Monthly Archives: February 2013

A recent discussion of the comparative, and superlative, merits of different varieties of biscuit was waylaid through the imposition of two related questions. The first diversion concerned the extent to which biscuit preference might be revealing of one’s intellectual or moral standing. The issues here are akin, in some respects, to older philosophical questions about the extent to which one’s treatment of nature—including lower animals—might be so revealing. The second diversion concerned the boundaries of the kind, biscuit. Are there, for example, size restrictions on inclusion within the kind? Is the cake–biscuit distinction a principled one? The issues here are akin, in some respects, to older philosophical questions about the determination of kind boundaries and the extent to which we can make discoveries here, rather than merely enforcing creative decisions of one or another type.

I don’t wish here to try to decide any of these issues. They will be discussed further in later posts. Here, my aim is only to report on some of the questions, and considerations, that were raised during the discussion in the hope that this might be a spur to further reflection. Since the discussion was informal, I shall avoid, at this stage, associating comments with individual thinkers. I am, of course, grateful to all participants for their participation.

Let’s begin with issues concerning potential revelation of moral or intellectual standing. Here, the following considerations were relevant.

1. The general thought was put forward that some distributions of biscuit preference might serve as indicators of reasonableness. For example, it was suggested that ranking chocolate Hobnobs above Rich Tea biscuits was a signal of the possession of well-functioning reasoning, whilst the converse ranking was a signal of dispossession. The issues around Rich Tea biscuits were especially divisive, especially once the availability of chocolate covered variants was taken into account.

2. Some biscuit preferences were strongly associated with the possession or absence of moral virtue. For example, the metaphorical suggestion was made that cream biscuits, in general, are “the work of the devil.” The non-metaphorical meat here, I take it, is the idea that the creation and consumption of such biscuits is a mark of moral viciousness. Similarly, Garibaldi biscuits—or “dead fly biscuits” as they are revealingly known—were associated with moral norms of both positive and negative valence. Positively, the suggestion was made that distaste for Garibaldis was indicative of having been brought up badly, or even a form of “heresy” (a metaphor that is meant to be suggestive, I take it, of moral nihilism). Negatively, it was suggested that it was a basic moral norm that biscuits should not contain fruit. The expression, “End of,” was used in order to indicate that the norm in question was taken to be fundamental.

3. Jaffa Cakes—which will, of course, come up again with respect to the second set of issues—raised the issue of moderation or temperance. Although a preference for one or two Jaffa cakes has the patina of virtue, such a preference was strongly associated with a (narrow scope) inability to (stop eating Jaffa Cakes on condition that one has started). Thus, it remains an open question whether the appearance of virtue in the initial preference is misleading.

Let’s turn, now, to issues about the boundaries of the biscuit kind. Here, the following specific queries were raised:

1. Predictably, the traditional, and seemingly irresolvable, question of the status of Jaffa Cakes figured in the discussion. The central issue here, for our purposes, isn’t the question whether they are cakes or rather biscuits. Rather, the question at issue is broadly methodological: how should the question of classification be decided? The question was recently raised as one concerning the legality of one or another classification for purposes of taxation, with the result that they are legally classified as cakes. However, although various sources of evidence were considered during the trial, it is not clear that such a court decision would be counted elsewhere as deciding fundamental questions of classification. So, it remains open how the question in general—for purposes beyond legal standing—is to be decided. Similar questions arose concerning Millionaires’ Shortbread.

2. A different issue that arose concerned the question whether there are limits of size on inclusion in the kind. The specific issue here concerned iced gems: does their being diminutive mean that they count as sweets rather than biscuits? Similar issues could be raised at the other end of the scale: some coffee chains now sell extremely large facsimiles of commonplace biscuits, including the Bourbon. Is consuming one of these a matter of “just having one biscuit”?

Here, I must leave these important matters for further reflection and discussion.


Adam Smith held that humans are distinctively dependent on one another’s labour. We are reliant upon, and make differential contributions to, a system in which the total quantity of labour that contributes to each of our flourishing is divided amongst us. Such a system relies for its proper functioning upon individual contributors both trusting others to do their share and also being trustworthy, in pulling their own weights. Smith raises the question whether the greater role in underwriting the required pattern of trust and trustworthiness is played by benevolence or by self-interest. He suggests that, in general, the system is lubricated by self-interest rather than benevolence.

