Human Exceptionalism

“The Human Difference”

Does it matter morally that a “being” is human? And what does it mean exactly, to be human? The jihad aside, these may be the most important questions facing us in the 21st Century. Which is why we spend so much time here at Secondhand Smoke discussing the question of human exceptionalism, the intrinsic value–or lack thereof–of human life, and the policies that flow from the answers we give to these fundamental questions.

My friend Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) weighed in about this in a fine essay in the December 2006 Commentary called “The Human Difference.” Space does not permit a full description of the essay. But here are a few key points.

Cohen notes that “modern biology” has “left us bewildered” about how to think through “man’s standing among the animals.” Further, he writes: “…as theoreticians, modern biologists aim [my emphasis] to convince us that man is just another animal; as practitioners, they conduct ruthless experiments on other animals for the sake of improving human life. Modern sociobiologists declare human pride to be chauvinistic, yet modern biotechnology progresses only through such unapologetic human chauvinism. The scientists’ pride in his biological discoveries is humbled only by his belief that pride and shame and everything else are just Darwinian survival mechanisms repackaged in human form.”

Cohen makes a good point when he writes, “Evolution may explain the mechanisms of man’s descent, but not the mystery of his ascent, including the wonder he exhibits about the origins and destiny of the cosmos–a wonder that serves no useful animal function. A theory of man’s origins is not yet a theory of man…”

He describes (citing the work of Hans Jonas) some of the attributes of humans that are unique among all known species in the universe, including our ability to choose when it comes to sex: “In this most animal realm, humans reveal how high above the other animals they stand and how far below them they often fall; they reveal their unique dignity, and their unique capacity for self degradation.”

He concludes: “But, as we have seen, our science was also born of two radicalisms– the Darwinian reduction of man to the beasts and the Cartesian elevation of man into a god–that occasionally unite [as now] to threaten our human dignity…For it is not just the callous destruction of near-human life that should concern us in an age of hybrids and chimeras. It is also the self-degradation of man, who would lie down with the beasts in his quest to remake nature like a god.”


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