Human Exceptionalism: The Questions Matter

On a recent edition of my weekly radio show, my co-host and I spent an hour tossing around the concept of human exceptionalism, the idea that human beings are fundamentally different from all other species.



We started by trying to articulate rational answers to a few basic questions:

  • Would the world be better off without humans?
  •  Are human beings better or more important than other living things?
  •  Should we be just as concerned about the lives of animals as we are our fellow humans?

Obviously, the answers to these questions are going to vary depending on who you ask. As we noted on the show, your average chicken would probably have a very different answer to that first question than you or I. But the answers any one of us might be inclined to give — and for the record, I got “No,” “Yes,” and “No” — are far less important than the questions themselves.

NASA Image -- Man on the Moon

That we are willing to entertain these questions, that we take them seriously enough to consider them worth debate, indicates a broadening of perspective that would have been hard to imagine even a few decades ago. This is not to overlook the many traditional cultural and religious beliefs (Jainism, Native American traditions) that affirm the value of animal life as being on a par with human life, nor is it to ignore the long history of misanthropy: there would have been many throughout the ages who would have answered that first question with a resounding “yes.” But such perspectives have always been out of the mainstream of rational western discourse; they were viewed as oddities, peculiar notions that fly in the face of basic assumptions about the value and primacy of human beings.

Today they are still perhaps oddities, but not nearly as odd as they used to be. There are a growing number of people who are comfortable giving a “no” and a “yes” to the second two questions and surprising number of people who are not as full-throated in saying “no” to that first question as we — or at least I — would like for them to be.

Gorilla using Tool

Human exceptionalism is now the subject of serious critique, as is anthropocentrism, the enabling worldview which insists on seeing everything through human-tinted glasses. As we learn more about the surprising inner life and unexpected aptitudes that many animals possess, the case for acknowledging their personhood grows. Humans are looking less and less exceptional all the time, and to the extent that such a development means that we’re likely to start taking serious steps to reduce to the total amount of animal suffering in the world, I’d say that’s a very good thing. Moreover, I am completely on board with the idea of enhancing or uplifting animals — providing them the cognitive abilities they need to join in full partnership with us in managing this planet — although I note that such a project has not been too widely embraced even amongst the technoprogressive crowd.

So having laid out my pro-animal bona fides, I’d like to make the case that anthropocentrism is actually a pretty darned good thing and that human exceptionalism is the moral and rational  view.

First let’s look at anthropocentrism. Some will argue that surely it must be the problem, and not without justification. Our tendency to look at the world as seen through human eyes, applying human values, and weighing all circumstances in terms of the impact they have on human beings is, in that view, a major stumbling block. How can we ever really empathize with animals, how can we ever reduce their suffering, how can we ever help them to improve their lot in life…if all we ever think about is ourselves?

Good questions.

I think we have to begin by looking at anthropocentrism in terms of what it replaced, or rather what it is replacing. What were we back before we were human-centric in our thinking? We were a lot of different things: nation-centric, race-centric, class-centric, religion-centric, tribe-centric. Viewing the world with a  bias towards humanity actually represents an enormous step forward from any of these earlier biases.

Obviously, the older biases are still around and still cause huge problems every day, all over the world. But there can be no doubt that race- and tribe-centrism are gradually weakening while a broader focus on humanity continues to take hold. As Stephen Pinker observes:

 It’s easy to focus on the idiocies of the present and forget those of the past. But a century ago our greatest writers extolled the beauty and holiness of war. Heroes like Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson avowed racist beliefs that today would make people’s flesh crawl. Women were barred from juries in rape trials because supposedly they would be embarrassed by the testimony. Homosexuality was a felony.

At various times, contraception, anesthesia, vaccination, life insurance and blood transfusion were considered immoral.

Ideals that today’s educated people take for granted — equal rights, free speech, and the primacy of human life over tradition, tribal loyalty and intuitions about purity — are radical breaks with the sensibilities of the past. These too are gifts of a widening application of reason.

Anthropocentrism is good both because it replaces those earlier views and because it’s a marker of the ongoing broadening of perspectives that humanity has exemplified and continues to exemplify. The ancient Greeks coined the word “barbarian” to refer to anyone who wasn’t Greek. The notion that the human species can be divided into two groups, the True Humans and the Others — with the former often a tiny minority of the total human population — has been a fundamental assumption for virtually all of human history. It lies behind not only countless wars, but slavery, torture, rape, and every form of exploitation and deprivation imaginable, played out innumerable times throughout the ages.

Concurrent with the most brutal treatment of the Other is a patronizing appreciation of the Other’s value as a labor unit, sex object, or other type of asset. Over time, a general trend towards civility has tended to soften how the Other is viewed and responded to, particularly in the west. Outside of armed conflict, the Other eventually became not so much an object of scorn and hatred as something that needed to be managed — a potential risk, but also a potentially valuable resource. A benevolent (though still highly unjust and exploitative) condescension, e.g. “The White Man’s Burden,” became the norm.

