If being human is not what conveys moral worth, then what does? The answer to this question varies. But, as we shall see, the increased embrace of human unexceptionalism cuts across a wide array of ideologies.
Let’s first look at secular bioethics, the philosophy of health care and public policy taught in our most elite universities. The predominating view in bioethics is that being human is not what gives one value, but rather, possessing sufficient capacities to be considered a “person.” Known as “personhood theory,” believers argue that a being—whether human, animal, machine, or extraterrestrial—all must be measured by the same criteria, and each must earn the highest value by possessing minimal cognitive capacities, such as being “self aware over time.” This means that there is such a thing in bioethics as the so-called “human non person,” human beings who have not yet attained personhood—such as embryos, fetuses, and newborn infants—and those who lose it due to injury or illness that significantly impairs cognitive capacity.
It isn’t safe to be a non person. Non persons, in this belief, do not possess the intrinsic right to life or bodily integrity. Thus some bioethicists argue for the moral righteousness of infanticide, cloned fetal farming, and the right to harvest organs from those diagnosed in persistent vegetative states.
Philosophical materialists also believe that being human alone is insufficient to convey moral value. In this view, since all life evolved out of the same primordial ooze, and because humans share genes with other life forms, species distinctions are fictional. 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.”
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 a cow feels pain as well as a human, bovines are people too, and hence, ranching cattle is as evil as slavery.
Radical environmentalists and deep ecologists go even farther, claiming not only that human beings are not exceptional, but moreover, that we are a “vermin species” afflicting the living planet Gaia. Not only that, but the answer to the human infection is radical depopulation. Some believe it can be done by most of us not having children. Others yearn for a worldwide pandemic of Ebola or some other dread disease. However it is to be done—the dark implications are obvious.
Then there are the fanatical nihilists who are attracted to death and existential nothingness like metal to a magnet. Take for example the vile Church of Euthanasia, the WEB site of which has a video of the 9/11 attack with the words, “I like to see the plane coming in.” The “four pillars” dogma of the C of E? “Suicide, abortion, cannibalism, and sodomy.”
t should now be clear to everyone that very powerful intellectual and cultural forces are totally dedicated to convincing us that we really aren’t all that important. Most recently, that includes biotechnologists and other government funders. The NIH has indicated it is open to funding experiments by which human stem cells are injected into animal embryos, creating what are known as “chimeras,” that is an organism with the genetic makeup of more than one species. Of greater concern this experimentation could, one day, lead to the birth of mostly animals that exhibit some human attributes, such as, say rationality.
What could be the moral and philosophical consequences of such an event? Anti human exceptionalists would declare that the creation of these chimeric animal/human beings obliterates the wall that has traditionally divided us from all other life forms on the planet. To quote philosopher Mortimer Adler, who wrote many years ago in “The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes”, if we were to so dismantle the unique moral status accorded to human beings, universal human rights become impossible to sustain philosophically:
Those who now oppose injurious discrimination on the moral ground that all human beings, being equal in their humanity, should be treated equally in all those respects that concern their common humanity, would have no solid basis in fact to support their normative principle. A social and political ideal that has operated with revolutionary force in human history would be validly dismissed as a hollow illusion that should become defunct…Why, then, should not groups of superior men be able to justify their enslavement, exploitation, or even genocide of inferior human groups, on factual and moral grounds akin to those that we now rely on to justify our treatment of the animals we harness as beasts of burden, that we butcher for food and clothing, or that we destroy as disease-bearing pests or as dangerous predators?
At the very least, man could — nay, do — argue that they are fast becoming obsolete.
Deploying the awesome powers of biotechnology and genetic engineering as a means of “liberating” society from human exceptionalism will not “save the planet” nor FREE man from the supposed oppression of superstitious faith. Rather, it could unintentionally open the door wide to vicious tyranny.