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Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Most Dangerous Idea in Bioethics

Professor Margaret Somerville of McGill University argues that the most dangerous idea in the world today is that human beings are not special compared with lower animals and even robots. I believe she has the right idea, but she has argued rather timidly.  She concludes more or less that the danger of denying human specialness stems from what things it leads to—but the idea is designed precisely to lead to those things.  If one does not see those things as dangerous but desirable, then the idea becomes desirable as well.  The idea is dangerous, therefore, for an entirely different reason that hinges on truth, as I will show.

Critics in the combox under her article argue that Prof. Somerville has not adequately proved that human beings are special.  That critique, however, is entirely bogus. Human specialness does not need to be proven because it is self-evident.  It is a simple fact that human beings differ in important ways from all other animals (not to mention robots), even if there are similarities as well.  Take farming for instance. I am not saying that our specialness hinges on farming, but farming serves as one piece of evidence of what a human being is, and how a human being differs from other life.  Whereas every other life form has to find read-to-eat food occurring spontaneously in nature, we do not and can instead purposefully modify and control our environment to make the environment produce our food, and then modify the food to make it look and taste good. Granted, some critters engage in farm-like activities (such as ants that “farm” aphids) but the difference between critter farms and human farms is infinite. Not all humans farm, but any human could; farming is a uniquely human activity. Human specialness is self-evident.

Anyone who demands that human specialness be proven ought to try thinking like an animal, since in his view he is no different from an animal.  Dogs can tell that humans are different from cats, and not merely different but superior as well.  Who ever heard of a dog being a cat’s pet?  Who ever heard of a cat training a dog? Who ever heard of a dog domesticating a human or any other animal for that matter?  Yet, dogs respond well to domestication by humans.  If humans are, in fact, not superior to other animals, what does it mean if other animals who are not inferior to us understand humans to be different from and superior to themselves and other animals?

Also, human specialness is impossible to prove to the satisfaction of everyone.  Who can stop someone from saying, “Sorry, that doesn’t prove it to me” or “I reject that argument; human beings are still no different from other animals”?  These are people who already reject the evidence of their own existence compared to that of their pets, how on earth will a cogent argument sway them?

I say in response, prove that human ingenuity and accomplishments in science, technology, poetry, and the arts are meaningless differences from other animals and robots.  Birds can sing, none has written an opera. Bees build hives, but none has built a pyramid that has survived for millennia. Not all humans can write operas or build pyramids, but only humans can and any human could if he set his mind to it.

Prof. Somerville also mentions many arguments that deny humans specialness. Unfortunately, she doesn’t do anything with them but mention them.  One of these arguments goes like this: Human superiority resides in the ability to reason.  Some human individuals do not have that ability, so they lack the defining trait of human superiority.  These individuals at least are no better than other animals, and other animals would be at least as good as them.  Therefore, there should be parity between our treatment of these individuals and other kinds of animals.  This line of argumentation of course is a red herring.  Individuals lacking in traits proper to their kind are still of that kind.  Cars have two headlights. Some have only one because one is broken.  But it is still a car.  A car may lack wheels, a motor, seats, doors, glass, and be just a rusting piece of junk, but it is a car, a car lacking those things. We can quibble and say it really is just a part of a car or the remains of a car, but not a car—which is a matter of semantics and not ontology.  If your kid asked you, “What is that thing?” your answer will likely be, “It’s a car,” and quibble as much as you like over semantics, your answer would not be wrong. It is a car—one lacking in things proper to being a car, yes, but a car nonetheless.  A car lacking things a car is supposed to have a) doesn’t make it not to be a car, b) doesn’t render cars in general to be non-cars, and c) doesn’t make other things lacking those traits to be no different from a car. Likewise with the lack of human attributes both high and low in some humans: a) it doesn’t render them non-human or non-special, b) it doesn’t render humans in general to be non-special, and c) it doesn’t render other things lacking those traits to be no different from a human.

The fact is, our specialness cannot be pinpointed to DNA or a single power or ability unique to human beings.  Rather, a human being is one thing with several properties, and it is the sum total of what a human being is that makes a human being special in comparison to other animals.  The notion that human specialness hinges on one identifiable thing to the exclusion of all other things is simply a false premise.

