Language, moral worth, and hippie elephants

Something I wrote a couple years ago that I found digging through my files.

So my back was hurting and for a minute I thought I’d build a little platform on my desk so I could work standing up, by piling up a box and some books. A temporary fix in anticipation of buying one of those standing desks. It didn’t work, and I immediately put the box and books away.

One of the books was an Italian grammar book I’d bought when I began studying Italian a few years ago. I’ve recently eased off that study and have been wondering whether and to what extent I’ll continue with it. But I thought to myself how much I enjoyed studying it for its own sake—not even to learn the language but just because I love grammar, like I love all aspects of language. This led me—somewhat self-consciously, even a little defensively—to wax enthusiastic about grammar in my mind, by way of justifying my love: how cool and amazing grammar is and how worth our attention.

This reminded me of the trope, common and longstanding, of claiming that some human trait or another—language, tool-making, consciousness itself, the ability to feel pain, empathy, certain forms of sociality—is unique.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about, because it is common in writing about some of the subjects I’m most interested in, including linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, and the history of science. Another reason I think about it a lot is because Julie is even more critical of the trope than I am, and I’m fairly critical of it. We debate it frequently, whenever it comes up in some text we’re talking about.

I think there are important reasons to be deeply skeptical of such a claim. First, the history of Western thought on this subject is littered with failure. In previous centuries the ability to feel pain was considered to be unique to human beings, something we now find laughable. More recently tool-making was shown to be a trait shared, at least to some extent, by other species, and as far as I’m concerned this is also true of the ability (a precondition for tool-making, I would argue) to think ahead, to plan, to consider the consequences of one’s actions, all of which have been and continue to be cited as traits unique to Homo sapiens. One of my favorite instances of this is the BBC documentary on honey badgers, which contains some remarkable footage of them coming up with increasingly devious means of escape or for reaching some out-of-reach object they desire. Other examples include the planning and problem solving exhibited by crows and octopuses, to name just two. I remember seeing in some nature documentary a night-time video of a wild cat, I think it was, pulling a log over to a cliff-face so it could climb up and get something it wanted. I forget the details but the point is that the animal had to have been able to conceive of its future and the consequences of its actions to do all this.

So: with such a history of failure behind it, the trope should be immediately suspect at this point on purely inductive grounds. But another reason to be suspicious is that the empirical claim—other animals can’t or don’t do X—is almost always conflated with, or carries as subtext, a moral claim: humans are superior because we (can) do X and other animals can’t or don’t (as far as we know). Aside from the empirically dubious grounds for that claim, it’s suspect on logical grounds as well. It presumes a system of value that connects certain behaviors or abilities with moral worth, on grounds that don’t really bear close examination. For one thing, the shifting nature of X should give us pause; it’s always suspicious when you justify your superiority using one rationale, and when that is shown to be specious, you retain the rhetorical structure of the claim and just swap out what is supposedly the operative element for a different one. Such a move, especially when repeated multiple times, gives rise to a justifiable suspicion that the ostensible logic is masking a deeper or other logic, one that begins with the desired conclusion and then scrabbles around in the empirical storeroom for some handy evidence to support it.

And anyway, why should uniqueness confer moral worth? Someone—I forget who; maybe Stephen Jay Gould?—offered a useful analogy. Suppose that elephants rather than humans had become the dominant species on earth. (Even the phrase “dominant species” should give us pause, really.) Some among them might declare that elephants are superior because they are the only animals with trunks. They’d no doubt wax poetic about the trunk’s elegance, its sensitivity to touch and smell, while at the same time possessing remarkable strength, its usefulness for manipulating the environment, its role in caring for their young, and more. (How can any other creature possibly reach the heights of empathy and moral virtue implied by this parental behavior if they can’t caress their young with their trunks? Sure, some have arms, but really that’s a poor substitute and those misguided elephants who urge it as a counter-example are engaged in a deluded exercise in special pleading. As if an octopus could ever feel what an elephant mother feels!) The analogy reveals the flawed assumption at the heart of the argument: there is no necessary connection between uniqueness, or difference, and moral worth. To use a more extreme example: why are bacteria not “superior” to us because they can swap DNA horizontally (i.e. not through descent) and we cannot?

The elephant example points to another flaw in the argument as well. Imagine those bleeding-heart, mushy-headed elephants who are uncomfortable with the idea that they are superior because of their unique trunks. “Other animals do have trunks,” they might argue. “Maybe not the same as ours, but just as valid!” (A valid trunk is a delightful absurdity.) They might point to manatees, narwhals, walruses, rhinoceroses, even wolves as animals with pronounced proboscises or something similar. This might lead to some elaborate speculation about why animals closer on the evolutionary tree are also—surprise, surprise—closer in moral worth. Also various insects, much as bees are routinely invoked in the analogous debates about language, though this might cause some cognitive dissonance with respect to the moral claim.

On the one hand, these hippie elephants would be guilty of the same logical error as their opponents, conflating the moral and empirical claims, though to opposite effect. On the other, the argument points to a different problem with the whole business, which is that “uniqueness” is made to serve as a substitute for definition and description. Consider: the hippie elephants’ “scientific” and “rational” and “realistic” opponents would—rightly, in my opinion—argue that not all noses are trunks, and that to suggest otherwise is to stretch the definition of “trunk” so far as to render it useless. But they, in turn, would be guilty of the same error in reverse. By claiming the trunk is “unique” they beg the question of its definition, presuming a priori that it exists as a distinct category—an ontological claim that is belied by the evidence and both logically and procedurally questionable. Why is it more useful or more accurate to reify “the trunk” in this way? Wouldn’t it be more enlightening to consider its similarities and kinship with other phenomena? What is a “trunk,” anyway? What do we gain by calling it an “it”? We can swap out “trunk” for any other X we like: language, consciousness, pain (do ants feel pain? what exactly is pain, anyway?), moral sensibility, tool-making, you name it.

