March 2012 Archives

Healthcare Justice Politics and Sustainability



The US Supreme Court is in the middle of its deliberations over the health care mandate, triggering a flow of media attention. One headline in the NYTimes caught my attention. It reads “If Health Law Is Overturned, What Will Liberals Do?” It really is of little consequences in this matter what liberals do, but the decision would have a huge impact on those who would be left out. It should read “If Health Law Is Overturned, What Will the Uninsured Do? It is patently premature to prejudge what the Court will finally do and say, but I will do it anyway. As usual, I do see a connection to sustainability.

The gist of the arguments, apart from the legalistic precedents, revolve in part on the meaning of freedom. Freedom is being voiced by the conservative Justices as the absolute right of an individual to ignore the existence of and connections to others living in their common socio-economic system, loosely defined as the nation. This stance is diametrically opposed to the central idea of flourishing as a property of the whole system. It reinforces the dominant cultural meaning of what it means to be human that is a primary cause of the lack of flourishing today. The blindness to and ignorance of everyone’s embeddedness a system dependent on caring cannot but generate more inequality and unhealthy conditions for the less fortunate whether by chance of birth or other circumstances. Only in the eyes of some transcendent being are we all the same at birth; the reality is quite different, as indices of social mobility demonstrate.

Freedom to ignore thy neighbor is the opposite of caring and expels love from the family of man (and beast). Love is the context for consensual and non-dominating social coordination of action predicated on the acceptance of the legitimacy of others to exist. And without consent and non-domination, freedom cannot exist, except perhaps for a single being on a deserted island. Ironic, hmm. My favorite biologist, Humberto Maturana, argues that love is the primary human emotion, springing from our evolution as a social animal. When love is absent, the humans involved become diminished and suffer from various ills. The whole debate over health care is a metaphor for a choice of the kind of human beings we will be: Being (acting out of care) or Having (acting only out of utilitarian decisions). If we make the wrong choice, Having, for whatever reasons—ideology, ignorance, fear—our species and our world will move further from sustainability-as-flourishing.

Following still the line of questioning reported in the news, if freedom as the unshackled right to ignore the world we inhabit prevails, we will have, or perhaps own is a better word, some thing called freedom. Erich Fromm claimed we have moved from “being,” the basic human mode of living to a “having” mode.“ He expanded on this saying, “having and being are two fundamental modes of experience, the respective strengths of which determine the differences between the characters of individuals and various types of social character.” Having creates human beings that bring both an existential and real sickness to the world.

By taking a stand that health care is nothing but an economic commodity and should be delivered entirely by the “free market,” the Justices who argue this way are expressing a cold-hearted and cynical view of this necessity. We provide food stamps to those that cannot afford to purchase what they need to survive in the not-so-free market. It could be (would be) argued by this side that people are free not to use food stamps. That’s true enough, but we also have a strong moral abhorrence of suicide which is exactly what a prolonged period of being “free” from sustenance would produce. We do not allow the needy in this matter to rely only on the charity of others, as experience shows that food banks and community kitchens are woefully inadequate to the task.

But with health care, the arguments twist and turn. The only essential difference I see here is that we need to eat everyday, but our need for health care often comes at unexpected times. With no “health care stamps” at hand, we force the needy to rely, like Blanche DuBois, on the “kindness of strangers.” You and I are those strangers because eventually we pay for the care of those who cannot. We justify this by passing the moral buck to the health care professions for whom refraining from caring for those in need is repugnant and not acceptable. The costs, and there always are costs involved, are paid by all those who are paying for their health care whether directly or through insurance. There has never been much of an outcry against this practice because the idea of caring for the sick has been part of the moral center of our and other cultural traditions for a very long time.

The centrality, but mistaken importance, of freedom in this case can be traced through the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence’s ringing words: inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are not equal; without life, presumably a healthy one, there cannot be liberty or happiness. Several of the Justices claim to be originalists looking for the intent of the framers of these documents as a guide to decisions being made some 300 years later. The moral core of those earlier men is clearly evident in the words that guide our Nation. The Court’s substitution of the market for the moral community may be legitimated by the Justice’s reference to some abstruse legal doctrine, but it completely lacks the more fundamental moral core that holds the nation together. I have often quoted Robert Heilbroner, a respected economic historian, who noted the basic failure of free markets to deliver moral goods. His quote I find most graphic is, “a general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content.” Enough said.

