Location: Iowa, United States

61 years old (pretty old for a blogger) proud to be a grandpa

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Are Human Beings Special?

One of the foundations of Western thought is that human beings are set apart from the rest of creation as special and having intrinsic value. We confirm this thinking consciously or unconsciously when we speak of the sanctity of human life or, on a more religious level, ascribe to the notion that man is made in the image of God. I certainly can’t speak with authority about other religions except to note that Buddhist, Muslim and Hindus writings to some degree also support this notion as well. Many of our laws and customs have grown out of this concept. Increasingly, however, there is a tendency to regard humans as simply one species among many and having no distinctive claims to importance. The champions of this notion often invoke the fact that man has only been on the planet a very short time ("Why, time-wise, we're just a blip on the radar screen") and our tendency to pollute and despoil. That is not to say that the proponents of this idea view all species as equal, however. They still view the animal kingdom as a kind of hierarchy based largely on intelligence (it's OK for the tuna to get caught in the net but not the dolphins). Though humans may rank high in this scheme, they only occupy one end of a large sentient continuum; they differ from other species only in degree, not kind. One needn’t be an atheist or agnostic to hold this view; one only needs to imagine a god who gives attention to creation as a whole rather than one who bestows unique significance to one particular variety.
Enter Peter Singer, controversial ethicist from Princeton who advocates, among other things, a parent’s rights to perform infanticide on their “defective” (however defined) infants and euthanasia for anyone who can no longer think and/or feel (also, however defined). For Singer, the only thing of intrinsic value is the degree to which individual creatures feel pain, pleasure, and are aware of their surroundings. And even though humans are generally at the top of the chart for these categories, it is not their "humanness" per se that gives them value. Thus, a smart chimpanzee is worth more than a mentally challenged human. To think otherwise is to be guilty of “speciesism,” the illogical favoring of one creature class over another. For Singer, if it is justifiable to perform experiments on monkeys, it is also justifiable to perform experiments on severely retarded infants (who, he argues, have the same (or even a lesser) amount of awareness than do monkeys).
Now, I think it's fair to say that there are many people who, while agreeing with the thinking expressed in the first paragraph would, nevertheless, recoil at Singer's position. The point of this post is--why should they? Isn't Singer's view the logical outcome of their own? It might be argued that one could stay in paragraph one without agreeing with Singer by arguing that because we are human we should give our group priority just as other species do for their own. Thus, all species are (for evolutionary purposes) genetically wired to favor their kind--wiring that provides "survival value" which, in turn, helps them propogate. But once we accept the fact that it is only genetic wiring that prompts these inclinations, why should we feel compelled to obey them? We're certainly not in any danger of running out of people. And there are other "survival impulses" such as unbridled lust and personal vengeance that we chose to sublimate as individuals and as a society to fulfill the "social contract" or whatever you want to call it. I'm afraid the only way to stay away from Singer is to reject the views expressed in the first paragraph as well. This leaves us not only with the idea that humans are, indeed, of inherent value--but, that like all things of inherent value, can only be made so by an outside authority that demands reverence.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Link worth checking out

Great link: