Human 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.
Man’s 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 these special 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 “Humanity and Pets Partnered Through the Years Act” (the “HAPPY Act”), 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 come in vogue. This equates it with that relationship which has been traditionally used to connote 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” program, family 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, 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 that 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. It’s a doggone shame!