A thought experiment:
You are an ecological researcher hiking alone through a particularly remote region of a national park in the Pacific Northwest. It is nearing sunset on your first day of a two-day journey to a rendezvous point where you will be collected by helicopter and transported back to your research station.
You’re making your way along a narrow path bordered on one side by a wall of granite and the other by a fairly sharp drop into a deep ravine. Suddenly, a flash of neon orange catches your eye from far below. It’s the form of a person lying immobile on the ravine floor. Beside the person lies what appears to be a very large dog, perhaps a mastiff of some kind. You call out, but there is no response, no movement from either the person or the dog.
You painstakingly pick your way down into the ravine, and when you reach the side of the two bodies, you observe: (1) both the dog and the young man are breathing but unconscious, (2) the young man has badly broken legs, likely from falling from the path above, and (3) the dog has apparently been mauled by a wild animal, and has lost a lot of blood.
You are a strong, healthy person but you know beyond any doubt that even if you make two trips to drag both the man and the dog out of the ravine, you definitely aren’t capable of pulling their combined weight along with you to the rendezvous point, which is still another day’s hike away. You are faced with an inescapable choice–do you save the young man, or do you save the dog?
Now that you’ve answered that question in your mind (and I assume you chose the young man) my next question for you is: Why was that the correct decision? Obviously, you had to make a value judgment which in turn determined the moral choice. You determined that the human being was more valuable than the canine, so you had a moral duty to choose him over the dog.
BUT, what are you grounding your judgment upon? Objectively speaking, why is the human to be given survival priority in such situations?
According to Christian theism, human beings are different in kind, not just degree, from the rest of the animal kingdom. While we have a large amount of biological similarity to other mammals, we are fundamentally different in that we possess a soul that will persist after our physical bodies die, and we are here for a purpose greater than our own sensory pleasure and the survival of our genes. In other words, Christians fully embrace the philosophy of human exceptionalism.
What, then, is the case for the materialist (defined here as a non-theist who believes that the material world is all there is)? Can he or she give an objective reason for placing a higher value upon the young man? Some might answer that the animal with the higher rationality is more valuable. But what if the materialist somehow knew that the young man was severely mentally handicapped and that the dog was capable of displaying more working intelligence? That wouldn’t change their decision, right? One can imagine all sorts of different reasons that a materialist might give to justify valuing the man above the dog, but any reason they could give runs into similar fatal flaws when the logic is carefully examined.
The fact cannot be avoided: If human beings are a biological accident, if they were not intended by a Creator and endowed with distinctive qualities and eternal purpose, then they have no inherent value to begin with, and any attempt by the materialist to formulate a value hierarchy from insects to animals to humans is based upon arbitrary criteria at best, subjective emotionalism at worst.
Let’s expand that thought to include the entirety of the human race. If we are merely an evolutionary novelty, if we have no Creator-given purpose, then why should humanity as a whole be preserved? If the world’s entire water supply was suddenly tainted with a substance that quickly sterilized all humans and we eventually became extinct, why would it even matter, according to the materialist? Surely another species could simply evolve to take our place at the top of the food chain. Essentially, it would be a neutral event. Furthermore, at the end of the day, ANY event in a God-less, finite universe is completely neutral, of no permanent consequence whatsoever. Concepts such as “love” and “justice” are utterly meaningless, just made-up abstractions.
But, thank God, most materialists don’t live out their philosophy consistently.
Some, however, have taken the idea of humans being equal in value to other animals, even to plants, or the idea that humans are of LESS value than the global ecosystem, to some serious extremes in the name of animal rights or radical environmentalism. To see what I mean, take a look at this new short (and entertaining) film from Wesley J. Smith, The War on Humans.