Consciousness and Care
As a followup to the last post, I want to discuss the relationship between consciousness and care, in particular to understand why care is a uniquely human process. Antonio Damasio, whom I referred to in the last blog post, spoke about consciousness early in the book I also cited, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Conscious.
Consciousness is, in effect, the key to a life examined, for better or worse, our beginner’s permit into knowing about the hunger, the thirst, the sex, the tears, the laughter, the kicks, the punches, the flow of images we call thought, the feelings, the words, the stories, the beliefs, the music and the poetry, the happiness and the ecstasy. At its simplest and most basic level, consciousness lets us recognize an irresistible urge to stay alive and develop a concern for the self. At its most complex and elaborate level, consciousness helps us develop a concern for other selves and improve the art of life.
The first part speaks about a “life examined.” This echoes Heidegger’s most basis notion about the meaning of human being. Of all living creatures, human are the only species that may confront the question, “What does it mean to be?” The self awareness necessary to ask this question requires consciousness, as Damasio goes on to discuss in the book. Further, humans act in the world everyday with some understanding of Being, although they may not be aware of it, and in some other situations may believe that life (being) is meaningless.
Damasio’s use of concern is important as it is a prerequisite to care. He adds that concern of self and others is critical to “the art of life,” another way to point to the necessity to care for self and others to survive. Damasio, like Maturana, describes life as the process of successful coping with the external and internal environment such that the basic structure of the organism is maintained. Maturana calls this process “autopoiesis.” The use of “art” suggests that humans are capable of knowing and able to learn from their experience of living. There is nothing in any of these thoughtful probings of human existence that suggests anything about a set of inherent needs, other than those necessary to maintain autopoiesis, food for example.
Other living organisms also have concerns about the world within which they live, but they are not conscious of either the world as we see it or of any kind of self that reflects on their concerns. Their concerns cannot be transformed into care, a word which implies agency or intentionality. They have only very limited capabilities to master the art of living. Agency or intentionality require both consciousness and a built-in mechanism, care, to respond to what becomes conscious. Humans and other species have additional response mechanisms that rest on unconscious (or on nonconscious, as Damasio writes) processes.
In Sustainability by Design, I found it convenient to develop a catalogue or taxonomy of care (depicted in the previous post), placing the range of human intentional actions in to a small set of discrete groupings, like subsistence, family, or aesthetics/creation. These categories can be used in a self-assessment to determine what’s still needed to be done on the way to flourishing. Flourishing can be conceived as a sense of completion in the processes (art) of living. Live is never complete in a static sense until death.
Heidegger adds authenticity to the ontology of human Being. While a very complicated notion, it’s central meaning is simply that one’s care comes from the self, not from conforming to the outside culture. Authenticity is exceedingly difficult to find today, given that the idea of need dominates daily life. We are told we are needy creatures by authority figures (scientists, economists, political leaders, and others). Our social institutions are built on this belief. If we believe we are simply insatiable, needy creatures, our individual and collective (cultural) habits will follow. Self will come to dominate everything else with the results we see, degradation of the Earth, human deprivation and suffering, disappearance of other species, and so on.
The competition that self brings is presumed to be the primary means to master “the art of living” that Damasio notes. It should be obvious that this is not working. We have neglected the concern (not the same as need) we have for ourselves, other humans, non-humans, and the transcendent attached to our consciousness. Those four categories comprise everything out there that finds its way into our consciousness.
Is this so complicated? I do not think so. Those who have elucidated the basic concepts here, Damasio, Heidegger, Maturana, and others, have done the hard work. It’s time to stop constructing our worlds around need as the core of human nature. The place to start is in every individual. Start acting out of care and the social institutions will follow. Care for family and the social dysfunction we see now will begin to vanish. Acquire material goods only as tools and resources for your caring in the various categories and the load on the Earth will lighten. Set out a schedule to attend to all the categories and eventually the sense or feeling or consciousness of flourishing will show up. The insatiability fed by societal pressures will begin to abate. Time to smell the roses will become more than a metaphor. This is the only way sustainability can come forth.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 16, 2013 9:26 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Happiness Is Not Much Better than GDP
Since the beginning of my work with sustainability, several questions have been nagging at me and those who read my work. The trickiest is what do I mean by care. Since this is one of the two basic constitutive concepts of flourishing, it’s very important to get it both right and clear. The other is complexity as a description of the world. I find it one much easier and won’t discuss it today.
In the last few weeks, I have had two encounters related to this topic that have cleared up much dither for me, so this post is my attempt at passing my new clarity along to you. The first came from my reading of a book by Antonio Damasio. One of my summer projects is to read all three of his books on cognition, consciousness, self emotion, and other related concepts. I find his work very clear in catching onto these ideas. My other source has been the work of Humberto Maturana whose biology leads to consciousness, language, and emotions, but without the focus on the brain that Damasio uses. I often find myself in arguments about the “mind” and related inner things, like soul, or goodness, or other aspects of human nature. These arguments always arise around the ontological state of these distinctions. I argue, often fruitlessly, that they are not things or essences, but ascriptions of observed actions. Our use of nouns in these cases is a reification of the processes we have observed that give rise to the metaphors we use.
Damasio has a concise way of avoiding this always arguable situation. His focus on the mind might suggest he thinks it exists as a thing, but he is very careful to avoid that interpretation. He defines mind in his book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Conscious.
The term mind, as I use it in this book, encompasses both conscious and unconscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous flow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time, speedily or slowly, orderly or jumpily, and on occasion it moves along not just one sequence but several.Sometimes the sequences are concurrent, sometimes convergent and divergent. Sometimes they are superposed. (note 7 to Chapter 1)
The ontology of processes requires that we name them only after we have observed some action(s) over time, and than are called on to explain what we have seen. The explanations are fundamentally verbal, whereas our descriptions of stationary things take the form of nouns. The verbal forms often become reified, that is turned into nouns through the tacit consensus of the meaning of the observed process. Love, for example, had to begin as an explanation of a pattern of behavior, a pattern of action over time. Love, like other reifications, got its noun form by convention. At times in history, people believed that action always arose from some essence found in the acting object. So it was conventional to explain what they saw as a thing, bypassing the verbal language. Even if words began as verbs, reification happens simply as people use the noun as a kind of shorthand to describe the actions they observe.
