Home >> Volume 4, Issue 02

Human Exceptionalism in the Public Square: Wesley J. Smith, W. Ross Blackburn, and the Dignity of Mankind

Lydia McGrew


In the Winter/Spring 2011 issue, the Human Life Review published an article in which bioethicist Wesley J. Smith chronicles threats to the most vulnerable among us posed by the field of bioethics. Entitled "The Bioethics Threat to Universal Human Rights," Smith's piece contains material that he has presented in many other places and at many other times, and it has only one section explicitly addressing the epistemological aspect of defending human dignity. In this section and in the paragraphs leading up to it, Smith states that it is possible to defend what he calls human exceptionalism in secular terms, without any appeal to religious premises:

Happily, human exceptionalism does not require belief in a transcendent God, or indeed, spiritual allusions of any kind if we understand that what matters morally is not the capacities of the individual—which, after all, are transitory—but our intrinsic natures as human beings—which are innate. (Smith 2011)

Smith continues by giving quotations from philosophers Carl Cohen and Mortimer Adler in which they acknowledge, without reference to theism of any kind, the dignity of all human beings based on their membership in the human race. Smith also quotes and concurs in Adler's warnings of the tyranny and horrors that would follow the denial of this broadly humanistic commitment.

It is this section of Smith's article that has, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, provoked the most discussion in the pro-life community. The Rev. W. Ross Blackburn, a minister with the Anglican Church in North America, wrote a piece which the Human Life Review published in its Winter 2012 issue. Blackburn disagrees strongly with Smith about the very possibility of cogently defending human exceptionalism without bringing in explicitly religious premises. Not only does Blackburn think such an approach cannot work, he considers it dangerous to try, because he thinks that it implies the irrelevance of God:

If Christians argue in a manner that suggests that God is irrelevant or optional, we tacitly participate in and contribute to the very atmosphere that has led to the increasing denial of human exceptionalism in our world. (Blackburn 2012) 

Human Life Review followed up on this exchange between Smith and Blackburn with a symposium, Truth-Telling in the Public Square, in the Spring 2012 issue. This essay, though not published in HLR, is my own contribution to this on-going conversation.

The relevance and rationality of religion

It is certainly true that Christian conservatives should vigilantly oppose the claim that religion is irrelevant to public discourse and that we must maintain a naked public square, and unfortunately, some of Smith's arguments for his own secular approach to human exceptionalism might give aid and comfort to the ardent secularizers. In response to Blackburn, Smith says,

There is an important difference between "belief" and "faith." The former is often derived by weighing argument, reviewing evidence, observing, researching, etc....In contrast, faith is a belief that "does not rest on logical proof or material evidence,"....(Smith 2012b, p. 33)

Consistently, Smith refers to his own approach as "arguing on behalf of human exceptionalism from rational bases." He even goes to far as to say,

[T]o state that Christians should argue from faith risks unilateral intellectual disarmament against those members of the community who reject faith or...even among those Christians who do not believe their faith should drive public policy or be forced on the rest of society. (Smith 2012b, p. 34)

Of course, Smith does not say that he is one of those latter Christians nor even that he is Christian at all, but the wording here shows some sympathy for the notion that faith-based imperatives should not be "forced on the rest of society." That position could easily give Christians a false conscience against voting on the basis of propositions that are, or that they take to be, defended only by way of religious argument.

Smith's implied concern about "forc[ing] faith on the rest of society" arises fairly naturally from the idea that religious belief is irrational or arational. If religion has no rational basis, then why should my irrational belief trump someone else's irrational belief, much less someone else's more rational or evidentially grounded belief? If Christians are to oppose the naked public square, their best course of action is therefore to resist the characterization of their religion as having no basis in rational argument. (See McGrew 2008)

And just here, despite Blackburn's ardent opposition to the idea that God is irrelevant to public policy, Blackburn has nothing to offer but an attempted tu quoque:

In the end, Smith's argument is rooted in an a priori proposition, indeed a metaphysical presupposition, which not all share and which cannot be proven. My point here is not that Smith is wrong, but only that he argues religiously. Metaphysics, by definition, deals with first principles, unproven presuppositions upon which an argument or a worldview is built. Logically speaking, God is a metaphysical presupposition. So is not-God....Calling a perspective "secular" does not make it irreligious, it only alerts us that the metaphysical presupposition of the perspective excludes God. (Blackburn 2012)

Blackburn's attempt to define metaphysics as religion has the virtue of being bold, but that is the only virtue it has. Metaphysics simply isn't, per se, the same thing as religion, and saying that it is won't make it so. If we say that all "worldviews" and all "presuppositions" are religious, we simply make the word "religious" meaningless by the Gilbert and Sullivan principle: If everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody. If everything is religion, nothing is, and we have only succeeded in depriving the language of a useful way of distinguishing those positions and arguments that really do make use of ideas such as a transcendent Being or beings, the afterlife, and the like, from those that do not. Smith's concept of human exceptionalism may understandably be called metaphysical, invoking as it does the notion that man has an intrinsic nature (a point I shall return to later). But it is not ipso facto religious any more than the whole of, say, Aristotelian metaphysics is religious.