Now, why is this idea so dangerous? There are three main reasons.  First, it denies self-evident truth.  Secondly, support for the idea depends on poor logic presented as sound reasoning.  Thirdly, people propose the idea not because it has merit in itself, but to justify to themselves and to others courses of action that they want to engage in. No one who supports the idea does so merely because they believe it to be true and want others to know the truth, too. It is not about the metaphysical, concrete reality of human ontology. It is purely about what doors it opens if it were to be seen as true. Truth should be an end, not a means; but the fact is, the truth is irrelevant to those who support the idea.  It is its acceptance that is important.

So, in a nutshell: The idea that human beings are not significantly different from and superior to other animals and robots is dangerous because it is a patent falsehood masquerading as truth, supported by deviousness, and intended to manipulate the minds and actions of others. Its plausibility to unsuspecting minds makes it the most dangerous idea in bioethics.


  1. "a human being is one thing with several properties, and it is the sum total of what a human being is that makes a human being special in comparison to other animals"

    I agree.

    But those "several properties" must be enumerable.

    Yet if, as you say, a human is special due to the "sum total" of those properties, an individual human missing one property would accordingly no longer be special.

    Perhaps you mean that there are several properties that may be tallied in a variety of possible sums make humans special. Ie: human specialness requires more than one of the "several properties" but does not necessarily require all of them.

    Do you mean this latter definition?


  2. That's a good question. Of course, taking my argument as a whole, I deny that the lack of this or that property in any number renders a human individual non-special. Even the lack of life: A dead human body is special and warrants respect beyond even the live bodies of other creatures, by virtue of its humanness.

    Just as a car can be conceived and discussed in the abstract, actual cars in the concrete may lack this or that property of a car. The difference is one of a nature versus an individual. Natures exist in the concrete only in individuals, but we can still discuss them because the abstraction points to a knowable reality of some kind. That is how we know a three-legged dog is a dog and not some other kind of animal, even without doing DNA tests on it, indeed, just by looking at it, or a car with one headlight is a car and not a motorcycle.

    So, when I say "what a human being is" in the part you cited, I would say that I am referring to a human being in the abstract, to human nature, based on everyone's experience of individual human beings beginning with his own self.

    We all know what human beings are. Attempts to deny what we know by experience so as to justify a course of action are disingenuous at best. Also, people who act on what they want to be true against what they deep down know to be true end up with internal conflicts that can have a profound and detrimental effect on their lives beyond the action in question.

    Anything with a human nature participates in human specialness. So, as I said, I disagree with any notion that allows for denying human specialness in an individual who plainly has a human nature due to the absence of properties of human nature regardless of number.

    For example, I will not agree with euthanasia; but in some cases it may be ethical to permit a terminal disease to take its course. If so, it is not because the individual in question lacks specialness nor are we treating him like an animal. As a human individual, he cannot lack specialness, neither due to the inexorable progress of the disease, nor to some effect of the disease (such as coma) that suppresses some properties that are the hallmark of human specialness.

  3. I see your point. A car lacking certain qualities is still a car. But this is, of course, only true to a point. At some point, the car is no longer a car, and instead becomes a motorcyle or a horse-carriage, or a heap of scrap metal.

    Whether it is possible for the analogy to carry to humanity is beside the point. The point is that there must be specific characteristics which define the "kind" as opposed to a different kind - especially if we are using that definition to support a hierarchy (humans are better than x).

    So I'm not convinced that a human individual who lacks "any number" of human properties retains the specialness.

    Although, here I'm thinking of the role of that "specialness" within the play of humanity itself (rather than up against all other things).

    It follows that if humans are more special than all other things, that this is true because humans have certain traits or characteristics that place them above those other things.

    But within humanity itself there is a tremendous amount of variation. Different humans hold different traits to a greater or lesser degree.

    If the characteristics that define humanity as being better than all other things, then arguably those humans who hold those characteristics in greater number or intensity should be *more special* than those who don't.

    For instance, humanity is in part defined by its capacity for empathy and other caring emotions. But a sociopath lacks this characteristic. Shouldn't we afford a sociopath a less-special status within humanity?

    Returning to the analogy: A car that has no wheels is certainly a worse car than one that does have wheels. The latter is a "better" car according to the characteristics that define a car.


  4. The characteristics the make humans not to be dogs or robots are the characteristics that make humans special. It is the fact of being a human being, not external traits found among humans. Those traits stand as effects of human specialness and not as its cause. The cause of human specialness resides in the fact that people are human.

