Recent Posts

Subscribe to RSS feed

Javascript must be enabled to view this email address

Amazon Strikes Another Blow


The cause for flourishing just took another hit with the unveiling of Amazon’s new “Dash.” Dash, a device to make ordering from Amazon both effortless and mindless has two parts. The hand-held Dash will automatically place orders for household goods by scanning barcodes or by recognizing your spoken commands. The second, related part is called Dash Button. a smaller device that sticks to whatever cabinet you store your household goods that allows you to order replacements with the mere touch of a button. Here what Amazon says:

Place it. Press it. Get it.

Dash Button comes with a reusable adhesive and a hook so you can hang, stick, or place it right where you need it. Keep Dash Button handy in the kitchen, bath, laundry, or anywhere you store your favorite products. When you’re running low, simply press Dash Button, and Amazon quickly delivers household favorites so you can skip the last-minute trip to the store.

I see this as only a step toward implanting some sort of device in your brain that intercepts the stimulus that would have actuated the Dash Button or clicked the Dash’s bar code scanner, then and sends the intended order directly to Amazon. Why bother with more gadgets lying around the house? It can all happen without them. This is truly mindless consumption, or close to it. Each of us becomes nothing more than a cog in Amazon’s provisioning machine. No conscious thinking needed; no agonizing choice between All® and Era®. What could come any closer to making us the perfectly rational, optimizing, hyper-efficient human machine that makes markets hum?

The on-line New Yorker had a story about this that I cannot help generously cribbing from. Thanks to Ian Crouch for “The Horror of Amazon’s New Dash Button.” He begins with comments about the promotional video that Amazon used to introduce the Dash Button.

There was also something slightly off about the promotional video. It opens with a montage of repeated household tasks—squeezing a tube of moisturizer, running a coffee maker, microwaving a container of Easy Mac, starting a washing machine—that gets interrupted when a woman reaches for a coffee pod, only to discover that there are none left. She leans forward and exhales, resigned. It’s going to be a long day. But then, thanks to Dash, the montage starts up again, with those familiar Amazon boxes arriving continuously in the mail—and in them a supply of coffee, lotion, and macaroni and cheese for as many days as we may live to need them. “Don’t let running out ruin your rhythm,” a voiceover tells us.

Most of the article was devoted to a theme I have been harping on for years, mindless, addictive consumption. The ubiquity of advertising has dulled our ability to make meaningful choices. The fundamental notion that the market works best when buyers have all the information needed to make rational choices has been buried for years. There is no way that anyone can determine which brand is better or whether the product being considered has hidden costs that outweigh or offset the apparent benefits. But Dash goes too far as the next quote from the article suggests.

And the idea of shopping buttons placed just within our reach conjures an uneasy image of our homes as giant Skinner boxes, and of us as rats pressing pleasure levers until we pass out from exhaustion. But according to Amazon, these products represent the actual rhythm of life, any interruption of which might lead not only to inconvenience but to the kind of coffee-deprived despair that we see when the woman realizes that she has run out of K-cups. That’s the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.

Crouch picks up on my theme by asking, “But what if there is actual value in running out of things?” Amazon is trying to make shopping completely transparent, that is, an action we take without conscious reflection. Heidegger saw this kind of action as fundamental to humans. So does modern neuroscience. Our brains learn to do routine tasks without thinking as long as the tools we need for them are “ready-to-hand.” That clumsy phrase, also from Heidegger, means simply that the necessary tools are easily available to us. If it were true that effortless consumption was purely beneficial, then it might be a good idea to make it easier. It would become just another action like walking or talking, both of which actions we perform without conscious thinking.

But consumption is clearly not without a dark side. It is the medium through which human economic life despoils the Earth. It is the medium that blinds us to the relationships we have with the world by the very readiness-to-hand nature of consumption, as Amazon would like to have it. So, by the way, would most neoclassical economists. Human life has progressed (if you would call it that) only when the transparency of action ceases. It is only then that we become conscious of the world before us that we use our real smarts to solve our problems. The world, again, according to Heidegger, becomes present-at-hand, and humans enter a different mode of thinking, reflecting on the scene. Almost all other animals lack this capability. It would be a terrible shame to lose it or to injure that talent. The Skinner box referred to in the last quote is a system where the animal (including humans) inside operates only by a transparent stimulus-response behavioral pattern. No ‘thinking” is involved.

The ability to think critically or reflectively is being neglected today. Teaching to tests is a thinly disguised form of Skinnerism. Humanities which teach such critical skills are being pushed aside by the drive towards complete professionalism in higher education. With only a little simplification, professionalism is a form of ready-to-hand behavior. One learns how to address many kinds of problems, transparently, with the tools one acquires in school and through experience. The appearance of many societal ills can be traced to the failure of professionals to cope with the present-at-hand, that is the real world. Even though Dash might appear to be an almost trivial player in a technological world where mindlessness is already the key, it is another ominous sign that what makes us human is taking another hit.

The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from “Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?” to “Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?” The act of shopping—of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site—is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice—even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun.

Most of my readers are far too young to remember, Fantasia, one of Disney’s very early animated films consisting of fantastic scenes set to classical music. One of them tells the tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to the music of the same name by Paul Dukas. In it the Apprentice (Mickey Mouse), trying to emulate his master, performs what he believes is the correct incantations and spells to turn on a broom to become a water carrier to perform Mickey’s own chores. But the scheme goes awry, and the broom continues until the place is inundated. Mickey is powerless to stop the action until the master returns, turns the broom off, and gives Mickey the boot. I see Amazon as the sorcerer and me as Mickey. I am given the magic wand, Dash, and the ability to turn it on, but not the secret to turn it off. I can envision my house overflowing with toilet paper and Mac’n Cheese, but I cannot imagine the Sorcerer, Amazon, ever showing up to turn off the spigot.

This is not even the end of the story. It’s the last line in the following quote that conjured up images of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Crouch ends with:

Soon we won’t even have to hit a button. Amazon is also working with companies on devices that will be able to restock themselves. As the Wall Street Journal explained, “Whirlpool is working on a washer and dryer that anticipate when laundry supplies are running low so they can automatically order more detergent and dryer sheets.” Water purifiers could reorder their own filters; printers reorder their own ink. This is the dream of domestic life as a perfectly calibrated, largely automated system. But the doomsayer in me likes to imagine some coffee maker gone HAL 9000, making its own decisions about what kinds of coffee it thinks it should be brewing. Or a washing machine, haywire and alone in a basement somewhere, constantly reordering supplies for itself long after we’ve all been wiped off the Earth.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 10, 2015 2:38 PM ::


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 archive list. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 10, 2015 8:48 AM ::

“Religious Freedom”: Another Failure to Think in Systems Terms


The recent news has been full of stories about the passage of laws to protect religious freedom. One question that seems always to accompany these stories relates to the discriminatory nature of such laws. Is it right to pass laws that arguably increase the freedom of someone, but at the cost of discriminating against another? This question is posed as very important, as if there is an alternative. But there is not, a fact generally overlooked. It is impossible to increase one’s [negative] freedom without reducing someone else’s. This is always true, no matter what the issue involved.