Gradually, in fits and starts, members of the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens are beginning to view each other — the entire species — as True Humans. As that happens, two interesting phenomena begin to develop. One is that new candidates emerge to fill the role of the Other that other humans used to occupy. Sometimes ideas take on that role, so that the other becomes Racism or Injustice or some equally pernicious enemy of progress. But then it becomes very easy to make those who are seen as proponents of the offensive ideas into the Other, and we’re back where we started with humans in that role.

Sometimes nature, and in particular animals, are placed in the role of the Other. I think it’s fair to say that most modern humans view animals in much the same way as the more enlightened of our recent ancestors viewed their “inferior” fellow humans. Rather than treating them as objects of any great seething hatred or resentment, we tend to be positively disposed towards them “for what they are.” We don’t want them to suffer unduly, but obviously their suffering can’t be equated to ours.

Note the excessive emphasis on the word “obviously.” The truth is, that proposition is not at all obvious. People are less certain of that great long-unchallenged assumption than they have ever been (and I am more uncomfortable with the “no” response to the third question than I ever would have been before.) Should we be just as concerned about the lives of animals as we are our fellow humans?  Obviously we aren’t. But should we be?

Maybe we should.

The second interesting result of the process of coming to see all humanity as Truly Human is that the broadening of perspective continues — if anything, it grows ever stronger. At one time, any human whose language or customs or mode of dress or general appearance or diet (or any of a thousand other criteria) were different from ours was the Other. Today most of us reject the idea of considering someone the Other based on any of those things. The question is, for how much longer will species (or computational substrate) be grounds for assigning Other-ness?

The emergent structure of cities (and why it matters)

All of which leads me, finally, to my defense of human exceptionalism. How are we exceptional? We use language, but some other animals apparently do, too. We make tools, but we are not alone in that. All right, so if language isn’t a difference, is it fair to ask where we might find the works of any other species’ Shakespeare? Or even their cheesiest hack novelist? May we ask where to look for any other species’ Large Hadron Collider, or wheel for that matter? Where is their world-defining, world-transforming civilization?

Ah, but these arguments are anthropocentrism at it’s worst, some will say. Other species will come to have these things eventually, too.  (Or would have, if we hadn’t gotten in the way.)  We have simply evolved more quickly. Or perhaps they would not have any of those things, but would come to express their uniqueness in completely different ways, without all our showy technology and cities and stuff.


Quantum Mechanics -- man's ultimate achievement?

But maybe it comes down, once again, not to the answers to the questions, but rather (in this case) who is asking them. Homo sapiens are exceptional among the species of the earth for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we are the only species on the planet — that we know of — who knows that it’s a species living on a planet. We’re exceptional because we’re carrying out this vast evolutionary project that now appears to bear some relationship to the evolution of all other species and to the evolution of the universe itself. We talk about the coming singularity that will occur when a greater-than-human intelligence emerges and begins moving everything — everything — in new directions that we can’t begin to understand or imagine. Does that scenario sound familiar? What is humanity if not the animal singularity?

That’s the crux. What is humanity? We came to realize that it’s not a particular demography or ethnicity. Next we will understand that it’s not a particular species or substrate. Up until now, humanity has been a club with restricted membership, but not for much longer. This is where our language breaks down, because we use the word “human” interchangeably to refer to the members of a particular biological species as well as to refer to participants in the great project referenced above.

The human exceptionalism that I endorse is all about that second meaning of the word “human.” As a species, yes, we’re exceptional, but the point is well made that we are ultimately nothing more than a bunch of lemurs with a first-mover advantage. (Meaning no offense to lemurs.) But that project — that’s something else. Tielhard de Chardin referred to it as the human phenomenon. A future human being who leaves biology behind in order to upload his or her mind to the cyber substrate will no longer be part of the species H. Sapiens. A future uplifted chimp who one day cites this essay as a typical example of ill-formed early 21st-century reasoning will never have been a part of that species.


But both of them are part of that project, part of that phenomenon.

So humanity is not limited to any division within our species, nor is it limited to any one species. We are transformers of the world, but beyond that, we are the transformation of the world. We are the making and remaking of everything around us. We are the defining, and redefining, of every concept that our minds can entertain. That redefinition does not end with our own identity.

Apparently, it begins there.

16 Responses

  1. To answer your questions:

    1. I never said it was.

    2. People tend to be less racist than they used to be, but are still mostly in favor of their own species over others. To the extent that this represents a broadened perspective, it’s a good thing. (It doesn’t really matter if the word “replaced” applies. And, yeah, maybe you’re reading this a bit more literally than necessary.)

