Dignity's Mould: How Language Shapes Cultural Views of Bioethics

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In 1929, the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which popularized this idea that language is used not only to express our thoughts but to shape them as well. As Sapir wrote in "The Status of Linguistics as a Science":

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. …We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.1

In lingusitics, this explanation for the way that language relates to thought is known as a “mould theory" since it “represents language as a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast."2  While there are innumerable examples of how our thought processes are shaped by the language we use, one particular relevant example is provided by Dr. Leon Kass, Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics:

Consider the views of life and the world reflected in the following different expressions to describe the process of generating new life. Ancient Israel, impressed with the phenomenon of transmission of life from father to son, used a word we translate as “begetting” or “siring.” The Greeks, impressed with the springing forth of new life in the cyclical processes of generation and decay, called it genesis, from a root meaning “to come into being.” …The premodern Christian English-speaking world, impressed with the world as a given by a Creator, used the term “pro-creation.” We, impressed with the machine and the gross national product (our own work of creation), employ a metaphor of the factory, “re-production.” (Leon Kass, Toward a More Natural Science, pg. 48)

When you stop to consider the differences between such phrases as “methods of procreation” and “reproductive technology” it begins to become clear why social conservatives are losing ground in the fight to preserve the concept of human dignity. Any attempt to argue that embryonic human life is deserving of a particular moral status is undercut when we are using such phrases as “blastocysts produced by the technological advances of in vitro fertilization.” The language of the factory and of human dignity is as incompatible as would be the interchangeability of machine and life. Such degradation of language only leads to linguistic confusion and muddy thinking.

We are, of course, aware of the inherent power of words and for several decades have attempted to ensure such terms as “pro-life” and “abortion rights” seep into the media’s vernacular. While they are certainly overvalued, these words still retain their political usefulness as the struggle over their usages attest. But we cannot stop there. The preservation of human dignity requires us to fight for the hearts and souls of our fellow man and in order to do so, we must first reclaim the linguistic high ground. As Richard Weaver famously expressed, ideas have consequences. If we are to have a significant impact on our culture we would do well to recognize that words have consequences too. CBHD


1 Edward Sapir, The Status of Linguistics as a Science, (1929): p.69.

2 Chandler, D.  The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. <http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/whorf.html> (2002, March).

3 Leon Kass, Toward a More Natural Science, (1988): pg. 48).