“In almost every other race of animals, each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” (Adam Smith, 1776, Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter II, ‘Of the principle which gives occasion to the division of labour’.)

On this view, our reasonable reliance on the baker to provide us with cakes is based upon our knowledge of their reciprocal reliance on our cake-custom. It is not based upon our knowledge of their benevolence—of their recognition that cake will make our lives go better together with their positive responsiveness to that recognition on grounds, for example, of our shared humanity.

One question we might raise here concerns the idea that such reliance is distinctive of humans. Perhaps, for example, the social behaviours of some animals, or even insects, might count as forms of the social division of labour. We might think that that is not important, and that what really matters to Smith is rather the obviously correct claim that human labour is now divided. However, understanding the bases of similar cases in other areas of the animal kingdom, should they exist, might well be relevant to understanding the actual bases of the system realised by humans. Another question concerns the extent to which the human system is really underwritten mainly by self-interest, rather than benevolence. While it’s plausible that some people are motivated by self-interest for much of the time, and many people are so motivated for some of the time, we shouldn’t allow that to blind us to the possibility that our own motivations, and others’, may stem predominantly from benevolence.

Suppose that our motivations for doing what we tell others we will do were mainly, or fundamentally, self-interested. In that case, it would be natural to expect that, where motivation by self-interest lapsed, so too would lapse any motivation towards fulfilment of one’s expressed intention. More carefully, if one retained any motivation towards fulfilment, one would expect it to be explained by appeal to habit, or to some other form of generalisation from the more basic, self-interested case, rather than by appeal to reason.

In an earlier discussion, Smith reflects on a case in which someone promises under coercion. The reflection aims to uncover the proper moral response to one who fails to keep such a promise.

“To give a trite example; a highwayman, by the fear of death, obliges a traveller to promise him a certain sum of money. Whether such a promise, extorted in this manner by unjust force, ought to be regarded as obligatory, is a question that has been very much debated.” (Adam Smith, 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Section IV, part II.)

Now a natural thought here is that, although there are self-interested grounds for promising the highwayman the sum of money—for instance, that one prefers not to be shot—there will only be self-interested grounds for keeping that promise insofar as the threat of retribution remains active. Once the immediate threat has abated—once the traveller has returned to the safety of the city, say—it is natural to think that there will be no motive from self-interest for returning to the scene of the crime with the promised sum of money. However, Smith appears to suggest that in a case of that sort, some motivation would remain for keeping the promise:

“It is to be observed, however, that whenever such promises are violated, though for the most necessary reasons, it is always with some degree of dishonour to the person who made them.” (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Section IV, part II.)

Smith suggests, then, that where the straightforward motivation from self-interest has lapsed, one might nonetheless be motivated by one’s honour, or by considerations of one’s honour.

There are three obvious potential explanations of how we are to understand Smith’s account here. The first potential explanation appeals to the idea of a generalisation of one’s habitual, self-interested response to more ordinary cases in which one makes a promise. One has become so habituated to meeting the demands of self-interest by keeping one’s promises in cases where doing so will induce others to reciprocate that one now feels a tug of psychic dissonance in cases in which one fails to do so.

The second potential explanation is less direct. In order for the institution of promising successfully to figure in the self-interested division of labour, it must be a matter of general and mutual recognition that promises will be kept. Crucially, it must be a matter of general and mutual recognition that promises will be kept even in those cases in which doing so fails to service the keeper’s self-interested motivations. Hence, an individual’s failure to keep a promise, even in such cases, damages their ability to exploit the institution in the future—perhaps, at the limit, by doing violence to the institution itself. Since it is in the individual’s interest to preserve a capacity to exploit the institution, it is in their interest to keep their promises even in cases like that of the highwayman, albeit in a way that, in such cases, is outweighed by other considerations.

The third potential explanation is quite different. According to the third explanation, there is an operative motive associated with keeping one’s promises that is not reducible to considerations of self-interest. Rather, it is a motive deriving from, or recognised on the basis of, an irreducible moral virtue: a virtue of (or akin to) honour. Again, the operative motive may be one that allows that one need not in fact keep one’s promise in the case of the highwayman. But that is consistent with there being a genuine moral loss in the case in which one doesn’t keep one’s promise, albeit a loss that may be condoned. Plausibly, the loss attends, not the simple failure to keep one’s promise, but rather the combination of one’s promising and then not keeping one’s promise. On this type of view, the highwayman in effect forced one to be immoral.

