The Human Exceptionalist

An Interview with Wesley J. Smith

These are uncertain times. The new presidential administration appears eager to open the floodgates on scientific attitudes, practices, and procedures that endanger human life, but what does the future really hold for those of us who treasure humanity and fear its devaluation?

Who better to ask than Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. Smith is also a self-identified “human exceptionalist,” and he explains here why we would do well to join him in this regard.

What is “human exceptionalism,” and how does it relate to bioethics?

It’s a term that I may have coined, and it refers to the sheer moral importance of believing in the unique value of human beings. We seem to be entering an era in which humanity is viewed as irrelevant by many very powerful political and cultural forces. Does human life have intrinsic moral value simply and merely because it is human life? Our answer to this question will tell us all we need to know about what sort of society we’ll be looking at in the next couple of years. If the answer is “yes,” then we can create a bioethics that stands for the sanctity and equality of all human life. If the answer is “no,” then we need to ask an additional question: What is the attribute that confers moral value?

How are people answering this second question?

Well, Princeton professor Peter Singer, who is the world’s foremost proponent of infanticide, insists that what actually matters is having sufficient cognitive capacity or being self-aware over time—that sort of thing. Thus, fetuses and embryos are not people, nor are newborn infants. People such as Terri Schiavo, who have lost these capacities, are also deemed nonpersons. You can now find advocacy in the literature of bioethics to either remove the right to life from so-called nonpersons or use them as natural resources—for organ harvesting or in experimentation. Once you accept the premise that being human is not what gives you value, then you’ve thrown universal human rights out the window. If you do not accept the concept of human exceptionalism—the innate value of human life—then you are letting those in power decide who has value. Might is making right.

What are the motives that underlie the challenges to human exceptionalism?

I think what we’re experiencing is a coup d’culture in which the Judeo-Christian and humanistic belief in the central importance of human life and human thriving is being supplanted by a post-Christian, even anti-Christian moral philosophy based on utilitarianism. There’s also a lot of hedonism in this philosophy—not just sensuality, but the idea that there can be no moralizing about personal behavior, that we have the right to scratch every itch and indulge every impulse.

The other component here is radical environmentalism, where humanism has morphed into anti-humanism. Here, human beings are the problem; we are a vermin species on the living planet Gaia, which means that we need to reduce the human population to under a billion—a move that would require very drastic and draconian actions. So this coup d’culture is something that must be resisted. Most people aren’t even aware that it’s happening, and this is why I find myself expanding my thinking, writing, and lecturing beyond bioethical issues toward this broader matter of standing up for human exceptionalism—for the importance of being human.

Where does President Barack Obama stand on these bioethical issues?

Certainly on the abortion issue, Obama is one of the most radical anti-pro-life (if I can use that term) presidents we’ve ever had, at least based on his voting record in Illinois and his presidential actions thus far. He has already rescinded the Mexico City Policy so that American public funding will now be used to promote abortion overseas. He has also said that he will sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which will infringe on our democratic right to have limitations or regulations on abortion. His agenda seems to be to eliminate any democratic discussion of the issue of abortion.

I’m not sure where Obama stands on assisted suicide. He was asked about this once when he was visiting Oregon, and he said that he was against assisted suicide, but that it was also between doctors and their patients. I definitely don’t think that he will make any effort to use federal law to inhibit the legalization of assisted suicide.

As far as cloning and embryonic stem-cell research go, I think that this administration and Congress will legalize human cloning for research. And I believe that, even though there is a lot of discussion right now about universal human rights and so forth, the people in political control will go along with this idea of utilitarianism. These are very dark days that we are entering, which means that people must not only stand up for what is right in the public square, but when things become legal, they must continue to do what is right, regardless of its legality.

Can you address some of the challenges to human exceptionalism that are occurring outside the United States—such as the Great Ape Project and granting rights to nature?

The Great Ape Project was started by Peter Singer in 1993 and seeks to create a “moral community of equals” among human beings, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonoboos. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but Spain is on the verge of legalizing the Great Ape Project. It will reduce humanity from a unique species to just another one of the great apes. Singer argues that this will break the species barrier and remind us that we are merely another animal in the forest. Meanwhile, Switzerland is protecting the “intrinsic value” of plants, insisting that if a farmer intentionally “decapitates” a wildflower, he has committed a moral wrong.

Darwinists and other materialists contend that no species distinctions are legitimate because we all share the same genes and evolved out of the same primordial ooze. Well, if they really wanted to be reductionist, they could also say that, because carrots are made out of carbon molecules, there is no distinction between carrots and humans either. Come to think of it, this is actually what Switzerland is saying by declaring that there is an intrinsic value to plants. You can’t get far enough ahead of these guys in terms of satire; they will always catch up with you.

Oh, and Ecuador just passed a constitution that confers rights on nature, making it coequal with humans. Such radical environmentalism is part of the anti-humanism that is on the rise throughout the world. •

—This is an excerpt from a much longer interview. To hear an unedited version, please visit

From Salvo 9 (Summer 2009)
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This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #9, Summer 2009 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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