Recent Posts

Subscribe to RSS feed

Javascript must be enabled to view this email address

The End of History Liberalism??


My work for the last 20 years or more has generally had a connection to concerns related to sustainability (better, unsustainability). The central critique of modernity, fueling my work, arose out of looking for a way to explain both the existence and persistence of growing departures from the vision behind all modern cultures: progress and the perfection of the human being. It all comes down to two related ontological beliefs that are no longer driving the modern engine in the right direction. I hesitate to label these beliefs as flawed because they have produced such wonders for centuries, but they do not fit the present world sufficiently well enough to avoid unintended consequences so large that they threaten to destabilize the Planet.

These two beliefs are:

  1. The objective reality of Descartes and his related methodological reductionism as the way to know that reality. This belief leads to the view of the universe as a vast machine, the parts of which are knowable and analytically describable. And with another nudge, this leads to the idea that with all that knowledge, humans are able to control the machine or, in the words of Francis Bacon, make nature our slave. Said a little differently, we are culturally technological optimists, believing that some marvelous innovation that will save us from impending doom will always be lurking just around the corner.

  2. The self-interested, economistic, rationalistic, autonomous model of human beings. This belief leads to the view of humans as insatiable optimizers, always acting to acquire pleasure-giving goods, limited only by the extent of their resources Here, too, with another nudge, this leads to individualism as a cultural attribute.

The combination of the two forms the modern view that we can find answers to all our problems through the application of reason. Reason, coupled with good science, can explain everything about both the material world and the immaterial word of human affairs. The United States, which was expressly founded on the basis of these beliefs and their derivatives, such as the natural rights to life, liberty and so on, is the best example of these beliefs in action, among modern nations.

In this epistemologically accessible, reason-driven world, there is, in theory, a single truth to every question. An apple always falls down because of gravity. All explanations have this same form. X does Y because Z. Moral questions, similarly, can be answered as A should do Y in cases of Z because X. Even if the situation is very complicated and we are stuck to find answers in these forms, we argue that they must exist, but we haven’t found them yet.

In a perverse turn, this set of beliefs that was thought to free humans from the chains of dogma contains, in itself, an intrinsic dominating potential. Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist who shows up often in this blog, is concerned that the Cartesian dualistic explanation neglects the biology of the observer, without whom science wouldn’t work. He writes:

There are two fundamental kinds or manners of listening for explanations [the “becauses” in the two canonical forms above] that an observer may adopt according to whether he or she asks or does not ask for a biological explanation of his or her cognitive abilities. These two manners of listening define two primary, mutually exclusive explanatory paths that I shall call the path of objectivity without parentheses (or the path of transcendental ontologies), and the path of (objectivity) in parentheses (or the path of constitutive ontologies)…..In this (transcendental) path, an explanation operationally entails the implicit claim by the explaining observer that he or she has a privileged access to an objective independent reality, and that it is this objective reality that gives validity to his or her explanations. Due to this circumstance, any disagreement between two or more observers always takes the form of a dispute in mutual negation… In this explanatory path, a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.” (“Reality: The Search for Objectivity, or the Quest for a Compelling Argument.” Irish Journal Of Psychology 9(1): 25-82.)

The transcendental character of capturing the objective (external) reality in our non-physical mind has puzzled scientists and philosophers ever since Descartes proposed the split between the outside world (res extensa) and its image in our minds (res cogitans). Since Maturana wrote this in 1988, neuroscientific findings indicate the brain works without what was called the mind. Antonio Damasio puts it very clearly in one of his books, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.

The term mind, as I use it in this book, encompasses both conscious and unconscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous flow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time, speedily or slowly, orderly or jumpily, and on occasion it moves along not just one sequence, but several. Sometimes the sequences are concurrent, sometimes convergent and divergent. Sometimes they are superposed. (note 7 to Chapter 1) (My emphasis)

Maturana’s constitutive ontology corresponds to the social constructionist viewpoint, which admits to a real material universe, but restricts any meaningful interpretation to human expressions. The difference between these two ways to hold reality is critical. Maturana says, in the clearest form I know, that the Cartesian transcendental view leads to domination. The title of his paper suggests that reason, rather than producing truths, is a hidden form of persuasion, designed to dominate or compel. I draw the same conclusion from the work of Richard Rorty, who wrote

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own-unaided by the describing activities of human beings - cannot. (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity p. 4-5)

The second belief in the above list is derivative of the first. If the universe is a vast machine, and humans are a part of it, they, too, can be described in the same way, that is, by a set of inherent properties and operational laws. Specifically, the result was the economic model of human being, and also the idea of natural rights, and objective moral values like goodness and truth. All of this was a great revelation at a time when the Western world was ruled by absolutes: religious dogma and monarchical, feudal hierarchies.

