Knocking Human Beings Off the Pedestal of Exceptionalism

Original Article

Society’s belief in the unique moral value and importance of human life is under unprecedented assault. Most people still believe in human exceptionalism and are unaware that powerful social and cultural forces are working diligently to dismantle the sanctity of life ethic as the fundamental value of our social order. But the time has come to pay attention. If human life is knocked off the pedestal, universal human rights will be impossible to sustain.

Take bioethics, the influential field that exerts tremendous influence over medical ethics and health care public policy. The bioethical mainstream disdains the sanctity of life ethic as irrational and based on religion. In its place, they promote “personhood theory,” that equates moral value with cognitive capacities such as being self aware over time. This “quality of life” ethic, as it is sometimes called, creates a two-tiered system in which some humans have greater value than human non persons.

Who are these so called human non persons? All the unborn, to be sure, a presumption used to justify embryonic stem cell research, even fetal farming—growing fetuses to the later stage of gestation for use as organ sources, an odious idea already been promoted at the Huffington Post.

Personhood theory also denies the equal value of newborn infants. Thus, Princeton University’s Peter Singer—the most famous bioethicist in the world—argues that infants can be killed if they don’t serve their family’s interests. He even compared the value of babies to that of fish, writing in Rethinking Life and Death, “Since neither a newborn infant nor a fish is a person, the wrongness of killing such beings is not as wrong as killing a person.”

Infanticide isn’t just a theoretical. Baby euthanasia is commonplace in the Netherlands, where, the Lancet reports, 8% of all babies who die are killed by doctors based on quality of life judgmentalism.

Personhood theory also threatens those who have lost capacities. Thus, people with profound cognitive impairments like Terri Schiavo are increasingly being looked upon as potential sources of organs even though they are clearly not dead.

The animal rights movement goes even farther, fabricating an explicit moral equality between humans and animals based on the ability to suffer. Thus, animal rights philosopher Richard Ryder wrote in the Guardian: “Our concern for the pain and distress of others should be extended to any “painient” – pain-feeling – being regardless of his or her sex, class, race, religion, nationality or species. Painience is the only convincing basis for attributing rights or, indeed, interests to others.” Hence, since rats and guinea pigs feel pain, doing animal research is the moral equivalent of Mengele’s atrocities in the Nazi death camps. This misanthropy is so fervently believed by animal liberationists, that some have taken to attacking medical researchers in the name of “saving the animals.”

Materialistic Darwinists also deny human exceptionalism based on their belief that since all life evolved randomly out of the same primordial ooze, species distinctions are morally irrelevant. This view has potentially deadly implications to the sanctity of human life, for as journalist John Darnton wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “[U]ltimately, if animals and plants are the result of impersonal, immutable forces…then the natural world has no moral validity or purpose. We are all of us, dogs and barnacles, pigeons and crabgrass, the same in the eyes of nature, equally remarkable and equally dispensable.”

Radical environmentalism is even more alarming, taking human unexceptionalism to the next nihilistic level. Under this view, we are life’s villains whose pillaging threatens the earth. In order to “save the planet” our prosperity must be sacrificed and our population strictly controlled. Some radical environmentalists even look to China’s tyrannical one child policy as a model—even though it uses female infanticide and forced abortion as demographic weapons. Toward this end, the environmental writer Alex Renton recently wrote:

Some scientists…say that if the [population] cuts are not achieved, we will end up with a planet with a “carrying capacity” of just 1 billion humans. If so, we need to start cutting back population now with methods that offer a humane choice – before it happens the hard way.

One wonders if that last bit is a threat—or a promise.

These, and other, attacks on human exceptionalism are profoundly dangerous to human life and liberty. It is our unique moral status in the known universe that gives rise to both universal (human) rights. It is the sanctity of life ethic that compels us to care for the weak, vulnerable, and elderly among us.

Either we all matter equally, simply and merely because we are human—or our value becomes relative, our rights, and indeed, our continued existence—determined by the reigning power structure of the day. After all, if we are merely another animal in the forest—or worse, the planet’s enemies—why should any of us be treated as if we have any special meaning at all?

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.