Back to Basics 2: Essentially Contested Concepts

fibrillation

Now that you have read my post claiming that sustainability has no meaning without naming what it is you want to sustain, let me move to the next step and name the thing. Well, not quite, because what we mostly talk about is not a thing at all; it is an immaterial quality. In the case of sustainability, I choose “flourishing,” But before discussing this quality further, I want to talk about other similar qualities and point out how common they are in everyone’s value set.

Here’s a few that comes quickly to the forefront: Liberty, Freedom, Love, Beauty, Security, Confidence, Justice, Fairness, Democracy, Obscenity, Health, Peace, and Happiness. None have any materiality. We cannot send a package of love or justice to our friends. We can and do ascribe derivative and constitutive measures to these, but at some point each one has meaning only as an appraisal or assessment of workings of some real system. Many of these are treated as if they were things and are spoken about as if they were. We watch William Holden act in the movie "Love is a many-splendored thing." Patrick Henry’s famous line, “Give me liberty or give me death,” alludes to these qualities as things. When we stop worrying about what to consume next, it is usually one of these kinds of concepts. President Bush tacitly alluded to a few of these when he told us to go shopping after the shock of 9/11. It's a sad commentary on our culture that we believe we can purchase these qualities in the marketplace.

Every one of these qualities is emergent from the workings of a system, and then only under certain circumstances. The many parts of the system have to be coordinated properly for the quality to emerge. All qualities in the list above require the involvement of human agents. None can emerge from a mechanical system alone, that is, from a machine. Security cannot be produced by technology alone, although it can assist the human agents inevitably involved in the system.

A second feature of these is that they are non-quantifiable, but they can be and are appraised all the time. The beauty of piece of art is a critical aspect of determining its price in the market or its place in a museum. The determination of what is a work of art in the first place fits into this category. Because these qualities involve human judgments, they often, maybe always, are contested or disputed. W. G. Gallie coined the phrase, essentially contested concepts (ECC), to describe them. [His paper, “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 56 (1955 - 1956), pp. 167-198 is available only through libraries or, on the Internet, by paying for it.] Here are a few of Gallie’s own comments (He was a British philosopher (1912-98):

Recognition of a given concept as essentially contested implies recognition of rival uses of it (such as oneself repudiates) as not only logically possible and humanly " likely ", but as of permanent potential critical value to one's own use or interpretation of the concept in question; whereas to regard any rival use as anathema, perverse, bestial or lunatic means, in many cases, to submit oneself to the chronic human peril of underestimating the value of one's opponents' positions. One very desirable consequence of the required recognition in any proper instance of essential contestedness might therefore be expected to be a marked raising of the level of quality of arguments in the disputes of the contestant parties. And this would mean prima facie, a justification of the continued competition for support and acknowledgement between the various contesting parties.

But as against this optimistic view the following darker considerations might be urged. So long as contestant users of any essentially contested concept believe, however deludedly, that their own use of it is the only one that can command honest and informed approval, they are likely to persist in the hope that they will ultimately persuade and convert all their opponents by logical means. But once let the truth out of the bag-i.e., the essential contestedness of the concept in question-then this harmless if deluded hope may well be replaced by a ruthless decision to cut the cackle, to damn the heretics and to exterminate the unwanted.

All ECC’s have an internal richness.They cannot be evaluated along a single axis. The evaluation must be focused on the system as a whole. It is impossible to locate the single spigot from which justice flows. The individual properties that constitute an ECC can be determined, but the weights and ties to the overall ECC will be part of the disputations. The disputants’ values and beliefs are not fixed in time but change as the circumstances change. If any sort of consensual action is the goal, the agents must understand, reasonably, the other’s values and beliefs. Any agreement by the parties is conditional and may change in the future. Disputes cannot be resolved by reasonable, that is logical, argumentation, but continue unresolved based on “respectable” discussions. In practice, significant arguments over ECC’s appear only in discussions of what to do or in assessing how well a system is doing concerning the ECC. Arguments usually will be aggressive and defensive. The differences among agents is not due to confusion as may be claimed in the heat of the “battle. Even if consensus in far from present, continued discussion and argument assist in understanding the origins and currency of the ECC better.

A close reading of this discussion would provide those embroiled in the current political give-and-take much more understanding of the nature of their differences and of the inadequacy of the processes being used to come to a sufficient meeting of the minds to allow action. Such a process is the cornerstone of bipartisanship. Understanding the nature of ECC’s might explain the Glenn Beck’s of the media world or the anger of the Tea Partiers, but not help in actually moving toward common ground.

I will come back to some of these details in future posts because a clear understanding is “essential” in the sustainability world. Sustainability, in spite of being defined and discussed in hundreds of differing terms, is not an ECC. It is a straightforward definition connected to the performance of systems (See my previous basics post.) It is a concept without a core value. We should not but do, in practice, speak about sustainability without holding we want to sustain in mind. The confusion and disagreements that so often accompany discussions of sustainability usually relate to the quality to be sustained. Most of the time that quality is unnamed. Is it about social justice or about climate change or about whaling or whatever? Coordinated action is impossible with an agreement over what the actors want to sustain.

A second important issue surrounds the disassociated use of sustainability. Actors assume that their efforts to take care of some concern, say climate change, are being served by their actions under the generic rubric of sustainability (or green) offered up to them in the market or on the web or at a seminar, etc. They become satisfied that they are being effective in their caring, unaware that the actions they take may be far from aligned with the specifics of their concerns.

I have used flourishing as that quality to sustain. Others use terms like well-being or the good life or quality-of-life. All are ECC’s and fit the earlier discussion in this post. I prefer flourishing for many reasons. Its etymology connects it to natural origins: to the world from which our species evolved. We are part of the Earth’s web of life. It avoids the reification that has diminished the use of well-being and quality-of-life. These terms have been appropriated by economists and political scientists, and turned into things that can be measured, thus missing their qualitative, essentially contested nature. The "good life" is too anthropomorphic and applies only to our species. Flourishing with its natural world root applies to all life and even the inanimate world. We can speak about the flourishing of the oceans and be understood by others.

I will leave exploring the constitutive elements of the word (what do we mean by flourishing) for another post, but want to stress the importance of using and contesting this word here. ECC’s only rise to the level of public debate when some parties are concerned that ECC is not being taken care of. If we agree that are all free, there would no longer be a dispute and we would live happily ever after, until some recognize that they are no longer free.

Right now, many people all over the world recognize that neither they are nor the world is flourishing. Even more they realize that the absence of flourishing differs from our experiences, some going way back into distant historical eras. Attempts to restore and sustain flourishing (or its equivalent) have been ineffectual due to a lack of consensus on what these terms mean and on the constitutive conditions on which their emergence from the whole depends. We are most unfortunately stuck with the wrong model, that of a very complicated machine. Almost all actions toward “sustainability” are mistakenly aimed at only a part of the machine.

Meaningful, effective actions to enable flourishing to emerge from the Earth’s complex system rest critically on coming to a full understanding of the nature of ECC’s and of complexity with its derivative features of emergence and holism. Hillary Clinton made the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” famous. It will take more than a village to restore and maintain flourishing in our world. This cannot happen through the uncoordinated efforts of today. Sustainability must stop being used, without being specific about what we mean, as a marketing tool and a base for policy. There are many good intentions at work out there, but the actors cannot act in a coordinated fashion until their collective heart stops fibrillating.

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