We are or should be aware of a serious problem connected with these beliefs. They have stopped producing wonders and started producing negative effects, and no longer appear to moving progressively forward. I have written this many times before, but usually with some connection to unsustainability. I have been taking a course on the “essence of liberalism,” and now see these beliefs as the core of this idea, and, consequently, as a shaky foundation for this central theme of most Western nations. I have hesitated to delve into the area of political theory because I am only marginally knowledgeable about it. I suppose that could be said on many of the topics I think about. So I might as well plunge into it.

I have leapfrogged this area by jumping directly to thoughts about human ontology and argued that the second belief is incorrect. Humans are not some autonomous machines, programmed to maximize their pleasure by, in our current version, the acquisition of material possessions. They are caring creatures, aware of their interconnections to others and to the rest of the world, as they understand them within their historical, cultural context. If we must find a way to rate the human condition, it should be connected to this “nature.” I have offered flourishing as the proper concept for such an assessment. Some of my recent blogs have elaborated this idea.

Today, I want to focus on the problematic foundations of American exceptionalism. Our course assignment for next week includes an article by Mark Lilla, published in the New Republic, with the title, “The Truth About Our Libertarian Age.” I found it stunning and the best critique of the current political scene in the US (and other places, too) and of our current foreign policy. His main point is that the ideology of liberalism, a living set of ideas and institutions, has morphed into a lifeless dogma.

Yet our libertarianism is not an ideology in the old sense. It is a dogma. The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide [faith rules]: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus [the world perishes].

As dogma, it fits Maturana’s definition of objective reality without parentheses, that is, without any conditional statement about the possibility of contingency or error. I find Lilla’s finding highly ironic because liberalism rests solidly on the idea of reason. The conversion of reason to dogma is not a surprise; cultures become ossified over time. So do human beings. Our beliefs fade from consciousness. Our norms become merely habits. We act without reflection. For collectives, the power structures become rigid and not subject to much change.

I have my own views about what has to happen to break this downward spiral. Chuck the two beliefs above and replace them: objective reality by some form of social constructionism, and the mechanistic, greedy humans by a caring, empathetic creature. This will go a long way to eliminate domination. Further replace the analytic, deterministic machine model of the universe by a complex system model. Since such a model precludes predictions based on scientific investigations as the means of control, we must shift to pragmatic inquiry and adaptive complex system governance. Pragmatism is, inherently, a form of social construction—a way of coming to consensus about how to understand some problematic part of the universe and what to do about any problems associated with it. Maturana has something relevant about this too, “Reality is an explanatory proposition that arises in a disagreement as an attempt to recover a lost domain of coordination of actions or to generate a new one.” A non-philosopher’s way of describing what pragmatism does.

This means that liberalism, in all of its hydra-like forms, has to go, because its roots will not grow in the soil of present-day modernity. Humans cannot flourish as entirely autonomous individuals. Greed empties the caring center; some might even use the metaphor, soul. Flourishing rests on rooted understanding and meaningfulness, not on detached, abstract analytical knowledge. Care for others cannot co-exist with fully developed negative liberty, the freedom from any encroachments except those that would cause harm to others. Pluralists, who see the impossibilities in such pure forms, argue for some form of toleration as a means to mitigate the absolutism of extreme libertarianism, but tolerance is impossible without some form of care for the other. Maybe even impossible without love for the other. I go again to Maturana and his definition of love, which fits here.

Love is the domain of those relational behaviors through which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstance. Love does not legitimize the other, love lets the other be. Through seeing the other, entails acting with the other in a way that they do not need to justify their existence in the relation.

Let me end this long, serious post with the concluding paragraph of Lilla’s article. It’s worth reading the whole piece. While all is relevant, I have bolded the one sentence that I find most striking. Understanding requires the willingness to forego or, at least, bracket one’s present beliefs and make room for new ones.

The libertarian age is an illegible age. It has given birth to a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well. Having witnessed unpleasant scenes of intellectual drunkenness, we have become self-satisfied abstainers removed from history and unprepared for the challenges it is already bringing. The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence in ideology still remained in the West. But it also seems to have destroyed our will to understand. We have abdicated. The libertarian dogma of our time is turning our polities, economies, and cultures upside down—and blinding us to this by making us even more self-absorbed and incurious than we naturally are. The world we are making with our hands is as remote from our minds as the farthest black hole. Once we had a nostalgia for the future. Today we have an amnesia for the present.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 29, 2016 1:05 PM ::

Comments Please, But Read This First

spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of "recent posts" list on the right hand side. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 29, 2016 8:56 AM ::

Thoughtful Review of Flourishing

I had posted this on my Facebook page, but discovered the link went to the Journal with limited access, not to the article itself. The review was done by a colleague and friend, Nigel Roome, who recently passed away, much too soon. Here it is. REVIEWJournalofIndustrialEcology.pdf

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 25, 2016 1:47 PM ::

Is Freedom the Right Thing to Strive For?