Laws and other restrictions like this are directed at negative liberty, an idea discussed in a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin. He argues that liberty comes in two flavors, positive and negative. Positive liberty determines one’s possibilities to act in any way one chooses. It has to do with one’s life choices in matters of religion, expression, profession, marriage and so on. One should be able to choose without established barriers, but that is not always possible without the authority of some societal institution to crush the restraining power of institutions, like the Church held over the English citizens who fled to the New World to escape them. Such form of liberty did not always exist. Until the advent of the Enlightenment, individuals existed, but caught up in a system of authoritative beliefs that fixed them in a web established by religious orders or societal orders, like medieval feudalism.

Negative liberty is a mundane consequence of positive liberty. Put in a systems framework, unlimited possibility (positive) is possible only if one is alone in the world, living amidst natural beings with no similar rights. The second part was deemed to be the case, as modernity, which brought this kind human of freedom, also relegated the world itself, save for humans, as fodder for our mills, having no such libertarian rights. Perhaps there was a time with only one human being, but genetically that would have been the end of us. As soon as two human beings lived in communicative proximity, natural problems with freedom must have arisen, even if early humans had no words to express their sense of encroachment. So negative freedom, the right to do exactly what I choose, must have accompanied its positive relative, more or less, from the advent of humans on Earth. As the global population grew, human settlements spread into the unsettled frontier where more negative freedom could be found, but such frontiers are all but gone in the industrialized world.

Discrimination is the ability to act in a way to prevent the involvement of some other human being. It is a form of negative liberty and is inseparable from it. One cannot have one without the other, a point that seems missing in almost everything I have been reading about these recent 
“religious freedom” laws. To find some legalistic ground to separate the two is impossible in a systems sense. Looking at the same system, the finite Planet, it is impossible to have positive freedom for any one individual with encroaching on the freedom of another. No law protective of property or some other immaterial right can undo this knot. If there is to be any resolution, it must come from some systemic solution that accepts the finiteness and interconnectedness of everybody.

The closest such concept that comes to my mind is that of “tolerance.” Tolerance is a way of interacting with other beings that accepts the reality of being part of the same system; it is a systemic notion. It has become a moralistic term as something that ought to be practiced as a “good.” But such “goods” are always arguable because they have little or no real grounds, but tolerance can be derived simply from its systemic origins. If I want to be able to exercise my positive freedom, I need freedom from the inhibitory powers of others. I would like them to do their best to allow me my freedom; best in the systems sense in that such allowance must always be judged by some systems-wide criteria. I have no choice but to do the same for them. I cannot, a priori, determine what such criteria should be used because the real world is complex and not amenable to any theoretical optimizing calculus. But I can affirm that no finite laws will be able to produce th systemic result that would be seen to be optimum for all.

We have not followed such a systemic path, passing law after law that defines classes that one can or cannot discriminate against, that is, prevent them from entering one’s sphere of possible activities. The intent of such actions may be meritorious, but the outcomes cannot be because of the failures of systems thinking I have just outlined. If we, as a society, seek to get the most of our real existence, we must begin to practice tolerance seriously. We must question every act taken that consciously excludes another human being for whatever reason we assign. Ask ourselves how deeply does excluding anyone increase my freedom deep down inside? I believe that it is possible to value positive freedom and possibility, but not negative freedom, in the same way that it is not possible to prove a negative. The process of discovering our possibilities, our true freedom, is very difficult and requires a reflective process that enables us to get beneath the rules we have adopted simply because there are out there and have been labeled good.

There is much here that fits my writings on flourishing. Flourishing is, like tolerance, a systemic notion. One cannot observe tolerance until the system shows it. Individuals can act tolerantly, but discrimination will still be the overall outcome until some point where the system will flip into a new tolerant regime. Tolerance can take us part way to flourishing by mitigating or eliminating negative behaviors. Flourishing requires a more positive attitude, one of caring. It is not enough not to consider the needs of others, one needs to positively take care. A moments thought, using a systems focus, should paint a picture of a world where everyone is realizing their human possibilities, not because they are free from the encroachment of others, but because they being pushed toward those possibilities by everyone else.

Such a world is possible, but exceedingly difficult to foresee as real. One strong reason for our blindness lies in our idea of negative freedom, an idea that is consistent with our modern view of the world as made up by individual isolated, disengaged human beings. It’s time to stop tinkering with this idea and start to think systemically. We will have to create the process as we go because we haven’t bothered to do it for many centuries. One important first step is to accept that negative liberty and discrimination are but two sides of the same coin, If we want one, we must get the other, but there is a way to avoid both.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 5, 2015 1:24 PM ::

F***ing Up the World By Doing the "Right" Thing

right thing

Over breakfast today with my son, Tom, we started to talk about how sustainability has been slowly fading from view. My alert systems show fewer entries every day. Sustainability has become just another routine activity for many companies. That’s both good and bad news. For me, mostly bad news. Here’s why. When some persistent problem like unsustainability settles into the normal activities of organizations of all sorts, it means that those who set priorities have decided that the current strategies and programs are sufficient to deal with it. Serious thinking stops dead, and that’s a big problem in and of itself.

In the first place, sustainability efforts never were sufficiently critical to discover the underlying causes for the problems that set out to solve. The systemic nature of the symptoms of unsustainability was ignored by individual organizations that could only see their own contributions to what they perceived were the problems. Not surprising. Our overall understanding of the economic world is that it is self-correcting, Individuals do what it best for them, while some invisible mechanism propels the collective outcome in the “right” direction. What is somewhat surprising is that, although nothing much has happened as a result of all the separate efforts, there is little interest in finding out why. Again, that’s because, deep down most of the players have some understanding that they cannot connect their own efforts to results.

There is some superficial agreement that using less of the Earth’s resources and and doing less to corrupt the environment is the right thing to do. So organizations go on with their programs to recycle, light-weight and detoxify their offerings and similar projects, all the while communicating their actions in search of more market share and improved reputation. Their individualistic mind set keeps them in what systems dynamicists call the shifting-of-the-burden archetypal behavior. They focus increasingly on the projects they have begun, reinforced by knowledge that everybody else is doing more or less the same thing. Whatever attention might have been focused on discovering and attacking the deeper rooted causes of unsustainability is lost in the efforts to keep on doing what they have been, even doing more.