The key for me was Damasio’s notion that mind was a process, not a thing. Then just a few days later, I was attending a conference at which the luncheon speaker, Carol Graham, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, talked about on-going research to augment GDP, the conventional metric for well-being, with other metrics closer to some embodied sense of well-being. I cannot provide detail here as I did not take notes; I was too interested in following along. She presented some very intriguing data on correlations of different concepts of happiness against income and other variables. I learned I have to be much more careful in using Easterlin’s work to argue that money isn’t everything. But what was most interesting was her discussion of the techniques used to determine people’s assessments of their state of happiness. I cannot reproduce her comments without getting a copy of her talk (which I hope to do). She offered a number of metrics for a hedonic or utilitarian notions (springing from Jeremy Bentham) of happiness based on different forms of surveys and another distinct notion based on the Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia, which she called evaluative.
Aristotle’s word comes from roots, eu- and daimon. Daimon refers to a kind of attendant spirit, guiding humans into behaving to produce good outcomes, but daimon could also refer to not-so-good spirits (demons, in the way the word is mostly used today.) “Eu-” is a preface used to convey the sense of good or well. Think euphonious, for example. It’s redundant in eudaimonia, but Aristotle apparently wanted to make sure that the alternate meaning of spirit (not-so-good) was not implied.
Eudaimonia is often translated as flourishing. Wikipedia’s discussion says that the most common translation is “human flourishing.” I made that connection in Sustainability by Design. Graham ended her remarks by expressing a preference for some Aristotelian framework, but did not elaborate. When I got back home I turned to Aristotle to see what he had said about the subject. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a very clean concise statement:
To be eudaimon is therefore to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god. But Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards “eudaimon” as a mere substitute for eu zên (“living well”). These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simply descriptions of someone’s state of mind.
The process aspects should be clear. This may be the source of Graham’s use of the term, evaluative. In Aristotle’s time, the authority to make the evaluation was clear; it would be the Gods, but today we have other alternatives: ourselves and others of varying legitimacy. In any case, this idea gets down to asking questions about how well one is doing, not how well one feels at the moment against some scale based on ones aspirations or some comparison with others as are all the hedonic measures Graham mentioned.
Even as an evaluative measure, some standard is needed. Aristotle’s Gods used virtue as a measure, but virtue has largely disappeared from our everyday vocabulary. Evaluation of well-being makes sense only in the context of some positive reference scale. Not money or status, as these metrics are only useful in the hedonic domain. The most precise self-referential term I could come up with was caring in the sense of how are you doing in those domains of life you care about, that is, you hold important. If one doesn’t care about some aspect of living, then it makes no sense to include it in a questionnaire about well-being or flourishing.
Aristotle refers to care in his ethics by comparing and judging actions in different domains, say for oneself, friends (others) or the community at large. Caring also shows up as the central notion in Heidegger’s ontology of Dasein, his term for human Being, the participle form of the verb, be. Heidegger wrote that much of his philosophy is a phenomenological reinterpretation of Aristotle. Being, the gerund form (noun) of to be, has become the common understanding of the word in today’s language and needs clarification just as mind does. Being meana a process as well as an object. In the sense of flourishing, it is clearly the process sense that pertains. Heidegger places care at the center of what makes us human Beings, in the process sense, rather than just any nondescript living creature.
One must care about doing something and consequently about the results of that doing if such life experiences are to be used to assess well-being. Amartya Sen writes about capabilities as a measure of the conditions under which flourishing can emerge. One must have the resources (capabilities) for taking care of what counts. Sen leaves the choice of what to care about open. His sometime colleague Martha Nussbaum specifies ten categories for capabilities. I have also created a taxonomy or list of domains, but of care rather than capabilities. You can see my system in my books and in previous posts on this blog. Manfred Max-Neef has a similar set of caring categories. The diagram I used earlier has been modified, shown below (corrected 6/16), to display the transcendental domain of care as distinct from the other three.
The point of all this discussion is that economics and psychology, the focus of current happiness studies, is severely limited by their presuppositions and standard methodologies. Well-being is a personal, historical, dynamic quality that can and should be described in Aristotle’s, Heidegger’s, Sen’s, mine, or others’ evaluative terms as the quality and effectiveness of our caring actions: quality as relating to the comprehensiveness of the domains in which we act, and effective as relating to assessments of satisfaction with the outcomes of our actions. Only the actor has consciousness of what aims have been taken care of. Well-being in this sense is personal and self-referential, and incapable of being collapsed into a public questionnaire or numerical metric, but my or anyone’s categories can be useful in guiding inquiries into well-being: how it is being attained, and what kind of pragmatic initiatives can be designed to guide the culture and its institutions toward the positive end I define as sustainability: the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the planet forever. Damasio’s warning always should be kept close: well-being is a process not a thing.
(Image: Antonio Damasio)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 15, 2013 1:57 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Today I am off to my 60th college reunion. It’s hard to believe, but there it is. And tomorrow Andy Hoffman and I are throwing a book party to celebrate our combined efforts in writing, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability. With a few hitches here and there, I can say I am flourishing in real life. Without being smug, I can say, that at any moment, I feel complete and satisfied that I am taking care of myself, others, and the world. A little shy in the spiritual domain, but I will be spending more time on the water where I do get a sense of connection and care.
But I can hardly say the same for the world out there. People do not even know what they mean by sustainability, as I judge not only in their words but, more importantly, in their actions. Sustainability always carries a sense of continuing to create or maintain something. Without specifically naming the something as I do in calling out flourishing as the goal, the cry for sustainability is a cry for maintaining the status quo. Two questions naturally then arise. What characteristics of today’s world? Who decides which ones?
Let’s start with business. What would business want to sustain? Very simple question in this domain: growth. Growth both in the overall economy and for each firm. Growth drives strategy. Virtually any initiative taken by a company is aimed at producing growth. Eco-efficiency or CSR are only means to that end.
How about global planners. The same thing. Sustainable development is a growth strategy, like business. The same means are to be employed: eco-efficiency and wealth redistribution, that is, CSR on the global scale. On the national scale, Political leaders and their advisors want, guess what, growth. They are less concerned with eco-efficiency than with political efficiency, exploring policies that will grow their share of the electorate along with enlarging the economy. How about individuals. Their call is for more. Poor people need more wealth to compete for sustenance in the economic zero-sum game. They are less concerned about growth than getting a bigger share of what there is now.
