All It Takes Is Love (Not Covenants)


I’m back to responding to one of my favorite targets, David Brooks. Brooks, in his NYTimes column of April 5th, 2016, was expounding a theory to make the hyper-individualistic culture of the present more cohesive and socially binding, as a way to better anchor one’s sense of self. I find his argument completely unconvincing. It starts with his criticism of the present cultural situation.

When you think about it, there are four big forces coursing through modern societies. Global migration is leading to demographic diversity. Economic globalization is creating wider opportunity but also inequality. The Internet is giving people more choices over what to buy and pay attention to. A culture of autonomy valorizes individual choice and self-determination.

All of these forces have liberated the individual, or at least well-educated individuals, but they have been bad for national cohesion and the social fabric. Income inequality challenges economic cohesion as the classes divide. Demographic diversity challenges cultural cohesion as different ethnic groups rub against one another. The emphasis on individual choice challenges community cohesion and settled social bonds.

For starters, I disagree with his analysis of the forces that are dominating modern cultures. He is correct in pointing out impacts from the forces he identifies, but he ignores, for example, the corporatization of political economies everywhere. More importantly, he omits the anti-reality culture arising in both modern and traditional societies. The apposition of reason and dogma creates harder divisions than any of his causes. More seriously, he is completely unclear what he means by “liberated.” Liberated from what? (That’s the subject for another blog.)

On the way to his solution, he opines that, “You take away a rich social fabric and what you are left with is people who are uncertain about who they really are. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.” I believe his first sentence is wrong.

The correct measure of the strength of one’s individualism is authenticity, the presence of a strong sense of identity, couched in the brain, and manifest in the nature of one’s actions. The opposite, inauthenticity, is a measure of the degree to which external forces determine one’s actions in the world. As a phenomenologist, not a psychologist, I look at what shows up in the world as evidence of what kind of person one is. Individuals are always torn between two sets of motivating forces: those arising from the part of the brain that store the autobiographical record of one’s life (the me) and those arising from the call of external voices (the “they” out there). And who has ever said that it is important for society to live daringly. I’ll return to this, but, first, here is his solution. I have to quote several passages, sorry, but it is very important to see what he is suggesting.

We’re not going to roll back the four big forces coursing through modern societies, so the question is how to reweave the social fabric in the face of them. In a globalizing, diversifying world, how do we preserve individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity?

In her new book “Commonwealth and Covenant,” Marcia Pally of N.Y.U. and Fordham offers a clarifying concept. What we want, she suggests, is “separability amid situatedness.” We want to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living. But we also want to be situated — embedded in loving families and enveloping communities, thriving within a healthy cultural infrastructure that provides us with values and goals.

Creating situatedness requires a different way of thinking. When we go out and do a deal, we make a contract. When we are situated within something it is because we have made a covenant. A contract protects interests, Pally notes, but a covenant protects relationships. A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.

There are so many problems here that I hardly know where to start. Strengthening external ties does not mean a strengthening of one’s sense of self. Most of the time, the effect is in the opposite direction. Before the long quote above, I noted that humans are always in a dilemma, having to decide to act on the basis of some inner voice (“I usually do this”) or on that of the external world (“One should do this in this situation”). I believe that, alone, Pally’s (and Brooks’s) solution would not work because “situation” means some recognizable moment with historical meaning in which action is already selected.

This is further confounded by the suggestion that some form of covenant be employed to strengthen the sense of situation, taking the individual even further from his or her authentic self. The existence of a covenant, rather than the enaction of love and care, does the opposite. Covenants are reciprocal promises to act in certain ways. As I understand love, covenants are necessary only in the absence of love. Love is a unidirectional and unconditional concept. Love is manifest in actions arising from two sources: 1) one’s acknowledgement of legitimacy of the other’s existence as an autonomous entity; and 2) one’s holding the belief that to be human is to care, that is, act to serve what they perceive to be the other’s immediate needs.

Forming covenants will strengthen the sense of interconnections and relationality, as Brooks writes, but will not build a sense of authentic identity. It will do just the opposite. The person will act in a more social sense, but in an inauthentic manner. So the solution does not fit the stated problem-to build more authenticity or rooted sense of self; it would work in opposition. The more effective, and perhaps, only way to accomplish what Brooks and Pally want (so do I) is to replace the modernistic, individualistic core belief by direct action.

If all important cultural institutions, say the political economy, are based on the belief that individual should act out of their self (economic) interests, that is, on Homo economicus as our nature, it is virtually impossible to instill a different belief by means where the new belief is not evident and dominating. The sociological theory I find most consistent with the way the brain is being understood to work (plastic and coupled to experience) is that of Anthony Giddens. His structuration model indicates that the constitutive beliefs of a society (e. g., Homo economicus) are reinforced by routine action (normal behavior) within the dominant societal institutions.

The more that actions are determined by preexisting rules in the form of social norms and covenants among subsets of society, the less daring people will be. Daring actions are those that fit the circumstances where the usual are seen to fail. We do need authenticity badly for this to happen. Loving relationships are a key to a flourishing human, that is, to one that has attained her or his biological and cultural potential. To love takes much more than a covenant; it takes empathetic competence. My wife, a former well-know divorce lawyer, was opposed to anti-nuptial agreements on that basis. Neither contracts nor covenants can anticipate what situations may arise in the future. Only unconditional love and care provides the open context for dealing with them.

I’m afraid that the solutions to the widespread problem of feeling insubstantial and unsatisfied-all too real today-will take a much more nuanced and challenging foundation. Having just written this, stronger covenantal relationships are a good thing on their own and can help restore the wholeness of our cultural interconnections, but stop at that point. My sustainability mantra echoes the same limited possibility: “Reducing unsustainability, while good on its own, will not create sustainability.”

ps. Click here to listen to the Beatles sing the blog title song.