Sustainability and Spirituality (Continued)


mysterious place

Over the last few months I have been thinking about the relationships between sustainability and spirituality. I have almost completed the fourth module of my Exploring Sustainability course at Marlboro College Managing for Sustainability MBA program. At the same time, I am in the last stages of my fellowship at the Fowler Center, a part of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. And third, I recently gave a weekend long course on sustainability to a PhD program on Values-driven Leadership at Benedictine University, near Chicago.

In all of these I have been exploring the place of spirituality or transcendence in relation to sustainability. I have noticed two important differences between the way I currently think about spirituality and the way I wrote about it in my book. First, I now consider that care for the spirit or transcendent should be a separate and distinct category in the family of concerns. For those who are familiar with my book, I refer here to Figure 10.

In the book, I collected a number of practical domains of concern under three master categories: care about oneself, care about other human beings, and care about everything else. I chose these categories because they completely subscribe the material world available to our perception. I had included concerns about spirituality or transcendence in the category of self, but I was never very comfortable about this. As a result of thinking about spirituality in the programs I mentioned above, I now believe that this domain deserves an equal place alongside the three referring to the material world. I have added a revised diagram below.

Our language and culture includes references and practices directed toward a fourth domain: the transcendent. Even in the very earliest evidence of human settlements, there is evidence of awareness of not-in-the-world perceptions. These clearly played an important role in early cultures where there was virtually no positive knowledge that could explain what had been perceived. So it seems likely that a set of spiritual explanations and practices emerged. Over the course of time, religions evolved as institutions to take care of the spiritual domain. Even in this modern, disenchanted era, we find concern about the spiritual in many areas outside of formal religious practices. By giving it its own place in the taxonomy of care, spirituality can be seen as being as important as the other three domains. To flourish as a human being, individuals must consciously take care of all four main domains and their subsidiaries.

Spirituality has another important connection to sustainability. The very perception of transcendent objects or flows or power shows up as a connectedness to something beyond the material world. It is very important that human actors recover this sense of connectedness that has slowly been eroded since the beginning of the modern era. Both the idea of the separation of mind from body and world, and the reductionist methodology that we use to gain knowledge of the material world have created a gulf between the world and ourselves. I have argued that this separation is a major cause of unsustainability because we fail to see ourselves as part of the interconnected global system. We think about the world as a machine and usually focus only on the separate parts.

Max Weber characterized our modern era as one where the transcendent had largely disappeared. He wrote, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world’” He meant this as a critical view of the way today’s world works. In one sentence, he captured much of my explanation about the continuing growth of unsustainability.

For flourishing to emerge, awareness and concern for the transcendent at both the individual and cultural level is critical. For each one of us, incorporating concern for this domain can complete the full range of care that makes us human, and can create the context for flourishing to emerge. For society as a whole, care for the transcendent can raise consciousness of the interconnectedness of the planetary system, the web of life as many indigenous cultures spoke of this. Only when we become conscious of our place in the web of life can we incorporate practices that reflect that consciousness. This consciousness can rebuild the sense of responsibility that must underlie our actions toward each other and the world. In Weber’s world, we would turn toward technology and technical expertise to solve all of our problems. In a world where we become aware of our connects to and individual responsibilities for taking care of that world, we are more likely to take on that task ourselves.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote of the connection between sustainability and the sacred. This entry is related, but points to a different, but related, role for spirituality. On reflection, it is not surprising to me that this subject is rising to the top levels of thinking about sustainability. It is quite unusual to find a major school of business examining the place of spirituality in business’s efforts toward sustainability. In the last few weeks, I have noted quite a few ads for programs linking sustainability and spirituality.

