Humans, Animals, and the Language of Life and Death

The language with which we refer to ourselves as human beings, relative to our ‘animal’ cousins is something that’s always fascinated me. I have always been interested in nature, and my sister, Kate, is soon to graduate as a vet, making these issues resonate all the more as I compare my own studies in philosophy with the world of animal science.

Dangerous dogs

A dangerous dog is only ever destroyed, yet not executed or put to death. To execute an animal would suggest it has some choice in its behaviour – some element of self-awareness on the level of a human. There is also an element of punishment implicit in the ‘execution’, in the death penalty itself. And yet if we accept that the animal is not responsible, and therefore not worthy of execution, then why are we carrying out the same punishment for a creature that is supposedly below human, and therefore free from guilt?

There is clearly an element of punishment transference here, but the transference singularly fails to address the real problem behind dangerous dogs: owners and breeders. But of course, we can’t execute people who mistreat dogs or submit them to illegal dog fights, because that would be ‘inhumane’. Thus we find not one paradox here, but many. To mistreat an animal is inhumane, but it is also inhumane to subject a human guilty of animal harm to the same mistreatment. There are then many different levels of  ‘inhumane’ treatment, though we persist in using the single catch-all term. What remains unspoken here is the ever-present problematic of the distinction between animal and human, and where exactly the one begins and the other ends.

Suicide and redemption

A similar paradox can be found in the language surrounding suicide and the right to die. People who end their own lives commit suicide, but animals are euthanised or ‘put to sleep’. We would never ‘put to sleep’ a human – that’s far too humane – much rather, suicide (in the cases of a terminal illness) is framed within the context of poor choice, and an act against the common good, or even an act against God. Yet why do we still talk like this in an age of widespread atheism? Tradition runs deep in the West, and while the direct power of the church and the synagogue may wane, the influence of religion still seeps through our Western world-view.

If we were to ‘put to sleep’ a human, or make suicide an easy and painless option, then not only would we expose the human-animal problematic, but we would also undermine what has for a long time now been a fundamental element of sovereign power: the control over life and death. By this I don’t just mean the power to kill and go to war, but also the power to let live and create a concept of (human) life. Without such a concept, much of our modern nation State would simply fall apart. Suicide, and suicide as a legitimate option to be administered by a third party, such as a doctor, would undermine not only the human-animal distinction, but the very fabric of society itself.

Of pigs and fish

For my third example I’d like to spend a moment thinking about the way we categorise particular types of animals, in particular, pigs and fish.

Pigs are interesting because they are seen as ‘holy’ by at least two of the world’s major religions, and therefore a major percentage of the world population. But why just pigs? Why are pigs any better than cows, chickens, squirrels or indeed chipmunks? To single pigs out for special treatment (whether you agree with the religious element or not) is to immediately create two distinct classes of animal: pigs, and everything else. But as soon as you take this step you therefore imply a boundary and a decision. What is it about pigs that makes them holy? Pigs themselves come in more than one variety. There is never just a ‘pig’, but a Duroc, a Berkshire, a Hampshire, a Hereford (etc.) All pigs are therefore not equal and the logical consequence of such is that there is not just a scale of two categories (‘pigs and everything else’), but an enormous scale that encompasses all animals, and dare I say, all forms of life. Either the human is distinct and the pig is an ordinary animal like everything else, or all animals (including humans) fall within the same broad category of ‘animal’. You simply can’t have it both ways.

Finally I’d like to take a moment to reflect on fish. Fish are even more of a paradox than pigs in many respects, as we don’t tend to see them in the same way as other land-based animals. To all intents and purposes fish are just as ‘alive’ as anything else, yet even in the animal rights community, there is a troubling distinction between the perceived worth and suffering of anything that swims with anything based on land. The two major modern-day exceptions here being wales and dolphins.

I am sure many readers will have encountered ‘vegetarians’ who don’t eat meat except fish, as if fish were somehow not alive in the same way as other animals, or that they suffer any less. As if fish wasn’t meat. Perhaps it’s their alien nature, and perhaps it’s this unfamiliarity that breeds hidden contempt in our society. We can’t live underwater and we have even less in common with them than we do with a sheep or a cow. But in a strictly logical sense – taking their environment out of the equation – our differentiated treatment of fish and other marine animals simply doesn’t make any sense.

A philosophical insight

This definitional problem is not lost on philosophy, though I dare say modern-day philosophers have not done enough to make these discussions accessible to the general public. In The Animal That Therefore I Am French philosopher Jacques Derrida touches on the issue of definition and the language games at play in the way we treat the animal relative to the human:

‘this word animal, which men have given themselves as at the origin of humanity, and which they have given themselves in order to be identified, in order to be recognized, with a view to being what they say they are, namely men, capable of replying and responding in the name of men.’[1]

And yet:

‘Confined within this catch-all concept, within this vast encampment of the animal, is the general singular, within the strict enclosure of this definite article (“the Animal” and not “animals”) […] all the living things that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbors, or his brothers. And that is so in spite of the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb […]’[2]

Much as I have described above, the term ‘animal’ here is a catch-all that is seized upon and manipulated to create a concept of the human. The human simply cannot exist without the ‘animal’ (as a collective group), and yet as we have seen from the example of pigs, the ‘animal’ would claim to appeal to a ‘general singular’ concept, yet we are confronted on a daily basis with evidence that all animals are not the same, and thus neither are we. And yet still we continue to delude ourselves and maintain the illusion of the animal separate to the human. This distinction remains problematic, and even more so as we confront pressing social issues such as the right to die, human ‘rights’ (a very problematic term) and the way we approach conservation and society planning.

While these problems go way beyond the scope of a single blog, I hope this short piece has at least prompted you to think about the ways in which we use language and generalised concepts of the animal in our society, and the way in which we manufacture the human each and every day, based on assumptions that are often contradictory and deeply problematic.

Just don’t get me started on the pandas…


[1] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. by David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 32.

[2] Ibid., p. 34.

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