Palmer, Ch 3: Capacities, Contexts, & Relations



2.      Capacities as markers of “moral thresholds”

         a.      If have capacity X, then one has moral status

         b.      If have capacity X, then one has not just moral status but a certain level of moral significance (say rights)

3.      Capacities as interest markers

         a.      If have capacity X, then using that capacity contributes to the well being of the creature (it is in its interest to use it)

         b.      Close to Nussbaum’s capability except for Palmer it must be experiential and not for Nussbaum (can be capabilities important to flourishing that are not experienced)

         c.      Question about Nussbaum: Are humans ability to be cruel a “capability” of humans? Just one not important to flourishing?

4.      Exercise of some capacities not important to a being’s flourishing/well-being

         a.      Mink’s capacity to stand on one leg

         b.      Human’s capacity to be cruel

5.      Examples

         a.      Pain capacity is both (moral threshold and interest marker)

         b.      Swimming for mink, capacity in second sense (interest marker)



7.       Animal capacities are not just given

8.      They can be created/changed by humans

         a.      Human relations can form and shape animal capacities/interests and not simply act upon already existing given capacities

         b.      So animal capacities can be context related in this way

9.      We might affect animals in ways that change their capacities which are relevant to “moral thresholds” making them more morally important beings

         a.      E.g., teach chimps sign language and they become more morally important (if use of language is a capacity that were to enhance moral status)

10.    We might affect animals in ways that affect their welfare related capacities

         a.      E.g., Monkey brought up in isolation may do poorly interacting with a normal monkey social group (negative experience), but monkeys whose capacity for social relations are not stunted, benefit from exercise of this capacity for social interaction

         b.      Might affect capacities internally (as well as externally)

                   i.       By selectively breeding animals for playfulness, gentleness and against capacity to hunt or fight



12.    Capacity oriented approaches: What capacities you have determine what kind of obligations you are owed, end of story

         a.      Utilitarianism, rights theory, Nussbaum’s capability approach are all capacity oriented approaches

         b.      For Palmer, capacities are morally relevant, but not the only relevant thing

                   i.       So are prior commitments of the agent (e.g., commitment to a companion animal)

                   ii.      And other backward looking relations (e.g., is an agent causally responsible for creating current situation of an animal)



         a.      Affective (felt) relations

         b.      Causal relations (one thing affecting another)

         c.      Contractual relations

         d.      Palmer accepts which of these?



         a.      Two kinds: Care ethics and Callicott’s “affective communitarianism”

15.    Care ethics: More we care, more we owe

         a.      Our moral obligations are stronger toward those to whom one is emotionally close (in right sort of ways)

                   i.       Moral obligations get weaker (or vanish) when emotional responses weaker or non-existent

         b.      Could support LFI

                   i.       Wild animals emotionally distant

                            (1)    Emotional bonds to wild horses might be weak (people tend not to care for wild animals as individuals)

                            (2)    On basis of affective closeness, obligations to assist might be weak or none at all

                   ii.      Strong emotional relations to one’s companion animals

                            (1)    Obligation to look out for and care for them would be strong

16.    Problems that lead Palmer to not base her defense of relation/context on these moral emotions of care ethics

         a.      Emotional closeness/distance does not necessarily give us appropriate moral guidance

         b.      We actively ensure that we don’t encounter or develop emotional relations with some animals and accept social separation from them (food/lab animals) to prevent ourselves form developing sympathy

17.    Problems with care basis for obligation

         a.      Strange that an obligation to an animal could be based on not what that animal is like but what the person with the obligation is like (do they care....)

         b.      Problem of which emotions to trust: racist has emotional attachments that are not grounds of special obligations

         c.      Confuses who we do care for with question of who we should care for!

18.    Affective communitarianism (Callicott, and Midgley)

         a.      Nested communities of those more or less emotionally close to us

         b.      Stronger obligations to close community members

         c.      Concentric circles:

                   i.       Family closest most intimate (and pets are part of that)

                            (1)    “Pets merit treatment not owed to barnyard animals or less intimately related humans”

                   ii.      Farm animals are in the less intimate human-animal mixed community

                   iii.     Wild animals, are community members, but least intimate “biotic community”

                            (1)    Owe them respect, but not anything as individuals but only a duty to protect wild communities of which they are members

19.    Palmer rejects the emotional grounding of Callicott’s community attachment, but finds causal entanglement dimension helpful

         a.      Helpful to see how animals can become entangled in human lives and how such entanglements create special obligations that don’t exist to wild animals not so entangled

         b.      It is the human casual role in these entanglements, not human affective attachments that better explains moral significance of human/animal relations



21.    Duty of reparation due to a causal relation

         a.      Plausible that we have special moral obligations to make reparations for harms one has had some responsibility for causing

22.    Rolston causal relation view (view Palmer looks on favorably)

         a.      We are responsible for the existence and situation of domesticated animals in way not responsible for the existence and situation of wild animals

         b.      Duties toward sentient animals vary depending on whether previous human action affected their situation

         c.      Should not assist wild animals to (e.g., reduce their pain)

         d.      Doing so

                   i.       Changes wild patterns of evolution and speciation (let’s individuals with weaknesses survive)

                   ii.      Humanizes wild nature (important to protect valuable, untouched wild sphere from human activity)

         e.      Could argue either that

                   i.       (1) These consequences outweigh obligation to reduce animal pain

                   ii.      Or that there is no such obligation

                            (1)    Humans have no obligations to help wild animals; we are obliged to leave them alone (LFI)

         f.       For domestic animals, Rolston thinks

                   i.       They are in a different context, “no longer in context of natural selection” and so allowing them to suffer is pointless and should be prevented as far as it can be

                   ii.      By taking an interest in them (domestication) we have assumed a responsibility for them

                            (1)    Because we have caused animals to exist and exist in certain ways, we have assumed responsibilities for them



         a.      Palmer thinks the “Idea of a domesticated-animal contract is fundamentally flawed”

                   i.       Yet can learn from these ideas

24.    Questions concerning a domestic-animal contract

         a.      Why did it arise?

         b.      What is the deal?

         c.      What about those outside the deal?

         d.      Can the deal be broken?

25.    How it supposedly came about

         a.      Some animals transitioned from wild nature to human society/culture

         b.      Some argue a voluntary process (animals as collaborators in domestication)

                   i.       Animals chose to associate with humans to gain the benefits from association

26.    Terms of the deal

         a.      Benefits to animals

                   i.       Domesticated animals gain provision of food, predator protection, and medical care

         b.      Costs to animals

                   i.       Their physical liberty restricted

                   ii.      Changed internally: domesticated animals lack many capacities once possessed by wild animals, including capacity to survive or flourish in wild

                   iii.     Note how costs/deals vary for different domesticated animals (lab animals, food animals, pets)

                            (1)    Being killed is part of the deal for first two

         c.      Benefits to humans: Convenient and nutritious food, labor, companionship

         d.      Costs to humans: Providing for them


         e.      Worry about this deal: Traditionally a contract requires “equal relative concessions” from all parties

                   i.       Does not look like deal here involves same relative costs to humans as to animals

                   ii.      No human social contract creates internal change in humans as domestication does with animals

27.    Animals outside of contract

         a.      Wild animals, situation remains unchanged, as not part of contract

28.    Can contract be broken?

         a.      Usually answer is yes, and only humans can break it

         b.      Contract broken if

                   i.       Animals worse off in terms of shelter/protection than would be in wild

                            (1)    Note this could be the an attempt to justify the flawed idea that we treat animals morally so long as we treat them less badly than nature treats them

                   ii.      If relational basis is undermined, as in depersonalization & mechanization of domesticated animals in industrial farming

                   iii.     Animals who revert to wild state have broken contract

29.    Domesticated-animal contract explains and justifies LFI

         a.      Obligations to assist domestic animals based on a contract we don’t have for wild ones



31.    Contacts normally between free and equal rational agents who understand and assent to them

         a.      Animals can’t understand the contract (e.g., the concept of domestication) so could not have consented to it

32.    Animals can’t give “tacit consent” to a contract involving domestication

         a.      Different between explicit and implicit (tacit) consent

                   i.       Not objecting might count as implicit/tacit consent to sex?

         b.      Perhaps animals can give tacit consent:

                   i.       Animal not display behavioral objections to human practice when it is free to do so

                   ii.      Cat “tacitly consents” to have fur brushed not run away or object

         c.      Historically perhaps some animals tacitly “consented” to being petted or fed

         d.      But how could they reasonably be thought to tacitly consent to domestication by eating a crust of bread thrown in a doorway?

