Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
One of the most familiar ideas bandied about in both academic and popular conversations is Smith’s “invisible hand.” This concept is almost solely responsible for the rise of libertarianism, in particular, and free market economics, in general. It simply removes all responsibility for one’s acts by arguing that some magical force guides uncoordinated acts toward providing some common good. No one need to bother worrying about anyone else: just act as if you were the only person in the world and you will be contributing to the benefit of everyone else.
One consequence of thinking and acting in this way is a worldview of isolated, autonomous individuals, in the last analysis devoid of any surrounding ethical framework. Another is the absence of any legitimating institution to provide such an ethical structure to fill in the gaps should the market fail to act as it should in theory. Even doctrinaire economists (well, almost all of them) understand that markets are never perfect in the Smithian sense so that the invisible hand cannot do its job alone and needs a visible foot to produce the common benefits, including the prevention of harms. This point is being largely missed in the political economical conversations going on today in many of the more developed nations, certainly in the US.
I need this short pointer back to Smith to get to what I want to write about. Smith’s model of homo economicus has become one of the principal embedded story lines that drive most modern, developed economies. Even China is strongly influenced by it. The invisible hand is a powerful metaphor, but I believe that a different one is the actual power behind social life. Stories are what power societies and their smaller nested institutions forward. Stories represent the myriad of beliefs we carry in our cognitive systems, Whatever actual configurations and functions of neurons do the job of transforming human intentions into worldly acts can be discussed as stories we would tell if asked why we did what we just did.
Before I move on, I note that stories as prime movers of human action belong to the disciplines of anthropology and sociology (and literature) rather than to economics. Homo economicus has the equivalent of a fully programmed computer in the brain; Homo caritas (the name I will give to human beings instead) have a storybook instead of a computer embedded in the brain. That storybook is unique for every individual and is written by capturing the meanings of every moment of conscious life. Language provides the medium by which the story is written, which starts off slowly, reflecting the early pace of language acquisition. In the two disciplines I mentioned just above, stories are accepted as a useful metaphor underlying human interaction.
One’s story is composed of all the brute and institutional facts about the world that are transformed into beliefs, all the values that enable choices among possibilities of action to be made, opinions about who to trust, and whatever else is required to make sense of the immediate gemisch of raw sensory data and plot a plan of action to convert the present moment to a future scene. Smith’s model of a self-interested human who can act in social situations without regard to others’ needs is a part of the modern human story that, unfortunately, I believe, plays a much larger part than it should have if the collection of life on Earth is to flourish.
Everyone, including economists, does know that actions may be motivated by other that self interest. Even Smith believed, at least for a time, that care about and for others was a primary motivating force for action. Families are held together by care for one another. Economists sometimes ignore that, ascribing even caring behavior as the most net beneficial choice to the actor among other possibilities. Altruism is the name economists give to such exceptional behavior. I prefer to call such actions, care, reflecting the possibility that this name captures the fundamental cognitive processes behind such acts as having clear benefits for the target of actions as the story line, rather than accruing primarily back to the actor.
I do not understand exactly how the brain chooses to follow one story line rather than another, given that every situation has a large number of associated possible responses. Antonio Damasio uses the metaphor of “biological value” to represent the method by which the brain highlights the relatively more successful or effective stories with some sort of marker or map in the brain. Maybe it is strongly correlated with repetition. That would explain how advertising has maintained the Smithian self-interested story during the modern era. Seduction is just another name for turning on the processes that record high “value” for some action, like buying something. Computer app developers have figured out how to do the same thing. This process explains why some people now access their social apps hundreds of times every day. Drugs do this job directly.
Sherry Turkle, in her recent book, tells of families sitting around in the same place (I am deliberated avoiding using the word, together) with everyone gazing at the screen of their mobile device. One of her stories is about a young person who confessed to wishing for meaningful conversations with her family. Conversations are critical to human beings. They comprise the frameworks for developing meaning. The stories in our brains are conversations we have with our selves. The ones with others are what Turkle notes as essential to our species, “Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.”
Caring can be seen as the result of a conversation with or about another entity (including non-humans) that asks what would push the other closer to flourishing, that is, to one’s full potential. Such conversations can occur out in the world or in one’s brain. In the latter case we ascribe the result as empathy, a sense of the other’s immediate needs. Conversations about care remove the Smithian veil of invisibility and reveal the world and our interconnections with it.
They also reveal human beings as ethical actors with responsibility for our actions. Once again, economists would simply argue that acting toward the other has a higher benefit than any other immediate possibility. They would argue further that one’s preferences are sui generis or endogenous or self created, and, as a consequence, no one or no institutional set of rules should interfere and impose some commonly held set of (ethical) standards.
Here is where I depart about as fast as I can. I, along with Turkle and many others, strongly believe that humans are sense makers and storytellers, in particular, a tale in which we understand that we are a part of a highly interconnected world rather than isolated, autonomous nodes. The story that makes sense in explaining the magic of our unique species is fundamentally one of connections. The times when we can make sense as autonomous entities are, conversely, few. Turkle blames technology as playing a role in blinding us to our true selves.
Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation—where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another—that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.
The stories we tell to ourselves are not only important in shaping our individual lives. They become the foundations of structures of the institutions that guide social activities. Economic-model-based stories eventually reduce all objects, human and otherwise, to commodities—meaningless objects, interchangeable merely in terms of their relative economic value, and serving purely as a means to some otherwise chosen end. Kant strongly demurred about this when it came to humans, writing:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
As an end, a human being is a unique living organism, whose biological and cultural needs toward flourishing, that is, toward their full potential, are the result of their genes (biology) and their own stories that provide them with meaning (cultural). The first part could, in theory, be addressed wholly through objective knowledge of someone’s unique genome. We seem to making very tiny steps towards that ethically fraught place. But we can interact with the cultural, meaningful parts only if we act out of care and empathy, not through some commoditized basis. Care is the descriptor of our intentional arrow—where do we want the result of our act to show up. Empathy describes the conversation we must have if we are to understand what actions will be effective over there. The conversation can be real and bilateral or imaginary and unilateral in our brains, but, in this latter case, based on context that informs of what to do in situations like this where we lack explicit knowledge.
This last paragraph contains all the basics anyone needs to rebuild our modern world around care and flourishing. I recently read the bestselling book, Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance. It’s a story about how one person was able to escape from a social setting that has entrapped so many others. Vance, like others telling similar stories, argues that his success was largely due to the presence of a caring person in his otherwise pretty miserable upbringing. Economics had virtually no role other than pointing to the poor straits of his early life.
I will finish today’s post with a challenge, the same one present in all my work: How can we reconstruct our institutions around the story of care? How can we reverse the process that has converted humans from early caring, although economically poor Home sapiens, to commodities? Turkle offers a step along the way for every family; reintroduce the art of conversation the medium by which we can come to understand others and ourselves. This process can also be applied to small groups in almost all institutional settings. Temper the rough edges of larger institutions that have been shaped by a focus on efficiency, itself a story that commoditizes.
One of the headlines in today’s news crowed about President Trump appointing his son-in-law to head a Commission to make Government run more like business. Horrors! The market can take care of business, if carefully reined in, but the Government is needed to apply those reins and to support the attainment of ends not available in the market: flourishing, joy, health, positive freedom, safety, natural beauty, transcendence, and so on. This news is simply more evidence of, as I wrote some days earlier, the frightful cruelty of this new Administration. The only real glue that makes us a worthy nation is embedded in our stories. Care can create such glue; neither power, false promises, nor rising GDP can.
(Image for the younger: Dorothy revealing the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain)