So you are driving down the street and from the left side of the road a dog runs out in front of you. You begin to swerve to avoid it when you see that on your right is a young girl and if you continue to swerve you will hit her. But if you don’t keep swerving, you will run the dog over. What do you do? As brutal as the choice is, the vast majority of people would say they would not swerve further, and the ultimate reason is because a human child has fundamentally more value than a dog.
This thought experiment raises the basic question of human exceptionalism (HE), which is the idea that humans are unique, distinctive beings that ought to be assigned fundamental moral value in accordance with that distinctiveness. Positions on HE run the gamut from strong endorsements to strong denunciations. Wesley J. Smith started a blog on the National Review titled Human Exceptionalism. He writes:
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….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.
Fellow PT Blogger Mark Bekoff takes a different perspective. He argues that HE is a narrow, self-serving view, a form of speciesism, which is akin to racism, sexism and other forms of unfounded prejudice. He writes:
Speciesism, "discrimination against or exploitation of certain animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind’s superiority", involves assigning different values or rights to individuals on the basis of species membership and constructs false boundaries among species. Speciesism doesn't work because it assumes human exceptionalism and also because it ignores within-species variation that often is more marked than between-species differences. What we now know about animal minds (certainly among mammals but also among a wide variety of other species) does not support human exceptionalism and we need to factor this into how we treat other animals and Earth.
In short, Smith is claiming that humans are fundamentally different and they deserve to be uniquely valued. In contrast, Bekoff is claiming humans represent simply another branch in the animal kingdom that should be afforded no more or less value than other animals. Both agree, though, that the answer you give to this question has many ramifications for how you live your life.
Many religions answer the question of HE by granting humans a soul that reflects the divine. But as a secular humanist, I have problems with those narratives. Given the thought experiment above, I would definitely stop swerving and, painful as it would be, I would run a dog over before I would run over a child. Do I have strong grounds for making this decision, or am I just a biased, species-centric human, basing my values on myth and arbitrary self-interest?
The system I have developed for unifying psychology argues strongly that humans are a unique kind of animal. However, in contrast to many traditional positions that differentiate animals from humans (e.g., Descartes’ substance dualism), the unified theory claims animals are mental and most are conscious (see here for a recent declaration on animal consciousness by some well-known neuroscientists). Humans are unique in that they have a self-consciousness system on top of the conscious system shared with other animals.
My position can be represented graphically. Here is the depiction of the Tree of Knowledge System, which posits that there are four fundamental dimensions of complexity, Matter, Life, Mind and Culture, which correspond to the behavior of Objects, Organisms, Animals, and Peoples.
According to this framework, organisms are unique kinds objects, animals are unique kinds of organisms, and humans are unique kinds of animals. What is it that gives rise to these qualitative jumps in complexity? New information processing systems; 1) Life emerges via genetics; 2) Mind emerges via nervous systems; and 3) Culture emerges via human language.
It must be noted here that animals exist in the mental dimension. As pointed out by Bekoff and others, animals have the capacity for conscious experience and emotion, exhibit complex communication patterns and demonstrate clear evidence for nonverbal thought. Humans must be clear that we share these things with other animals. Moreover, all of these things have moral value, and I am in general agreement with Bekoff that animals are often underestimated and undervalued and our treatment of animals is one of the great moral issues of the day.
However, look around and observe the behaviors of people in relationship to other animals. The claim that people are just one kind of animal among many and that humans are different from dogs just as dogs are different from cats does not hold up to honest scrutiny. Humans engage in a whole different class of behaviors. Humans are as different from other animals as animals are different from plants. Whether it is writing a blog, composing a sonnet, leading a revolution, attending a class, building a computer, and on and on, it is an empirical fact that human behavior exhibits a whole separate dimension of complexity. To deny this or to claim that this observation is only based on speciest wishful thinking lacks intellectual integrity.
According to the unified theory, what happened was this: Human cognition advanced to allow for human language (an open symbolic syntactical system of information processing that is, despite some claims to the contrary, a fundamentally different kind of communication/information processing system). Although language was a great advantage, a problem emerged because human language affords a window into the mind. This is the problem of social justification---for the first time in evolutionary history, our ancestors were asked about and thus had to justify (give reasons for) their behavior. I have explained elsewhere why the problem of justification gave rise to the human self-consciousness system and the human culture.
We are the justifying animal. And that opens up a whole new, qualitative dimension of existence. It is not that other animals don’t have minds. That is an obviously misguided claim. Instead, it is better to think of it in terms of humans having two minds, whereas other animals only have one. Thus, the answer to HE is not that humans are exceptional because they are conscious and feel—other animals are conscious and feel. But humans are exceptional in that they have the capacity for self-conscious justification, which in turn is the engine that builds human cultures and knowledge systems about truth, goodness and evil. In short, HE is ultimately justified by the fact that humans alone can justify.