“You are ready to aid in the shaping and application of those wise restraints that make men free.” John MacArthur Maguire (Harvard Law School Professor)


The assignment for next week in my class on the “Essence of Liberalism” at HILR is Isaiah Berlin’s quite famous two liberties lecture. Berlin compares and contrasts two opposing types of liberty: positive and negative. The latter has roots that go back to the classic liberals of the 18th Century who, in one form or another, were concerned with the power of the establishment to suppress an individual’s right or ability of free expression and action. Depending on the particular time and thinker, the establishment could be the monarchy, the aristocracy, the parliament, or even public opinion.

The same idea of liberty can be found today in the libertarian wing of the Right, such as the Tea Party. The concept has lasted, but the name has taken on its mirror image. Liberals today seek what Berlin calls positive liberty. Since Hegel’s time, this form of liberty has meant the ability of an individual to reach what Abraham Maslow called self-actualization. I call it flourishing. This concept assumes that it takes more than the absence of constraints for this to occur. Society, not only government, is needed to provide resources to support an individual’s development towards being liberated. Almost all discussion about liberty has a political slant, especially in the political history of the United States.

I want to take a different perspective in this post and discuss liberty from an existential point-of-view. I’ll start with Maslow, in hopes that he is more familiar than the existentialists. Maslow argued that self-actualization sat at the top of a hierarchy of psychological conditions that had to be satisfied in turn before one could actualize (realize) the “self.” These were in turn, basic physiology (subsistence), safety, love/belonging, esteem, and then self-actualization. His step-wise hierarchical formulation has been questioned, but not the requirement for the several inputs. It should be obvious that some, if not all, of these require a surrounding set of social institutions. Love, belonging, and esteem all come from outside the individual’s body. Negative liberty, the absence of any positive or negative encroachments, cannot create the whole human being, if Maslow’s model correctly tells us how humans are constituted.

Beyond Maslow, the first “existentialist” philosopher, Martin Heidegger, saw that human personas were formed in the course of life itself. Human beings are “thrown” into the world from which they acquire all the meaningful experience that shapes who they are. There is no inherent human nature or natural rights in the sense of the model that strongly influenced the early liberals and their belief in negative liberty. Without interaction with the world and all its institutions, one would remain an empty shell. But there is more to the story.

The immersion in life leaves its traces in the brain in the form of an autobiographical self, a storybook of all the meaningful memories one retains. The kind of person one becomes rests in the choices that one makes among the possibilities inherent in the story. Other existentialist philosophers, like Sartre, argue that the only meaningful thing humans can do is make those choices. He goes so far to say that humans are condemned be free, referring to the fundamental human feature of having to choose among the possibilities that one’s prior history has provided. Here are his words; “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”

So what kind of freedom is this: negative or positive? Not easy to answer. At the moment of choice, the individual is alone in the world with no apparent constraints. She would appear to be completely free from the negative liberty point-of-view. But is she? What about the part of the autobiography that was written earlier, and tells of the pressures, restraints, and rules placed on her by external institutional and personal happenings. If they were part of the context of the immediate choice, classic liberals and later libertarians would probably argue that they lack full negative liberty, and perhaps criticize those entities as encroaching on her liberty. But what if the choice is, in some part or entirely based on possibilities that have been created interactions with such external entities? Then, we would say that positive liberty is at hand, and modern liberals would applaud the existence of those institutions and, perhaps argue for more. They would be happy that people care for one another in the sense of interacting to increase the future possibilities of the targets of their care.

Heidegger can help a little here. He claimed that there are two forms of human existence: authentic and inauthentic. Inauthentic applies to actions coming from choices made on the basis of rules set by external entities. Examples would be the rules (shoulds or oughts) one learns at home from parent, lessons from schooling, or any rules set by government authority. Inauthentic life corresponds to a life lacking negative liberty, the kind of freedom that comes from absence of all these external rules. Authentic applies to actions coming from the actor’s own set of shoulds or oughts, which have been self-generated and embedded in the memory. Given the apparent absence of external constraints, authenticity appears to parallel negative freedom.

But to the extent that others have been involved in any positive way in creating possibilities, clearly something present in everyone’s life, there must be, at least, a bit of positive liberty in both authentic and inauthentic existence. John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” Authenticity is the mode of life that is arguably preferred by modern libertarians and classic liberals. It represent the fullest extent to which one’s individuality, those aspects the most set him or her as distinctive against all others can be attained. Incidentally, John Stuart Mill used the word, individuality, as his proxy for human development. But this says nothing about the extent of possibilities available to the individual.

