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Is Dehumanization Always & Intrinsically Unjust?

Feb 23, 2017 / By: Michael Spielman
Category: Abortion Arguments

David Livingstone Smith is a philosophy professor who has written the book on dehumanization. It's called, Less Than Human, and is billed as the "first book to illuminate precisely how and why we sometimes think of others as subhuman creatures."

"To talk meaningfully about dehumanization," Smith says, "we need to pin it down." To that end, he defines dehumanization as "conceiving of people as subhuman creatures rather than as human beings." This "psychological lubricant," as he describes it, "dissolv[es] our inhibitions and inflam[es] our destructive passions ... empower[ing] us to perform acts that would, under other circumstances, be unthinkable."

Simply put, dehumanization "paves the way for atrocity." Though Smith focuses primarily on the dehumanization of Jews, sub-Saharan Africans, and Native Americans, he also looks at more subtle examples of dehumanization in popular culture and the press. In his view, "We are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are all potential objects of dehumanization."

Upon finishing his book, I was struck by a significant realization. Less Than Human doesn't provide a single example of dehumanization ever being used appropriately. In other words, every act of dehumanization on record is historically condemnable. That left me with a hypothesis that I was eager to vet with the author. Here is a portion of the email I sent to Professor Smith:

Socially speaking, have you ever encountered a scenario in which you found "subhuman" to be a legitimate classification? Your book is saturated with examples of human beings who have been erroneously categorized as "less than human," for all sorts of despotic ends. But did you ever come across a case of dehumanization that you found to be morally defensible? If not, would it be fair to say that any effort to dehumanize a group of human beings is always and intrinsically unjust?

Professor Smith never responded to my query. As a professional academic, I suspect that he supports abortion rights. Perhaps he saw where my conclusion was leading and didn't want to paint himself into a corner. Or perhaps he was simply too busy to respond. I certainly have been guilty of that myself.

Either way, it is no exaggeration to say that abortion is ground zero in the contemporary intersect between public policy and dehumanization. Can you think of any other institution that is propped up on the explicit dehumanization of its victims? Though racism remains a massive global problem, nobody argues in public that immigrants, refugees, or ethnic minorities are less than fully human—and yet this is exactly the argument that's being made in the context of abortion.

Smith writes that "today, every educated person knows that we are all Homo sapiens—members of a single species—and that the biological differences between one human group and another are trivial at most." Nevertheless, "the dehumanizing impulse operates at the gut level, and easily overrides merely intellectual convictions." In every other context, this dehumanizing impulse has been driven underground where it hides in the shadows of our subconscious. It is only with regard to abortion that the attempt to dehumanize becomes bald-faced and unapologetic.

But despite occupying such a prominent place in the contemporary canon of dehumanization, abortion is only mentioned one time in Less Than Human—in the following passage:

Is swatting a mosquito cruel? How about stepping on a cockroach or skewering a writhing worm on a fishhook? Plunging a living lobster into boiling water, or gutting a trout for dinner? Killing a chicken? Slaughtering a lamb? Performing an abortion? Executing a criminal?  There’s no fact of the matter about exactly where in this sequence damage gives way to harm, and destruction becomes cruelty, but the principle governing such judgments is both clear and embarrassingly narcissistic: the closer we judge a creature is to us on the hierarchy, the more inclined we are to grant it moral standing.

There are two things to note here. First, David Livingstone Smith is a materialist. He struggles to clearly define "human" because he believes that Homo sapiens share a common ancestor with all other primates. This makes it hard for him to ethically distinguish between killing a person and killing an animal. Second, Smith places abortion somewhere on the moral scale between slaughtering a lamb and executing a criminal. I'm tempted to accuse him of dehumanizing unborn human beings, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. His point is this: the closer a creature resembles us, both in appearance and situation, the more likely we are to grant it rights of personhood. He calls this "embarrassingly narcissistic."

In trying to pin down what it is that makes a creature "uniquely human," Smith notes that utilitarian definitions—such as those used by abortion proponents—simply don't work. To demonstrate, he points us to newborn babies:

We all accept that babies are human beings. But on [the utilitarian] analysis this is puzzling, because babies lack the uniquely human characteristics that [utilitarians] list. Neonates can't speak or engage in higher order thought, their emotions are at best extremely crude, and they are not industrious, imaginative, or cultured. If we consider babies to be human even though they lack the traits dubbed “uniquely human," then it simply can't be true that anyone without these characteristics is viewed as subhuman.

Continuing on the same theme, he writes: 

Thanks to our essentialistic proclivities, the idea that every human being is endowed with a human essence, an inner core (a soul, spirit, or distinctive genetic signature) is intuitively compelling. If you share this intuition, as most people seem to, then you will be open to the idea that someone can be human even though they don't look human (think of John Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” whose physical deformities were so extreme that he looked like a creature belonging to a different species, even though he was a human being). 

Smith notes that both Aristotle and Augustine warned that when it comes to the classification of beings, looks can be deceiving. Nevertheless, their conclusions are diametrically opposed to each other and illustrate the differences in their underlying world views. In the author's words, "Aristotle urged that a being that is indistinguishable from a fully fledged human being may yet be less than fully human, whereas Augustine proposed that peculiarities of appearance have no bearing on one’s humanity."

One view provides a moral basis for exclusivism; the other offers a framework for a more inclusive society. One view says that just because someone looks human doesn't mean they are human; the other says that being human is not the same as looking human. Ironically, it is Augustine, one of the most influential Christian thinkers of all time, who offers the more inclusive view. I call that ironic since Christianity is so often stereotyped as narrow and bigoted. By contrast, it is the secular philosopher who morally defends dehumanization.

With so much cultural momentum pushing us towards tolerance and inclusiveness—at least in theory—one might wonder why our dehumanizing bent has not been eradicated altogether. This is the rationale Smith provides:

People readily indulge in horrendous acts if they don’t believe that what they're doing is cruel. There are a couple of ways that this can happen. Some people lack a moral sense... These people are rare. Much more often, people are able to engage in spectacularly cruel actions because they've selectively decommissioned their moral inhibitions. This is where dehumanization enters the picture... Dehumanization is a response to conflicting motives. It occurs in situations where we want to harm a group of people, but are restrained by inhibitions against harming them. Dehumanization is a way of subverting those inhibitions... Slave owners and merchants had a vested interest in the subhuman status of Africans, for if Africans were lower animals, then it was right and proper to treat them as such.

Dehumanization is always horrifically pragmatic; it is always driven by the desire to justify something that would otherwise be condemnable. Kidnapping and enslaving somebody is a monstrous evil, unless you convince yourself that the person being enslaved is something less than a human being. The same goes for gas chambers and abortion clinics.

"Although he never discussed dehumanization as such," Smith tells us, "(Immanuel) Kant recognized that people are prone to regard one another only as means. When we do this, we place others in the same category as subhuman creatures and thereby exclude them from the universe of moral obligation." Once that happens, it becomes morally permissible to "deal and dispose" of them as we see fit.

Having now read Less Than Human, I am more convinced than ever that any and every attempt at dehumanization is intrinsically unjust. Any time we hear the argument that certain human beings do not deserve full rights of personhood, the weight of history should immediately fall upon it. Tragically, much of academia and much of the world appears to believe that abortion is the only exception to this otherwise hard-and-fast rule. In an effort to eliminate the inconvenience of an unwanted pregnancy, abortion has become the only instance in the modern western world where it is morally legitimate to classify a demonstrably human being as less than human. This should not be so.

Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.

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