Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Humans “Exceptional” As “Justifying Animal”


An interesting blog entry over at Psychology Today focuses on the crucial issue of human exceptionalism (and also, this less crucial blog). The author, Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., agrees with me that, “We are unique beings that warrant special moral value,” and much to my delight, justifies the belief from an explicitly “secular humanist”perspective. From, “On Human Exceptionalism:”

The system I have developed for unifying psychology argues strongly that humans are a unique kind of animal. However, in contrast to many traditional positions that differentiate animals from humans (e.g., Descartes’ substance dualism), the unified theory claims animals are mental and most are conscious (see here for a recent declaration on animal consciousness by some well-known neuroscientists). Humans are unique in that they have a self-consciousness system on top of the conscious system shared with other animals.

What does Henriques mean?

Humans are as different from other animals as animals are different from plants. Whether it is writing a blog, composing a sonnet, leading a revolution, attending a class, building a computer, and on and on, it is an empirical fact that human behavior exhibits a whole separate dimension of complexity. To deny this or to claim that this observation is only based on speciest wishful thinking lacks intellectual integrity.

Bingo!  He goes on:

Human cognition advanced to allow for human language (an open symbolic syntactical system of information processing that is, despite some claims to the contrary, a fundamentally different kind of communication/information processing system). Although language was a great advantage, a problem emerged because human language affords a window into the mind. This is the problem of social justification—for the first time in evolutionary history, our ancestors were asked about and thus had to justify (give reasons for) their behavior. I have explained elsewhere why the problem of justification gave rise to the human self-consciousness system and the human culture.

We are the justifying animal. And that opens up a whole new, qualitative dimension of existence. It is not that other animals don’t have minds. That is an obviously misguided claim. Instead, it is better to think of it in terms of humans having two minds, whereas other animals only have one. Thus, the answer to HE is not that humans are exceptional because they are conscious and feel—other animals are conscious and feel. But humans are exceptional in that they have the capacity for self-conscious justification, which in turn is the engine that builds human cultures and knowledge systems about truth, goodness and evil. In short, HE is ultimately justified by the fact that humans alone can justify.

Brilliant! And not a soul in sight.


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