Ethics Debate: Does Human Exceptionalism Rely on God?

Opinion   |   Wesley J. Smith   |   Dec 26, 2012   |   11:20AM   |   Washington, DC

I have long argued that human exceptionalism–the unique and intrinsic moral importance and value of us–does not depend on the existence of the soul or reliance on God. Many of the differences between humans and all other known life are moral in nature, not merely biological. Hence, hawks have exceptional eyesight, but that is merely biological, as is our bipedalism. On the other hand, we (as just one example), are–whether due to random evolution, creation, of intelligent design–the only known moral agents. It is in our very natures to so be, and those of us who aren’t are either too immature for the moral natures to have fully expressed, or are injured or disabled in some capacity. That is a distinction with a moral difference.

HE is under concerted attack in bioethics, animal rights, radical environmentalism, neo Darwinism, and elsewhere. But even some believers in human exceptionalism disagree that HE can be supported without some reliance on religion.

The Human Life Review hosted an interesting symposium on that very debate awhile ago. And now, Lydia McGrew has a good, detailed scholarly article in The Christendom Review in which she reviews that discussion. From, “Human Exceptionalism in the Public Square:”

Consistently, Smith refers to his own approach as “arguing on behalf of human exceptionalism from rational bases.” He even goes to far as to say,

[T]o state that Christians should argue from faith risks unilateral intellectual disarmament against those members of the community who reject faith or…even among those Christians who do not believe their faith should drive public policy or be forced on the rest of society

…Smith’s implied concern about “forc[ing] faith on the rest of society” arises fairly naturally from the idea that religious belief is irrational or arational. If religion has no rational basis, then why should my irrational belief trump someone else’s irrational belief, much less someone else’s more rational or evidentially grounded belief? If Christians are to oppose the naked public square, their best course of action is therefore to resist the characterization of their religion as having no basis in rational argument.

Well, not totally. But faith isn’t based primarily on “evidence” in the legal or scientific senses of the term. If it were, it wouldn’t be “faith.”

Later in her article, McGrew hits on something with which I agree very much:

There are, in fact, serious practical problems with making the natural law appear hard. Blackburn accuses Smith of making Christians argue while “tying one hand behind their back[s].” (Blackburn 2012) But if we join with the hardened secularists in arguing that the natural law is extremely difficult to see, that it is a mere preference to think (absent revelation) that humans have special value, that is fighting with one hand tied behind our backs, and it is likely to have quite serious consequences.

By agreeing with the secularists that human exceptionalism is far from obvious, we teach anyone who has stirring doubts about the murderous logical consequences of personhood theory that he should dismiss those doubts as subjective preferences rather than perceptions of objective reality. We teach him that he is not being particularly rational in feeling horrified when learned professors advocate infanticide or killing the vulnerable for their organs. We teach him that his conscience is not at all truth-directed; we separate reason from moral insight. We thus have a very good chance of moving him not towards Christianity but towards a more hard-hearted naturalism, a naturalism in which he suppresses his moral knowledge more insistently and consistently than ever before.

Again, there is the problem of moral responsibility. If it is actually true that those who deny the existence of God have no independent access to the moral law, if the rather insouciant attitude that humans are no more valuable than penguins, which Blackburn endorses on the secularist’s behalf, is perfectly justifiable for the unbeliever, how can we hold secularists responsible for the evil that they might advocate or do? They have, allegedly, no way of knowing any better, and we have no way of telling them that they should know better.

As I have noted here, we have already begun to see such assertions seriously made, primarily among those who deny that we have free will.

The question of human exceptionalism, I believe, is the overriding moral and philosophical issue of our times. On accepting HE hangs our ability to defend universal human rights and equality, maintain the morality of medicine, protect the dignity of the vulnerable and shield them from exploitation and instrumentalization, enable the material thriving of our species, and generate the optimism needed to fight against the strong Black Hole drag of nihilism that badly infects Western Civilization.



Or to look at it from the other end of the lens, without HE, what ultimate duties can we be said to owe each other, our posterity, animals, and the environment? I mean, if being human isn’t what requires of us–and only us–the proper care of each other and the world, what does? If it is simply our humanity, as I aver, then by definition, we are exceptional. Note: Wesley J. Smith, J.D., is a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He writes at his blog, Secondhand Smoke.