What makes you so special?


What makes human beings so special? What gives us value? When we assert that it is worse to kill a human than to kill a dolphin, are we guilty of racism, or more precisely, of speciesism? On what rational ground can we assert that Homo sapiens should be considered more valuable than any other animal?

In a debate between Yale professor Shelly Kagan (left) and Christian philosopher William Lane Craig (right), Kagan attempted an answer:

Kagan argues that we do not need God to tell us that humans beings are valuable; this truth is self-evident when we consider what marvelous creatures human beings clearly are. However, while I admire Kagan’s attempt to defend human value as an objective reality, I believe that his argument ultimately fails to establish a sufficient basis for human rights.

Consider, for example, the following question: is it worse to kill an ant or a dog? Even assuming that both animals are killed painlessly, I think most people would agree that it is far worse to kill a dog. Why? Because a dog is obviously much more valuable than an ant. How do we know? Well, a dog can do so many things that an ant cannot do. Perhaps most significantly, a dog can form a deep relational bond with a human.

However, this argument does nothing to show that all dogs have the same value. Is it worse to shoot a mangy stray or an expensive purebred? Is it worse to shoot a mangy stray or a highly trained guide dog? Is it worse to shoot a mangy stray or a family pet? One might assert on mere sentiment that all dogs are equal, but this certainly does not follow from the argument given in the previous paragraph. If the value of a dog is a function of the dog’s mental and physical capacities, then all dogs are not equal.

Therefore, my question for Dr. Kagan is this: does a young woman with Down syndrome have as much objective value as, say, an Ivy League professor?

Dr. Kagan seems like a decent fellow, and I presume that he would answer, “Yes!” Even though such a person could not do calculus, poetry, or astrophysics, I believe that Dr. Kagan would affirm her full worth as a human being. In fact, I would not be surprised if he considers all human beings equal in value, regardless of their race, age, gender, sexuality, and mental or physical capacities.

But why?

This question is at the heart of the pro-life debate. If the value of a human being is determined by functionality, then it would be hard to argue that a fetus is worth as much as a toddler. Of course, on this logic, it would be just as hard or even harder to argue that a toddler is worth as much as an adult! What then is the basis for human value? What makes us special?

Here is the only answer which I find satisfactory: all human beings have value because every single human being — young or old, sick or healthy, smart or stupid, beautiful or ugly — is the object of God’s infinite and unconditional love.

Now do not misunderstand me. I am not arguing that atheists and agnostics have no place in the pro-life movement. Anyone who has the moral sensibilities to recognize the evil in dismembering a child is welcome. However, if our arguments are going to be based on more than sentiment, we need to wrestle seriously with that one central question facing all human rights advocates: what makes you so special?

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