I leave open which, if any, of those explanations is correct. If none is, it will be a further question what the correct explanation is, and whether the correct explanation will endorse Smith’s view that failing to keep a promise to the highwayman constitutes a moral loss.

Smith’s case of the highwayman is discussed by Bernard Williams in chapter 5 of his book Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002) and also by Thomas Scanlon in chapter 7 of his book What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

During a discussion that is primarily concerned with developing a reading of Aristotle’s conception of virtue and practical wisdom, John McDowell makes a suggestion, in passing, about a connection between practical wisdom and appetite. McDowell’s central aim is to develop an account of virtue on which possession of a virtue can silence for one features of one’s situation that might otherwise figure in one’s decision-making. That is, the virtuous person is not merely someone who balances considerations in favour of acting virtuously against considerations against so behaving in such a way that they end up behaving virtuously. Rather, the truly virtuous person acknowledges only reasons in favour of acting virtuously. They do not even acknowledge as relevant any counter considerations. McDowell writes:

“Consider a situation that calls for the most striking sort of exercise of temperance—abstaining from an available but excessive bodily pleasure. That the pleasure is available is a fact about the situation, at the disposal of the temperate person no less than anyone else. Such facts can engage a motivational susceptibility that is one of the standing concerns of a virtuous person. (Too little interest in the pleasures of appetite is a defect of character: see Nicomachean Ethics 3.11.) But on this occasion what matters about the situation, as the practically wise person correctly sees it, is not the opportunity for pleasure but, say, the fact that this would be his fifth doughnut at one sitting. The practically wise person registers, but counts as irrelevant to the question what to do, an instance of a kind of consideration (that pleasure is available) that does bear on that question in other circumstances.” (McDowell, “Some Issues in Aristotle’s Moral Psychology”: 46–47.)

One question that McDowell’s discussion raises is the following. Would it be incompatible with virtue, in a situation in which one has already scoffed an adequate number of doughnuts, to take it to be a relevant consideration, in one’s practical reasoning, that further doughnuts are available? Presumably, the answer will depend on the answers to further specific questions about the circumstances: are doughnuts, or other foodstuffs, likely to be available in the near future; would eating further doughnuts deprive others of the opportunity, and so forth? McDowell’s proposal is that, modulo answers to those further questions, the answer might well be that the availability of more doughnuts should not figure. A more specific question we might also consider is this. What is the maximum number of doughnuts that a virtuous person can down before the potential charms of further doughnuts are silenced? The suggestion is that the answer will be different—and typically lower—than that for the corresponding question asked about the non-virtuous person, one for whom the doughnuts’ charms are silenced by the operations of a merely biological mechanism. It is part of McDowell’s larger project to defend the view that one might have to be virtuous, or on one’s way to becoming virtuous, in order properly to address such questions.

In an earlier post, I raised the question whether, in a situation in which one is to eat crisps (US: chips) and chocolate (including US: some candy), one ought to start with the crisps or rather the chocolate. Although it seemed to me obvious that there must exist a determinately correct answer to the question, I expressed uncertainty about whether the answer is accessible to us and, if it is, how we might discover it. Chris Lawton (Edge Hill University) suggested a smaller question that might bear on the larger issue: Is there a correlation between self-identification with either Continental or Analytic philosophy and preference for one or another ordering? On the basis of his suggestion, together with extended reflection, a methodology was developed for pursuing the sub-question. We’ve now begun to collect relevant data and here present some provisional results.


Our method was to develop and circulate a survey, collate responses to the survey, and then organise the results of the survey in the form of a table. The survey questions were the following:

Q1. Are you (a) a continental philosopher, (b) an analytic philosopher, (c) both, or (d) neither?

Q2. Would you prefer to eat crisps before chocolate or chocolate before crisps?

Predictably, given the natures of the survey participants, few were able simply to answer the questions as posed. Some curve-fitting was therefore required in tabulating the results of the survey. In future work we propose to worry about controls.


Continental Analytic Both Neither
Crisps first 0 11 5 5
Chocolate first 0 1 1 1
Other 3 2 10 5

(The results here are provisional and may be updated on receipt of further returns.)


As things stand, there appears to be a correlation between self-identifying as an analytic philosopher and being a crisps first theorist. Further work is required in order properly to assess the results of the experiment. It is to be expected that further surveys will be required in order to address the question, what follows? However, it seems clear that progress has been made.

