What do you believe makes us human? Cite references from your reading to support your answer.
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One of the fundamental features that distinguishes us as humans appears to be our ability to consider different futures and make informed decisions. Creatures lacking this capacity are incapable of entering into a social contract or accepting moral responsibility. Humans and other mammals have a lot of physical characteristics. We are all made of the same flesh and blood, and we all go through the same basic stages of life. However, cultural taboos have emerged around sex, menstruation, pregnancy, birth, feeding, excrement, urine, blood, disease, and death, all of which are reminders of our shared inheritance with other animals. It’s all a jumble. Even if we try to hide it, there is overwhelming evidence indicating evolutionary continuity between human and animal anatomy. After all, humans can use mammalian organs and tissues to replace our own failing bodily components, such as a pig’s heart valve. Because human and animal bodies are so similar, a large business performs research on animals to evaluate pharmaceuticals and procedures meant for humans. The physical similarity between humans and animals is undeniable. But the mind is a different story.
We were able to harness fire and invent the wheel thanks to our cerebral abilities. We rely on our wits to get through. Even our closest living animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their dwindling woods, while human minds have generated civilizations and technology that have changed the face of the Earth. Although there appears to be a significant difference between human and animal minds, determining the exact nature of this difference has proven to be difficult.
People’s views on animal minds tend to be diametrically opposed to one another. We imbue our pets with all manner of mental traits, treating them as if they were small persons in fuzzy suits, on the one hand. On the other hand, we perceive animals to be mindless bio-machines—see how animals are handled in the food industry. Most people switch back and forth between these readings depending on the situation.
Scientists, too, appear to defend opposing viewpoints at times, ostensibly in order to secure human domination or disprove human conceit. On the one hand, academics boldly assert that language, foresight, mind-reading, intelligence, culture, and morality distinguish humans. Studies, on the other hand, frequently claim to have proven animal abilities previously thought to be exclusive to humans.
You may suspect that the truth is often found somewhere in the middle. In THE GAP, I examine what we now know and don’t know about what distinguishes human minds from those of other animals, as well as how this distinction developed. It’s past time for substantial progress to be made on these fundamental issues. The stakes are nothing less than our understanding of our place in the natural world. Establishing the existence of the gap has crucial practical ramifications, for example, in terms of finding the genetic and neurological origins of higher mental capacities. Those characteristics that are unique to humans are most likely due to differences in our brain and genetics.
Animal welfare can benefit greatly from a better grasp of what we share with which other creatures. Many people’s attitudes about blood sports and animal cruelty have shifted as a result of demonstrations of common characteristics of pain and mental discomfort in animals. Establishing their mental capacities, as well as their wants and requirements, can help us make better scientific conclusions about how to manage diverse species. It may be time to rethink the idea that psychologically complex beings are considered as objects in the same way that cars and iPhones are.
According to comparative studies, our closest animal relatives, the great apes, share certain remarkable abilities with humans, including the capacity to detect their own reflections in mirrors. As a result of these discoveries, calls have been made to welcome great apes into our community of equals, with legally enforceable rights. However, we must consider not just their outstanding capabilities, but also their limitations, because with rights come obligations, such as respect for the rights of others.
Would we be as glad to provide apes the right to life, liberty, and freedom from torture (and so prosecute anyone who murders an ape)? Would we be willing to prosecute an ape for homicide? Frodo, a 27-year-old chimp studied by Jane Goodall, kidnapped and killed Miasa Sadiki, a fourteen-month-old human child, in Tanzania in 2002. I don’t recall any requests for a trial. Should we also enforce ape-ape rights violations? Prosecuting a male orangutan for rape or a chimpanzee for infanticide would seem pointless. People used to believe that animals could be held accountable in the same way that humans could. Animals were frequently tried for immoral activities such as murder or theft during the European Middle Ages. They were granted lawyers and punishments that were similar to those meted out to humans for similar offenses. For example, a court in Falaise, France, tried and condemned a sow for the murder of a child in 1386. The pig was then hanged in the public plaza by the hangman. Her piglets had also been prosecuted, but because to their youth, they were acquitted after deliberation.
However, once we are aware of the harm we do, we may feel compelled to modify our behaviors. As a result, be aware that all ape species are endangered as a result of human activity. We are the only species on the planet that has the vision to set a course toward a desirable long-term future. Because the apes can’t, plan it for them.
Corradetti, C. (2021). What Makes Us Human? Evolution, Intentionality and Moral Progress. Jus Cogens, 3(1), 1-10.
Litowitz, B. E. (2021). Learning from Dr. Frankenstein What Makes Us Human. In The Annual of Psychoanalysis (pp. 111-124). Routledge.