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Prof: We Shouldn’t Necessarily Value Humans Over Other Animals

New York University environmentalism prof Jeff Sebo argues that humans are not always rational and that some animals display mental qualities so we aren’t exceptional

New York University environmentalism prof Jeff Sebo, co-author of Chimpanzee Rights (2018), sees human exceptionalism (the idea that there is something unique about human beings) as a danger to humans and other life forms. He does not think that we should necessarily prioritize humans over animals:

Most humans take this idea of human exceptionalism for granted. And it makes sense that we do, since we benefit from the notion that we matter more than other animals. But this statement is still worth critically assessing. Can we really justify the idea that some lives carry more ethical weight than others in general, and that human lives carry more ethical weight than nonhuman lives in particular? And even if so, does it follow that we should prioritise ourselves as much as we currently do? …

My goal is instead to argue against a moderate form of human exceptionalism, according to which humans contingently matter more than nonhumans. If you are among the many who think that we take priority over other animals because of our ‘higher’ capacities and ‘stronger’ relationships, this is wishful thinking. There are too many nonhumans, and our lives are too intertwined with theirs, for that to be plausible. This ‘moderate’ view is not as ethical as you think.

Jeff Sebo, “Against human exceptionalism” at Aeon (May 5, 2022)

He argues that humans are often not rational and that some animals show human-like qualities:

First, we might not always have a higher capacity for agency than other animals. We all lack the capacity for rational reflection early in life, some of us lose this capacity later in life, and some of us never develop this capacity at all. Meanwhile, many nonhuman animals have the capacity for memory, emotion, self-awareness, social awareness, communication, instrumental reasoning and more. Human and nonhuman agency thus overlap substantially in practice.

Moreover, even when we do have a higher capacity for agency than other animals, this difference might be smaller than we think. Our views about agency are anthropocentric, in that we treat human agency as the standard against which all forms of agency should be compared. But while human agency is certainly impressive, nonhuman agency is impressive too. And if we studied nonhuman agency on its own terms, we might discover forms of self-determination that humans lack.

Jeff Sebo, “Against human exceptionalism” at Aeon (May 5, 2022)

Of course, lack of immediate rational qualities is a conventional justification for abortion and euthanasia.

It goes on, ending with

And when we take our thumbs off the scales, we can expect the scales to shift. We should already be treating nonhumans much better and, eventually, we might even need to prioritise their interests and needs over our own. We should start preparing for that possibility now.

Jeff Sebo, “Against human exceptionalism” at Aeon (May 5, 2022)

Thumbs off the scales? Of course, in the real world, there have been many cultures in which the king’s horse or dog or a sacred animal was worth the lives of several humans. If we don’t have that culture where we live, that is a moral advance, not a decline. Human rights is the thumb on the scale.

Anti-human exceptionalism advocates always manage to avoid the obvious point that we can and do oppose cruelty to animals without claiming that there is nothing special about being human.

Claiming that there is nothing special about being human — given the world we live in — is either a flight from reality or a journey into darker motives. Perhaps we need to look more carefully into the latter possibility. Wesley J. Smith has observed,

It should now be clear to everyone that very powerful forces have totally dedicated themselves for varying reasons to convincing us that we really aren’t all that important. Those who think otherwise had better answer the call to defend the intellectual ramparts. Much is at stake. Demolishing our self-perception as a uniquely valuable species would have very grave consequences, given that human exceptionalism is both the philosophical underpinning for human rights and the basis of our unique self-imposed duties to each other, posterity, and the natural world. Indeed, as the philosopher Mortimer Adler wrote many years ago in The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes, if we dismantle the unique moral status accorded to human beings, universal human rights become impossible to sustain philosophically

Wesley J. Smith, In defense of human exceptionalism at First Things (July 5, 2007)

But is loss of human rights a bug or a feature?

Canadian commentator Mark Steyn isn’t at all sure. Citing the Davos “Great Reset” conferences, he writes,

“In the age of Covid and climate fanaticism, we have big under-reported news stories about the vulnerable elderly slaughtered en masse in so-called “care homes”, and small over-reported news stories about the appalling over-sixties having the biggest carbon footprints. You don’t have to be that paranoid to think that when Davos Man enthuses over “The Great Reset” he’s thinking about a world with a greatly reduced population.

Mark Steyn, “Culture of Death” at Steynonline (April 3, 2022)

While humans have endangered many species, it is also true that only humans can save them — because we are exceptional. Unless, perhaps, the real strategy underlying the war on human exceptionalism is to solve the problem simply by reducing the number of humans, as Steyn suggests. We shall see.

You may also wish to read: There is no escape from human exceptionalism. Author Melanie Challenger thinks we should embrace our true animal nature. But that’s impossible. Animals can’t reason but humans can’t NOT reason. We just become bad humans by not reasoning. That’s why we are and will remain an exception. (Denyse O’Leary)

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Prof: We Shouldn’t Necessarily Value Humans Over Other Animals