Meanwhile at the level of institutions, say business as a whole, the patterns that have been going on for awhile become normalized and take on legitimacy as the right way to attack the problem. The ineffective behavioral patterns at the single firm level now have grown to become an institutional characteristic, and, as other institutions follow, a societal problem. The normal way to solve the problem has been dictated by the prevailing cultural norms, in this case, to apply some sort of technological or rationally-based solution. That is how we as a society tend to attack all common problems. This norm leads to another pathological behavioral pattern that systems dynamicists call “fixes that fail.” This results from attempting to use the normal way to solve some problem with deep roots. We have been falling back on technology for centuries ever since the founders of modern science and technology saw the fruits of their application as leading inexorably forward, overcoming every obstacle in the way.

Nobody is to be blamed for this kind of ineffectual behavior. People are only doing what is legitimately expected of them, that is, the right thing. We, as a society, are stuck in a box out of which we cannot get by continuing to behave as we have been acculturated to do. We are really stuck, hoist by our own petard as some might say. Our best weapon has turned upon us. If this were to happen in a small group, someone might notice that more of the same isn’t working and, perhaps, suggest they should start from a different mental model of the situation. This is exactly how organizational learning works. The well-known systems of deep, permanent change of, say, Argyris and Schön or Peter Senge rest on getting to the bottom of things, to discover the particular misfitted mental models or belief structures that are freezing the minds of those involved, and replace them with new ones that fit the problem at hand. Organizations that apply these systems of learning or problem-solving methods know how very difficult it is to get them going and staying around, even if they appear to have worked. The background norms and their associated beliefs have become so strongly embedded that they come back and run the show as soon as the immediate problems appear to be solved.

Now expand this small story to a whole society facing a persistent, apparently intractable problem like unsustainability. Like all societies, normal behavior is controlled by deeply embedded beliefs and institutional structures built upon them. If people are to stop for a moment and try a new way to solve big problems, someone must hold up the stop sign and get a lot of people to think differently and, ultimately, to act differently. This doesn’t and, maybe, can’t happen because there is no one with enough power to be heard. Small organizations, however, have enough power concentrated in the hands of senior managers for it to occur. A scientist, in similar situations where the old theories no longer can explain observations or unravel an intractable puzzle, can undertake such a shift in thinking all by herself. When such steps are taken and are successful, the change in belief structure and subsequent new, normal behaviors has been called a paradigm shift by Thomas Kuhn. This description explains why so many believe it takes a crisis visible to some critical mass to stop the normality, and embark on a paradigmatically different path. On the face of clear crisis, there is room for powerful voices to arise from many quarters and call attention to the failures of the present normal ways of thinking and acting. The same crisis makes it much more likely that others will heed the call. With some obvious omissions, this is what happened in the US during the Depression years.

Unsustainability suffers from a serious difference from the collapse evident during the Depression. There is little or no consensus that there is a problem at all. The historically uneven patterns of climate behavior permit some to ignore or deny that there is anything to worry about. Social problems, like inequality, are visible only to the neighbors of the poor or sociologists studying the problem. Lone voices crying in the dark, like mine, are just that, lone voices that might find a few followers. Robert Putnam has just published a powerful indictment of the way inequality has rooted itself so deeply in the US that it may take generations to make a dent. But like so many, his voice will reach only a limited set of ears. Nothing is going to change until either the problems become so obviously critical or the most powerful voices in the nation speak up and cry, “Whoa, we need to make changes.”

In the case of unsustainability, with climate change as its current focus, we are deeply in a pattern of fixes-that-fail or shifting-the-burden. Ironically, social scientists have offered models of collective behavior that would reveal this and offer paths to avoid the pitfalls of normality. All lead to the presence of deep-seated beliefs on which the dominant societal institutions have evolved. As we know in the smaller organizations I mentioned above that the beliefs tend to be at the bottom of what has become normal, we should be looking critically at the same kinds of beliefs in our society, but cannot. Part of the reason is that the primary political parties have become so ideologically polarized that they cannot step back even an inch from their beliefs, firmly anchored in the concrete of some partial reality.

It is no easy task to critically examine the beliefs that have brought so much so-called progress to human affairs. But if the focus were to shift from only the humans on the Planet, I would expect the consensus of progress to dramatically splinter. Also ironically, unlike the situation in science, where each new step forward comes on the back of an entirely distinct novel belief, there are already alternative beliefs hanging around to be picked up and used. The ideas are there, but the will to think about them isn’t. There is no CEO to demand that we stop what we are doing and start doing it distinctly differently. Those that do care about the state of the world are mostly offering solutions coming from their normal ways of going about business. But what is normal to someone is always focused on a different part of the system as seen by another. Think about the way our Congress is behaving right now. I am running out of steam at this point. I have no solution to offer except to argue as strongly as I can that to continue to act normally is a trap. Starting to build from a different foundation is essential, but I haven’t got any bright ideas about how to make that happen. Help!

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 30, 2015 10:01 AM ::

Climate Change Is Not a "Tame" Problem


Renewable energy is much in the news these days. Energy prices from wind machines and solar panels have dropped and now match or are lower than conventional sources of energy. New prospecting for oil and gas, at least in the US, has slowed as a result. Headlines are shouting that we are close to halting global warming. The connection is completely ungrounded. The atmosphere will continue to warm up due to the greenhouse gases that have already been released. Few if any of these stories ever mention the effects of continued economic growth, which creates larger emissions in the aggregate, even with the additions of non-carbon sources, but this is not even the real issue at play here.

Global warming is not the “problem.” Yes, it certainly is causing alarm, given the many threats it poses, but its more critical aspect is as a sign of much deeper problems. The immediacy of climate change blinds us to these problems and their sources. Having lived through a record-breaking winter in Boston, I am very aware of its palpable impacts. In very simple terms, the world population is using the equivalent of now, perhaps, two Earth’s worth of life-supporting resources. Global warming is the paradigm example of a “wicked problem,” a term invented by two planning professors, Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in a classic 1973 paper, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” The abstract tells much, but not all, the story,

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

Russ Ackoff referred to wicked problems as messes. I discuss them in the general context of complexity. Rittel and Webber’s paper should be required reading for everyone taking on climate change and other “wicked problems, but, unfortunately, neither it nor other similar framings shows themselves in the “professional” or “public” media. I have yet to find an awareness of this context in any discussion. People keep talking about solving the problem, but what is the problem. Here’s R & W’s response. They discuss wicked problems in a list of ten points. I will keep their numbering system, but list them in a different order. There points are italicized, the roman text is mine except for the block quotes.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. This important observation is clearly critical, as soon as anyone recognizes that systems in which wicked problems arise are characterized by manifold interconnections, producing all sorts of feedback links. Feedback always occurs in loops in which each active node affects another, but the other also affects the first, so which is the cause of observed behavior? Now multiply this by many, many such interacting loops in the system we are concerned about. Applying technology to “solve” climate change problems ignores this relationship and leaves the unaddressed “causes” or actors in place to continue causing mischief in the system.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution. Unlike the “tame” problems they write about for which standard methodologies will generally lead to consensus about the “problem” to be solved, wicked problems allow different parties to stymie consensus and, subsequently, action. Climate change is a perfect example.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Global climate change is clearly not a single problem. It depends, among other factors, on the nature of the polity contributing to it. Seeking global solutions simply won’t work. Some sort of global consensus that the problems need to be addressed is essential, but one-size-fits-all global solutions should be avoided. This conclusion springs from the first item in their list.

