The Dark Side of Human Exceptionalism


I’m going to start this post off by very clearly stating that I am a spiritual person, and a general belief in some sort of encompassing deity – whether it be some sort of life force or clock maker, it doesn’t matter – is extremely important to my everyday way of thinking; however, having said that, I see no reason why a belief in religion needs to be tied into the general belief of human exceptionalism.

Maybe this is just a tad nihilistic, but the idea of a deep rooted belief in human exceptionalism seems likes a waste to me. Simply, it seems to perpetuate a belief that we, as a species, are able to do whatever we wish with our lives and everything will work out fine. This human exceptionalism makes us incredibly self-centered. It makes us entitled, and selfish, and lazy.

For a large part of human history, people have been spoon fed a belief that this world, this universe, was created solely for ourselves. People have been made to believe, speaking from a viewpoint of Western religions, that this idea of human exceptionalism should be the norm. I will not deny that many things have been accomplished thanks to this view. As this blog points out, in rebuttal to an argument against human exceptionalism, the world in many ways did adapt to us instead of vice-versa. Cats, for example, seemingly did this.

I too have mentioned, in this earlier post, how the world we know is totally built upon the thousands of small – and not so small – advancements set forth by the billions of people who came before us. People are definitely capable of amazing things. We have changed the entire world around ourselves, to suit our needs and our belief of human exceptionalism. We have changed the world so that now, when we look out on it, there is really no possible way in which someone could not believe in human exceptionalism.

That, then, is the problem. Human exceptionalism shouldn’t be a pre-determined and accepted way of life. By accepting, right off the bat, that humans are the best beings in the universe we become completely complacent. We longer strive to reach the heights we are capable of. Instead, looking around, it seems that this belief of human exceptionalism becomes more and more mythic.

Of course, there are still scads of people alive who are doing their best to improve the world; there are also untold amounts of people who look at this belief in human exceptionalism as a self-fulfilling prophecy. That worries me. That general belief that just by existing we are entitled to something, to being exceptional, is perhaps one of the worst things to believe.


2 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Human Exceptionalism”

  1. Hey I’m from, user: Marketandchurch

    First off , excellent blog, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read of what is a great passion of mine as well. Secondly, I must also add that we will differ, but I am totally comfortable with disagreement. Thirdly, I will speak vaguely at times, but do ask or question things you don’t understand or disagree with, and I’ll develop it further.

    By actions alone, we are exceptional whether we like to believe that we are or not. Entitled, Lazy, and Selfish may be a byproduct of our inherent exceptionalness but that does not make us any less exceptional. We have morphed the earths landscape and rearranged the natural order of things more then most species combined.

    That said, I do hold an anthropocentric view of the earth but that is because I am a religious Jew who affirms the torah and its divinity. That does not then mean I support the destructive behaviors of human beings of wiping out species or polluting our existing clean water sources. Western thought differed from eastern religions in that we were not content with the limitations of nature, that has lead to technological and scientific breakthroughs.

    It may seem an archaic concept to intellectuals 5000 years later, but it was a revolution in human history and in human thinking, one that helped progressed man kind. In ancient times, the common approach was to voodooize nature, with sacrifices or incantations or prayers in hope that your religious superstitions and practices could influence the Gods of nature, so that they then therefore trump nature and act on your behalf to bring the rains or kill off your enemies.

    If a landslide occurred, it was attributed to a God or Gods, & nothing was in your control. The belief that only one God with only one morality that said in effect that we are in control of our own destiny’s and that bad crops are not the failing of God or Goddess of harvest freed up humans to challenge those things that were beyond our control, and allowed us to pursue things that elevated our quality of life.

    You propitiated the Gods by sacrificing things to appease these things that were beyond your control. These capricious Gods do everything. They kill you when they want, they save you when they want, they make you rich when they want, they take away your family when they want… all of life was out of your hands.
    The human being is at the center of the world. The idea that we are not run by Gods of the Oceans or Gods of harvest but instead by natural law allowed us to pursue the sciences in a way that many other cultures could not. We no longer had to depend on a God but rather human ingenuity and innovation to master navigating the high seas or get a better yield of crops with each passing year.

    I say all of these things because I differ with your framework: “We have changed the world so that now, when we look out on it, there is really no possible way in which someone could not believe in human exceptionalism.” I think we do look out and see human exceptionalism, but exceptionalism did not guide this exceptional creation so much as it defogged the misconceptions that kept humans from progressing, which was that everything in the natural world was out of your hands, from cancer to floods, all of these things is beyond your control.

    Those are just some of my thoughts.


    1. Hi Maka!

      I have absolutely no problem at all with a general disagreement between us – indeed, I think that the best intellectual growth comes from debates, so I am exceedingly happy to have you share you’re differing view. Especially since, in general, I do agree with a lot of what you say.

      I think where we differ is in the view of the individual, in that it seems to me (please correct me if I am wrong!) you believe all humans are in and of themselves exceptional creatures. I will not even try to disagree with you here, since humanity as a whole has managed to do exceptional things. For example, I love astronomy, and the work of people throughout the ages to better understand the universe – and the collective knowledge inherent in this – is definitely nothing short of human exceptionalism.

      At the same time, for human exceptionalism to truly exist, it stands to reason that there must be exceptional individuals. Jonas Salk, for example, immediately comes to mind for some reason; however, not all people in the world are, or ever will be, similar to Jonas Salk. Of course, you can’t expect all people to achieve such amazing things as curing Polio – I know I will never likely contribute that much to humanity. Where it matters, though, is the attempt, even if you only attempt it for purely selfish means.

      It just seems to me that so many people take this general idea of inherent human exceptionalism and run with it, without ever really considering that they might need to actually do work or try to cultivate themselves. Maybe everyone has the innate potential to be exceptional, but for me that is not the same as actually being exceptional.

      Having said this, I definitely agree with you that the idea people being special was extremely useful and necessary for the advancement of our species. It definitely was a revolutionary concept, and one that has served us well throughout history. I suppose the general idea that we could even conceive of ourselves in such a way is amazing; however, I am just not convinced that the idea is necessarily always good when it is applied to everyone without the caveat that you must also at least attempt to strive for something – anything – to be exceptional.

      Anyway, I definitely enjoyed your insights and they did make me think. Thanks for sharing! If you have any more to say, please don’t hesitate to comment again! Until then, I hope you like my blog and I hope to see you again! You can also feel free to subscribe, if you would like.

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