1. According to J. L. Austin, “It takes two to make a truth.” (1950: 124 fn.1.) More emphatically, “When a statement is true, there is, of course, a state of affairs which makes it true.” (1950: 123.) Julian Dodd quotes this fragment and comments:

“Here we see Austin endorsing what has come to be known as ‘the truthmaker principle’, which we may formulate (provisionally, at least) as saying that whenever something is true, there must be some thing whose existence guarantees its truth. It is, however, the ‘of course’ that is particularly revealing, since it sees Austin putting his finger on what one might justifiably regard as a prevailing mood in analytical philosophy. For Austin is claiming that the truthmaker principle is not just true, but obviously true. It is something which no self-respecting philosopher would wish to deny.” (Dodd, 2002: 69.)

Predictably, Dodd does deny the principle. More carefully, he thinks that the principle he claims to find in Austin has not yet been justified, and doubts that it can be.

I think that Dodd is right to connect Austin’s discussion with more recent discussions of issues surrounding the truthmaker principle. However, I’d like to raise some questions about the precise way in which Austin figures in Dodd’s narrative.

(I don’t wish to enter here into the details of Dodd’s negative discussion of the truthmaker principle. I note, however, that, whether or not Dodd is right to reject the various considerations in favour of the principle that he considers, it is hard to see how they could have figured as motivations for Austin’s claim. For, as Dodd emphasises, Austin appears to have taken his claim to be obviously correct. And none of the considerations that Dodd considers has the patina of manifest acceptability.)

The three questions that I shall consider are these.

Q1. Was Austin really committed, in the remarks that Dodd quotes, to a version of the truthmaker principle?

Q2. If Austin was so committed, what might have motivated him to be so?

Q3. Is the proposed motivation something that someone might reasonably take to be obvious?

2. Let’s begin with Q1. There are at least two reasons for thinking that a commitment to the truthmaker principle cannot be read-off from the remarks of Austin’s that Dodd quotes. The first reason is that, taken in context, Austin’s focus isn’t on statements per se—or, more generally, on truth-bearers per se—but rather on statements (truth-bearers) engaged in response to what is observable. Here, there are three central pieces of evidence:

(i) Austin’s most general characterisation of the account of truth that he wants to defend is this:

“When is a statement true? The temptation is to answer (at least if we confine ourselves to ‘straightforward’ statements): ‘When it corresponds to the facts’. And as a piece of standard English this can hardly be wrong. Indeed, I must confess I do not really think it is wrong at all: the theory of truth is a series of truisms. Still, it can at least be misleading.” (1950: 121)

Reformulating slightly, we have that “when (if) a statement corresponds to the facts, (then) it is true.” Clearly, that provides only a sufficient condition on statement-truth and not, in addition, the necessary condition that Dodd finds in the later remarks from which he quotes.

(ii) Austin’s immediate development of his general characterisation makes appeal to what he calls demonstrative conventions. (1950: 121–2.) Austin’s idea is that, as part of one’s making a statement apt for assessment as true or false, one must select an area of one’s environment, or elements of one’s environment, as the area, or elements, who’s antics are to bear on whether one’s statement is true or false. It’s natural to think that such selection will typically be based on immediate perceptual contact with areas or elements, as is suggested by the characterisation in terms of what one is in a position to demonstrate to an audience.

(iii) That leaves open what to say about statements whose truth seems not to depend on an area or elements that it makes sense to think might be demonstrated. For example, it leaves open what to say about statements—or what are apparently statements—that generalise more widely than immediate perception can reach—for example, a statement made using “all swans are white”—or have non-perceptible subject matters—for example, a statement in pure arithmetic. With respect to such putative statements, Austin wavers between treating them as apt only for assessment along dimensions other than the true–false dimension, and treating them as true in a way that doesn’t perfectly fit his basic account. Although the former option would be consistent with Austin’s taking his basic account of statement-truth to apply across the board, the fact that he doesn’t see the second option as immediately foreclosed strongly suggests that his main explanatory target is the truth of statements about what is perceptible.

3. That’s the first reason for taking the evidence to which Dodd appeals to be more equivocal than Dodd suggests. The second reason for doubt is that the transition from what Austin says to the principle, or principles, that Dodd attributes to him is non-trivial. The transition in question is from (A), which Austin explicitly commits to, to (D), which Dodd attributes to Austin:

(A) If a statement is true, then there is a state of affairs which makes it true.

