By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

An article I wrote about the danger of an “undignified bioethics” for Human Life Review has led to a symposium on how best to advocate for human exceptionalism. I am most pleased.

It is interesting: As I strive to raise the visibility of this ultimate issue, I find myself in a two fronted controversy. First, between human exceptionalists and human unexceptionalists, that is, whether HE is justifiable and/or desirable. Then, there is a disagreement among those who embrace human exceptionalism about whether HE is best promoted in that dispute via reason and rationality (my position, although I believe religion also has its place among religious audiences) or whether one cannot in the end justify our unique moral worth without reference to faith.

The latter is the subject of the Human Exceptionalism Symposium at HLR: From Editor Maria McFadden Maffucci’s introduction:

We are honored to begin with His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who sets the tone by stressing the importance of what we are doing, not merely “preparing for a debating contest” but considering a question which “goes to the very essence of what it means to be human and how we are to live with one another.” “We are not mere creatures of reason or appetite or interest,” writes His Eminence. “Science alone cannot speak the full truth about human nature. We are necessarily spiritual beings, concerned about transcendent values.”

In the eight additional commentaries that follow, the reader follows the twists and turns of a fascinating discussion which reflects the richness of our Western, Judeo-Christian culture. Contributors look to, for example, ancient Greece (Hippocrates, Euclid), the Talmud, the Gospel and papal encyclicals, to natural law, and to American history and the abolitionist movement. Remarkably, you may come away agreeing with both Blackburn and Smith. Smith, who has re-joined the discussion with “The Struggle for Human Equality Must Be Waged on All Fronts,” says that the threats to human life are too dangerous and imminent to leave a secular appeal out of the equation. “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.” I would agree; on the other hand (and I would say this is true especially for those “hard cases” the utilitarians often raise), how far can our arguments go without referring to God as the Author of Life, who allows suffering, with its awful mystery? How can we truly live as human beings without the sense of “fear at the mystery of human life,” as David Klinghoffer writes, something primal, even pre-religion that may be dismissed as superstition but may instead be “preserved memories of wisdom?” How can we stop the culture from “playing God” if we don’t say His name?

Finally, as David Mills writes, it may come down not just to how we argue, but who we are as we participate: “If we want to argue for human dignity in the public square by appealing to the God who gives us that dignity, we have to make the appeal plausible and attractive by living godly—which is to say sacrificial—lives, lives that show others what human dignity looks like.”

And we have to be willing, as Cardinal Dolan writes, to reach out with “reason, faith, love and empathy. That is also the way to build a truly human society.”

Human exceptionalism is one of the most crucial issues facing Western Society, and indeed, the world. At stake is our continued commitment to universal human rights or a toxic embrace of the subjective “quality of life” culture of death approach to valuing human beings. I believe that the moral history of the 21st Century will be determined by how we decide the ultimate question: “Does human life have ultimate moral value simply and merely because it is human?”