“Clouds on the Sea”

“Clouds on the Sea,” Ruth Dallas (New Zealand), This Same Sky, p. 177 (see Resource List)

I walk among men with tall bones,this same sky
With shoes of leather, and pink faces,
I meet no man holding a begging bowl,
All have their dwelling places.

In my country
Every child is taught to read or write,
Every child has shoes and a warm coat,
Every child must eat his dinner,
No one must grow any thinner,
It is considered remarkable and not nice
To meet bed bugs and lice.
Oh we live like the rich
With music at the touch of a switch,
Light in the middle of the night,
Water in the house as from a spring,
Hot, if you wish, or cold, anything
For the comfort of the flesh,
In my country. Fragment
Of new skin at the edge of the world’s ulcer.

For the question
That troubled you as you watched the reapers
And a poor woman following,
Gleaning ears on the ground,
Why should I have grain and this woman none?
No satisfactory answer has ever been found.

Background on Philosophical Issues

Dallas gives us a striking tongue-in-cheek account, in somewhat sarcastic rhyming verse, of a speaker realizing the significance of her living in a culture in which abject poverty is very rare. All of the privilege that she notes, which is most often taken for granted, gives us a chilling reminder of the majority of the world, in which circumstances are otherwise. Living in a place in which affluence is the norm, it is easy for many of us to forget that the majority of humans cannot just assume their basic needs will be met each day. At the end of the final stanza, the “you” is confronted with a women who has very little, and demands of the world why she should have plenty and this other woman has nothing.

We know that there is enough food on earth to feed the world’s human population many times over. So why are there still so many people starving? If we have access to more than we need, are we obligated to give some of our own food and resources to help other people? If so, how much? For those of us living in affluent nations, these are questions we often shy away from confronting. They can seem to big for one person to solve.

On Giving

Continue reading

Animal Ethics

[Note: In the interests of being concise, I have linked to a number of relevant discussions and definitions throughout the article and at the end. Please feel free to explore these links as you read through, and continue the discussion in the comments at the bottom of this page!]


Ethics is the area of philosophy that deals with morality, with rights and wrongs, with “oughts:” How ought we behave? What are our obligations to others? What must we do, what is it okay to do, and what is it not okay to do?

child dog fieldAnimal ethics in particular deals with how we should behave toward nonhuman animals. Children often become interested in animal ethics at a very early age. Though Western societies, as professor of psychology William Crain notes, tend to “draw a sharp line between ourselves and other animals” (Crain xix), children are not born seeing this distinction. They are quickly taught by families, friends, and the media to put different species in categories: society tells us to see nonhuman animals as “others.” Still, before this sinks in, children likely spend a great deal of time interrogating how we relate to the nonhumans in their day-to-day lives – in their homes, in zoos, in parks, and perhaps all around them if they live far enough from a big city.

Significantly, this is often the time they realize that the meat on their plates used to be breathing, feeling animals just as sentient as their beloved dogs, cats, or other companion animals. For many children, the only contact they will have with cows, pigs, and birds is at mealtime, when it is often easy to become desensitized. They wonder if it makes sense to care for and love certain animals while hurting others. How do we make this distinction? Many children and adults who spend time thinking about this contradiction choose to adopt vegetarian or vegan lifestyles to avoid causing unnecessary suffering. Others believe that there are ways to protect or care for animals while still supporting animal slaughter in some or all cases.

A central issue in animal ethics, and one that helps to illuminate why people come to so many different conclusions about how we should treat nonhuman animals, is the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. Supporters of animal rights believe that nonhumans are entitled to certain independent legal rights. These rights may include the right not to be eaten, the right not to be forcibly impregnated, the right not to be experimented on, the right not to be forced to perform or ingest toxic doses of chemicals, and many other rights currently not granted to nonhuman animals in the majority of the world today. Animal welfare supporters are concerned mainly with how humans treat other animals. The focus is often on how to achieve better living conditions for animals who are kept in captivity and eventually killed by humans for food, entertainment, experimentation, and forced labour.

However, while rights activists hold that animals have inalienable rights independent of anyone else’s interests, welfarists may defend the view that even though animal welfare is important, human concerns are more important than the concerns of nonhuman animals. This view, held in some form by most humans today, is called speciesism. A speciesist philosopher may or may not be an animal welfare supporter in certain contexts, but will argue that if forced to choose, we should prioritize the interests of our species over others. These individuals maintain that this philosophy is justified because there are morally relevant grounds for putting all nonhumans on a lower level of moral concern than all humans, regardless of any factor besides species membership.