Other institutions? Entertainment: growth. Stars want to be bigger stars. Sports is at least as much a pure business looking to grow as it is a form of diversion. Universities: growth to pay the ever increasing salaries of presidents and faculty. Bigger and bigger research budgets to support ambitious faculty and businesses looking to exploit that research. Science has become “big” science where the conversation has become grow or die. NGOs are, perhaps a little less driven by growth, but they too want to grow their programs and to pay their presidents and directors more. I get 10 to 20 solicitations a day for donations. And on and on. There are certainly exceptions of organizations looking for more quality then quantity, but they are hard to spot.
This should not be a surprise. Organizations are nothing but people doing their things. As I just noted, people want more, and to get more for everybody the pie must grow. It doesn’t usually work out that. Some grow disproportionately as the pie grows. As we all have heard repeatedly “The richer get richer; the poor get poorer.” Power always gets in the way of fairness in the game of sharing. So if individuals want more, collectively that become translated into calls for collective growth.
Whats wrong with this basic idea, other than the unfairness that it breeds? If the source of growth was an infinite pot of goodies, nothing in theory. But this simple economic model has several serious, probably fatal, flaws. One is, of course, that the world, the ultimate source of goods, is finite. Eventually we will exhaust the resources necessary to support human (and other) life. In some areas, we are already doing that. But there is another flaw that keeps getting ignored or denied. The metabolism of living or economic activities produce toxins that eventually stop growth and even life. If yeast cells are placed into a sugar solution, a seeming infinite source of nutrients, they will growth exponentially for a while, but, at some point, growth will stop and they will come to a steady-state. Good so far, but after a while the entire colony of cells dies, not because the food is exhausted, but because they have been producing toxic wastes that accumulate to a point where life cannot continue.
Now, humans have more smarts and tools available to them to cope with a finite world than do yeast cells, but even these have limits, too often ignored in the hubristic behavior of modern societies. Climate change is the most evident sign of this. The greenhouse effect is a fact of physics, not an invention of political liberals. While questions about the details of the effects of increasing greenhouse gases remain in the eyes of the skeptics, there is no question about the direction we are going and the ultimate effects of our activities. We have recently passed 400 ppm of carbon dioxide, a level that has already begun to affect the planet.
Growth is not the right thing to sustain, certainly in those parts of the world that have already benefitted from this modern notion. Since the affluent countries are the big consumers of global resources, their demands for growth exacerbate the situation. Anyway, sustaining growth is not the same as sustaining something or some quality; this form of sustainability is process oriented. Calls for sustainability aim at maintaining the context for growth, keeping the world available to us as a source of growth, but without much concern for that world beyond it’s ability to support growth. I suggest we keep the yeast example in sight. Some economists, most notably, Herman Daly, have already called for a move to a steady-state condition, where we begin to live on the income from the world rather than from its capital as we are doing now. Just as policies create growth, they can create the institutions for a steady-state, but power gets in the way. Steady-state means no more bigger and bigger pies along with the implicit notion of redistribution if any measure of fairness is to be built into the societal conscience. That’s a big no no.
We are caught in a vicious cycle. Our basic beliefs about what humans are and thus need have led us to this state that is impossible to maintain. Are we, then, at the the end of history? I do not believe so primarily because I do not believe that the model of human being that calls always for more is correct. It certainly dominates modern cultures, but that does not make it true. While humans have always needed to protect themselves against the exigencies of life, including those caused by both nature and by human actions, such requirements are not infinite and can be satisfied without growing for ever. There is also no need for the insatiable drive for more of everything else. I believe that part of the persistence of our economistic model of human being is that we have lost our original understanding of what makes our species work.
We evolved as a species that cared about itself and the world. Our unique powers of consciousness enabled such care. If an organism is not aware of its existence, it is unable to take intentional action toward itself. It can and does survive, but it does not do that through caring actions. Care entails intentional acts that require consciousness. We have continued to incorporate actions coming from our evolutionary past; we share certain emotions with other life. But care is what makes us both different and special. Care is measured by its quality and state of completion. Care is not about more, except when it has become perverted by our cultural blinders. Flourishing is the term I have used as a measure of both the quality and completeness of one’s actions. Actions are, after all, what makes us human Beings. Be is a verb. Our existence is constituted by what we do or, bending language a bit, how we be. Sustainability should be about maintaining flourishing, as I have written.
We are far from there. Before we can sustain flourishing, we first have to work to let it begin to come forth. Flourishing is locked up in the cage of modernity. The broadest manifestation of care is love, always acting out of the context of the legitimacy of the other to exist. Somehow, once an infant leaves the loving nest of parents, love starts to become reified and quantified. We fall in love as if some mysterious force has invaded our bodies. We speak of how much we love. We ask that our love be matched. I pick on love as the most obvious example of care, but care needs to manifest itself in all domains of life. Care means acting in a context of connectedness, legitimacy, authenticity, and responsibility for one’s actions. We all know how to care, but find ourselves stuck in the inauthenticity of our culture and the incessant pressure of its institutions. I can think of no better way to start to free us from these constraints that by learning this extraordinary poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. No one has spoken more eloquently about love. Note the absence of any sense of quantity or growth.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
(Image: Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 8, 2013 11:01 AM :: | Leave a comment (1)
Buying One's Identity
David Brooks has it right today. He still hasn’t got the language straight, but that’s OK. He writes about what it is to be and what it takes to flourish without using either term. There are two threads today. One is a story of how we get to be the person we think we are; the second is that transactions are not the same as actions.
Writing about an MIT graduate student who has figured the best way to do “good.” Splitting his time between his studies and a hedge fund, he uses his “ample salary” to fund charitable actions. In typical MIT fashion (I should know having studied and taught there), he has figured that $2500 can save the life of a single malaria victim so that by giving away his money he can maximize his goodliness. Brooks write that Trigg was influenced by Peter Singer a well-known, but often controversial, utilitarian philosopher.
Brooks correctly disputes this basic way of life arguing that humans are more than a bundle of transactions.
We live in a relentlessly commercial culture, so it’s natural that many people would organize their lives in utilitarian and consequentialist terms. But it’s possible to get carried away with this kind of thinking — to have logic but no wisdom, to become a specialist without spirit.