One final note for this post; for those who might ignore this topic out of an alienation to organized religion or the idea of an almighty god, stop and listen carefully. The subject of spirituality lies beyond notion of god and scriptures; it is our heritage of humans grappling, during all of our species history, with a consciousness that there is more out there than we can recognize as tangible parts of the world. Spirituality can continue to remind us that we are merely a collection of nodes in the web of life.

4-category care structure.jpg

"Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point"


tippingpoint The headline of this post comes from a recent report found in MIT Sloan management review. What do you think it means? I find this sentence to be another example of the fuzzy, sloppy, and dangerous way sustainability is used in business.

[If the tone and rhythm of this post appear different from my usual style, it’s because I am trying a voice recognition program to write with. I hope to save a lot of time using this because my typing is so bad it takes me about twice as long to do a piece as it should. I find, however, that the words come out very differently as I speak them than when I write, so you’ll have to bear with me for a while until I learn how to use this new program.]

Now back to the article. The gist of the article is that so many companies have now put sustainability “permanently under management agendas,” that it is close to becoming just another normal business activity. Normal in this sense means that businesses are not only contributing to sustainability but at the same time derive some kind of bottom line benefit.

This year, most survey respondents say sustainability is on their companies’ management agendas to stay. What’s more, a substantial portion of respondents say their companies are profiting from sustainability activities.

Once again this article, like so many, looks inward toward the firm instead of looking outward at the world where sustainability is to be found. The use of the phrase “tipping point” is most ironic here. In the usual sense, tipping point means a place where the system shifts from one regime to another. There may be a tipping point involved in the acceleration of the inclusion of “sustainability” in the agendas of business managers, but I fear that the more important tipping point refers to the possibility of a regime change in the global system.

I vacillate between anger and sadness whenever I read articles that talk about sustainability in this way. Business, taken as an institution, has always had the wrong conception of sustainability. The Sloan Management Review article continues that illusion. Sustainability should be high on corporate agendas, but it should never be simply just another entry. Unlike almost all other corporate activity, sustainability is a measure of how well or badly the company is contributing to the health of the globe, but that cannot ever be measured in terms of the activities of any single enterprise.

It is critical that respected sources like MIT and its Sloan Management Review become more discerning about sustainability. The more they write articles like this, the more the mistaken viewpoints become normal. Again it’s ironic that this outcome is missed because MIT is the home of systems dynamics out of which this kind of blind reliance on normal behavior was given its own name: shifting-the-burden. This concept means continuing to practice “solutions” that deal essentially only with the superficial symptoms of deep-seated problems, of which sustainability is a clear example. Many have described this approach to “problem-solving. Russell Ackoff called them messes and had his own name for this pattern.

The routinization of activities related to environmental management in the early days of corporate activity in this general area was a different matter. In this case each company had its own set of problems to deal with. The systemic results were approximated by adding up the contributions of all the polluters. It was important that environmental management took a place alongside other corporate strategic activities so that appropriate human and technical resources were allocated to it. It took perhaps three decades following the passage of the first environmental statutes for that to happen. But it’s a serious mistake to compare the evolution of concerns about sustainability to that history.

In the name of sustainability, this article and others like it generally refer to a set of activities analogous to those that used to be called environmental management. They are about a set of activities, largely some form of eco-efficiency, that reduce the environmental and social impact of the goods and services the firms offer. This is certainly meritorious in the same sense that environmental management was, but it will not prevent the global system from collapsing nor will it produce the positive image of sustainability-as-flourishing, as I have been writing about it.

The US is part of a highly interconnected global environmental, economic, and social system. That system is the only place where sustainability will show up or not. Connecting sustainability with any single entity within that system is conceptually flawed. At one level, business and government leaders know that. Early global warming policy initiatives failed due in large part to the argument that any reductions the US might agree to would be overwhelmed by the growth of emissions from the rapidly developing nations like China. In other words, it was the system that counted. Sustainability is exactly the same. But the same companies that declined limits on carbon emissions are now claiming positive contributions by doing precisely the same thing. Each one is acting on its own while the desired outcome depends on the combined and coordinated effects of the entire global economic system.

