Humanists Are Not Human Exceptionalists

Humanists Are Not Human Exceptionalists January 22, 2014

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.


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