Blackburn's presuppositional approach to Christianity means that he thinks Christians should refuse to provide reasons for their faith, and he explicitly rejects any imperative to defend the faith:

For too many of us, our cultural instincts suggest that we must defend our Christian position (hence the popular term “defend the faith”). The underlying idea, real if often unarticulated, is that we live in a world of reasonable secular discourse, and therefore we hope that Christian thought can be viewed as reasonable as well. Yet on what grounds do we assume that secular reasoning is any more reasonable than Christian thought? Is an understanding of the world based on God less reasonable than an understanding of the world based upon not-God, or atheism? The assumption that Christian presuppositions must be defended has the unfortunate effect of placing the burden of proof on the Christian, a burden that Christians often too readily accept. And, as we all know, it is difficult to fight from one’s heels. Instead of acquiescing to the implicitly held notion that Christian ideas are based on faith, while secular ideas are based on rationality, we should make it clear that everyone reasons from faith, from presuppositions which cannot be proven but are held nonetheless. Such questions counter the defensive posture that many Christians reflexively take when confronted by rules of secular argument, and free us to think more clearly, creatively, and boldly. (Blackburn 2012)

One might have hoped that after beginning a sentence, "Instead of acquiescing in the implicitly held notion that Christian ideas are based on faith, while secular ideas are based on rationality," a minister of the gospel would continue like this: "...we should vigorously defend our Christian religion with the ample evidence available for that purpose, following the biblical injunction to give a 'reason for the hope that is in us' (I Peter 3:15), for God has not left himself without witness." But nothing of the kind is forthcoming from Blackburn, only the rather lame claim that we're all, Christians and atheists alike, irrational together, a position hardly likely to help in rendering Christianity more relevant to the public square. (See McGrew 2008.)

On the question of the rationality and relevance of religion in the public square, therefore, I score the debate between Smith and Blackburn as close to a draw. Blackburn gains a few points for his legitimate concern about the continued relevance of religion to public discourse, but he loses them again by using the term "religious" far too broadly (which Smith does not do) and by eschewing the rationality of the very religion he wishes to promote and is bound to promote as a Christian clergyman.

Naturalistic evolution and human exceptionalism

One of Smith's statements that especially concerns Blackburn is this:

We, and only we, in the known physical universe, are hard-wired—whether through creation, intelligent design, or random evolution—to be moral beings. (Smith 2011)

This sentence comes immediately after the statement quoted above, in which Smith says that what matters morally is our intrinsic human nature and that it is possible to understand this without arguing from the existence of God. Smith is therefore making two, partially implicit, claims. First, he is claiming that it is possible to see, without invoking the existence of God as Creator, that man constitutes a natural kind, that man as a natural kind has an intrinsic nature, and that it is membership in the human race that makes one morally valuable, not an individual's present capabilities. This set of beliefs is what Smith calls human exceptionalism. Second, Smith is implying that it makes no epistemic difference to one's acceptance of human exceptionalism if one believes that mankind has come into existence solely by means of random evolution from animals. Blackburn holds that Smith is wrong about both of these theses. I will argue, instead, that Smith is right about the first but wrong about the second, and that the difference is important.

Blackburn spends a good deal of his article arguing that purely naturalistic evolution lacks the capability for making man a moral being. On the purely theoretical question, he argues,

How can human beings be exceptional according to evolutionary theory that insists that humans are not exceptional, but rather one stage in a process that does not have us in mind? All manner of questions arise. When did humans become exceptional? At what point did the moral nature of human beings become recognizably moral? Will the beings that humans evolve into at some distant point be exceptional as well? On what basis? What if their “morality” looks different than ours? Might we deem it immoral? If the process by which morality evolved was a process that is, by definition, amoral, then why do we attach such importance to morality anyway? (Blackburn 2012)

There is a good deal to be said on Blackburn's side of this philosophical question. Those who advocate the view that man did indeed evolve from animals by way of a random process have made the point quite explicitly: Since we are animals, human exceptionalism is false, and this has moral implications. Michael Ruse tells us in no uncertain terms,

We humans are modified monkeys, not the favored creation of a benevolent God, on the sixth day. The time has therefore come to face squarely our animal nature, particularly as we interact with others. (Ruse 1986, p. 95)

It is true that you cannot deduce moral claims from factual claims (about origins). However, using factual claims about origins, you can give moral claims the only foundational explanation that they might possibly have. In particular, the evolutionist argues that, thanks to our science, we see that claims like "You ought to maximize personal liberty" are no more than subjective expressions, impressed upon our thinking because of their adaptive value. In other words, we see that morality has no philosophically objective foundation. It is just an illusion, fobbed off on us to promote biological "altruism."...In a sense, therefore, the evolutionist's case is that ethics is a collective illusion of the human race, fashioned and maintained by natural selection in order to promote individual reproduction. (Ruse 1986, p. 102)

James Rachels is unwilling to be either as sweeping or as dogmatic as Ruse, but he nonetheless argues expressly on the basis of evolutionary theory against human exceptionalism and in favor of conferring value on human beings only in virtue of individual present capacities:

The argument may be summarized briefly:

1. Traditional morality depends on the idea that human beings are in a special moral category: from a moral point of view, human life has a special, unique value, while nonhuman life has relatively little value. Thus the purpose of morality is conceived to be, primarily, the protection of human beings and their rights and interests. This is commonly referred to as the idea of human dignity. But this idea does not exist in a logical vacuum. Traditionally it has been supported in two ways: first, by the notion that man is made in the image of God, and second, by the notion that man is a uniquely rational being.

2. Darwin's theory does not entail that the idea of human dignity is false--to say that it does would violate the logical stricture against deriving 'ought' from 'is'. Darwinism does, however, undermine the traditional doctrine, in a sense that I will explain, by taking away its support. Darwinism undermines both the idea that man is made in the image of God and the idea that man is a uniquely rational being. Furthermore, if Darwinism is correct, it is unlikely that any other support for the idea of human dignity will be found. The idea of human dignity turns out, therefore, to be the moral effluvium of a discredited metaphysics.

3. To replace the doctrine of human dignity, I offer a different conception, moral individualism, which I argue is more in keeping with an evolutionary outlook. According to moral individualism, the bare fact that one is human entitles one to no special consideration. How an individual should be treated depends on his or her own particular characteristics, rather than on whether he or she is a member of some preferred group--even the 'group' of human beings. I offer various reasons for thinking this approach is morally sound, as well as reasons for thinking it is the natural view to take if one views the world from an evolutionary perspective. (Rachels 1990)

Are Ruse and Rachels right? Does the proposition that man evolved from animals by an entirely random process undermine or even directly contradict the idea that man as a species is special and that traditional morality, founded on the notion of human dignity, is binding? A case can be made that they are right, based on the premise that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. If the causal story lying behind the existence of man is simply animal ancestors (leaving aside the question of how they got here) plus an utterly random, physical process, then from whence came a special, intrinsic nature of mankind, a nature different from and higher than that of the animals, which confers special value upon all members of the human species?

James Rachels says that Darwinism undermines the notion that man is a uniquely rational being. It's unclear whether Rachels means that we do not observe that man is, among the species we know, uniquely rational (for example, unique in being capable of self-consciousness). If that is what he means, he is wrong, for we do observe exactly that, regardless of whether we believe in purely random evolution or not. But perhaps Rachels means only that Darwinism would lead us to believe that, since we have so luckily evolved our capacities for rationality and self-consciousness by these random processes, other species may someday or elsewhere evolve the same. In any event, the metaphysical point remains: It is prima facie impossible that a purely animal nature could magically morph into a truly unique and specially value-conferring human nature in the descendents of those animals by means of nothing more than the random motions of molecules, regardless of how many years they are moving.1

If this argument is correct, then Smith is incorrect to imply that there is no epistemic relation (in fact, a negative epistemic relation) between the belief in human exceptionalism and the belief that man evolved from animals by a random process. If one holds that we are the products of such a process, that position will be in severe tension with any previous acceptance of human exceptionalism. One might, of course, press the point back against evolutionary theory and conclude that, since we obviously do have an exceptional nature that makes all members of the human race more valuable than mere animals, we must not have descended from animals by purely random processes.2 But on the other hand, one might conclude that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, man isn't really all that special after all. It is no wonder that Smith's bete noir, the infamous Peter Singer, attacks human exceptionalism precisely by relying on an unguided, materialist version of Darwinism.

Humanists, of course, don't believe the old creation myth told in Genesis. They know that, to quote the American Humanist Association's recent Humanism and Its Aspirations, also known as Humanist Manifesto III, "Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change." In other words, we are animals, with no God-given or inherent right to subdue other animals. (Singer 2004)

On the question of the relevance of naturalistic evolution to human exceptionalism, then, I must conclude that Blackburn has the better of the argument.


Is God's existence a necessary premise for human exceptionalism?

To say, however, that one might conclude that humans are not special, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, is to acknowledge that there are indeed appearances that favor human exceptionalism. In other words, there is prima facie evidence for human exceptionalism which a person could recognize prior to being confused by naturalism.

This brings us to the crux of the disagreement between Blackburn and Smith, which we have not discussed in detail in the preceding pages: Smith holds that man can know that he is exceptional as a race and that all members of that race are valuable without invoking the existence of God as a premise. Blackburn vigorously denies this.