A large dose of negative freedom and authenticity are not worth much if one has few possibilities to choose from, which is the condition of many poor in both the rich and the poor nations. The lack of possibilities in these cases is not due to external constraints. It comes from the lack positive, meaningful experience from which future possibilities are created. The lack of meaningful experience comes, in turn, from the lack resources to apply to whatever possibilities that one encounters. I hope you are beginning to see the contradictory nature of liberty and one’s potential for individuality or, again as I say, flourishing. There is a dialectical pattern to life that determines one’s future state of development.

Without external resources, no one can generate an autobiography full of positive possibility to call on as life moves along. Whether these resources are provided by human relationships or by societal institutions does not matter. They must be provided if one is to be able to find positive liberty in life, that is, the freedom to choose among many options or possibilities. Without past successes and the accumulation of resources, one lives in a vicious cycle: what might have, otherwise, been a possibility disappears. With sufficient resources, one lives within a virtuous cycle. Each successful choice opens up more future possibilities.

Disputation about the absence or presence of liberty is the wrong argument in any conversation aiming to improve the human condition. Human development-flourishing-depends on both. We should talk, rather, about care. Care entails actions of support, that is, providing resources, material or psychological, when their absence prevents us from achieving our intentions or objectives. We need others to care about us, whether those others are driven by familial or institutional motives. Although care is an action imposed from the outside, it is rendered is a manner reflecting the uniqueness of the receiver. This makes it distinct from the impersonal nature of most institutional interactions and the repressive effects on freedom, as expressed by negative liberty. While literally a similar source of diminished negative liberty, thus undesired, care is always a source of positive liberty. It increases the likelihood of present success and future possibilities.

Without sufficient worldly experience producing both the possibilities and the resources for choice one cannot flourish, even if he or she might claim they are free. One of the reasons that we are stuck in a bitter argument these days about whether there is too much or too little government is the absence of care from the world. Heidegger goes beyond what I wrote above to claim that the ontological foundation of human existence is care. Care, arising from the necessity to interact meaningfully with (care about) the world in the very process of living, is unique to human beings, he writes. If this were true, then I would expect to see much more support and resource building through relationships than institutional sources. But we do not. The trend appears to be going in the opposite direction. The causal chain in the last few sentences is the main theme of all my writing. Care has been pushed into the shadows by the forces of modernity, and with it the possibility of flourishing.

The best any human being can hope for is a life that generates enough authenticity to balance the inauthenticity inherent in those actions by which we incorporate resources and rules for their use from the outside world. Inconsistencies in the definition of freedom and liberty render them poor measures for designing societies. They are poor proxies for indicating the state of the human condition. Flourishing does a much better job, but is still difficult to clearly define or pin down. I believe it becomes present at some point when authenticity balances inauthenticity, that is, how often one acts from some internally generated source compared to externally imposed sources. One key difference in discussion of the two authenticities from liberty is that authenticity refers to the historical accumulation of constraints and resources, where liberty refers to the present moment.

As a final note, it is impossible to set some standard to find the proper balance point between authenticity and inauthenticity. Every individual and society must find it on their own. I am sure many will complain loudly about having to make that determination, but go back to Sartre and his admonition that human beings are condemned to be free. Not a bad verdict if we can get our thinking straight.

(Photo: Isaiah Berlin)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 15, 2016 4:04 PM ::

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.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 6, 2016 2:13 PM ::

Evolution of Sustainability Thinking

In searching for an old paper of mine from 2004, I found this definition of sustainability. It was the first version that I had written down. No mention of flourishing, but I find it an interesting step away from the Brundtland definition of sustainable development.

Sustainability is a possible way of living or being in which individuals, firms, governments, and other institutions act responsibly in taking care of the future as if it belonged to them today, in equitably sharing the ecological resources on which the survival of human and other species depends, and in assuring that all who live today and in the future will be able to satisfy their needs and human aspirations.

The Brundtland definition is still present in the last parts, but laying on us the responsibility for the future is new. The complexity context is there in the recognition that any new future state of a complex system is always only a possibility. That tomorrow will be the same as today is also only a possibility. Hmm…

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 25, 2016 7:37 PM ::

Finding Flourishing in Victorian England


I am taking a course at my school for retirees (read, old folks like me) on the roots of liberalism and am currently reading the works of John Stuart Mill, who remains a cornerstone for thinking about liberty. The class this week included a reading of Chapter 3, “Of individuality, as one of the elements of well-being, from On Liberty, his still in-print set of essays, originally published in 1859. This Chapter follows one in which he lays out his case for protecting freedom of expression and discussion. It is as valid today as it was in the 19th Century. Arguing that freedom of expression/thought is of little practical value unless it is accompanied by freedom of action, he wrote that one should be able to think and act free of any encroachment, except where the thought or act harms another person.