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. More bad news for scientific or “rational” solution seekers. Imagine a scientist in front of a computer, thinking which algorithm to code, but the computer telling her that none will work. Maybe fuzzy logic would help, but even this is algorithmic at heart.

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. This feature dooms scientifically-based solutions, or, at least, relegates them to the closet. The acontextual, objective nature of scientifically based (technological and technocratic) methodology inevitably leaves out important aspects of the problematic system. The best outcome is something that may seem to work right now, but may not in the next instant, thus requiring constant attention and adaptive measures. This leads to the next point.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. Any “solution” can be good, only for the time being. Like a balloon filled with water, pushing a solution into the balloon will cause a new problem to pop out somewhere else. There’s no possibility of splitting up the problem among various disciplines during the planning phase or separating planning from implementation. The next characteristic is even more vexing.

4.There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. The results from the inevitable unintended consequences of intervening with any “solutions. To examine the efficacy of the solution, these will have to factored in for some indefinite time afterward. R & W say it this way:

The full consequences cannot be appraised until the waves of repercussions have completely run out, and we have no way of tracing all the waves through all the affected lives ahead of time or within a limited time span.

The next point is pretty obvious.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. The world is always changing so that the context is different from one moment to the next. Further, given the long time it typically takes to design and implement solutions to wicked problems, this aspect can be daunting to those seeking to solve it. Everything so far has followed from the technically complex nature of wicked problems. The last two items illustrate the ethical dimension of these problems.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. R & W are pointing to the difference between the framing for wicked problems and for tame problems amenable to rational attack. Scientific methods are always contingent and subject to be falsified. If a solution is attempted on the basis of a model that is subsequently proven false, those involved can be excused from moral blame. They did what was expected of them by a set of accepted standards. Not true of solvers who are flying by the seat of their pants, even if a lot of wisdom lives in that spot. They cannot turn to any socially-legitimate standard to explain the failure. They have much more than a penny in the pot.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. This follows from the last point. There is always an ethical context to wicked problems. Values are involved. The reduction to some economically-based cost/risk/benefit analysis fails to consider the very facets that distinguish wicked from tame problems. Again, R & W are clear about this.

For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness. Their judgments are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections. Their assessments of proposed solutions are expressed as “good” or “bad” or, more likely, as “better or worse” or “satisfying” or “good enough.”

I have been following the Great Transition Initiative dialogs for some time. The players in this project want to create a world with a different set of primary values from those of the “average” western, modern nation. The key values are: human solidarity, quality of life, and ecological sensibility. These are coincident with the single value, flourishing, I also seek to make present in the World. I speak about this example because it resembles virtually everything I can find focused on “sustainability,” climate change, inequality, or similar wicked problems. The conversation participants are primarily academics or professionals, each defined by a disciplinary methodology and an associated set of beliefs about how the world works. While interesting and thoughtful, I find that their interactions slowly but surely devolve to discussions of how many angels dance on the head of a pin. They recognize the need for new values, but overlook that values are just beliefs that have been ordered by some criteria, often just another belief.

That’s not because they are so narrowly constrained by their beliefs, although they mostly are, but that they are stuck in their framing of the problem. They have been trained to deal with tame problems, and the more disciplined they are the better at taming such problems, and the worse they are at tackling wicked problems.

Many of the Great Transition Initiative dialogs, in particular, decry the lack of a model for social change. But that is oxymoronic because the whole topic of social change is wicked. There are just too many loops to hope that some discreet framework will guide us to the desired future. But this does not preclude some path toward a flourishing or similar future. Pragmatism, while not explicitly designed to work on complex systems or the derivative wicked problems, fits the description laid out in the ten points above and offers the hope of a useful context for anxious problem solvers.

The founders of pragmatism, back at the end of the nineteenth century, focused on beliefs as the primary “cause” leading to habits or norms in both individuals and societies or organizations. Over time the constitutive beliefs, the ones on which institutions sprang up over time, tend to be implicated as major factors in observed dominant behaviors or norms Change these constitutive beliefs and everything else changes eventually, but in ways unpredictable when the changes were made. Well, we live in the modern world where one very critical dominant belief is that we come to know the way the world works through scientific pursuits and can apply the consequent knowledge to solve all our problems. Most of the time this works very well, but only because so many of our problems are tame. In any case, normally scientists work on tame problems. It’s the belief in a mechanistic, knowable world that is at or near the bottom. Not alone because it is embedded in our most powerful institutions, like academia, markets and economics, management theories, indeed, all theories.

That’s why all the conversations I alluded to earlier are focused on the wrong problems, or. better perhaps, on the wrong way to solve them. They are using methods designed for tame problems to address wicked problems. If we are to make progress though the inherent powers of these conversations, the participants must drop their illusions about the nature of the problem and adopt a framework consistent with complexity, perhaps, drawing on the way pragmatists go about their business. To do this is very scary and challenging because virtually everything that was familiar and comfortable in their professional homes becomes flimsy; the bedrock of certainty evaporates and with it a sense of solid ground. Tough to face, but it must be done if we are to find ourselves nudging our way to the world we seek.

I have written more than I usually do, but I have been away from my blog for awhile with only a few scattered post this year. I can’t promise to be more regular, but I will try. Somehow the rhythm of my days is slowly changing. I am still “working” on a new book, still about flourishing. I am working hard to anchor my key personal belief that our constitutive societal beliefs are no longer working for us after many centuries of what is generally considered forward motion. This post is about one of these beliefs, complexity and the nature of important problems. Many other posts have been about the other, erroneous belief about human nature. That’s what this book will be all about. So were my first two, but they were not so clear because I was not so clear. The haze is slowly lifting.

ps. I just posted a short blog written with my son, Tom, to the Lean Enterprise Institute’s website,. It draws on an example of a well-established wicked-problem-solving system, based on the Toyota Production System. The Toyota system, which was generalized as “Lean Manufacturing” by a group of my former MIT colleagues, is, to me, the epitome of pragmatism and complexity in action. The problems that Toyota and other car makers faced was not climate change, but quality, a desired, but elusive characteristic for most car makers. By treating it as a wicked, not tame, problem, and using pragmatic tools, Toyota managed to “solve” its problems. They never used this vocabulary, however. I encourage all those working on climate change to take in the lessons of Toyota and those that have translated it into broader language and tools, but be prepared to learn about gemba, muda, andon, jikoda, and kaizen, and more. The particulars of Lean are not designed to be applied directly to climate change, but the thinking behind it is.

