Humanists Are Not Human Exceptionalists

Chris Sosa – Salon contributor, Huffington Post blogger, “vegan advocate”, and personal friend (at least for now!) has a new piece up on the HuffPo: “Don’t Call Me a Humanist”. After reading the poorly-informed diatribe, I’m happy if I don’t: taking a reasonable and even-handed approach to things is characteristic of the Humanist’s outlook on life, and Sosa’s piece is, sadly, neither. Instead, he offers a regiment of mistaken canards reminiscent of the lies some fundamentalists and evangelicals tell about us: no surprise, perhaps, given Sosa’s own evangelical upbringing. It’s just disappointing he hasn’t learned to see beyond the shallow caricature he was sold then to the rich, life-affirming worldview with which he wishes not to be affiliated. Because misunderstandings and misinformation about Humanism abound – often propagated by the same regressive forces Sosa and I both deplore – I like to correct such pieces when I can, so I thought I’d offer a point-by-point rebuttal of Sosa’s article.

Sosa’s errors begin in the second paragraph:

“My initial issue comes from the language. The word “Humanist” denotes a sort of self-focus that seems dangerous in an almost religious sense. I do not look at the world and ask what’s best specifically for humans, rather what increases the quality of all life.”

Well, no. Many times no! The word “Humanist” denotes a life-stance based on valuing the worth and dignity of persons, approaching life’s problems using the tools of reason rather than revelation, and hope for a better future. Someone is a Humanist, broadly speaking, if they try to life their lives in accordance with those values. It definitely does not mean, and has never meant historically, the exaltation of the human animal above other animals. Rather, the Humanist view explicitly places humans within the web of life which other animals inhabit, recognizing our shared heritage with other animals. This is made explicit in the first Humanist Manifesto, published 1933:

Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process.

This may seem opposed to the “human exceptionalism” promoted by Wesley J. Smith in the National Review article to which Sosa is responding. But is it any surprise that a Senior Fellow at the intelligent design advocacy outfit the Discovery Institute has no clue what Humanism is really about? Indeed, it seems that Sosa has neglected to do the most basic research which would tell him that the person to whom he is responding is not in fact a Humanist.  This is quite a serious oversight! Sosa takes the non-Humanist Smith’s caricature of Humanism at face-value, and fails to investigate whether it represents Humanist philosophical opinions about the nature and value of other animals. This is why he can write un-ironically that Humanism displays a “brazen narcissism” when it attributes moral worth to human beings, that it glorifies a single species, and promotes a “humanistic separatism”.

All of this is false.

To the extent that any generalizations can be made regarding a complex ethical, philosophical, and religious (!) tradition like Humanism, Sosa’s claims are essentially inaccurate. Deep at the core of the Humanist worldview is a respect for the fact that we are evolved organisms living on a big rock among other evolved organisms, and that in the big cosmic scheme of things we are nothing special. We are animals with unusually big brains (well, most of us) who have the distinction of being able to think about who and what we are: but on a cosmic level, we are not exceptional. No human exceptionalism for we Humanists.

If we assign moral worth and dignity to persons, it is because we reason that, due to the experiences we are capable of having, there is ethical import to how we treat persons. I highlight “persons” because, of course, Humanism has never been solely about human beings (I grant the name can give a different impression – blame history). Rather, there has since the very first Humanist Manifesto was published been a lively debate among Humanists regarding to what extent other animals should be considered persons, with some prominent Humanists arguing for precisely Sosa’s position. Indeed, some of the most significant champions of animal rights have been Humanists, who argue from their Humanist premises that animals (or some animals) should be afforded the same moral consideration we afford human beings (I would include, for instance, Henry Stephens Salt, the pioneer of animal rights thinking, to be among our number).

Whatever side one comes down upon in that debate (and so far I have encountered compelling arguments on both sides), human exceptionalism of the sort described by Sosa is not representative of or even compatible with Humanist values. Our reasoned approach to the world does not allow us simply to declare by fiat that we, unique among species, are privileged above all others and thereby worthy of special consideration. Even the arguments which support treating other animals differently to how we treat human beings do not rely on that sort of shallow exceptionalist thinking, but on principled arguments as to why there are ethically salient differences between human beings and the animals in question. This is precisely how moral disputation should proceed: with reasoned arguments based on the available evidence.

Sosa’s parting salvo reveals the sad depth of his confusion, as he rails:

Both Christianity and Humanism are ideological systems designed to elevate the self and promote species power, either through declaring a special position from godly decree or, perhaps even more absurdly, for merely existing.

I do not know if Sosa’s view of Christianity is fair or correct. I do know his view of Humanism is neither.

 

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Patrick

    And once again Chris Sosa is revealed for the putrid writer that he is.

  • Anton

    Sosa’s article is overheated idiocy. You already pointed out the way Humanists have always defined themselves as part of Nature, but Sosa also misses the fact that we exempt animals from moral responsibility. Human morality is only applicable to humans, though it should (and does) involve our ethical treatment of other species.

  • Tony Debono

    When I left evangelical Christianity and finally admitted that I was an atheist, I wanted to find a community of like-minded people to join, so I googled something like “atheists, boston” and one of the top hits was the Humanist Community at Harvard. I was originally put off by the term ‘humanist’ because the Nazarene denomination had indoctrinated me to regard humanism (also secularism and materialism) as evil, prideful, and empty. As I sat there staring indignantly at the screen, it dawned at me that I had come THIS far, so I might as well learn more. After reading the ‘What is Humanism?” post on the HCH website I said, perhaps ironically, “Well I’ll be damned! I’m a Humanist!” I think Sosa’s piece would have benefited greatly from reading this very basic outline of Humanism.

  • guest

    I don’t see how you can state so categorically that ‘on a cosmic level’ humans are not exceptional. As far as we know, we are the only species that is fully self-aware, the only one that can do science and learn about the cosmos and transmit that knowledge to other members of our species. To say human intelligence is not exceptional is like saying a cheetah’s running speed is not exceptional because other animals can also run. Our intelligence is miles beyond any other creature. We’re morally exceptional as well. Other animals don’t care even about members of their own species, unless they are closely related. We not only support members of our own species that are sick or old or starving, we care about other species as well. You’ll never find a buffalo running a donkey sanctuary.

    Personally I don’t value all life equally. I would happily kill a million fruit flies to save the life of one baby. It’s kind of ridiculous, to me, to say we should promote the interests of all life equally. Will that include bacteria? Plants? Viruses like smallpox?

    I’m willing to accept a few other animals might qualify as persons. Great apes. Cetaceans. Maybe parrots and corvids. But most animal species on the planet aren’t people and don’t deserve the same rights as people. Some living things can’t feel pain, don’t have a sense of self, have no personality- they are not equal to a human being. I’ll never be a vegan. An oyster, to me, is food and not a person.

    That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to animal welfare. But animal welfare and animal rights are different things.

    Now, try getting a cow to write a reply to your post and then tell us how humans aren’t exceptional.


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