Posted On 15 Dec 2011
Do you think of yourself as being special? If you do, please stop!
Permit me (1) to give the general argument, (2) to remind you of two illustrations from literature, and (3) close with a tantalizing idea connecting literature and the general argument.
(1) Thoughts of specialness are misleading evaluative judgments that foster morally wrong actions.
Here’s an important initial caveat: on neither philosophical nor empirical grounds can we know the consequences of our actions, and, furthermore, “we cannot know what consequences our actions will probably have” for the reasons that Butchvarov gives in Chapter Eight of Skepticism in Ethics. If so, since deciding not to act in any relevant situation is itself an act with consequences, we nevertheless must soldier on in ignorance.
Why does it seem to be, as A Course in Miracles puts it, that “Specialness is the great dictator of the wrong decisions”?
Please imagine yourself to be in any morally important situation that involves another human being.
If you don’t think of yourself as being special, you think of that other person as being just like you. There’s no morally relevant difference. If you agree with me that all genuine love is Self love [not self love], you take that other person to be one in Being with you.
If so, how could you hate or harm that person? How could you attack that person? To realize that “You are not special” (from A Course in Miracles) is to realize that that other being is as special as you. If so, how could treating that person worse than you treat yourself possibly be justified?
If you harmed yourself, wouldn’t you forgive yourself? If that other self harmed you, shouldn’t you also forgive? “Forgiveness is the end of specialness” (from A Course in Miracles). To harm another is to harm yourself.
If you do think of yourself as being special, you don’t think of that other person as being just like you. If he or she isn’t like you, why would you trust that other person?
Once you understand that person to be unlike you, you will actually perceive that person to be unlike you. Why? We perceive what we believe is there and we believe it is there because we desire it to be there. So, we become blind.
Who makes us blind? We do! Perception will be faithful to what we want, but who decides what we want? We do!
So favoring myself and harming that other person may seem justified.
We desire being special. We convince ourselves that that is true, which leads to perceiving ourselves as being special.
In other words, being special is self-created. (It is not Self-created.) It’s a function of ego, whose initial work is separation, which always then turns into attacking and defending, i.e., the ego’s main business. No separation, no ego.
(2) The first illustration from literature comes from Parts I and II of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
You’ll recall that Gulliver’s first voyage was to Lilliput. The Lilliputians are about 1/12th the size of Gulliver. Due to his greater physical size, Gulliver thought of himself as being special. It’s obvious he thought of himself as so special that the Emperor had to search Gulliver’s pockets and make him promise not to leave with any Lilliputians, which, Gulliver admits, he would really like to have done (“I would gladly have taken a Dozen of the Natives . . .”). So smaller people are morally worth less.
Really? Swift mocked our tendency to shade events in our own favor.
A fierce storm at sea forced Gulliver on his second voyage to Brobdingnag. The Brobdingnagians are huge! Will the smaller Gulliver accept that he is morally worth less?
Hardly: “Undoubtedly Philosophers are in the Right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by Comparison.”
After various adventures, he reflects “how vain An Attempt it is for a Man to endeavor doing himself Honor” among those who are so much larger. They seem too obtuse to see his value!
Eventually, after telling the king the history of England, which he deliberately shaded in his own favor, the king concludes that Gulliver’s kind are “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.” Gulliver thereupon argued that “great Allowances should be given” to the king for his harsh judgments because of the king’s ignorance.
So Gulliver managed to think of himself as being better than either the little Lilliputians or the large Brobdingnagians. It made no difference who he met.
No matter who you meet, do you find yourself with a tendency to think of yourself as being special?
The second illustration from literature comes from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Before Raskolnikov murdered the sisters, he’d written an article “On Crime.” Porfiry (the detective) read the young man’s article.
Porfiry told Raskolnikov that he was interested in how Roskolnikov had argued in the article that all humans were divisible into the ordinary and the extraordinary, who are those who think of themselves as being special. The extraordinary are those who are able to step over moral obstacles if doing so will be salutary for humankind. These are people like Lycurgus, Solon, Muhammad, and Napoleon.
Porfiry challenged this distinction: “how does one manage to distinguish these extraordinary ones from the ordinary?” [Pevear & Volokhonsky, tr.] What is the mark of being special?
He continued, “then there’s this other worry: tell me, please, are there many of these people who have the right to put a knife into others – I mean, of these ‘extraordinary’ ones?” What percentage of the population thinks of themselves as being special?
Also, “Now then, sir, it really cannot be – heh, heh, heh! – that when you were writing your little article you did not regard yourself – say, just the tiniest bit – as one of the ‘extraordinary’ people . . .?” In making the distinction, isn’t it tempting to think of oneself as being special? After all, “who in our Russia nowadays doesn’t consider himself a Napoleon?”
Porfiry’s correct: the distinction doesn’t stand up to examination. There must be some feature (quality, characteristic) that separates the two classes. No such feature is identified and I agree with Dostoevsky that no such feature can be identified.
If so, there is no difference in moral worth among humans. There’s no such thing as being special.
If you disagree, I hope that you’ll leave a comment below explaining why.
(3) Permit me to draw your attention to the pattern of argument in this post.
Suppose it’s correct that it’s dangerous to think of yourself as being special, that immoral acts grounded on the idea of being special come from spiritual blindness.
I am Being. You, too, are Being. So are all others. That is the fundamental spiritual reality.
Morally wrong treatment of others comes from blindness to that reality. Thinking of yourself as being special is a symptom of spiritual blindness.
If so, why is it easy to find examples of that in literature?
Eckhard Tolle asks: What’s the difference between fiction and literature? His interesting answer is, to put it in my terminology, literature comes from Being whereas fiction comes from Becoming.
It’s difficult, of course, to pin down the difference. Might not Tolle be correct? Think of popular fiction such as mysteries and romance novels. Don’t they come from mind?
Though, of course, great writers like Swift and Dostoevsky use their minds to write literature, their best work has a depth that all fiction lacks. That dimension of depth is the difference.
Thought lacks such depth. No-thought has it.
If so, that would explain why it’s no surprise to find spiritual insights in literature.