Making yourself is different than producing a product or an external outcome, requiring different logic and different means. I’d think you would be more likely to cultivate a deep soul if you put yourself in the middle of the things that engaged you most seriously. If your profoundest interest is dying children in Africa or Bangladesh, it’s probably best to go to Africa or Bangladesh, not to Wall Street.
One’s self or better one’s identity is created through the history of the actions taken over a long time. Identity is never monolithic or singular. One always has multiple identities, but not in the sense of schizophrenia. Life is played out as a series of roles, each one referring to a sphere of action. One is variously a student, financier, benefactor as in Trigg’s case, but more generally as parent, spouse, teacher, doctor, and so on. Identity lives in the assessments of those who observe action, not as some inner property or essence. Brooks does recognize this when he writes that life in a financial institution will shape who you are no matter how often you donate to a charitable cause.
Identity lives only through the actions one takes; there is no ego or inner self lurking inside the body. Merely naming an identity, say as a good person because you give away most of your money does not do that. I disagree with Brooks use of soul as some driver of the good life. Soul or other similar metaphors are useful in conversations but have no real existence. You are what you are observed to do in life. After a while, no matter what Trigg intends to be called, he will be seen as a financial services person.
Identity alone does not produce satisfaction. What matters is whether what you choose to be springs from some internal source of caring. Trigg claims to care about impoverished and sick people and uses his charitable contributions as evidence. Seeing the world through an economic lens and measuring the worth of people in monetary terms is not caring in the sense of human Being. Caring happens in committed, maybe passionate, interconnected relationships, never in a purely utilitarian, economic transaction. Such transactions may be a means to some caring end, but are not the same as who one is. Transactions are always a measure of what prefers more than something else. Trigg prefers to spend his money on charity, not on cars, but preferences are not the same as caring.
Our identity lives in the assessments of others. We create it by acting in the domains we care about. Discovering those domains is always difficult. Much wonderful literature is about people moving through life trying to discover who they are. Brooks, in the above quote, points out that this process of discovery is very fraught these days.
The subject of identity is critical to sustainability-as-flourishing. Flourishing comes only to humans who are taking care of their concerns, measured by whatever standard they have adopted in each key domain. One uses a different standard to assess completion in caring for family than that in career or care for the world. Assessments of completion, only valid in the moment, arise out of some form of wisdom, as Brooks writes. The moment the state of one’s being becomes assessed in the utilitarian or consequentialist terms Brooks mentions, the game is up. The actor becomes little more than a transaction machine directing one’s economic resources according to a set of preferences. There is no caring there. Having written this, Trigg would seem to “care” deeply about the targets of his charity, but he has become trapped in the culture that robs him of the authenticity of his intentions. It takes actions not transactions to care.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 4, 2013 9:04 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Fly Fishing and Spirituality
I am finally “settled” in Maine and can get back to taking care of this blog. Just a few days here and I am refreshed and renewed. The sunset tonight was as spectacular as any in memory. The bay was absolutely flat so that it reflected the setting sun as a mirror would. But the real sense came this morning when I went out fishing for the first time this season. My son-in-law, Tim, came with me. A good thing because he knows the waters on his side of the peninsula that we both live on much better than I do. We left the dock in a pea soup fog that complicated finding the spot we wanted. I stuffed my usual skeptical view of technology as only the GPS allowed us to navigate along the narrow channel where we thought we might find some stripers. And we did.
In the past, I have had some push back from followers of the blog and readers of my books when I talk about fishing as a sort of spiritual exercise. I have found being out on the water produces a calming sense, even as I have to be very careful moving the boat around. The excitement of finding a few stripers, especially so early in the summer, disturbed the calm enough so that I put my boat on the bottom. Fortunately it is very muddy there and the tide was coming in, so all that happened was that I had a few extra minutes to talk to Tim. My sense that fly fishing could be likened to a spiritual experience in the sense of being conscious of a connectedness to the world around me was reinforced by a book I have been reading and am almost done.
Gill (a rabbi), one of the faithful readers of the blog, wrote me about a month ago with a suggestion that I read Fly-Fishing—the sacred art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice. Co-written by a Rabbi and an Episcopal priest, the book echoes many of the experiences I have. They speak almost exclusively about trout stream fishing; my experience is almost exclusively limited to saltwater fly fishing. I find their description of the solitude of a stream running through a woods very much like the stillness and feeling of peace I get while out on the open water. On a windy day, I hear sounds not unlike those of a running stream. While I am very unlikely to encounter an elk or deer on the water, today I saw a harbor seal surface near the boat and fish along with Tim and me. Later as I was coming back to my mooring, I passed a large bunch of American eiders and their very newly hatched chicks. I often hear them as I wake up in the morning passing close by my window.
My scene is certainly not the same as trout stream tucked away in a woods or mountainous area, but I do have exposure to the world of the sea everyday. On a given day, I see many varieties of gulls, a few Great Blue herons (my favorite sight when in flight), kingfishers, an occasional bald eagle, seals. One day a few years, a moose swam up to the marina across the road from our house. I have access to all this sitting on the side porch of our cottage, but it is not the same as the sense I get out of the water. I am often the only boat in sight. Saltwater fly fishing, unlike trout fishing is largely a game of patiently casting onto the unmoving ocean waters and hoping that a hungry fish is lurking below the surface. The stripers sometimes make their presence known by creating swirls on the surface, but even that is no guarantee that they are hungry for whatever the fly I am using is designed to mimic.
The “sacred art” book suggests that the practice of casting can be a “meditative practice.” I agree. There are times I am painfully conscious of the erratic casting I am doing, but other times I find myself into the flow and feel each cast as coming from my whole being. The whole purpose of fishing is to connect to a fish. I fully accept the criticism of those who argue that fishing is cruel and dominating. I take great pains to minimize whatever pain I may cause to the fish. Stripers usually take the fly in their cartilaginous lip from which my barbless flies can be extracted without causing injury. I am consciously grateful for the opportunity to be with a world I do not have for the 8-9 months I live in the city. And that consciousness is highest when I am out on the water. A few exceptions come when I sit and look at a gorgeous sunset over the bay, like the scene tonight. Our house is on the east side of a north-south peninsula so the sun sets over water, quite unusual for the East coast.
