January 2015 Archives

The Primacy of Connectedness

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I am still getting ready to teach my course on the “self” at my senior learning institute. I got a copy of Kenneth Gergen’s book, Relational Self, out of the library and read it last week. Gergen is a psychologist on the Swarthmore faculty. His basic argument is that humans create all meanings through interactions with others. Challenging the Modernist notion of an independent self, he writes:

My hope is to demonstrate that virtually all intelligible action is born, sustained, and/or extinguished within the ongoing process of relationship. From this standpoint there is no isolated self or fully private experience. Rather, we exist in a world of co-constitution. We are always already emerging from relationships; we cannot step out of relationship; even in our most private moments we are never alone. Further, as I will suggest, the future well-being of the planet depends significantly on the extent to which can nourish and protect not only individuals, or even groups, but the generative process of relating.

I was disappointed in the book, but not in his thesis. Care is the central idea in my work. Care is fundamentally an idea about relationship. Existentialists use the compound term, being-with-others to denote the constitutive function of relationship. I am more convinced by arguments from this source than Gergen’s. Care rests on the argument that human consciousness is always consciousness of something. When we are awake and conscious, there is always some object in the field we call consciousness. The existential view that humans gather meaning from being-in-the-world or being-with-others places relationships at the center. If one adopts Heidegger’s view that objects take or meaning through our relationship with them, not from some independent essence, then both the compound phrases have essentially the same meaning. Gergen mentions Michel Callon’s concept of actor-network-theory, where both humans and non-humans are always involved in action, with no difference between the two classes. Heidegger’s notion of equipment is similar.

Meaning arises from distinct experiences that can be expressed in language. If all experiences involve interacting players, language, itself, is an expression of relationships, whether we are aware of it or not. Much of my disappointment came from what I read as a failure to make the last point in the above quote clear: How can the notion of the constitutive power of relationship contribute to well-being or to flourishing as I call it? I believe that “care” can do what is missing in Gergen’s book. Care has a normative sense for me. It not only recognizes the fundamental connectedness of life, but also implies that we act in a way to preserve and enhance the flourishing of both ourselves and the other(s). Words would have first been given to describe actions that were effective, that is, meaningful. The context of meaning remains in the use of the same words even though the specific situations are different.

No matter what differences exist between Gergen and me, we send the same message. Unless the modernist culture is changed to embody an idea of human being as relational or caring, we will continue to produce pathological impacts to ourselves and the rest of the world. No amount of fixing up with fancy technologies or institutional arrangements will do. Social paradigms, especially the foundational beliefs, are very hard to change. Ours has been around for centuries and, compared to what preceded it, is considered by most to be a great sign of progress. So, even in the face of present-day human and worldly suffering and deterioration, the clarion call remains, “It’s not broke, so don’t fix it.” Fix here refers to major change. I think this is misguided. Gergen, at the end of his book, includes a discussion of some broad frameworks that are built on relationships, such as system theory, but fails to make a strong enough argument that it is imperative that we start building these into our cultural systems in place of all those based on individualism.

The Error of Trying to Measure Good and Bad

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It’s another David Brooks day. Today he is riffing on a story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In a nutshell, the tale is about a peaceful and happy city with an important open secret. Hidden away from the wandering eyes of the inhabitants is a closet containing a misfit. In Le Guin’s words, “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.” On occasions this poor human being is revealed for all who wish to observe. Like many of her stories, this one is a parable on the way we love and should live.The misfit sops up all the ills of society so that everyone else can live a happy, uncluttered life. Most of the citizens, even knowing the plight of the misfit, ignore the unfairness and go back to life as usual. A few with a deeper moral sensitivity leave to face the unknown world beyond the walls.

Brooks makes the obvious comparison to our world today. The citizens of Omelas have made a social contract to single out someone to serve as the means of their prosperity. This is far from the theory of the social contract on which our society is based, as Brooks writes:

In theory, most of us subscribe to a set of values based on the idea that a human being is an end not a means. You can’t justifiably use a human being as an object. It is wrong to enslave a person, even if that slavery might produce a large good. It is wrong to kill a person for his organs, even if many lives might be saved.

