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Humans and Other Animals: Challenging the Boundaries of Humanity

Hands on a plasma globe

11 - 12 June 2010
Institute of Philosophy, London

Theme

This conference will seek to examine and challenge the boundaries so often drawn in philosophy, as elsewhere, between humans and other animals. It will draw on philosophical, legal and scientific perspectives in order to question the legitimacy and utility of such distinctions and thereby to explore the moral and philosophical meanings of humanity and being human.

Background

A century and half ago, Darwin’s theory of evolution challenged the notion of absolute species boundaries, showing that humans were related to animals rather than created unique amongst living creatures and putting us on a continuum with other animals and indeed all life on earth. We now accept that that there are many ways in which human and animal are both genetically and behaviourally similar. While there are ways in which we are different, according to Darwinian theory these are not differences in kind, but in degree. Nevertheless, the notion that we are somehow ‘special’, separated from other animals because of our species, purely in virtue of being human, has persisted.

Several commentators writing on animal rights and interests have suggested that to deny animals equal moral consideration on the basis of their inherent capacities rather than as a function of species membership is morally unsound. Despite this, the notion of humanness as something qualitatively distinct in moral terms, the existence of the human “Factor X”, continues to retain philosophical credibility in many discussions. We talk of “human nature” as an essential quality of morally significant beings – that is, ourselves; “human rights” as something to which we, as morally significant beings, are entitled; “humanity” as a morally significant quantity. This focus on humanness as an indicator of moral status draws an implicit line: entities which are human are different, morally speaking, to entities which are not.

Of chimeras and chimpanzees: re-questioning the (moral) meaning of ‘human’

Today, contemporary research across a range of scientific disciplines serves to blur the boundaries between human and non-human animals even further than Darwin’s discoveries did. Xenotransplantation, animals with human transgenes or engrafted with human tissues and cytoplasmic hybrid embryos all involve a mixture of human and animal biological components, leading to questions about how (and more importantly why) we should attempt to classify such creatures – as human or animal, or something else? Research in cognitive ethology reveals that animals may possess mental and psychological capacities such as self-awareness and complex reasoning ability, previously ascribed only to humans and often used to justify the moral line drawn between ourselves and other animals. Finally, studies of primate behaviour demonstrate that morality itself may have an evolutionary basis, challenging the view that moral agency and moral reasoning are the sole purview of humans.

All of these serve to erode whatever sharp distinctions we might still think to draw between humans and other animal species. Genetically, biologically, as moral subjects and even as moral agents, humans are a species of animal. What implications might this have for philosophical considerations of human nature, for the use of ‘human’ as a qualifier or distinguishing feature in moral, legal and social contexts, and for how we view ourselves, other creatures that exist now and creatures that might one day exist?

Thematic outline of sessions

The conference will span two days and will consist of thematic sessions aimed at exploring the following questions.

Taking the ‘human’ out of human rights: animals and moral status

  • How do and how should we set the boundaries of moral status?
  • If humans are a species of animal and some non-human animals may have capacities similar to humans, should we accord them equal moral status? Is there anything else that can justify the drawing of arbitrary moral distinctions, and is there still room, in applied philosophy, for the search for Factor X? Some non-human animals may have greater moral status than some humans – what would the consequences of this position be?
  • What implications do these approaches to moral status have for philosophical considerations of ourselves and our relationships to other entities, human and non-human?
  • What duties do we owe to non-human animals – and how does this impact on considerations of what duties we owe to other humans? What are the implications for policy and regulation of a moral theory that might accord greater status to animals?
  • Human animals: An exploration of humans as animals and humans as distinct from other animals. How has this been reflected in the development of perceptions of humans as separate in society and culture?

Species boundaries

  • Are species boundaries specious boundaries? Is the crossing of species boundaries (for example in the creation of human-animal mixtures) morally significant in any way?
  • What implications does this have for meta-ethical and epistemic conceptions of humanness and humanity?

Moral animals

  • If non-human animals are also capable of moral reasoning and moral behaviour is a product of evolution, how does this inform philosophical discourse about the nature of morality?
  • Is it coherent, therefore, to speak of human or animal actions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and by what standards and in relation to what sort of entities do we define these concepts?

Animal, human – or beyond human?

  • What makes us ‘human’ and why does it matter? What can we learn about this from considerations of non-human animals and possible human-animal mixtures?
  • What is ‘human’ about human nature? What would it take for us to cease being human, and what would this mean?
  • What implications does this have for how we regard human-modifying and/or interspecies technologies?

Further Information

For further information please contact the conference organisers (Muireann Quigley & Sarah Chan) at the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation (email: isei@manchester.ac.uk).