Acting extrinsically keeps sustainability-as-flourishing away


In my last post, I introduced my list of the polarized beliefs that separate the world of sustainability from our current one, and began my discussion with two very important distinctions, authentic and inauthentic. All of these distinctions are important because sustainability-as-flourishing depends on having them all in place. But some do seem to rank higher on some scale than others. Today, I want to look at a pair of related items, intrinsic values and extrinsic values.

First, a brief comment on values. Values are a particular set of beliefs that are tied to action. They are different from beliefs about reality, like “rain is necessary to make my garden grow.” They are what we say when asked why we did what we just did. They are also stated out of the immediate context of action to establish one’s ethical ordering and ideological rightness. I use ethical here in the most general sense as a set of beliefs that assert what is the right action to take under the particular circumstances. This broad definition includes our everyday practices as well as those that would be associated with morality.

Phenomenologically, there is no categorical difference, only a matter of degree and social legitimacy. Drinking from a cup without slurping is an ethical action (in most families) under this definition. Age before beauty is another value. At the highest social level, values are often categorized with a general term, for example, altruism or selfishness. Both describe the similar character of many different actions someone routinely makes. Selfishness describes actions that benefit the actor more than others involved; altruism describes actions that reward others more than the actor. Generic statements like family values, however, are simply ideological codes; this statement is as empty as is sustainability without specifics.

Most of our values are embedded in our unconsciousness waiting to be called on to produce the appropriate action. Giddens make this point explicitly by designating two kinds of “consciousness”: practical consciousness-the cognitive structure that actually produces the actions, and discursive consciousness—the cognitive structure that produces the explanation about what we did. The two are not necessarily the same; we often make-up the reasons for our action to avoid some sort of social sanction or simply do not know. We do not “know” why we put one foot in front of the other when we walk. The (ethical) rules have become completely embedded in our practical consciousness. If forced to explain, we would probably say something like, “Well, it works.”

I use this phenomenological definition of values to avoid attributing some sort of reified existence of beliefs, that is, to avoid giving a psychological reality to the “causes” of our behavioral habits. I try to be faithful to my intellectual mentors who argue that our behaviors are the result of learning via life experiences and arise from some particular structure in our cognitive system.

Intrinsic and extrinsic are terms used by Tim Kasser to describe a constellation of values that are found clustered across large populations of actors. Here’s how he classifies them:

Extrinsic, materialistic goals (e.g., financial success, image, popularity) are those focused on attaining rewards and praise, and are usually means to some other end. Intrinsic goals (e.g., personal growth, affiliation, community feeling) are, in contrast, more focused on pursuits that are supportive of intrinsic need satisfaction.

These two line up well with the axes of authentic and inauthentic. Intrinsic values, as the words suggest, focus on self-generated “needs”, whereas extrinsic align with “needs” superimposed by external voices coming from institutional cultures. Kasser uses the language of psychology, where Heidegger uses terms from his ontological philosophy for the same concept. The important lesson here is letting the antipodal nature of these pairs sink in without being distracted by the language. When I add terms like Being vs. Having, care vs. want (need), or love vs. fear, the image of two fundamental ways of living becomes much clearer. Only one can produce flourishing.

Intrinsic values differ from individual to individual reflecting the distinct life history that makes everyone of us unique. They are contextual because experience always reflects the context in which action takes place. If one asked a large sample what their personal growth goals are, there would be repetition coming from the common experience of individuals, but this multiple presence is categorically different from extrinsic values coming from the voice of society. There are many such voices but some are much louder and dominating than others and would be shared widely. Materialistic pursuits are dominating today. Keeping up with one’s peers (or the peers that one seeks to join) is a strong value.

Sustainability does not require that one act only out of intrinsic values. As many psychologists and sociologists have written, materialistic values are so entrenched that acquiring them is unavoidable and not necessarily bad or harmful. But when the extrinsic values completely drive out intrinsic values or nearly so, flourishing coming from the sense that one has taken care of his or her human Being, is out of sight. It is easy to act out of extrinsic values without thinking; they have become societal habits and lie deep in the practical consciousness I mentioned earlier. They are instilled in our children by the time they are 8 or 9 or earlier. To shift to act authentically using intrinsic values as a guide, individuals need to become competent in reflection and critical thinking. They must learn to ask themselves questions about their consumption practices and become mindful. Mindfulness, in the Buddhist tradition, allows the practitioner to loosen connections to the (Western notion of) ego. If one thinks of ego as the inauthentic self that has been produced by culture influences, any reflective practice that makes one aware of the values behind actions and loosens their dominance can aid in the shift from inauthentic to authentic or, equivalently, from extrinsic to intrinsic and begin to open up the possibility of sustainability-as-flourishing.

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David M Carter said:

Another important point about intrinsic/extrinsic values is that, from a psychological research standpoint, they appear to be functionally connected. In other words, studies show that as extrinsic values go up, intrinsic values go down, and vice versa. This is good news and bad news. It helps explain why our cultural prompts toward extrinsic values are dampening intrinic values. But, it also suggests that, if we can increase intrinsic values, extrinsic values will decrease. This is especially important because intrinisc values are much more closely aligned with higher levels of well-being than extrinsic values.