The last sentence of Blackburn's article is, "In the end, universal human rights proceed from God, and therefore are God’s concern. Protecting the vulnerable cannot be done effectively without reference to Him." (Blackburn 2012) Blackburn seems to be asserting that, since God is the true source of universal human rights, we cannot be justified in believing in universal human rights if we do not believe in God. This would imply that non-Christian humanists who believe in the exceptional nature of man are doing so without any rational justification, though perhaps Blackburn regards this as an intellectual felix culpa.

It might seem that Blackburn's position on this point regarding the existence of God as a premise for human exceptionalism is supported by the question discussed in the last section. If the proposition that man was not created with his nature by any higher Being, that man is simply the product of chance acting upon animal ancestry, is negatively relevant to human exceptionalism, does it not follow that one must believe that man was created and given his nature by a Being greater than himself in order to believe in human exceptionalism?

In fact, it does not follow. To understand why it does not follow, we need to bear in mind the difference between the order of being and the order of knowing. The order of being is the order of metaphysical priority. The order of knowing concerns epistemology--how we can come to know a thing, and what we must know first as a premise for knowing that thing. God is metaphysically necessary for the existence of man and of universal human rights. But it does not follow that the only way that man can know that he has a special nature and that all men are to be valued is by believing that man was specially created.

Suppose, to take a homely example, a young child has been told solemnly by a practical joking uncle that his bicycle came into existence by chance when a storm blew through a junk yard, where his parents subsequently found it. Even if the child believes the uncle, it does not follow that he has no way of knowing what his bicycle is like and how it functions. The more he learns about the intricate workings of the bicycle, the more he will have reason to doubt his uncle's story, and that doubt will create cognitive dissonance and a need to resolve the tension. But the dissonance in that case will arise precisely because the child has independent access to and knowledge of the bicycle.

So here: A man can know by observation and by metaphysical and moral intuition, by the use of the natural light and his conscience, that, e.g., man constitutes a natural kind and has a nature, that it is wrong to kill babies, and that the mentally disabled are fellow members of the human community and should not be exploited. Blackburn's insistence that God's existence be a premise for human exceptionalism is therefore misguided. If clever, sophistical philosophers and poor metaphysicians masquerading as scientists tell a naturalistic story that is in conflict with the truth about who and what mankind is, it does not mean that a person who becomes confused by them never understood the truth in the first place. Nor does it mean that one cannot have knowledge about the nature of mankind if one does not already believe the truth about the origins of mankind.

One striking point about Blackburn's article is that he never once mentions the phrase "natural law," nor does he show any acknowledgement of the concept. Much of what he says seems positively to deny any non-arbitrary, non-revelatory way of knowing that man is special--that is, any knowledge of these matters as part of the natural law. Blackburn displays a bafflement about the relationship between the natural capacities of man as a species and the value of disabled or very young human beings as individuals that would do credit to an entirely secular philosopher:

[Smith] justifies human exceptionalism chiefly in moral terms, giving examples of what makes us moral, mentioning rationality, creativity, abstract thinking, moral agency, and accountability. These characteristics, he argues, “arise from our natures and are possessed by all of us unless interfered with by immaturity, illness, or disability"... He goes on to argue that “because our essential human natures do not change if we are injured or too young to fully express them, none of us should be denied equality.”

While Smith is surely right to plead for human equality, notice how he couches his argument. Having defined human exceptionalism by a list of characteristics, he then argues for human exceptionalism even when those characteristics are (for reasons of “immaturity, illness, or disability”) absent. Here Smith comes close to arguing in terms that he rightly rejects in others. Condemning “a distorted concept of personhood, in which that status is not viewed as intrinsic, but rather, must be earned by possessing minimal capacities, such as being self aware or able to value one’s own life,” Smith goes on to distinguish human beings from others based on the moral characteristics mentioned above. As Smith well knows, it is precisely when these characteristics are “interfered with by immaturity, illness, or disability” that many contemporary bioethicists deny human exceptionalism. But if Smith locates human dignity in moral capacity and character, how does he argue that humans are exceptional in the absence of those capacities that make us moral? (Blackburn 2012)

How, indeed? The answer to Blackburn's question should not be so very difficult to find. Smith is quite rightly using the typical and natural characteristics of man as a species, salient characteristics that distinguish man from other species and that clearly have special worth, to show us what human nature is. These are the things that are natural to man; these are the characteristics that are proper to man. Smith then, again quite rightly, is pointing out that those individual human beings who lack the present expression of those characteristics are either presently immature and will develop that expression later as a natural outworking of their human nature or are suffering the tragedy of privation. Such a tragedy makes a difference to their abilities but does not remove their possession of intrinsic human nature. It is precisely because it does not remove their human nature that their present lack of the relevant abilities is a sad and unnatural thing, a privation. (No one considers it a tragedy that a tree cannot talk.) All of this is fairly basic metaphysics, metaphysics not hidden from the ordinary man but, on the contrary, obscured only by the confusions of bad philosophy. Yet Blackburn furthers those confusions by writing as though it is Smith who does not know what he is talking about, as though we have no access by the natural light to the nature of man or to the natures of things generally.

