All about Care (2)


I am more and more convinced that the way to flourishing is through Being. Understanding Being takes us onward to care, a central concept in my framework to move modern society out of the unsustainability trajectory. This poses a big problem because Being is an elusive concept both per se and in practice. Being is to humans as water is to fish. It is the medium within which we exist, but cannot be aware of it until we are removed from it. Fish can never understand that they live in water because they lack the cognitive capability, and would quickly pass out of existence if they were removed from it. Humans can, however, discover Being because we have a cognitive mechanism that permits us to examine the medium within which we exist even though it is invisible in daily life. We are able to reflect on our conscious experience as an “objective” observer. I put objective in scare quotes to emphasize the difficulty in understanding what objectivity means and how one can become fully objective when contemplating something.

Science has come to provide the most universal way of being objective. By the rigorous application of scientific methodology, we can arrive at statements about the objective truth of something. Scientific methods apply, in principle, only to phenomena we can observe under controlled condition so we can repeat applications of the method and tweeze out universal facts and theories. The social sciences are often criticized for the inadequacy of their scientific methods to arrive at objective, universal truths, but they can be undoubtedly applied to show distinctions in observed phenomena, say human behavior, and support hypotheses made about such behavior.

Motivated by historical references to the difference between having and Being, Erich Fromm sought to refine the understanding of the consequence of these modes of human existence on people. Were they happier? Did they suffer less or differently? Did they deal more competently with the real life they experienced? And so.

Fromm, who comes from a psychoanalytic perspective writes in To Have or To Be that

“For many years I had been deeply impressed by this distinction [between having and being] and was seeking its empirical basis in the concrete study of individuals and groups by the psychoanalytic method. What I saw has led me to conclude that this distinction, together with that between love of life and love of the dead represents the most crucial problem of existence; that empirical anthropological and psychoanalytic data tend to demonstrate that 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.” (emphasis in the original)

His methods are scientific in nature, with criteria and hypotheses coming from the science of psychology. I was struck by his writing when I first encountered it years ago and still am impressed with his focus on the impact of these two differing beliefs on human behavior and its consequence on life quality. Not surprising since he spent his life trying to improve that quality in individuals as a clinician. I also was influenced by Martin Heidegger whose major philosophical work was on the subject of Being. As a philosopher, not a practitioner, he was more concerned about understanding and describing the phenomenon of Being than in its practical consequences. He like, Fromm, found his way to Being by using a method, phenomenology.

I have, as I noted earlier, been reading on existentialism this summer. Partly because I read Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus in a course I was taking last spring and realized how little I knew about existentialism. As I have in the past, I thought about teaching a course on it to my senior peers as a way to understand it better myself and so piled up a stack of books by existentialist writers and other scholars. But having worked my way into the subject a little, I have begun to realize the close tie between existentialism and Being. Heidegger, although called a key existentialist by every source I have, eschewed the term. He did what fishes cannot do, finding a way to examine Being from within its enveloping container. The primary method of phenomenology, developed by the philosopher, Edmund Husserl, is called bracketing or epochÄ“, which method presumes that one can put aside one’s presuppositions and prejudices when studying some thing and, thereby, focus on the thing itself, Being in Heidegger’s case. He radically applied Husserl’s methodology, designed to relate to real objects-in-the-world, to the thing called Being.

He dissected Being philosophically, and wrote many pages about how it exists in the world and what its ontological structures comprise. How is it that we are able to grasp and think about Being? Does it have any essential features? How does it show up in human behavior? He argued that it is essential that humans come to an understanding of their own Being if they are to understand the being of other objects. Given the extreme difficulty of lifting oneself out of the milieu of existence, it is not surprising that Heidegger’s arguments are highly tortuous and abstruse.

His was an essentially “purely” philosophical study without a formal investigation of the normative or practical consequence of man’s understanding of Being, and living a life according to its ontological structures. Fromm clearly puts a normative slant on Being as do those that ignited his interest. It is better for a human existence to Be rather than to have. Becoming a fully functioning human Being is closer to whatever makes our species unique than owning all the goods in the world. The implications of this inequality are supremely important as the principle norms of our and other modern societies are just the opposite. Materialism runs the ship of state. Being has faded into the background if it is present at all.

I began to equate “sustainability” to flourishing by accident and did not fully recognize the implications of this definition. Over the years, I have come to discount sustainability (see many other posts) and to hoist flourishing as the important distinction. I see it now as the only vision or norm that can lead us to a truly “sustainable” world—one in which all creatures human and otherwise exist in some homeostasis within the world: changing, but stable over time, able to rebound from unseen upsets, providing the necessary resources for the future. Until we move significantly in that direction, “sustainability” will continue to mean maintaining the materialistic, growth-oriented culture found everywhere in the affluent parts of the Earth. Materialistic measures of human well-being can be and are converted to numbers. But flourishing, like the beauty of Old Master’s painting, is in the eye of the beholder; it resists being metricized and measured.

As I read further into the existentialist literature, I find more and more evidence that flourishing, while unnamed as such, lies squarely within that field. Many existential writers eventually come to argue that freedom of choice is at the center of human existence, not freedom to do whatever one wants—particularly what one wants to do with his or her property. Freedom to Be what one chooses is the core. To Be is not all that easy, however. One must choose to Be and that turns out to be very daunting. So much so that Sartre wrote that “Man is condemned to be free.” An important part of the existentialism argument is that the world has no intrinsic meaning to be grasped as a guide to the good life, and so humans must choose what they are to Be from nothingness. It is significant and ironic that the idea of freedom as central to Being comes from a denial of the meaningfulness of the world. Our historic political interpretation of freedom comes from the Enlightenment thinkers, who were convinced that it was part of human essence, waiting to be served by the market and political institutions.

Finally, flourishing is a form of Being which itself is a form of human existence based on care. This simple relationship provides a new foundation for constructing a “sustainable” society by following a simple rule: transform the market and other institutions to enable people to care, instead of creating and satisfying need. Goods and services are as central to Being as to having, but in importantly different ways. Amartya Sen argues that the fundamental purpose of an economy is to provide the capabilities to flourish, although he uses other language and elides an an intermediate step—caring. First come capabilities to exercise care, which, when fulfilled, create the possibility of flourishing. Being is already all around us. It is available merely by using our freedom to choose it. We can, as Nike says, just do it. So why then is it so little present? We have been accustomed to live by a set of extrinsic standards set by society, so much so that we are deaf to another calling, the calling of Being.

(Image: Edmund Husserl)