Human Exceptionalism

WJS on Animal Rights, Human Exceptionalism, and Moral Agency

There is a Q and A avec moi in Salvo, actually a version of an earlier audio interview conducted several months ago. As an abridged product, it misses some of the nuances, but here are the core points of that exchange.  From “You Beast: Animal Rights and Wrongs:”

You write in your book that “human beings stand uniquely at the pinnacle of moral worth.” Can your argument for human exceptionalism be made without the use of religion?

I think the whole thing comes down to the fact that we’re the only species that was ever created, designed, or evolved—take your pick—to be moral agents. There is no animal on the face of the earth that’s a moral agent, and there’s no known species in the wider universe that is a moral agent.

A lot of people say, “Human exceptionalism is arrogant. It’s hubristic. It means that you can do anything you want to animals and the environment.” This is absolutely not the case. Human exceptionalism has two sides to it, and they’re part of the same coin. On one side, we’re the only species with rights. We’re the only species that can understand the concept of rights. On the other side, however, we are also a duty-bearing species. We have duties to each other. We have duties to animals. We have duties to the environment. We have duties that can be enforced through law or moral persuasion. This is uniquely true of human beings.

Some will say, “Look at the elephant. It has an exceptional trunk.” Yes, that’s true, but a trunk is not a moral attribute. It’s merely a physical capacity. You may have better vision than I do, but that doesn’t mean that you have greater value than I do. Morality, moral agency, and free will, on the other hand, are exceptional attributes, both in terms of our status and our obligations.

What I’m really asking, though, is whether it’s possible to even refer to moral agency without likewise appealing to some higher authority.

If you take a look at the entire history of the human race, you will not find a society that did not believe in some sort of morality. Of course, different societies came up with different moral values, but it’s clear that we are hardwired, whether through God or evolution, to have morality.

Even Richard Dawkins, who is the most prominent proselytizer for atheism, pushes a morality. For example, he supports the Great Ape Project, which seeks to create “a moral community of equals” among human beings, orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees. Dawkins believes, in other words, that the great apes have a right to life, liberty, and freedom from torture.

And why does he believe this? Well, he has written that he wants to destroy the Judeo-Christian moral view that human beings are the center of society. He has even said that he yearns for a hybrid species between chimps and humans that could procreate with humans because that would knock humanity from its pedestal. Now that is not a scientific analysis; it’s a moral analysis. You simply cannot be human without also being a moral agent. It is part of what separates us from the animal world.

Yup, animal rights–as opposed to animal welfare–is an ideology that seeks drastic changes in Western society. I dissent.  Human exceptionalism is the key to freedom and our taking responsibility to treat animals humanely and the environment with proper respect.

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