Another participant in the symposium in Human Life Review, Greg Pfundstein, explains the relevant point in more expressly Aristotelian terms:

This definition of person as substance can be paired with an important axiom: Agere sequitur esse, acting follows being. This principle is fairly clear through example: You can't be talking unless you are the kind of being that can talk. You can't be photosynthesizing unless you are the kind of being that can photosynthesize. And you can't be thinking unless you are the kind of being that can think. A person is not an individual substance who is talking; a person is an individual substance who is the kind of being who can talk. If a person is not talking at this moment, or not yet able to talk, or no longer able to talk, the person is still the kind of being which talks.

If a person is an individual substance of a rational nature, the kind of being that is capable of the sorts of activities all identify with personhood, and if acting follows being, it is irrelevant whether an individual person is currently exercising reason or even currently able to exercise reason. What is relevant from the perspective of human dignity and human rights is the fact that the individual substance in question is the kind of being that can exercise reason. (Pfundstein 2012, p. 54)

Pfundstein goes on to make a point that might almost have come from Smith himself about the dangers of denying human exceptionalism, using this as an argument against the materialist/nominalist view of human nature.

If a person were to cease to be a person when he loses the capacity for activities indicative of personhood, person would not be substance. From this perspective, a person is a particular sum of particular accidents. Indeed any being is just the sum of its current characteristics, activities, and abilities--its accidents. The kind of radical materialism which underlies such a conception of reality is left without any means of defending the human rights of any of us. Either we are all persons with dignity as long as we exist as substances, or none of us is.

Whether or not an argument along these lines will convince the committed materialist, for our purposes it is sufficient to note that such arguments do not rely on divine revelation. (Pfundstein 2012, p. 54)

Nor, he might have added, do they rely on any particular premise about human origins, including the premise that God exists and created man in his image.

Blackburn is therefore wrong when it comes to the central point at issue between himself and Smith, and Smith is right. It is not necessary to presuppose the existence of God in order to believe justifiably that human beings are all exceptional. God is, in fact, the source and cause of human exceptionalism, but knowledge of God's existence does not provide our only epistemic access to human exceptionalism. Only by a blinkered denial of the existence of natural law and of the human ability to know the natures of real things is Blackburn able to defend secular skepticism about human exceptionalism.

Making natural law hard

It would be tempting at this point to shift the question from the theoretical to the practical level. Even if it is possible to know that man is exceptional as a race by the natural light, isn't it difficult? Wouldn't it be a great deal easier and smoother to argue for human exceptionalism via the religious route? For example, if we Christians just get out there and preach the gospel directly, perhaps everything after that will be automatic. We can at that point let Christianity do the work of turning people into committed human exceptionalists. Isn't that going to be more effective than taking a philosophical approach? Even Pfundstein seems to go in this direction at the very end of his article.

Thomas Aquinas, in the first article of the first question of his Summa Theologiae, asks whether any doctrine beyond what is available through the philosophical disciplines is necessary. In his response he argues that while much can be known about God by reason alone, it was necessary for God to reveal himself because otherwise very few, only with great effort over much time, and with a great admixture of error, would be able to come to the knowledge of the truths about God which are available to us by reason. There is no question that to embrace the truth about the human person by faith is the easiest and surest route. But it is possible to establish it by reason alone. (Pfundstein 2012, pp. 54-55)

Even granting for the sake of the argument that St. Thomas is correct about knowledge of truths about God, it does not follow that the same is true concerning basic truths about man. Yet Pfundstein here applies what Thomas says about the knowledge of God to knowledge of human exceptionalism, seeming to imply that, like knowledge of truths about God gained from philosophy, knowledge of human exceptionalism understood by the natural light of reason is extremely difficult to obtain and can be arrived at only by "very few" over "much time" and "with a great admixture of error."

That position is highly debatable. Consider, for example, the fact that a child, confronted with the truth about abortion, is horrified and understands quite well that killing a baby in utero is wrong. The fact that the unborn baby has not yet developed the ability to reason or to be self-conscious is self-evidently irrelevant.

Consider, too, how bizarrely unnatural are the views expressed in a recent paper advocating legal infanticide, according to which the decision to commit infanticide is wronging no one, because the infant, being a "non-person," literally does not yet exist so as to have interests that must be taken into account. The authors argue that the decision about whether or not to commit infanticide is simply a decision about whether or not to allow someone who does not presently exist to come into existence.

The alleged right of individuals to develop their potentiality...is over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being because, as we have just argued, merely potential people cannot be harmed by not being brought into existence. (Giubilini and Minerva 2012, p. 3)

This is not by any means an intuitive, pre-philosophical position, and it is not necessary to be one of the very few who can think carefully, over much time, in order to see that it is horrifying and sophistical nonsense.

