Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
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 zên (“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)