Naming, partiality and the moral sensibilities

I should preface this post by noting that I’m not a lingust, and by acknowledging that I’m a welfarist rather than an abolitionist when it comes to human-animal relations. What I am is interested in moving towards an anti-speciesist empathic civilization by cultivating the moral sensibilities, so the editors’ Terms of Discourse in the new Journal of Animal Ethics caught my attention. I’d also like to leave aside my defense of being both anti-speciesist and welfarist, which is mostly a different debate.

I only now realized the first issue is already out. This afternoon an article in the Telegraph got picked up by Newser and various other (often rabidly speciesist) sources. And I haven’t yet read the journal in its entirety…I have only read the first page of the Terms of Discourse–I’ll read the whole issue after I download it from the UML database next Monday–but I do have a number of immediate thoughts on this issue. (And it so happens I’m teaching on Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in a few weeks.)

As usual, I’m drawn to the commentary like a moth to flame, and a number of thoughts come to mind, which, as usual, range from the knee-jerk reactionaries who use defensive and tautological arguments to justify their (often unexamined) prejudice to the thoughtful-but-immersed-in-the-dominant-anthropocentric-paradigm animal guardians / human carers. The latter tended to sidestep the issue by saying something like “its my dog and I’m its human”, and I think this response, while equivocal and ultimately unsatisfying, is pragmatically sensible. I agree with Bernie Rollin that a contract was formed when my wife and I adopted our retired research beagle, Rodney, and in most senses but the legal one my dog owns me just as much as I do it. I also have a problem with speaking six syllables when I know of a reasonable alternative that has only one–this is a purely lazy preference, I know, but I can’t help but admit it. The question, of course, is whether the alternative is ‘reasonable’. Whenever possible, I go with the commenters and sidestep the question, precisely because of the can of worms that I’m about to open by looking more closely.

Although specific words like “pet” are clearly bound up in the history of human-on-nonhuman domination and exploitation, the range of words, phrases, expressions, and idioms containing analogical and metaphorical uses of nonhuman animal symbols is historically vast and central to much of our cultural development as a species (as Berger forcefully argues. The idea that we can pick out partial from impartial language, as the editors assert, is problematic on at least three counts: 1) attaining impartiality in language is itself questionable, 2) even words that come with heavy baggage change in meaning over time, and 3) the use of animal symbolism is aesthetically, if not ethically, embedded in the way we learn to empathize: by tapping into our moral sympathies through, among other things, the power of imaginative fiction in all its forms.

There’s also a fourth issue, which I’ll mention but not address here: that pushing for impartial (or as-impartial-as-possible) language is not the right strategic move at this historic moment. This is less a critique on the merits, though, and the JAE is setting forth guidelines for submissions, not necessarily speaking to the general public. I’ll set this aside for now, as it’s also part of a different debate.

On the first issue: the idea that we can discriminate (irony intended) between partiality and impartiality underestimates how deeply we are embedded in the vocabularies we construct. I agree that the goal of striving towards impartiality is essential–it is the bedrock of two things I respect greatly: the Enlightenment project of rationality and progress (with serious caveats, but that’s also a different debate), and Habermasian deliberation. The claim that much of our existing language is deeply anthropocentric is strong as well–as is the claim that many (most?) languages are deeply androcentric.

But there is a problem. Accepting, with Rorty’s liberal ironist, the contingency of language throws a wrench in the quest for impartiality; there’s no view from nowhere, and often the best we can do is to lay our biases bare. In concluding lines of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell writes:

“I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.”

Orwell’s role in the Spanish Civil War was uniquely partisan. Still, his criticism should be taken seriously, as should S.J. Gould’s broader point, when discussing Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid”, that “we all tend to spin universal theories from a limited domain of surrounding circumstances”. (Highlighting again that I’m not a linguist,) the idea that we can find an impartial metavocabulary is as problematic as denying that some words carry psychologically pathogenic significations (to put it as Garrett Hardin viewed the issue population control by moral suasion alone). Yes, our language can carry with it a legacy of structural violence, but what are the censors’ boundaries? Is there a statute of limitations? Do we throw out the word “wife” because it shares an Indo-European root with a word meaning “shame”? And, if we’re shooting for impartial language, why not?

I’m going to skip over the second point–that signifiers and signifieds changes over time–both because it’s been a decade since I last read Saussure and because I’m most interested in the third point: that animal symbols can’t be extricated from our cultural fabric without doing potentially serious damage to the aesthetic and ethical priming of our moral sensibilities.

From a high school fascination with mythical cosmogony to an undergraduate ‘great books’ education at Wesleyan’s College of Letters, I am the way I am at least in part because of the books I have read and the films I have seen. (Having companion animals–dogs and rats–since childhood and many other factors are also crucial.) And while I am sympathetic, in the moral sense under discussion, to the editors’ goals, the use of descriptive language and animal symbols is more than just misguided anthropomorphism, and even when it is anthropomorphic it’s not necessarily misguided, in its disciplinary context.

None of this is to say that we should not be careful about the language we use. We should. In the clearer cases–describing a pig as a production unit, say–the bias and its effect are painfully obvious. It seems equally clear that moths are indeed drawn to flame, as I stated above, and that this is descriptive rather than normative language. But where do we draw the line separating the normative wolf in the descriptive sheep’s clothing from the merely descriptive? Does describing conservative bioethicist’s blog, “Secondhand Smoke”, as “rabidly speciesiest” in its defense of human exceptionalism count? (I would think not, which is why I used it above. But a case could be made that ‘beastliness’ is only a descriptive step beyond being rabid.)

Anthropomorphism, for all its scientific shortcomings, is also one of the ways that humans can empathize with nonhumans. Taking a scalpel to our available vocabulary would limit the foundational vocabulary upon which our sympathetic education is built. Whether the insidious effects of language that fosters systemic violence outweigh the ethical priming of our moral sensibilities through imaginative fiction is an important question, but I’m not sure if it’s the kind of question that has a single answer.

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