A longish passage caught my eye as I was reading. Mill writes in the style of his times, often very long convoluted sentences that stretch almost a full paragraph in length. He was arguing that freedom of action was essential for the full development of human beings. Here is the passage. This comes after a critique of what he sees as the dominance of conformity in British society.

It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them. … To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others, develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object. But to be restrained in things not affecting their good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint. If acquiesced in, it dulls and blunts the whole nature. To give any fair-play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity. Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as Individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.
Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this?

I read this as a definition of flourishing, very close to the one I have been using, as attaining the full human potential. He is examining only the cultural piece. Look at the second paragraph. Earlier he touched on what I have been calling authenticity, differentiating between acts from within and those following traditions or custom. Here is what he wrote about this.

It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

On Liberty is Mill’s argument that the present norms and social structures in Victorian England are squelching individual liberty, both of thought and action. He blames both public opinion (social norms) and government practices. His language is often stilted relative to today’s styles, but the thought is clear. That he feels it necessary to write such a powerful critique supports my argument that flourishing has been recognized as central to human being in the past, but that it has languished under the cultural realities of the time. It is no different today. The world is much changed, but cultural force still repress flourishing. Anyway, I feel ever more empowered to write about flourishing and how to create it today when I find such strong evidence in the work of such thinkers as Mill.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 24, 2016 8:59 PM ::

More on Flourishing

desert plant

I am back at work on a book, but finding a new structure for it. Both my previous books were basically critiques of the “modern” paradigm, that is, the set of beliefs and norms that has been driving much of Western culture for hundreds of years. I see unsustainability, a collection of persistent, significant problems, as evidence that this paradigm is no loner befitting of today’s world. I still strongly believe that this is the case, but have a new argument as well.

I have come to see flourishing, not simply as an evocative normative vision, but as an element of human and other life forms’ ontological structure. It is part and parcel of what and who we are. Flourishing is a description of the state of attaining one’s potential. This framing takes some careful explaining. I started to do this in the last handful of posts to this blog, but it takes some repetition and reworking. That’s what this post is doing. If you haven’t read the previous post, you probably should before you start on this one.

The word, potential, is inherently teleological; it suggests that there is some end toward which the passage of time is taking us, and if we do the right things, we will reach it.. (This is the foundation of modernity and its vision of progress, a fundamentally teleological concept.) Otherwise stated, it suggests that there is some inherent purpose to life or to the cosmos. This statement, by itself, is not problematic for the many who attribute our presence on the Earth as the work of God. It is much more difficult to locate any purpose in the mechanistic, objective worldview of modernity.

Science, which reveals the inner workings of the universe, can describe the functions and interactions of almost all objects, including human beings, but cannot ascribe a purpose to them. The Big Bang model of how the cosmos came to exist is awesome and miraculous, but purposeless. The origin of life is also a miracle. I am defining miracle as Loyal Rue does in his book, Nature is Enough. A miracle is “any event, the occurrence of which is so radically impossible as to be completely unbelievable.” There is nothing about the hand of some transcendent designer in this definition.

If we examine living organisms carefully, an apparent purpose becomes evident. Life forms exist to maintain their life. Rue calls this trait, viability. I am more convinced by the biologically based work of Varela and Maturana who called the basic life process, autopoiesis, meaning continuous self-[re]producing. (See their book, The Tree of Knowledge) No living species can be found that does not act to keep itself alive as a fundamental process. Rue takes pains to label this feature an objective feature of life, thus attributing an inherent teleology to it. To live is to act to maintain life. For humans there is more to it than this, but all life shares this purpose. Contrary to my earlier arguments that humans have no inherent nature, I accept this one: that the fundamental purpose of life is to preserve viability, that is to stay alive. Evolution doesn’t change this basic feature, it merely changes the structures of organisms, improving the viability along the way. Less miraculous, perhaps, than the initial appearance of life, but a pretty miraculous process all the same.

For most non-human species, the process of living goes through a series of development stages, based on their genes, as their structure changes from simple cellular forms to increasingly complex structures to senescent forms and finally death. If a non-human species is successful in moving through all these stages, it will have attained everything that was potentially available in its genes. I equate this with biological flourishing. (Extinction is the polar opposite to flourishing.) Human beings follow the same pattern and have an equivalent biological, genetic potential, which, if attained, constitutes the same biological flourishing. But this is not everything for humans and a few other species that have developed cultures, that is, patterns of behavior that have been invented for purposes beyond those associated with the expression of the basic viability drive.

