Perhaps the most amazing feature of reality we have encountered so far is ourselves. We are perplexing, too, for what else in nature reflects on itself, criticizes and commends, blames and praises its own kind, does good and evil and the whole gamut in-between, creates and destroys to unheard-of degrees, and then debates endlessly whether all of this is just routine or something rather extraordinary, even supernatural?
Of course, along with it all goes our worry that we may be too full of ourselves, too prideful, and thus not really deserving of our unique potential. Novels, poems, plays, and philosophical treatises wag fingers at us because we are not humble enough. They warn that we risk hell and damnation for being, well, human. We are certainly an unusual species; nothing else in nature, however amazing and beautiful and dangerous it might be, is quite like us.
Yet one of the most tempting features of the intellectual life many of us have chosen as our line of work is the opportunity to hammer home the point that we are really nothing special at all. Speciesism is what environmentalists call human pride, but other names have been used to denounce it: the arrogance of humanism, vanity . . . or, yes, original sin. Somehow, as far as quite a few folks are concerned, human uniqueness is not supposed to be a source of joy but of lament. But of course, that too is quint-essentially human: to turn on ourselves for being what and who we are. The arts are replete with examples of such grand self-denigration. In philosophy too, as well as such nearby disciplines as evolutionary biology, psychology, and sociology, it is notorious how much gloom and doom gets published by the most prestigious houses, decrying what we are, warning us of the high price we will pay for it all. Much of this occurs precisely by way of denying that there is anything unique about us at all. As if Darwin’s message could be so simplified, and as if his achievements didn’t serve to undermine this interpretation of his message.
One of those human attributes that is constantly belittled (or out-and-out denied) is free will. This is our capacity to produce original actions, to think something up on our own and do it, for woe or weal. While nearly everything else we know about in the living world is guided in its behavior by what is referred to as the hardwiring of a system of instincts or drives, human beings not only can but should engage in self-governance, self-direction. Even while denying this, those doing the denying exhibit the trait in several ways: They direct themselves rather diligently and competently toward the end of demonstrating that we are not really free to do and be as we choose but that our conscious will is, as one author has it in the title of his book, an illusion; they criticize others for failing to understanding the world as they should, something that assumes that others have a choice about how to understand the world; they implore others to change their minds, another imperative that would make no sense without our capacity to do things on our own, to be in charge of what we think and do.
In one of these near-philosophic disciplines, environmental ethics, we are bombarded with messages about how badly we behave toward other animals, toward the wilds or nature or Gaia — in other words, that the human power to destroy nature is unique — yet at the same time we are told there is nothing special about us, that we are no different from a toad or a spotted owl. How odd — who has ever chided any of these creatures to behave better toward other members of the living world? No one, and for good reason: nothing apart from the human species has a moral nature, with the requisite freedom of the will to be responsible for its conduct! Yet, we are told, there’s nothing special about that at all. Go figure.
But of course, this too is par for the course. The sheer variety of ways to attack our humanity, be that from the pens of behaviorists, sociobiologists, political economists, or animal rights advocates, constitutes but more evidence, albeit not the prettiest, of just how extraordinary we human beings are. Even in our capacity to demean ourselves, we are without equal on the face of the Earth.
For this we pay a price, by having responsibilities, by having to defend to those among us who deny it our very right to exist and to live in the varieties of ways human beings are wont to live, by having to figure out which principles are helpful to our kind of living and which are misguided.
But, all in all, I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way: being human is just the ticket, costs and benefits, the whole shebang.
Tibor R. Machan teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. He is the author of Initiative—Human Agency and Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000).