(Cartoon, courtesy of the New Yorkor Magazine)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 25, 2015 8:47 PM ::

Without Prejudices, We Could Not Make Sense of Anything


Today’s blog, like many of mine, comes out of synchronicity. I read a piece on the TPM website about an uproar over a course on “The Problem of Whiteness,” to be given at Arizona State University. When I thought about what I read, I could not help but see this through an article I read just last night about how we make sense of the world. The piece was an extract from a Ph.D. thesis on psychotherapy and how it is shaped by a model of the human self. The author was discussing the idea of hermeneutics, that is the process by which we make sense of texts, including conversations. Drawing on Hans-Georg Gadamer, a Swiss philosopher, whose works are widely respected on this subject, he pointed out that psychotherapists need to recognize that whatever sense or meaning they make of their patients talk is filtered through their prejudices or pre-understanding of the meaning of words and signs.

Gadamer argues, I believe persuasively, that the meaning we give to what we read or observe is a melding of what we take in and what we already “know” about what is in front of us. We, in an important way, are our prejudices or presuppositions, another word with, perhaps, less charge to it. As we live, we acquire a story about the meanings of textual objects we encounter in life. Post-modern theorists would include all objects, arguing that whatever meanings we give to them are textual in nature. Because we share common meanings for many words and signs, we take for granted that meaning resides in the object, not in our heads. But a moment’s thought about arguments we have or dither in reading a text should point out the error in such assumptions.

Hermeneutics applies particularly in interpreting texts from previous eras where the historical and cultural context were different from ours. It has been developed as a way of interpreting ancient religious texts or objects like the US Constitution. The present US Supreme Court has several originalists who argue that we must try to understand what the words meant to the framers hundreds of years ago, not what they mean in today’s world.

This requires a hermeneutic exercise. These originalists must get beyond their prejudices to undercover the original meaning, if that is ever possible. The process of understanding is called the hermeneutic circle, a continuous going back and forth between your stored meaning-giving filters and the external object. Each iteration starts with a modified set of prejudices so that the interpretation may move closer to the sense of the external object. If the outside object is a human being, then one can enter into a conversation designed to narrow the gap between the two participants in the conversation. This is obviously much harder to do with an artifact, but each attempt at understanding will start with the last one, coming, perhaps, ever closer to the object’s meaning.

The brouhaha at ASU and other similar situations would appear to arise from a different view of how humans act. The opponents argue “that Bebout’s course was ‘racist’ and a sign of what he said was the increasing oppression of white people in the U.S.” The prejudices that Gadamer is talking about are always part of our cognitive system whether we know about them or not. Without them, the world would be empty and without meaning. We would be no more than animals with only instinct to act upon. The word has taken on a negative meaning in general conversation. The University’s statement is a bit muddled:

The statement said the “problem of whiteness” class would “examine how people talk about - or avoid talking about - race in the contemporary United States.” It also defended the course as “designed to empower students to confront the difficult and often thorny issues that surround us today and reach thoughtful conclusions rather than display gut reactions.”

If we are to act in a manner than acknowledges the other and his or her understandings of the language being used, then it is essential to know, first, that prejudice is natural and universal and critical to intentional acting, and, second, that consensual actions among people depends on having some ideas of what one’s own prejudices are. This requires a critical look at the culture, in general, and an examination of one’s own experience, in particular. Becoming aware of those presuppositions that shape your actions takes self-reflection and conversations with others. Much of what serves as filters making sense out of whatever world you happen to encounter has become embedded imperceptibly over long periods of time.

The White Supremacists who were protesting wear their prejudices on their sleeves. They act without thinking that their beliefs are not reality, itself, but only a particular story that they believe is true and needs no critical look. I don’t know the details of the ASU course, but the idea of examining our prejudices in a collective setting is always a good one. Our basic moral grounds in the US are inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The practical implications of this are that action among people should be consensual. That can happen only when they are on the same page, that is, that the words they are using to coordinate their actions mean the same to all.

Given that everyone has a unique life history, everyone’s prejudices are different. Much of the time, when doing everyday tasks, that does not manner, but when it comes to a subject of race, our culture promises that there be differences of meaning. It is absolutely unavoidable. If we are ever to live peacefully in our multi-cultural, multi-racial country, courses such as these are essential. Our standard model of reality assumes that there is only one, or at most a few meanings for words to be found in a dictionary. It ignores that there are as many meanings as there are people who have encountered the words in their lives. Many will conform to the dictionary, but more will carry a meaning developed out of the idiosyncratic experiences that constitute a single life. Don’t confuse what I am writing about with negotiations. Negotiations are all about cost/beneficial resolutions of differences. There is nothing consensual about them. This subject is more basic and is critical if we are ever to learn how to live together as equal human beings.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 27, 2015 3:01 PM ::

Transformational Change Comes In the Cracks


If you know where home is for me, you will know that I have been inundated (if that’s the right word) with snow. I survived the 1978 blizzard in Cambridge years ago. This winter has matched it in amount of snow on the ground with even more coming. Today, I am home again instead of holding the first class of my HILR course on the self and authenticity. In preparing for the class that will be postponed for a week, I have had a chance to reflect again on the place of beliefs in daily social or cultural life.

One of the key questions I have raised for the class to keep in front of them as they get deeper into the subject is, “Does the belief you/we hold about self matter?” Matter here refers to how it might affect both individual life and the society at large. Of course it matters hugely. The question to the class was rhetorical, but I think about it a lot. I have come to focus more and more on the notion of agent as the key to change and to stability as well. Agents are, in my thoughts, simply people with intentions that they act out. If their actions exhibit routine patterns or habits, we can attribute some belief underlying them. The relation between beliefs and habits was established late in the nineteenth century and is the basis of early pragmatism. But that’s not my interest here.

To understand the meaning and role of agent, we have to hold a model of the system in which agents live and operate. My concern starts with a single society and the clustering of global societies into the whole Earth system. If we take a single society, say the US, I think about it as a machine being run by people doing things that change the societal machine as well as the machine in which it rests, the environment, broadly construed to include the natural world and all other societies. Conventional sociology divides the broadly world into structure and agents and allocates the power on free choice between them according to the theorist. I tend to avoid the allocation problem by calling on the structuration model of Anthony Giddens as my guide to understanding how collectives, ranging from families to societies work.

Giddens model of society posits a structure that shapes action and is in turn maintained and altered by the action. He coined the phrase “the duality of structure” to describe this dialectical relationship, writing, “By the duality of structure I mean that the structural properties of social systems are both the medium and the outcome of the practices that constitute those systems.” The structure he speaks of has four major components, two sets of rules and two types of resources. One of the rules (signification) provides meaning to the actors, converting the phenomenal world into familiar terms. The second rule (legitimation) constrains action to existing norms. The two resources determine the equipment, including information, that can be used in any particular task, and the authority to allocate it.

