2013-05-30

Pathological Morality

Society has a strange and somewhat disgusting inability to recognize its own shortcomings. It is as though we wish to live in a bubble in which everything we do is right, in which nothing we do is wrong, and in which no one else can ever question anything we think, feel, do, or say.

This is insane.

Part of the problem is that people have become incapable of acknowledging the achievements of others without feeling awkwardly aware of their own "shortcomings." I have to put "shortcomings" in quotation marks because there is no shame in not being an Olympic gold medalist, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or an all-star pitcher, or the inventor of something life-changing. There is no shame in not changing the world forever. Realistically, these sorts of talents are extremely rare. That they are scarce is precisely what makes them so amazing, so awe-inspiring, so wonderful.

A man who can run a marathon in two hours and thirty minutes has accomplished something incredible, and he is not even in the uppermost tier of marathon runners. Even so, only a small fraction of men - and almost no women whatsoever - can ever hope to run that fast.

We must face this fact: it is a plain fact. It is the reality of life. Only a few of us can ever hope to be truly exceptional. The rest of us are still good people, still worth something, and can still live important, happy, and wonderful lives. But we will not be Olympic gold medalists or Nobel Laureates. And, I repeat, there is no shame in that.

Strangely - even hideously - modern society has an aversion to greatness because greatness underscores the averageness of the rest of us. The fact that the majority of us are simply average is no strike against us. One need not be amazing in order to be worth something. On the other hand, those who really are amazing deserve to be recognized for their greatness. This is only natural.

When I state it plainly, as a matter of fact, in the abstract, no one can disagree. But when we interact with others on a daily basis, we venomously lash out at those of us who are truly great. We retaliate against coworkers who prove themselves to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the team. We act jealously and cowardly toward successful people that we come across. We feel somehow threatened by them.

But, I reiterate, this is insanity. A society that cannot properly congratulate its highest achievers is a society so jealous that it hates its own greatest achievements. Such perspectives are poisonous. They infect every aspect of life. They make professional life contentious and mean; they make leisure time a competition; they render us incapable of empathizing with anyone.

Discussions of ethics, for example, often become contentious because the one asserting the most ethical path is considered to be "judgmental" of those whose morality fail them. It is far easier, and by the way far more humble, to simply acknowledge that moral excellence is a kind of special achievement that not everyone is capable of. There are those among us for whom morality is essentially The Olympics. Where some of us choose to spend twelve hours a day practicing a talent, the exceedingly moral spend twelve hours a day engaging in moral behavior that is simply leaps and bounds superior to our own.

Not only is this okay, it is worthy of our praise and our admiration. But the modern mind is incapable of giving credit where credit is due. Instead, we consider it an accusation against us, an indictment of our own morality. This, again, is absolutely insane. That one man or woman can be of an extremely higher moral character than we are ourselves is not a source of shame for us. It should be a source of inspiration and praise.

But instead of praising society's greatest achievements, we have grown defensive and choose to engage in psychological leveling. I think this is such a terrible, terrible tragedy.