Our human ancestors have been on Earth for a very long time. For most of this time, there is agreement that they lived in ways not very different from other animal species, as hunter gatherers in small migratory groups. To the extent that they survived and reproduced, they flourished. Along the way, as they evolved, they developed language-symbolic representation of worldly phenomena-that enabled intentional action and social coordination. About 35,000 years ago in a period known to anthropologists and archaeologists as the “Great Leap Forward,” human cultures boomed. Here’s what Jared Diamond says about this event.

We know that our lineage arose in Africa, diverging from that of chimpanzees and gorillas, sometime between 6 and 10 million years ago. For most of the time since then we have been little more than glorified baboons. As recently as 35,000 years ago western Europe was still occupied by Neanderthals, primitive beings for whom art and progress scarcely existed. Then there was an abrupt change. Anatomically modern people appeared in Europe and, suddenly, so did sculpture, musical instruments, lamps, trade, and innovation. Within a few thousand years the Neanderthals were gone.

The very slow pace of evolutionary changes suddenly accelerated. Something new emerged. Emergence is a key explanatory process that accounts for the sudden appearance of new orderly structures in otherwise apparently random systems, for example, the evolutionary process. Life, itself, as evidenced by organisms driven by autopoietic processes, is a phenomenon that emerged during the chain of events that has shaped the cosmos since the Big Bang. Both life and the subsequent emergence of human culture have no inherent meaning or purpose, per se, but created meaning in the subsequent histories of the species. The great leap forward was a period of increasing complexity as human beings interacted more frequently and technology brought new challenges to everyday life.

Humans are driven by a fundamental viability or autopoiesis, and a similar purposeful existence to maintain cultural integrity. Alternatively, one can ascribe a “nature” to human beings as creatures that seek and find meaningful lives. The cultural part is historically based, emerging during the Great Leap Forward; the biological piece has been there since living entities first emerged from the primordial soup.

I have taken lots of words to lay out this story because it is new to me and also because my prior writings make a big deal out of disparaging the idea of human nature. This emergent human “nature” is categorically different from the one I have criticized previously. The modern notion of humans is that they are inherently rational, self-interested creatures, always driven to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. This has become narrowed to an economistic view by equating pleasure with material properties, so that wealth acquisition is now the primary societal driver. The “real” human nature is meta to this as a more abstract drive for preserving life and cultural integrity. The modern view is simply a description of a historical, idiosyncratic instantiation, but is not absolute. If it were, we could all fold our tents and disappear over the horizon because, then, the economic game we have been playing, assuming infinite resources in a finite world, has only a zero-sum outcome. Nature wins, we lose.

Loyal Rue bifurcates the cultural purposive, meaningful trajectory into personal wholeness and social coherence. He builds this upon an assumption that these were the two domains of life that the humans paid most attention to during the great leap forward and later. I would label individuals and societies that attained these two states as flourishing. At any time in history, such ends can be defined as the attainment of the human cultural potential, leading to my definition of flourishing as the attainment of individual and collective potential. The connection between individual and collective flourishing also arises from the emergent process in which the two were indistinguishable. The distinction is the result of the analysis, rather than being functionally separate.

If the observed nature of humans is only a historical artifact, resting on top of the fundamental drive to preserve culture, then it can be changed by introducing new cultural structure that would induce new patterns of behavior. Caution is necessary because the configuration of emergent states cannot be predicted, but I believe we already have a very good sense of how to proceed.

I will end today with a short discussion aimed at tying this blog to my previous work. The categories of Rue, above, correspond to my use of care as the basic ontology of human Being. Caring actions are intentional acts aimed at producing or preserving the cultural conditions for flourishing. I use four categories in analyzing care: care for the self, other humans, the rest of the world, and transcendence. The first lines up directly with “personal wholeness.” The other three are dimensions of social coherence, which I would define as paying attention to one’s connections with the world outside of oneself with the intent of maintaining the coherence of that world..