Finally, many philosophers insist that nonhuman animals do not merit inclusion in our moral circle at all. This is a more extreme form of speciesism that is held by fewer philosophers, hearkening back to the days of René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes believed that nonhuman animals were unconscious automata. If they actually had no direct experiences of their own, then they could not be said to have direct interests or a potential wellbeing to take into account, so any concern for animal welfare was predicated on an indirect notion of how human interests could be served by treating animals well. However, the automata theory has been largely disproved by contemporary biologists and neurologists, who have proven that nonhuman animals possess neurological systems much more like our own than they are different.

So why is there a difference between what many people consider acceptable to do to a member of one species versus another species? There are number of different proposed arguments against nonhuman animals’ rights. I discuss a few below, but I hope you’ll enjoy perusing the list of resources below for further exploration of animal ethics!

The Intelligence Argument

Some people believe that there is a notable difference in intelligence in nonhuman versus human animals. Humans have higher levels of intelligence, says this argument, and thus our interests are more important. However, other philosophers have pointed out that differences in intelligence is not a reason to discriminate among individual humans. What is it about nonhuman animals that makes their intellectual capabilities a relevant factor in how they are treated? Furthermore, the average nonhuman primate, pig, or dog is vastly more intelligent and independent than the average human infant. Projects on interspecies communication have revealed that nonhuman primates are capable of acquiring vocabularies of thousands of words, far more than human toddlers or even some adults with certain communication disabilities. Most of those who argue against nonhuman rights would not be prepared to deny rights to humans with similar language capabilities.

The Contractarian Argument

Some contractarian ethicists argue that nonhuman animals are not worthy of inclusion in our moral circle because they cannot enter into contracts with us. If they cannot promise not to hurt us, we are not required to refrain from hurting them. In response, other philosophers wonder whether not being able to enter into a moral contract is a reason to justify hurting someone. This is a particularly interesting dilemma to discuss with young children, because most will have had experience interacting with nonhuman animals as companion animals in their own homes or at friends’ houses. If your dog or cat cannot promise not to hurt you, does that give you the right to hurt him?

Some philosophers also worry that the contractarianism argument is inconsistent because many people who argue that nonhumans have “lower” intelligence than humans, and thus are entitled to fewer rights, also tend also to claim that humans possess greater moral reasoning capabilities than other animals. If this is the case, says the rebuttal, then we should be able to make the decision to show ethical restraint by not harming others unnecessarily.

The “Natural” Argument

Another common argument for animal exploitation is that animal consumption and subjugation is natural and has always been done. This raises many philosophical questions too. Young children are often particularly intrigued by the concept of the “natural,” since it is open to such wide interpretation. What does “natural” actually mean? If anything that an animal does is natural, is anything a human does natural? Does that make cars and computers natural (since we built them!)? If so, what isn’t natural? Does the word natural begin to lose its meaning? Is something that is natural always okay? What about other institutionalized practices that almost all human cultures have adopted for extended periods of our histories, but that we recognize today as abhorrent, like human slavery and genetic mutilation (which are currently legal to inflict on most nonhumans)?

In the Public Sphere

The ethical issue of non-human animal rights is rapidly gaining recognition around the world. The Nonhuman Rights Project is a non-profit devoted to gaining real legal rights for nonhumans around the world. India and Finland have declared dolphins to be official nonhuman persons, and many countries have recognized primates as persons with the autonomy and right to make decisions for themselves and not have their bodies and reproductive systems exploited and harmed for human interest.

However, in the United States today, nonhuman animals’ rights are generally not recognized. In the typical egg production facility, hens are held captive in battery cages, barren metal contraptions so tiny that each hen does not even have enough room to spread her wings, much less move around. For nearly their entire pregnancies, mother sows are confined to cramped gestation crates, painful metal cages that make it impossible to lie down comfortably or turn around. More standard factory farm practices are discussed in these pages at Farm Sanctuary. These “standard practices” are “routine” and legal, but often elicit horror and outrage from people learning about them for the first time. What is more, the things we do to animals who are raised for food, experimentation, and entertainment would be illegal were they done to a dog, cat, or human being.

