By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC. Excerpted from his A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement (Encounter, 2010).

An embrace of human exceptionalism does not depend on religious belief. Whether our distinctive moral characteristics flow from the processes of blind evolution, or the mind of God, or some other mechanism, the unique importance of being human can be robustly supported by a rational examination of the differences between humans and all other known life forms.

The idea that human beings stand at the pinnacle of the moral hierarchy of life should be—and once was—uncontroversial. After all, what other species in the known history of life has attained the wondrous capacities of human beings? What other species has transcended the tooth-and-claw world of naked natural selection to the point that, at least to some degree, we now control nature instead of being controlled by it? What other species builds civilizations, records history, creates art, makes music, thinks abstractly, communicates in language, envisions and fabricates machinery, improves life through science and engineering, or explores the deeper truths found in philosophy and religion? What other species has true freedom? Not a one. David Oderberg gets to the heart of why humans are exceptional:

No experiment that has ever been conducted into animal behavior has demonstrated that animals know why they do what they do, or are free to choose one course of action over another. From insects to apes, all kinds of complex behaviors have been demonstrated, such as deception, tool making, social group formation, mutual assistance. But nothing has been found which sets apes apart from insects in any qualitative sense bearing on freedom and knowledge of purpose. The “gee whiz” articles that appear in the popular press on a regular basis, revealing the latest trickery or intelligence on the part of some animal (usually an ape), are therefore useless as forming an empirical justification for regarding animals as metaphysically, in their nature, the same as human beings.

Can anyone really argue that our species is not unique and, as far as we know, unprecedented? Who can reasonably deny that human life is lived in mental and moral realms never before seen in the known history of life? Only humans have the capacity to intentionally embrace the good—or engage in the worst evil. It was from a profound understanding of these facts that Thomas Jefferson wrote the immortal words declaring humanity’s natural right to freedom: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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Let us now take the defense of human exceptionalism one step further: Without the conviction that humankind has unique worth based on our nature rather than our individual capacities, universal human rights are impossible to sustain philosophically. As the noted philosopher Mortimer J. Adler wrote, if we ever came to believe that humans do not all possess a unique moral status, the intellectual foundations of our liberties collapse:

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 could be validly dismissed as a hollow illusion that should become defunct.

Adler then explained why knocking humans off the pedestal of exceptionalism could lead to tyranny:

On the psychological plane, we would have only a scale of degrees in which superior human beings might be separated from inferior men by a wider gap than separated the latter from non-human animals. 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?

I don’t see how Adler’s analysis can be disputed. Indeed, the effect of denying humans a special status is easily perceived in Peter Singer’s utilitarianism, with its sanction of infanticide and the use of cognitively devastated humans in place of animals in medical experiments.

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