(D) If a statement is true, then there is a thing which makes it true.

The most obvious way of making the transition would be via appeal to a principle like the following:

(S=T) States of affairs are things.

As far as I can see, Austin doesn’t explicitly commit to such a principle, so it remains an open question whether he would have endorsed the transition that Dodd attributes to him. Here, we must beware in particular a slide between three readings of “things”

(Thing 1) Things are the values that must be assigned to quantifiers in sentences used to make true statements in order to characterise the conditions on which true statements can be made by the use of those sentences.

(Thing 2) Things are the values that must be assigned to first-order quantifiers in optimal regimentations of sentences used to make true statements in order to characterise the conditions on which true statements can be made by the use of those regimentations.

(Thing 3) Things are all of the same metaphysical kind, a kind whose most paradigmatic instances are tables, chairs, cats, mats, and their ilk.

On one natural construal, Austin’s talk of “a state of affairs” involves a form of natural language existential quantification over states of affairs. If that construal is defensible, and if Austin would have endorsed (A) when so construed, then we would have evidence of Austin’s commitment to (S=T) read in accord with (Thing 1). However, in advance of further work, we do not yet have the evidence to detach the consequent of that conditional. Moreover, it is far from clear that all natural language quantification is optimally regimented in first-order form. For example, it is a currently open question whether natural language allows quantification into predicate position (roughly, quantification over things people are or do) or sentence position (roughly, quantification over things that are, or are not, so). So, it is far from clear that Austin meant to commit to (S=T) when read in accord with (Thing 2). Furthermore, it is plausibly false that all natural language quantification is over things that are substantively, or interestingly, like tables, chairs, cats, mats, &c. There is no reason at all to hold Austin to a commitment to (S=T) when read in accord with (Thing 3).

The truthmaker principle can itself be read in accord with any of (Thing 1)–(Thing 3). It follows that, as long as Austin can be convicted of endorsing (S=T) on at least its weakest, (Thing 1) reading, then he is committed to a version of the truthmaker principle. However, if that were so, it would then be important to establish that endorsement of the weak version of the truthmaker principle is problematic, or unwarranted.

There are at least two reasons, then, for questioning Dodd’s attribution to Austin of the truthmaker principle. Furthermore, that attribution comes in a variety of strengths, and it remains an open question whether any version of the principle to which Austin commits is really a target for Dodd’s critique.

4. Rather than pursue those issues further, let’s turn to Q2, understood now as the question, what motivated Austin to endorse (A)? I think the answer to that question is simpler than any of the potential answers that Dodd considers. To a good first approximation, Austin takes it that sentence nominals in natural language denote states of affairs. Thus, the sentences in (1) and (2) are correlated with the sentence nominals in (3)–(6), and the latter sentence nominals can naturally be unfurled into (7)–(10):

(1) The cat is on the mat.

(2) The chair is white.

(3) The cat’s being on the mat…

(4) The chair’s being white…

(5) That the cat is on the mat…

(6) That the chair is white…

(7) The state of affairs of the cat’s being on the mat…

(8) The state of affairs of the chair’s being white…

(9) That the cat is on the mat is a state of affairs…

(10) That the chair is white is a state of affairs…

Moreover, corresponding to the claims that (1) and (2) may be used to make statements that are true, we have the following:

(11) (/The state of affairs of) the cat’s being on the mat is a fact (/is the case/obtains).

(12) (/The state of affairs of) the chair’s being white is a fact (/is the case/obtains).

(13) That the cat is on the mat is a fact (/is the case/?obtains/is an obtaining state of affairs).

(14) That the chair is white is a fact (is the case/?obtains/is an obtaining state of affairs).

Such transformations of sentences like (1) and (2) into their nominal correlates in (3)–(10) appear to be more or less productive: they appear to be sustained by competence with a rule, rather than by special knowledge about individual cases. And although there is something artificial—or, at least, prolix—about some of the alternatives listed in (11)–(14), they present nothing that would give pause to an ordinary speaker of English. And the transitions from (1) and (2) to (11)–(14) seem equally unproblematic. That’s not to say that further philosophical work couldn’t find reason to question any of the listed transformations and transitions. Rather, it’s to suggest that it would be surprising if such reasons were found. And it would plausibly indicate a need to consider modulating what would otherwise be a perfectly ordinary willingness to allow the transformations and transitions.

5. If that’s right, then our ordinary modes of talk about states of affairs align with Austin’s (A). Moreover, it seems that the motivation for (A) sketched here, drawing as it does on ordinary competence with relevant bits of English, supports an affirmative answer to part of Q3: it would be reasonable to take as obvious—albeit, and as ever, defeasibly so—that if a statement is true, then there is a state of affairs to which it corresponds. It would remain open question whether the state of affairs to which a true statement corresponds is such as to make true the statement. But it would be plausible to hold that the obtaining of the state of affairs would suffice for the truth of a corresponding statement.


Austin, J. L., 1950, “Truth,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 24: 111–128. Reprinted in Austin’s Collected Papers, Oxford: Clarendon Press. References to reprint.

Dodd, J., 2002, “Is Truth Supervenient on Being,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 102, 1: 69–85.

Pancakes were so-called for a reason. They are cakes and they are cooked in pans. It doesn’t follow that they are so-called for a reason. Or, rather, if it follows, it does so only because they are called “pancakes” for the reason that they were called “pancakes” and they were called “pancakes” for a reason. So, even though they are now cakes that are cooked in pans, it doesn’t follow that they are now called “pancakes” for that reason.

Compare here the following. Dartmouth was so-called because it was at the mouth of the river Dart. But if the river Dart had changed its course over time so that Dartmouth was no longer at its mouth, the town could nonetheless have retained its name. In that case, it would be true that Dartmouth was so-called for the reason that it was at the mouth of the Dart, but it would be false that it is so-called because it is at the mouth of the Dart. So, even if it is now true that Dartmouth is at the mouth of the Dart, it doesn’t follow that it is so-called for that reason. Similarly, it doesn’t follow from the fact that pancakes were once so called because they were cakes cooked in pans, and the fact that pancakes are cooked in pans, that they are so-called because they are cooked in pans.

What follows from all that? One thing that follows is that one can’t now work out what pancakes are from the fact that they are called “pancakes”. A natural question to ask, then, is whether one could once tell what they were on the basis of what they were called. Specifically, could one tell what they were from what they were called when they were called “pancakes” because they were then cakes cooked in pans? Plausibly, one couldn’t. For all one could tell then, “pancakes” derived not from a combination of an expression for pans and an expression for cakes, but rather in some other way. For example, for all one could tell then, “pancakes” may have derived from the name of their inventor, Pancake. Pancake was so-named by her parents because they liked the way the name sounded; it was but a happy coincidence that she invented a cake made in pans.

Perhaps, however, one could then have been in a position to know what pancakes were on the basis of (i) knowing that they were called “pancakes,” and (ii) knowing that their name was a combination of an expression for pans and an expression for cakes. On that basis, one could at least figure out that they had something to do with pans and cakes. Would that be enough? Plausibly, it would not be enough. For all one could tell just on that basis, the things called “pancakes” might have been any of the following:

Cakes stored in pans.
Cakes stored with pans.
Cakes shaped to fit into pans.
Cakes shaped like pans.
Cakes used to clean pans.
Cakes made to celebrate pans. (Suppose, for example, that people celebrated the anniversaries of their purchases of especially fine pans.)
Cakes made of pans. (Suppose, for example, that some pans were made of a material that was edible by us, or that there were creatures that ate metal pans.)
Cakes made for wild pans to eat. (Suppose, for example, that some pans were alive.)

So, it’s plausible that no one has ever been in a position to tell what pancakes are just from their knowledge of what pancakes are called, even if their knowledge also encompassed the fact that “pancake” is a combination of an expression for pans and an expression for cakes. Nonetheless, pancakes were once so-called because they were cakes cooked in pans. It seems to follow that knowing that fact about pancakes, or “pancakes,” is different from knowing what pancakes are called, that their name is a combination of expressions for pans and cakes, and that pancakes are cakes cooked in pans.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cannibalism is, “The practice of eating the flesh of one’s fellow-creatures.” As with other dictionary definitions, it’s reasonable to keep an open mind about whether the characterisation is accurate and/or fundamental. But it provides a useful starting point. So characterised, the question whether a practice of eating flesh is cannibalistic turns on whether the flesh is that of a fellow-creature. Plausibly, it therefore turns on two sub-questions: (1) what is a creature? (2) what is it for a creature to be a fellow? With respect to (1), we might wonder, for example, whether artificially grown flesh, chemically indistinguishable from animal flesh, counts as the flesh of a creature. And we might wonder whether something that is no longer alive—the carcass of an animal, say—counts as a creature. With respect to (2), we might wonder, for example, whether a chimpanzee counts as a fellow of ours. Whatever the answers to those questions, it seems plausible that any case in which a human eats the flesh of a living human will count as a case of cannibalism, and that many or all cases in which a human eats the flesh of a dead human will also count. Is any such case of cannibalism permissible?

