discrimination at the crossroads
TREATING ANIMALS OTHER THAN HUMANS
Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the
Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director of the Centre for
Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Montreal. She
authored The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human
Spirit and Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia
and Physician-Assisted Suicide; has edited Do We Care?
Renewing Canada's Commitment to Health and co-edited
Transdisciplinarity: reCreating Integrated Knowledge. She
gave the 2006 Massey Lectures, which were broadcast on the CBC
Radio One show IDEAS. Professor Somerville is a frequent contributor
to all forms of media and regularly consults, nationally and
internationally, to a wide variety of bodies including governments
and NGO’s, especially regarding public policy. As well,
she serves on many editorial boards, advisory boards and boards
with difficult questions is routine work for ethicists. But
some are much more difficult than others. Recently, an editor
asked me one that falls in the former category: What did I believe
was presently the world's most dangerous idea?
"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." My response
might seem anodyne and a "cop out," but I'd like to
try to convince you otherwise.
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
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 health-care
and aged persons' care systems, the ethical and legal tones
of our societies, and so on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
such philosophers, 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.
logically 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.
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.
who believe the kind and degree of respect owed to an entity
depends on its intelligence, would 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.
there is nothing special about being human, there is no essence
of our humanness that we must hold in 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
could redesign us!
used to regard humans as special on the basis that they had
a soul, a divine spark, and animals did not. 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."
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 consideration.
and maintaining "special respect" for humans will
require that we recognize humans as having innate human dignity
that must be respected, and that we regard as unethical interventions
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.
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
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.
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.
"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.
Apes Have Ethics?