33.    Idea that human/animal involves a “hypothetical contract” is problematic

         a.      Hypothetical human/animal contract

                   i.       What it is reasonable to think animals would give consent to if they were able

         b.      If hypothetical consent is to be plausible must think animals got a good deal; can’t assume they’d agree to contract in which they lose out

34.    Do animals benefit from domestication?

         a.      Yes from an evolutionary, species-oriented perspective, domestication was an excellent strategy

                   i.       Some domesticated animals members of the most dominant breeds and species on earth

         b.      But contracts are made by individuals, not breeds or species

                   i.       Would some individual animal hypothetically agree to deal domestication offers?

         c.      Michael Pollan on how animals benefit from domestication

35.    Domestication contract brings contractors into existence and turns them into beings who can’t escape contract

         a.      Domestication changes their natures: shapes their bodies, temperaments, and capacities

         b.      Contract is irreversible; Buying into a contract from which can’t sever escape

                   i.       Even if animals colluded in own domestication only applies to first few generations

                   ii.      Domestication includes loss of capacities to resist and loss of capacities to flourish w/o humans

                   iii.     So no way out for many animals

                   iv.     “If humans turn hostile, mountain sheep can graze elsewhere, not option for Dolly the cloned sheep”

36.    Since the contract creates the being in question, seems strange to ask if the being would have hypothetically agreed to this

         a.      These domesticated animals could not have been anything else

         b.      Like “rather as if, by being born, it were to be said, that I had given tacit consent to being a human being, but I could not have existed as anything else”

         c.      So could we say to the cow that of course you would hypothetically agree to the domestication contract, for otherwise you would not have existed?!

                   i.       Say this to our children?

37.    Domesticated animals have human relations built into their very being

38.    Language of contracts fits awkwardly with domestication

         a.      No animal can agree to or exit from it

39.    Language of contract could serve as blind for power relations of domination

         a.      Contract language implies free consent and animal benefit

         b.      But it could be used to legitimate a relation of increasing human control over labor, lives and genetic makeup of domesticated animals


40.    What Palmer likes about contract approach (which she fundamentally rejects)

         a.      Domestication fundamentally changes humans’ ethical responsibilities toward animals

         b.      Entails additional obligations to benefit or assist domesticated animals

Questions on Palmer, Ch 3: Capacities, Contexts and Relations


1.         Explain and give examples of how capacities can be indicate moral thresholds and interest markers. How are these different? Give examples of capacities whose exercise is not important for a beings flourishing.

2.         Explain and give examples of how animal capacities can be changes or created by humans.

3.         Explain how capacity-oriented views determine what obligations are owed to you and then explain how Palmer’s (relational, contextual) view differs.

4.         Identify the three types of relational approaches Palmer considers and indicate which one Palmer prefers.

5.         According to care ethics, what determines our obligations and their strength? How might care ethics support LFI?

6.         What reasons does Palmer give for rejecting the care ethics approach?

7.         Explain the “affective communitarian” approach of Callicott and Midgley. What does Palmer like about this approach and what not?

8.         Explain Rolston’s causal relations approach to how special obligations (e.g., to assistance) arise. How does it explain the LFI?

9.         Describe the idea of a domesticated-animal contract. How did it supposedly arise? What does the contract involve (what are the supposed benefits and cost for each party)? Who is and who is not part of the contact? Can the contract be broken? How does this idea explain and justify the LFI?

10.       What are some of Palmer’s objections to this idea? Why does she think it is fundamentally flawed?

11.       What is the difference between explicit and tacit consent? Could an animal give tacit consent? Could an animal give tacit consent to domestication?

12.       Explain the idea that this human/domesticated animal contract is a “hypothetical contract.”

13.       Do animals benefit from domestication? Distinguish between species and individuals in answering this question.

14.       What do you think of the idea that we treat animals morally as long as we treat them better (or less badly) than nature treats them?