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Life as a Sack of Potatoes

potato sack

Reality is a difficult concept to grasp, partly because it has been used in several confusing and even conflicting ways. Difficult or not, reality is one of the most important concepts to keep clear because it is a metaphor for the media, the soup, in which life takes place. Pieces of that reality enter our consciousness through our senses where they become transformed onto meaningful images or processes in the brain. I use a couple of metaphors here because no one knows yet exactly how the brain makes this wondrous move to add meaning to the meaningless objects that enter our consciousness. Without being able to make that step, humans would not be able to engage in intentional actions. We would be just like almost all other life, limited to responses built into our evolutionary cognitive wiring.

But we are different and have employed our unique ability to make meaningful interpretations of reality and, then, to construct ways of living together far more elaborate and richer than any other living species. The actual outcome of whatever we eventually intend and enact is determined by the forces at play in the real world, not by their surrogates in our minds. The closer the mind does mirror that reality, the more likely our plans will be realized. In order to do that, the mind has to put the immediate sensory inputs back in to the context of the real world. This is another way of saying the brain has to add back images (My metaphor for whatever or however the brain keeps things in its neural networks.) from the past. Those images provide a temporal context that identifies the objects and ascribes meaning to them. Spatial context is provided by the senses that capture images beyond those that are held in the attention spotlight. When either of these two aspects of context is missing, the focal object becomes diffuse and one- or two-dimensional.

Does this really matter? Yes, indeed. Our lives are becoming diminished by the dominance of technology and by the pace at which we live. Several articles I have read recently inspire this blog post, but it is a subject about which I have been writing for some years. Andrew Sullivan whose wonderful blog was a regular feature of my day disappeared from the scene some months ago. He reappeared for me in a recent article in the New York Magazine, titled, “I Used to Be a Human Being.” The title tells much of his story in which he recounted how his addiction to the Internet broke his physical and mental health.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

Davis Brooks penned a column with a similar theme, the power of social media and related devices to “change the very nature of the self.” The optimistic prognostications of the early days of social media could be attributed mainly due to a change of the tools used in relationships. This appears to be changing, as he writes:

But recently, people’s views of social media have grown a bit darker. That’s because we seem to be hitting some sort of saturation level. Being online isn’t just something we do. It has become who we are, transforming the very nature of the self.

Earlier this year, Jacob Weisberg had a fine essay in The New York Review of Books reporting that, according to a British study, we check our phones on average 221 times a day — about every 4.3 minutes.

A decade ago almost no one had a smartphone. Now the average American spends five and half hours a day with digital media, and the young spend far more time. A study of female students at Baylor University found that they spent 10 hours a day on their phones.

No one should be surprised at what is happening. Sherry Turkle wrote in 1995 that the computer was becoming our “Second Self”, the title of her important book. Much earlier, the philosopher, Albert Borgmann, warned against technology’s power to appropriate our humanity. In Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (1984), Borgmann argued that the ubiquitous and transparent use of technology hides context and, thus, meaning from the humans employing it. This process turns the objects being manipulated by technology into commodities: objects with little or no context. While writing before the advent of social media and the devices that enable them, his theory fits the findings of more recent scholars. I haven’t used his work in this context before, but I find his use of the word, commodification, describes quite well my arguments about the impact of Facebook and related media on otherwise meaningful relationships. Sullivan’s personal experience might also be described as the conversion of a meaningful human being into a meaningless or meaning-poor commodity.

A related, but different aspect of technology was discussed in an article concerned about the effects of replacing humans with computers. “Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster” tells the story of a disastrous airplane tragedy caused, according to the authors, by the deskilling of human pilots by the pervasive use of autopilots. In this case, the human agents were unable to correct deviations in the flight path of an Air France Airbus that crashed into the sea with the loss of 228 lives.

The cockpit record was recovered enabling investigators to reconstruct the events leading up to the tragedy. Autopilots hide the complexity of devices like airplanes and eventually change the mindset and response mechanisms of the human operators. One “solution” offered after the crash was to require pilots to turn off the autopilots from time to time to maintain their skills and appreciation of the complexity of the situation. This same issue will apply to the auto-driving cars now being tried out. Cars are not quite the complex machines as are airplanes, but real situations on crowded roads will surely produce situations as daunting to the human drivers as those for airplanes.

Human life may appear to becoming easier, as what used to be tasks we had to perform are increasingly being done by machines. These stories and others like it tell us that this may be so, but there may also be a kind of Faustian bargain involved without knowing that it is being made for us. Experiencing one’s Being, that is, flourishing, requires removing the filters between the authentic self and the world. The result may not be a pretty sight according to current cultural values and norms, but seeing oneself as a mortal being with all the warts we carry may be just the shock we need to recover and hold on to our authentic self, a mundane equivalent to the ethereal soul of theology, poetry, and philosophy.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 20, 2016 5:25 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 October 20, 2016 8:56 AM ::

Thoughts of Repentance on Yom Kippur

yom kippur

Yom Kippur is over and I am left with my thoughts of the day. This day is the culmination of 10 days of reflection on the beyond-the-world, the world, and one’s place in it. It is a trying time for me because of the omnipresence of God, a figure for whom I have little or no belief. I thank Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman for giving me a way to get through this period and other times I spend in my Temple. While he was visiting our Temple a few weeks ago in preparation for the Jewish Holidays, he offered a way for skeptics and non-believers to take in the liturgy and traditions. He said (more or less), “Suspend your disbelief and come as a part of an audience attending a metaphorical drama written over the ages, full of wisdom to be found in its lines and music.”

Our Temple is using a new (two-year old) prayer book that is helpful in this regard. It is full of alternate readings and explanations of the texts that elucidate the drama. The core thoughts I carry away and have been reflecting upon are: gratitude for being alive, facing up to the human failings that come with that life, and confessing and repenting for the acts that come from those very human parts of my body.

Being alive is a miracle that transforms a mess of chemical matter into a living being, in my case, a human being. Being the specific human being I am is another miracle for which I am grateful. No one else of the billions of people alive in the past, today, or in the future is like me. I am unique, shaped by my own biological make-up and unique life experience. I am grateful for all of the other human beings and the non-human world that has created who I am. Some I know well: my parents and family, my wives, my children and step-children, my friends, my teachers, my students, my bosses, my doctors, and on and on. Others who that have entered more silently and indistinctly have also played their parts. I have not always had the most complimentary thoughts about all of these, but I am equally grateful for the presence of all of them in my life.

The new Prayer book has a footnote echoing what our Rabbi always interjects when we come to the part of the service where we confess or recount our “sins.” I put sins in quotes to distinguish it from the notion of sin in other religions. The word in Hebrew, often translated as sin, has a root meaning coming from archery and means something more like “missing the mark.” It has the same meaning that the secular aphorism “To err is human” does, but the context is very different. We throw out that aphorism when we want to excuse our bad actions.

On Yom Kippur, one cannot get away with that; we must confess our misses, repent, and ask forgiveness. God forgives and atones for us unconditionally for all our transgressions directed toward God. I can skip this because, as a disbeliever, this doesn’t apply to me, or, at least, so I say. But for those misses that fall upon other human beings, I must make it right and apologize if I am to move into the New Year with a clean slate. It matters not whether my errant acts were intentional or unintentional. So if I have written anything here that has harmed anyone, I apologize for doing so, and, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, Jewish or not, I ask for your forgiveness.

The central prayer of confession is the Vidui, a series of transgressions in alphabetical order, followed by another series of Hebrew acrostics. Not being a Hebrew reader, this goes right by me, but the impact does not. There are always a handful or more that must have been written just for me. Today, the Vidui had more meaning than usual. The Rabbi must have been reading my (and many others’) minds when he said before his sermon that he was departing from his customary practice and bring politics into the sanctuary. Having just recited the Vidui, I was pretty sure I knew what he was going to say and so it was. He spoke about the importance of being genuine in one’s confessions and apologies for missing the mark, especially when has missed the entire target (my addition).

I add here something he did not say, but surely understands. Living together at any level requires trust and trust requires that we expect others to be responsible for their actions. We expect them to be respectful and to honor every human being as the same miracle they are. Allowance for mistakes is critical as errors are inevitable, but accepting one’s responsibility for them is essential if trust is to be maintained. Little or none of this can be found in the immediate political campaign and in the behavior of office-holding politicians in our Capitols. They have forgotten that you and I are part of their family and we have to live together. My feelings about this run the gamut between sadness and disgust.

I’ll end with a selection of sins I edited down from the very long litany of the Vidui. I need not tell you the criterion I chose to make my selection or to whom my thoughts were inspired by. These are what brought the mess out there into the sanctuary. Rather amazing, isn’t it?

And for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips, with hard-heartedness, with immorality, with deceit, through speech, by deceiving a fellowman, by improper thoughts, by a gathering of lewdness, by verbal [insincere] confession, by impurity of speech, by foolish talk, with the evil inclination, false denial and lying, by a bribe-taking or a bribe-giving hand, by scoffing, by evil talk [about another], in business dealings, by a haughty demeanor, by the prattle of our lips, with proud looks, by scheming against a fellowman, by obduracy, by tale-bearing, by causeless hatred, by embezzlement…

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 12, 2016 6:08 PM ::

Bigger Is Not Better


Michael Pollan wrote an article, previewed today in the NY Times, about big agriculture and the failure of the Obama administration to act to rein in its excesses. For those interested in the specifics, you should read the article. I am referring to it primarily as an example of a more general problem: the excessive, uneconomic, undemocratic power of the corporate sector. Pollan’s story has a plot that can be found in many cases outside of the food sector: pharmaceuticals, military armaments, commercial banking, retail, drug stores, office supplies, air travel, online retail, online travel accommodations, beer, and more. But here’s one I am sure you never would have included: eyeglass frames. Luxotica provides about 80% of all frames sold in the United States. Not too much political power, perhaps, but, if you have bought glasses recently, you know what economic power they command. Big bucks for a cheap piece of plastic.

