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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Human Exceptionalism: The Issue That Won’t Go Away



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As readers of Secondhand Smoke know, I disagree with the mainstream bioethics movement, animal liberationists, the philosophical beliefs of Darwinist materialism, transhumanists, and deep ecologists, and disagree with them profoundly. But there is one thing that I think it is fair to say that we do agree upon: The moral issue of the 21st Century is going to be whether being human, in and of itself, is sufficient to convey significant moral value. They say no. I say yes. And the policies and beliefs about which we vociferously disagree flow from our differences about this fundamental question.

It is no surprise, then, that the issue of human exceptionalism is coming quickly to the fore of intellectual discourse. Ryan T. Anderson, a junior fellow at First Things and assistant director of the Program on Bioethics and Human Dignity at the Witherspoon Institute, is on the case. Writing over at the First Things blog, Anderson discusses the recent Peter Singer contretemps about permitting research on monkeys (which I have also written about), and eventually gets to the important question of human exceptionalism, on behalf of which he makes a rational argument, writing: "Human experience itself reveals that human beings differ from other animals, not only in degree, but in kind. Some people may root this experience in religious belief, but the point does not depend on divine revelation.

The ability to search for and deliberate about truth, to express conclusions in propositional language, and to act freely on the basis of reason: Human beings possess these rational, personal capacities in virtue of the type of animal they are. These capacities do not belong to spirits that inhabit animals, centers of consciousness that are somehow associated with material bodies, nor 'ghosts in machines.' Rather, they belong to the human person--a rational, bodily, animal organism. And the basic human capacity for personal life--a capacity we possess from the moment we come into existence until the moment we pass away--provides the basis for our intrinsic dignity and profound worth. It's also what sets us apart from other animals."


Ryan also notes the disaster that would follow from society hearkening to Peter Singer's utilitarian siren song: "Singer's failure to recognize this common experience of the human difference--combined with his utilitarian mode of moral reasoning--means, finally, that he cannot defend the idea of human rights."

I am convinced that the future morality of society rests squarely on this issue. Thanks to Ryan T. Anderson for weighing in on this most important subject.


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