Again, consider the problem that the non-exceptionalist view has in dealing with deep anesthesia. Is a previously fully conscious person (on the anti-exceptionalist's own view of personhood) rendered a non-person when he is sent into a deeply unconscious state in which he has no ability to think, communicate, or conceive of himself as an individual and from which he must be roused in order to resume his normal capacities? If not, why not? Both ordinary people and secular philosophers ought to be capable of seeing the absurdities implied by the anti-exceptionalist position.

Here is a challenge which Blackburn (2012) attempts to make to human exceptionalism:

There is no reason to take issue in principle with either Smith’s assertion that our human nature is intrinsic or his logic that this nature remains even if some of its expressions are absent. It is difficult, however, to see why this should ultimately matter. A squirrel, a flower, and a chimpanzee all have natures that are intrinsic to them, even under circumstances that do not allow the characteristics of each to come forth fully. This raises the question of why human exceptionalism is more important than floral exceptionalism, or the exceptionalism of a squirrel, a question to which we will return later. 


Arctic penguins go to astonishing lengths (literally) in treacherous conditions, some even giving their own lives, to ensure that their young survive—why are they not accorded moral status? Unless we can answer such questions, we are left with our own preferences.

Blackburn's question as to why human exceptionalism should confer more importance on humans than "floral exceptionalism" confers on flowers is plain carping and readily answered: Floral nature can be discerned to be of a lower order than human nature, which is why no one except some deluded nature worshipers is tempted to attribute moral agency and consciousness to flowers. Here, as elsewhere, it appears that Blackburn believes that humans have no natural access whatsoever to comparative measures of value, as if we have no way of knowing that killing a flower is a less important matter than killing a child unless we happen to hold a specific religious position. But this is a highly counter-intuitive position. Why is Blackburn making the secularist's argument for him? Here Blackburn seems positively to endorse a shallow dismissiveness on the part of the secularist which we should not so readily excuse.

Blackburn's argument about arctic penguins is answered by Smith relatively easily with reference to human free will and moral deliberation:

Professor Blackburn questions why those natural capacities and attributes that make humans exceptional--e.g., moral agency, rationality, creativity, etc.,--are "moral" as opposed to the sacrifices made by penguins to protect and feed their young. But this is a false comparison. The penguins are acting on instinct. They have no choice in the matter...In this sense, they are not actually doing anything laudatory. Indeed we admire their extraordinary efforts precisely because we view them through the prism of our own exceptional moral nature.

In contrast to penguins and all animals, we have the capacity to choose whether and how to love, care, protect, and raise our children....(Smith 2012b p. 33, emphasis in original)

Of course a secularist could reply that human moral deliberation and free will are mere evolutionary artifacts. As we have seen in the previous section, the regnant materialist view of human origins is indeed in tension with a recognition of any special human value. But it does not follow that the secularist would be justified in dismissing these unique human qualities as unimportant. For that to be true, the secularist would have to have no independent access, aside from having the correct views about human origins, to the value of these properties. If this were true, however, we would have no reason to blame secularists, beyond any blame we might give them for denying the existence and creatorship of God, if they claimed to be unable to see why various heinous violations of human freedom, such as enslavement and torture, are morally wrong. Yet it seems that they are indeed responsible to know that such things are wrong.

Once a person has been imbued with all the convoluted and unnatural sophistries of personhood theory and materialism in philosophy, he may well claim that the uniqueness, or the importance of the uniqueness, of human beings is not obvious to him.3 But it is scarcely reasonable to estimate the difficulty of discerning human exceptionalism by considering the resistance that one will encounter from hardened anti-exceptionalists such as Singer, Giubilini, and Minerva. They have quite deliberately stifled their own perception of human nature and human value. And in any event, if that sort of person is the audience we envisage, it is also not clear that "faith is the easiest and surest route" by which to teach them human exceptionalism, for the simple reason that they also reject Christian faith and are likely to be at least as closed to it as they are to non-religious arguments for human exceptionalism, until and unless their hearts are softened. What means the Holy Spirit will ultimately use for that softening purpose--whether, for example, the realization that abortion is killing a child, direct evangelism, or both--is by no means self-evident.

So it is not true that the natural law facts of human exceptionalism are difficult for normal people to see, and it is not at all clear that direct proclamation of religious truths, while ignoring the natural law, is as a general rule the easiest, surest, or best route for teaching most people to acknowledge the dignity of man.

