We live in an increasingly secular society. One consequence (among many) of this cultural shift has been an increasing rejection of the once uncontroversial belief that humans reside uniquely at the pinnacle of moral worth.
Activist academics, purveyors of popular culture, and issue ideologues across a wide swath of movements—from bioethics, to animal rights, to environmentalism—seek to knock us off the pedestal. Public intellectuals like Princeton University’s Peter Singer even argue that being human is morally irrelevant; what matters is possessing sufficient cognitive capacities to qualify as a “person.”
In this view, some humans—such as the unborn, infants, and those people with advanced Alzheimer’s—don’t qualify as persons, meaning that they can be killed, have their organs harvested, or become subjects of experiments. At the same time, some animals are deemed persons, making their captivity equivalent to slavery.
Deeper in the realm of the surreal, some of the world’s leading environmentalists consider us the villains of the planet—a “plague on the earth, according to Sir David Attenborough, or, as Canadian television and environmental celebrity David Suzuki once put it, “maggots defecating all over the environment.”
Such blatant anti-humanism is often dismissed or unanswered in the public square. But, as recent headlines about Planned Parenthood and the push for assisted suicide demonstrate, now is the time to defend intrinsic human value. What, however, is the best defense? The case for humankind is often made in religious terms. For example, Christian leaders may say that we have unique value because only humans are created in God’s image. As true as I think that is, imago Dei will not persuade those who don’t believe in God.
A belief in human exceptionalism, on the other hand, does not depend on religious faith. Whether we were created by God, came into being through blind evolution, or were intelligently designed, the importance of human existence can and should be supported by the rational examination of the differences between us and all other known life forms.
After all, what other species in known history has had the wondrous capacities of human beings? What other species has been able to (at least partially) control nature instead of being controlled by it? What other species builds civilizations, records history, creates art, makes music, thinks abstractly, communicates in language, envisions and fabricates machinery, improves life through science and engineering, or explores the deeper truths found in philosophy and religion? What other species has true freedom? Not one.
Only humans have the capacity to embrace the good and to engage in evil—a moral attribute embedded in our very natures. Moreover, we alone comprehend the grandeur, beauty, and importance of the natural world. The elephant is not awestruck at the sight of sunset. Nor can the squirrel appreciate the beauty of the blue jay and the butterfly. Yet even small children can love animals and wonder at the world.
Perhaps the most important distinction between the fauna and us is our moral agency. The sow that permits the runt of her litter to starve is not a negligent parent, but a human mother doing the same would be branded a monster. The feline that plays with a fallen baby bird before consuming it is not being sadistic; she is acting like a cat! But any human who tortures an animal is rightly seen as pathological.
Some see the claim of human exceptionalism as hubristic and dangerous; if we are so superior, aren’t we then entitled to treat animals as cruelly as we want? Just the opposite, in fact. We are capable of apprehending the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, proper and improper conduct. Or, put another way: If being human, in and of itself, isn’t what requires us to treat each other, animals, and nature properly, then what in the world does?
I believe that our morality in the twenty-first century will depend on how we respond to this question: Does every human life have equal and incalculable moral value simply and merely because it is human?
Answer yes, and we have a chance of achieving a truly humane, free, and prosperous society. Answer no, and we are just another animal in the forest. If that is how we define ourselves, it is precisely how we will act.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Patient’s Rights Council.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.