Actual change in the world, that is the constant conversion from the present to the future, is the result of the actors intentional activities. The undesired conditions that have come to threaten the normative visions of ours and other societies are largely unintended consequences of these intentional actions. They result from the imperfect match of the beliefs that underlie the intentions and the real world. I am not going to go further into this issue here. I have discussed this in this blog and my books. I want to think about how to change the outcomes of these agents such that a new set of normative visions appear and the unintended consequences either disappear or lessened. We can change the agents or the structure or both. Let’s look first at the structure. We can replace the equipment with new things and information. In this era of rapid innovation, this is a major source of societal behavioral change. New norms have emerged. The question whether these changes affect either of the two ends I target above is arguable.

We can change the authoritative structure, that is, alter the power to allocate resources like money, land, jobs. This the stuff of revolutions. Sometimes they work, but many times they eventually fail. One reason is that they leave the rules in place, and the power structure lurking in the background waiting to reemerge.. The rules determine the actors worldviews and normal activities. Both of these are difficult to change even if the resources are altered. We can change the norms, the legitimate way of doing business. But that turns out to be very difficult; the Nike slogan, “Just Do It,” is much harder than the company would like it to be. Returning to Giddens model for a moment, the dualistic nature is inherently very conservative. Change in one of the categories is opposed by the remaining ones.

I recently attended a lecture by Eric Olin Wright, a leading American Socialist with a Marxist bent. His talk was taken from his 2012 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association. He was talking about the same topic I am writing about in this post: how to change the system. He offers four strategies (the first three in italics are quoted from his paper):

  1. Ruptural transformations envision creating new emancipatory institutions through a sharp break with existing institutions and social structures. The central image is a war in which victory ultimately depends on decisive defeat of the enemy in a direct confrontation. This strategy has failed in transforming capitalist societies
  2. Interstitial transformations seek to build new forms of social empowerment in capitalist society’s niches and margins, often where they do not seem to pose any immediate threat to dominant classes and elites. Wright calls these “eroding strategies.” This way has produced some changes like worker cooperatives, but has not led to major changes.
  3. Symbiotic transformations involve strategies in which extending and deepening institutional forms of social empowerment involving the state and civil society simultaneously help to solve practical problems faced by dominant classes and elites. This strategy has produced changes in social democracies, but “in ways that stabilize capitalism and leave intact the core powers of capital.
  4. Escape strategies where the participants exit the mainstream culture and create their own, separate institutions. This works for the participants, but does nothing to the mainstream society. The escapees bring their own structure with them.

Wright’s research leaves those that seek transformative change seemingly without a good place to go. Escape is not practical for those who would want to retain significant portions of the existent structure. This is clearly most of present society. I do see one chink in the armor of capitalism, the interstitial strategy of change, a kind of Achilles Heel. Changes in basic beliefs fit the “interstitial” category best. Individuals constantly move between institutions, sometimes finding themselves in situations where the power of the structure to keep beliefs in place is weak, for example at home, or in education programs designed to raise issues about beliefs. New beliefs about the world are more likely to creep in here than in places like business where beliefs are strongly embodied.

I can imagine what might happen if religious or social service institutions began to question the beliefs than humans are merely needy, rational machines and suggest that they are, rather caring creatures, who have the possibility to construct their lives around that value. Simultaneously, these institutions could argue that the goal of people’s lives should be to flourish, rather than acquire material goods. Care has three important aspects, self care, care for others, and care for the rest of the world. People that lack material resources might begin to seek satisfaction via care for and from others. I cannot begin to go much beyond this inchoate vision of how the world might change at this point. Giddens’ structuration model suggest that these beliefs can seep into other institutions and slowly rebuilt them. There is no certainty that the changes will lead to a flourishing world, but, given the lack of success with other strategies, this one seems worth a try.

I found Wright’s work particularly interesting and relevant as it reinforced some of my more naive premises I my first book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. Subversive fits neatly with his idea of interstitial. I believe now more than eve than this is the only way transformation can come in our present-day world. The dominant capitalist, institutional structure is too powerfully entrenched. Change must come in the interstices and grow until the structuration process reaches some kind of tipping point, at which point the momentum will force change on the larger institutional structures.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 12, 2015 12:05 PM ::

The Primacy of Connectedness


I am still getting ready to teach my course on the “self” at my senior learning institute. I got a copy of Kenneth Gergen’s book, Relational Self, out of the library and read it last week. Gergen is a psychologist on the Swarthmore faculty. His basic argument is that humans create all meanings through interactions with others. Challenging the Modernist notion of an independent self, he writes:

My hope is to demonstrate that virtually all intelligible action is born, sustained, and/or extinguished within the ongoing process of relationship. From this standpoint there is no isolated self or fully private experience. Rather, we exist in a world of co-constitution. We are always already emerging from relationships; we cannot step out of relationship; even in our most private moments we are never alone. Further, as I will suggest, the future well-being of the planet depends significantly on the extent to which can nourish and protect not only individuals, or even groups, but the generative process of relating.

I was disappointed in the book, but not in his thesis. Care is the central idea in my work. Care is fundamentally an idea about relationship. Existentialists use the compound term, being-with-others to denote the constitutive function of relationship. I am more convinced by arguments from this source than Gergen’s. Care rests on the argument that human consciousness is always consciousness of something. When we are awake and conscious, there is always some object in the field we call consciousness. The existential view that humans gather meaning from being-in-the-world or being-with-others places relationships at the center. If one adopts Heidegger’s view that objects take or meaning through our relationship with them, not from some independent essence, then both the compound phrases have essentially the same meaning. Gergen mentions Michel Callon’s concept of actor-network-theory, where both humans and non-humans are always involved in action, with no difference between the two classes. Heidegger’s notion of equipment is similar.

Meaning arises from distinct experiences that can be expressed in language. If all experiences involve interacting players, language, itself, is an expression of relationships, whether we are aware of it or not. Much of my disappointment came from what I read as a failure to make the last point in the above quote clear: How can the notion of the constitutive power of relationship contribute to well-being or to flourishing as I call it? I believe that “care” can do what is missing in Gergen’s book. Care has a normative sense for me. It not only recognizes the fundamental connectedness of life, but also implies that we act in a way to preserve and enhance the flourishing of both ourselves and the other(s). Words would have first been given to describe actions that were effective, that is, meaningful. The context of meaning remains in the use of the same words even though the specific situations are different.

