Sustainability as Flourishing

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In the last few days, I have had a peak intellectual experience. On successive evenings I heard Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe argue over God and morality, followed by Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein discuss “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Morality, and the Arts.” This afternoon, I listened again to the first of 24 podcasts by Hubert Dreyfus from his popular course at Cal/Berkeley on Heidegger, and finished off by watching a video of a recent TED presentation by atheist Sam Harris called, "The Price in Human Suffering of Being Open-Minded." I am teaching a course at my Institute for Learning in Retirement on the illusion of technique or why the way we come to know things may not be telling us the whole story about living. All of these fit in somehow and I am in the process of thinking about how they do.

One theme has come up in all of them and that is something related to the question of what it is to be a human being instead of an amoeba or a rock or a hammer. Harris thinks that there is some set of conditions that characterize human flourishing (his words) and that we can determine those conditions through the methodology of science, especially in fields studying the brain. Pinker and Goldstein spoke about human flourishing in the course of their talk. Wolpe and Hitchens also spoke about goodness in the same sense.

Even more synchronicity as I am finishing a syllabus on a course on the new economics of sustainability I will give to my students at the Marlboro College MBA for Managing Sustainability program. I have made the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum a key part of the syllabus. Both see the central normative goal of political economies to provide the necessary capabilities for human flourishing or, as they state otherwise, provide the means to enable humans to lead fully functioning lives.

Heidegger never uses flourishing, per se, but points to authenticity as living life according only to one's own choices, unconstrained by the banality of conforming to what the social "they" says is proper. Another way of viewing the authentic mode of being is that it offers the greatest set of possibilities available for acting in the immediate world. Sounds like flourishing to my ear.

I also have been reading the work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the popularizer of the concept of flow and a major contributor to the growing field of positive psychology. He claims that there are moments in life when everything comes together:

Contrary to what happens all too often in everyday life, in moments such as these what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony. . . .These exceptional experiences are what I have called flow experiences. . . It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.

My point here is that the idea of flourishing should be the quality we desire to see produced consistently by our social/technological/natural world. It may not be absolutely universal, but can be found as a maximal goal in economics, psychology, philosophy, religion, and even cognitive science. I disagree with Sam Harris that we can prove the correctness and uniqueness (truth) of such a over-riding principle by scientific techniques. I believe moral truths are fundamentally pragmatic in nature. Their truth emerges from practice. Some are so ancient and embedded in language that they appear to be free-standing results from reason or faith.

The best example of a concrete description of what constitutes flourishing I have found to date is the set of ten central human capabilities constructed by Martha Nussbaum. I will finish today by simply reproducing her list and continue to speak about the benefits of couching sustainability as flourishing in further posts. This list is found in Martha Nussbaum (pictured above), "The Good as Discipline, the Good as Freedom," Chapter 17 in Ethics of Consumption, D. Crocker and T. Linden eds, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. This list provides a possible template for designing sustainability into our world. It's not the only only one, but it looks pretty comprehensive.

Central Human Functional Capabilities (Nussbaum)

  • Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length …
  • Bodily Health and Integrity. Being able to have good health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter,…
  • Pleasure and Pain. Being able to avoid unnecessary and nonbeneficial pain, so far as possible, and to have pleasurable experiences.
  • Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a "truly human" way…
  • Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us…
  • Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's life…
  • Affiliation. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, to engage in various forms of social interaction…
  • Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  • Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  • Separateness. Being able to live one's own life and nobody else's…in one's own surroundings and context.…
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