In contrast to more abstract philosophical discussions in metaphysics and epistemology, animal ethics is particularly gripping for young people because it deals with issues that are directly affected by our day-to-day actions. Most of us interact directly with some nonhuman animals on a daily basis. Even if we live in cities and do not live with companion animals, we are likely to interact with pigeons and squirrels any time we leave the house. Every day, we make the choice whether to eat an animal or not to, and whether to support circuses that profit from animal humiliation instead of solely from human talent. We also must recognize that as beings who consume, we will inevitably cause some amount of destruction and suffering every day just by existing, particularly within the structure of today’s society that depends so much on industrialized agriculture and on technology that pollutes and destroys the environment. We each must take on the responsibility to evaluate our own circumstances to make rational choices that we feel good about. Hopefully the poems and questions on this site will give young philosophers the tools to delve a little more deeply into these ethical questions we face each day.

Peter Singer, a modern preference utilitarian philosopher, is considered one of the main fathers of the modern animal liberation and animal rights movement. In Animal Liberation, he outlines the principle of equal consideration of interests, which says that if we are going to treat someone differently based on a particular difference, then that difference must be morally relevant. Species, he argues, just like race, gender, or nationality, is not a morally relevant difference. It does not play a role in our ability to have interests and feel physical and emotional pain, so it should not play a role in one’s right to avoid suffering and to be treated with dignity.

References and Further reading

BBC Ethics guide. (2014) “The ethics of speciesism.”

Cohen, Carl. (1997) “Do Animals Have Rights?” 7(2), 91-102.

Cohen argues that animal rights are nonsensical, because the concept of “rights” is distinctly human.

Crain, William. The Emotional Lives of Animals & Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary.

Diamond, Cora. “Eating Meat and Eating People,” Philosophy 53 (1978): 465-79.

Dunayer, Joan. “On Speciesist Language.” On the Issues.

Some thoughts on how language influences our cultural communication and understanding, published in a progressive feminist magazine.

Farm Sanctuary: Factory Farming

Farm Sanctuary: Someone, Not Something Project

Great Apes Project

jones, pattrice. (2013) “Intersectionality and Animals.” Vine Sanctuary News.

Moral Standing and Personhood,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Singer, Peter. (2003) “Animal Liberation at 30.” New York Times.

Singer, Peter. (1979) “Equality for Animals?Practical Ethics, Chapter Three.

Spiegel, Marjorie. (1988) The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, London: Heretic Books.

Speciesism. Animal Ethics.

Professor James McWilliams on the naturalistic fallacy

Rohr, Janelle. Opposing Viewpoints: Animal Rights. Opposing Viewpoints Series.

Walker, Alice. (1986) “Am I Blue?Living By The Word. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Wilson, Scott D. “Animals and Ethics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Please feel free to share ideas and further resources in the comments on this page!


Epistemology is the study of knowledge and belief. Epistemologists want to figure out what we can know and how we know what we know. What kind of information do we need to have in order to make an educated guess about something? Is that guess, even if true, a piece of knowledge? Must knowledge be certain, that is, not subject to doubt? Are all of our beliefs true?

The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) worried a lot about these questions, and used the power of doubt to try to build his body of knowledge from the ground up. He began by doubting things that we usually take for granted about the existence of the external physical world. Eventually, he found that he could find a reason to doubt pretty much everything that he had thought to be true except his own existence.

In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes acknowledges that all of his thoughts and even sensory experiences could be happening in an immaterial dreamworld, but that no matter what, there is still a thinking, feeling being experiencing it all. His reasoning was that if there was doubt, there had to be a doubter, so at least one person was thinking those doubting thoughts. That is where the famous quote, “I think, therefore I am” originated. From this revelation, Descartes built up his theory of knowledge about everything else.

This discussion was the foundation for Descartes’ distinction between the mind (mental world) and things that exist in the real physical world. This distinction was fairly widely accepted in Western thought until 20th century philosophers like Wittgenstein, Austin, and William James began to question how sharp the distinction really is.

Descartes’ worry is similar to ones we find in many children’s fiction and in poetry/poetic prose: How do we deal with the world of dreams? Dreamworlds feel just as real as anything else while we’re experiencing them, but as soon as we wake up, we usually are certain that the world we have just left is nothing but a fantasy, and that the “waking world” that we are experiencing now is true reality. But how can we be sure?

