Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Type/Token Distinction


I just read an article by the Philosopher David Schmidtz called "Are All Species Equal?" and I came across an interesting observation about the mindset of Speciesists. Here is the context of the remark:

Assume that some Speciesist, when pressed to give the relevant property that demarcates humans as having moral status and animals as not having moral status, says that rationality is just such a property. I think all vegans know the proper response, for we would point out the fact that individuals within the human species widely differ in the intelligence that they possess. Some humans have a very high level of intelligence, whilst other have a low level of intelligence. Indeed, some humans have such a low level of intelligence that they are on par with the other animals. We would then point out that, in order to avoid hypocrisy, the Speciesist should affirm that these low intelligence humans do not have moral status.

This is where Schmidtz's observation comes into play, for he points out that the Speciesist might very well respond by saying that he is not invoking rationality at the token level, but rather at the type level. Now this remark appeals to the type-token distinction. Assume that we have a sentence such as "The raven is an ornery creature." Appearances to the contrary, this sentence is actually ambiguous. It could mean either that:

1. The species of raven is composed of ornery creatures.

2. Some particular raven is an ornery creature.


Interpretation number 1 appeals to  a type of item (i.e. as a class of individuals). Interpretation 2 appeals to a token individual.

Now, the concept under discussion in our example is that of rationality. The Vegan is assuming that the Speciesist is referring to token instances of rationality. But the Speciesist, according to Schmidtz, is actually appealing to a certain type of rationality, namely, the sort of rationality unique to humans.

So what the speciesist is really saying is that the type of rationality unique to humans is what determines the moral status of the human species.

Now this observation by Schmidtz is particularly instructive because it only further strengthens the connections between Speciesism and other exclusionary ideologies like Racism and Sexism. For indeed, there have been numerous examples of dominant groups throughout history using the same sort of reasoning as in our example. In many instances white men have asserted that the alleged type of rationality unique to white males places them on a higher pedestal than women and people of color, and what the Carnist is saying in our example is no different.

So it would seem that no matter how we interpret the Carnist's response to our objection, it still fits in perfectly with racism, sexism, ableism, and other exclusionary ideologies.

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