Some monopolies are content to squeeze out what the economists call rents, income larger than what they would get if the sector were competitive. That’s what the original trustbusters were after. Today’s problems are much larger and much more threatening. Economic power has been joined by political power. Pollan’s story is one where the use of money to lobby and engage in public relations campaigns stymies attempts to put much needed controls to protect the public. The rise of inequality is due to many causes, but the drive to get bigger and bigger is one of them. The consuming public pays more that they might in a truly competitive market. The rents that result from this go disproportionately to the already wealthy owners and managers.

This disparity is nothing new. It was behind the Occupy Wall Street failed movement and Bernie Sanders’ failed campaign. The argument that bigness brings economies of scale is true only in part. At some level, gains in efficiency are overcome by monopolistic practices. The price gouging attempts, both successful and not, in the pharmaceutical sector are just one example. Have you bought an airline ticket lately? Or, as I noted, a new pair of glasses?

The problem extends far beyond the cost of everything to the choices available to the public. Pollan’s article shows how Big Food controls what we eat, not just how much we pay for it. One thread follows Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity, which has been tied to the poor eating habits of the American public. When Big Food was threatened by her speaking out for changes, they gathered a pile of money and used it to lobby against any form of regulation and placed what some might say were misleading advertisements to quell public concerns.

I am not a professional economist, but I have enough understanding of the field to know that the current situation and trends are bad news for most of us, poor and not so poor alike. The choices we have are growing smaller and smaller. Some argue that enough competition remains to allow choice. Maybe, but if you want to avoid the hand of Big Food on your dining habits, you are free to go to Whole Foods. Free only in theory because the prices keep all but affluent buyers away. Blackberry, the original smartphone, just has been withdrawn from the market!

I usually don’t write about issues like this. Pollan’s article got to me. My political (small p) juices started to flow. I think this issue should be front and center in the coming election, but the shenanigans of the candidates and the media have focused on trivia. I have no question as to who will get my vote, but am the least engaged this time around than ever before in what has become a pretty long life.

I write, as most of you know, about flourishing. It occurs to me that what I have just written has a lot to do with flourishing or, better about not flourishing. To flourish, one must act authentically, that is, from a source that is owned by the actor. This concept is often hard to fathom because it is so rare today. So let me take the opposite tack. Action today is largely inauthentic, that is, it is driven by the loud, booming voice of society. Most of us, if asked why we did something, would say something like, “Well, they say it is the thing to do.” When choice becomes limited, some agency is in control, metaphorically telling you what you should or can do.

Flourishing as the expression of one’s own self comes, in part, from the nature of the choices one makes. The freer and more self-determined they are, the more possibility of flourishing shows up. The growth of bigness casts a pall over our choices. Their economic power limits the choices we have in the marketplace. In essence, by the nature of the products, certainly in the food sector, we have limited choices. Not only are we not flourishing, we are unhealthy as a result. There is a large irony at play these days. Doctrinaire economists claim the free market and the corporate/private sector that controls it as the way to maximum choice. Nice theory, but a theory only evident in the breech.

The second important place for choice is political; the choices available every time you go into the voting booth. A funny thing happened years ago on the way to the polls. Corporations were found by the US Supreme Court to be a person. Not so good as a principle, but now not at all good in practice. Bigness permits corporations to buy their way into the democratic process of choice. If anyone thinks for a minute that this is a partisan issue, you are wrong. It is an existential issue concerning democracy and, ultimately, the possibility of flourishing.

If you think I have just made a huge leap connecting democracy and flourishing, you are mistaken. I haven’t got space to go into great details but the inherent idea of democracy, of choosing the government that will guide the polity where you live bears on the ability to care, to live authentically, to avoid domination, and more. For those who have been following me, I think you understand where I am going. For any new readers, there are about 20 recent blog posts on the right-hand side of the webpage. Pick a few at random, and you will begin to find the reasons I tie democracy and flourishing together. My cynical side has broken out today, but pay no heed and make sure you vote in November.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 5, 2016 9:33 PM ::

Care and Politics

new year symbols

The Jewish New Year is upon me. It is a propitious time to restart writing posts to this blog. I have finished a draft of my book and now have recovered some time to do this. I have thought about what would be the most appropriate subject to begin again with. The main book themes are flourishing, complexity, and care. Care, or, better, the lack of it, in the immediate political campaign strikes me as most relevant at this moment.