The book adds that connections go beyond those to the world out there, reaching to a community of like-minded fly fisher folk. Over the years I have gotten to know a whole community of men and women centered on fly fishing and all the context that surrounds it. Where to find the fish? What flies are working? Who has caught a big one? Tales of troubles with boats. All this writing today to try to sound authentic about my calling fishing a spiritual practice. Taking a line from Rabbi Eric and Reverend Mike (the authors), the solitude it affords, the feeling of connection, the joy of community add up to the same kinds of experience a more conventional spiritual context may produce. Bottom-line, I truly experience a sense of flourishing out on the water, that is absent during much of my living activities. Many times as I return to the mooring I am conscious of my commitment to bringing the same sense of wholeness and completion into our tired world.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 30, 2013 9:41 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Politics and Arcadia
When I commented about the way Earth Day had changed over the years, I hadn’t yet read an article on the subject by Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker (April 15, 2013). The pile of unread magazines and books grows very tall over the year and only begins to shrink dramatically when I pare it down as I am about to leave for the summer in Maine. Lemann paints a disappointing picture of the current state of environmental action in the US through his review of two books and a report.
The first, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly made the First Green Generation, by Adam Rome, argues that the original idea and power of the first event has largely evaporated today. The mobilization of millions led, Rome claims, to the wave of environmental legislation in the 1970s that legitimated the issue as deserving of public policy address. It was truly a social movement, local in structure. Congress recessed for the day and a majority of the members spoke during the day. Try very hard to imagine that happening today.
Even as the environmental issues community has grow over the years, it has become less effective compared to the early days. Maybe partly because there is now a raft of laws in place that have created a record of accomplishment, positive and negative depended on who is speaking. The results are largely invisible to the public but are claimed as a deterrent to growth by business. Rivers no longer catch on fire, people living in cities like Pittsburgh do not have permanent rings around the collar, and far fewer suffer from air pollution induced illness and death. But when it comes to the biggest issue of today, climate change, the green establishment has had little or no successes in the US. Rome argues that it is largely because the institutionalized remnants of Earth Day 1970 have lost their ability to mobilize s popular movement and failed to gain the position of insiders that matter in Washington politics so essential to getting the Congress to act on their issues of concern. Both Rome and Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist point to a lack of political smarts and power as the cause of failure in the climate change arena. Skocpol authored one of two reports, sponsored by the Scholars Strategy Network on the failure to pass any carbon-restricting legislation during Obama’s first term of office.
The second book, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition, by Aaron Sachs, a historian at Cornell University. Lemann includes it as a foil to the political themes of the other sources. Sachs presents an environmental history of America that exposes the Arcadian view that could be found in the architecture and literature of earlier periods. Central was theme of living together in harmony with nature, defined more or less as that world undisturbed by human settlements. I will order the book that read it completely, but now rely on the Lemann article and a few other sources I found on the internet. The small piece that Lemann quotes was what caught my interest.
My hope, for all future generations, is that they will have (in addition to sunshine, fresh air, clean water, and fertile soil) a somewhat slower pace of life, with plenty of time to pause, in quiet places … haunted places—everyday, accessible places, open to the public—places that are not too radically transformed over time—places susceptible of cultivation, where people can express their caring, and nature can respond—places with tough, gnarled roots and tangled stalks, with digging mammals and noisy birds—places of common remembrance and hopeful guidance—places of unexpected encounters—places that breed solidarity across difference—places where children can walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before—places that are perpetually up for adoption—places that have been humanized but not conquered or commodified—places that foster a kind of connectedness both mournful and celebratory.
There is no risk-benefit or cost-benefit analysis here to place a value on nature as we do in our present and potential environmental legislation. Sachs sees the world, even as transformed by human activities, as a source for flourishing although he does not use that term as I do to reflect the fullness of human existence. Two critical distinctions are present in the paragraph: caring and connectedness. Both are essential to sustainability. Connectedness, in a way, precedes caring. We care only for what we perceive. Caring is an intentional action and intentions are always directed to something we perceive. Connection is a metaphor for the tie that our senses make with the world, include our own selves. But it is a tie that is active, not simply description. There is an understanding that the tie is meaningful, that we draw our existence as being a part of the world we are connected to. And because the tie is active, we must care for that to which we are connected. We cannot simply expect the world to gratuitously provide for us, as did the utilitarian philosophers. The world of nature is not merely a resource to exploit; it provides part of what makes our mere existence meaningful. Without meaning we are just another animal species.
I come to these thoughts by a somewhat different path than Sachs does. Not surprising since he is a historian and I am an engineer turned something else. I hope, as he does, that we start to get it straight and stop playing politics with flourishing. Being fully human is the only way to express whatever genetic differences created us as a species different form all others. We do a good job with those aspects of living we have acquired since the onset of the Modern era, but Sachs and I are talking about aspects we have lost at the same time. I am also hopeful about regaining then and finding our way to flourishing.
(Image: “Dream of Arcadia” by Thomas Cole (1838))
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 22, 2013 9:04 AM :: | Leave a comment (0)
No Grist for the Mill
When I began blogging now almost 5 years ago, I generally picked up something from the news or another website and commented on it, using it to make my case for sustainability. All was new to me and I had no trouble finding grist for my mill. Although I still bookmark a lot of stuff to blog about, I no longer am able to stay fresh. So little has changed. Business still doesn’t get it. I have yet to see anything that remotely suggests that firms, large and small, are doing anything other than reducing sustainability. I guess I will have to keep pushing out my own thoughts.
“Flourishing” has done a little better. I have started to see my definition of sustainability-as-flourishing slowly, very slowly, start to show up. But even then the actions around it are still focused on making the world less worse. It sure could use that, but, even with their efforts, it is only going to get less and less healthy. I have often described this continuing reliance on quick fixes as addiction to technological solutions. I am reviewing a book about teaching green engineers that calls this fixity, hubris, after the Greeks who used the term to describe unrestrained pride in one’s own answers to life’s problems that led to tragedy. Hubris is associated with a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities. President Kennedy’s advisor McGeorge Bundy said, “There is no safety in unlimited technological hubris.” True then; true today.
