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Our panel of 90 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

I don't know the name, though I like "semantic bloating." In any case, a couple of observations.

First, words mean what people use them to mean. Words in English mean what competent speakers use them to mean—or, at least, that's close enough for our purposes. Competent speakers of English don't use the word "cult" to refer to the whole human race.

But the issue isn't really about the word. If your friend has a point, s/he ought to be able to make it by setting the word "cult" aside. What bothers us about the things we typically label cults is that they display a cluster of undesirable traits and tendencies. They make a rigid distinction between insiders and outsiders; they enforce membership conditions that alienate members from family and friends who mean them no harm; they insist on accepting dubious beliefs; they make it psychologically distressing for people to challenge or doubt those beliefs; they expect unquestioning obedience to the group's authority figures. All of these things show up in a variety of human circumstances, and if that's what your friend means, s/he's right, of course. But we can make that point without adding the unhelpful claim that the whole of humanity is a collective cult. The whole of humanity is a variegated patchwork, parts of which are highly cult-like and parts of which aren't.

Your basic insight is right: if we use the word "cult" with so few restrictions that humanity itself counts, we've robbed the word of its meaning. That means we've robbed ourselves of a useful way to make distinctions that are worth making. The Branch Davidians were a cult by any reasonable standard. The local PTA isn't. If we lump them together, we do ourselves no analytical favors. And if we broaden the net to include the collective everyone, we no longer have a net at all.