We have asked several of our contributors to respond to a question in
our occasional series of forums. This time the question is: What is the
world’s most dangerous idea? We expect that the answers will be quite
controversial. Please add your comments.
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Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. ~ Preamble to the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
One day, we may remember 1948 as the peak of mankind’s respect for one another. Sixty years
later, ivory tower snobs, animal rights activists, abortion and euthanasia
proponents are increasingly attacking the foundation for freedom and justice declared
in the UDHR, the special value of each and every human being, also known as
A few years ago, a New York Times reporter celebrated the extension of human rights
to nonhuman animals, after the environmental committee of the Spanish Parliament
voted to grant great apes the right to life and freedom. In an odd but
recurrent pattern of increasing animal rights at the expense of human dignity,
the reporter exclaimed that we were kidding ourselves with our belief in
unalienable “human” (his quote) rights.
right activists often exhibit a stunning insensitivity to human tragedy. Animal
liberation is routinely compared to slavery or the women’s rights even though
no one would suggest a radical difference between blacks and whites or men and
women. Over the last few years, the increasingly shrill People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals (PETA) have compared the victims of the Holocaust to
animals kept in warehouses or killed. Whatever sympathy Holocaust on a Plate ad
may bring for chickens, can such campaigns do anything but trivialized human
may be mere attention-grabbing, hyperbole. However, the race card and Nazi
bogeyman also reflect a popular rational basis for animal rights articulated by
Princeton University bioethics professor, Peter Singer. Singer argues in Animal
Liberation (1973), the Magna Carta of four-legged freedom, that the belief in
the inherent dignity of human beings is speciesism and no more rational than
racism. Of course the implication is that since racism is evil then the belief
in human dignity is also evil.
not alone in the halls of our academies. Earlier this year, London School of
Economics sociology professor Alasdair Cochrane published a paper contending
that the concept of human dignity should be removed from bioethics. Cochrane at least avoids dragging in the
KKK but attacks the claim that only and all humans have inherent moral worth as
“unhelpful and arbitrary.”
dignity is only a crazy, cruel fiction, what happens when we dump the myth?
the most vulnerable human beings, the very young and the very sick increasingly
may be left outside the umbrella of the human community. In Practical Ethics
Singer argues that infants are no more self-aware than snails or dogs.
Therefore, killing a preborn child or a week old infant is not murder, nor
anymore immoral than squashing a slug.
inversion of ethical sensibilities doesn’t stop with issues of life as ethicist
look to animals as our new moral guides.
cannibalism? Grow-up. A New
York Times writer declares that we are in a “community of equals” with apes and
female chimpanzees who are known to eat their rivals’ babies.
cuddling with animals? Singer
argues that we are all animals and sex with animals cannot be an offense to our
dignity as a human being.
In the end, if with lose our connection to the high ideas expressed in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, our moral universe would be turned upside down. Both
man and animal will suffer. Can human beings be human without dignity?
Theron Bowers MD is a Texas psychiatrist.