The Struggle for Human Equality: It Must Be Waged on All Fronts

Original Article

I am honored by Professor Blackburn’s serious critique of my article, “The Bioethics Threat to Human Dignity,” and very pleased that the editors considered the important question of how to best defend human exceptionalism worthy of a Human Life Review symposium. Thank you.

Human exceptionalism, as I wrote in the original article, is fundamental to defending the sanctity/equality of human life. Indeed, if we reject the objective intrinsic value of all people, our ability to promote and actually enact policies consistent with universal human rights—alas, our reach still exceeds our grasp in this regard—becomes impossible.

If being human—in and of itself—does not accord an individual the highest moral value, then we have to decide what subjective criteria to apply to deciding who and what matters more and less. And that is precisely the anti-human game that is afoot across a broad and threatening front. As I wrote in the original article, many in bioethics support an “undignified” bioethics that explicitly rejects the exceptional nature of the human being—which leads to such odious proposals as killing the cognitively disabled for organs and “after-birth abortion” infanticide.1 The animal-rights movement—which must be distinguished from “animal welfare”—is pursuing human/animal moral equality and animal personhood.2 Meanwhile, radical misanthropic environmentalism pursues “nature rights” and proclaims that the earth is a living entity afflicted by human parasites, “requiring a substantial decrease in the human population.”3 The totalitarian possibilities associated with these and other ideological denials of human exceptionalism are obvious.

The current cultural emergency requires that we engage the anti-humanists at every possible turn, and try to help all understand—whatever their political philosophy or religious belief—the urgency and righteousness of the cause. But too many impede their effectiveness by conflating the defense of human exceptionalism with a religious proselytizing project. I believe Professor Blackburn fell into that trap by writing an article “principally for Christians,” advising that we cannot engage the issue of human uniqueness and intrinsic value without also discussing God.

Let me take my thoughts a step further. Christians are not apart from the general community, they are in (if not of) it. This means that people of faith need to be able to articulate pro-human exceptionalism arguments from the perspective of the audience, which is growing increasingly secular, and indeed, explicitly anti-Christian. Moreover, in my view, the current cultural zeitgeist makes the rational case for human exceptionalism far stronger than a religious apology precisely because it is based on “belief” rather than “faith.”

Ah, Professor Blackburn brought that up, didn’t he? He claims that first principles necessarily fall within the metaphysical realm and hence are religious by definition, writing:

In the end, Smith’s argument is rooted in an a priori presupposition, indeed a metaphysical presupposition, which not all share and which cannot be proven. My point here is not that Smith is wrong, but only that he argues religiously. Metaphysics, by definition, deals with first principles, unproven presuppositions upon which an argument or a worldview is built. Logically speaking, God is a metaphysical presupposition. So is not-God. And, I would argue, so is the exceptionalism of mankind. Calling a perspective “secular” does not make it irreligious, it only alerts us that the metaphysical presupposition of the perspective excludes God.
To the contrary: There is an important difference between “belief” and “faith.” The former is often derived by weighing argument, reviewing evidence, observing, researching, etc. Perhaps human exceptionalism can’t be “proved” to a metaphysical certainty, but it can certainly be discovered and demonstrated. In contrast, faith is belief that “does not rest on logical proof or material evidence,”4 or as the author of Hebrews so eloquently put it, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”5 That is a distinction with a real difference in the context of this discussion. We can ascertain and study the many ways in which human nature differs from animal nature. Not so the existence of a soul or the reality of salvation.

Professor Blackburn questions why those natural capacities and attributes that make humans exceptional—e.g., moral agency, rationality, creativity, etc.—are “moral” as opposed to the sacrifices made by penguins to protect and feed their young. But this is a false comparison. The penguins are acting on instinct. They have no choice in the matter and that is true whether or not they evolved or were created. In this sense, they are not actually doing anything laudatory. Indeed we admire their extraordinary efforts precisely because we view them through the prism of our own exceptional moral nature.

In contrast to penguins and all animals, we have the capacity to choose whether and how to love, care, protect, and raise our children, or indeed, whether to have offspring at all. That is, by definition, a morally relevant and distinctively human trait, in contrast to, say, our bipedal nature, about which we have no choice and which presents no moral implications. After all, the penguins are bipedal too.

The point is that by arguing on behalf of human exceptionalism from rational bases, we can produce data and engage in philosophical argument to convince people that:

  1. Humans possess unique capacities (such as moral agency, creativity, and rationality);
  2. These characteristics are moral rather than merely biological attributes;
  3. Our uniqueness in these regards justifies the acceptance and propriety of human exceptionalism; and,
  4. The clear exceptional nature of man opens the door to the broader discussion of why we alone in the known universe possess rights and bear duties, and the benefits and burdens that such a view establishes.

In contrast, an argument that invokes the imago Dei will hit a wall of futility if the subject of the advocacy replies, “So what? I don’t believe in God.” Thus, to state that Christians should argue from faith risks unilateral intellectual disarmament against those members of the community who reject faith or have a different faith and even among those Christians who do not believe their faith should drive public policy or be forced on the rest of society.

I am not saying that arguing from a Christian foundation has no place. It certainly does—in the right context. And yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. so argued on behalf of the equality of African-Americans. But he did so when the nation generally adhered—at least in theory—to Judeo/Christian principles.

That nation no longer exists, and unless and until there is a revival, I submit that we must adjust our advocacy in defense of human exceptionalism accordingly. This isn’t to reject faith. Nor is it to turn our back on spreading the good news. But it is to say that such efforts aren’t currently effective or generally persuasive. We can spit into the wind, to use a crude image, or we can work with the best persuasive tools that are available.

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.