Margaret Somerville, the splendid Canadian bioethicist, has a good (and needed) column out defending human exceptionalism. From “Preserving Humanity:”
Wrestling with difficult questions is routine work for ethicists. But some are much more difficult than others. Recently, an editor asked me one that falls in the former category: What did I believe was presently the world’s most dangerous idea? I replied, “The idea that there is nothing special about being human and, therefore, humans do not deserve ‘special respect,’ as compared with other animals or even robots.”
By George, she’s got it! It really is that important.
But why is human unexceptionalism dangerous? That could take a book—or better stated, books—to fully explain. But with the space limitations, Somerville hits two points: What would happen to so-called “human nonpersons” and how the logic of denying the unique value of humanity could lead to the destruction of the human race from transhumanist recreationism:
Following logically on that, these philosophers then argue that some seriously mentally disabled humans and babies, who are among the most vulnerable, weakest and most in need members of our societies, are not persons, and, therefore, do not have the protections personhood brings, for instance, protection of their right to life. And, likewise, they propose that at least some animals should be regarded as non-human persons on the basis that these animals have some of the characteristics of personhood that the humans they regard as non-persons lack. They propose that animals which are self-conscious, intelligent, and have free will and emotions comparable to those of humans, should be treated as non-human persons.
But this idea that simply being human does not mean one deserves “special respect,” rather, the respect owed to a “being” depends on its having certain attributes, is not only a serious danger to vulnerable humans. It could also lead to situations in which robots would be seen to deserve greater respect than humans and ethical restrictions on what we may do to change human life would become inoperative.
And, that could lead to efforts seeking the elimination of human beings altogether (my emphasis):
If there is nothing special about being human, there is no essence of our humanness that we must hold in trust for future generations. That means we are free to use the new technoscience, as the transhumanists advocate we should, to alter humans so that they become “post-human,” that is, not human at all as we know it. In other words, there would be many less or perhaps no ethical barriers to seeking the transhumanists’ utopian goal, that humans will become an obsolete model. This would be achieved through our redesigning ourselves using technoscience — or perhaps robots doing so. Instead of our designing them, they could redesign us!
Obviously there is much more that can and should be said about these matters, and why it would be disastrous to eschew our unique value. F0r example, we already see a resurgence of eugenics thinking ,with all of the tyrannous and nihilistic implications of the first go round—but with better technology.
Good for Somerville for getting this issue into a popular news outlet. We need much more of that. Most people are woefully unaware of the threat or its potential consequences. (See my article on establishing an “undignified bioethics,” for more examples.) That is why I believe the more we talk about human exceptionalism, the better we will be able to prevent the dangerous shifts in culture, law, and ethics for which the human unexceptionalists pine.