There are, in fact, serious practical problems with making the natural law appear hard. Blackburn accuses Smith of making Christians argue while "tying one hand behind their back[s]." (Blackburn 2012) But if we join with the hardened secularists in arguing that the natural law is extremely difficult to see, that it is a mere preference to think (absent revelation) that humans have special value, that is fighting with one hand tied behind our backs, and it is likely to have quite serious consequences. By agreeing with the secularists that human exceptionalism is far from obvious, we teach anyone who has stirring doubts about the murderous logical consequences of personhood theory that he should dismiss those doubts as subjective preferences rather than perceptions of objective reality. We teach him that he is not being particularly rational in feeling horrified when learned professors advocate infanticide or killing the vulnerable for their organs. We teach him that his conscience is not at all truth-directed; we separate reason from moral insight. We thus have a very good chance of moving him not towards Christianity but towards a more hard-hearted naturalism, a naturalism in which he suppresses his moral knowledge more insistently and consistently than ever before.

Again, there is the problem of moral responsibility. If it is actually true that those who deny the existence of God have no independent access to the moral law, if the rather insouciant attitude that humans are no more valuable than penguins, which Blackburn endorses on the secularist's behalf, is perfectly justifiable for the unbeliever, how can we hold secularists responsible for the evil that they might advocate or do? They have, allegedly, no way of knowing any better, and we have no way of telling them that they should know better.

Moreover, if we imply that the natural law is inaccessible or extremely difficult to perceive, this has implications for Christians' own adherence to the truths of human exceptionalism. It is easy to forget that the proposition that God exists and made man in his image does not by itself give us a lot of specific moral guidance. As we shall see below, some Christians even define the imago dei in such a way that it can be lost by living human beings. Even if we add that the God who made man in his image is also a lawgiver, this does not in itself give us the content of the moral law.

Where, then, does specific moral guidance come from for the Christian? It can come from specific revelation (and from Christian tradition about revelation) or from the Christian's knowledge of the natural law. It is true that the latter will be reinforced by the former. A Christian, because of his understanding that God made man, will at least have reason to look for something like human nature; he will have reason to try to understand what niche man occupies in the creation and what the implications of the imago dei are. But how is this to work out in terms of specifics? How does this influence decisions about, for example, abortion and end-of-life issues?

In order to set aside this problem for the moment, let us suppose for the sake of the argument that a Christian is inclined to believe that propositions like "Abortion is always wrong" or "It is always wrong to dehydrate innocent human beings to death" are binding tenets of Christian teaching or that they follow from the revelation that God created man in his image. Even then, if we imply with Blackburn that these propositions are not also insights available by the natural light, it seems to follow that they are based solely on "thus saith the Lord" and have no other solid ground. Such a view makes these prohibitions atomic dictates rather than parts of a coherent, integrated picture of the human person which is evident to reason as well as to faith. It then seems quite understandable that such moral views appear to non-Christians to be mere preferences; indeed, it would seem that non-Christians have no good reason to oppose the killing of the vulnerable at all. This turns Christian opposition to the anti-exceptionalist program into a set of narrowly understood religious beliefs, a black-box set of prohibitions the reasonableness of which cannot be seen clearly by mere mortals, which no one outside our in-group can be expected to accept. As a practical matter, is such an approach likely to hold up to the aggressive onslaughts of the non-exceptionalists? Is it not more likely that the Christian will reconsider and conclude that, after all, it is no necessary part of Christian doctrine that these actions are wrong?

To answer that question we can turn to the record of various self-identified Christian ethicists and Christian institutions on matters related to human exceptionalism. Unfortunately, that record is by no means uniformly stellar, which argues both the immense sociological force of the anti-exceptionalist Zeitgeist and the need to use all available forms of knowledge against it.

Protestant Christian ethicist Robert V. Rakestraw, for example, argues that persons in a "persistent vegetative state" have lost the image of God and are metaphysically dead.

It appears, then, that neocortical destruction equals the end of personal life because the correctly diagnosed PVS individual is a body of organs and systems, artificially sustained, without the personal human spirit that once enabled this body-soul unity to represent God on earth....While the body still has some kind of residual life, the person is dead. Speaking theologically, the individual's personal earthly existence as the image of God appears to be over....Neocortical destruction is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for declaring an individual dead theologically. For this reason, the discontinuation of nutrition and hydration appears to be justified. (Rakestraw 1996, p. 128)

It is perhaps no coincidence that this remarkable piece of theological reasoning is followed immediately by a lengthy footnote in which Rakestraw tries to bolster his case by reference to the fact that there are "many in the medical, ethical, and philosophical fields" who agree with him. (Rakestraw 1996, p. 128, n. 44)

In a similar vein, the late Christian ethicist Robert N. Wennberg endorses the view that a fetus becomes more than a "collection of cells" by means of the maturation of the nervous system and argues that

[w]hen an individual becomes permanently unconscious, the person has passed out of existence, even if biological life continues. There cannot be a person where there is neither the capacity for having mental states nor even the potentiality for developing that capacity. (Wennberg quoted in Moreland 1999)

More conservative evangelical ethicist Scott Rae rejects Rakestraw's and Wennberg's position that patients who do not have "enough brain" are not yet or no longer persons; however, he endorses dehydrating some patients to death on the curious theological grounds that we should regard death as a "conquered enemy." As in the case of Rakestraw, Rae hastens to support his dubious ethical and theological case by reference to a "consensus" in contemporary thought: "There is a growing consensus, reflected in the Cruzan decision, that medically provided nutrition and hydration are indeed forms of treatment that can be refused, if there is clear evidence that it is the patient’s wish." (Rae 2009; see also McGrew 2009.)