    3. I like it. In fact, that’s pretty much where I’m going at the end. In wrote

    “The question is, for how much longer will species (or computational substrate) be grounds for assigning Other-ness?”

    My guess: not much longer.

    >>I vehemently oppose the (to me very dishonest and oviously biased) idea of us being – even somewhat – “special”. I can see the comfort in this notion, but I prefer my intellectual honesty to stay intact.

    It’s biased, but I it is most assuredly my honest opinion. (Although I never said I take any comfort from it.)

    Name another species the members of which debate their own specialness. Name another species that even has a concept of “species.” None that we know of.

    It’s not that WE are special — as I noted, we’re just lemurs with a first-mover advantage. But we are currently playing a special role. To argue against that is to use the very capability that I’m talking about.

  2. mijnheer says:

    Here’s a review of a book that claims human beings are exceptional in the sense of having a unique moral worth:

  3. Iwazaru says:

    Anthropocentrism is a “good thing” because it replaces (other) ethically dubious thinking styles?
    Okay then:

    1) What makes you think that anthropocentrism is the only notion out there, so that only IT could “replace” these ideas?

    2) What makes you think that it actually “replaces” them. “Replacing”… that’s a pretty loaded word, when you think about it.

    I mean… it’s not like we went Bias-shopping, and “threw Racism and Sexism out of the basket” in favour of Speciecism.
    Speciecism is not the “brandnew bias to free us from all bias’…”.
    Maybe it’s indeed just the last remaining (!) bias!
    (Which I think is obviously true. I mean, let’s think about it:
    “There we have humans(!) thinking, humans (!) are more valuable (!) – because of their human (!) capabilities (Namely because of an high IQ)…” isn’t this a little suspicious?

    3) I have a proposal: Let’s just embrace a new bias: “Bio-cism”! A preconceived notion in favour of living things!
    That could “replace” Racism and Sexism too, couldn’t it? And it could even replace Speciecism. Great!

    I admit: I am a bit furious about your article, but maybe I’m just taking it too seriously, or perhaps too personally. So please forgive my polemics.
    I vehemently oppose the (to me very dishonest and oviously biased) idea of us being – even somewhat – “special”. I can see the comfort in this notion, but I prefer my intellectual honesty to stay intact.

    I don’t even know, if you’re reading these comments, but I respectfully disagree with you, even though I really like your outlook on animal enhancement.

  4. shagggz says:

    @Hedonic Treader:
    “This question doesn’t pose itself, because no one has the power to commit it. I merely responded to the hypothetical question whether the world would be better off without humans.”
    No, you don’t get to selectively answer hypotheticals when it suits you, avoiding commitment to unpalatable conclusions. You already answered a question regarding the morality of a world and/or universe without humans, so you can answer one regarding the morality of forced extinction; the practical ability to carry out what’s described in a thought experiment has no bearing on whether the question the thought experiment poses is capable of being posed. You’ve laid out a clearly defined morality, that is the desirability of non-sentience by virtue of the lack of suffering, now accept the logical consequence that is the desirability of wiping out of all sentience.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      Yes, I accept the consequence. Your problem is that you jumped to the conclusion “By this logic, are we not morally compelled to commit geo-/ecocide ASAP?”, which is a non-sequitur because it is practically infeasible.

      • shagggz says:

        Nice to see you accepting the consequence, but practical feasibility doesn’t factor much into idealistic morality, except when the prescription is impossible, which this certainly is not.

  5. Sno says:

    1: No. It appears that we are a natural evolution of life – life itself being a natural evolution of matter – and as such “desirable” for the universe by virtue of it’s own laws that forced us into existence. Should we disappear, we can safely extrapolate that another species would eventually evolve the same way we did, and replace us (it should take 7.6 billion years for the sun to destroy the planet, so there is still plenty of time).
    2: Yes. Precisely because we are the end result of billions of years of evolution, we are “better” by virtue of what we do : we evolve faster than the other species.
    3: No, although we shouldn’t ignore or dismiss them either. I think that there is a lot to be learned from other lifeforms, but it’s also the law of nature to make the strong prevail. Besides, where would you draw the line ? Should insect life be valued too ?
    If you look at history, mass extinctions have always followed periods of big change on earth, and, like it or not, we are big change too. Sure, we have responsibilities, but as the dominant species we also have the right to put our needs first.

  6. shagggz says:

    @Hedonic Treader: Your response to 1 betrays a rather grim assessment of the inherent worth of sentience. By this logic, are we not morally compelled to commit geo-/ecocide ASAP? Also, it seems likely that should we survive to starfaring level, it seems reasonable that we would engineer away undesirable mental states.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      Your response to 1 betrays a rather grim assessment of the inherent worth of sentience.
      Yes, I don’t think sentience itself has inherent worth. The question if and how to trade the infliction of involuntary suffering against other values (e.g. the complexity of human life, pleasure, happiness) is a subjective question. For me, the aversion to space colonization is also a vote of distrust against mainstream human culture and human psychology – we don’t have a solid anti-cruelty consensus and I don’t trust that we ever will.