    "Humanity" has various meanings. Do not confuse them or apply a conclusion based on one meaning to another. It means the property of being a human being, and it can also be roughly synonymous with "being humane." "Being humane" is in part defined by capacity for empathy, and so is "humanity" insofar as the two are synonymous. But empathy doesn't define humanness in the most basic and ontological sense, as we all know that inhumane people have lost their humanity in one sense yet still retain their humanity in another sense, as they have not become a different species by their evil. This is the justification for elimination of the death penalty, for instance.

    All analogies fail at some point; they are merely illustrative. A dead human body is like scrap metal, more or less, though being human in some sense it deserves greater respect than say a dead robot or dog. There are better cars, just as there are better human athletes, intellects, artists, and people of virtue and decency. Yet every single human being shares in the specialness of being human (over and against other animals and machines) simply by virtue of being a human being.

    Once you say, "No, that is not right, we have to define the traits" then human beings can arbitrarily decide what constitutes the traits that define human. In some places and eras including today, it may be the color of the skin, a religion, the shape of the skull, the lack of cultural achievements, or whatever; today, we tend to base it on actual intellectual capacity and the presence of disease that impedes someone from experiencing pleasure in life or contributing to society in a utilitarian way. These things being arbitrarily defined by those in power, they cannot be the ontological basis of human specialness, but merely excuses for using or eliminating others that stand in the way of our goals.

    Only if you can legitimately say, "This individual is a different species from the rest of us and is in no sense human," that is, "ontologically this is not a human being," can we ethically deny that that individual participates in human specialness.

  5. So: Humans are special because they are special?

    Isn't this is a rather shallow basis for establishing legitimacy for human supremacy?

    Defining the traits that make humanity supreme to other animals is not arbitrary, so long as it is based on observable evidence. "Humans are special because they are special" - now that is arbitrary.

    It may make you uncomfortable to consider the implications of such traits defined, but that isn't a logical reason to truncate your denunciation of the animal-activists. Indeed, such discomfort is perhaps a good reason to pursue the implications.

    In fact, in society today we already discriminate against humans based on their ranking on some of these traits: people who are blind are not allowed to drive automobiles, people who are dumb will never obtain a Masters degree, men aren't allowed to compete in women's sports, we lock up psychopathic killers, etc. Most people consider these discriminations to be Just. Nor does the official acknowledge of such differentiation among human traits necessarily result in abuse or intolerance.

    So I'm confused as to the hesitation.


  6. I think my position is, rather, human beings are special (compared to other animals and robots). Period. Self-evident fact. I did not say what you claim I said.

    Identifying traits of human specialness as evidence and effects of human specialness rather than their cause is not arbitrary. Attempting to pinpoint the cause of human specialness in particular traits is. The choice of traits is always subject to capricious social forces. While it is not an injustice to deny a blind man a driver's license because we do not thereby assault his humanness, it is an injustice to engage in infanticide claiming that the baby was not fully human anyway because it lacks this or that trait.

    I did not intend to denounce animal activists but rather those who are in denial of the evidence of their own existence vis-a-vis human specialness, regardless of what they attempt to justify based on that denial of reality. One of my points was that the denial of human specialness is not an issue of ontological truth about humans, but of a means to justify other things.

    The animal-activists make a good example, though, insofar as they deny human specialness. I find them rather silly, because advancing their agenda depends on human specialness and the understanding of justice that only humans possess. Let the animals cry out themselves for justice if we're not different from them; let them organize, make placards, make facebook pages and tweet fund raising messages to supporters. It is out of the human advocates' own superiority to animals that they feel compassion for the animals and press their rights. If humans weren't superior, the activists would not be able to make their arguments; they make their arguments and thereby give evidence of human superiority.

    This is not a denunciation of the activists per se as you seem to assert, nor of the issues they advocate, but rather of the argumentation they employ insofar as they attempt to deny human specialness.

  7. Human intelligence is the only one you know enough to blog about. Of course it seems superior to some.I think the true danger here is not this "falsehood masquerading as truth" you speak of, but the idea that one has to sit and ponder his own superiority and specialness to begin with.

  8. @Alexb
    Thanks for your comment. It's easy to make unsubstantiated statements, isn't it? Let me know when your pet or your Dell can do the same.