The challenge posed by creating a flourishing world is two-fold. The first step is to adopt the meaningful flourishing model of human nature in place of the modernist, economistic model, and establish it as the primary goal for the individual, societal, and natural world domains. Then, once that is done, begin to introduce changes in the structures of institutions, starting with the society and working down to all the institutions nested within the society. First, inject the belief about humans as caring creatures, pursuing a meaningful existence. Next, because the effectiveness of caring or any intentional action depends on the closeness of the actors’ presuppositions about the nature of reality to reality itself, introduce practices to enrich the context that surrounds whatever processes are called on in creating and expressing the act. The last statement is worth repeating because we don’t usually think about it. Our effectiveness in living depends on the match between the models we hold in our individual and collective “minds” and the real world. If they are exact, our intentions will be precisely met. Given that the models we actually use are rarely exact because they lack specific context for the immediate situation, our actions do not produce the intended outcome perfectly. The more context relevant to the immediate situation we can add, the more likely we will get what we intended. See my blog of February 3 for a discussion of the role of context.

ps. The last 6-8 posts have common threads and are somewhat repetitious. They illustrate the challenge of finding clear, accessible language and images to present what are becoming the foundational ideas for my work. I appreciate your willingness to hang in there.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 21, 2016 10:23 AM ::

Flourishing Has Roots in Reality

desert plant

If you have been following my work, you know that the concept of flourishing popped up one day without any warning. The definition of sustainability that I started with some fifteen or so years ago was, “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the planet forever.” The predicate of that sentence came out of my mouth during a training exercise and shaped my work for quite a few years. I have abandoned the conventional usage of sustainability in place of sustainability-as-flourishing, tying the endpoint to the emergence of a flourishing world.

After much thinking and writing, I now believe that flourishing is more than just a better goal for human beings (and the rest of the world) than some measure of material well-being or the psychological state of being happy. It is more than Aristotle’s eudaimonia. It is rooted in the basic teleology of life. I have been reading a very interesting book, Nature Is Enough, by Loyal Rue, a professor of religion and philosophy.1

The genetic part is fairly simple. Every living creature develops according to the genes present in their cells. That development is affected by the environment in positive and negative ways. If the course of development is positive and the adult organism expresses the full potential in the genes, the individual is flourishing. A rose grows from a seed to a flower that has become a symbol of beauty and perfection. Until it is plucked or begins to wither, it is flourishing, having attained its genetic potential. The life cycle of simpler cellular organisms is relatively limited to reproduction. As long as simple organisms are reproducing, they are flourishing. This is consistent with the basic observation of Darwin and others who saw that reproductive success was the most basic building block of evolution.

Rue calls this characteristic of all life forms, viability, and ascribes a meaningful component to it. It is present in the behavior of all species, but not in the consciousness of individual members, except for humans. For those that would immediately jump to argue against this as invoking some sort of intelligent design theory, Rue argues, based on the work of Terrence Deacon, that this apparent teleological feature of life is an emergent result of cosmic phenomena, even as seems to be a miraculous outcome, appearing against all odds.2 Deacon has a theory, based only on natural processes, to explain the rise of life and its genetic nature.

For human beings, this basic purpose is hugely insufficient to explain the centrality of the intentional, meaningful, behavior that pervades human exostence. One needs some explanation of the origin of all the shoulds and other moral guides that are part of human existence. Rue, and others, including myself, argue that as Homo sapiens multiplied and wandered about, and as the capability of language grew, guides for success in everyday (cultural) life were invented as observable patterns emerged, showing up over and above new forms of order and interrelationships. These moral, that is directives about what ought to be done, would start, perhaps, with rules for hunting and the division of the kill. Rue adds the possibility of the development of more elaborate rules, as encounters with other groups of humans became more likely as their numbers grew and the drive for food led to nomadic movement. This story is pure hypothesis, lacking good data on what actually took place, but seems to be a reasonable guess. Language, itself, is a repository of symbols representing the observations of those who added new meaningful words and gestures. The earliest, known written texts were mostly about codes of behavior.

Rue, interesting, argues the purposeful existence of human beings as manifest in cultural activities is derivative of the natural, inherent viability drive. Further, the purposes can be be divided into two classes; one having to do with individual integrity/wholeness and the other with social relationships. Rue calls these two: personal wholeness or personality and social coherence. He notes that this is a “distinctively human way” to “pursue the holy grail of viability.” While viability is an objective, abstract, timeless feature of life, the particular forms of personality and social coherence are historical and change with the passage of time (phylogeny). I add that the same is true for individual human beings (ontogeny). Our personality and social relationships change over a lifetime. Another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, writes that we become who we are through a process of a meaningful existence interacting (caring) with the world: Being-in-the-world.

Rue, with some linguistic acrobatics, then claims that, since viability is an objective (reductionist) teleological (meaningful) feature of life, and further, since other meaningful categories of human existence, personality and social coherence, have emerged from this drive as humans multiplied and culture became more complex, that intention, purpose, meaning or any other word ascribing directedness or goal-driven is an objective feature of human life. In other words, it is in our nature to live meaningful lives. Nice going, Loyal Rue. You have glued together two seemingly incompatible ideas.

