Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2018

Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2018

The Briefing

April 25, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Wednesday, April 25, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A monkey’s day in court: What happens when a secular society loses the ability to ground human dignity in anything objective

In a time when worldviews are very clearly in collision and even more importantly in a time when one worldview is replacing another as the default in a society, in the midst of that collision, confusion is inevitable. Today, on The Briefing we are going to look at several examples, very recent examples, of this kind of confusion and we’re going to seek to understand what is even underneath that confusion.

The first example takes us on Monday to the state of California where a three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals found that a macaque monkey does not have the right to have standing in court nor to sue over a photograph with charges of copyright infringement. Remember here, we’re talking about a monkey.

Meagan Flynn for The Washington Post yesterday reported, “Naruto, the macaque who lived on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, became famous in 2011 when he picked up an unattended camera and started snapping selfies, peering into the camera with a wide, big-toothed grin.” As Flynn goes on to report, “The selfie also managed to spark a three-year legal struggle over whether monkeys can legally own the copyright to photographs. The monkey,” says The Washington Post, “of course, did not start the fight.”

Now, before we go further in the article, there is enough here for our consideration. First of all, you have a court that actually took a case asking whether a monkey can have the right for standing in court to sue over copyright infringement and a photograph. Close under the surface of this particular headline is the reality that a secular society is losing the ability to ground human dignity in anything objective and therefore in a subjective attempt to try to define human dignity is finding itself unable to say why humans possess this dignity and not other creatures, especially creative and sentient creatures such as macaque monkeys.

One clue to what’s missing in the article is actually in the first sentence of the second paragraph where I read again, “The monkey, of course, did not start the fight,” which is to say that even though the monkey evidently had the ability, and for that matter, the joy of taking selfies on a camera, the monkey did not have the ability to go to court and file suit against the photographer. That took human agents, and by the way, you will not be surprised to know that those human agents represented PETA, that’s P-E-T-A, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They entered the case. They filed the lawsuit on behalf of the macaque and later they identified in the filings for the lawsuit as being the monkey’s next friend. Now, as The Post explains, that’s a legal status reserved for someone who acts in court on behalf of another who is unable to do so usually because of a disability. In this case, the only disability that is experienced by Naruto is the fact that he is a macaque monkey and not a human being.

In the report yesterday, The Washington Post evidently understood that it needed to get to the point rather quickly and it did so in the fourth paragraph where we read, “The answer, just to relieve any suspense, was no, monkeys can’t own copyrights or bring copyright infringement suits,” this according to the unanimous decision by the three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit was in this action upholding a previous decision by a lower court, a decision that was appealed by PETA on behalf of the monkey.

There is a great deal of confusion reflected in this headline news article, but there is also an amazing amount of clarity for which we can be thankful, clarity in that this was a unanimous decision by three-judge panel of what’s accepted to be the most liberal federal appeals court in the nation. There was also clarity in the actual language that was released by the panel. The panel said this, “We conclude that this monkey, and all animals, since they are not human, lacks statutory standing under the Copyright Act.” Now, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals celebrated what they found is a loophole there arguing that even though copyright law, according to the judges, does not apply to animals but only to humans, there might be other laws and other constructed rights which would apply to animals, at least that’s PETA’s hope or whether or not it’s their hope or not, honestly it’s at least the public stance they took after what had to be an embarrassment on Monday.

The big question faced by this court were, first of all, whether or not animals rather than human beings could have standing in the court to bring a legal action whether or not that standing might be recognized on the part of an organization like PETA, and if they were granted standing, whether or not laws such as copyright laws would apply to the protection of animals in their rights presumably to own their own selfies.

The good news is that this three-judge panel of a liberal court at least unanimously ruled in a direction of common sense and furthermore they took common sense one step further recognizing that that court at least does continue to recognize the distinction between humanity and the rest of the creatures. But you should also note that there is something less than total confidence in this decision. The first sign of why we should not have total confidence is the fact that the appeals court took the case in the first place. Remember that in this ruling they upheld the decision of a lower court which meant they didn’t have to take the case at all. The decision to take the case indicates that they found it interesting. The fact that they found it interesting is itself concerning.

