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Like Fr. Oakes , I am intrigued by the pope’s warnings against “the dictatorship of relativism”¯for relativism poses a far more profound problem than behavioral license. The value of human life itself is being relativized. Indeed, it strikes me that the most crucial question we face in this century is whether the West will continue to perceive human life as having ultimate moral value simply and merely because it is human.

The principle that human life is special¯some call it human exceptionalism¯is under sustained attack by relativists on several fronts. In utilitarian bioethics, for example, being human is not what conveys value: It is being a “person,” which is defined as having sufficient cognitive capacity to warrant acceptance into the moral community. This means that there are so-called “human nonpersons,” including all the unborn, newborn infants (sometimes referred to as potential persons), and people with severe cognitive impairments, such as Terri Schiavo. Since the human nonperson is deemed to have lesser value than persons (whether human or animal), they lose the right to life and even to bodily integrity. Thus, personhood theory is used to justify creating cloned embryos for use and destruction in research and redefining death to include a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state so that organs can be harvested from the profoundly impaired and medical experiments can be conducted upon them.

Animal liberation presents another challenge to human exceptionalism, particularly among the young. In PETA-style liberation ideology, it isn’t being human that conveys moral value but the ability to feel pain. Under this value system, since a cow feels pain and a human feels pain, humans and cows are morally equal. This means that cattle ranching is literally equivalent to slavery, and doing animal research is the same as the Mengele’s atrocities. Understanding that this is literally and fervently believed by liberationists (as opposed to traditional animal welfarists) is necessary to comprehend the threats of murder against medical researchers and the crescendo of violence in the name of “saving the animals” we have seen in recent years.

Materialistic Darwinism¯the philosophy¯sees humans as merely one part of the animal kingdom. Since we are the result of purposeless natural evolutionary processes and share many genes with primates and other species, we must come to accept that homo sapiens are merely one species among the world’s fauna. This philosophical approach results in humans being perceived as having no greater or lesser value than any other life form. And it leads some proponents to yearn for the creation of human/primate hybrids, as was recently proposed in a column in the Los Angeles Times, as a method of proving that we are nothing special. Some go so far as to assert that this realization is crucial to saving the environment, since, in this view, exceptionalism causes us to become indifferent to the environmental harm we cause.

Deep ecology takes this misanthropic belief a step further. To deep ecologists, we are not merely another animal in the forest; we are actually a vermin species that is sucking the life out of the living planet Gaia. The answer for deep ecologists is to reduce radically the human population. Thus, a Texas professor recently wished for an Ebola pandemic to reduce human population levels at a science symposium¯and received a standing ovation.

There is an important lesson here: Once we relativize human life, its intrinsic value erodes. This leads away from universal human rights and toward treating some human lives as mere natural resources. It destroys the sanctity-of-life ethic and results in oppression and even the killing of the weak. It is to reject the important understanding that human beings have unique duties precisely because we are exceptional. Or to put it another way, if we perceive ourselves to be merely another animal in the forest, that is precisely how we will act.

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