24 December 2006

Referring to Animals

Mark Spahn, a longtime reader of my AnalPhilosopher blog, thinks it’s question-begging to use “who” (instead of “that”) to refer to animals. I agree. To beg a question, in the philosophical sense, is to assume what needs to be proved. The question (presumably) is whether animals have moral status, i.e., whether the interests of animals must be taken into account in our deliberations. Using “who” assumes that the being in question has moral status (even if not full-blown personhood).

But notice: Using “that” also begs the question, for it assumes, without argument, that the being in question lacks moral status. So both usages are question-begging. I don’t know of a neutral way to refer to animals: one that doesn’t make an assumption about moral status. Do you?

If both usages are question-begging, and if there’s no neutral reference, what’s wrong with choosing the usage that accords with one’s view of the moral status of animals? Surely it would be unreasonable to expect me—someone who believes that animals have moral status—to use a form of reference that assumes that they lack moral status! My usage reflects my belief. If you, dear reader, believe that animals lack moral status, then you will refer to them with “that.” I wonder, though, whether those who use “that” use it in reference to their dogs and cats. Suppose you’ve lived with a dog for 10 years. Wouldn’t it be odd to say such things as, “I have a dog that eats grasshoppers”? Compare: “I have a car that gets 25 miles per gallon.” Does your dog have the same moral status as your car? Are both of them mere objects?

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