovereignty’. In it, they argued that the other Great Apes besides humans: chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, are entitled to many of the same rights to territorial and personal sovereignty as humans are. Meanwhile, the Great Ape Project has campaigned since the early nineties for the UN to adopt a Declaration on Great Apes, granting them legal protections from being killed, deprived of liberty, or tortured.

Normally, I’d be sitting here at my desk, setting out a carefully constructed, reasoned argument for why it’s wrong to treat non-human animals as the mere means to our ends. However, the emotional force of that unnamed chimpanzee trying to persuade visitors to release it, and using language to do so is almost enough on its own. I’ve seen chimps in zoos, and although I’m sure zoo-keepers are nice people who try their best to make their the lives of their captives pleasant, there’s just no way that an enclosure in Colwyn Bay is going to allow them to flourish and enjoy life like their natural tropical rainforest habitat would. Chimps aren’t exactly our intellectual equals, in fact they are about on a par with an average human three-year old by my understanding (caveat – I’m an ethicist, not an animal psychologist), but it sure looks like that one was reasoning, communicating, and expressing its future desires. So, they may not be full moral persons (I wouldn’t hold a human three-year-old fully responsible for its actions), but chimps do appear to possess an important degree of autonomy.

So, my thought for the morning is that those chimps that can be successfully returned to the wild should be freed as soon as possible. We certainly shouldn’t be taking chimps from the wild to keep captive and display for our amusement: the word for that is ‘slavery’.


The Telegraph’s story can be read here:

Goodin, Patemand, and Pateman’s ‘Simian Sovereignty’ can be read here:

Learn about the Great Ape Project and the World Declaration on Great Primates here:

For a brilliant and eye-opening talk from someone who is an expert on the minds of chimpanzees, see Frans de Waal’s TED presentation: