Why Choose Being Over Having

Note to readers: This blog digs deeply into the notion of flourishing and Being, and is not easy reading, but these ideas are essential for the transformation of our non-working culture. For those seeking to change our consumerist culture, new institutions and practices built on meaningful relationships are critical. The reasons for this are discussed here.

meaning

Erich Fromm’s provocative book title, To Have or to Be, captures the primary challenge to flourishing. Human cultures reflect the dominant beliefs and values of those populating them. Most other developed country’s cultures and ours are clearly in the having mode. As I wrote recently, market economies are built on transactions, the predominant process by which people acquire things. One gets to have things through exchanges. The value of what one has can be measured by what has given up in these exchanges.

Some things critical to flourishing are absent in transactions, per se, and in the institutional structures that enable them. But before looking for them, a few words about flourishing are necessary. Flourishing, unlike most conventional measures of well-being, refers to a continuum of states. Flourishing has a temporal characteristic. One may be flourishing at the moment when asked about it, but it would be incorrect to claim that it is present, unless the present state rests in a history of similar conditions. Since flourishing, in part, is a sign of attaining one’s potential, for humans, any assessment related to it must be made in the context of what is that potential.

For all living nonhuman beings, potential is expressed in their genes. A flower flourishes when it blooms and seeds the next generation. An animal flourishes when it adapts to its habitat and produces progeny to maintain the species. Social species add an additional feature; they flourish when they have become part of a community and take their place therein. Humans are such a social species.

Flourishing for humans has an additional dimension related to their capacity to create meaning through language. The mostly biological processes suffice for other species, except for a handful that possess some rudimentary linguistic capability. Flourishing, for humans, requires an assessment that life is not only biologically satisfactory, but also satisfactory in terms of some criteria of meaningfulness. This poses philosophical and practical problems because meaning is always dependent on the culture in which any human being is immersed, which brings me back to the opening sentence above. Is there really any real difference between having and being?

I agree with Fromm that Being is to be preferred to having. (It is a matter of which is dominant. Human life will always incorporate both.) I think there is a good reason for this, but to establish this will take some more argument. Modern, market-based societies rest ultimately on a model of the human species that has ruled our thinking since the Enlightenment; humans are insatiable, needing creatures always acting to maximize their allocable resources, that is, money in modern cultures. It follows that the accumulation of things, including money itself, will be the measure of how well one has done in life. So it is in the United States. Wealth is a measure of success, both at the individual and collective level. So, then, what’s wrong with having as a desirable mode of living? Quite a few issues turn out to detract and nullify this measure of human well-being.

One important consequence; there is no end point to having, so people find it hard to be satisfied with what they have, whether a great deal or very little. Surveys of well-being indicate that the majority of people are not satisfied with their lives. Inequality is another factor that negatively affects assessments of well-being. In a society where fairness or justice is a primary value, it is problematic to judge oneself as flourishing when so many others obviously are not. This fact renders the very criteria of wealth as questionable. Additionally, the processes that support having, that is, the political economy, are producing serious, negative, unintended consequences in the natural system. No need to enumerate them here; what matters is, like inequality, these impacts raise questions about the appropriateness of having/wealth as the primary measure of well-being.

Perhaps, the most important factor related to having is the model of human nature on which it is base. What if this model is wrong? Then, having would have no legs to stand on other than the power of persistent, deeply embedded cultural beliefs. Importantly, Adam Smith believed that human nature was based on empathy, a form of caring, long before he changed his mind and gave us the selfish model we still cling to. Being, as I will explain, seems to be much closer to the kind of creature we are, and, therefore, is a more relevant model on which to ground flourishing, as related to approaching or attaining some expression of potential.

It is not possible to discuss Being without introducing language as a unique human capability. Humans evolved physiologically and cognitively in such a way that they developed both the mental capacity to create and store meaningful representations of their experiences in the world in their brains and also gestural control, including speech, that enabled them to communicate these representations to others. Another way of describing this evolutionary process is to say that humans developed the capability of expressing their experiences in stories, thus, ascribing meaning to otherwise meaningless phenomena. Once the meaning of an otherwise indistinct object out there in the world was captured linguistically, the linguistic object, whether word or gesture, could be used to engage others in some intentional activity.

Meaningful actions became the central feature of human life. Communities arose out of the shared meanings that developed around shared activities. Humans could act out of these meanings, calling them forth from their memories. Intentionality naturally followed this development of language. Meaning appears when humans focus on some group of objects, set against a meaningless context. A “tree” appears out of the background because the viewer has discovered that a part of it is tasty. The expression of meaning in this case might have sounded like, “object with all sorts of arms and legs that has delicious round stones hanging from it.”

Of course all the words must have be created from earlier experiences. Meaning never appears out of the context of past experience. We process our perceptual experiences from a horizon of meaning we have accumulated up during the past. The horizon is continually changed by the experience of the present moment as a result. Life becomes an experience of constant movement forward in time. Plato wrote. “You could not step twice in the same river (attributed to Heraclitus).”

Another way of thinking about this unique process of ascribing meaning is to say that all meaningful stories about the world are owned by the person who has created them. They are unique to her, except when the same stories are held in common, having arisen from (repeated) shared experiences. This follows from the historical and contextual horizons that shape our interpretations of phenomenal perceptions. The shared meanings that develop among individuals, raised within a culture enable interactions for, without them, communications by gesture or speech would mimic the Biblical setting of Babel.

So, how does this connect to Being? Being refers to existing/acting within the stories one owns. Life moves forward in time through meaningful events. The sense of ownership comes with a sense of connectedness. This or that story is about my past experiences with these or those meaningful objects-out-there-in-the-world. If the objects are other human beings, connectedness translates into relatedness. By convention, we rarely use the term, relatedness, to describe our connection to non-human objects, but our meaningful experiences with them are similarly connected.

Another way of talking about these meaningful interactions is to say we care about what we are doing. The actions we take are shaped by the meaning from which the action arose. Caring reflects the meaning-giving story that always includes parts about me (the actor, and, also, the others (the targets of my intentions), and any other objects shaping the context. Caring comes from me and signals my intentions, but reflects the meaningful context that, most importantly, includes a record of the other(s) and my past history.

Without going into details, current neuroscience, at least the work of Antonio Damasio, is consistent with this explanation of caring. Damasio claims that the brain produces three selves in action. One is what he calls the autobiographical self, which shows up in action through meaningful acts based on one’s past experience. This is the self that learns over time to change the responses to previous recognized situations where actions did not produce satisfactory results.

Now, I can attempt to answer Fromm’s question, To Have or to be? The criterion I use is flourishing, as the achievement of a being’s potential. Being, as I (and others) have argued is the primordial way humans exist. For most of our time on Earth, we lived with language arising only out of our Being-in-the-(natural)-world; cultural artifacts were few, if any. To the extent that we survived and evolved, we flourished, as did other species. As humans settled and began to create cultures, other criteria to measure human well-being were invented. We find these in sacred books and in the works of Greek and later philosophers. Aristotle had a word for flourishing, eudaemonia, that he used to express what human aspirations should aim at.

But as these cultural neologisms arose, the basic caring existence had to compete with other cultural modes. By the time of the Enlightenment and the emergence of science and an associated objective (meaningless) world, this mode of existence all but disappeared. Classic economics, based on the model of human nature I mentioned earlier, drove the last nails into the coffin of Being. Should we be concerned about this? I say, “Yes indeed1” The connectedness inherent to Being is a real feature of the meaningful world. We ignore it at our peril, as we are doing. We live within, and are a part of, an interconnected, complex world. What we do in our collective societal efforts has consequences on that world.

If the collective opinion of all humans were that all is right with the world, there would be little basis for concern. That is hardly the case anywhere, especially in the United States. We are destabilizing the natural world, and we are not achieving our cultural goals. In a word, having is not working. Transactions with little or no context of reality, not surprisingly, are likely to create all kinds of unintended, and unobserved (until they grow very large) consequences. Being, on the other hand, will be conscious of changes in the context, and affords the ability to learn and adapt. In a complex world, both of these capabilities are critical. Complexity requires understanding, not objective knowledge. Interacting with complexity requires the same skills necessary for caring for people: reflection and empathy. To act such that your actions fit the needs of the other, whether a family member or the larger natural system of the Earth, you need to be able to observe and understand what is going on over there and interpret the results of your actions in that context.

Our rationality has evolved with the transactional nature of our cultural interactions. The more we have become havers; the better we have become at taking situations out of context and creating abstract, partial rules about what is going on. If we begin to act more out of Being and relationships, we will become better at generating meaning out of complexity, a giant step toward flourishing.

I need to add a short note. Being, as I am describing it, rests on an accumulation of meaning that is owned/generated by the actor. This corresponds to authentic (meaning). Meaning that is merely taken in from the general voice of a culture is inauthentic and will produce transactions only.

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