I am not sure he is correct in assuming that “most of us subscribe to [such] a set of values.” I suspect that a great majority of Americans have never heard of Kant’s moral imperatives or keep the more familiar “golden rule” in reach of their consciousness. Given the practical rules of our society, these moral guiding principles may not even be present in their unconsciousness waiting to be invoked in problematic situations. Brooks notes that these practical rules are utilitarian in essence, replacing the inherent priceless nature of human life with a number that can fit an maximizing algorithm, like economists and technocrats use to make decisions. In his words:

The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts. Some are not. They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity… The rest of us live with the trade-offs. The story reminds us of the inner numbing this creates. The people who stay in Omelas aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon. I’ve found that this story rivets people because it confronts them with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements — and, at the same time, it elicits some desire to struggle against bland acceptance of it all.

Whoa! I would say that those who stay in Omelas are, indeed, bad. It all depends on what standards of moral goodness is to be used. Brooks glosses over the distinctiveness of normative ethical theories, the different ways of morally justifying one’s actions. As a result, he misses the main point of Le Guin’s marvelous story. You can’t have it both ways and live an uncluttered moral life. It’s not the same as the utilitarian trade-offs that are part of that system of thought; it’s the absolute choice between one moral system or another. I am certainly no moral philosopher, but I have come to know that consequentialism, where utilitarianism fits, is incompatible with deontology, where Kantianism sits. The first kind measures the goodness or badness of an act by the outcomes and permits the use of more or better as criteria to compare one act with another. Different theories use different sets of values as the basis for making comparative judgments.

Deontological theories are based on the idea of duties and rights and look at the rightness of the act, itself, not the outcome of the act. Kant says it is wrong to treat a human as a means, instead of as an end, period. Rawls says we have a duty to do the right thing based on an process in which we are ignorant of the reality of the world out there. Simplistically, we might say, this class of theories deals with absolutes, the other with relative measures. When I discussed this editorial with my wife in midstream, she pointed out that Judaism is largely built on duty-based ethics, such as the one that has guided me for quite some time: acts of lovingkindness, often expressed as tikkun olam or healing the world.

In researching ethical theories today as I write this post, I noticed a third class of theories based on care. I suspect that much of my work to date on flourishing falls int this class since my concerns over care and interconnectedness fit into its framework that emphasizes interdependence and relationships. I will be looking at this in much more detail as I continue working on my current book.

Brooks’s failure to see the moral problem faced by the citizens of Omelas as having to choose between categories of ethics is the same problem virtually all of us in the United States have. Our much revered founding fathers dumped us into a moral dilemma with the first public document we live by, The Declaration of Independence. The most well-known sentence is: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The dilemma rests in the conflation of life, liberty and happiness. The first two are clearly absolute rights, except that philosophers argue about the meaning of liberty. Both call for a system of right-based principles. But the last, happiness, is not absolute. In fact, earlier drafts of the document used “property” instead. Further, economists have co-opted psychologists, and measure happiness in material terms. This outcome necessitates a consequentialist system. The dilemma was obvious from the get-go when human slaves were classed as property. We have ignored this dilemma right down to the present, as do the citizens of Omelas.

It is too easy, as Brooks does (see the above block quote) to excuse both the people of Omelas and us as not being bad because we have to become utilitarians to exist in this world. As utilitarians, trade-offs are simply means to maximize values, but one cannot trade-off the two distinct moral categories. As long as consequentialism dominates, as it does, we are indeed bad, and are always somewhere on a slippery slope. One cannot be just a little bad. It’s very important to accept that. We can live and perhaps must live with our dilemma, but we must not brush it away. We do admit, if pushed, that our motor of utilitarianism, the free market, produces unfairness; that is, it is amoral in the rights and duties domains. But we do little these days to correct its ills. As Brooks notes, we have lots of misfits hidden away in closets.

What I miss in this column is a call to action; a challenge to see the bads in all of us. Brooks ends with an enigmatic paragraph.

In another reading, the whole city of Omelas is just different pieces of one person’s psychology, a person living in the busy modern world, and that person’s idealism and moral sensitivity is the shriveling child locked in the basement.

The use of the word, “just,” is puzzling, suggesting that it’s OK to carry around two opposing ideas. It is, rather, both OK and not OK, but merely is a reflection of the values of our present society. Few people, in my estimate based on watching the world around me everyday, have such a mixed “psychology.” The clarity of deontology has been badly blurred by our utilitarian norm. Bad is just another value to be weighed against other things. Unfortunately, it has fallen far down the ladder. This is the scandal of our use of torture and other inhumane treatment. The absolute badness was measured and lost. Part of the story of flourishing I have been writing is that humans are fundamentally deontologists. We have certain rights and duties that cannot be weighed and exchanged. The centrality of care fits here. I have not stressed its moral nature, but will be doing this as I continue to think and write. I thank David Brooks for his provoking me once again.

I Wish You A Flourishing 2105

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2015

It seems appropriate for me to start off the New Year with a post on flourishing. Flourishing is very personal. I came across it entirely by chance. It showed up when I had to finish this sentence, “I am the possibility of…” as part of some personal training I did well over a decade ago. The sentence that showed up became my definition of sustainability as, “the possibility that human and other forms of life will flourish on the planet forever.” I became aware that the word has classic origins, having been discussed at length by Aristotle. It has great metaphorical power, connected to its biological origins. I have now used it in two book titles and probably will use it still one more time, at least.

It is beginning to enter what have been conversations about sustainability with more frequency. Jeremy Caradonna’s book on the history of sustainability includes it. It is so much expressive of what it means to be human than any term based on some reference to a human essence or nature. Well-being and flourishing are linguistic relatives, but not when well-being takes on a metrical sense, as it does through economics. Flourishing is inherently verbal, expressing some kind of action; it is not a static property. It is the outcome of some kind of existential process, that is, having to do with how life is being played out. If humans were nothing but animals whose nature is determined largely, if not only, by their genes, flourishing would be a metaphor for life itself, living out the potential provided by one’s genes. Non-humans, by this token, flourish most of the time unless hampered by loss of their natural habitat or some other external factor. Human encroachment on their natural potential is the largest barrier to the flourishing of all species other than our own.

In spite of assertions otherwise, it appears that humans’ existential potential, that is, the way they live out their lives, is not limited by their genes or any other essential factor. The evolution of the human brain has resulted in a part that is bound to our evolutionary emergence from other forms of life and another part that in unique to every individual and is shaped by the specific life history of that individual. Antonio Damasio has a model of human cognition that can be best described as forming three levels of self: a protoself, core self, and autobiographical self. The protoself is the genetically constrained part and governs our automatic behavior, that is, behavior over which we have little or no control. We are just another animal. But we have a part of our brain that is shaped and re-shaped in the process of living, the autobiographical brain with an associated self. The core self keeps track of what’s going on at the moment, but only lives in the present.

The autobiographical self is the repository for the past: memories of events and our responses to them. It is the place where future visions are to be found: the drivers of our actions in the present. It may be useful to think of that self in terms of a story (autobiography) as a metaphor for everything meaningful stored in that part of the brain. It’s a story over which we have some control. To the extent we can shape it, we create an existential potential beyond that controlled and limited by our genes. In the vernacular, we are creatures that operate from both nature and nurture. This makes flourishing more complicated. We have to operate within the genetic potential just like all other living organisms, and as we do, we are flourishing at the biological level. But we also have a cultural, personal existence, dictated by the story we carry around. To flourish in this dimension, we must be enacting that story in such a way that we continuously assess that we are following our chosen path (or paths, in that we live out more than one story every day).

Flourishing exists in an entirely separate domain from happiness or pleasure, the customary use to measure how we are doing in the world. They are momentary states. Flourishing follows a process that is always on-going, that is, life itself, but, unlike the case for other animals, it has an autobiographical aspect that serves as a standard by which the presence or absence of flourishing can be judged. We are flourishing when we are living out our stories, more or less. Life is so full of contingencies that it is impossible to follow the chosen path without straying from time to time. A bad hair day, all by itself, is not enough to stop flourishing. We can flourish amidst many kinds of obstacles and challenges as long as we hold to the main story line.