The anger I referred to earlier springs from my sense that many of these companies know better. Certainly those that fought against carbon reduction targets understand. My sadness springs from recognizing the pathologic patterns that are developing. Shifting-the-burden is a pathology that is well recognized as a cause for failures in businesses and virtually all kinds of organizations. It is very difficult to remedy. The more that the misplaced routines become embedded in single companies or in the whole institution, the more difficult is the job of getting to the real set of causes (usually many) at the systems level. All too often this pattern is discovered only after some disastrous event. Although certainly not a disaster on the global scale, I expect the trees and shrubs in my yard that burst into bloom a full month ahead of schedule will suffer severe frostbite tonight when the temperature is expected to fall to or below its seasonal norms. What will it take to wake us up?

Sustainability and the Sacred

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medicine pipe

Jonathan Haidt writing in today’s New York Times tells an interesting story about sacredness. Haidt is attempting to explain the vehemence of the “culture” war that the current Republican primary appears to be fighting. Haidt’s thesis is that ideologies, although that’s my word, can become sacred objects, held by “political” tribes engaged in a war to see their side capture the system and put their notions into play. I find it clearer talk about tribal conflicts than culture wars. Those who argue for and against large government, or the causes and remedies for inequality.

Sacred objects are things and ideas that are held in great respect and should not be violated. Haidt connects sacred objects to tribes. It is certainly true that tribes are often constituted around the objects they hold sacred, but sacred objects can exist without tribes. The analogy makes much sense, however, is building an understanding of the schisms in and among political factions today.

The column offers a concise and clear view of the political paradox that people often seem to act and vote in opposition to their best interests. These interests are usually considered to be economic, but Haidt and others argue that people act not as utility maximizers but, rather, in ways to protect the integrity of their sacred objects. This idea of the sacred as being the drivers of people’s actions is completely consistent with the notion that rationality is a process designed to win arguments, not as commonly held, a process to arrive at the truth. (See my earlier post on this.) In indigenous cultures where structures of scientific knowledge were relatively undeveloped, sacred objects were created and invoked as the highest forms of truths, and were used by the powerful in those tribal cultures to dominate and control the behavior of others. This historical explanation supports the idea of reason as a process designed to prevail in linguistic contests.

One myth of modernity is that tribes and their have disappeared from our societies and that our arguments are resolved by some form of logical rationality. Rationality or reasonableness, in this context, means that the ultimate truth of a statement or assertion is determined by a set of logical relationships, based on objective, scientifically determined data. But that is only a myth. The idea of sacred, especially in a modern culture, is primarily associated with religions. Haidt uses the term in its most basic form without an allusion to religion.

I teach a class called, “Seeing sustainability through a spiritual lens,” and begin the course with a definition of sacred that I think is useful here.

This condition meets one of the dictionary definitions of sacred — sacred things are held in reverence. Another dictionary definition of sacred is ‘properly immune from violence, interference, etc.’ A sacrilege is the violation or profanation of anything sacred or held sacred. If one accepts these definitions of sacred, then the goals and conditions for a sustainable world become sacred. (John Cairns, Jr., "Sustainability and sacred values," Ethics in Science and Environmental Policy, 2002:15-27.)

To those holding something sacred, no explanation is necessary; they simply are objects demanding reverence as Cairns defines it. The sacred objects emerging in early indigenous cultures were the results of experiences that could not be explained by facts that were already understood through reason. These experiences were inherently transcendental simply because they could not be explained. Many sacred objects of earlier cultures lost their special characteristics as the experiences out of which they emerged could be explained through reason. Eclipses were held in awe for a long time until their natural explanations were developed.

In early times, it is reasonable to assume that sacred objects may have dominated the discourses in those cultures. The objective facts by which our culture explains almost everything were few and far between. Since the Enlightenment and the refinement of the scientific method, facts derived through empirical and theoretical processes far outweigh sacred objects as determinants of the truth. Reasonable argumentation has become normal in our modern societies. One of the most common pejorative statements we can make is that someone is acting unreasonably.

When faced with an argument based on a sacred object, those opposed will almost always adopt the normal path and attempt to counter the argument with a reasoned counterargument presenting their side. Haight argues differently and suggests that in these situations the opposing sides will look more as if they were at war with one another.

When sacred objects are threatened, we can expect a ferocious tribal response. The right perceives a “war on Christianity” and gears up for a holy war. The left perceives a “war on women” and gears up for, well, a holy war.

I agree with his treatment. In agreeing, I find myself worrying a great deal about both the process and outcome of the upcoming election. At the extreme, tribes win their most important inter-tribe arguments by real wars, largely zero-sum games or winner take all conflagrations. Haidt points out the obvious danger to our country from this situation. The Enlightenment trust in reason that was so critical in the establishment of the American governmental system disappears in these cases with very uncertain consequences.

As usual, I look for a connection to sustainability. Sacred objects always have a story attached. The story explains their importance and lays out the expected respectful behavior that members of the tribe should exhibit. Any culture can be illuminated through the stories that establish its fundamental beliefs and norms.The New York Times article is about a cultural war embedded in a larger society. In normal times, that which is sacred in the larger society keeps the actions of those who hold opposing views within some set of acceptable limits. We are now facing a situation where this process of self-control no longer appears to be effective.

As I argue, sustainability as flourishing can emerge only from a culture with fundamentally different beliefs and norms than those of our current one. Metaphorically this means the transformation of the present modern culture with its many sacred objects that underlie our behavior with an entirely new culture. New sacred objects must replace the old. I won’t go into the details here as I have written about these in previous blogs and in my book. But the important ones are an entirely different story about how the world works (complexity) and what it is to be human (Being not having).

If the culture wars being observed today appear to be intractable and dangerous, just imagine the war over a new sustainability culture that is almost certain to be fought in the same way that we are fighting over conceptual sacred objects today. Cairns's last sentence argues that sustainability itself is a sacred object. Thomas Kuhn spoke of revolutions in science as a replacement of one paradigm with another. Paradigms, in essence, are nothing but a story and a collection of sacred objects central to the story. Kuhn observed that any such shifts in paradigms would be fiercely contested within the discipline (metaphorically equivalent to a “tribe”) involved. Science has developed over the course of such shifts by applying a process of change which has proven effective in avoiding the kind of wars we see today.

If we cannot find a way to peaceably resolve differences over the sacred positions of factions in the political system, it is certainly going to be more difficult to deal with our differences as we move from one set of sacred objects called modernity to an entirely new paradigm. I believe that the sacred objects that constitute this new paradigm are quite clear. We do not, however, have much of a clue as to how to avoid wars among those who will cling to their old and outmoded sacred objects and those for whom sustainability is such a powerful image that they are willing to give up the old ones and live their lives in reverence to the new. Haidt’s work focuses on the political system; there are many lessons here that are highly relevant for those aiming to transform the current culture to one enabling sustainability to emerge. I believe we have no choice but to move along, but, hopefully, the inevitable revolution with be relatively peaceful.

Speaking Events


I will be giving a couple of public lectures in the next few weeks.

March 23, 2012

Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec

Distinguished Lecture Series

Title: Sustainability by Design

Details on this link. Concordia

April 4th, 2012

Sustainability Belmont, MA

Title: Sustainability by Design: A Progress Report

Details on this link. Belmont

Creatures of Habit



David Brooks has been writing much of late about human behavior. He has fallen into this habit exhibiting a human side I once thought was missing from his columns. At the same time that such notions about human behavior are making it into the mainstream media, they are showing up more and more in academic and scholarly sources. I have been reading a bunch of articles from the open source journal, Constructivist Foundations, that underlay the findings Brooks has become fond of. As I read these, I am finding my own sense of what Being is all about is becoming clearer.

At the core of whatever clarity I am getting is a more distinct concept of reality. In the classic model of Descartes and many others, the world is out there waiting to be acquired in our minds. The American philosopher, Richard Rorty, described that kind of reality as a mirror of nature—an objective, that is, material world that exists out there whether we exist or not. Rorty was a strong critic of that view. This view presumes that humans are subjects gazing and acquiring knowledge about that external world through our senses and our reasoning capacity. We take what we acquire in small chunks and construct bigger models of the world by theorizing.

As I have written, this view of nature and human cognition leads to a model for human action motivated by a rationality, based on some optimizing calculus performed by our minds. The whole of standard economics rests on this model. The computer is always telling us to satisfy the highest valued member of our set of mystical utilities or preferences for which we have the means to acquire or enact. Even the concept of rationality, a built-in way of getting to the truth by the use of a logical algorithm, is falling by the wayside, to be replaced by a version that says reason is merely a process by which we try to convince others of the truth of our position.

These ideas are a deeply engrained base for the power and domination so evident today in even our modern, rational culture in the US. I have often quoted Maturana’s wonderfully terse aphorism that, “In this explanatory path [objective reality], a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.” There is only one truth, the mirroring of the outside timeless world, but it often shows up differently in the statements of two people. Rational argument cannot produce a convergence. The more powerful among those in the conversation will always prevail eventually. A second unfortunate consequence is the idea that we operate from some sort of human nature embodied in the computer that contains the rationality algorithm, which is the same for all of us. We are all greedy, needy people at the core because that computer program is always telling us to act to maximize our “pleasure” and avoiding our “pain.” The old idea of pleasure that appealed to the Enlightenment philosophers who invented these models of human nature and behavior has become reduced to numbers some measure of our utility or risk aversion and ultimately to dollars and cents by economists. Putting this model at the heart of a systems dynamics model (see my book) demonstrates the inexorable tend toward more and more material acquisitions and its associated material and human damages within a finite world.

I would say our species and its highly evolved culture are basically doomed if we continue to operate in the shadow of this model. We simply cannot survive on a Planet with the damaged goods we are creating. The human damage caused by the inherent place of power in the system will not disappear. Fukuyama wrote that we are at the “end of history.” We are in the sense that we cannot avoid a reversal in the so-called progress of the capitalistic West. The generally move toward the right end of the political spectrum in most places all over the globe is an indirect indicator of the increasing prevalence of this model. The institutions that govern our cultural behavior have this model deep in their structures.

Fortunately for all of us, this model is slowly being eroded by new findings in the widely divergent field of philosophy, biology, neuroscience, cosmology, and others. This new model comes in various names and flavors, but the one that I find most descriptive and general is “constructivist.” In this model, a world continues to exist out there, but without any meaning. All the body recognizes in the process of living in this world are sensory inputs, signaling the existing of some phenomenon. Phenomena are meaningless experiences that signal an observer that is something happening. They are meaningless until the observer describes the experience in language, not necessarily words, but some distinctive linguistic symbol. After that, any repetition of the same phenomenon can be explained using the symbols. It should not be difficult to imagine the development of language and cultures springing from this fundamental mode of human Being.

The meaningful world, the only one that can support coordinated human activities, has come to us by the accretion of meaning through the reality constructed by the actions of all language-enabled humans that have preceded us. Other creatures express linguistic behavior and can and do coordinate their activities, but they cannot use their linguistic competence to invent new ways of interacting. “Languaging”, a word often used by Humberto Maturana, is a second-order process in which the words we have embodied are rearranged to form meaningful statements that permit us, in a coordinated manner, to act in new ways. The “progress” we attribute to our modern culture is the accumulation of novelty enabled through the use of language.

Without the benefit of fMRI’s that show cognitive scientists how the brain responds to incoming signals, Heidegger figured out that Descartes and all the models based on the transcendental, mysterious mirroring of nature were built upon a house of cards. So have many other philosophers, but Heidegger developed an alternate, powerful explanation to explain the existence of our species. He argued that we are living creatures that acquire our understanding of our place in the [real] world out there by acting within in through the context of language. Nothing more than the simple process I sketched above. Understanding is a meaningful sense of that world and of ourselves. “Meaning” here means that we become capable to acting in a purposeful manner. We can metaphorically picture a way we want the world to be and act deliberately to create our picture in real terms. More directly, we construct a world by our bootstraps. First learning the meaning of simple things through the language we listen to as infants, a process with grows and continues all through our life.