Care for both worldly and transcendent phenomena is central as part of any movement toward flourishing. Care, as I write, is a way of acting that focuses, as does human consciousness, on some object and acts accordingly. The substance of a caring act takes into account what is going on at the object instead of the needs of the actor, unless the object of care is also the actor. If this system works, everyone’s needs do get taken care of, similarly to the outcome of the actions of the self-interested human being of Adam Smith, but with a huge difference. To keep these two very difference ways of being, let me call actions of care, relational, and acts of need, transactional.

The context of care is connectedness and relationship; that of need is independence and transactional. In the latter, the others involved take on only instrumental features; their own essences fade from view. Caring requires a sense of the targets and, consequently, a sense of their essential features. People, who are involved show up as other humans, just like the actor. Other living beings also carry a sense of the wonder of life itself. Whatever artifacts are involved are employed transparently and serve as tools, not masters of the situation.

An invisible hand is at work here just as in Smith’s economic model. He wrote about it earlier when he coined the phrase, invisible hand, but it was about a different model of human being. It was relational, not transactional. Years earlier he saw the essence of humans as sympathy, but used in the same sense as we use empathy. I try to picture the difference. Hugs instead of e-cards. Conversation instead of text messages. Cooperation instead of competition. Not always, but a world where the balance has shifted toward the first action, not the second. A world where flourishing for all can come forth.

That is the world I write about, a world of possibility, but what about the world of the present. Hardly. I cannot dredge from my memory a more opposing image. What I am about to write transcends my particular position. I am and have acted as a liberal Democrat all my life, but that’s not the base of the following comments. I find the political rhetoric of today completely lacking in any sense of care. Care is completely absent from Trump’s talk and promises. There is not much evidence either in Clinton’s. Bill Clinton is remembered for many things, but one was this utterance “I feel your pain.” Making America great again is devoid of any sense of the humanity of our citizens.

We always will need new policies because the world is always changing, but policies based on some set of metrics, usually economic in nature, can never incorporate pain or any other human quality. Hillary represents policy wonkdom, whose ways are the ways of numbers. It is possible that both candidates are caring humans, but, if so, that sense is missing. I could go on with many more examples, but I can turn to my real concern without them.

Our political campaigns have always served to paint pictures of the great currents of beliefs about what is against what should be. The “what is” is not a pretty picture if one looks at the sweep of American history. The “what should be” has been the centerpiece of American politics from the get-go. It served as a rallying cry even before the nation was constituted, but it needs to be questioned, something that is missing.

A right to life is indeed very clear and inalienable, but rights to liberty and happiness are not so clear. That makes their inevitability equally unclear. Worse, it makes their meaning in practice the result of power differences, instead of some coming to an agreement that works for all citizens. Liberty as complete autonomy aligns with Smith’s needy individual. So does happiness when measured in any quantitative factor. Means to acquire either are transactional, not relational. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of politics springs from just this reading of the declaration of independence.

I have no easy answers, not even complicated ones. I do know, however, that until and unless top-level political rhetoric changes its tune toward the inclusion of the language of care, the amount of pain, real and metaphorical, will continue to increase. Whether some difference exists or not in the caring hearts of the candidates, what matters is what they say and how we interpret the words as signals of what they will do. Neither has been effective in their appearances in the media is conveying any sense of care. People are hurting all over the world. They need a hug as well as a hand.

For all who read this, “L’shana tovah.” Have a good year. This is an abbreviated use of the real phrase in the liturgy, but the meaning is the same. Here is the whole: “l’shana tovha tikateyvu,” which means literally, “May you be written [in the Book of Life] for a good year.”

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 1, 2016 12:55 PM ::

Plus ça change…

I was going through some older blog posts and came upon this on from November 2010. It is uncannily relevant still.

I’m as Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore! (November 22)

This now famous line from “Network” was uttered by Howard Beale, the embittered newscaster. It also seems to have been in the background of people’s explanations for the choices made in this past election. Or perhaps, it was only a variation like, I’m as mad as hell at you, and I’m not going to take you anymore! It’s much, much easier to take out one’s frustration in these troubled times on somebody than to spend the time to locate where the “this” in Beale’s cry really lies. It’s never quite clear in the movie whether Beale’s use of “mad” refers to anger at something or to his mental state. He had threatened to commit suicide on the air.

Beale’s phrase came upon me as I was reading an article from Orion, one of my favorite magazines. The article, “World Gone Mad,” by Derrick Jensen, is the converse of Network. It’s the world that has gone mad, not the commentator. Jensen, expressing his disappointment about the shallowness of most everything claiming to be green, asks why no one concerned about the state of the world ever “mentions psychopathology.”

Why is this important? Because those in power destroy sustainable communities?—?and not just sustainable indigenous communities. If people develop new ways to live on their land more sustainably, and those in power decide that land is needed for roads and shopping malls and parking lots, those in power will seize that land. This is how the dominant culture works. Everything and everyone must be sacrificed to economic production, to economic growth, to the continuation of this culture.

Jensen calls on the “official” definition of mental disease, section F60.2 of The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, published by the World Health Organization, Geneva, 1992, similar to the US psychiatric standard, DSM-IV. Here are the key characteristics of sociopaths:

a. callous unconcern for the feelings of others.

b. gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules and obligations.

c. incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.

d. very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.

e. incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment.

f. marked proneness to blame others, or to offer plausible rationalizations, for the behaviour.

The article is not for the squeamish. Jensen is indeed angry and provides ample examples of each of these behavioral characteristics. I’ll only quote his comments after the first item in the list, callous unconcern.

Where to start? Have members of this culture shown any concern for the feelings of the indigenous as they’ve stolen their land? How about the feelings of nonhumans being driven from their homes, or those being driven out of existence? Further, doesn’t the mainstream scientific community demand that emotion be removed from all scientific study? Aren’t we also told that emotions must not interfere with business decisions and economic policy? Do chickens in battery cages have feelings? What about dogs in vivisection labs? What about trees? Rain? Stones? The culture goes beyond “callous unconcern” for the feelings of these others to deny that their feelings even exist.

He finishes the article with a rather mild call for action saying we “need to step up and call out the larger culture for the way it behaves.” I do not think being mild is the right response. These days I feel more like Howard Beale. I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore! I’m not at all sure where this will take me, but somewhere beyond merely writing down my thoughts and hoping people will be stirred to do something. I would be delighted to hear suggestions from you who have been following my blogging.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 1, 2016 8:05 PM ::

Working on Book

absent I have been putting almost all my attention on the book I have been working on for far too long. I am still very much engaged in the subjects I wrote about on this blog. I have a few more chapters to draft. I will return to posting here when I finish them. Don't give up. I am very pleased with how thing are showing up on "paper." Most of what I have written has roots somewhere on this blog. The most important findings I am writing about is that both flourishing and care can be grounded in the same way that gravity can be. This makes the case against their counterparts, happiness and self-interest, very strong. I can now, and you should also, begin to think about redesigning all the institutions that matter to life in the modern world to reflect these two facts about human nature and human culture. I will start putting up more of my thoughts soon, but, for the time being, I will be an absentee.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 25, 2016 3:55 PM ::

Living in Lalaland

I have to warn you that the document you will see in a moment is not a joke. It is in reality a “joke,” but it is for real. I got notice of a new bill (H. R. 5668) just introduced into the House of Representatives. Here is the preamble:

To prohibit the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from taking the social cost of carbon or the social cost of methane into account when taking any action, and for other purposes.

I hesitate to give you the name of the bill for fear you will fall into a fit of dangerous, convulsive laughter, but here it is, “Transparency and Honesty in Energy Regulations Act of 2016.” You can view the whole bill at this link.

lalaland 1984 is surely upon us. This is the best example of “doublespeak” I have seen for a while, although there is a lot more being thrown around in the current political campaigning. Hiding the real costs of anything is the epitome of obfuscation. Economists know very well that so-called external costs, the ones that are not incorporated into the price of goods and services, are just as real as the costs of labor, materials and capital that were included. This bill is an outrageous attempt at increasing the burden on the bottom of the income scale relative to the rich. The only difference between this and attempts to cut taxes on the rich is the tactic.

Social costs that come as a result of economic activities always tend to weigh more on the poor who lack the protections of the rich. When the sea level rises and inundates the coasts, the poor who can’t afford to live on high ground get hurt, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina. Polluted air and water harm the poor more than those who can escape from them. This tactic is a variation of a very old trick to justify government projects that benefit the few at the expense of the many, including nature herself. The Army Corps of Engineers, for years, used a calculus that ignored the environmental costs of the dams. Now, begrudgingly I believe, they are beginning to pull some of those dams down to restore the natural values of the waterways.

Enough said. Keep this scurrilous act in mind next November when you pull the lever in the voting booth. I can live with a reality I do not like and with ideas with which I do not agree, but not with such flagrant ignorance and dismissal of how things really are.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 12, 2016 11:55 AM ::

The Quest for Flourishing: Nature or Nurture?

human nature

This is another long and complicated blog post, but gets closer to closing the loop in my overall story of the centrality of flourishing to the good life and the reasons why it is so difficult to come by in today’s world. David Brooks, my favorite source of blog topics, wrote a good piece in the NYTimes today (July 8, 2016) contrasting two basic human dispositions: selfishness and empathy/altruism. The final paragraph tells most of the story of the column.

By assuming that people are selfish, by prioritizing arrangements based on selfishness, we have encouraged selfish frames of mind. Maybe it’s time to upend classical economics and political science. Maybe it’s time to build institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good.

I fully agree with the gist of his article, but I think he fails to dig deep enough to understand the causes of the behavior he criticizes. I believe the contrasting modes of behavior are due to the tension between nature and nurture. Selfishness is a modern idea about human nature, often attributed to Adam Smith’s view of economic “man.” Brooks notes,

Western society is built on the assumption that people are fundamentally selfish. Machiavelli and Hobbes gave us influential philosophies built on human selfishness. Sigmund Freud gave us a psychology of selfishness. Children, he wrote, “are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.”