Many people will be inclined to think that no such case of cannibalism could be permissible. Indeed, some people are so assured of its impermissibility that they are prepared to use it as the basis of an argument against the consumption of animal flesh. They argue in something like the following way.

P1. It is not permissible for a human to eat human flesh. (Taken to be obvious.)
P2. There is no morally significant distinction between eating human flesh and eating the flesh of non-human animals.
C3. It is not permissible for a human to eat the flesh of a non-human animal.

Of course, absent a powerful argument for P1., an opponent might try to turn such an argument on its head, thus.

P1′. It is permissible for a human to eat the flesh of non-human animals. (Taken to be obvious.)
P2′. There is no morally significant distinction between eating human flesh and eating the flesh of non-human animals.
P3′. It is permissible for a human to eat human flesh.

Discussion of the permissibility of a human eating human flesh is often clouded in at least two ways. First, many people have a strong and spontaneous disgust response to the very idea of consuming human flesh, and it is hard, or perhaps impossible, to disentangle that response from moral assessment. (I say ‘perhaps impossible,’ because the disgust response may figure significantly in the proper moral assessment of the issue. Difficulties in deciding whether that is so therefore make for difficulties in deciding the issues about cannibalism.) Second, it can be hard to separate out the question of the permissibility of a human eating human flesh per se from distinct questions about permissible means of coming to be in a position to eat human flesh. For example, if one closely associates the idea of cannibalism’s being permissible with the idea of humans being murdered for their flesh, then the obvious impermissibility of the latter is liable to induce one to judge that the former is also impermissible. It can be helpful, then, to try to separate out pure forms of cannibalism from cannibalism’s sometime attendants. For example, one might try to attend to cases in which a human is killed by accident or dies of natural causes. However, it is not easy to demonstrate the independence of cannibalism per se from its attendants by such means. Many standard arguments against cannibalism involve arguments to the effect that permitting cannibalism in cases not involving e.g. murder would be bound ultimately to lead to permitting means to the permitted end, including e.g. murder.

From the other direction, one might attempt to argue that cannibalism is permissible on grounds that we might be willing to allow it in extreme cases. For example, someone might try to argue that, in cases in which humans have died naturally and in which others will starve to death unless they eat the dead humans’ flesh, it is permissible for them to do so. However, such cases fail alone to decide the issue. For we may be willing to condone immoral actions that take place in such extreme circumstances without thinking that they were morally permissible. Rather than judging such actions to be morally permissible, we might think of them as the least awful of a range of morally impermissible courses of action.

The issues here are very difficult. Rather than attempt to decide them, I wish to point to cases that may have the following pair of characteristics: (a) they are cases of cannibalism—that is, cases in which a human eats the flesh of a human; (b) they involve actions that are morally permissible. I don’t want to take a stand here on whether the cases really possess that pair of characteristics. It would require much further discussion to decide that issue. However, I do want to suggest that further discussion is warranted, both of such cases and of their connections with more problematic seeming cases.

The cases I have in mind are cases in which one in effect snacks on one’s own flesh. The most obvious case here is probably that of biting one’s own nails, or the skin around one’s own fingers. There may be other such cases. (Chewing one’s hair probably doesn’t count, since hair is not flesh.) With respect to such cases, the first question is this: do they count as cannibalism? One putative reason for thinking they do not would be that cannibalism must involve eating the flesh of another. One potential response would be to argue against that condition. Another potential response would be to accept the condition and to consider instead related cases in which someone nibbles another’s fingers as if nibbling their own. Are such cases morally permissible? The second question about such cases, then, is whether they are, as they appear, really morally permissible?

For an excellent discussion of some issues surrounding the moral status of cannibalism, see Richard Sylvan’s “In defence of cannibalism.”

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