Wesley J. Smith writes a blog over at National Review Online entitled “Human Exceptionalism.” I highly recommend it. He once featured an article written by Marian Stamp Dawkins, a Professor of Animal Behavior at Oxford and author of Why Animals Matter. Dawkins examined the argument for animal “value” based on the animal’s possession of a property (consciousness). While Dawkins seemed to reject this method of assigning animals value, she did accept a methodology which assigned animals value on the basis of their benefit to humans:
“If you want to try and convince people who are not already convinced that animal welfare matters, you use arguments that touch on, as I said, their self-interest; good for their children’s health, good for their own health, good for the environment. Those are the arguments that are going to carry the weight.”
Wesley correctly recognized animal value is not so much the result of a property possessed by the species we are considering, but is instead the result of a property WE possess as humans:
“But there real issue here is us, not animals. As conscious beings, as moral creatures, as empathetic experiencers, we promote animal welfare–in the context of human thriving and without–simply because we are human. It is part of our hard wiring to be moral beings, particularly once we get the past raw survival stage of existing. Thus, it is our duty to treat them well–not because of what they might want, but who we are.
I suppose in commercial enterprises, demonstrating that is what good for the animals is also good for the producer can promote reform–but what if it isn’t? The animal producers I have met treat their animals well because they know it is the right thing to do, even if it earns them a little less money. And I know some who have sacrificed their own economic welfare substantially in order to do what is right by their animals.”
Even our atheist friends have to admit humans are different than other species of animal. We possess three kinds of “awareness” separating us from other creatures: we possess moral, spiritual and self awareness.
Unlike lower animals, humans DO have the ability to measure difficult and weighty moral issues. We understand the value of sacrifice, even when a noble cause may cost our lives. We, as humans, are able to move beyond survival mechanisms and base desires. We have the capacity to move beyond what “is” toward what “ought to be”. While atheists may simply see this as an advanced state of intelligence, we Christians recognize it as a characteristic of God’s reflected image:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
Forget about whether or not God actually exists for a minute. That’s not really important to this discussion. What IS important is the fact humans are uniquely able to consider their place in the cosmos and find themselves searching for meaning (and the Divine). As Christians, we recognize this is once again the product of our having been created in God’s image:
… since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Finally, as humans, we have a unique self awareness (consciousness) allowing us to see our place in the world and understand our identity. We have the ability to understand the natural and spiritual hierarchy, and we recognize our place within it:
Then Job replied to the LORD: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. [You asked,] ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. [“You said,] ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
As humans, we are exceptional, not because we happen to possess a greater intellect, but because we have been created by a personal God, reflecting His awareness and personhood. With these Divine gifts and attributes, we are uniquely qualified to assign value to every other aspect of creation, even as we steward our environment as its moral caretakers.