Wrestling with
difficult questions is routine work for ethicists. But some are much more
difficult than others. MercatorNet’s question, “What did I believe was
presently the world’s most dangerous idea?”, falls in the former category. My
response, “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”, 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 healthcare 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 implement this equal treatment of humans
and animals some philosophers have proposed that some animals, at least, should
be regarded as persons. They do this on the basis that 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.

It’s a logical
follow-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.

In summary, in their view, humans are not
special and don’t deserve “special respect” just because they are human, and
some animals could deserve greater respect than some humans.

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
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 on 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
would redesign us!

We used to regard humans as special on the
basis that they had a soul, a Divine spark, and animals did not. We can
distinguish robots in the same way. 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

Implementing and maintaining “special
respect” for humans will require that we recognize all humans as having innate
human dignity that must be respected and that we regard as unethical
interventions on humans 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.

Postscript: 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.

Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine,
Ethics and Law at McGill University.

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...