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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Animal Exceptionalism Morally Irrelevant



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The attack on human exceptionalism these days is unremitting–and highly ideological. 

The latest assault on our uniqueness comes from Edge.org, which asked the world’s supposedly most “brilliant minds” to come up with ideas that should be retired in science. Harvard professor (of course!) Irene Pepperberg–oh, so predictably–argues that the time has come to reject human uniqueness.

Based on what? Pepperberg makes the obvious point that different animals also have remarkable capacities. From her essay (republished in the Guardian):

Yes, humans do some things that other species do not – we are indeed the only species to send probes to outer space to find other forms of life – but the converse is certainly equally true. Other species do things humans find impossible, and many non-human species are indeed unique in their abilities.

No human can detect temperature changes of a few hundredths of a degree as can some pit vipers, nor can humans best a dog at following faint scents. Dolphins hear at ranges impossible for humans and, along with bats, can use natural sonar. Bees and many birds see in the ultraviolet, and many birds migrate thousands of miles yearly under their own power, with what seems to be some kind of internal GPS.

Humans, of course, can and will invent machines to accomplish such feats of nature, unlike our non-human brethren – but non-humans had these abilities first. Clearly I don’t contest data that show that humans are unique in many ways, and I certainly favour studying the similarities and differences across species, but think it is time to retire the notion that human uniqueness is a pinnacle of some sort, denied in any shape, way, or form to other creatures.

Talk about deflection from the actual attributes that make us exceptional!  

The examples Pepperberg conjures are merely differences in biological function. But those are irrelevant to moral uniqueness. For example, even if we were the only bipedal species on the planet, that would be merely a physical difference, and hence, morally irrelevant. 

In contrast, those capacities and expressions that distinguish us from all other known life forms are morally material. Only we are moral agents, expressed differently across the breadth of humanity, demonstrating that unlike the hawk’s vision, there is a volitional element to moral deliberation involving the exercise of reason, experience, emotions, etc..

That capacity is intrinsic to human nature–but not hawk, elephant, viper, or dog nature, expressed by each of us unless we are too immature or profoundly ill or injured.

Only we are capable of recognizing and accepting (or neglecting) duties. Only we have rational capacities of abstract thinking, learning from the past, planning for the future

Only we are capable of good and evil. Only we seek meaning. Only we can philosophize and worship–or decide to reject faith or choose to be indifferent to deeper questions. Heck, only we ask ultimate questions.

Only we can betray. Only we are truly altruistic or selfish–often both at different times–terms that reflect the uniquely human and moral nature of those behaviors.

And in those few cases in which we can anthropomorphize some human-like attributes to animals–even if true (doubtful)–the differences in quality are so vast they amount to differences in kind.

Pepperberg’s argument is akin to saying that a beaver’s dam–purely instinctive–is morally equivalent to the Hoover Dam. Yes, both stop the flow of water for an instrumental purpose, but come on! 

She eventually reveals the game that is afoot:

Nota Bene lest my point be misunderstood: my argument is a different one from that of bestowing personhood on various non-human species, and is separate from other arguments for animal rights and even animal welfare – although I can see the possible implications of what I am proposing.

Ah, but destroying human exceptionalism is the necessary predicate to imposing legal regimes of animal rights, animal personhood, nature rights, utilitarian bioethics, etc.. In fact, I believe that is the point of most of the anti-human agitation we have witnessed in recent years.

But if you destroy human exceptionalism, you take with it the philosophical backbone of Western Civilization–e.g. the unique and equal dignity of every human being–which has brought so much intellectual liberty, human freedom, and material prosperity into the world

Imagine the authoritarian possibilities if we redefine ourselves as just another animal in the forest!



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