Human “exceptionalism” as moral exclusion

In his review of Wesley Smith’s book that I linked to below, Angus Taylor puts his finger on exactly what has long bothered me about Smith’s rhetoric of “human exceptionalism”:

Even if can be shown … that all human beings deserve an elevated moral status, it is not clear why this elevated status should entail the right to exploit, kill, and consume beings of lesser status – especially in those instances where no human vital needs are at stake. The issue of moral agency is a red herring. There is no logical requirement that all humans be moral “by nature” in order for every one of them to be entitled to respectful treatment. If not Tom Regan’s “subject of a life” theory, then surely Gary Francione’s sentience-based rights view would give Smith all he desires in terms of recognizing the equal inherent worth of all humans, including the mentally handicapped. By recognizing sentience as a sufficient condition for the right to be treated with respect, Smith could make a rationally defensible argument against the abuses to which he believes many incapacitated humans are vulnerable. But his doctrine of human exceptionalism cannot countenance just any ethical view that protects humans, for it is not enough to include all humans within the moral community – one must simultaneously exclude all non-humans. And this is crucial: human exceptionalism is at least as much about whom we are determined to exclude from the moral community as about whom we wish to include within it.

Smith is able to get so much traction against proponents of animal rights/liberation largely by waving the red flag of “dehumanization.” In his view, elevating our treatment of animals necessarily involves downgrading our treatment of humans. But as Taylor points out, there’s just no logical reason for thinking this.

It should be added, though, that at least part of the blame for this might fall on the “father” of the animal rights movement himself–Peter Singer. Singer has long staked out controversial views on abortion, infanticide, euthansia, the rights of the disabled, and other “life” issues, which has led some to think that his arguments for animal liberation are simply part of an agenda to debase the value of human life. I think this is misleading–both Singer’s positions on animal liberation and his bioethical views derive from a prior commitment to a particular form of utilitarianism. On this view, the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its overall consequences, understood in terms of the satisfaction of preferences. From this it follows, argues Singer, that life–whether human or animal–is not inherently “sacred.” Rather, whether it’s wrong to end a life has to be judged in terms of the prospects for preference-satisfaction of all affected parties. Nevertheless, what some may consider admirable philosophical consistency, others regard as a dangerous cheapening of human life.

But Singer’s view is by no means embraced by all who advocate better treatment for animals (nor, for that matter, do all utilitarians embrace all of Singer’s more controversial bioethical views). As Taylor points out, a rights-based view such as that of Tom Regan elevates the moral status of animals without “demoting” human beings to some lesser status. I’d add that theological views like Andrew Linzey’s function in a similar way; in his book Why Animal Suffering Matters, Linzey is quite critical of Singer’s utilitarianism and its implications for vulnerable human life.

None of this takes away from the fact that Smith is generally quite sloppy in his engagement with the arguments of pro-animal rights/liberation thinkers. And I agree with Taylor that Smith’s version of “human exceptionalism” largely seems crafted to justify the ongoing human domination and exploitation of non-human animals.

3 thoughts on “Human “exceptionalism” as moral exclusion

  1. I read this post a little while ago. But then I came back to it after reading some of James Alison’s book The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes, where Alison speaks of communities founded on the exclusion of the victim. Your title is interesting to ponder in that light.

  2. It’s the ethical equivalent of those who pit love of animal companions over and against love of human beings, as if Love works that way. Love multiplies and expands rather than divides and contracts in care for the particular.

  3. It would be very difficult, though not impossible, to maintain the same level of “reverence for life” that we currently have toward humans, while entirely blurring the line between humans and nonhuman animals. That is what motivates Singer to rethink the ethics of killing (see his “Rethinking Life and Death”). The other option is not completely blurring the line. We can certainly still includes animals in our moral sphere, without totally ending speciesism. We should probably still be vegan, for example, because we’re not going to take animals’ interests seriously at all if they’re just commodities who exist for a taste preference, etc.

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