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Creatureliness

Big Silver: creature like us?

Big Silver: creature like us?

Mark T. Mitchell says:

Gratitude is a way of inhabiting the world. It is a disposition toward the world that reminds us that we are not alone. We are not solitary creatures owing nothing to no one. Rather, gratitude points to our dependence. It is a fitting attitude in the face of our creatureliness. When our thoughts are characterized by gratitude, they are outward looking. Gratitude breaks us out of the cocoon of self-satisfaction and self-concern that is a constant temptation and impels us to think of the ways our lives are related to others.

What a great word, “creatureliness.”  I’m going to start using it more often.  It’s always struck me as correct that we are, more than we are anything else, creatures.  We forget this often, but good people like Mitchell are usually around to remind us.

And I wonder which of our ideas about ourselves is more valuable (or less destructive): the idea that we’re creatures and that one of our attributes is creatureliness, or the idea that we are somehow special, ooh, (wiggle-wiggle) “huuumaan” and different from every other creature not just in the way that all creatures are different from one another, but different by a whole order of magnitude.  That last idea is pretty common; I read about it again just yesterday in an essay by Roger Scruton when he wrote:

I believe that we are significantly distinct from the other animals. For we are rational beings who relate to each other “I” to “I”. Freedom, individuality, accountability and the moral life all result from this. They are outgrowths of first-person knowledge, of the fact, as Kant put it, that we alone in the world say “I”. It is not because we are non-rational that we are subject to illusions and fallacies. On the contrary, it is because we are rational.

The standard formulation of such a view is always that we aren’t merely “creaturely” because we’re something more — “rational” or “moral.”  This has always struck me as a load of hooey.  Really, Roger; we’re moral because we relate to each other as individuals?  I don’t see why I should accept this.  I think it’s clear that we can be moral when relate to each other each as members of a group.  And even if individual relations are what make us free and give us a moral life, I’ve never seen a persuasive argument for why we should think that we, humans, are the only creatures capable of doing this.

My cat, I think, thinks of himself as an individual and relates to my dog as an individual dog.  Certainly if you disagree I don’t see you having any more evidence that I’m wrong than I do that says I’m right.  I never understood the attractiveness (and it must be attractive because so many smart people like Scruton choose to endorse it) of the idea that we are so much more self-aware than cats and dogs.  What I observe is that we are aware of our own self awareness, and we’re not aware of our cat’s self awareness, if any.  How you make the leap from this differential awareness to the conclusion that “self awareness exists for me but not for my cat” has always baffled me.  And so I refuse to make the leap.

But the original question was: which idea is more destructive, humans-as-creatures, or humans-as-uniquespecialbeings?  Those who say that the former is more destructive probably have in mind the idea that, when we act like creatures, we simply kill or get killed.  We fight for survival in a Darwinian way.  We don’t, as creatures, ever act altruistically.

But this is wrong, because it presupposes the view of non-human creatures that I’ve already said we don’t have enough evidence to accept; namely, that they’re just un-self-aware, unmoral, unfree, animals.  I’d rather put it this way: we are very destructive when we disregard others and act too selfishly and kill and maim in an orgy of violence because we lust for power.  No analogies need be given between this destructive behavior and the behavior of any non-human creatures.  It’s all us.

I’m more of the opinion that I think Mitchell was getting at in his essay.  If we remind ourselves that we are creatures, we acknowledge our limits and our dependence upon the natural world as features of ourselves that all creatures share.  It’s the sense of being somehow “special” that gets us into trouble;  this idea serves most often as an excuse for fucking around with other life forms than it serves as a reminder that we ought to act morally and with restraint.

So I’m glad we’re creaturely.  I’m happy to be a creature.  I don’t think I’m any less of a (hu)man by admitting it.

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