But my thinking about grammar this morning pointed to a third aspect of this trope that’s worth pondering, and maybe can help me see those who use it more compassionately.

First, though, an aside: I call it a “trope” because I think it’s a structure whose propositional content is secondary to its rhetorical force. But we can call it a claim, an idea, or a behavior. And thinking of this last highlighted its similarity to those X’s which have served as the interchangeable placeholders in the trope itself. What if, I wonder, we could argue that humans are the only species who go around claiming to be the only species that do X? It’s a pleasant conceit, but the history of such claims makes me doubt it. I suspect cats.

Anyhow, back to grammar. I felt myself slipping into the well-worn grooves of this rhetorical move in my effort to evoke enthusiasm in my imagined listener, and it dawned on me that this is a third point to notice about the trope. Like a whole class of rhetorical moves (hyperbole, often, but others as well—it’s a class defined by its intended effect rather than by the means used to achieve it), it speaks to the limitations of language itself: words feel inadequate to convey my excitement and so I grasp at means for evoking that excitement that can help the words go beyond themselves. Claiming uniqueness is a way to do this.

In other words, I strongly suspect that often when people use this trope they don’t even believe it themselves. “Uniqueness” is not to be understood literally, but merely as a way to convey how awesome some trait is, for other reasons entirely: its complexity, its depth, its power, its beauty—or, conversely, its villainy, depravity, destructiveness, or sheer cussedness.

Sometimes the trope is meant literally, as when in earlier centuries some writers claimed that animals did not feel pain and so did not deserve our empathy or moral consideration. Sometimes it conflates the literal sense with the rhetorical, as when a writer really does believe that there is something unique about human language, but that uniqueness is important primarily as a means for evoking awe. And sometimes it’s a throwaway, “mere” rhetoric.

Well, so much for uniqueness. Empirically dubious, logically suspect, rhetorically misleading, it’s a trope we should probably just drop, at least for a good long while. But now I’m starting to wonder about other things. For one, my comment above about the rhetoric: I said “like a whole class of rhetorical moves,” this trope speaks to the limitations of language itself. But isn’t that what all tropes do? What I was trying to get at was the specific task of seeking to evoke a feeling in the listener/reader, a feeling to which literal statements seem inadequate, but in fact all figurative language could—I’m thinking out loud here—be seen as a tacit admission of the failure of literal meanings. I suppose I’m repeating the obvious, or at least what’s obvious to those who think about and study such things. I just thought it was something to notice.

Also: is it really valid to claim, as I did a moment ago, that because you don’t believe something is literally true, you don’t believe it? Doesn’t this depend on an impoverished, overly literal understanding of meaning and belief? Of the role of metaphor in thought?

I had in mind while I was writing the speech where Hamlet tries to convey to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern his frustration, ennui, existential crisis, the part beginning with “What a piece of work is a man!” (Act II, Scene ii). I think it got into my head because I’d recently watched a production of Hamlet, and because my thinking about the qualities of grammar was trying to mimic the rhythms and structures of the speech, to borrow some of its eloquence in the service of my enthusiasm. But then I started wondering about the figure and how Hamlet or his listeners would have understood it.

Does Hamlet “believe” that man is a “piece of work”? This figure implies a worker, and humanity as the product of that worker. The conventional wisdom says that of course people in Hamlet’s day understood this literally: God was a person who had “made” the first people. But is it really that simple? Certainly there’s a very long tradition, much older than Shakespeare, of seeing the idea of God-as-person as a metaphor. God is beyond human comprehension, and while it’s appropriate theologically to speak of the “personhood” of God for the sake of emphasizing relational qualities that are considered central to the covenant between God and humanity, nevertheless there are plenty of thinkers who would also acknowledge that God in “his” full essence transcends anything that might be circumscribed in the concept of “personhood.” On this view, then, calling man a “piece of work” is already necessarily metaphorical, yet that does not diminish the belief embodied in that figure.

So, then, I want to go back and question my assertion that the people who use the figure as a metaphor “don’t really believe” what they are saying. For example, perhaps we could say that they believe in the exhilaration conveyed by the figure; perhaps we could say further that they believe that exhilaration itself is what’s unique, because it’s uniquely inspired in them by the trait to which they attribute (falsely?) the uniqueness: the figure is not a metaphor but a metonymy, a substitution of one thing (uniqueness of the trait) for another (depth, quality, and uniqueness of the emotion aroused by the trait).

And, of course, I actually believe that some human qualities are unique. Language, for example. True, other species perform communicative acts that have a great deal in common with what we call language. But there’s nothing else I know of that does what human language does, in the way that it does it, elaborated to the same degree along the dimensions that constitute or define human language. But when making this claim, remembering of the arguments I’ve already put forth against all such claims, I’m mindful of the definition of “language” and of “uniqueness” that I’m working with: I try not to reify the phenomenon, try not to presume it belongs to a distinct category, a set with exactly one member. I try to think of its “uniqueness” the way I might consider the octopus’s arms “unique”: clearly analogous, in some cases even homologous to similar appendages in other species, yet still with their own specific and remarkable qualities that make them unlike any other comparable feature. And I insist that there is no moral corollary to the claim. Having language that is—as far as we know—unique does not make human beings more worthy of our regard, or justify our treatment of other species, or indeed imply any sort of moral conclusion whatsoever. It’s purely an empirical claim, like noting that mammals typically have four limbs while arthropods have six or eight or more.  

Also this way of talking about uniqueness allows for the possibility that other animals’ “language” or way of communicating is also unique—whale song, bees’ dances, ants’ trading pheromones, whatever. Uniqueness, it turns out, is not unique to any one species or trait.

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