Monday, May 10, 2010

Cfp: "Humans and Other Animals: Challenging the Boundaries of Humanity," University of Manchester, June 11-12, 2010.

Hosted by Institute for Science, Ethics & Innovation, Manchester and Institute of Philosophy, University of 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? Further information may be here: http://www.isei.manchester.ac.uk/research/conferences/humansandotheranimals/conferenceoutline/.

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