The Importance of Buttons

buttons

Can you imagine life without buttons? There are times when neither Velcro or zippers will hold your clothes together. But do you ever think about buttons except when you struggle to button one? You should reflect on them from time to time because they are an essential tool that enables everyone to care for themselves. As you all should know by now, care is at the center of my path to flourishing. We flourish when we have acted to care for all the essential domains that made us human. Our flourishing is helped along by the care we receive from others. The kind of care I speak about is not the affective psychological emotion or feeling about another being. It is part of our very existence as human beings as differentiated from other living creatures.

It is only action that counts; thinking or feeling is good but doesn’t count as care. Action takes thought to get going, but it also usually takes some sort of tool. To protect ourselves from the harshness of the environment (a caring act) we require clothing. Most cultures wear clothing that requires some sort of fastener to keep it attached to the body. When my wife put on a sari during a recent trip to India, the person who was helping her said she uses pins to keep if from slipping off even although, in theory, it can be merely folded and tucked into the belt. We need clothing and fasteners to care for our bodies, but this is not the same kind of need that psychologists and economists use in their models and theories.

This is a kind of existential need, something we must have to be able to care for ourselves. The tools (clothing, fasteners, etc.) are enablers. The same is true of food. It serves an existential need on caring for our bodies. If we do not have it, we cannot survive. In today’s fast moving and scattered world, we need some means of transportation to get to work, to the gym, to visit sick friend, and so on. Of course we could go on foot using the technology we were born with, but that clearly would not permit one to take care in most of the essential domains in today’s modern world. For many people, however, it is the only means of transportation they have. I won’t list these essential domains here, but you can find them in Sustainability by Design, and in this blog at this link.

The point I am getting at is there is a class of needs constituted by those goods and services that enable us to care. They are fundamental to our Being. They enable us to exhibit our essential humanness and to act out our authentic caring. They create the possibility of flourishing. They are very different from those things we merely want. These relate to our inauthentic mode, and follow from conformity to cultural norms. We could flourish without them and, given the damages that the consumption of goods satisfying our inauthentic selves creates to the world and our Being, we probable would come closer to that condition.

Our present economic accounting lumps everything bought and sold together and makes no distinction between those goods and services that are care enablers and everything else. Without that distinction, the economic system runs blindly, propelled by Smith’s invisible hand and the visible foot of policies that promote economic growth. The notion of “self-interest” works on the wrong self, the insatiable, inauthentic self driven by the forces of the market, rather than as an autonomous actor whose needs are authentic to its existential Being. Companies have a choice of which self they market to: the authentic, caring self or the needy, inauthentic self. They can deliberately produce goods and services to enable their customers to care and thereby raise the possibility of flourishing or produce and market goods and services feeding the cultural norms which in turn are created largely by the producers themselves.

I often rail against the efforts of firms that claim to be doing “sustainable business.” With but few exceptions, these firms haven’t stopped to think what flourishing is, and are working very hard to create more demand for their brands, while doing that with less environmental impact. I argue that this kind of activity can, at best, reduce unsustainability, but not create sustainability, which I have previously defined as the possibility of flourishing. What I have written in this post, albeit brief, is a way out for those firms that genuinely (more precisely, authentically) want to create flourishing. Let them begin to think about inventing, making, and marketing care-enabling goods and services. It would take a lot of work and change to do this, but it would be relatively straightforward.

They would have to fire the psychologists running the market research departments that set the agenda for the firm. They would need to change the criteria used to select the new products emerging from their R&D departments. The probably would need to switch their ad agency to one that buys into the notion that enabling care is the objective, not creating and feeding want-driven need (If any such agencies do exist.). For the capitalists that argue that any attack on growth and consumption is always a left-wing plot, there is nothing in this model that is different from the existing market model in terms of competition and profit as drivers.

Once people begin to pay attention to taking care, these businesses will begin to grow. New products will sprout up and others will begin to capture more of the economy, as people expand their caring actions. The growth fueled by the feeding of insatiability will slow down and may even stop, but without the catastrophic impact on a society that many argue would come if growth is neglected.

I am not enough of an economist to predict what would happen if the basic model of Homo economicus that drives neoclassic economics would be replaced by one driven by care, not need. but I see no barrier to trying it. Smith’s world was very different from ours. The economy he saw driven by the invisible hand was one that predominantly produced care-enabling goods. He wrote about the butcher, the baker, the brewer, and pin factories, all enablers. We have a pretty good idea of what it takes for someone to provide basic care for in a couple of domains, but have little understanding as to what is needed to enable care in other domains. Amartya Sen sees economics as enabling people to care although he uses the language of capabilities. Although his work was largely focused on developing and poor nations, there is no reason it cannot be applied to rich places like the US. We are rich in material wealth, but perhaps even more impoverished when it comes to taking care than the countries Sen points to.

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