Vegans and humans: How not to use words

I’ve written before about how you should know whether you’re talking about the meaning of words or something else. Just now, I found myself thinking about an annoying example of how someone didn’t… and since I feel like explaining why it’s wrong, I might as well do so here and use it as an example.

The example comes from an interview on the radio where someone was talking about what it was like to be vegan. She talked about how this also involved wanting to make ethical choices towards humans, not just non-human animals. She mentioned that someone had been surprised about this and asked why, and she’d said that humans are animals too. But that had been the end of the conversation because they other person’s opinion was that no, they’re not.

I don’t know what the situation was really like. (I might even remember the details as told in the interview incorrectly.) But let’s take it as an example, and at face value: that the other person would just insist that humans are not animals, period.

Two points:

  • First, if we’re talking about the meaning of words, okay: There are basically two meanings of the word “animal”; one of them includes humans and the other doesn’t. Just because your linguistic intuition only recognises one doesn’t mean the other is invalid. And if the point is that you feel that there is some essential difference between humans and other animals, that’s at least not more accurate than to say that there is sameness, that they all belong to the same group. The definition that “animal” includes human is the more scientific one, after all. Humans are taxonomically in Animalia. (See also: The Mythical Animal.)
  • Second, why would this be a relevant point anyway? What would make humans not-animals in such a way that this would mean that humans could be treated less well morally? Of course people can base their morality on arbitrary boundaries, but why ask for that if someone isn’t doing it?

Words are just tools, but people like to use them like they’re something else — something more important than what they’re being used to talk about or that they’re otherwise doing. It’s not that word meanings shouldn’t sometimes be brought up. What you should do is to talk about what is relevant and understand what the words used are actually doing in that context.


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