At the end of July, the Campaign Life Coalition interns collaborated with the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) for weekly street activism. A lady stopped to ask us why embryonic human beings should be considered valuable. After all, we consume chicken embryos when we have eggs for breakfast, don’t we? (Actually no – those eggs have not been fertilized.) She went even further, saying that the enormous human population on our planet means that we should be treated no differently from the various animals we share our home with.
In September, celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking, who has progressive motor neurone disease, came out in favour of euthanasia, telling the BBC “we don’t let animals suffer, so why humans?”
The idea that humans have unique worth and are set apart from other living creatures used to be intuitive. It has been given a variety of names, such as “human exceptionalism” or “human spirit.” All pro-life advocates should be familiar with the concept. It seems impossible to defend human rights, especially the pro-life position, any other way.
I have participated in some advanced apologetics seminars with CCBR addressing human exceptionalism. However, there was not enough detail in the seminars to satisfy radical animal rights advocates like the one we spoke to this past summer. Furthermore, the question is too deep to be explored immediately after an hour of intense conversation. Therefore, I decided to go to the source of much human exceptionalism literature: Wesley J. Smith. Smith is a bioethicist and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an American conservative think-tank. He heads the Institute’s Center for Human Exceptionalism and writes for a blog called “Human Exceptionalism” for National Review Online.
Smith told The Interim that he defines human exceptionalism as the belief that “human beings are unique in the universe, distinct from all other life.” He is trying to popularize the term as a way of enabling people to “talk about the importance of human life across religious and political boundaries.” According to human exceptionalist philosophy, human beings are the “only known moral agents” who can differentiate between concepts such as “ought” versus “is” or “right” versus “wrong.” Notions of morality are “not just instinct, but part of our human nature.” Our rational abilities distinguish us from other living beings as well. “There is a difference between a beaver dam and the Hoover dam, in both kind and quality. The qualities are so different that they might as well be different kinds” of structure, in Smith’s view.
Human exceptionalists believe that humans are the only life form to actually possess rights which have corresponding duties. Some of these duties include: taking care of other humans, treating animals humanely, proper environmental practices, and various obligations related to our posterity, explained Smith. In contrast, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), or the Ecuadorians who worked to enshrine “nature’s right to life” in their constitution last year, hope to attain special treatment for other entities at the expense of our own species.
Margaret Somerville, a bioethicist and professor of law and medicine at McGill University, commented on a forthcoming study from Northeastern University in Boston. Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke determined that descriptions of puppies and dogs being beaten may sometimes evoke more sympathy than a description of a man being mistreated. A one-year-old human in the same scenario received the same amount of sympathy as the puppy. Somerville told The Interim that study participants may think that “the man must have done something to deserve it,” and “they probably see him as having the opportunity to defend himself, which the baby and puppy cannot do.” She also explained, “there is also an assumption that animals and children are completely innocent.” Somerville agreed with Smith’s observation that rights have accompanying obligations. In relation to animals, she believes that “you don’t own an animal, you hold them on trust.” Humans are guardians rather than owners of their pets. The same idea applies to property. There are no absolute rights to treat animals or property however one wishes, she insists.
As for human rights, these depend on the unique value held only by humans, explained Smith. If these rights are destroyed, important decisions affecting humanity will fall to those who have the most power. PETA and some philosophers, such as Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, consider it “arrogant” to believe homo sapiens are in any way exceptional. Instead, life forms should be valued according to “their ability to feel pain or suffer.” For example, some people equate the domestication of cows with human slavery. Those who hold this view “turn (their) back on a thousand years of human rights” in history. Smith pits the ideas of “animal rights” and “animal welfare” against each other. As he wrote in A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy, the latter entitles “us to benefit from animals” while caring for and without abusing them.Theformer is a radical mindset that forbids us from “using” animals for our benefit, or doing anything to them that would not be done in nature.
Somerville noted that since forms of human exceptionalism are found “across societies, time, and political systems” the idea must be “a basic one.” Without it, “we would then have to treat animals in the same way as humans, and humans the same way as animals.” This would give us licence to eat our fellow human beings.
Smith elaborated on the differences between human and animal interactions. If a seal washed up on a California beach, it would be ignored or eaten by other species. Only humans would intervene to improve the seal’s fate. “Hyenas eat their prey while it’s still alive. If I did that, it would be monstrous.”
Smith had a lot to say in response to my “chicken Choice Chain” incident. It is no longer true that pro-life people will win the abortion debate simply by convincing others of the fetus’ humanity. Though most would agree that fetuses are human in the biological sense, being in the womb and lacking certain capacities (falsely) negates its personhood and moral value. This perspective, when expanded, could lead to more “Peter Singer mentalities,” post-birth abortions as promoted by a group of Italian researchers in 2012, and euthanasia of people with severe disabilities like Terri Schiavo. Incapacitated people like Schiavo could be killed in order to donate organs to people who are more fit to use them. “Once you start killing the cognitively devastated and using them for a resource, you have obliterated universal human rights.” Smith said. “We’ve seen this before – it is analogous to race issues, but with different victims.”
Even examining less-controversial issues reveals that our society is heading down a dangerous path. “In our time, we are seeing living human bodies and their functions sold. I call this biological colonialism.” Smith provides an example: “Rich Westerners can go to India and pay women there for their gestational capacities.” The women selling their eggs are often poor, and are risking their health, fecundity and lives in the transactions. Pakistan, too, had to outlaw organ transplants between non-relatives because a black market was created.
The main point, Smith argued, is that human beings are “treated as objects instead of subjects. If you see humans as a ‘cancer of the living Gaia’, you see yourself as an enemy and villain.” The duties that come with this view can be debated, but society becomes “dark” once that position is denied. “There are tremendously powerful forces trying to destroy (belief in human exceptionalism),” said Smith. “It’s time for people to wake up.”