Human Exceptionalism

On the Need to Maintain the Principle of Human Exceptionalism

The Canadian philosopher and bioethicist, Margaret Somerville, has a splendid column out in the Ottawa Citizen on the importance of human exceptionalism and the need to reject animal personhood.  From her column:

While I strongly endorse their goal of preventing cruelty to all sentient creatures, and believe that we humans have obligations to protect them, I don’t agree with trying to achieve that through making animals persons. My reasons for rejecting personhood for animals include that it would undermine the idea that humans are “special” relative to other animals and, therefore, deserve “special respect.” Whether humans are “special” — sometimes referred to as human exceptionalism or uniqueness — is a controversial and central question in bioethics, and how we answer it will have a major impact on what we view as ethical or unethical with regard to our treatment of humans and of animals.

Why is our special status important? Without it, universal human rights become impossible to maintain:

The feature of both the [Peter} Singer and [Thomas] White approaches, however, is that whether or not a living being is a person depends on its measuring up to a certain standard, however that standard is set. This is an attribute approach to who or what is a person and, therefore, deserves the respect and protections that come with that characterization. Applied to humans, this approach means that those who don’t have a certain level of physical, mental or emotional functioning are not persons and, as a result, don’t have the same rights as others.

But special rights also require that we assume unique duties:

We must have greater respect for all life, and I would add to that, in particular, human life. Restricting personhood to humans is one way we recognize and implement the latter. But that should not denigrate from our respect for all non-human life, and not just that which has high intelligence, self-awareness, an emotional life, ability to communicate, and so on, but all life. What that respect requires will not be uniform for different forms of life, but asking ourselves what is required is always necessary, and respect certainly excludes wanton or reckless cruelty. Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that we will be unable to maintain respect for human life unless we implement respect for all life. And if we lose our respect for life, we lose our humanity.

Exactly. For example, I read the other day that hyenas eat their prey alive. Any human who ever did that would be rightly considered a monster. But the hyenas are just being hyenas.  Unlike us, they have no duty of kindness or to mitigate suffering. 

Good for Somerville for getting the popular media to notice the issue of human exceptionalism. Across a wide swath of disciplines, intellectual elites are pushing to transform our self perception away from being the exceptional species–conveying unique rights and duties to us–into being just another animal in the forest (with some going further by promoting our self disdain as the enemies of the planet).  But most people remain blithely unaware of the subversion happening under their very feet.  Broadening this discussion to include “the folks” is a neccessary tonic that has great potential to reverse the anti human tide.