No matter what differences exist between Gergen and me, we send the same message. Unless the modernist culture is changed to embody an idea of human being as relational or caring, we will continue to produce pathological impacts to ourselves and the rest of the world. No amount of fixing up with fancy technologies or institutional arrangements will do. Social paradigms, especially the foundational beliefs, are very hard to change. Ours has been around for centuries and, compared to what preceded it, is considered by most to be a great sign of progress. So, even in the face of present-day human and worldly suffering and deterioration, the clarion call remains, “It’s not broke, so don’t fix it.” Fix here refers to major change. I think this is misguided. Gergen, at the end of his book, includes a discussion of some broad frameworks that are built on relationships, such as system theory, but fails to make a strong enough argument that it is imperative that we start building these into our cultural systems in place of all those based on individualism.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 19, 2015 8:45 PM ::

The Error of Trying to Measure Good and Bad


It’s another David Brooks day. Today he is riffing on a story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In a nutshell, the tale is about a peaceful and happy city with an important open secret. Hidden away from the wandering eyes of the inhabitants is a closet containing a misfit. In Le Guin’s words, “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.” On occasions this poor human being is revealed for all who wish to observe. Like many of her stories, this one is a parable on the way we love and should live.The misfit sops up all the ills of society so that everyone else can live a happy, uncluttered life. Most of the citizens, even knowing the plight of the misfit, ignore the unfairness and go back to life as usual. A few with a deeper moral sensitivity leave to face the unknown world beyond the walls.

Brooks makes the obvious comparison to our world today. The citizens of Omelas have made a social contract to single out someone to serve as the means of their prosperity. This is far from the theory of the social contract on which our society is based, as Brooks writes:

In theory, most of us subscribe to a set of values based on the idea that a human being is an end not a means. You can’t justifiably use a human being as an object. It is wrong to enslave a person, even if that slavery might produce a large good. It is wrong to kill a person for his organs, even if many lives might be saved.

I am not sure he is correct in assuming that “most of us subscribe to [such] a set of values.” I suspect that a great majority of Americans have never heard of Kant’s moral imperatives or keep the more familiar “golden rule” in reach of their consciousness. Given the practical rules of our society, these moral guiding principles may not even be present in their unconsciousness waiting to be invoked in problematic situations. Brooks notes that these practical rules are utilitarian in essence, replacing the inherent priceless nature of human life with a number that can fit an maximizing algorithm, like economists and technocrats use to make decisions. In his words:

The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts. Some are not. They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity… The rest of us live with the trade-offs. The story reminds us of the inner numbing this creates. The people who stay in Omelas aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon. I’ve found that this story rivets people because it confronts them with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements — and, at the same time, it elicits some desire to struggle against bland acceptance of it all.

Whoa! I would say that those who stay in Omelas are, indeed, bad. It all depends on what standards of moral goodness is to be used. Brooks glosses over the distinctiveness of normative ethical theories, the different ways of morally justifying one’s actions. As a result, he misses the main point of Le Guin’s marvelous story. You can’t have it both ways and live an uncluttered moral life. It’s not the same as the utilitarian trade-offs that are part of that system of thought; it’s the absolute choice between one moral system or another. I am certainly no moral philosopher, but I have come to know that consequentialism, where utilitarianism fits, is incompatible with deontology, where Kantianism sits. The first kind measures the goodness or badness of an act by the outcomes and permits the use of more or better as criteria to compare one act with another. Different theories use different sets of values as the basis for making comparative judgments.

Deontological theories are based on the idea of duties and rights and look at the rightness of the act, itself, not the outcome of the act. Kant says it is wrong to treat a human as a means, instead of as an end, period. Rawls says we have a duty to do the right thing based on an process in which we are ignorant of the reality of the world out there. Simplistically, we might say, this class of theories deals with absolutes, the other with relative measures. When I discussed this editorial with my wife in midstream, she pointed out that Judaism is largely built on duty-based ethics, such as the one that has guided me for quite some time: acts of lovingkindness, often expressed as tikkun olam or healing the world.

In researching ethical theories today as I write this post, I noticed a third class of theories based on care. I suspect that much of my work to date on flourishing falls int this class since my concerns over care and interconnectedness fit into its framework that emphasizes interdependence and relationships. I will be looking at this in much more detail as I continue working on my current book.

Brooks’s failure to see the moral problem faced by the citizens of Omelas as having to choose between categories of ethics is the same problem virtually all of us in the United States have. Our much revered founding fathers dumped us into a moral dilemma with the first public document we live by, The Declaration of Independence. The most well-known sentence is: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The dilemma rests in the conflation of life, liberty and happiness. The first two are clearly absolute rights, except that philosophers argue about the meaning of liberty. Both call for a system of right-based principles. But the last, happiness, is not absolute. In fact, earlier drafts of the document used “property” instead. Further, economists have co-opted psychologists, and measure happiness in material terms. This outcome necessitates a consequentialist system. The dilemma was obvious from the get-go when human slaves were classed as property. We have ignored this dilemma right down to the present, as do the citizens of Omelas.

It is too easy, as Brooks does (see the above block quote) to excuse both the people of Omelas and us as not being bad because we have to become utilitarians to exist in this world. As utilitarians, trade-offs are simply means to maximize values, but one cannot trade-off the two distinct moral categories. As long as consequentialism dominates, as it does, we are indeed bad, and are always somewhere on a slippery slope. One cannot be just a little bad. It’s very important to accept that. We can live and perhaps must live with our dilemma, but we must not brush it away. We do admit, if pushed, that our motor of utilitarianism, the free market, produces unfairness; that is, it is amoral in the rights and duties domains. But we do little these days to correct its ills. As Brooks notes, we have lots of misfits hidden away in closets.

What I miss in this column is a call to action; a challenge to see the bads in all of us. Brooks ends with an enigmatic paragraph.

In another reading, the whole city of Omelas is just different pieces of one person’s psychology, a person living in the busy modern world, and that person’s idealism and moral sensitivity is the shriveling child locked in the basement.

The use of the word, “just,” is puzzling, suggesting that it’s OK to carry around two opposing ideas. It is, rather, both OK and not OK, but merely is a reflection of the values of our present society. Few people, in my estimate based on watching the world around me everyday, have such a mixed “psychology.” The clarity of deontology has been badly blurred by our utilitarian norm. Bad is just another value to be weighed against other things. Unfortunately, it has fallen far down the ladder. This is the scandal of our use of torture and other inhumane treatment. The absolute badness was measured and lost. Part of the story of flourishing I have been writing is that humans are fundamentally deontologists. We have certain rights and duties that cannot be weighed and exchanged. The centrality of care fits here. I have not stressed its moral nature, but will be doing this as I continue to think and write. I thank David Brooks for his provoking me once again.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 13, 2015 5:15 PM ::

I Wish You A Flourishing 2105


It seems appropriate for me to start off the New Year with a post on flourishing. Flourishing is very personal. I came across it entirely by chance. It showed up when I had to finish this sentence, “I am the possibility of…” as part of some personal training I did well over a decade ago. The sentence that showed up became my definition of sustainability as, “the possibility that human and other forms of life will flourish on the planet forever.” I became aware that the word has classic origins, having been discussed at length by Aristotle. It has great metaphorical power, connected to its biological origins. I have now used it in two book titles and probably will use it still one more time, at least.

