Human Dignity Still Higher Than Animals

shutterstock_116380792Human Exceptionalism, the belief that humans hold a unique status in the order of creation, has been the cornerstone of Western civilization.

This understanding of human life is attested to in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. And, as some rabbis contend, after it, the rest of scripture is merely dicta.

Science divides being into three categories, mineral, vegetable, and animal. At the top of the list in the last category is man.  He is described as a rational animal.  This makes humans unique and different from the brutes.

Mans’ special status was once strongly embedded in our culture.  Our laws have been carefully crafted to reflect it.  The Enlightenment enshrined this understanding in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1793). So too did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Both were based on the natural law.

In our present age it has been recognized that careful treatment of our planet is necessary because a good environment is beneficial to man.  The humane treatment of animals has also gained heightened scrutiny because we realize that their ethical treatment enhances our humanity.

Sensitivity toward lower forms of life, however, was never meant to accord it equal status with people.  But, a subtle and gradual manipulation of language has led to a leveling of our perception of man and beast.

The higher status language now accords to dogs serves us well as a case in point.

In the past the term adoption had a unique meaning.  It clearly meant that a human being, not related by blood or marriage, was being brought into a family and given equal status with its members. Today it is not unusual to speak of adopting a dog.

Political correctness has had in many ways a positive effect in reminding us that all humans share equal dignity and concomitant rights.  This has been achieved by policing language that may have negative connotations regarding a person’s physical or mental condition. The present appellation of special needs’ to those persons with such issues confirms their equal status among their fellow humans.  Because of this heightened sensitivity accommodations mandated by law,  sometimes at great expense to society, have been generated to guarantee handicapped persons the right to fulfill their personal capacities.  Respect for thesespecial needs people is in fact showing respect for our entire species.

To apply the term special needs to dogs with physical and behavioral problems has become common. It implies that these animals like humans have a right to a fulfilled life.  This is not far-fetched.  A few years ago some members of Congress proposed The Happy Act (Humanity and Pets Partnered Through the Years), which would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow a $3,500 tax break for pet care expenses. If this line of thinking continues, might dogs too someday qualify for ObamaCare?

Once upon a time, people spoke of buying a dog or getting a dog.  When the animal was brought home the owner/master began the process of training it.  Today the term parenting a dog has become in vogue. This equates it with that relationship which has been traditionally used to cannote the sacred bond of love and responsibility reserved for a parent to a child.  When we begin to think of our relationship to a dog and a child in the same way our status suffers.

Quite logically then, in light of the above, the death of a dog should engender the same sense of loss as that of a beloved human being.  Mourning rituals have now been created to facilitate this.   Recently, a funeral home, in Florida, announced that it has expanded its services to include pets.  In its Pet Passages Programfamily and friends are now able to spend time in a vigil chamber where large lit candles are arrayed around a doggie bed.  In one case it was reported that forty people came to a wake to pay last respects to a dog and extend condolences to the family. Of course, in the parlor next door may lay the remains of your mother or father.

What does this do to human exceptionalism?

This incremental equalization of man and dog has up to the present been unreflective on the part of most people.  However, there are now attempts on the part of a group of neuro-scientists to prove that “dogs are people, too”!  This belief, according to the New York Times, (10-6-2013) is based on MRI scans which these scientists claim have detected similarities between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region, the caudate nucleus.  They contend that this shows that “dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.” This agenda driven science is now being used to provide hard data which in effect deny human exceptionalism!

To think of a dog as equivalent to a human being lends itself to assume the reverse – thinking of human beings as dogs.

This type of thinking has devastating implications.  It gives permission for treating humans the same way we do animals.

Not too long ago a syndicated columnist wrote of the very peaceful death of her dog that had to be euthanized. She wondered why humans could not be dispatched in the same way when they were terminally ill or suffering. My reprise to her query was, because we’re not dogs.  But with today’s camouflaged use of language many people do not recognize the difference.

This equalization of human and animal also gives license to breeding humans for specific traits, much like pedigree dogs.  This could be, and in some cases already is taking place in fertility clinics.  Needless to say, so too are selective abortions for those less than perfect specimens of humans.

Furthermore, on a subconscious level it also begs the question about genocide.  After all, the Nazis based their elimination of non-Aryans on the premise that they were less than human. If all humans are not special, couldn’t certain types of people be eliminated?

And, lastly, it is a common practice to sterilize pets to prevent them from reproducing.  We already went through an episode of this in the United States in the early part of the previous century. The Buck v Bell(1927) case stands out when the Supreme Court held that intellectually disabled persons could be “sterilized for the protection and health of the state”.  Could this immoral holding make a comeback under the present confusion?

These are but a few of the possible dangers that threaten human dignity and human rights when persons and animals are put on par.

We must be careful how we use words. They affect the way we think.  And, the way we think effects our science, of course and how we act.



Chaplain and Research Fellow at Ave Maria Law. Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976 and has a broad background in teaching and educational administration. Fr. Orsi has authored or co-authored four books and over 300 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He has served as Assistant Chancellor, Assistant Vicar for Pastoral Services, Director of Family Life Bureau, and Coordinator of Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Jersey for the Diocese of Camden. He has also served as a member of The Institute for Genomic Research at the University of Pennsylvania and as a member of New Jersey’s Advisory Council on AIDS. Fr. Orsi holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. In 2005 Fr. Orsi was appointed as a Senior Research Associate to the Linacre Center for Bioethics, London, England. Fr. Orsi co-hosts a weekly radio program The Advocate which discusses law and culture on WDEO-AM 990, WMAX-AM 1440 in metro Detroit and WDEO-FM 98.5 in southwest Florida [also linked at].

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