Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Human Worth

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology and
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling at the Charlotte campus

Recently, there was a very short (one 2-inch wide column) article in the newspaper reporting that the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) had asked Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Company to stop using cows' milk to make ice cream. They suggested using human milk instead, as this would be more humane for the cows. The Great Ape Project is an organization whose goal is to achieve formal recognition of human rights for the great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans). They have made significant progress toward this goal in some European countries. Another animal rights group has been responsible for bombing laboratories and homes of scientists to protest the use of animals in research and to try (sometimes successfully) to scare the researchers out of their careers (I once heard the definition of a terrorist as someone who is willing to sacrifice your life for their cause). Many people who find themselves sympathetic to the cause (if not the methods) of animal rights advocates also support women's right to choose. How did we get to a place where the same person can so value animal life and simultaneously so devalue human life?
I think that one factor that has contributed to this is the rise of belief in evolution as the cause of life, and of human life in particular. If one believes that chance + time created all life, and that human beings are merely the product of random mutations, evolving from a common ape ancestor, and are very similar genetically, behaviorally, socially, emotionally and cognitively to our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, then human beings are not unique. In fact, if this is the case, then it is very difficult to conclude that human life has any ultimate significance. What makes us different from chimpanzees is less than 2% of our genes. The natural result of this seems to be that we either elevate animals to the level of human value (as in PETA) or devalue human life as nothing more than a bit of primate tissue (as in abortion).
If, on the other hand, we believe that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God by God and have been given dominion over the earth under God's sovereignty, then a very different picture emerges. No animal's life will ever be as valuable as a human life. Human beings are created in the image of God, and no other creature in all of creation is made in his image. On the other hand, all of creation reflects the glory and majesty of God, all of creation shows forth his invisible attributes. Therefore, every creature, every animal has value as being made by God and reflecting something of his character.
In Genesis we read that God gave dominion to the human beings he created. We have been given the animals of this world to both use to our benefit and care for as God's vice regents. Therefore, we may eat animals, use them for research, etc. They will never have the moral standing of a human being; the phrase “animal rights” is a non-sequitur. On the other hand, we are responsible for the care and cultivation of creation. God has given us charge of it, and one day we will stand before the great white throne and account for our stewardship. So, whatever we do with animals, we bear a responsibility from and to God to care for them humanely, minimize suffering and ensure that their lives are valued.

From the vantage point of Creation, we are made uniquely in the image of God, stewards of his creation. No animal will ever have the same moral value or status that we have. From the vantage point of Evolution, there is nothing special about human beings. We are just one variation on the primate theme, evolved through chance + time through blind random processes. From this perspective, both animal rights and women's right to choose make perfect sense. Human worth is very much connected to our understanding of human origins. It really does matter in very practical, urgent ways what we believe about this.

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