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.

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