June 2013 Archives

False Authenticity



“The Stone,” the NYTimes forum on philosophy, ran a piece today of much interest to me. Entitled, “The Gospel According to ‘Me’,” the main theme was the current fad of seeking one’s authentic self.

The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic! Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!

This move to find heaven on Earth, while lessening the relationship to the Gods of traditional religions, has developed over a long time, starting after WWII.

Unlike the conversions that transfigure the born-again’s experience of the world in a lightning strike, this one occurred in stages: a postwar existentialist philosophy of personal liberation and “becoming who you are” fed into a 1960s counterculture that mutated into the most selfish conformism, disguising acquisitiveness under a patina of personal growth, mindfulness and compassion. Traditional forms of morality that required extensive social cooperation in relation to a hard reality defined by scarcity have largely collapsed and been replaced with this New Age therapeutic culture of well-being that does not require obedience or even faith — and certainly not feelings of guilt. Guilt must be shed; alienation, both of body and mind, must be eliminated, most notably through yoga practice after a long day of mind-numbing work.

The article focuses on the quest for “authenticity.” I put authenticity in quotes to signal that this is not the meaning I use when talking or writing about flourishing, my designator of well-being. While not mentioning Maslow, the quest for authenticity is about the same as fulfilling his highest human need, that of self actualization. Maslow had, as most psychologists have, a narrow view of the self, as some sort of object located in the mind that drives one’s actions. This self seems to be what all the people discussed in the Times article are trying to locate and satisfy. The whole concept of an isolated self seeking only to pursue activities directed to its needs, while perhaps the dominant way of describing one’s inner life, leads to just the opposite to a sense of failure and emptiness. Such a sense has been ascribed to explain the hyper-consumption of our society.

A nave belief in authenticity eventually gives way to a deep cynicism. A conviction in personal success that must always hold failure at bay becomes a corrupt stubbornness that insists on success at any cost. Cynicism, in this mode, is not the expression of a critical stance toward authenticity but is rather the runoff of this failure of belief. The self-help industry itself runs the gamut in both directions — from “The Power of Now,” which teaches you the power of meditative self-sufficiency, to “The Rules,” which teaches a woman how to land a man by pretending to be self-sufficient. Profit rules the day, inside and out.

Couple this to the notion that the quantity of material objects or the capability to acquire them is the way that “success” is measured today, and it is just a short step to understanding where the unsustainability of both the natural world and human beings comes from. This fate of humankind and the earth is preventable by a very simple change in the story of who we are. The concept of an authentic self existing only to find and satisfy itself in the world is just that—an idea. This self has never been found within the body even with all the modern mind-probing tools available to cognitive scientists. I mentioned an alternate idea of the mind, coming from the work of Antonio Damasio, a few blogs ago. It’s so important to an understanding of human existence, I’ll repeat it here.

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. (Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, (note 7 to Chapter 1))

Taking a lead from his process-oriented definition, self is an ascription of the drivers of one’s actions in the world. Self, with such a process-oriented definition, arises from the actions one takes. To the extent that they form a coherent set of actions, observers, including the actor, can attribute them to a self or identity. But not a single self or identity. One’s authentic self cares about a few separate, but loosely distinct, domains, not just the narcissistic, self expression central to the cultural behavior discussed in the article.

Well-being is not found in the satisfaction of the self that lives only in the moment. It comes from paying attention to the existential domains that constitute the world every one of us is delivered into. Paying attention means taking care of those domains—acting to keep all in some state of perfection or completeness. Quite a job, and one that is not being done well judging from the sad state of humans and the rest of the planet. People are seeking this false authenticity because they lack a truly authentic sense of who they are. The article has a cartoon with the legend, “Church of self: Today’s sermon.—How to have it all and feel kind of empty at the same time.”

Key to this “sermon” is in the word “have.” As I have often written, a having concept of the self, coupled with the economic/psychological notion of insatiability, can go nowhere but to the exhaustion of the earth’s resources and to an existential emptiness in humans. The Buddhist notion of selflessness, the escape from the demands of one’s ego, fails to recognize the reality of being-in-the-world. Humans become who they are from their experiences in the process of growing up in a world that imbues meaning. Their connection to the world of phenomena, experiences perceived through the senses, is the source of meaning. Meaning arises in the practice of living from which we acquire our capabilities to cope with the everyday challenges that must be addressed and presumably solved. Otherwise they will keep emerging and prevent one from moving onto another problems. Problems in this context, are nothing more than undone or incomplete situations. This continuum of actions is what Fromm and Heidegger called being. Like Damasio’s mind, it is a process—a set of actions.

A kind of self can be invoked, but only as a metaphor. The being self is a reflective observer, always assessing the state of completion of the immediate acts of caring, determining whether to continue or move to another domain. Flourishing arises when the domains in the immediate past has been satisfied for the time being or are left in a satisfactory state so that the actor can shift attention to take care of another more pressing domain. Being, as a process, has no end state. Well-being, note the verbal nature of the term, is not some condition, but only an assessment of completion in a moment. Flourishing shows up when such moments occur with regularity.

Authenticity is also like mind a process-oriented concept. It is the selection of one’s cares from an understanding that who one is is a choice made at every instant. Authenticity recognizes the temporality and ephemerality of the identities associated with the chosen domains of care. We are a parent in one moment and a spiritual practitioner the next. Authenticity also accepts that we cannot always act successfully in all domains, that is, we may change our identities over time.