I have often written that Smith and those that followed his line of thinking were wrong. Human behavior is today, indeed, frequently, perhaps, largely, driven by selfish motivations, but not as a result of some inherent nature. This is a very critical distinction because, if it is our nature to be selfish above all other motivating forces, the visions of progress toward some concept of perfection are doomed to remain only as pretty pictures in our minds.

The opposite disposition Brooks poses is altruism. The motivating force is turned on its tail, in this case, aimed at the target of the action, not at the actor. This is a very important mode and is absolutely necessary if one thinks of civilization as some collection of interconnected human beings, as it is in reality. Later, as the above paragraph indicates, Brooks equates altruism with some disposition related to a sort of moral behavior: “a longing to do good.” Again he mixes up nature and nurture. Morality is a human invention, designed to control behavior, but rests on a particular model of human nature.

If humans had some sort of moral code built into their nature instead of the selfish genes of Richard Dawkins, goodness would abound in the world more or less automatically.1 We would observe actions that would be predominantly motivated by altruism. How would we know? The results themselves would indicate the direction of intentions and the reasons given would be consistent with that. One of the widely accepted qualities of social life in the United States today is individualism, a disposition that overlays selfishness. This, too, is manifest in the direction of intentions and the reasons given for associated actions,

Brooks apposes selfishness, as human nature, with a moral disposition to do good, writing, “To simplify, there are two lenses people can use to see any situation: the economic lens [nature] or the moral lens [nurture].” (my additions in brackets) Unfortunately this pairing creates a struggle where the latter is over-matched by the former. Given enough time, nature will rule over some sort of culturally based disposition (nurture). As I explain below, this outcome always arises because prevailing institutions begin with a singular belief that gets more strongly embedded over time. Moral strictures are always only human creations based on another human creation: the concept of goodness. Against a long history of belief in “the good” as being a natural phenomenon, today few believe it can be found in nature or be derived from natural laws. Religious views of the “good” still abound, views that would argue that a god included goodness in creating human nature. I do not accept this latter view.

What Brooks misses is that what he refers to as altruism may indeed be closer to what constitutes human nature than is selfishness. As I have written extensively, I believe that human nature, as a basic way of behavior, is caring. Caring is a way of acting interactively with objects encountered in the world such that the actions are motivated by the objects; they do nor arise out of some purely internal (selfish) origin. Human consciousness has a fundamental intentionality to it, defined as always being about some perceptual thing made distinct to the observer. I am always only conscious of some thing, including awareness of my own body. I do not have space to elaborate on this here, but argue that this basic feature of the human species ends up with actions that fit the notions of care, more than that of selfishness.

Brooks gives several examples of caring (what he calls altruistic behavior). Babies can act quicker to aid others that do adults, for example. This would indicate that, before they are socialized into acting on a basis of institutionalized rules, human are naturally caring in social situations. Other actions at that stage are emotionally driven by evolutionary formed parts of the brain. Babies act before they have developed language skills beyond more than a rudimentary level. Ther cannot, at that stage, create stories about the world that will later serve as the source of their behavior.

This explanation is based on the work of current cognitive science, particularly that of Antonio Damasio. Damasio claims that the way the brain works can be described in terms of three selves, associated with three different areas of the brain.2 The first is the proto-self, the basis for action related to evolution and to consequent basic emotions. It is the place that hunger and fright could be said to reside. The proto-self acts in modes inherent in the brain structure as genetically shaped. The second of the selves, the core self, is also largely of (more recent) evolutionary origin and entails that part of the cognitive system that runs the machinery of the body and maintains it in a homeostatic condition. That self, of which we are not generally aware, works to keep the body viable whenever the internal and external environment changes.

The third and most important self that is relevant to this article is the autobiographical self. This self corresponds to the processes taking place in the largest parts of the brain, which processes arise out of the embedded memories of life’s experiences. This self is largely the product of nurture, as compared to nature, which is the source of the other two selves. This is the self that is conscious, has intentions, can give reasons, can be characterized as having dispositions to act in certain ways more than in others. It may help to use the metaphor of story as the source of actions manifest by this self, the one we can observe in everyday situations.

The baby has no such story to act upon. Babies lack both the experience and the language on which to write their story in their memories. As they develop and enter into the social world and begin to acquire language, they begin to write their own, unique stories, that is, create memory traces corresponding to the events. Learning, the act of inscribing of the stories, comes from doing, that is, life experience. We know that humans left in the care of primate “parents” do not develop in the same way as those in human social milieus; they become “wild” children. To the extent that the stories include deontic ethical rules, that is, rules about, duties, rights, and similar oughts or obligations, the rules will have come from translations of experience into fixed memory patterns. If life is lived within institutions with associated deontic powers that are based on selfishness, that is, one ought to act out of one’s desires, wants, or any similar manifestation of inwardly directed intentions, then, over time, the resultant human actor will be seen as having a selfish nature.

