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Reply to Clare Palmer

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Clare Palmer presents a sympathetic and fair-minded account of my theory of biocentric practice-consequentialism, and conveys an almost entirely accurate interpretation of it. However, my prioritising of basic interests over relatively trivial ones is actually paired with a second criterion of moral significance, that of the psychological complexity of the creature's capacities (Attfield, 1983 and 1991: 173–7; 1995: 92), and because of this pairing of two criteria, both relevant to inter-species ethics, I am not committed to the wrongness of eating meat as such, although I accept the wrongness of “consuming the products of factory-farms and of other practices which cause significant animal suffering without sufficient reason” (1983 and 1991: 181).

To turn to Palmer's narrative of my account of capacities and relations, I do indeed hold that “the criterion of standing in particular relationships cannot in itself be other than arbitrary” (Attfield, 1983 and 1991:178), but the emphasis here is on “in itself”. As she says, I can still hold that relations are important (albeit secondary). And because of this I have no need to deny (as she supposes) that “the relation of being someone's parent creates special caring obligations towards [their] child”. For consequentialists such as myself can recognise as overall beneficial (or optimific) practices like family life, which generate special obligations for family members such as parents (Attfield, 1995: 108–113); and so, given this practice, becoming a parent can (and in my view does) create special caring obligations. This theme of how consequentialism upholds relationships and related obligations is ably elaborated by Peter Railton in ‘Alienation, Consequentialism and the Demands of Morality’ (Railton, 1988); as Railton argues, there is no need for consequentialism to be understood in a way that alienates its adherents from their relationships, as might well be the case if our love of family members had to be provisionally given on a day-to-day basis on the condition of it continuing to serve the general good. (Railton subscribes to a different kind of consequentialism from mine, but his reasoning arguably remains relevant; it would take us too far afield to argue the point here.)
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2010

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