Are You In or Are You Out?

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on January 2, 2008

As a 21st century society, we are being forced to grapple with the ethical questions surrounding some of the leading scientific discoveries in human history, particularly in the area of genetic research. The current wave in favor of human embryonic stem cell research, and the technological advances responsible for its progress, has forced us as the human community to think hard about what it means to be human.

Peter Singer, Princeton University professor and director of bioethics for that institution, has been at the forefront of these ethical debates. On his website he claims that speciesism (valuing human life greater than animals) is wrong, and that humans and animals with the same cognitive abilities should be treated the same in the testing laboratory. Professor Singer says, in his book Animal Liberation, “I propose asking experimenters who use animals if they would be prepared to carry out their experiments on human beings at a similar mental level — say, those born with irreversible brain damage.” What Singer espouses is theoretical; essentially, if you are going to test a developing drug therapy on a chimp, why not test it on a human who is of the same mental capacity? According to Singer, to make a distinction between a human and an ape, if they are of the same mental capacity, is wrong.

Singer is advocating what I call “demonstrable dignity.” Demonstrable dignity claims that you must somehow demonstrate your ability to be human, to be included in the human community. Under this standard, being conceived by a human egg and sperm no longer entitles you to the rights and protections of your society.

Singer’s proposition, if followed to its logical end, strips human kind of its only defense against utilitarianism. If we make “cognitive ability” the determining factor for humanness, where do we stop? Who is qualified to define “cognitive ability?” At what age does a human attain to this elusive standard? If technology progresses to the point where humans are able to artificially increase their abilities, will they do away with those who do not have access to such technology?

The United Nations has taken steps to ensure that a lack of ability is never weighted against the most vulnerable members of society: children. In the Declaration on the Rights of the Child (General Assembly Resolution 1386, Nov 20, 1959), the United Nations reaffirmed that societies have an obligation to protect those unable to protect themselves. Interestingly enough, cognitive ability is outlawed as a criterion for these protections: “the child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition.” International consensus has made it abundantly clear that the only effective way to protect mankind is to adhere vigilantly to speciesism. The only requirement for these protections is that you must be a human child.

If ability is ever used as the definition of mankind, it will be abused. Ability replaces the global tradition of human uniqueness with a warped, pragmatic approach to human life. As soon as we start to make qualifications beyond speciesism, we risk losing the very things that make us human. Singer’s propositions, if made public policy, would destroy the very underpinnings of a compassionate, pluralistic society.

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