But it should also be of some kind of comfort to us that the group known as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals received a deserved humiliation in this court decision on Monday. It’s interesting that inside the decision it appears that PETA had tried to pull out once they knew from oral arguments that their case was going to end in disaster. But the court indicated it was too late for PETA to withdraw. But the humiliation to PETA also came down to the fact that the court questioned the morality and integrity of the organization which had basically, by entering into settlement with the photographer, shaken him down, requiring a 25% share to go to charities that “protect the habitat of Naruto and other crested macaques in Indonesia.” The bottom line of this is that the monkey receives absolutely nothing. This is the kind of charitable legal shakedown that often happens by the action of these special interest groups.

The good news in this particular development is that the court decided the case rightly. But the bad news is it tied that decision to no more basic assumption other than that there must be some distinction between human and animals. The court doesn’t say that it knows what that distinction is other than a reference to the use of language. The other bad news is that the case was heard in the first place because this isn’t the first case nor will it be the last.

Part II

Wonder turns into confusion: The inevitable outcome of taking an evolutionary understanding of humanity

Next and even more troubling development in the media came on April the 8th, the Sunday edition of The New York Times where the headline article by Jeff Sebo entitled Are Chimpanzees Persons? Now note the shift of the language from human to person because the law is largely focused upon persons. If you can make an animal a person, you have just made animals on par with humans when it comes to standing before the court and the law.

Sebo is identified as a clinical assistant professor of environmental studies and director of the animal studies master’s degree program at New York University. He pulls no punches in the article. He speaks of the group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project which since 2013 has been working on behalf of two chimpanzees known as Kiko and Tommy, currently we are told, being held in cages by their “owners,” owners put in quotation marks, without the company of other chimpanzees.

According to Sebo’s article, the group is, “Asking the courts to rule that Kiko and Tommy have the right to bodily liberty and to order their immediate release into a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives with other chimpanzees.” Now we had noted that a New York state court had already decided to move ahead recognizing that the chimpanzees had standing, that is to be recognized as persons in the court. But even as this case is now proceeding, you understand why it is important that a newspaper like The New York Times would run an article of this size in which the argument that chimpanzees are persons would be presented.

Sebo gets right to the point. “The problem is that under current United States law, one is either a ‘person’ or a ‘thing.’ There is no third option. If you are a person, you have the capacity for rights, including the right to habeas corpus relief, which protects you from unlawful confinement. If you are a thing, you do not have the capacity for rights. And unfortunately,” he wrote, “even though they are sensitive, intelligent, social beings, Kiko and Tommy are considered things under the law.”

Now, before you understand that it’s just a radical, crude oversimplification, understand the cost, the very real cost of the citing that animals whether they be cows or giraffes or tigers or chimpanzees are not things but rather are persons. To get to the bottom line, person should not eat other persons. They should not herd other persons. There will be no right for persons to hunt other persons, or for that matter, to sell other persons, but that’s exactly what is being argued in this lawsuit, that these two chimpanzees should be recognized as persons.

Now, we were talking about confusion and this confusion between what it means to be an animal and what it means to be a person, a human person, comes down to that distinction between understanding whether or not humans possess a particular status because we are made in the image of God or whether there is something far less than that particular status. The modern secular worldview denying both the Creator and the very possibility of creatures made in the Creator’s image has no basis in which to ground human dignity even the definition of what it means to be human, or for that matter, as we see in this case, the ability to define in a stable way what it means to be a person. But wait, there are even deeper dangers here because if person is going to be separated from what it means to be a human being, then that would also insinuate that maybe some human beings themselves aren’t persons.

This is the kind of argument that in our secular age is actually growing in traction. You have philosophers such as Peter Singer at Princeton University who argue that some animals actually possess some capacities that some human beings lack. Meaning that maybe the animals are more rightly persons than are some human beings. Peter Singer takes this so far not only as to support the legality of abortion but of infanticide arguing that it should be moral under certain circumstances to kill even babies who have been born if they lack certain capacities that we will define as being required to be human persons.

Jeff Sebo in this article perhaps inadvertently but inevitably gets to this issue. He writes, “One view is that only humans can be persons because humanity is the basis of personhood. However,” he writes, “this view is implausible. There is nothing special about species in and of themselves. They are morally arbitrary taxonomic categories. There is a great deal of variability within species, similarity among species and change in species over time.”

Now, there you see the inevitable outcome of taking an evolutionary understanding of humanity. Humanity seen in an evolutionary frame is not distinct from all other creatures or from all other life. But rather is just one more species in the incredible variety that evolution, we are told, has produced. Furthermore, Sebo gets right to the point in that paragraph of saying that there is a great variability amongst species. There are, according to this variability, more and less intelligent human beings, more and less gifted human beings. There are human beings that lack certain capacities that other human beings have. Thus, Sebo says, “You can’t just say that all human beings are distinct from all other animals because human beings demonstrate a great deal of variability amongst the traits even within the species.” What does that mean? Well, that’s the very kind of argument that was behind the Nazi medicine which came down to the dictum “Lebensunwertes Leben” that even though some persons were human, they were life unworthy of life.

Now, what’s so urgent for us to understand is that this logic will inevitably work both ways. It will work one way saying, “Maybe human beings aren’t all that distinctive. Maybe at least some other animals should be recognized as persons because they, too, can be creative. They, too, can have a sense of self-identity. They, too, can communicate in some way with one another.” Maybe it’s whales. Maybe it’s tortoises. Maybe it’s the great apes. Maybe it’s these monkeys. The argument is going to go that way. We already see it both in New York state and in California, at least attempted.

But then we go back to the claims made by many animal rights activist and they explicitly follow that kind of argument but that’s on one end of the equation. On the other end of the equation, you look at human beings and the argument that maybe some human beings actually are not worthy of life. Maybe they should not be legally recognized as being persons. If you’re simply looking at certain capacities, Peter Singer has gone so far as to say that some highly intelligent pigs have a greater right to life than some less intelligent human beings. That’s stated right out in public. That’s in black and white published by a man who holds the chair of bioethics at Princeton University.

Sebo goes on to argue, “Another question is which nonhumans can have rights. For instance, if Kiko and Tommy can have rights, can bonobos and gorillas have rights, too? What about cats, dogs and fish? What about chickens, cows and pigs? What about ants or sophisticated artificial intelligence programs?”

Well, there you see that end of the equation. There’s no end to it. The most unsettling paragraph of Sebo’s article uses the word “unsettling” and I quote, “These questions are unsettling. They are also reasonable to ask. After all,” he says, “we might think that we need to draw the line somewhere. So if we decide not to draw the line at species membership, if we decide to accept that at least some nonhumans can have at least some rights, then it is not immediately clear where to draw it instead, or even, on reflection, whether to draw this particular kind of line at all.”

Well, there’s the absolute resignation arguing that in the end maybe we will not be able, according to a secular worldview, to draw any meaningful and lasting distinction between human beings and other creatures. Maybe that’s where we’re stuck. But here we also have to note, not only that the Christian worldview alone can establish human dignity and what it means to be a human being and a person and argue that every single person made in the image of God possesses inherent human dignity and every life is sacred, but that’s not all that’s at stake here. We need to go on and understand that the Christian worldview alone allows us to delight in animals without worshiping them or confusing them.

To look at Naruto, the macaque and his selfies is to understand to God’s glory there is an animal who clearly enjoyed taking his own picture with a photographer’s camera. If you don’t look at that photograph with a certain kind of wonder, then you lack the very kind of wonder that a biblical worldview provides. The biblical worldview allows us to understand the role of animals and to appreciate the role of animals, to do everything to try to make animals of all species, including Naruto species, the macaque monkeys thrive. But without the Christian worldview, wonder simply turns into confusion, and as these cases make clear, that confusion in the end can be a very deadly confusion indeed.

Part III

Why the biblical worldview makes a radical distinction between that which is beautiful and that which is merely pretty

But next, while we’re looking at this kind of confusion, we need to look at an article that was published yesterday in The New York Times. The headline of the article Mirror, Mirror in Denial. The subhead, The Expectations of Societal Beauty Standards Have Never Been Higher for Women but Criticizing the Issue has Become Taboo. The article by Amanda Hess indicates something of a quandary in our modern age. Those expectations of prettiness or beauty as it’s called here for women in the United States and in the West have never been higher even as they are being openly criticized in movements such as #MeToo. Instead, we have the actual fact that in advertising and also in the world of Hollywood and beyond, there has never been a higher standard of beauty. Now, we’re looking at the fact that beauty can be digitally enhanced. It can be aesthetically brought about, and the argument is that women face some moral mandate to be pretty according to the standards of the age.

The article by Hess makes very clear in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times that there is division even among feminists over this kind of concern. Some are arguing that this imposition of societal standards of beauty and prettiness are deadly to women, devastating to self-esteem whereas others who are trying to market the very same understandings of beauty are arguing that it is feminist to even use those standards of beauty, for instance, in pornography or in entertainment.

The catalyst for this article in The New York Times is the release of a film entitled I Feel Pretty which evidently raises some of these issues. It includes a woman who doesn’t feel pretty enough over against a so-called hot woman who meets or exceeds these societal expectations. That actress who plays the conventionally pretty friend of the lead actress in this movie is herself a model, we are told, who has 17 million Instagram followers. After The New York Times describes a recently, frankly erotic, if not pornographic, scene, she said defending it, “To me, female sexuality and sexiness, no matter how conditioned it may be by a patriarchal ideal, can be incredibly empowering for a woman if she feels it is empowering to her. My life is on my terms,” she said and she went on to use language making very clear that if she wants to act that out in a sexualized, erotic or pornographic way, that is not only her business, it is her liberation.

Now, notice the almost niche and kind of logic that is used here. Yes, these standards of beauty are false and they hurt many women, but if I can use them for my own advantage and claim that it is for my purposes, then they are actually feminist. The anti-feminist can become the feminist. The feminist can become the anti-feminist and all of this because it empowers me. That’s what she says. If I believe this empowers me, then it’s right for me.

The article in The New York Times doesn’t come close to resolving the issue, the secular worldview honestly can’t resolve these issues, but it does point to the fact that there are excruciating inconsistencies beyond irony in our contemporary culture. Consider the fact that you’ve got many major American corporations falling all over themselves to describe how pro-women they are and how concerned they are about the sexualization of women when in their own advertising and in the entertainment projects that they commercially sponsor, they thrive on using what they say they oppose morally.

The article in The Times makes clear that many of the dominant economic interest in this country are trying to argue it both ways. On the one hand, they try to make a moral argument about their corporate commitments when on the other hand, when they commit money to their corporate ends, they do exactly the opposite. Once again, for Christians the issue here is the confusion that results from trying to define persons as something other than made in God’s image with worth and dignity simply dependent upon that ontological fact that is that fact that is rooted in reality, a reality that the creator himself brought about to his own glory and by his own power.

But the Christian worldview also brings clarity according to biblical theology here in a way that every single human being needs to hear. Even as when we look to the previous stories, there is no capacity that anyone of us has to achieve in order to reflect the glory of God and to be understood as being authentically human and authentically a person according to scripture. It is also true that the Creator who is himself the good, the beautiful and the true to an infinite and eternal degree has made every single human being beautiful in his sight.

The most basic confusion is one that appears even in the language of both the film and this article. The Christian worldview argues that what we should look for and what we should value is beauty, not prettiness. The biblical worldview makes a radical distinction between that which is merely pretty and that which is truly beautiful.

The Bible explains that pretty might not be real, that pretty certainly will not last and that pretty has no enduring significance but beauty does and that’s one of the reasons why one of the most precious of all hymns in the Christian faith is entitled Beautiful Savior. The Bible itself tells us that Jesus was not pretty, but it tells us that he is beautiful. Without that distinction between the merely pretty and the truly beautiful, we lose all appreciation for one another as grounded in the biblical worldview and that lack of appreciation can be not only harmful to fellow human beings, it can be downright deadly.

Our status as human beings made in the image of God doesn’t depend at all upon how others see us or whether or not they consider us to be pretty. Add to that any other kind of qualifier including intelligent or even beyond that, conscious. When we abandon a biblical worldview and when we enter into the kind of confusion that we’ve looked at in these cases discussed on The Briefing today, it’s not just that we make some human beings vulnerable, we make all human beings vulnerable. It’s not just that some human beings might be exposed to harm, we harm the very idea of what it means to be a human being.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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