What these examples show is that the revelation that man is made in the image of God is not an absolute bulwark against the determination to find an excuse for doing what the anti-exceptionalists are promoting. Revelation, like conscience, can be gotten around if one wishes to get around it, and all the more so when we are dealing with issues such as feeding tubes or other matters such as abortion that Scripture does not address explicitly. Sometimes, specious theological arguments can even be used to declare some human beings to be outside of the human community.4

It is therefore all the more important not to downplay or neglect the moral law and not to put all our eggs in one basket, even the basket of the revelation that man is made in the image of God.

Here at the heart of the debate, then, Blackburn is not only wrong but wrong in a crucial way which has troubling ramifications for the cause of defending innocent human life. Therefore, despite earlier points at which I noted mis-steps on Smith's part, Blackburn fares worse in the debate overall.


Grace builds on nature. In our present age, secular philosophers reject not only grace but also nature. The entire anti-exceptionalist program can and should be seen as a direct attack on human nature, both in the sense of tearing down the very notion of a unique and specially valuable human nature and in the sense of corrupting people's consciences, which manifest their special human nature. It is therefore all the more imperative not to assist them, as Blackburn does, by implying that natural law is inaccessible or non-existent. Rather, it is necessary to work for a restoration of the human perception of who we are, what we are, and how we should treat the most vulnerable among us. We should not assume that even Christians will automatically reclaim or retain a full understanding of human exceptionalism with all that it implies. There is therefore no substitute, whether in talking with secularists in the public square or with Christians in private, for directing attention to and defending those basic moral and metaphysical truths that are in the first instance available to man by the natural light: That there is no such thing as a "human non-person," that human beings are more valuable than animals, and that it is wrong to kill infants and the disabled, however far they may be from presently manifesting normal human capacities.

We will be most effective at defending human exceptionalism with both Christians and non-Christians if we are careful to avoid turning human exceptionalism into something esoteric, narrowly religious, and un-obvious. This in no way precludes direct evangelism. That is one tool in the toolbox. Just as grace builds on nature, so, too, grace can soften hearts and open minds to return to an understanding of the natural law that was previously suppressed or denied.5 But our own eyes must be clear-sighted if we are to clear the sight of others. One thing that clear sight in this area will show us is that human exceptionalism is known to the conscience of man and cannot be denied without some genuine confusion or intellectual twisting. Therefore, another tool in our toolbox, and an indispensible one, is the type of work that Wesley J. Smith does to awaken consciences without necessary reference to Christian categories. Whether he uses the term or not, Smith is teaching the natural law, which is essential work in this time of civilizational crisis.


Works Cited

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1 Here I am setting aside the question of whether the animal ancestors in question are to be deemed to have been conscious at all and am dealing only with the origin of a distinctively human, value-conferring nature.

2 If one carried this to the point of considering the origins of consciousness per se, the case against naturalistic evolution would be even stronger, since we are directly aware of the existence of our own minds. See Moreland 2004, Reppert 2003.

3 Even then, a tension sometimes remains, an inclination to think that there is something special about being human, which is why Peter Singer laments the residual "speciesism" (aka humanism) affirmed by the Humanist Society. (Singer 2004)

4 Despite clear moral teaching by the Roman Catholic Church which does not neglect natural law insight (see the Statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 2007, Pope John Paul II 1998, Pope John Paul II 2004), the practical record of a number of bishops and Catholic institutions has been problematic. To mention only a few, Bishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville and Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, VA, gave the go-ahead to the death by dehydration of Hugh Finn in 1998 (Kreitzer 1998), Bishop Robert N. Lynch gave every appearance of endorsing the death by dehydration of Terri Schiavo and seeking only "mediation" between Terri's parents and her husband (Lifesite News 2005), and there are credible reports of Catholic hospitals dehydrating or attempting to dehydrate patients to death with the endorsement of Catholic hospital ethicists. (Droleskey 2005, McGrew 2011) A Catholic hospital chain, Catholic Healthcare West, even filed an amicus brief in favor of the death by dehydration of conscious patient Robert Wendland. (Smith 2012a)

5 It is not clear that Smith acknowledges that evangelism could have this effect; he seems to imply that appealing to religious categories is almost entirely a waste of time in our largely secular culture. (Smith 2012b, p. 34) The issue of evangelism per se is not what Smith is considering, though; he seems to be thinking of speaking in religious terms to a largely secular audience or an audience whose religious commitments are unknown. The example he gives is that of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, use of Christian premises to argue for black civil rights.