Uprooting the Doctrine of Human Dignity
Stewart-Williams (Steve)
Source: Stewart-Williams (Steve) - Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life, Chapter 13
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Chapter Abstract1

  1. This is another candidate for my favourite chapter of the book. In it, we'll survey the implications of evolutionary theory for a series of topics in applied ethics, including suicide, euthanasia, and the proper treatment of non-human animals.
  2. The thread knitting the chapter together is an important trend in moral thinking known as the doctrine of human dignity. This refers to the view that human life is infinitely valuable, whereas the lives of non-human animals have little value or even none at all.
  3. We'll see that the universal acid of Darwinism dissolves this ancient dogma, and that this in turn leads us to some unsettling conclusions. It suggests, for example, that the notion that human life is supremely valuable is a mere superstition; that there may be circumstances in which it is morally acceptable to take an innocent life; and that there may be circumstances in which it is completely immoral and unethical to keep a person alive.
  4. The demise of the doctrine of human dignity also has important implications regarding the treatment of non-human animals. Our species has a long track record of treating other animals poorly; some even liken our treatment of the animals to the Nazi Holocaust. While we've struggled over recent centuries with moral issues such as slavery and the rights of women, few have thought to question the morality of the way we treat members of other species. Recently, however, awareness of the issue has grown, and there is now even a word for discrimination on the basis of species membership: speciesism.
  5. In Chapter 13, we'll see that a Darwinian perspective supports the view that speciesism is just as morally objectionable as other forms of discrimination, such as sexism and racism – after all, a universe with less suffering is better than one with more, and, with the doctrine of human dignity safely out of the picture, it makes no moral difference whether the suffering individual is a human being or some other creature2.
  6. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer has gone as far as to argue that the animal liberation movement is the single most important liberation movement in the world today, more important even than the social movements combating sexism and racism. He has also argued that in certain circumstances, the life of a chimpanzee or a pig may be worth more than the life of a human.
  7. A moral system anchored in evolutionary theory is entirely consistent with Singer's views. I suspect that some readers will see this as a radical and unreasonable position, and dismiss it out of hand. It would be interesting to know what they'll think by the time they get to the end of Chapter 13.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Taken from Chapter 1 ("Stewart-Williams (Steve) - Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: Darwin and the Big Questions").

Footnote 2: Maybe, provided we correctly count the hedons – ie. (maybe) human beings suffer more than other animals.

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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