Stephen Matizen seems to think that we are only justified in attributing special status to human beings if we can identify qualities possessed by all and only human beings. This is how he put it most recently:
Name a morally relevant quality possessed by all and only humans. Rationality? Not all humans have it (Terri Schiavo at the end, an anencephalic baby), and some nonhumans may have it (to put it cautiously; surely some do). Moral agency? Self-consciousness? Same answer. If those are the morally relevant qualities, then they — and not the species membership of their possessor — are what’s morally relevant. It’s not a difficult point.
I think this is false. You don’t need to be able to specify what the qualities are in human beings that make human beings special. I make this claim relative to the background of my Christian beliefs but the same point can be made relative to the background of Steve’s naturalistic beliefs (assuming he would consider himself an adherent to naturalism of some sort).
Consider this illustration.
Rosie is waiting for the elevator, the same elevator she rides thirty times a week. The doors open and a man she hasn’t seen before is standing inside. He smiles in a friendly way at her. She smiles back. But Rosie senses that something is wrong. A chill runs down her spine. Her intuitions scream at her do not get in the elevator. Rosie attempts to reason with those primal intuitions. I’m being irrational she says to herself. There is nothing different about that man from the dozens of other people I see in the elevator every week. But the sense of fear and foreboding continues. She takes a step toward the elevator…
Should Rosie get in the elevator? Not according to Gavin de Becker. In The Gift of Fear he argues that human beings have primal intuitions to sense danger and we ought to heed those intuitions. In this case that would mean hanging back and taking the next elevator. I’m with de Becker. Rosie shouldn’t get in. She should follow her intuitions.
Note that she should follow her intuitions even if there is nothing she can identify in this man that would constitute a threat over any other individual she might encounter in the elevator.
If human beings have basic intutions that enable them to detect danger in this way why not think that they have intuitions to detect moral value as well?