I Wish You A Flourishing 2105


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.