Human Exceptionalism

Dangerous Abuse of Darwinism To Justify Suicide Based on Human Unexceptionalism

I am not part of the Darwin debates generally, but it always fries me when some Darwinists abuse a theory of biological inception and change over time to promote dangerous shifts in human society and culture.  Now, over at Psychology Today, we are told that because life evolved, human exceptionalism is bunk, and hence, preventing suicide or opposing euthanasia is sometimes wrong.  From the blog post by Steve Stewart-Williams:

…Thus, the injunction against assisted suicide – like that against unassisted suicide – is commonly underwritten by the doctrine of human dignity. But the whole edifice starts to crumble once we bring Darwin into the picture. With the corrective lens of evolutionary theory, the view that human life is infinitely valuable suddenly seems like a vast and unjustified over-valuation of human life. This is because Darwin’s theory undermines the traditional reasons for thinking human life might have infinite value: the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis (see my last post). But if human life is not supremely valuable after all, then there is no longer any reason to think that suicide or voluntary euthanasia is necessarily wrong under any or all circumstances. In fact, it starts to seem decidedly odd that we have elevated human life – i.e., pure biological continuation – so far above the quality of the life in question for the person living it. Why should life be considered valuable in and of itself, independently of the happiness of the individual living that life?

We’ve seen this nonsense often.  Human exceptionalism doesn’t need religion, and it seems to me, is undeniable from a rational perspective.  But note the potential for tremendous harm here.  A publication involved with mental health is the forum for pushing an anti-anti suicide meme.  That’s dangerous to despairing people and could very well undermine the important work of suicide prevention.  The author sees that, and tries weakly to combat the obvious consequence that would result from his advocacy:

Needless to say, we must be very cautious with this argument, especially when it comes to suicide. Most people who kill themselves have not thought their decision through properly, and if they’d managed to ride out the suicidal crisis, they would have had perfectly good and happy lives. Many suicidal individuals are severely depressed, and severe depression involves an unrealistically negative apprehension of the future and the hopelessness of one’s situation. Rational suicides (suicides based on an accurate picture of one’s situation and future prospects) are comparatively rare. Furthermore, in assessing the rightness or wrongness of suicide, we need to take into account its effects on those left behind, as suicide usually causes immeasurable grief and suffering to the victim’s family and other loved ones. Nonetheless, after Darwin, it is difficult to maintain an absolute prohibition on suicide. There may be circumstances – rare and unhappy circumstances – in which suicide is a reasonable and ethically permissible course of action. In any case, this possibility cannot be ruled out on the grounds that human life is infinitely valuable.

That doesn’t work at all because once suicide is validated, you can’t expect suffering people to think–Charlie’s suicide was rational, but mine wouldn’t be.  And note the potential harm beyond assisted suicide:

Critics of euthanasia argue that it is immoral to take a person’s life, even when that person is suffering and wishes to die with dignity. After Darwin, we might be more inclined to think that it is immoral to force people to keep on living when they would rather not. Here’s something to think about. In many ways, we treat other animals abysmally. But if a horse or a dog or a cat is suffering terribly from a fatal injury or disease, or if it has limited prospects for quality of life in the future, most people agree that the humane thing to do is to put it out of its misery. Not to do so would be considered inhumane. However, because of the inflated value traditionally assigned to human life, we are less humane in our treatment of human beings who are suffering or have a painful terminal illness. This is an ironic exception to the general rule that the doctrine of human dignity secures better treatment for humans than for nonhumans.

Talk about a slippery slope! We euthanize animals because they are abandoned, because they become incontinent, because they are expensive, because they are vicious, because they cost too much for which to care, etc..  If humans are no different than animals–and if we really come to believe that–what will stop us from treating each other like we do animals–and even like animals do each other?  Think about it: We treat animals humanely because of human exceptionalism, not in spite of it. I mean, if all we are is meat on the hoof, why even adhere to a quality of life ethic?  Let’s get onto serious social Darwinism and dominance by the powerful, and woe betide the weak that get in the way!

This is an important matter to ponder.  Stewart-Williams’ post vividly illustrates the harm that would be caused by denying human exceptionalism, a cost that would be measured in the number of human casualties.

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