This process is hard to accept for several reasons. One is that we are acculturated from the beginning by the Cartesian model. It is the fundamental believe in our modern culture of the model for knowledge and rational behavior. Secondly, in each distinct culture, we share the meaning of many words so that we act transparently without asking what did she mean by that. Heidegger called acting in way ready-to-hand. We act unconsciously using language and artifacts that we have grown so accustomed to us under the particular circumstances that we just do it, as Nike tells us to do. (Nike is wrong, however, in the context they operate in. It is only the ready-to-hand actions that are already routine. Nike is talking about new kinds of actions. You simply cannot just do it here; consciousness and learning is essential.)

Heidegger called our competent, routines: ready-to-hand. He felt compelled to invent a new vocabulary to startle those who were stuck in the language of Descartes. What he was talking about are actions we usually call habits. These are behavioral patterns we exhibit routinely without consciously thinking about them. Most of them are positive in the sense that we are being effective in acting. Most of our daily life is spent in this mode. Talking and walking are two sets of such habits. Driving a car is another involving a complicated piece of machinery. Some of our habits are just the opposite; we act in such ways to create negative outcomes. The Cartesian model of the mind does a poor job of explaining this opposing set of modes of acting, because they are not actually opposed at all.

I will continue to write about the constructivist model of reality and its consequences on human culture in further posts. The take home today is the implications of the constructivist model on the possibility of flourishing: the same thing as sustainability in this blog. If it were human nature to be greedy without limit and always act out of the ill to power, I would stand by my pessimistic prediction that we are doomed. But if the constructivist model is more realistic, then we can replace the pessimism by hopefulness. Habits, no matter how deeply engrained in an individual and the culture, are potentially changeable. No theoretical reason stands in the way. Of course, the institutions and their embedded beliefs and norms will be highly resistant to any change that tears down the current beliefs and norms and upsets the ordering of power. Bloody revolutions can do this, but at great cost often even to those propelling the changes. Continuing on our present trajectory invites such revolutionary behavior, not only at the hands of the suffering human being, but also from the Earth itself.

Taking Candy from Babies and Other Unethical Acts

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candy from baby

It’s either synchronicity or my narrow focus at work, but I am caught up in an interesting stream of news. My last post tells of the stressed Wall Streeters, who are getting lowered bonuses, complaining of their unfortunate lot in life. The one prior to that was about altruism and whether it was nature or nurture (a little of both). Today the post is based on a report of psychological research arguing that wealth and other elite privileges create a kind of moral breakdown. In research just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (subscription only), Piff and colleagues have demonstrated that people in socioeconomic elite (measured by wealth, occupational prestige, and education) are more likely than lower class folk to cheat, break traffic laws, and behave unethically.

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

Fascinating discovery. Maybe this can explain why our national politicians lie so much. As a group, they are clearly in the upper economic class, with average net worths more than 9 times that of the average citizen. I wonder if the incidence of adultery is higher, also. Money is certainly corrupting, but now we find that it also increases the chance of disobeying the no-turn-on-red warning signs.

I looked at a few other related news pieces to make sure I was not taking this work out of context; I had only the abstract (above) to go on. Several warned that the methodology was flawed and that some of the results needed a bit of skepticism, but no one seemed to deny the general drift of the findings.

The authors denied that they were waging a class war, and noted that the research also included suggestions about how to cope with this tendency. Speculating that a lack of empathy for others was part of the explanation of the behavior, they suggested some sort of empathy training. I wrote a related piece a few weeks ago based on other research showing that the rich were less empathetic. It makes sense. Greed turns one inward and sees others merely as means to their ends. As people become seen more as objects, not as other human beings, they will be treated by the amoral rules of liberal (free) markets. Cheating is not seen as a wrong, but merely an action designed to gain the upper economic hand. Fairness, rightness, or responsibility are not part of the motivating chain for the act; fairness rules do not apply to a “thing.”