By now, you should be able to figure out what it takes for human flourishing. There must be a story in place. In other words, a person must have a clear idea of his or her identities. These are plural, as we act in distinct cultural domains every day. We are variously, a parent, a lawyer, a spouse or partner, a friend, a spiritual being, and so on. We need a plan for every such domain that we will use as a template for our actions. Some of the roles we take are culturally set; others are up to everyone to define for themselves. We can change our minds from time to time, but not too often, for then we would have nothing to build our lives around. We would become perennial teenagers, testing out many roles, but not choosing any.

So far, I am writing from no particular disciplinary base. The cognitive basis does reflect current scientific thinking, but the whole piece here is just the result of my own thinking about the subject. There are some roots in philosophy going back to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, Recently, however, I came across a philosophy paper on the subject of flourishing that made many of the same arguments I have been making, but from a more grounded perspective. Importantly, it places flourishing in the same ethical arena from which many other important values that guide us are situated. The rest of this post summarizes a few of the ideas found in the paper, “Human Flourishing and the Appeal to Human Nature”, by Donald Rasmussen (Social Philosophy and Policy, 16 (1): 1-43, 1999) He makes six main points:

  1. Human flourishing is an objective good. In other words, it is desired because of what it is. Its constitution is what makes it good. Thus, human goodness is something ontological. It is a state of being, not a mere feeling or experience.

  2. Human flourishing is the ultimate end of human conduct, but it is not the only activity of inherent worth. It is not a “dominant” end that reduces the value of everything else to that of a mere means. Human flourishing is an “inclusive” end. It comprises basic or “generic” goods and virtues—for example, such goods as knowledge, health, friendship, creative achievement, beauty, and pleasure; and such virtues as integrity, temperance, courage, and justice. These are valuable not as mere means to human flourishing but as partial realizations or expressions of it. As such, these goods and virtues are final ends and valuable in their own right.

  3. Human flourishing is individualized and diverse. It is dependent on who as well as what one is. It is dependent on who as well as what one is. Abstractly considered, we can speak of human flourishing and of basic or generic goods and virtues that help to define it. Yet this does not make human flourishing in reality either abstract or universal. Concretely speaking, no two cases of human flourishing are the same, and they are not interchangeable. …There are individuative as well as generic potentialities, and this makes human fulfillment always something unique.

  4. Human flourishing is agent-relative. There is no human flourishing period. Human flourishing is always and necessarily the good for some person or other.

  5. Human flourishing is a self-directed activity. Human flourishing must be attained through a person’s own efforts and cannot be the result of factors that are beyond one’s control. Flourishing does not consist in the mere possession and use of needed goods. Rather, human flourishing consists in a person’s taking charge of his own life so as to develop and maintain those virtues for which he alone is responsible and which in most cases will allow him to attain the goods his life requires.

  6. Human beings are naturally social animals. We are social in the sense that our maturation requires a life with others. We do not achieve our maturity like mushrooms, suddenly, all at once, with no engagement with one another. We have potentialities that are other-oriented, and we cannot find fulfillment without their actualization. Human flourishing is thus not atomistic. It does not require gaining the goods of life exclusively for oneself and never acting for the sake of others. Indeed, having other-concern is crucial to our maturation. As Aristotle makes clear, philia (friend-ship) is one of the constituents of human flourishing. Further, in terms of origins, we are almost always born into a society or community, and it is in some social context or other that we grow and develop. Much of what is crucial to our self-conception and fundamental values is dependent on our upbringing and environment. Our lives are intertwined with others; we are not abstract individuals. It is thus a fundamental mistake to conceive of human beings achieving maturity apart from others and only later taking it upon themselves to join society or to have social concern. Human flourishing is achieved with and among others.

From Rasmussens’ neo-Aristotelian viewpoint, flourishing is the “ultimate end of human conduct.” This fits the existential, cognitive science explanation. It is naturalistic, and morally-powerful, where wealth is not. The individualized aspect also fits the cognitive model. As an objective good, it is something that we can use as a design criterion for our societal institutions. The idea that it is self-directed fits well with notions of liberty. I hope that, as people become comfortable with the concept, they will start using it as the vision for designing the institutions that run our social lives. The implications for economics are severe but then Adam Smith first thought humans were empathetic, caring creatures before his self-interested model took over.

This idea will guide all my writings and I hope yours also. Happy New Year.