I learned a lesson from the discussion after my post of two days ago. When reasonable people disagree — generally because of a disagreement about first principles — words matter. What makes this especially difficult is that the same words can have substantially different meanings to different listeners.
Getting these word choices right can make the difference between saying “this is my view of the world” and saying “your view of the world is wrong”. We would all agree that these are two very different statements. Yet it is all too easy to slip from the one into the other, when you are trying to speak across a fundamental divide of first principles.
For example, in my post, I used the phrase “fellow sentient creatures”. To me this sounds virtually identical to the phrase “sentient creatures”. Yet to someone who feels no tribal kinship with any being that is not human, the inclusion of the word “fellow” becomes an argument from conclusion, which in this case — as Dagmar pointed out — effectively came across as an (unintended) accusation.
It is perfectly non-controversial to say “this is a sentient creature, and I feel no kinship with it”. It is quite something else to say “this is a fellow sentient creature, and I feel no kinship with it.” The latter statement would be absurd — so my use of the phrase was de facto a provocation, although I didn’t realize this until Dagmar pointed it out.
This kind of thing comes up in other discussions that take place across fundamental divides of first principles. For example, to someone opposed to abortion on principle, the statement “a fetus, when born, will become a person”, might sound very close in meaning to the statement “a fetus is a person”.
Yet to someone with a different worldview, these two statements are completely different. The former is non-controversial. The latter is heard by many people as an accusation that they approve of murder.
So here you have it — to have a discussion between people who differ on first principles, each participant must somehow learn to hear what words sound like to somebody who may have a completely different worldview.
This seems to me to be a rather difficult skill to acquire – yet one that would be very valuable to have in a civil society. Perhaps it is a skill that we should teach our children in school.