One might ask, “Why then do we not seek a true satisfying, authentic life? One part of the answer is that we act on our beliefs and our culture has embedded the having belief deeply in us. A second is that the institutions within we live are designed around this belief and others. Self-help has become a big business. Meditative practices that reveal the belief structure that drives one’s behavior are a start to change, but not when they are designed to reinforce the hold that having has on us. These beliefs are strongly culturally bound. Eastern spiritual practices can enhance one’s reflective capabilities, but need to be carefully examined in both the context of where they originate and of our own culture.

… At the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others. As the ever-wise Buddha says, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

In reading this as a desirable way of being, one need note that there is a world outside of me and it is just as important to take care (attend with “love and devotion”) of it as myself. Buddha’s way of avoiding suffering was to remove himself from the world. The avoidance of suffering is not the same as flourishing, just as reducing unsustainability is not the same as creating sustainability.

ps. In the wake of the Supreme Court decisions on same sex marriage, perhaps we have come to realize that the emotion of love as an expression of the way we care for others preceded the invention of marriage by many millennia.

Green Consumerism Is No Solution

| | Comments (1)


The header for this blog is a headline from an article published by the American Anthropological Association, by Richard Wilk. I read it in the Green blog of the Huffington Post. I saw Wilk just a few days before this at a conference sponsored by SCORAI (Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative). I was one of the group that established SCORAI. Here’s the beginning of what Wilk wrote.

Greenwashing is not just for corporations anymore — it has gone personal. Instead of feeling guilty about the huge gaps between wealthy and poor, the ways consumerism causes global warming, or how our daily pleasures cause rainforest destruction and despoil the sea, we can drink a few cups of fair-trade coffee, eat a rainforest crunch bar and instantly feel better. The consumer marketplace today offers us every kind of ethical, ecological and healthy option we can imagine, from recycled toilet paper to household wind turbines.

Goodness and moral values have been privatized in our post-Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal world. “Green” consumer goods promise the eternal lie of the huckster — that we can have our cake and eat it too, that we can change the world without sacrifice, or any more effort than smarter shopping. Because our gold ear-studs have been “ethically mined” we are absolved from thinking about why we feel we ‘need’ to wear gold at all. We can take expensive vacations in exotic tropical lands, ignoring the poverty around us while we enjoy “sustainable” gourmet meals and an organic mud bath… Green consumption reduces all of the problems of the world into making the right shopping decisions.

All this fits into the classic case of quick fixes that attempt to cure the symptoms without addressing the root causes. I have argued that consumption is an addictive habit created and supported by the underlying cultural beliefs of our so-called modern society. Wilk adds an important additional causal factor, the disappearance of public moral values. We lack a public voice shouting, “Mindless consuming is not OK; it is destroying the social and environmental fabric of civilization.” (my words)

Wilk goes on to argue that we, in the affluent world, possess sufficient knowledge to appreciate the harms we are producing.

Another difference between our own consumer culture and that of our ancestors, is that now we know so much more about the way our consumption connects us to each other, to our own health and that of the planet. For the first time we can see, or even talk to the people who grow our gourmet coffee, weave our artisanal rugs, and put beads in our cornrows on a holiday beach. This marvelous network of information leaves consumers more exposed to moral fault than ever before, and makes the burden of moral behavior heavier and more perilous. Often the only choices seem to be tokenism — making changes that are more symbolic than substantive — or cynicism grounded in the experience of falling for new trends or solutions that turn out to be misguided, co-opted, or fraudulent.

Patagonia’s advertising campaign based on the moralistic phrase “Don’t Buy This Shirt” may have persuaded some of its clients to postpone their purchases, but the overall effect was to increase sales. [Consumer] choice is held to be a cornerstone of liberty by perhaps a majority of Americans, who see every instance of public values emphasizing the Commonwealth as a reduction of that liberty. Couple that to a foundation-level belief that we are constituted as “I’s” by an insatiable set of needs, and the ultimate outcome of consuming the Earth should become patently clear.

We can continue to value consumer choice, but not in the unlimited way we do at present. Even the most ardent libertarians should recognize that some rules are always needed to enable the freedom they seek. Traffic signals allow for the flow of drivers, free from the threat of injury and death at every crossroads. The free market is never completely free. Some rules are always needed to prevent misuse that contravenes the intents of those who see opportunities to collect excessive rents.

A shift in understanding of who the “I” really is could retain choice, but within limits. The seemingly slight change from an image of human beings as constituted by need to one where one’s humanness springs from care can convert the quick fix of green consumerism to a more fundamental system capable of producing sustainability-as-flourishing. Care requires goods and services to satisfy one’s intentions in the several domains I wrote about just two blogs previously. The insatiability vanishes, however. One consumes only as much as is required to satisfy the target of care in all domains. The process is continuous as the world keeps changing, but is not insatiable.

With this belief, end points are dictated by existential assessments, not by comparisons with others, triggered by cultural values, or driven by persuasive mechanisms. The ideal of the Sabbath can be realized because one can cease consuming, satisfied that his or her world has been taken care of, at least for the moment. It will take a cultural transformation to get to such a point, more than Wilk’s call-out, “Shock treatment through dramatic public events that bring shame on high consumers, and other direct action has to be on the agenda.” This would be a good start, exposing the amorality of today’s consumer culture, but without an accompanying shift in existential beliefs, would only slow down the race toward catastrophe.

Consciousness and Care

| | Comments (1)


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 Consciousness.

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.

Happiness Is Not Much Better than GDP

| | Comments (1)


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 zn (“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)

4-category care structure revised.jpg


| | Comments (1)

E.B. Browning

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)

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.