Human exceptionalism—the unique and equal dignity of man and our obligations to act morally—and its corollaries such as universal human rights has been integral to Western progress. Over the past few hundred years, the ideals of Judeo-Christian moral philosophy and the Enlightenment worked together to create a civilization that, to an ever-increasing degree, sought to effectuate Jefferson’s epochal assertion that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.
It is true that many of our successes were achieved only through terrible bloodshed—as in the American Civil War and World War II. And our technological prowess has sometimes caused tremendous destruction. Nor have our actions always been worthy of our ideals. Still, despite our shortcomings, in large part the culture germinated by the ideas and ideals of Western civilization created the freest, most prosperous, and scientifically advanced culture the world has ever known.
Yet every civilizational achievement sows the seeds of its own undoing. With prosperity came a growing decadence and a growing misanthropy, which over the past few decades has chewed its way steadily from the edges of extremist thought into the soft center of mainstream influence. To a disturbing degree, important and influential fields and discipline—such as bioethics, biotechnology, and futurism—have eschewed human exceptionalism as their intellectual foundation in favor of beliefs that subvert universal human equality, thus threatening to open up new fields of oppression and exploitation against the most weak and vulnerable among us.
Space doesn’t permit a full litany of these varied threats, so we’ll briefly explore a few of the fields in which an explicit antihumanism threatens—or even aims at—shattering the pedestal of human exceptionalism upon which so much of our cultural successes have depended.
Transhumanism: Nothing illustrates the siren lure of materialism more vividly than the recent rise of transhumanism, a futuristic social movement that offers a materialistic substitute for religion’s capacity to endow meaning and purpose in life’s mystery of existence. The “church” (my term) of transhumanism substitutes faith in technology for belief in God (or in reincarnation and karma), questing for a revolutionary future breakthrough in technological prowess—termed “the singularity”—that will allow transhumanists to “seize control of human evolution” and create a “post-human species” of near immortals. Yearned-for futuristic techniques such as genetic engineering of embryos, uploading of consciences into computers, the use of brain chips to increase intelligence, and biotechnological patch jobs to maintain vitality—for example, replacing worn-out organs with those bred in cloned fetuses for that purpose—would proceed from denying the sanctity and equality of human life. Thus, it is no surprise that a bedrock principle of transhumanism is the rejection of human exceptionalism.
While transhumanist theorists often extol the importance of technology and hyper-longevity, they rarely exalt the virtue of love and charity. Indeed, transhumanists tacitly—sometimes explicitly—assert that a morality based on human life’s sanctity impedes the benevolent god known as evolution—thus delaying or impeding the perfected human future they envision. If we are to become immortal in a material universe, transhumanists insist, we must discard the notion of each human’s intrinsic dignity. Only then will we be free to alter humanity to achieve transhumanist goals. One need not think transhumanists’ predictions will come true—I, for one, don’t—to worry that their values might capture society’s imagination.
Biotechnology: Biotechnological research may soon bring about radical changes in our understanding of the human family. Stem-cell researchers, for instance, are learning to create sperm from skin cells—and a similar project is being explored for the production of eggs, which will no doubt affect our perspectives on parenthood. Women may, one day, no longer be indispensable to gestation, as scientists develop artificial wombs. The creation of three-biological-parent embryos has been approved in the United Kingdom—to the end of preventing mitochondrial disease from being passed by a woman to her daughter—but also with the potential of being used to cement a baby biologically to every member of a polyamorous family.
Biotechnology offers the human race the possibility of great succor, of course. Adult stem cells are already treating a myriad of health conditions—including multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and blood cancers—from an ethical perspective completely in line with the sanctity of human life.
But biotechnological advances have also led to a loss of viewing all human life as sacred and a resurgence in the belief that some of us—to paraphrase Animal Farm—are more equal than others. Thus embryos created via IVF are routinely tested for “quality” in a process known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), after which they can be eugenically culled for health, appearance, and sex before implantation. Those deemed desirable are implanted to begin gestation. Those embryos of the wrong sex or other perceived defect may be tossed out as so much medical waste, or fated to be destroyed in embryonic experiments. Another troubling development is that a potent method of genetic engineering known as the CRISPR interference technique has been invented and is beginning to be tested on human embryos, opening the door to altering the human germline down the generations.
Biotechnology is moving at such breakneck speed that the term “brave new world” has come to symbolize a particular mind-set—nay, an ideology—that sees biology as applied through technology (“biotechnology”) in almost mystical terms. A new bio-utopian mentality is emerging. As described by bioethicist Gregory Stock in Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, this mentality is “committed to the process of human enhancement and self-directed evolution,” which could not only embed “cultural distinctions . . . in our genetics” but ultimately “increase the biological differences among human populations.” Some even foresee a future in which biotechnologists’ manipulations have become so radical and widespread that they will have blurred the genetic distinctions between some humans and animal species. To say the least, our history as a species does not indicate we yet possess near the wisdom required to pursue such radical undertakings safely and morally. We are, after all, the species that built the unsinkable ship Titanic.
Bioethics: Bioethics, short for biomedical ethics, is a subset of moral philosophy that seeks to work out the best medical ethics and healthcare public policies to serve a diverse society in an accelerating technological age. This is an important undertaking that, ideally, would permit us to fashion approaches to life, death, illness, and health consistent with the crucial principles embodied in the Hippocratic Oath—for example, “do no harm.”
Doctors who take the Hippocratic Oath pledge to consider each patient equally worthy of the doctor’s care and concern and worthy of optimal care. Alas, the mainstream view in bioethics—that is, bioethicists without a modifier in front of the term such as “conservative” or “Catholic”—believes that being a human is irrelevant to moral status. Rather, what counts are currently existing capacities of the individual being judged, such as the ability to reason or be self-aware over time, that earns one the status of “person.” In this view, some human beings—the unborn, babies, and those with serious cognitive impairments, such as advanced Alzheimer’s patients—are not persons (while some animals are), and thus have lower moral worth. This leads to the acceptance that “nonpersons” are not only killable in abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, but also potentially exploitable—they could have their organs harvested before they are dead. Princeton’s Peter Singer is the best known such advocate, but he is far from alone. For example, a recent article published in the prestigious Journal of Medical Ethics argued that patients with severe cognitive impairment could be killed for their organs ethically as long as proper consent was obtained from the family or if the patient has requested to be an organ donor.
Of necessity, this article has scratched—nay, merely brushed—the great potential for evil that comes from a threatened symbiosis between our tremendous and growing technological prowess and a rejection of intrinsic human moral worth and dignity. These technologies and policies are very seductive, promising cures for disease, extended life, greater vitality, and life fulfillment. But unless we pursue these quests from a proper respect for all human life regardless of its stage or state of health or abilities—in other words, simply and merely because it is human—we face the danger of unraveling all that Western civilization has achieved over the past five hundred years that has brought us unprecedented liberty, prosperity, and progress. We ignore the danger inherent in accepting an “undignified” view of human life in our science, biomedical, and technological sectors at our own, and our progeny’s, great peril.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- War Against the Weak by Edwin Black
- Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity by Leon Kass
- Embryo: A Defense of Human Life by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen
- Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine by Wesley J. Smith
- Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz
Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also blogs at National Review Online. His Twitter handle is @forcedexit.