I would choose a more common word to describe the current situation in the world: insanity. Einstein said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Nietzsche’s words ring true today: “Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” R. D. Laing defined it as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”
I see little question about this in the world of sustainability. I give high marks to my colleagues seeking “The Great Transition” or something called “sustainable consumption, or decoupling economic growth from environmental harms and on and on, but all ignore the root causes of our problems. Our politicians seem to think that doing nothing over and over again will magically transform the political economy. There’s an awful lot of hubris in Washington spread over both parties. Our culture, which we are madly trying to export everywhere in the world, is itself the problem. We simply believe in the wrong things. Not whether we need more or less government. Like flourishing the point is not about quantity but about quality.
Maybe I am just as insane as all the others, but I see the only way to break out of our dithering is to dig deep into our cultural structure. What we believe matters. C. S. Pierce, the founder of pragmatism, wrote, “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit; and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.” Culture can be simply understood as a description of normal behavior or habits. And following Pierce and many others, this means cultures rest on a set of beliefs on which the institutions of that culture are built and evolve. The sociology of Anthony Giddens has much the same sense in naming beliefs as a basic part of what makes a culture tick.
Let’s get right to the point. Our culture rests on many beliefs, but two form the drivers for much of the habits we observe. One is that the world, including all its parts, can be examined, become known to us, and managed as if it were a machine. (Descartes’ ideas could be said to be the source of the hubris that has created the current tragedy of unsustainability.) A corollary to this is the claim that humans also act like machines, using their rational powers to optimize their actions. Scientific knowledge trumps all other forms of understanding. Technology, based on scientific knowledge, provides almost all the tools we use. Rationality is invoked as the standard by which we make social decisions and is the standard for normal individual behavior.
The second basic belief is that human action is driven by a set of needs or preferences that is satisfied by the use of their rational powers. This economic model of humans underpins the structure of all economic institutions. It leads to the hyper-individualism that dominates the US culture, and to models of liberty that might work on an isolated island, but not in a crowded world.
Ask yourself a couple of questions. Can you identify these beliefs deep down underneath your culturally driven habits? Are they producing the outcomes that you intend or expect? Start with ordinary activities. Do you think about life largely as a process of acquiring things, material and otherwise, like knowledge? Does this work? Does shopping really satisfy you beyond a momentary rush? Do you think driving your car has no unintended consequences. (I always use this more cumbersome phase rather than side-effects because side-effects are not side at all they are as much an outcome as the intended intention) Would become more concerned with the unintended consequences of your actions if you started to call them that, not side-effects? Unintended consequences arise out of the use of the imperfect knowledge our scientific methods produce.
Paradigms, defined by Thomas Kuhn as the constellation of beliefs and institutional structures built on them, are very stable things. They tend to hang around as long as they produce the outcomes desired by those acting within the institution. But when the intentions begin to be thwarted presistently, those committed to the desired outcomes may come up with a new paradigm that works differently. So it was with all the great scientific breakthroughs of the ages.
In a word, our present cultural paradigm is not producing its desired outcome (normative goals). Climate change threatens the very settlements we have built over centuries. Inequality keeps growing. Misery abounds in both rich and poor countries. The powers that “run” our polity are trying to fix things, but are not doing too well at it. Fixing is not the way to go. The old adage needs adjusting to “It’s broke, but don’t try to fix it.” Change it, transform it, but don’t simply try to fix it.
These same powers are not the right ones to do the job. They are all committed to the current paradigm because it is the system that gave them whatever power they have. So they are extremely unlikely to lead us into a brave new world. It’s up to us. I think the best place to start is to begin to think of yourself as made up of cares, rather as than a bundle of insatiable needs. Having is a diminished and pathological mode of life. Try assessing how you are doing through the quality, not quantity, of your experience, that is the actions you take out of care for yourself, other humans, and everything else. Then, as you begin to find that life moves towards flourishing, you can work on the culture and begin to change it. But first you have to thrust yourself into a different set of beliefs, those of the brave new world I spoke about just above.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 18, 2013 4:12 PM :: | Leave a comment (1)
Care, Not Need--Now
Almost everything I write is connected to sustainability, but sometimes that connection follows a winding and tenuous path. Sustainability, a word found increasingly in public conversations but poorly understood and stated, denotes the ability of a system to attain and maintain some desirable condition, but connotes a sense that the world is doing anything but that. Flourishing is the end that I assert is the best single concept for driving individual and collective behavior towards an almost universally shared vision. Flourishing creates images of full development, robustness, satisfaction, and other norms shared by humans in all cultures at all levels of economic status. The cultural beliefs underpinning flourishing, as opposed to those that are creating all that is unsustainable today, are very simple: one, humans are caring, not needy creatures, and, two, the world is a complex organic system, not a machine running on laws that we can come to know via the methodologies of science.
The objective of any institution is the creation of the conditions for which it was founded. Families are there to provide mutual both material and psychical support. Schools arose to educate, that is, produce adults capable of operating effectively in a wide variety of other institutional contexts. Religious organizations have evolved to provide access and procedures to enable intercourse with transcendental objects and forces. Every institution is constituted by and exhibits a unique set of normative ends, beliefs and procedures. The establishment of many of our present institutions occurred in the distant past arising out of and along with the beliefs and norms that existed during that era. They persisted because the structure on which they rested worked. This pragmatic idea of effectiveness is very important in understanding the development and evolution of any institution.
Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea of paradigms in his study of the history of the institution of science. At any moment the paradigm is the set of structural elements underlying the culture, that is, the normal behaviors, of an institution. As long as the paradigm produces effective outcomes, actors working within the institution go about their daily business without thinking too much about it. They simply do what one was supposed to do, until the context changes, and the old way of life stops producing the desired normative outputs. Kuhn saw that, under these circumstances, new paradigms were emerged; those that were successful stuck and augmented the old. From a pragmatic perspective, the old ways continued to be applied in contexts where they continued to work, and the new paradigm was applied to contexts where they could enable the actors to move along. In the case of science that meant to be able to explain phenomena such that the entire collective of actors, the community of scientific peers, accepted the new model.
Effectiveness is not only measured in terms of successes in producing the normative objectives, but also in terms of avoiding unwanted associated outcomes. The old Newtonian theories when applied to quantum phenomena created frustration and loss of legitimacy among scientists besides the inability to explain the causes. In other institutional domains, the negative consequences can be much larger than frustration. Taking a society, say the US, as a whole, the paradigm which worked early its history tends to grow long in the teeth and may start to fail to produce what is expected, but also begin to produce significant unwanted, unintended consequences.