That would be a mistake, a very bad mistake for the world because the set of selfish-based institutions that shape human behavior would be continually reinforced and more deeply embedded. And that is exactly where we are today. The world is being threatened by the consequences of an error in judgment: mistaking the distinctive selfishness of modern, capitalistic life as nature when, in fact, it is nurture. Capitalistic political societies grew out of the selfishness belief, and, as the institutions of capitalism grew, that belief became further embedded as true.

I owe the concept of deontic power to John Searle, the American philosopher, who has written extensively on the nature of language, its connection to the human mind, and its role in creating human social institutions.3 The latter are the myriads of sets of rules that create the social structures within which we live everyday, and, which lie outside of our immediate consciousness. He includes institutional things like “money” or “private property” or “marriage” or “baseball”, created and empowered by the collective intention of society at some point in history, and endowed with a set of what he calls deontic powers, that is, a set of rules laying out specific duties, obligations, rights, etc. attached to the new institution.

Private property, a relatively recent invention, epitomizes the background power of the model of selfishness. The deontic power of private property can be expressed in a simple rule: I can (ought to be able to) use what I own in anyway I want without anyone restricting that right. Searle points out that every right by someone creates obligations in everyone else. Private property also means that others have an obligation not to interfere with its use.

So now I have set the stage to get back to David Brooks. He bemoans the absence of “institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good.” So do I, but I would make say this in stronger terms. We need to re-create institutions based on our true human nature of caring, a nature that has become swamped by the embedding of a misbelief in selfishness in virtually all the important institutions of modernity. It is more than a longing or a disposition. What ever longings we have come out of moments when our true nature breaks through the barriers created by modernity and shows up in our consciousness.

Institutions are only human creations. They have no reality other than that we have endowed them with by language. They are born only through human linguistic Declarations (a particular form of speech act, explained in the Searle book I cite.). New institutions with different deontic powers, consistent with a flourishing vision of the world, can be created if enough of us say so.

The place to start is with the foundational institution of all, beliefs. Beliefs are statements about truths about how the world works. We need them if we are to live harmoniously in the world. If we went about life believing that gravity acted to push objects apart, we would forever be trying to construct a built world that couldn’t possibly work. In the broad social world, we hold statements about the natural world as true in modern times if they have been created by science. Science is just another example of an institution, but with the particular deontic power that the claims made through science ought to be accepted as valid truths about the world. The creation of this institution has benefitted humanity immensely, but can and has also created some false impressions about the nature of things, that is, the true way things are.

Human nature is one of these errors. We do not know that humans are selfish in the same way we know that gravity is an attractive force. We have taken it for granted in constructing the institutions of modernity, but now are beginning to see the error of our ways. The response to this mistake is very simple in concept, but not in practice. Stop making it. Acknowledge that the belief that humans are naturally selfish is wrong. It is a belief arising out of nurture, that is observations of human behavior conditioned by the deontic power of institutions based on that model, a destructive tautology.

Start with what I believe is the nature of human Being: caring, arising out of our unique powers of language and intentionality. (Read the Searle book I cite for the basis of this claim.) Heidegger got a similar place, declaring caring to be the foundation of human existence, through his philosophizing, even in the absence of the biological knowledge available today. Caring is much more than the “longing” Brooks writes about. My longing is for a flourishing world where all life can achieve its biological potential, and humans, in addition, their special cultural potential, based on being able to live according to their caring nature. To get there, we must voice that belief in everything we do in constructing both our material artifacts and also our social facts and institutions that exist only through languaging them. That’s only the beginning; we also must start to replace the existing artifacts and institution based on the old concept of human nature. That’s the hard part because we have come to believe that that they are generally the right ones to have and cannot see how to live without them.

  1. Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Damasio, A. (2010) Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon
  3. Searle, J. (2010). Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 8, 2016 2:08 PM ::

What Brexit Means to Me (and You)


The news following the referendum in the UK was largely about financial uncertainty and other economic consequences. A few stories warned of risks for immigrants now living in the UK without any kind of local documentation. All of a sudden they have been thrown into the same situation as undocumented immigrants in the US. The nationalistic walls that have been so artfully lowered by the Europeanization process have started to rise with all the ominous memories of the history of separate, competitive, warring entities.

One thing I have learned from my thinking about the world over the past few decades is that it, including humans, is highly interconnected. It was always interconnected through the workings of its global natural processes. As human activities have now grown to the point they exert a significant impact not only on themselves, but also on the natural processes, interconnectedness is an essential part of the system in which all life exists. To ignore that fact while managing the present and planning for the future is like trying to drive a car in traffic wearing earplugs and a blindfold.

