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How Language Influences Perception of animals and the Law that Follows

This weeks guest writer PhD Candidate Pablo Castello moves between Critical Animal Studies, Continental Philosophy, and Animal Ethics. Pablo will briefly talk us through how language undermines an animals’ value under the law.

How language determines ethics and law

In most fields, including law, language is thought of as being representationalist. This means that words are meant to represent objects. For instance, the word chair is meant to represent the object chair through the idea (concept) of chair. To explain, we can translate from one language to another thanks to concepts in such a way that the Spanish word for chair, “silla,” can be translated as “chair.” This way of thinking about language also assumes that we master and invent language. Presumably, the reason we label the object chair “chair” is because we humans decided to do so. One of the most important linguists of the 20th Century, Ferdinand de Saussure, challenged such an understanding of language. Saussure argued that “language is not a function of the speaking subject.” What Saussure meant by this was that when we are children and are initiated into language, we are brought and become subjects within a certain language, and this determines how we perceive the world.

This implies that words do not merely represent objects and living beings, words make objects and living beings what they are. Think about the concepts of the animal and the human: this divide has historically allowed us to locate the human at the centre of the moral circle. Within this moral circle, those beings that are worthy of moral consideration have historically been protected under the law through the legal category of personhood. Conversely, those beings that are outside the moral circle (e.g. animals) have been ethically disregarded and translated into law as property.

What does this mean for animals?

Animals are considered property because they have been characterised as being objects, that is, machines devoid of reason, culture and feelings. These are not mere characteristics, but dichotomies that are inherent in our language: subject-object, reason-unreason, machine-feeling, nature-culture. It is important to bear in mind that most humans from western countries have been brought up unquestioningly within a language that is structured by these dichotomies, and this has had a key influence in determining who counts ethically. Sadly animals fall on the wrong side of these dichotomies in the eyes of the law.

How language affects animals under the law

Animals falling on the wrong side of these dichotomies have many negative effects for animals under the law. One of them being personhood, which you can find out more about here.

This blog, however, will focus on what the label of pest has meant for animals under the law.

Under The Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 a pest is defined as “any harmful creature.” In the UK, this categorisation is upheld by law under the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act, 1949. This Act puts a duty on a local authority to ‘destroy’ rats and mice on land which they are the occupier and a duty on other occupiers of land to inform the local authority if there are a significant number of rats and mice who in turn should be destroyed.

This legislation is reinforced by the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996, which says that a person is exempted from committing an offence if he/she “mutilates, kicks, beats, nails or otherwise impales, stabs, burns, stones, crushes, drowns, drags or asphyxiates any wild mammal with intent to inflict unnecessary suffering,” insofar as it was carried out for lawful pest control activity. Provided the killing in a reasonably swift and humane manner.

Categorizing animals as a pest is not exclusive to UK legislation, in Australia, for example, animals such as foxes, rabbits, feral horses and camels, dingoes, and many other animals are regarded as a pest. Labeling some animals as pests serves the purpose of making some animals killable as an outsider of the moral circle.

To exemplify, the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Biodiversity Targets, known as the Aichi agreements, was agreed by the United Nations Environment Program, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, amongst others. Target 9 reads as follows: “by 2020, invasive alien species and pathways are identified and prioritized, priority species are controlled or eradicated, and measures are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and establishment (emphasis added).” Notice the language: ‘invasive,’ ‘alien,’ and ‘eradicate.’

Why the language of animal law matters

Post-colonial philosophers Aph Ko and Syl Ko have argued that “calling someone an “animal”… is more than enough to justify extreme violence toward that person.” They argue that the “justification is in the choice of the term itself.” This is so because it creates an outside and an inside of who ought to be protected and what can be ethically dismissed.

In short, under law, the category of pest turns many animals into “non-member[s] of the political community (e.g. the noncitizen) [which are]… constituted as a threat or a parasite which must be excluded” and ‘eradicated,’ as Dinesh Wadiwel discusses.


To better protect animals under the law and give them the moral consideration they deserve, language that serves to categorise animals to justify the infliction of harm must be removed.

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