The more our political economy and culture lean to the unmitigated “free” market and radical individualism, the more that this model of behavior is likely to show up. And once present it will be exceedingly hard to reverse. Another article quotes the principal author, Piff, as saying: “… the study may shed light on the hotly debated topic of income inequality. “Our findings suggest that if the pursuit of self-interest goes unchecked, it may result in a vicious cycle: self-interest leads people to behave unethically, which raises their status, which leads to more unethical behavior and inequality.”

The data of Wilkinson and Pickett, (The Spirit Level) show that the US is already at the extreme end of economic inequality among developed nations. The US exhibits the worst social and human performance by a number of metrics. Their results, developed by an epidemiological method, cannot be used to establish cause/effect relationships. These new studies now add a causal foundation for their shocking work. Taken together they paint a most unflattering, even shameful, picture of the US and our current cultural values. This body of work explains, in part, why shame is not enough these days to act as a stimulus to return to a societal context of ethical behavior and empathetic appreciation of others. Joseph Welch, where are you? Fairness and other foundational moral constructs of the nation have become so corrupted or lost that they often seem, to me, to be out of reach. Any talk about sustainability that lacks an understanding of this hole in our societal fabric hasn’t a chance of working.

Let Them Eat Cake



In a wonderful ironic turn, my colleagues in the sustainable consumption (a bit of an oxymoron) world have been circulating a Bloomberg news story about the hardships of many Wall Streeters who, this year, are getting lower bonuses than has been the past practice. You really should read the whole article to catch the full impact, but here are a few snippets.

“People who don’t have money don’t understand the stress,” said Alan Dlugash, a partner at accounting firm Marks Paneth & Shron LLP in New York who specializes in financial planning for the wealthy. “Could you imagine what it’s like to say I got three kids in private school, I have to think about pulling them out? How do you do that?”

Talk about insularity and noblesse oblige. Alan, how about all the people that struggle every year to pay their bills and have had less each year, without dreaming of bonuses, for about the last decade? To be fair, the article points out, “The percentage of Americans living in poverty climbed to 15.1 percent, the highest in almost two decades.” Nothing more is said about this.

This was followed by the sad tale of woe of Richard Scheiner, 58, a real-estate investor and hedge-fund manager. As I was writing this post I became concerned that my tears would short out my keyboard.

Scheiner said he spends about $500 a month to park one of his two Audis in a garage and at least $7,500 a year each for memberships at the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester and a gun club in upstate New York. A labradoodle named Zelda and a rescued bichon frise, Duke, cost $17,000 a year, including food, health care, boarding and a daily dog-walker who charges $17 each per outing, he said.

Now for the heart-rending part. “Still, he sold two motorcycles he didn’t use and called his Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet ‘the Volkswagen of supercars.’”

The story goes on:

Scheiner pays $30,000 a year to be part of a New York-based peer-learning group for investors called Tiger 21. Founder Michael Sonnenfeldt said members, most with a net worth of at least $10 million, have been forced to “re-examine lots of assumptions about how grand their life would be.” While they aren’t asking for sympathy, “at their level, in a different way but in the same way, the rug got pulled out,” said Sonnenfeldt, 56. “For many people of wealth, they’ve had a crushing setback as well.” He described a feeling of “malaise” and a “paralysis that does not allow one to believe that generally things are going to get better,” listing geopolitical hot spots such as Iran and low interest rates that have been “artificially manipulated” by the Federal Reserve.

I felt the same way reading this article as Rick Santorum described his response to JFK’s clear and compelling words about the place of religion in a free country. I know Bloomberg is the news magazine for the financial community, but I would think they might have had a bit more sensitivity to the irony of what they wrote about, especially in the shadow of Occupy Wall Street, and the obscene role that money is playing with our politics. If you think I am going overboard, please clink on the link and read the whole article. I shed no tears for the fellow who drove out of Manhattan all the way to Brooklyn to buy salmon at a discount. Perhaps, there is some psychological difference between the shock of not getting some money you have been accustomed to get, and the every day suffering of those living with too little money to start with, but I think most of us would accept the Wall Street kind of suffering, rather than to spend everyday wondering where the next meal is coming from.