Around the second century B.C.E., Chuang Tzu, one of the leading founders of Chinese Taoist philosophy, was interested in similar questions surrounding dream realities. In his famous “Chuang Chou and the Butterfly” story, Chuang Chou has a vivid dream of flying around as a butterfly, with all the accompanying sensory experiences and knowledge. Suddenly, he wakes up and thinks he is a man. But how does he know that he was not awake before, and now is a butterfly dreaming he is a man?! Instead of exploring the question further on paper, Chuang Tzu leaves it for the reader to consider, asserting only that surely “there must be some distinction” between Chuang Chou and the butterfly. The proposition of the mind/world distinction gets us thinking about not just the epistemic questions of how we come to know things about the world, but also metaphysical questions about the actual true nature of reality.

Citation: Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, introduction and translation by Burton Watson, 1964, Columbia University Press.

–> Read the complete works of Chuang Tzu for free online at Terebess Asia Online.

For more discussion, visit Matthias Steup’s Epistemology article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as well as Professor Tom Wartenberg’s “The Dream” book module on Teaching Children Philosophy and the Spark Notes guide to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.


Metaphysics is the area of philosophy that is concerned with investigating how the world really is, not just what we experience or believe. In his system of logic, Aristotle drew a distinction between essential properties and accidental properties of an object or individual. When we put ourselves in the world of this poem, we are even challenged to wonder what it would really mean to be able to change our species at will, and what is it about ourselves that makes us truly human. If something is essential to my identity as a human being, then without that property (i.e. characteristic or quality), I would not be human. If something is an accidental property, it just happens to be true, but does not need to be true. Accidental properties often change over time, while essential properties tend to remain the same. For instance, I identify as a female adult, so “woman” is relatively essential to who I am. Another commonly-accepted essential property (though this has all been contested) is parentage. If I had been conceived and born from different parents, many people would say I would actually be a different person, as both my DNA and full set of life experiences would be different. On the other hand, clothing is generally considered an accidental property. Today I am wearing a black scarf. If you were to point me out in a room, you might use that property to identify me: “Hey, do you see that woman wearing the black scarf?” However, when I take off the scarf this evening, I will not change who I am. Therefore “woman” is an essential property of my identity, but “wearing a black scarf” is accidental. Unfortunately, the distinction is not always so clear. What about properties like “lives in California” or “has three sisters?” We can all imagine ourselves living in different places or with different families, and since we say “ourselves,” there seems to be some intuition that we would be the same people. However, if our experiences shape our identity, some philosophers argue that we would actually be different people. So where does this line get drawn? My favourite humorous illustration of how this distinction can easily get muddled comes from the popular joke that starts with a riddle: “What is red, hangs on a wall, and whistles?”

“I give up,” says Jim.

“A herring!” says John.

“But – a herring isn’t red!” “So you paint it red.” “But – a herring doesn’t hang on a wall!”

“You could nail it to the wall.”

“But – “ Jim sputters in disbelief. “A herring doesn’t whistle!” John shrugs, smiles, and says, “Okay, so it doesn’t whistle.”

The joke makes a point by taking accidental properties to extremes. You could certainly paint a fish and still call her a fish, and even nail her to the wall (however gruesome the image might be), while still acknowledging her fishness. At a certain point, though, if we imagine too many absurdities, we will have lost something of what it means to be a fish. In the Inuit poem “Magic Words,” the question of what it means to be a different kind of animal is broached in a more ethereal way, opening the door for children to open their minds to new ways of categorizing.

Another area of metaphysics that is touched on in many of the poems discussed here is the nature of time. How do we measure time? Is it a “real” thing, separate from human consciousness, or is it just something that we’ve made up to help conceptualize our experiences? Some people have argued that time is a separate dimension, while others have argued that it is just arbitrary units of measurement.

Metaphysics Resources

I was originally introduced to the concept of accidental and essential properties and the corresponding silly story while pleasure reading during high school, in Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein’s Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. (See the Resources section for my discussion of this delightful book.) For further background, refer to Teresa Robertson and Philip Atkins’ SEP article, “Essential vs. Accidental Properties,” Louis F. Groarke’s IEP article on Aristotelian Logic, and William G. Lycan’s Philosophy of Language (Routledge, 2000) on definite descriptions and identity statements. For further discussion on essential and accidental properties of objects and individuals, Tom Wartenberg’s The Important Book module is a great resource.