Unsustainability provides strong evidence of the failure of the existing paradigmatic structure of the US society, and other similar modern polities. In doing what the culture tells us is normal, we have begun to produce such large negative effects that the society and the larger global context is increasingly threatened. Attempts to remedy the situation by treating the symptoms have not and cannot cope effectively. The problems that constitute unsustainability are rooted in the failure of the underlying cultural structure—the paradigm. These unwanted outcomes are not the only signs of paradigmatic failure. The positive objectives are not coming forth either. The pursuit of happiness is, for many here in the US and elsewhere in the world, a race where the multitudes are falling further and further behind, as measured by very high and still rising levels of inequality.
It is very difficult to reveal the root causes for the failure of the current cultural structure (paradigm) to produce both the goods we seek and to avoid the bads. Root causes are those elements of the structure which if properly redesigned cause the goods to appear and the bads to go away. They are exceedingly difficult to root out. The famous Toyota Production System used a procedure called the 5 Whys to get at the root causes of problems in the automobile manufacturing process. By asking “Why” five times in succession, the actors would get beneath the symptomatic aspects to the cause that, if corrected, would make the problem go away, not simply be solved until the next time. The number five is not magic. Sometime more iterations are needed to get even deeper into the system. Occasionally less are sufficient. Systems dynamicists use causal loop diagrams for the same purpose.
My analysis of unsustainability and the inability to produce well-being, which I define as flourishing, gets down to two primary root causes, our belief of what it is to be human and our belief in the way the world works. Both beliefs trace their origin back to the period of Descartes and the Enlightenment thinkers. Descartes had a model of the world as a vast machine that we could come to know how it worked by looking at smaller pieces of the whole though a finely focused analytic lens. By reassembling all the parts we could then predict how the whole system would behave under various circumstances, and, knowing that, design technologies and institutions to do our bidding. Unsustainability, especially the pieces lying in the domain of natural systems, is evidence that this model does not produce sufficient knowledge to design fully effective cultural and technological systems. But the second root cause is my focus today.
We have built a Western world on a model of the human as a rational (optimizing) need-driven being (being here meaning a thing or object). Our economic institutions have this model of human behavior at the roots. Smith put us on the path we still follow when he claimed that individual greed (the continued striving for material satisfaction) would produce the maximal collective well-being as if some magical invisible hand was driving the machine. By the usual measure of GDP, these beliefs have worked very well with a few major hiccups along the way.
I, among many, see evidence that the social paradigm built on these two beliefs is not working well enough to accept it uncritically. The needy model of human being eventually evolves to produce the individualistic actor that so many of our current institutions are designed to serve. The economy itself. The political system, The celebrity culture. High school sports. And so on.Its tell tale signs are everywhere. Hyper-competition is a manifestation of this model of being.
I find it very difficult to find any of our institutions that work effectively for the majority of people. Politics has become hyper-competitive, played as a zero-sum game where only one side can “win.” The common good for which the political system was constructed has gotten lost. The economic system produces, when it is running on the up-cycle, wealth, but much more for the already wealthy than those whose lives would be made materially and psychically better. Education is something to be acquired to get ahead in the world, not to become a fully functioning human being. Health care is little more than a system of economic transactions with doctors becoming increasingly robotic. The world is becoming depleted of its resources to support human and all life is the name of producing evermore goods for satisfying our insatiable needs.
That’s just a snapshot. Institutional failures stemming form this model of humans are virtually everywhere. Well, it’s time to admit the causes and stop either denying that the problems exist or continuing to apply BandAids. It is the paradigm that no longer works and it is the bottom tier beliefs that have thrown a monkey wrench into the gears of modernity. The path to a change (a revolution in Kuhn’s terms) is simple in concept but extraordinarily daunting in practice. Given a model of humans that can be shown to lie 5 whys deep as a root cause, a change is necessary, and that change is one found in history. Humans are fundamentally caring, not needy creatures. Caring means, first, that people are conscious of the world around them and have been since at least the time they exited the birth canal. And second they exhibit their humanness by taking responsibility for that world out of an understanding that they are interconnected to it. The very idea of individualism disappears.
This is not to say that one doesn’t satisfy or take care of oneself, but that satisfaction comes from the realization that such actions are working in the whole system. Taking care of oneself is a part of the structure of care, but only one part; other humans and non-humans as well must be included in the ambit of everyday activities. We may and will exploit others to get what we need to satisfy these domains of care. That’s unavoidable. We need food and energy to survive. Our economic system needs individuals to make it function. But we can act in these and in every case in a caring and responsible manner. Native Americans thanked the Earth for their food even as they killed living creatures or damaged the earth to provide it.
I am deeply troubled by the selfishness I see everyday around me and also through the media I read. The system is truly broke and needs fixing. The many ideological stalemates and battles that capture the news hardly can be said to be designed for the common good. They are manifestations of the individualistic way we hold truths. Truths are mine, not rules for action that work for the whole institution within which action is being played out. Individualism and power or domination are joined at the hip.
I have offered “solutions” only for making very small changes toward replacing need with care; competition with empathetic relationships, selfishness with compassion and more. The changes must come from out there. Atmospheric CO2 levels have just hit 400 ppm; the coming temperature rise is undeniable. Inequality is threatening to produce a lost generation or two in our country, the most affluent major nation in the world. The American Dream is being seen increasingly as just that, a dream. The answer to these disappointments and failures starts with action at the roots. All the efforts at fixing the problems at the level of symptoms may be slowing down the paradigmatic failure, but they are diverting our attention from the real cause. Wake up people. Only when you begin to figure out how to become caring and not so needy and start to act differently, does the possibility for change at the deep belief structure become possible. Only possible because there are many powerful actors that are happy with the present system and will and do oppose any changes. There is no solution coming from Apple Computer or any other super-innovative business enterprise. I wrote a few weeks ago on Earth Day to go out and hug a tree but do it out of caring for the Earth, not merely symbolically. That might be a good way to start.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 16, 2013 4:05 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
The last few weeks have been taken up with getting ready for summer, leaving not enough time to keep up the blog. The annual move to Maine is always fraught with opening one house and vacating another. There are usually a few weeks where something is in the wrong house, but it always settles down. This summer is more complicated because I have Andy’s and my new book to tend to. It’s exciting to have actual copies to send off. The worrying starts, wondering if anyone will buy a copy, much less read the book.