It is beginning to enter what have been conversations about sustainability with more frequency. Jeremy Caradonna’s book on the history of sustainability includes it. It is so much expressive of what it means to be human than any term based on some reference to a human essence or nature. Well-being and flourishing are linguistic relatives, but not when well-being takes on a metrical sense, as it does through economics. Flourishing is inherently verbal, expressing some kind of action; it is not a static property. It is the outcome of some kind of existential process, that is, having to do with how life is being played out. If humans were nothing but animals whose nature is determined largely, if not only, by their genes, flourishing would be a metaphor for life itself, living out the potential provided by one’s genes. Non-humans, by this token, flourish most of the time unless hampered by loss of their natural habitat or some other external factor. Human encroachment on their natural potential is the largest barrier to the flourishing of all species other than our own.

In spite of assertions otherwise, it appears that humans’ existential potential, that is, the way they live out their lives, is not limited by their genes or any other essential factor. The evolution of the human brain has resulted in a part that is bound to our evolutionary emergence from other forms of life and another part that in unique to every individual and is shaped by the specific life history of that individual. Antonio Damasio has a model of human cognition that can be best described as forming three levels of self: a protoself, core self, and autobiographical self. The protoself is the genetically constrained part and governs our automatic behavior, that is, behavior over which we have little or no control. We are just another animal. But we have a part of our brain that is shaped and re-shaped in the process of living, the autobiographical brain with an associated self. The core self keeps track of what’s going on at the moment, but only lives in the present.

The autobiographical self is the repository for the past: memories of events and our responses to them. It is the place where future visions are to be found: the drivers of our actions in the present. It may be useful to think of that self in terms of a story (autobiography) as a metaphor for everything meaningful stored in that part of the brain. It’s a story over which we have some control. To the extent we can shape it, we create an existential potential beyond that controlled and limited by our genes. In the vernacular, we are creatures that operate from both nature and nurture. This makes flourishing more complicated. We have to operate within the genetic potential just like all other living organisms, and as we do, we are flourishing at the biological level. But we also have a cultural, personal existence, dictated by the story we carry around. To flourish in this dimension, we must be enacting that story in such a way that we continuously assess that we are following our chosen path (or paths, in that we live out more than one story every day).

Flourishing exists in an entirely separate domain from happiness or pleasure, the customary use to measure how we are doing in the world. They are momentary states. Flourishing follows a process that is always on-going, that is, life itself, but, unlike the case for other animals, it has an autobiographical aspect that serves as a standard by which the presence or absence of flourishing can be judged. We are flourishing when we are living out our stories, more or less. Life is so full of contingencies that it is impossible to follow the chosen path without straying from time to time. A bad hair day, all by itself, is not enough to stop flourishing. We can flourish amidst many kinds of obstacles and challenges as long as we hold to the main story line.

By now, you should be able to figure out what it takes for human flourishing. There must be a story in place. In other words, a person must have a clear idea of his or her identities. These are plural, as we act in distinct cultural domains every day. We are variously, a parent, a lawyer, a spouse or partner, a friend, a spiritual being, and so on. We need a plan for every such domain that we will use as a template for our actions. Some of the roles we take are culturally set; others are up to everyone to define for themselves. We can change our minds from time to time, but not too often, for then we would have nothing to build our lives around. We would become perennial teenagers, testing out many roles, but not choosing any.

So far, I am writing from no particular disciplinary base. The cognitive basis does reflect current scientific thinking, but the whole piece here is just the result of my own thinking about the subject. There are some roots in philosophy going back to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, Recently, however, I came across a philosophy paper on the subject of flourishing that made many of the same arguments I have been making, but from a more grounded perspective. Importantly, it places flourishing in the same ethical arena from which many other important values that guide us are situated. The rest of this post summarizes a few of the ideas found in the paper, “Human Flourishing and the Appeal to Human Nature”, by Donald Rasmussen (Social Philosophy and Policy, 16 (1): 1-43, 1999) He makes six main points:

  1. Human flourishing is an objective good. In other words, it is desired because of what it is. Its constitution is what makes it good. Thus, human goodness is something ontological. It is a state of being, not a mere feeling or experience.

  2. Human flourishing is the ultimate end of human conduct, but it is not the only activity of inherent worth. It is not a “dominant” end that reduces the value of everything else to that of a mere means. Human flourishing is an “inclusive” end. It comprises basic or “generic” goods and virtues—for example, such goods as knowledge, health, friendship, creative achievement, beauty, and pleasure; and such virtues as integrity, temperance, courage, and justice. These are valuable not as mere means to human flourishing but as partial realizations or expressions of it. As such, these goods and virtues are final ends and valuable in their own right.

  3. Human flourishing is individualized and diverse. It is dependent on who as well as what one is. It is dependent on who as well as what one is. Abstractly considered, we can speak of human flourishing and of basic or generic goods and virtues that help to define it. Yet this does not make human flourishing in reality either abstract or universal. Concretely speaking, no two cases of human flourishing are the same, and they are not interchangeable. …There are individuative as well as generic potentialities, and this makes human fulfillment always something unique.

  4. Human flourishing is agent-relative. There is no human flourishing period. Human flourishing is always and necessarily the good for some person or other.

  5. Human flourishing is a self-directed activity. Human flourishing must be attained through a person’s own efforts and cannot be the result of factors that are beyond one’s control. Flourishing does not consist in the mere possession and use of needed goods. Rather, human flourishing consists in a person’s taking charge of his own life so as to develop and maintain those virtues for which he alone is responsible and which in most cases will allow him to attain the goods his life requires.

  6. Human beings are naturally social animals. We are social in the sense that our maturation requires a life with others. We do not achieve our maturity like mushrooms, suddenly, all at once, with no engagement with one another. We have potentialities that are other-oriented, and we cannot find fulfillment without their actualization. Human flourishing is thus not atomistic. It does not require gaining the goods of life exclusively for oneself and never acting for the sake of others. Indeed, having other-concern is crucial to our maturation. As Aristotle makes clear, philia (friend-ship) is one of the constituents of human flourishing. Further, in terms of origins, we are almost always born into a society or community, and it is in some social context or other that we grow and develop. Much of what is crucial to our self-conception and fundamental values is dependent on our upbringing and environment. Our lives are intertwined with others; we are not abstract individuals. It is thus a fundamental mistake to conceive of human beings achieving maturity apart from others and only later taking it upon themselves to join society or to have social concern. Human flourishing is achieved with and among others.

From Rasmussens’ neo-Aristotelian viewpoint, flourishing is the “ultimate end of human conduct.” This fits the existential, cognitive science explanation. It is naturalistic, and morally-powerful, where wealth is not. The individualized aspect also fits the cognitive model. As an objective good, it is something that we can use as a design criterion for our societal institutions. The idea that it is self-directed fits well with notions of liberty. I hope that, as people become comfortable with the concept, they will start using it as the vision for designing the institutions that run our social lives. The implications for economics are severe but then Adam Smith first thought humans were empathetic, caring creatures before his self-interested model took over.

This idea will guide all my writings and I hope yours also. Happy New Year.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 2, 2015 3:46 PM ::