      By this logic, are we not morally compelled to commit geo-/ecocide ASAP?
      This question doesn’t pose itself, because no one has the power to commit it. I merely responded to the hypothetical question whether the world would be better off without humans.

      Also, it seems likely that should we survive to starfaring level, it seems reasonable that we would engineer away undesirable mental states.
      Only if it can do so (against any and all competing practical optimization pressures), wants to do so (against any and all competing interests), and has the power to dictate this outcome for whatever billion years of evolution lie ahead.

      I could very probably be convinced to accept some inflicted suffering for other values like pleasure if the numbers were really good, but I don’t currently think the expectation values are really good. This leads me to conclude that space colonization would probably be a dystopic outcome. Feel free to disagree if you think you have better reason for rational optimism, but make sure to avoid optimism bias.

  7. burl grey says:

    For decades my aphorism is simply: “The better the question, the better the answer.”
    From my systems epistemologic stance, a question I love is: What does this change maintain Unchanged?

  8. Hedonic Treader says:

    1) Yes. Earth would be worse off, but the universe would be better off. Humans are a risk, because they can colonize the universe, which is currently painless and without suffering.

    2) Yes. Better in many cognitive ways, more important for the aforementioned reason.

    3) No. The average chicken is less important than the average human. However, I would say we should count non-human suffering equally, if it is equivalent.

    • Tommy says:

      @Hedonic Treader
      1. Saying that the uncolonized but painless universe is morally preferable to a colonized universe implies that existence ultimately consists more of suffering than pleasure, which is an assumption I refuse to accept.

      2. If minimization of pain rather than maximization of pleasure is the measure of value, then shouldn’t the species that is capable of creating medical technology be considered better? And given that measure of value, what do you mean by important? Important to who for what purpose? Surely the absolute minimum of pain is non-existence?

      3. Your answer is incoherent. Should non-human suffering be counted equally, or are animals less important?

      • Hedonic Treader says:


        1. Refusing to accept an assumption is not the same thing as the assumption being false. It is merely a sign of motivated cognition. Secondly, your assertion that “Saying that the uncolonized but painless universe is morally preferable to a colonized universe implies that existence ultimately consists more of suffering than pleasure” is true only if you assume total hedonistic utilitarianism and count pleasure and suffering symmetrically. Obviously this cannot be proven from first principles, like any other moral preference.

        2. While the absolute minimum of pain is indeed non-existence or a completely painless existence, this does not imply it is a practical option. Conversely, that a species with medical technology is better than a species without doesn’t imply that the former won’t create larger quantities than the latter, which is all but certain in the case of space colonization.

        3. My answer is not incoherent. Nun-human suffering should be counted equally (in my opinion), but the average chicken is less important than the average human because the existence and behavior of the average human has more relevant consequences than the existence and behavior of the average chicken (not necessarily good ones).

  9. shagggz says:

    To answer your questions:

    1) No. If all humans were to vanish from the planet in its current state, most life would lead a severely diminished existence, especially once the nuclear reactors start going off. But the deeper point is that without sapient humans to make the judgment, good or bad is a meaningless question: The remaining animals would simply “be.” Ultimately, they would be worse off as Sol engulfs the earth, assuming survival is better than extinction.

    2) Yes. In addition to aforementioned dependence of morality upon us, and your listed reasons, there is also the simulation argument. If one finds it persuasive, then it’s reasonable to infer that the reason for the simulation is something revolving around beings capable of conceptual thought, such as ancestor simulation or novel problem-solving generation. This doesn’t preclude the possibility of subsequent species arising to sapience and taking a crack at the ol’ artilectual nut long after we’ve self-annihilated, but their chances of success would be far lower than ours, and such a scenario is so far out in time as to not merit our consideration.

    3) No, for the reasons listed above. However, our concern should be non-zero, varying by species proportional to the capacity for sentience, if not for the inherent value of reducing suffering then for the positive memetic effect this would have for us and our civilization.

  10. TC says:

    All life on Earth is related, like an extended family. Species have evolved together, at times competing with each other, at times complementing each other, often exchanging dna modifying viruses, eating the same food (or each other), etc… but always shaping each other. Perhaps life is the universe coming to know itself, and we are simply the Terran branch of that project. How damning will it be if we kill off most of our relatives before meeting members of another family project? How will they then judge us?

  1. November 4, 2012

    […] the H+ Magazine site I have a piece that expands on some of the ideas we explored in our recent FastForward Radio […]

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