Archives for category: Thought


Antti Laitinen, It’s My Island. Δράση κατασκευής νησιού, 14 – 25 Ιουνίου 2009.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

In the above poem John Donne articulates poetically the argument that Charles Taylor puts forth in his description of the self as being dialogical. Individualism is a modern concept based in the humanist perspective of the Renaissance. Modern philosophy, economic theory and political thought are all bound to uphold the rights of the individual. Such a concept has created political freedom, economic prosperity and self-expression. However, it is also responsible for an egotism and self-centredness which results in alienation and an unwillingness to contribute to the common good[2]. Taylor argues that ‘we see ourselves as selves, because our morally important self-descriptions push us in this direction’. However, a human being also exists within an ethical environment that must be assessed in accordance with some standards. To not have this environment would be totally disorientating and cause a crisis of identity[3]. To assess whether individual identity and agency can be accounted for sufficiently by a concept of a social or dialogical self, this essay will explore Taylor’s concept of the dialogical self and its ability to sustain agency.

Taylor contends that while we speak of ‘self’, our ancestors or other cultures might say ‘soul’. This shift in thinking has led to radically reflexive practices in the modern world. While thinking about one’s health or welfare is not radically reflexive, the active examination of subjective experience, such as scrutinizing one’s own thinking, is radically reflexive. Also, while the concept of the self is a notion of modern Western culture, even earlier societies had a sense of reflexivity. This can be seen through linguistics, as reflexive pronouns exist in all sorts of languages. This reflexivity can be seen as post-Cartesian thinking where one disengages from embodied prejudices and thinks outside the embodied self. Another form of reflexivity is the creative imagination, especially in the arts, which is a principle form of self-expression and individual identity in post-Romantic times[4].

A human being’s sense of self is established in the context of their ethical space. The concept of identity is related to ‘who I am’. I situate myself in a contextual environment that may include my relationships with family and friends, and my abilities and the occupations in which I am, or have been, engaged. This identifies what is ultimately important to me and how that relates to where my identity is in relation to this. It is not just a bare sense of self-awareness, which has no ethics attached. It is the concept of identity which is attached to this thick concept of the self involved in a moral situation that is a product of the disembodied perspective that has shaped the modern self. A crisis of identity results from this environment being disrupted, or becoming uncertain, where you may not know who ‘you’ are. Therefore the sense of self and its ethical space can also be profoundly culturally relative, with each sense of good having its own telos and standard of law[5].

In the modern world each individual has been expected to be a thinking mind that is self-reliant for their judgements. Yet, this thinking has recently been questioned with globalisation bringing new worldviews and cultural resources from non-Western societies into the debate. There is now a more intercultural understanding of global society[6]. The disengaged first person singular view can be found in the foundational works of Descartes and Locke, and this view of the self is made up of representations of the outside world and the fears and desires that accompany them. For Taylor, this is the basis of monological consciousness[7]. However, this notion of monological consciousness leaves out the body and the other.

Emmanual Levinas considered contact with the face of another as primarily ethical[8]. For Jean-Paul Sartre, it is when one is aware of another’s gaze that one becomes reflectively conscious. Through another’s gaze one becomes aware and recognises itself as the object[9]. Philosophers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein see the agent not essentially as a receptor of representation but as a being who acts in and on the world. What distinguishes its agency from something that is inanimate is its capacity for inner representations[10]. Through its body an agent reacts to the world and acts within it, recognizing patterns of appropriate action and the norms that accompany them. Pierre Bourdieu uses the word habitus for this level of social understanding[11].

The other plays its role in the encoded understanding of the rituals played between the self and the other. These rituals between people are coordinated action that sustain integrated agency, such as two people sawing or playing a duet, or in an orchestra or ensemble, or dancing. For Taylor, an important feature of human action is rhythm or cadence. It is crucial for these actions that they are shared. We must place ourselves in a common rhythm for them to work. When gesture is coordinated it has a flow. However, it falls into confusion when the flow is lost and becomes inept and uncoordinated. Therefore, the acts of a single agent can be called monological acts, while the acts of two or more can be called dialogical acts[12].

As an action is dialogical when there is a sharing of agency, these shared actions require a shared understanding and make up a common agent. Integration into a common rhythm is one of the features that this form of understanding can take. It s found in political and religious movements whose members are scattered but brought together in a common purpose, such movements as those Occupy Wall Street[13] or Anonymous are examples of movements that are scattered but have a common purpose to redress global injustices, and whose agents work together for this common purpose. They use the satyagraha or non-violent resistance method advocated by M.K. Gandhi.

As no man is an island, the monological subject is inadequate as an understanding for human life. An individual agent can only operate in the world effectively as a constituted part of a ‘we’, whether that be family, tribe, community, society, etc.. Taylor argues that ‘much or our understanding of self, society, and world is carried in practices that consist of dialogical action.’ Therefore our identity does not consist only in our individual properties as we are also aligned with some social space and we define ourselves within this space through our dialogical actions [14]. Being able to understand the actions of another through putting oneself in their shoes, so to speak, is an important feature of maturity and prevents egocentricity [15].

Taylor extends Dennet’s concept of a narrative self and states that human beings are not only constructed of their own narrative but also of conversations with others. Alexis de Tocqueville asserted that democratic individualism posed an obstacle to civil society through its propensity for each person to withdraw into their own family/friend circle, leaving society to degenerate into ‘downright selfishness’. Individualism tends to predispose humans ‘not to consider their fellow creatures’[16]. Schopenhauer contends that as all malevolence is grounded in the idea that one is absolutely separate from other beings (‘someone else’s pain is no matter of mine’), so kindness is grounded in the unconscious knowledge that there is no ultimate reality in individuality. As this silent awareness grows kindness passes into altruism, the subordination of self-interest to those of all other beings[17].

How can the dialogical self account for identity and agency when the self appears to be such a subjective concept? How can individuals work together as a common agent? In order for the exercise of agency individuals must rely on social recognition in order to be able to form and sustain a self that has agency and identity. In the process of maintaining a stable self the exercise of agency depends upon social infrastructure which provides the framework for an individual’s identity to be formed. Once identity is formed agency can follow in the form of personal autonomy[18]. In the path to a mature personal autonomy that allows us to rely upon our feelings and intuitions, develop our sense of belief and to consider out projects and accomplishments worthy, we are constantly vulnerable to autonomy-undermining injustices, such as material deprivation or disruption to the social nexus[19]. The central idea put forth by Honneth and Axel is that the agency that comprises autonomy requires that an individual is able to sustain certain attitudes to oneself such as self-trust, self-respect, and self-esteem, and that these self-conceptions are dependent on the attitudes of others[20].

In her response to David Velleman’s claims that an individual’s self-image is made reflexive by some association to another that represents it as a subject, Catriona Mackenzie contends that this is like saying a person’s self-image is like a third-person representation of the person. While Velleman’s analysis of identity tends to ignore the perspective of others in relation to how these perspectives are used in our own summation of ourself, this third-person perspective, argues Mackenzie, is what allows an individual to recognise themselves as an individual[21].

A good example of the consequences of a breach of mutual recognition that comprises our dialogical self, are practices and institutions that express attitudes of denigration and humiliation. They erode an individual’s self-esteem and agency through a process that results in feelings of shame and worthlessness. Therefore, this example of identity and agency eroding effects of denigration make it clear how important an individual’s social environment is, since the autonomous self appears reliant on the establishment of relationships based upon mutual recognition[22]. Taylor also recognises this relationship between individuals and mutual recognition, stating that dignity is bound to the notion of ‘self-worth’ and that this notion probably exists in every culture[23]. It is reflected in such international documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[24].

The UHDR is an instance of the establishment of legally institutionalized relations of universal respect for the autonomy and dignity of human beings, which is central to self-respect. Self-trust is reliant upon close relations of love and friendship. Also, networks of shared values within which community members can be acknowledged are central to self esteem[25]. These three relationships and their social contexts are significant in their contribution to autonomy[26]. The revolution in the seventeenth century of the theory of law began this expression of universal moral norms, of the right to life and liberty. What is different about modern concepts of morality is that they are bound in rights[27]. That these rights were decided by a group of people representing other the demands of other people from across cultures shows that a dialogical understanding of the self is not only sufficient but necessary for human identity and agency.

Perhaps the most important concerns that we have about the autonomous rights bound in such legislation is its respect for the life, integrity, well-being and the flourishing of others. We infringe them when we steal or kill, maim or terrorise them, or even refrain from helping them when they are in distress. People may differentiate who they owe this moral concern to, but most contemporary thinking would say that they are universal to humanity and many would say to other animals as well[28]. The contribution that identity makes to being a morally accountable agent arises out of our concern for our own self. Such contributions may be a sustained interest in our future and, through a dialogical perspective, we present ourselves in social exchange with others to further the interpersonal enterprise of moral accountability and the realisation of a possible future for us all[29].

What is needed for an identity was explored by one man, Neill Ansell, recently. After a life of wandering he settled on becoming a hermit in a small cottage in Wales for five years. He lived self-sufficiently and so remotely that he hardly saw another person for weeks on end, and had no neighbours, vehicle or phone. He writes that in the first year he kept a diary of reflections on day to day events. By the second year the diary had become a nature journal on what birds he had seen or a record of the weather. By the third year it was a mere almanac recording any significant event within that year. Rather than solitude leading him to protracted self-reflection and self-awareness, as Ansell thought it would, he notes that he began to forget himself with his focus being turned completely to the world around him. Ansell writes: “It was as if we gain our sense of self from our interaction with other people; from the reflection of ourselves we see in the eyes of another. Alone, there was no need for identity, for self-definition… I am an absence, a void, I have disappeared from my own story.” This appears to confirm Dennett’s description of how human animals use narrative to construct a protective shell of identity around themselves.

Dennett describes his concept of a narrative self in this way: “We are almost constantly engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, and hence representing ourselves in language and gesture, external and internal…Our human environment contains not just food and shelter, enemies to fight or flee, and conspecifics with whom to mate, but words, words, words.” Interestingly, it was when Ansell felt a compulsion to have children that he decided to leave his isolated life and go back to live in the city. Taylor’s concept of the dialogical self appears to correlate with Ansell’s need for other human life. In an addition to Dennett’s concept of the narrative self, Taylor states that human beings are not only constructed of their own narrative but also of conversations with others. Conversation can move beyond simple coordination and attain a common rhythm. With one acknowledging being the listener as the other one speaks and vice versa. The self-interested bore is impervious to this rhythm and so convivial atmosphere is lost.

Such self-interest as seen by individualism tends to predispose humans ‘not to consider their fellow creatures’. Alexis de Tocqueville asserted that democratic individualism posed an obstacle to civil society through its propensity for each person to withdraw into their own family/friend circle, leaving society to degenerate into ‘downright selfishness’. For Schopenhauer all malevolence, such as selfishness, is grounded in the idea that one is absolutely separate from other beings (‘someone else’s pain is no matter of mine’). Therefore, Schopenhauer argues that kindness is grounded in the unconscious knowledge that there is no ultimate reality in individuality. As this silent awareness grows kindness passes into altruism, the subordination of self-interest to those of all other beings.

Perhaps the most important concerns that we have about the autonomous rights is its respect for the life, integrity, well-being and the flourishing of others. We infringe them when we steal or kill, maim or terrorise others, or even refrain from helping others when they are in distress. People may differentiate who they owe this moral concern to, but most contemporary thinking would say that they are universal to humanity and many would say to other animals as well. The contribution that identity makes to being a morally accountable agent arises out of our concern for our own self. Such contributions may be a sustained interest in our future and, through a dialogical perspective, we present ourselves in social exchange with others to further the interpersonal enterprise of moral accountability and the realisation of a possible future for us all.

Therefore, of the many accounts of selfhood, the dialogical self stands out as one that explains a human being’s position as part of the world. We are indeed clods of earth that are parts of the main, as Donne elicits so beautifully. When another human is violated, so is our own humanity. Our identity is bound inextricably with our place amongst others and within the greater world. We are involved in humanity through being human and it is in the protection of this identity that we must act, for a breach of humanity does not simply happen to another it happens to us as well.



Abelsen, P. (1993), “Schopenhauer and Buddhism”, Philosophy East and West, 43. 2 Anderson,J.& Honneth, A., (2005), “Autonomy, vulnerability, recognition, and justice” in Autonomy and the Challenges of Liberalism: New Essays , Christman, John Philip; Anderson, Joel , 2005

Ansell, N. (2011), “My Life as a Hermit”, in The Observer, 27 March 2011

Chaibong, H. (2000), “The Cultural Challenge to Individualism”, in Journal of Democracy, 11.1 (2000)

Dennett, D. C., (1991),”The reality of selves” in Consciousness Explained , Dennett, Daniel C.; Weiner, Paul , 1991

Donne, J. Meditation XVII, No Man is an Island, Souvenir Press Limited, 1988

Kühler, M. & Jelinek, N. (2010), “Autonomy and the Self”, in Preprints for the Advanced Study in Bioethics, Münster 2010/10

Levinas, E. (1961), “Totality and Infinity” , trans. Alphonso Lingis, Martinus Nihoff, Dordecht, (1987)

Occupy Wall Street (n.d.), accessed 18/11/2013

Oshana, M. (2013), “Self Identity and Moral Agency” in Autonomy and the Self, Philosophical Studies Series, Vol 118

Sartre J.P., (1943), Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, trans. Helen Barnes 1956, Routledge Press

Taylor, C. (1989), “Inescapable frameworks” in Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity , Charles Taylor

Taylor, C. (1991), “The dialogical self” in Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, Science, Culture , Hiley, David R.; Bohman, James; Shusterman, Richard , 1991

de Tocqueville, A. (1838), Democracy in America, 2.2.2, trans. Henry Reeves, (Kindle Edition)



Amatya Sen claims that ‘capabilities’ provide the relevant evaluative space for understanding equality. However Sen’s theory has been criticised on the grounds that it does not provide sufficient specification of which functionings and capabilities are valuable. This essay investigates the capabilities theory with reference to this kind of criticism and finds that, on the basis of its reliance upon universal values of liberty and autonomy,  Martha Nussbaum’s development of capabilities theory could provide a possible framework for specifying valuable functionings and capabilities.
The capabilities approach is dependent upon the evaluation of those particular functionings that are concerned with the value of life. In the study prepared for the United Nations, Amartya Sen put forward the argument that the capability approach is an improvement on other theories of justice, such as utilitarianism, Rawlsian egalitarianism and libertarianism because it uses other informational focuses to consider social advantage (p.30). The main criticism of Sen’s approach is that it is considered vague in that it does not provide sufficient specifications as to what he thinks are valuable. Martha Nussbaum has taken Sen’s capability approach and put what she argues are universal and concrete values upon it, allowing it to become a theory of justice rather than simply an evaluative space for reckoning what values we should hold.


Sen posits that his approach relies upon the functional states through which one can achieve quality of life. These include such functionings as being adequately nourished, having good health, and are functionings which would be obviously considered values by all. However, other functionings may be more complex but just as widely valued, such as belonging to a social group.  Sen stresses that, although individuals may differ in what they assess as valuable, it is important that these differences are acknowledged when assessing the capabilities that can be derived from these varied functions (Sen, 1993, p.31).

Therefore, Sen (1993, p.32) states that two necessary questions must be asked to evaluate these differing values:

1)      What is the object of the value?

2)      How valuable are the respective objects?

To identify the object of the value entails specifying what Sen terms as ‘the evaluative space’. For utilitarians this is usually defined as happiness or pleasure, whereas the capabilities approach entails identifying the evaluative space in terms of an individual’s capability to function. In this way the capability approach uses evaluative space to allow for a variety of human actions that are ends in themselves rather than means of living or freedoms, such as amounts of income, wealth, or resources etc. (1993, p.33). For Sen, when it comes to questions of freedom of choice then the criteria to be assessed must be linked to the evaluation of the range of capabilities that are open (1993, p.35).

An interesting point that Sen makes about the association of an evaluation of capabilities with freedom is that a person may have the advantage of more freedom than another but it may still result in her achieving less. For example, a person may have access to a capability such as a good education system but for reasons of personal characteristics, such as laziness or distraction, still not bother to achieve their best within it (1993, p.34). Therefore, Sen breaks down these associative values of human advantage as being:

1)      well-being achievement through the promotion of a person’s well-being;

2)      individual achievement through the pursuit of one’s goals; which result in:

3)      well-being freedom

4)      individual freedom (1993, p.34)

For Sen, the well-being of a person becomes an evaluation of the ‘wellness’ of that person rather than an evaluation of their contribution to the state or their success in reaching their goals. In this case, the functionings of the person will be comprised of the four elements above. With regard to this, the functionings of a person appear fundamental to the nature of their well-being, even if they are sourced externally from the person themselves, such as through the fulfilment of helping someone else (1993, p.36).

The functionings that assist well-being vary from the elementary, such as life-expectancy, to the complex, such as being a valued member of the community. The success of the agency of a person requires a broader assessment that can be narrowed to the evaluation of a standard of living to the broader sense of political freedom. It can even be said that the broader sense includes injuries to others, especially loved ones. These things all contribute to the success of someone developing an ability to be happy or the development of their well-being (1993, p.37).

An important thing to note is that, in Sen’s concept of evaluative space, capabilities are derived from functionings. The concepts of well-being and living standards belong to the assessment of functioning rather than capabilities. Therefore a capability is set in the space of functionings (1993, p.38). This calculus model can be used to assess basic needs and is crucial to the identification of capabilities. Sen states that an income-derived concept of poverty can be quite misleading when evaluation allows discrepancies in functionality. This is because the ‘poverty line’ in a developing nation may be quite distinct from that of developed nations (1993, p.40). Sen sees the most advantageous role of the capability approach being the ability to assess varied objects of value, rather than the utility-based approach of happiness or desire fulfilment as being the only value. It also does not place primary goods or resources as value objects, as do the Rawlsian and Dworkinian models (1993, p.44).

Sen (1993, p.49) thinks that it is in its plurality of purpose that that the capability approach works best, especially with regard to well-being and agency. This is especially relevant when judging standards of living and its particular usability lies in its egalitarian calculus that is dependent upon the truth of seeing individual advantages in capabilities and therefore its relevance to other sorts of social evaluation. In having the ability to assess the particular space for the evaluation of opportunities and successes of individuals, Sen asserts that the capabilities approach is an important addition to other theories of justice (1993, p.50).


Nussbaum takes Sen’s abstract mathematical calculus of functionings and put them into concrete terms through which constitutional guarantees can be drawn in civil society. This is Nussbaum’s universal approach (Nussbaum, 2000, p.70). Through applying concrete concepts Nussbaum breaks down standard theories of justice into questions that show how the capabilities approach can change someone’s life. The central question for Nussbaum is: “What is Vasanti actually able to do and to be?” The answer to this question is sought rather than the utilitarian approach: “How satisfied is Vasanti?”; or the  Rawlsian/ Dworkinian: “How much in the way of resources is Vasanti able to command? (2000, p.71)” For Nussbaum, the priority is to measure quality of life so that capabilities can match functionings. The next thing to do is to argue that if people fall below a functioning threshold that is necessary for justice then it should be considered urgent in terms of the injustice it creates (2000, p.71).

Nussbaum’s criteria is based upon the intuitive concept that particular functions are universal in human life and that it is these functions that separate us from other animals. Using the philosophy of Marx, she argues that humans need to be cultivated through education, leisure and self-expression, and also through socialisation with others. Nussbaum adds to this liberty of thought and association, as well as freedom of religion or worship, being fundamental to human autonomy (2000, p.72). A person has activities, goals and projects that are above the needs of nature and need support to fulfil these ideas. The essential element of this is that capabilities are sought for the individual, not groups or states or corporations. These entities can be valuable as means to ends but the well-being of the individual is the end itself (2000, p.74).

Nussbaum states that a list of concrete functionings cannot be a theory of justice however it does advise on what will be a minimum of social justice. She also adds that they could be adjusted to suit the various cultures that they encompass (2000, p.75). Nussbaum’s list of capabilities is a list in which all of the elements are distinct and equal in importance. She gives the example of the absence political rights not being able to be compensated by great economic growth (2000, p.81). Nussbaum states that the capabilities that go with these functionings are of three different types:

1)      Basic capabilities- innate equipment necessary for developing more advanced capabilities and morality, such as the capability of love, gratitude, reason and work;

2)      Internal capabilities- maturity, language, political reasoning, socialization, freedom of speech or religion; and

3)      Combined capabilities- where the environment is prepared so that individuals are able to exercise their major functionings (2000, p.85).

There is also a distinction between internal and combined capabilities in that when there is a sudden alteration in the environment in which the individual is placed, perhaps they have had to flee or migrate to another country, then they may not be able to enact their functionings. Nussbaum gives the example of a child who has never experienced freedom of speech or thought and is not able to develop the same capabilities as someone who was raised in a nation that protects these liberties. Nussbaum focuses on a social minimum of these capabilities as suitable for a system of justice (2000, p.86).

With regard to individual liberty and autonomy being safeguarded in such a system, Nussbaum states that it is important to note that ‘capability not functioning is the appropriate political goal (2000, p.87)’. This appears to coalesce with Sen’s evaluative space, where capabilities are derived from functionings. Nussbaum points out that the capabilities approach is much like Rawls’ notion of primary goods, but the difference between the capabilities approach and Rawls theory of justice is that it does not consider wealth and income as goals or ends, more a reliance upon Rawls’ natural goods such as ‘health, vigour, intelligence and imagination’ (2000, p.89). Capabilities are the things needed for functioning such that any rational being would want them. Even if one does not make use of all of them then no harm has been done if they had the choice (2000, p.88).

However, Nussbaum also states that it is important that capabilities such as bodily integrity may be regulated so as not to undermine the functionings of an individual. Although this may be seen as paternalistic it is perhaps synonymous with illegal contracts in that health and bodily integrity are so important to capabilities and functioning that there can be legitimate interference with choice up to a point (2000, p.95). This does seem to call into question whether Nussbaum would allow such choices as being a sex worker in her system of justice, but she does state that such decisions can be left to the democratic process in each nation (2000, p.95). Nussbaum also states that her list is not meant to be an exhaustive account of what is worthwhile in life and is a facilitation list rather than a tyrannical one (2000, p.95). Nussbaum contends that the political purpose of these capabilities is human well-being. She quotes Sen: ‘Political rights are important not only for the fulfilment of needs, they are crucial also for the formulation of needs. And this idea relates, in the end, to the respect that we owe each other as fellow human beings.’ (Sen, 1994, p.38)

Therefore Nussbaum sees her list of functioning capabilities as being closely aligned with universal human rights. They are quite similar to those initiated and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was ratified in 1948, and have been used by many different peoples to assert justice. One of members of the drafting subcommittee of this document stated: “I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality”.(U.N. n.d.) Nussbaum’s list is intended to give fundamental access to capabilities in order to provide a stable society, which was also the intent of the UDHR. Nussbaum argues that these are not only Western notions of rights: “Ideas of activity and ability are everywhere, and there is no culture in which people do not ask themselves what they are able to do, what opportunities they have for functioning (2000, p.100)”. Considering that what differentiates humans from other animals is their need to realise their ideas, whether they be social, creative, technological, or scientific, it seems that Nussbaum’s argument about the universality of her functional capabilities is valid.

Rather than being a strict theory of justice, Sen’s capability approach has the ability to allow a framework that is both accommodating and adaptable. It has the ability to assess individual well-being and evaluate social arrangements so that policies may be designed that can enact just social change. Through being a practical guide it can inform citizens and governments of the directions that may provide desirable outcomes. While criticisms of Sen’s approach state that it is unclear about how it can be extended into a theory of justice, his non-commitment to single distributive rule allows his notions of functionings and capabilities to be a formula for an evaluative space through which justice may be approached. Nussbaum’s transfer of Sen’s evaluative space into a concrete list of functioning capabilities is comprehensive and is not limited to single-types of social systems but holds true for all human beings. Therefore both Sen’s formulaic approach and Nussbaum’s sufficient account of social justice could be used together to provide a constitutional guarantee of human rights.


  1. Nussbaum, M 2000, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, University of Chicago pp. 70-101
  2. United Nations (n.d.), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, viewed 5 April 2013,
  3. United Nations (n.d.), Universal Declaration of Human Rights: History of the Document, viewed 5 April 2013,
  4. Sen, A 1993, ‘Capability and Well-Being’, in M. Nussbaum & A. Sen (eds),The Quality of Life, Clarendon Press, Oxford pp. 30-52
  5. Sen, A, 1994, ‘Freedom and Needs’, The New Republic, January 10/17, pp. 31-38


John Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” (1972) explains how social cooperation needs a system of justice and gives a basic idea of what justice means to the structure of society. Rawls presents the primary concept of justice as being fairness, an abstract extension of the social contract described by such philosophers as Locke, Rousseau and Kant. In Rawls’ theory, however, the social contract is replaced by a concept of an original position which allows for an original agreement on the principles of justice. Rawls contrasts this with the classical utilitarian view (p.3).

Rawls first considers the role of justice. He states that while society is seen as the cooperation of people for mutual advantage it also produces conflict through competing interests. Although social cooperation is the best way for people to better their lives there is a conflict of interests because people dispute inequalities of distribution of the products of society, or the goods produced through such cooperation. People tend to prefer a larger share to a lesser share. Therefore a set of just principles are needed to assign the rights and duties within societal institutions and define how benefits and burdens of societal cooperation are best distributed (p.4)

A just society is one where all know and accept the same principles of justice and the social institutions reflect these principles. Rawls maintains that human society needs a just charter to establish the limits of the pursuit of other ends and bring people with different aims and purposes together. Existing societies are usually in dispute about questions of justice. Rawls states that despite this they still have a concept of justice as being a set of principles that assign rights and duties and determine distribution of societal goods (p.5). For Rawls, the principles of justice should first identify the similarities and differences between people when establishing such assignments and distributions. Rawls states that individuals need to interact positively with each other so that their activities are compatible with each other and their plans can be carried through without infringing unjustly upon the rights of others. The outcomes of their plans should be compatible with justice. When justice is the priority of a social system it can be said that one notion of justice is preferable to another when its wider consequences are more beneficial (p.6).

Rawls next considers how best justice can serve a social system. He states that a just society’s institutions protect freedom of thought and conscience, free markets, private property, and the monogamous family. However, Rawls contends that such institutions are arbitrary in that there are inequalities within society that can affect an individual’s chances in life. Therefore, Rawls states that it is necessary for the principle of social justice to attend to these inequalities first in order to regulate the just economic and social system (p.7). Rawls goes onto say that it might be an idealistic theory but it provides the basis for the understanding of civil disobedience and allows an analysis of ‘the nature and aims of a perfectly just society’ (p.9).

Rawls puts forward the notion of an original agreement which posits that free and rational persons concerned with furthering their own interests would accept an initial position of equality (p.11). It is stated by Rawls that just as rational thinking determines what is in a person’s best interests so too can it also be extended to a group of people deciding what is just and unjust. So, Rawls describes a hypothetical original position which argues that there is no way of knowing where one’s place in society will be, what natural assets or liabilities they may have, or their intelligence or strength. Because of this, Rawls maintains that ‘the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance’. In that way no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles of justice through inequalities of social circumstance (p.12). For Rawls the original position ensures ‘that the principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair’. Therefore, Rawls states, when the social system enacts such principles of justice people will be able to cooperate with one another ensuring that their relationship is a fair one (p.13).

Rawls finally concludes that it would be questionable whether once these principles of justice, based upon an original agreement of equality, were in place that a principle of utility would be allowed. Rawls thinks that it is unlikely that people who consider themselves equal would allow a principle of justice that would require some to suffer inferior life prospects so that a greater utility could be enjoyed by a majority. In this regard utilitarianism seems incompatible with the notion of ‘social cooperation amongst equals for mutual advantage’. Instead of the principle of utility, Rawls contends that the person in a position of equality under the original agreement would choose two defining principles:

1)      that there is equality in the assignment of rights and duties;

2)      that inequalities of wealth and authority are only allowed if they result in compensating everyone, and especially the least advantaged.

Therefore, Rawls thinks that these principles rule out the utilitarian concept of allowing hardships for some if they are offset by a greater good for the many (p.14).

For the sake of survival rational people do not wish to be violated by others and they rely upon a system of justice to protect them from such violations. For Rawls, each person possesses such an inviolability based upon justice and the welfare of society as a whole cannot impinge upon these individual rights. For what if members of the majority were in the position of the minority, they would also want such a right to inviolability to be respected. Rawls argues that justice does not allow the loss of freedom for some to be made right by the greater good of the many. The accident of birth should not determine one’s liberties and for it to do so would be arbitrary rather than just. Under the veil of ignorance and the original position Rawls contends that each person would choose a society where they would respected with dignity even if they are a minority group. Rawls concludes that utilitarianism contradicts these basic precepts of justice, particularly those that concern liberty and rights. A utilitarian society is simply regarded as an efficient means through which the spreading of benefits can occur, and does not take into account the difference between persons. “Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests” (p.3).

  • Rawls, J., (1972), Theory of Justice, Clarendon Press, Oxford


‘If only thou couldst feel as I do, and couldst get thee power of speech’

                                                                   (Od. 9.455-58)[1]

An important feature of the relationship between humans and animals since the early Neolithic age is one of reciprocity. In this line from Odysseus, Homer draws our attention to the close symbiotic relationship between a shepherd and his flock. The shepherd provides protection and the sheep provide sustenance and companionship in his lonely life[2]. However, Hesiod stated that it is the notion of justice that holds us apart from animals, with justice demanding that we do not prey on our own kind[3]. Lonsdale notes that Xenophon went further and argued that man is different because of his capacity to speak and reason, and also in his deep religiosity[4]. Yet, while the Greeks were deeply anthropocentric, the Egyptians did not have such a notion of division between human and animal. Humans were not considered superior and animals were considered the vehicle of earthly representation of the gods[5]. To consider ancient notions of the important attributes differentiating human and non-human it is necessary to review the literature left by ancient writers. These writers tend to relegate these attributes into three distinct types: rationality, intelligence and language, and argue for difference or deny it. The ancient argument that is most valid is the one propounded by writers such as Alexander, Plutarch and Porphyry and denies the superiority of humans, as it takes into account what we may not understand.

The first criterion that many ancient writers cite is the lack of rationality found in animals. In the 5th century BCE Alcamaeon of Croton wrote that humans have xunesis, an understanding which is the basis for rational thought. This allows language to develop which assists cultural maturity. He argues that animals do not have this facility and only have perception, or aesthesis, which humans have also[6]. Plato also states that the difference between humans and animals is human rationality and goes on to say that humans who do not use rational thought are no better than beasts[7]. Aristotle also denies animals reason but concedes that they have phronesis which is the knowledge needed to cope with their environment[8]. For Aristotle, humans live by skill and reason, whereas animals live by experience made up of impressions and memories[9]. In his protestation against his nephew Alexander’s assertion of the rationality of animals, Philo of Alexandria declares that, while animals might exhibit courage, only man has the understanding that enables him to form laws and governments, and to worship God[10]. Such a determination was later reflected even more vehemently by Augustine who stated that humans were made in God’s image and that animals were for their use. For Augustine, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” only referred to humans[11].

Other writers, such as Alexander, claimed that animals were very much like humans. Alexander said that there were two types of reason: logos endiathelos (reason within the mind) and logos proporikos (uttered reason), and that animals had both. Alexander used the ability of different animals to construct complex dwellings, especially some birds and bees, to prove reason in animals, and also contended that the deliberation of a dog in following its prey is proof of reason[12]. Plutarch and Porphyry also used such an argument, but Plutarch added that good rational thinking was not apparent in many humans and only came about through much education. He argued that because animals chose between useful and harmful and exhibited fear, hope and desire this proved their rationality[13]. Porphyry extended this further by stating that justice should be awarded to animals because both humans and non-humans are endowed with reason and practise justice[14]. However, Diogenes Laertius contended that the practice of reasoned thought in humans, especially after the fourteenth year, showed that humans have a governing principle, or hegemonikon[15], that allows one to express meaningful language and is considered to be the foundation of intelligence.

Intelligence is the second criterion that ancient writers advance when they assert the superiority of humans over animals. For Aristotle, man is deliberative in that he has intentionality; only man has the ability of recollection and reason which differentiates him intellectually from animals[16]. Philo thought that pleasure and self-preservation were the prime motivating factors of animals and that they did not need intelligence for these[17]. The Stoics stated that humans have no intellectual kinship with animals as they are irrational, and for this reason humans owe them no obligation of justice[18]. There are other ancient writers who disagreed with this view. Alexander asserted that animals do have a sovereign mind[19], while Plutarch contended that the cleverness and intellect animals use for their survival ought to be enough for us to treat them respectfully[20]. Plutarch also believed that humans shared kinship, or oikeinsois, through manner or lifestyle[21]. Lonsdale writes that Aristotle’s follower, Theophrastus, argued that animal sacrifice was wrong because humans and animals shared an intellectual kinship[22]. Further, Cicero thought that while humans were superior in that they had higher intentions, such as the pursuit of comfort, industry and sympathy for others, he conceded that some animals have such higher intentions and some intellect[23].

Higher intentions and intellect could be prerequisites for engaging in contractual behaviour, a foundation of justice. Epicurus stated that, as animals do not have the capacity for language, they do not have the capacity for forming tacit contractual agreements with an intention to respect one another’s interests[24]. Language is the third criterion for the moral status of animals. For Xenophon, humans were superior to animals both intellectually and physically, and this was manifested in the human capacity for articulate language[25]. This view was also reflected by Diogenes Laertius, who stated that the lack of intelligible language in animals proved their inferiority[26]. While Aristotle thought that animals did communicate through language, he countered that it was not based in semantics and therefore inferior to humans[27]. Philo took this argument further, stating that animal utterances are as meaningless as musical notes[28]. However, Lucretius argues that humans and non-humans do engage in tacit contractual agreements. This is illustrated by the guardianship of humans to animals and the return of services and products by animals, and does not require the understanding of languages for it to be beneficial to both parties[29]. Plutarch and Porphyry also argue that humans lack the capacity to understand the language of animals not that animal language has no meaning[30]; as the modern philosopher, Wittgenstein, stated: “If a lion could talk we would not understand him”[31].

Most of the arguments above that deny non-humans the capacity of reason, intelligence and communication result in the denial to animals of any moral obligation. The Stoic, Chrysippus, puts this argument as such: humans and non-humans have three things on common: senses, utterance and reproduction. Humans can also reason, whereas animals are only motivated by impulse. Therefore, humans need not consider the interests of animals[32]. As Aristotle stated, slavery is a natural phenomenon because it is natural for one human to rule over another and as animals are intended for human use it is natural for humans to rule over animals[33]. This denial of interest to animals culminated in Augustine’s use of Aristotle’s and the Stoics’ arguments to defend the use of animals to benefit human lives on the grounds that God gave humans animals in order to help them to salvation[34]. To attribute reason to animals was tantamount to denying Christian notions of humans being fit for the divine recreation of God[35]. The Egyptian practice of animals representing the gods on earth was sacrilegious to Christian sensibilities. Therefore, animals became ‘the other’ and the primacy of humans became paramount.

Rather than a symbiotic and reciprocal relationship based upon the interests of both humans and non-humans, this reliance on a criteria of reason, intelligence and language to assert an anthropocentric world view discounts and ignores all the ancient contentions that counter such a view. Porphyry, Plutarch and Alexander were right in using the many examples from their environment to show that other animals are very much like humans. They live in complex societies, they build complex dwellings, they make choices between good and bad, they exhibit hopes, fears and desires, and have autonomy. As Lucretius stated, humans and non-humans do engage in tacit contractual agreements when they breed animals for their products or services. However, these agreements can quickly degenerate into master/slave relationships when humans disregard the interests of animals. Also, just as some humans cannot understand the language of other humans from another society, so too it is with other animals. Therefore, arguments used by ancient writers to support the claim that animals are different to humans rely upon criteria that are not exclusive to human beings and have caused the suffering of animals for over two thousand years.


  1. Alcaemon of Croton, DK1a, Hermann Diels & Walther Kranz, eds, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th edn (Berlin: Weidmann, 1951-52)
  2. Aristotle, “Metaphysics”, from Newmyer, S.T., Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, (2011), Routledge Press
  3. Aristotle, “Parts of Animals”, from Pierre Louis, ed., Aristote; Les Parties des Animaux (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1956)
  4. Aristotle, “Politics”, Jean Aubonnet, ed., Aristote; Politique, Livres I et II (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968)
  5. Augustine, “De civitate dei” [The City of God], from B. Dombart & A. Kalb, eds, Sancti Aurelii Augustini de Civitate Dei Libri I-X (Turnhout: Brepols, 1955 (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 47)
  6. Beck, J., (2012), “Why we can’t say what animals think”, Philosophical Psychology, 2012, 1-27, Routledge Press
  7. Chryssipus, “SVF”, from Johannes von Arnim, ed. Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta (Stuttgart; Teubner, 1964; reprint of the edition of 1905)
  8. Cicero, “De finibus bonorum et malorum” [On the Ends of Good and Evil], from Claudio Moreschini, ed., M.Tullius Cicero Scripta Quae Manserunt Omnia Fasc. 43: De Finibus Bonorum et  Malorum (Munich and Leipzig: Saur, 2005)
  9. Diogenes Laertius, “Lives of the Philosophers”, from H.S. Long, Diogenis Laertii Vitae Philosophum (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964)
  10. Epicurus, kuriai Doxai [Soveregn Maxims] XXXI and XXXII, as cited in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers X. 150 [from the life of Epicurus], from Newmyer, S.T., (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, Routledge Press
  11. Gilhus, Ingvild S. (2006) “The religious value of animals” in Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas , Gilhus, Ingvild S. , 2006 , 93-113
  12. Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Works and Days. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1918
  13. Homer, The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919
  14. Lonsdale, S.H., (1979), “Attitudes Towards Animals in Ancient Greece”, Greece and Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol.26, No.2, (Oct., 1979), 146-159
  15. Lucretius, “De rerum natura” [On the Nature of Things], from Joseph Martin, ed., T. Lucreti Cari de Rerum Natura Libri Sex (Leipzig: Teubner, 1963)
  16. Newmyer, S.T., (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, Routledge Press
  17. Philo of Alexandria, “On Animals”, from Newmyer, S.T., Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, (2011), Routledge Press
  18. Plato, “Laws”, Burnet, J., ed., Platonis Opera (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901-1902; rept. 1962-1967)
  19. Plutarch, “De esu cranium” [On the Eating of Flesh), from Newmyer, S.T., (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, Routledge PressPlutarch, “On the Cleverness of Animals”, from Newmyer, S.T., Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, (2011), Routledge Press
  20. Plutarch, “De Stoicurum repugnantis” [On the Self-Contradictions of the Stoics], from Michel Casevitz & Daniel Babut, eds, Plutarque: Ouvres Morales XV (Sur les Contradictions Stoiciennes, etc.) (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004)
  21. Porphyry, “On Abstinence from Animal Flesh”, from Jean Bouffartigue, Michele Patillon, Alain Segond and Luc Brisson, eds, Porphyre; De l’Abstinence (Paris: Les Belle Lettres, 1977-1995)
  22. Wittgenstein, L., (1973), Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell
  23. Xenophon, “Memorabilia” [Recollections of Socrates], from E.C. Marchant, ed., Xenophontis Opera Omnia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967)

[1] Homer, The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919

[2] Lonsdale, S.H., (1979), “Attitudes Towards Animals in Ancient Greece”, Greece and Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol.26, No.2, (Oct., 1979), 149

[3] Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Works and Days. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1914

[4] Lonsdale, Attitudes Towards Animals in Ancient Greece, Greece and Rome, (1979), 156

[5] Gilhus, Ingvild S. (2006) “The religious value of animals” in Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas , Gilhus, Ingvild S. , 2006 , 99

[6] Alcaemon of Croton, (DK1a)

[7] Plato, Laws, 766a

[8] Aristotle, Politics 1332b3-8

[9] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 980a28-981a4

[10] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals, 85

[11] Augustine, De civitate dei [The City of God] , 1.20

[12] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals, 17; 45

[13] Plutarch, On the Cleverness of Animals, 960D-E

[14] Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Flesh III. 13.1-3

[15] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers VII.55 [from the life of Zeno the Stoic]

[16] Aristotle, History of Animals, 488a20-26;588a16-18-588b3

[17] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals 44

[18] Newmyer, S.T., (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, Routledge Press, 28

[19] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals 29

[20] Plutarch, On the Cleverness of Animals, 960D-E

[21] Plutarch, De Stoicurum repugnantis [On the Self-Contradictions of the Stoics] 1038B

[22] Newmyer, (2011), Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook, 28

[23] Cicero, De finibus bonorum et malorum [On the Ends of Good and Evil] II. 109-110

[24] Epicurus, kuriai Doxai [Soveregn Maxims] XXXI and XXXII, as cited in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers X. 150 [from the life of Epicurus]

[25] Xenophon, Memorabilia [Recollections of Socrates] 1.4.11-14

[26] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers VII.55

[27] Aristotle, Parts of Animals 660a35-660b2

[28] Philo of Alexandria, On Animals, 98

[29] Lucretius, De rerum natura [On the Nature of Things] V. 855-877

[30] Plutarch, De esu carnium [On the Eating of Flesh] 994E; Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Flesh III.2-4

[31] Wittgenstein, L., (1973),Philosophical Investigations,  Oxford: Blackwell, XXxi

[32] Chryssipus, SVF 2.821

[33] Aristotle, Politics 1256b15-23

[34] Augustine, De civitate dei, 1.20

[35] Gilhus, (2006) “The religious value of animals” in Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas, 99

JE Thomas, 'Portent', 2002, 168 x 224cm


JE Thomas, “Portent”, 2002, oil on canvas, 168 x 224 cm

A Place to Breathe by the Sea.















There are a variety of notions as to what consciousness is. Some people denote consciousness simply as the difference between being awake/aware and asleep/unaware. Neuroscience posits consciousness as being various neural oscillations (Block 2002), but is still unclear as to how meaning is generated in the brain (Crick and Koch 1998). One of the most important features of consciousness, its subjectivity, is reported by Searle to be a neurobiological process (Searle 1980), or the notion of ‘what it is like to be’ by Thomas Nagel (Nagel 2002). According to Ned Block (2002), various notions of consciousness cause confusion and Block’s paper, Concepts of Consciousness, wishes to clarify and define consciousness through separating it into two distinct categories- phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. This essay will argue that Block fails to establish such a separation which does not help his cause of clarification.

Block (2002, p.206) describes the concept of consciousness as a ‘mongrel concept’ which is used in describing a variety of concepts to identify different phenomena. Block (2002) disputes these different phenomena being treated as a single concept, and he wishes to divide consciousness into recognizable states in order to provide clarity and certainty for people when they discuss consciousness. By categorising consciousness into two main types: phenomenal consciousness (P-consciousness) and access consciousness (A-consciousness), Block (2002) contends that one type of consciousness is based upon non-physical phenomena and the other is based upon the physical functioning of the brain.

Block (2002) theorises that P-consciousness is based upon perceptual experience, not simply the state of awareness that one is in when one is awake. P-conscious properties can be referred to as ‘what it is like’ to have states such as pain, sight, hearing, smell, taste, and experiential properties of sensations such as thoughts, desires and emotions (2002, p. 206). Block (2002) also contends that such conscious states can make an intentional difference and can be representational. However, Block also holds that P-conscious states can be held distinct from any cognitive, intentional, or functional property, namely A-consciousness. A-consciousness is non-phenomenal consciousness and it is based upon its functionality. Block (2002) maintains that it is used for reasoning, reporting, and the direct control of rational action. One of the relationships between P and A consciousness is that A consciousness reports on the information gathered from P-consciousness.

Another relationship between the Block’s two concepts of consciousness is that although each type is distinct it also interacts with the other (2002, p.210). For example, when perceptual information is accessed it can change the intentional direction of thought, or as Block puts it, it ‘can change figure to ground and conversely, and a figure-ground switch can effect one’s phenomenal state’ (2002, p.209). In Block’s (2002) view an experience’s content can be in both conscious states at once because of the phenomenal properties of one and the representational properties of the other. However, there are three main differences between these two types of consciousness. Firstly, P-consciousness is phenomenalwhile A-consciousness is representational.  Block (2002) remarks that the content of P-consciousness is the ‘what is like’ component and this allows the content of an experience to be both P-conscious and A-conscious. Secondly, A-consciousness is functional, or as Block (2002, p.209) declares: ‘…what makes a state A-conscious is what a representation of its content does in a system’. Thirdly, P-consciousness can be a type of ‘kind of’ state. For example, if pain is a P-conscious type then every pain must have that feel, whereas A-consciousness could sometimes fail to be accessible. Block sums up these differences by maintaining that P-conscious states are sensations, whereas A-conscious states involve ‘propositional attitudes’ such as thoughts, beliefs and desires, representational states expressed by ‘that’ clauses. (2002, p. 209).

As Block’s intention is to define these states of consciousness so that they can be properly identified and not confused, he needs to show that the relationship between both P and A consciousness can be separated. To do this Block (2002) gives particular examples of A-consciousness without P-consciousness, such as a computational robot that is identical to a person but that does not experience phenomenal or perceptual states. To act, the robot needs to receive information. Even the simplest computer needs information and it does not seem plausible that the robot would be able to do any computing at all if there was not data entered into it. That would appear to make it an inanimate object. Therefore, with data or information taking the place of perceptual states and phenomenal experience needing these states to provide information, this example of A-consciousness without P-consciousness does not seem credible.

Another example that Block (2002) gives of A-conscious states without P-consciousness, is the blindsight patient, who can guess that there is an ‘X’ rather than an ‘O’ in his blind field. For someone to have knowledge of this ‘X’ so that they could guess it was there, they must have some previously gathered experience or knowledge of that ‘X’. An analogy to this example could be my guess as I am driving that there is a motorcyclist in my car’s blindspot from my previous perception in my rearview mirror of her travelling in the same direction as me but in a different lane. I would only think about the motorcyclist, or the ‘X’ in the case of the blindsight patient, if I had previous knowledge or experience of it. Unless we are talking about assumed innate thoughts, I cannot have thoughts about something of which I have no previous knowledge or experience. Therefore, Block’s analogy seems not to succeed on this account.

Block (2002) keeps on with his blindsight analogy with a person who has superblindsight. He states that this superblindsighted person can guess that there is a horizontal field in his blind field purely though introspection, in the way that Block (2002 p.211) says we can solve problems simply through thoughts popping into our minds, or the way that one might just innately know the time, or which way North is without experiencing it. This superblindsight example is contentious because resolutions to problems need to be based upon some experience or knowledge. Even our knowledge of North, without having some perceptual experience such as it being pointed out, is debatable. The concept of North would not have any meaning. It seems that the only way A-consciousness could be a state without P-consciousness would be to conclude, as Descartes did, that ‘even bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from being touched or seen but from their being understood’ (Descartes, 2002, p. 13). Such an assumption of innate knowledge makes this analogy appeal to belief, rather than prove a truth.

Block (2002) also claims that P-consciousness without A-consciousness is possible. To be P-conscious without being A-conscious, one would be perceptually aware without being able to transmit that information into useful data. An objection arose to this claim which states that we would never be in the position to know whether P-consciousness without A-consciousness is possible. Block (2002) responds to this objection in his paper by arguing that introspection would allow us to be aware of our consciousness and to see it as being distinct from A-consciousness. This is a contradictory response, as to be introspectively aware would be putting A-consciousness to use thereby one would be P-conscious as well as A-conscious. The truth of the claim of P-conscious states without A-conscious states also appears unconvincing.

Block’s intention to differentiate various concepts of consciousness in order to counteract confusion seems to end up being confused itself. Intuitively, there does not seem to be any problem thinking about consciousness as being perceptual on the one hand and functional on the other. These two types seem to work together to underpin a functioning mind. However, there is confusion between the two types, with A-consciousness being found by Block (2002) to be indeterminate and P-consciousness sometimes straying into the realm of A-consciousness through having properties such as thoughts, wants and emotions ( 2002, pp.207-08). Although we can assume Block does not see such states as thoughts and desires being functional, these could be categorised as functional activities of the brain.

Computational approaches to the mind see access consciousness being identical to phenomenal consciousness because of its function of information gathering and processing (2002, p.208).  So is the categorical statement that Block puts forward true: If P = A then the computational model of the mind is correct? Phenomenality and accessibility consciousness are considered features of consciousness, as are intentionality, subjectivity, qualia, self-consciousness, unity and dynamic flow etc. (Gulick 2004).  However, this does not mean that being identical features of a single concept or that being part of many features of consciousness allows the computational model to be correct. There were other models of the mind that were not necessarily computational before Block made his claims. Furthermore, computational models of the mind are not necessarily correct for other reasons, such as the binding problem (Crick and Koch 1998). From the number of features of consciousness, it appears that it has a multidimensional rather than a singular or dichotomic quality.

Block argues that his claim needs his two consciousness types to be able to be conceptually separated. For me, he fails to establish this. Without empirical or conceptual evidence, it is like stating that a single or multiple thing/s are necessarily two separate categories simply because they have been put into two separate ‘files’. Therefore, I do not think that Block’s model of consciousness as a single theoretical perspective is plausible.


Block, N 2002 ‘Concepts of Consciousness’, in D Chalmers (ed), Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Oxford University Press, New York

Crick, F, Koch, C 1998, ‘Consciousness and Neuroscience’, Cerebral Cortex, no.8, pp. 97-107, viewed 3rd  May 2012

Descartes, R 2002, ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ in D Chalmers (ed) Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Oxford University Press, New York

Nagel, T 2002, ‘What it is like to be a bat’ in D Chalmers (ed) Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Oxford University Press, New York

Searle, JR 1980, ‘Minds, Brains, and Programs,’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences, no. 3, pp.417-457, viewed 3rd May 2012

Van Gulick, R 2004, “Consciousness”, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), viewed 5th May 2012


Nils Holtug argues for the Value of Existence View which makes ‘the comparative claim that existence can be better (or worse) for a person than non-existence’ (p.370). Derek Parfit and John Broome argue against this view by stating that it is incoherent. Parfit argues that causing someone to exist cannot be better for a person because the alternative would not have been worse. Broome argues that it can never be true that it is better for a person to exist than to not exist because if she had not existed there would not have been a ‘her’ to have been worse off.

The argument set out by Parfit and Broome is called the Metaphysical Argument and it relies upon two premises. The first premise makes the judgement that it is better (or worse) to exist than never to exist and entails that it is worse (or better) to not exist than to exist. The second premise is that it cannot be worse (or better) to not exist. The first claim, Holtug states, is based upon the logic of ‘betterness’ relation, and the second premise is based upon the metaphysical principle called The No Properties of the Non-Existent Principle. This means that an individual cannot have any properties if it does not exist.

This principle can be disputed. Broome’s argument relies upon the point that if a person does not exist then it is impossible for any properties to be attached to her. Holtug contends that the logic of betterness relation that the argument relies upon assumes that in order for existence to be worse than non-existence, non-existence must be better than existence. To explore the logical properties of the betterness relation, Holtug considers the following definition:

1)      y is worse for S than x, if and only of x is better for S than y.

If (1) states that existence if better (or worse) for a person than non-existence, non existence is better (or worse) for her. The latter part seems to violate the No Properties of the Non-Existent Principle. It seems to ascribe to her the property of being worse (or better) off in a possible world in which she does not exist. According to this principle we cannot claim that existence is better for her than non-existence because this implies that non-existence is worse for her than existence. So Holtug reassesses the argument with the proposition:

P: Non-existence is worse for Jeremy than existence.

Can the truth of P be established without ascribing to Jeremy positive properties in a possible world in which he does not exist? Holtug claims that P can be established by appeal to a preference that Jeremy has in an actual world in which he exists. Existence may be preferable for Jeremy because he prefers existence to non-existence. Jeremy’s life includes a surplus of positive value, whereas his non-existence had no value. Holtug insists that this is compatible with The No Properties of the Non-Existent Principle; it is better to have a surplus of values than no value. The Metaphysical Argument is not preserved because the Value of Existence View does not rely upon someone existing for the possibility of them benefiting from existence.

  • Holtug, Nils. “On the value of coming into existence” Journal of Ethics , 5:4 , 2001 , 361-384