Tearing humans off the pedestal of exceptionalism is all the rage today among academics, philosophers, and other assorted members of the intelligentsia. The war against unique human worth¯of which many remain unaware¯is being mounted on many fronts:
"Personhood Theory" in bioethics claims that granting humans unique moral status based simply on being human is "speciesism," and hence membership in the moral community should be based on being a "person"¯for example, possessing certain cognitive capacities (whether animal, human, space alien, or machine), such as being self-aware over time.
The animal rights/liberation movement also seeks to knock us off the pedestal in the cause of elevating animals to equal moral worth with people. Thus, many liberationists urge that we base a being’s value on "painience," that is, the capacity to experience pain. Since cows feels pain just as humans do, bovines are people too, and hence ranching cattle is as evil as slavery.
Radical environmentalists and deep ecologists claim humans are a vermin species afflicting the living Gaia and that our population should be cut drastically so that earth can return to an Eden-like state.
Meanwhile, the philosophical materialists proclaim that humans are merely so much meat on the hoof and, indeed, that species distinctions are fictional given our many shared genes with animals and all life having evolved out of the same primordial soup. This means, as novelist and journalist John Darnton put it in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, "We are all of us, dogs and barnacles, pigeons and crabgrass, the same in the eyes of nature, equally remarkable and equally dispensable."
And now a new front appears to have been opened in the advocacy campaign to erase the distinction between fauna and us¯support for animal ensoulment, the subject of a recent New York Times story: " Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force " by Cornelia Dean. One advocate of this view mentioned by Dean is Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge, 2006). Murphy believes that just as Copernicus knocked earth off its celestial pedestal, new findings on cognition have displaced people from their "strategic location" in creation.
"Evolutionary biology shows the transition from animal to human to be too gradual to make sense of the idea that we humans have souls while animals do not,” wrote Dr. Murphy, an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. “All the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as brain processes¯or, more accurately, I should say, processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world.”
Therefore, she writes, it is “faulty” reasoning to want to distinguish people from the rest of creation.
How ironic that a report in the science pages of the New York Times would discuss souls respectfully, especially given that the existence or nonexistence of the soul isn’t a matter that science can measure, test, or duplicate (as a believing scientist asserts at the end of Dean’s piece). Nor is belief in the soul¯whether uniquely human or present in all life¯necessary to accepting what used to be considered the self-evident truth of human exceptionalism. But that’s OK: Whatever it takes to knock us off the pedestal.
It should now be clear to everyone that very powerful forces have totally dedicated themselves for varying reasons to convincing us that we really aren’t all that important. Those who think otherwise had better answer the call to defend the intellectual ramparts. Much is at stake. Demolishing our self-perception as a uniquely valuable species would have very grave consequences, given that human exceptionalism is both the philosophical underpinning for human rights and the basis of our unique self-imposed duties to each other, posterity, and the natural world. Indeed, as the philosopher Mortimer Adler wrote many years ago in The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes , if we dismantle the unique moral status accorded to human beings, universal human rights become impossible to sustain philosophically:
Those who now oppose injurious discrimination on the moral ground that all human beings, being equal in their humanity, should be treated equally in all those respects that concern their common humanity, would have no solid basis in fact to support their normative principle. A social and political ideal that has operated with revolutionary force in human history would be validly dismissed as a hollow illusion that should become defunct . . . . On the psychological plane, we would have only a scale of degrees in which superior human beings might be separated from inferior men by a wider gap than separated the latter from non-human animals. Why, then, should not groups of superior men be able to justify their enslavement, exploitation, or even genocide of inferior human groups, on factual and moral grounds akin to those that we now rely on to justify our treatment of the animals we harness as beasts of burden, that we butcher for food and clothing, or that we destroy as disease-bearing pests or as dangerous predators?
As Adler makes clear, "liberating" society’s general embrace of human exceptionalism will not “save the planet” as some suppose, nor liberate man from the supposed oppression of superstitious faith. Rather, it would open the door wide to tyranny.
Wesley J. Smith is senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.