Being human is no big deal

Are human beings just a smarter species of animal or is there something transcendentally different about them?
Theron Bowers | Aug 11 2010 | comment  

We have asked several of our contributors to respond to a question in our occasional series of forums. This time the question is: What is the world's most dangerous idea? We expect that the answers will be quite controversial. Please add your comments. 

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Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. ~ Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

One day, we may remember 1948 as the peak of mankind’s respect for one another. Sixty years later, ivory tower snobs, animal rights activists, abortion and euthanasia proponents are increasingly attacking the foundation for freedom and justice declared in the UDHR, the special value of each and every human being, also known as human dignity.

A few years ago, a New York Times reporter celebrated the extension of human rights to nonhuman animals, after the environmental committee of the Spanish Parliament voted to grant great apes the right to life and freedom. In an odd but recurrent pattern of increasing animal rights at the expense of human dignity, the reporter exclaimed that we were kidding ourselves with our belief in unalienable “human” (his quote) rights.

Animal right activists often exhibit a stunning insensitivity to human tragedy. Animal liberation is routinely compared to slavery or the women’s rights even though no one would suggest a radical difference between blacks and whites or men and women. Over the last few years, the increasingly shrill People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have compared the victims of the Holocaust to animals kept in warehouses or killed. Whatever sympathy Holocaust on a Plate ad may bring for chickens, can such campaigns do anything but trivialized human suffering?

Such rhetoric may be mere attention-grabbing, hyperbole. However, the race card and Nazi bogeyman also reflect a popular rational basis for animal rights articulated by Princeton University bioethics professor, Peter Singer. Singer argues in Animal Liberation (1973), the Magna Carta of four-legged freedom, that the belief in the inherent dignity of human beings is speciesism and no more rational than racism. Of course the implication is that since racism is evil then the belief in human dignity is also evil.

Singer is not alone in the halls of our academies. Earlier this year, London School of Economics sociology professor Alasdair Cochrane published a paper contending that the concept of human dignity should be removed from bioethics.  Cochrane at least avoids dragging in the KKK but attacks the claim that only and all humans have inherent moral worth as “unhelpful and arbitrary.”

If human dignity is only a crazy, cruel fiction, what happens when we dump the myth?

First, the most vulnerable human beings, the very young and the very sick increasingly may be left outside the umbrella of the human community. In Practical Ethics Singer argues that infants are no more self-aware than snails or dogs. Therefore, killing a preborn child or a week old infant is not murder, nor anymore immoral than squashing a slug.

The inversion of ethical sensibilities doesn’t stop with issues of life as ethicist look to animals as our new moral guides.

Repulsed by cannibalism? Grow-up. A New York Times writer declares that we are in a “community of equals” with apes and female chimpanzees who are known to eat their rivals’ babies.

How about cuddling with animals? Singer argues that we are all animals and sex with animals cannot be an offense to our dignity as a human being.

In the end, if with lose our connection to the high ideas expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our moral universe would be turned upside down. Both man and animal will suffer. Can human beings be human without dignity?

Theron Bowers MD is a Texas psychiatrist.

This article is published by Theron Bowers and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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