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In Defense of Human Exceptionalism

Wesley J. Smith

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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.

Read the entire article on the First Things website (new window will open).

Posted: 07-Jul-07



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