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Felix Malmenbeck

Student , Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, Sweden


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Where does arguing semantics get us?

[EDIT: Changed things a bit to direct the conversation towards semantics, not apes.]

SUMMARY: Who really decides what words mean?
If I say humans are animals, and my friend says they're not, we're probably just relying on separate definitions of the word "animals". Who are we to say that one definition is more correct that the other?
What authorities can we appeal to? Do definitions become more or less correct by virtue of their usefulness, or by majority opinion, or by some other virtue?

The issue came up recently in an article by Vasko Kohlmayer: "Is Richard Dawkins an ape?"

In this article, Kohlmayer asserts that "Richard Dawkins is certainly is no African ape.", and proceeds to list traits that he thinks separates humans from apes.
[He actually goes a bit further than that, posing it as an argument as evolution, but that's not what I intend for this discussion to be about.]

It's not difficult to come up with counter-arguments, and indeed the discussion went on in the comments section:

"Humans are apes because A."
"No they're not because B."
"B is irrelevant."
"It's just as valid as A, because C."
"No, it's not, because D."

Several arguments were put forth, some appealing to taxonomical definitions, others appealing to authority, some appealing to emotion, some appealing to semantic relativism and some simply amounting to "I don't agree."

What I'd like to understand is... Do such discussions actually get us anywhere?
Even if one side were to convince the other, would we actually be better off as a species? When can one definition ever be said to be more "correct" than others?


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  • Mar 24 2012: http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/healthscience/2012/March/Ethicists-Argue-for-After-Birth-Abortion/

    Semantics can lead us into a grey zone of what is right and what is wrong. If you can redefine as you like, say a human is an ape... Can you also say that a new born baby is not a human? Take a good look at this link because that is exactly what some people are trying to say. What defines a human being? If you go by the criteria Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva then we can quickly see the moral decadence that this could lead us into.

    The question is the same. What is the human being? When does our human beingness begin?

    A car being built on the assembly line with thousands upon thousands of parts being mounted... at what point can you rightfully call it a "car"?

    When does the blossom become the blossom on the rose. It grows out of the seed to the stem the leaf and eventually within the stream of time the pedal develops from these lower parts and becomes the blossom or completes our fixed concept of the rose.

    But... was the "rose" always there....?

    If so... how? If not so... when?

    Semantics are very important.
    • thumb
      Mar 24 2012: A very interesting point. Very often in the debate about abortion, somebody will ask the debaters: "When does life begin?" or "When does an embryo become a human?"
      I'd wager that if you'd ask a biologist, they'd almost certainly answer that the very first diploid cell formed from the merging of a sperm cell and an egg cell constitutes a lifeform, and I also have little doubt they'd classify it as human.
      Those who are against abortion will often say that life - human life - begins at the moment of conception, while those who support abortion seem more skittish about this, because words like "life" and "human" carry a lot of emotional weight with us.

      However, that really doesn't seem to get us anywhere, because carrots are alive and most of us have no ethical problem with eating them, and skin cells are living human cells but we don't mourn the loss of each individual skin cell. To that extent I agree with the bio-ethicists mentioned in that article, not saying anything about their conclusions; if we're going to talk in terms of very broad categories, we need to be careful about making sweeping generalizations about those categories.

      Switching focus to personhood seems a good idea on the surface of it, but unless people can agree on what they're actually talking about, and actually talk about the societal and moral ramifications before they start lumping things into categories, there's a risk we just switch from one argument over semantics to another.

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