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Horse Sense

The debate in Washington state about bestiality is actually a fight over human exceptionalism.

12:00 AM, Aug 31, 2005 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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IT ISN'T JUST PETER SINGER. There is apparently a deep and growing yearning across an alarmingly wide swath of public advocacy to destroy the wall of moral distinction that separates animals and humans. In the bioethics movement, for example, to assert that humans have special value is denigrated as "speciesism," that is, discrimination against animals. This concept is taught in most of our major colleges and universities.

Similarly, the animal liberation movement claims that it is the ability to feel pain, rather than humanhood, which bestows equal moral value. "We are all animals," a PETA advocacy slogan asserts, by which they are not merely stating a biological fact but espousing an explicit moral equality between man and beasts. Thus, since both cows and humans can feel pain, PETA claims cattle ranching to be as evil as human slavery. The London Zoo has actually put a herd of humans on display to "demonstrate the basic nature of man as an animal and examine the impact that Homo sapiens have on the rest of the animal kingdom."

We even see this theme popping up in the ongoing controversy over high school science curricula. Thus, Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the New York Times editorial board, savaged critics of materialistic Darwinism in part on philosophical grounds, because (he believes) they seek "to preserve the myth that there is a separate, divine creation for humans," that separates us from animals. "But there is a destructive hubris, a fearful arrogance to this myth," Klinkenborg writes. "It sets us apart from nature, except to dominate it. It misses both the grace and moral depth of knowing that humans have only the same stake, the same right, in the Earth as every other creature that has ever lived here."

MOST PEOPLE take human exceptionalism for granted. They can no longer afford to do so. The great philosophical question of the 21st Century is going to be whether we will knock humans off the pedestal of moral exceptionalism and instead define ourselves as just another animal in the forest. The stakes of the coming debate couldn't be more important: It is our exalted moral status that both bestows special rights upon us and imposes unique and solemn moral responsibilities--including the human duty not to abuse animals.

Nothing would more graphically demonstrate our unexceptionalism than countenancing human/animal sex. Thus, when Roach's legislation passes, the law's preamble should explicitly state that one of the reasons bestiality is condemned through law is that such degrading conduct unacceptably subverts standards of basic human dignity and is an affront to humankind's inestimable importance and intrinsic moral worth.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.