The European Union was conceived by men who understood, at least in part, the importance of creating a form of governance that recognized the interconnectedness of nations. It is, by far, the most successful and effective effort toward this end. Its very core structure requires that its members give up some part of their historical sovereignty and replace it with a form of interconnectedness. Regulations made by the governing body are to be harmonized with national rules and policies. Interesting choice of words, harmonize. It has a sense of holism and integrity. The United Nations doesn’t come close, If anything, it tends to exacerbate the nationalism among its members. It has, at least, provided a forum for discussing the individualistic concerns of its members, but lacks any sense of the interconnected whole.

I find a deep sense of irony in the vote to leave the EU. The arguments to leave were largely to insure a future where British sovereignty would be dominant against a backdrop of connectedness to the rest of Europe. Trying to go it alone in any interconnected system tends to make both the outrider and the system less stable and more subject to unpredictable events. On my reading of the news of the vote, I have a strong feeling that this kind of understanding was missing.

Many pundits predict that this event will encourage other nations to go it alone. The current election campaign in the US mimics, in large part, the arguments for and against Brexit. Trump and the Republicans tend to argue for policies based on US exceptionalism, a position that argues that this country is distinct from all the rest and is not subject to the systemic forces that actually shape history. Clinton and the Democrats argue that we are part of the world’s interconnected system and cannot unilaterally have it our way.

These two sets of claims are essentially the same as the two I see as competing for our future as flourishing or not. The positivist, certain way of seeing the world as something we know all about has run its course because interconnectedness is now the better reality than the reductionist mechanistic models that got us so far away from the murk of the Middle Ages. In a sense, we are the victims of our successes. Using the models of modernity we have designed and built an increasingly interconnected global system with all its wonders of innovation and economic power, but, simultaneously, that system has become rigid and more subject to unplanned departures from the trajectory it had been on for centuries.

We cannot opt out of life on Planet Earth, in spite of those who argue we should start planning to inhabit other celestial bodies. The only way to prolong our stay here is to start to give up our modern model of the world and start to think of it as a highly interconnected complex system. National boundaries are an unnatural part of that system. Natural processes ignore them completely. Human activities now flow routinely across these boundaries. Humans are just another predator species, amidst the rest of life forms. We know that other species cannot flourish when their natural habitats deteriorate or disappear. It is hubris to think we are different and are in control. It is also simply unwise.

We do not have to continue to think the same old way. Other species are often doomed when their worlds begin to change in critical ways. Their inventiveness is severely limited relative to the human species. Without language, they cannot do much more than their genes allow. They do not have concepts and beliefs without which there cannot be intentionality: the human capacity to act in meaningful ways.

When we discover that what we have been doing is turning out badly, humans have two basic options to cope. One is to hold onto our basic beliefs about how the world works and try to patch up the parts that appear to be causing us grief. The primary means for this is to apply some form of technology or technocratic management to isolate the problematic pieces or, otherwise, to fix a part of the machine that we see is sputtering. Brexit is unfortunately a prime example of the first of these approaches.

The second possibility is to give up those deeply embedded beliefs on which our actions are based. To many this will always appear as the more risky because, until the subsequent actions become stable, we cannot predict how the remedies will work. Highly interconnected systems are always complex and, therefore, inherently unpredictable.

These two alternates are similar to the basic tenets of the two poles of political philosophy in democracies: liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism is a belief that what has worked in the past is better than anything new. This way of thinking ignores the reality of an ever-changing world. Unlike a machine which tends to maintain itself as it grow larger, the complex world is subject to all sorts of systemic changes that produce deviations in behavior from the previous norms. Without commenting on the specific claim of the conservative right, the foundation on which it is built cannot support the superstructure of today’s highly interconnected complex world.

Liberalism, conversely, is more pragmatic at its core. It understands that truths do change as the world changes. The heart of the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill was freedom of expression as a necessary context for the discovery of truths in a changing world. At its roots, liberalism is a form of social learning. Unfortunately, liberalism has lost much of its pragmatic character, but still admits of a need to keep adapting as circumstances change as they inevitably do. John Dewey, the great American philosophy, saw clearly the importance of a liberal, pragmatic framework in any kind of effective democracy.

I have always seen myself in the liberal camp politically, but without much reflection as to why. Now, as I have begun to acknowledge the complexity of the world as its basic nature, my choice has become clear. To dream of flourishing is to accept complexity. One cannot have the former without the latter and its wonderful property of emergence: the ability to create something out of nothing. I believe that such thinking is impossible among conservatives, given the very underpinnings of their political philosophy. They cannot deal with complexity. While it is possible to accept complexity and think pragmatically as a liberal, I do wish that more of its leaders would express this, and more sharply delineate the critical differences with conservatism that have been buried in public conversations here in the US and also in the debates that preceded the Brexit vote.

At moments like this, the words of a very plaintive tune often rush into my consciousness. It is Where Have All the Flowers Gone, by Pete Seeger. One verse will do.

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 25, 2016 4:35 PM ::