Human Exceptionalism

American Journal of Bioethics Review of Secondhand Smoke–The Positive

This blog has received a formal review by Yale University bioethicist Stephen R. Latham. I am most pleased that it is a mixed review with some very nice compliments as well as pointed criticisms, and I very much appreciate Latham’s even handedness. (When Culture of Death came out, I recall one bioethicist reviewer called it the book that should never have been published!)

A thoughtful review deserves a respectful response. I will divide my reaction into two parts. The first–this one–will highlight the positive comments he made. I’ll discuss what he found objectionable about SHS (and my work generally) in the next post.

Latham “gets” a lot of what I am attempting to accomplish here. From the review (AJOB: 9(2): 65–66, 2009):

…Smith’s beliefs are not religiously grounded, but are based in a secular view of the intrinsic worth of all humans as such, regardless of developmental stage or capacity. He is a staunch advocate of what he calls “human exceptionalism”–the view that the human species is unique among living creatures in the degree to which it should command respect and enjoy rights. Or, as Smith summarizes it in the intro to his blog: “Human life matters.” [Credit to my wonderful friend Mark Pickup who coined that slogan.]

On Smith’s “human exceptionalist” view, a great range of bioethical theory improperly undermines human rights by coupling rights not to our humanity simpliciter, but to our possession of certain capacities—consciousness, perhaps, or “moral personhood,” or mere sentience…Thus Smith’s critique runs in two directions: against those who, like embryonic stem-cell researchers and assisted-suicide advocates, use capacity arguments to justify what Smith regards as the immoral destruction of humans; and against those who, like animal rights extremists, use a different sort of capacity argument to extend rights–in his view, improperly–to non-humans, even at the expense of humans (as when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] activists seek to shut down medical experimentation on animals).

This core critique gives SHS an unusual combination of variety and unity. [He then gives several examples of my posts too long to reproduce here.]

That’s a pretty good summary of why I see mainstream bioethics, animal rights, radical environmentalism as threats (in their own ways) to vulnerable human beings and universal human rights.

Latham further writes:

Smith actually covers a fair bit of bioethics-related news from all around the world. [Me: That’s in no small part due to the many SHSers who take the time to send me stories.]... For another, he is a serious and vocal opponent of disability discrimination–something that a number of liberal bioethicists fail culpably to talk much about. Smith has also been a hospice volunteer, and has worked hard to advance the cause of better pain control at the end of life.

I think the “quality of life” ethic that so many mainstream bioethicists embrace lead toward thinking less about discrimination based on disability. But be that as it may, protecting people with disabilities–regardless of whether they are physical, developmental, or cognitive–is part of the very point of human exceptionalism.

Latham continues:

And finally, Smith is entertaining. He is a good enough writer that you can share his humor and feel his anger from one post to the next. He is that guy you always used to argue with in college. His rhetoric drove you nuts, but he made you think—and it was fun even when the disagreements were serious.

I really appreciate that. I work hard to make this blog informative, interesting, and persuasive. I think being entertaining promotes all of those ends.

In the next post, we’ll discuss Latham’s criticisms of SHS.

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