Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Preserving humanity

The idea that humans are to be considered special is more vulnerable than you would think

The Ottawa Citizen
20 August, 2010
Reproduced with permission

Margaret Somerville*

Wrestling with difficult questions is routine work for ethicists. But some are much more difficult than others. Recently, an editor asked me one that falls in the former category: What did I believe was presently the world's most dangerous idea?

I replied, "The idea that there is nothing special about being human and, therefore, humans do not deserve 'special respect,' as compared with other animals or even robots." My response might seem anodyne and a "cop out," but I'd like to try to convince you otherwise.

Whether humans are "special" -- sometimes referred to as human exceptionalism or uniqueness -- and, therefore, deserve "special respect" is a controversial and central question in bioethics, and how we answer it will have a major impact on many important ethical issues.

Although I will frame this discussion in a very limited context of whether humans merit greater respect than animals and robots, it should be kept in mind that not seeing human beings and human life as deserving "special respect" would have very broad and serious impact far outside this context. It could affect matters that range from respect for human rights, to justifications for armed conflict, how we treat prisoners, how we run our health-care and aged persons' care systems, the ethical and legal tones of our societies, and so on.

Although all living beings deserve respect, which certainly excludes cruelty to animals, traditionally, humans have been given special respect, which brings with it special protections, especially of life. In practice, we have implemented this special respect through the idea of personhood, which embodies two concepts: all humans are persons and no animals are persons. But the concept of "universal human personhood" -- the idea that all humans deserve special respect simply because they are human -- and excluding animals from personhood are both being challenged.

Some philosophers are arguing that at least certain animals should be regarded as persons in order to give them the same rights and protections as humans. Alternatively, they argue that humans should be regarded as just another animal, which results in the same outcome, a loss of special respect for human beings.

Princeton philosopher, Peter Singer, takes this latter approach. He believes that distinguishing humans from other animals and, as a result, treating animals differently, is a form of wrongful discrimination he calls "speciesism." In short, he rejects the claim that humans are special and, therefore, deserve special respect.

Rather, he believes the respect owed to a living being should depend only on avoiding suffering to it, not on whether or not the being is human. That means that what we do not do to humans in order not to inflict suffering on them, we should not do to animals; and what we do to animals to relieve their suffering and regard as ethical, we should also do for humans. Consequently, we don't eat humans, therefore, we shouldn't eat animals. We allow euthanasia for animals, therefore, we should, likewise, allow it for humans.

To such philosophers, the attribution of personhood should not depend, yet again, on being human, but on having certain characteristics or capacities to function in certain ways -- for example, being self aware; having a sense of one's history and, perhaps, of a future; and possessing a capacity to relate to others.

Following logically on that, these philosophers then argue that some seriously mentally disabled humans and babies, who are among the most vulnerable, weakest and most in need members of our societies, are not persons, and, therefore, do not have the protections personhood brings, for instance, protection of their right to life. And, likewise, they propose that at least some animals should be regarded as non-human persons on the basis that these animals have some of the characteristics of personhood that the humans they regard as non-persons lack. They propose that animals which are self-conscious, intelligent, and have free will and emotions comparable to those of humans, should be treated as non-human persons.

But this idea that simply being human does not mean one deserves "special respect," rather, the respect owed to a "being" depends on its having certain attributes, is not only a serious danger to vulnerable humans. It could also lead to situations in which robots would be seen to deserve greater respect than humans and ethical restrictions on what we may do to change human life would become inoperative.

People who believe the kind and degree of respect owed to an entity depends on its intelligence, would argue that some super-intelligent robots will deserve more respect than humans. They define intelligence narrowly, as logical, cognitive mentation and, for them, these robots are more "intelligent" than any humans. This approach has far-reaching and serious implications, well beyond the degree of respect that should be shown to an individual human, as compared with an individual robot.

If there is nothing special about being human, there is no essence of our humanness that we must hold in trust for future generations. That means we are free to use the new technoscience, as the transhumanists advocate we should, to alter humans so that they become "post-human," that is, not human at all as we know it. In other words, there would be many less or perhaps no ethical barriers to seeking the transhumanists' utopian goal, that humans will become an obsolete model. This would be achieved through our redesigning ourselves using technoscience -- or perhaps robots doing so. Instead of our designing them, they could redesign us!

We used to regard humans as special on the basis that they had a soul, a divine spark, and animals did not. But, today, far from everyone accepts the concept of a soul. Most people, however, at least act as though we humans have a "human spirit," a metaphysical, although not necessarily supernatural, element, as part of the essence of our humanness. Some philosophers see the ethical and moral sense humans have as distinguishing humans from animals, which also have consciousness. They believe humans are "special" because of this moral sense and, therefore, deserve "special respect."

I'm an incurable optimist and I believe that open-minded persons of goodwill, whatever their beliefs, will conclude that humans deserve special respect in the sense that there are some things we should not do to humans, even if we might do them to animals or robots, although what we currently do to animals needs very careful ethical consideration.

Implementing and maintaining "special respect" for humans will require that we recognize humans as having innate human dignity that must be respected, and that we regard as unethical interventions that contravene that dignity, such as designing our children, making a baby from two same-sex people, creating human-animal hybrids, cloning humans, using human embryos as a "manufacturing plant" to produce therapeutic agents, euthanasia, and, with the new neuroscience, perhaps most worrying of all, designing, controlling or intervening on our minds.

It's true that we need to have greater respect for all life, not just human life. But implementing that respect should not be by way of denigrating respect for humans and human life, which equating humans to animals and to robots does. We are not just another animal in the forest or another robot in the laboratory and promoting the idea that we are is, indeed, a very dangerous one.


After writing this article, I was curious to know what some of my friends and colleagues would consider to be the world's most dangerous idea at present. When I asked them, a large majority answered, without hesitation, "religion." That caused me to ponder how their choice correlated with my choice.

Whatever they believe, the adherents of militant fundamentalist religions, or any other militant fundamentalism, certainly do not act according to a principle that all humans deserve "special respect." Like the secularists, they also categorize people, in their case, as believers or infidels and believe only the former deserve respect. To the extent that my colleagues see religion as a root cause of this lack of respect for some people and view that as a serious harm, my most dangerous idea and theirs are concordant. But, over millennia, most religions have been the main institutions carrying and passing on to future generations the idea that humans are "special" and deserve "special respect." So, from that perspective, our most dangerous ideas are in direct conflict.

This "dual use" potential sounds an important warning. As with all ideas, even the idea that humans are "special," or the practice of religion, can be used not only for good, but also for harm. We need to be aware, always, that we must seek to maximize the former and to minimize the latter.