Human Exceptionalism

Leon Kass on What Makes Humans Special

Leon Kass’s piece in Commentary, about which I posted earlier, also contains some very good prose about a philosophical approach to human exceptionalism. He writes:

It is indubitably clear, even to atheists, that we human beings have them [attributes of God in biblical religion such as “reason,” “freedom,” and the “powers of contemplation”],and that they lift us above the plane of a merely animal existence. Human beings, alone among creatures, speak, plan, create, contemplate, and judge. Human beings alone among the creatures can articulate a future goal and use that articulation to guide them in bringing it into being by their own purposive conduct. Human beings, alone among the creatures, can think about the whole marvel at its many-splendored forms and articulated order, wonder about its beginning, and feel awe in beholding its grandeur and in pondering the mystery of its source. Note well: These self-evident truths do not rest on biblical authority. Rather, the biblical text enables us to confirm them by an act of self-reflection.

Me: And this is true whether the awe comes from religion, philosophy, or atheism, as in Richard Dawkins’ wonder at what evolution has produced. Moreover, from our recognition of human exceptionalism, we must then grapple with what that special status means.

In this regard, I spoke at a law school a few weeks ago about the animal liberation movement and its attack on human exceptionalism. One student angrily rejected the concept of exceptionalism because, he said, despite my repeated assertions that exceptionalism is what imposes duties on humans, such as treating animals humanely, it really means that we can do whatever we want to animals, however we want. And how dare we think we are “better” than animals!

So, I asked this student three times if being human isn’t what gives us the duty to treat animals well, what does? No answer. And what answer could there be? Any moral duties we decide to impose upon our species flow directly from the fact of human exceptionalism. That being so, it is odd that some of those who speak the loudest about all of our moral duties to the planet, are also those most rejecting of the status of human beings as an exceptional species.

If you can, get a copy of Commentary and read the entire essay. Agree or disagree, pondering the wisdom of Leon Kass is always a good use of one’s time.

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