I have argued against the idea of an objective human nature, largely to dispel the notion that we are just a part of the great cosmic machine of Descartes and Newton. But if our nature is to live meaningful lives, that’s swell with me. I have taken meaningfulness for granted only because it seems to better fit observations, but now I can relax a bit when I say that 1) human existence is unique among other species, 2) Heidegger’s philosophical conclusions about care as our ontological foundation have objectively valid roots, and 3) that caring is the right term to use for the process by which humans actually express their biological viability.

Further, the dichotomous opposition of the development of personality (inner integrity) and social coherence (worldly integrity) correspond to the two modes of behavior-authentic and inauthentic-that I, and others, use to point to the source of the rules with which we design and enact our intentions, that is, our meaningful actions. Authentic acts come from the persona, the self that belongs to me, the self I have created out of my own process of attributing meaning from experience. Inauthentic acts are those arising from the rules I have acquired from the voices of the external world; rules whose meaning is derived by other processes than my own. With the dichotomous, but important nature of both of these two classes, it is much clearer to see why Heidegger did not give one primacy over the other.

I realize another important consequence coming out of my reading of Rue’s book. I have been structuring my arguments for a new paradigm on a pragmatic critique of the reductionist world of modernity, arguing that the modern paradigm has ceased to produce the outcomes that legitimated it for some centuries. I still find that claim compelling, but now, I have another distinct argument based partly on an objectivist view that finds fault with the mechanistic human nature model of the Cartesian, Newtonian tradition. The key to Rue’s development is to glue on top of the basic notion of viability as the inherent human nature an emergent process that creates the omnipresence of intentionality. This explanation is completely consistent with the parts of my argument that reductionism blinds us to the key feature of complexity: the emergence of qualities, including flourishing and other long-standing social norms.

In providing an inherent telos to human existence, Rue grounds the idea that flourishing is a indicator of the degree to which the human potential has been attained. This takes what I have been writing a step further. It also allows me to make a more definitive statement about the normative place for authenticity and inauthenticity. I have either directly or indirectly implied that the route to flourishing was via authentic action. I noted that, given the social nature of our species, it is impossible to live exclusively authentically because that implies the complete exclusion of social norms. This is, however, a logical impossibility, because to be a social creature is constituted by the incorporation of such norms in one’s behavior.

Flourishing means a life where the two categories are reasonably balanced. Where the fulcrum is can be determined only by observing, pragmatically, future societal activities. Modern life provides only evidence of a great imbalance, overweighing, in Fromm’s words, having over Being. Re-balancing personality or authentic self, as I may call it, will require honing skills like empathy and self-reflection, that have been largely submerged in the evolution of modern, Western cultures.

Care, as the description of authentic action, is another way to think about intentional actions. Arguing that personality and social coherence fully circumscribe emergent patterns of intentional human behavior is another way of pointing to the domains that humans care about. Care here refers to actions that have a sense of intention about them. Heidegger has a long list of acts that represent care: “having to do with something, producing, attending to something and looking after it, giving up something and letting it go, undertaking, accomplishing, evincing, interrogating, considering, discussing, determining, and so forth.” I should add that the idea that intentionality is an emergent human characteristic emphasizes interconnectedness as central to human consciousness. Intentionality necessitates that we act out of a sense of whatever is at the other end of our arrow of that intentionality.

My intention (sic) for this post is to note that most of, if not all, of the ideas on which I base my writing and thinking are coalescing and intermingling. The rivulets of emergence, complexity, Being, Care, flourishing, meaningfulness…, are starting join into a larger stream. That’s the good news. The bad is that I have to put much of what I have written earlier and am working on now aside and start afresh. I will have to apologize for some of the errors I have made. Flourishing and the need to rebuild our societies makes more sense than ever with a newly discovered positive argument reinforces the still valid pragmatic critique of the modernist world.

  1. Rue, L. (2011). Nature is Enough: Religious Naturalism and the Meaning of Life. Albany, NY, State University Of New York Press.

  2. Deacon, T. (2006). “Emergence, The Hole in the Wheel’s Hub.” in The Re-emergence of Emergence. P. Clayton and P. Davies. New York, Oxford Univ. Press: 853-871.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 11, 2016 5:17 PM ::

Still Around

I know I have been away from this blog for quite a while. I am working on the book that has hung around for much too long with good results. I will post here soon as I feel I have gotten the key thoughts down. One of my frequent source for posts is the oped columnists, but they are all preoccupied with the reality show called the nominating process. I find it is so far from my sense of what it should be that I cannot but turn away.

For those who know I had a total knee replacement in late December, I am recovering very well. Pretty much into my normal routines. I find going down stairs still a bit difficult, but most everything else goes well thanks to a couple of great physical therapists.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 8, 2016 7:56 PM ::