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Bioethicist Margaret Somerville Asks, "Do Apes Have Ethics?"

Posted Dec 23 2008 9:14pm

Those biologists and philosophers intent on destroying human exceptionalism often argue that apes have ethics, albeit more rudimentary, just like people, and thus we must disabuse ourselves of the unique nature of human life.

Not enough energy has been invested in pushing back against these subversive arguments. I am happy to see that one of my favorite bioethicists, the Canadian Margaret Somerville, is manning the fire hoses. In a long piece published in today's Montreal Gazette (you should read the whole thing), she recounts participating in a round table on the issue as the only dissenter to the premise that apes have ethics, which her co panelists were convinced is genetically determined. From her column:

Ethics require moral judgment. That requires deciding between right and wrong. As far as we know, animals are not capable of doing that. There's a major difference between engaging in social conduct that benefits the community, as some animals do, and engaging in that same conduct because it would be ethically wrong not to do so, as humans do.
To get from here to there requires some redefinition--kind of the way some atheists support their thesis that religion has caused most of the world's woes by labeling communism a religion. Somerville sees it and parries:
Definition is a problem here: If ethics are broadly defined to encompass certain animal behaviour, they are correct. But if ethics are the practical application of morality, then to say animals have ethics is to attribute a moral instinct to them.
Somerville is a human exceptionalist--only one of the reasons I like her. She writes:
I believe that humans are "special" (different-in-kind) as compared with other animals and, consequently, deserve "special respect." Traditionally, we have used the idea that humans have a soul and animals don't to justify our differential treatment of humans and animals in terms of the respect they deserve. But soul is no longer a universally accepted concept.

Ethics can, however, be linked to a metaphysical base without needing to invoke religious or supernatural features or beliefs--it could be of a secular "human spirit" nature or, as German philosopher Jurgen Habermas describes it, an "ethics of the human species." I propose that ethics necessarily involve some transcendent experience, one that humans can have and animals cannot.
Well yes, if she means by that term to rise above and beyond what can be measured in the physical realm. Hence, we have duties, which are immaterial and are morally based--whether they arose when we became conscious in some blind evolutionary process or otherwise. But no animal has a duty and no animal can be held morally accontable. Similarly, genetic determinism reductionism notwithstanding to the contrary, we have free will and rationality and animals do not. That too separates us from every other known species. One way this expresses is that we have the capacity to act upon nature and bend it (to some degree) to our will, while animals in their natural state are always purely within nature, acted upon and reacting to it.

This issue of human exceptionalism could not be more important to the future of human rights and our thriving as a species. Somerville understands:

The argument that it's dangerous to abandon the ideas of human specialness and that a moral instinct and search for ethics is uniquely human, was greeted with great skepticism by my colleagues, who seemed to think that only religious people would hold such views.

To conclude, how we answer the question, "Do ants have ethics?" - that is, does the behaviour, bonding and the formation of community in animals have a different base from that in humans - is of immense importance, including because it will have a major impact on the ethics we hand on to future generations.
Indeed. And the time has come to take this discussion out of the ivory tower and bring it to Main Street. Otherwise, the elites will pull universal human rights out from under us and we will find ourselves in a world of new eugenics and sacrificing human welfare and prosperity "for the animals" or "to save the planet." In other words, we will be engaging in a self-destructive form of human exceptionalism on the ironic basis that we are not exceptional.

Labels: Human Exceptionalism. Ethics. Apes. Margaret Somerville

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