After three decades of opening the summer cottage and cleaning up the remnants of what the critters have left, this year we opened up to discover someone had broken in over the winter and removed a TV and DVD player. For a few moments we thought that was all but a little later I was exploring the closet and discovered that all my fly fishing gear was gone. Rods and reels, flies, tools, and lots of little, but important, items. Fishing equipment for someone like me is much like wine; it gets better with age. I will be able to replace the stuff, but not with the rods and reels I have grown to love. The new equipment is “better” than my old gear but I knew just how much it would take to drop a fly on top of a swirl twenty yards away. The stolen bag had all my flies, mostly hand tied, in it. Many hours lost. Now I have good chunk of time this summer already called for.
This short note is my apology for not showing up on the blog. Thanks to a couple of the faithful who wrote to make sure all was OK with me. Except for feeling violated, I’m in my usual state of seasonal overload. I’ll get back to posting soon. I have collected a lot of material.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 12, 2013 7:50 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Life Starts with Love
One of the longest, continuing study of human development has been in the news lately with the recent publication of George Vaillant’s Triumphs of Experience. For the past thirty years Vaillant has been the director of the much-heralded Grant Study, named for the donor W. T. Grant, eponymous owner of an early chain of discount stores. The Grant study, begin in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard undergraduates throughout their lives, monitoring their physical and mental health and their successes and failures in life. Since the study was restricted to white, upper class subjects, any conclusions need to be very carefully vetted. But a few of the findings, highlighted by Vaillant, are of particular relevance to sustainability.
He claims that, “Alcoholism is a disease of great destructive order.” Not particularly startling or new by itself, but interesting in his observation that it led to, not followed, many other personal and social pathologies: divorce, mental illness and others. Coupled with cigarette smoking, it was the largest contribution to early morbidity and death. Stepping back and looking at society as a whole, I observe several analogous pathological addictions. One, hyperconsumption, like alcoholism, is manifest in behaviors. Our individual addiction to consumption as a means to well-being has created a set of societal pathologies, including crimes (theft) and misdemeanors (shoplifting), natural threats and impacts, and indirectly, inequality.
Our tight hold on objective reality and rationality as the fundamental beliefs in our societal structure reinforces the behavioral addiction to consumption. As long as we are told we are insatiable, needy people by all the ads we see and hear, and are pushed along by our dominant societal institutions (the market and technocracy everywhere), we are dragged along the consumerist flow without thinking about what it is doing to us. Those voices of society are very, very strong and restrain authentic and fulfilling behavior. Ultimately we are told by our leaders and experts that we must grow the economy at all costs, a process fueled only by more consumption.
Vaillant makes a second, very critical observation. The relationship between the subjects of the studies and their parents turned out to be a powerful predictor of their success in life and state of health as they aged. Correlations are not the same as causes, but always are suggestive. Good relations with mothers correlated with lower finding of dementia later in life, and, surprising to me, higher lifetime earnings. Similarly the warmth of their relationships with fathers correlated with less anxiety and higher subjective assessments of well-being. The important of remembered relationships is an indicator of the nature of caring activities between parent and child. While care has a general sense of acting out of concern for the other’s well-being, the care of parent, especially the mother, for their children is often called love, whereas the same kind of concern for others, say a team member or colleague, is rarely called love. Even more, to say that one loves his or her students or friends could easily be taken as breaking conventional boundaries. I was warned by my colleagues at MIT to be careful in how I spoke about my students. Years later, I have come to believe, as in my hidden thoughts then, that I loved my students in the sense of Maturana. I accepted and acknowledged them as human beings with a legitimate right to exist as they were. My role as teacher was just that: a role that I had chosen and that they expected me to play, but that was no excuse to see them as other that fully human, no matter how they struggled or prospered in my classes.
Vaillant’s findings are consistent with Maturana’s. For Maturana, love is the primary emotion that a newborn is enveloped in and, in turn, acts out of towards his parents, if only because the infant hasn’t had much of a chance to learn any other way of acting. As we become socialized into the culture, the emotion of love becomes merged into a large range of other possibilities coming from societal norms. Robert Plutchik developed a “wheel of emotions” ( see below) in the 1960s, emanating from four basic emotions, joy, trust, fear, and surprise, plus four so-called “opposites,” sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. He classified love as a human feeling, not an emotion, created as a combination of joy and trust. He follows the more conventional definition of love. The fundamental difference, an important one, is that Maturana sees emotions as the source of our actions, whereas Plutchik and others see them as a characterization of our reactions to the contextual world we confront.
The periphery of Plutchik’s wheel is dominated by what I would call negative feelings toward the world: remorse, contempt, aggressiveness, submission, disapproval. Awe and optimism are on the plus side of neutral, and only love is, for me, a fully positive category. As I noted, love is but a feeling in this system. At first glance, the impact of our modern world seems quite clear. Contempt can only be learned as one begins to assess those within one’s sphere of action.
This diagram reinforces my belief in Heidegger’s ontology of being, in which care is the structure on which our singular human character rests among all living creatures. Also my belief in Maturana’s biology of emotions, in general, and of love, in particular. His model of cognition, similar to those of more recent cognitive scientists, views us as a sort of sponge, learning as we live, that is, capturing the experience of our experience in our bodies and acting out of what we have stored. Emotions come as a sort of master determinant of our actions. If we are angry, because we observe something out there that triggers anger, our possible actions are limited to those in the “angry” storehouse in our memory. As in Plutchik’s scheme, many of our emotions tend to be dominating in connection with whatever interactions with others are involved. If not dominating, they do not offer much possibility of mutual, cooperative coordination.
Love is different. It is the basis of mutuality and care. It, more than any other emotion, opens up the possibility of flourishing. Vaillant comes to the same conclusion, but from the very different perspective of an observer of a single group of men over their lifetimes. He notes in a comment cited in an article in The Atlantic about the work that, “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points . . to a straightforward conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’”
(Image: Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 28, 2013 4:44 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)