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 ::
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 19, 2015 8:48 AM ::
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 ::
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:
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.
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.
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.
Human flourishing is agent-relative. There is no human flourishing period. Human flourishing is always and necessarily the good for some person or other.
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.
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 ::
Weather may not be a politically correct conversation in Washington, but it is on the news channels. Most evenings, I watch the national news and noticed, some time ago, that the weather, which occasionally used to show up late in the program, is now often the featured story, night after night. Every night, I watch Ginger Zee explaining why half the country is going to be either inundated or parched. ABC, my usual channel, has a huge techie display that enables them to show extreme events in infinite detail.
It’s clear from all this that extreme weather has both entered our consciousness and our conscience. Death counts are frequent as are photos of utter devastation. The interviews with those who have literally lost everything to the wind are heart-wrenching. But something is missing in all this. I have yet to hear a word about the possible cause of this new reality. No scientific expert is called in to explain; to give us the back story, as is done in virtually every other case of breaking news. After every drone attack, some security expert shows up to give us the old tired story about it. After the last several police shootings, the number of explainers was legend.
Why is the media hiding the background from us? I have to assume that the failure to expand beyond the always clean-cut professional meteorologists is deliberate. The elevation of weather events to the prime story clearly indicates its evolving interest as news. Extreme weather is no more a random act than are other major breaking news stories. There is always some attempt at explanation or elaboration. Is there a hidden and unintentional conspiracy at work? Do the newscasters really know the true story behind all that damage and carnage: that the watchers of the shows are the culprits. Are they afraid of telling us the truth and scaring us off? Are they afraid we can’t face it? Are their owners and managers part of the general conspiracy to simply deny any relationship between our everyday behavior and these persistent extreme events.
I don’t know, of course. If they simply don’t see the connection, we are being robbed of a critical opportunity to learn one of the most important facts about our lives today and tomorrow. Ebola, which is certainly a most serious problem, but not for us, got far more attention to its causes than the weather. I would love to see ABC hire a scientist, like their medical expert, Richard Besser, who would appear almost every night and tell us a little more about climate change science. The greenhouse effect, the primary physical process involved, is not really all that arcane. The whole story that connects my specific tailpipe emissions with a flood in California is very complex, but the principle is not all that abstruse.
Write to your media asking them to make the extreme weather a regular part of the news and to provide expertise to explain what is happening. It is not just happening over there any more. These events now are covering the entire US. If we demanded an detailed explanation of Ebola and similar not-so-imminent problems, we should really start to care about the weather. It’s time to put the lie to Charles Dudley Warner’s famous quote, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 27, 2014 5:14 PM ::
I have been away from my blog for several weeks. I claim overwork. I am writing an essay for the Great Transition Initiative, and finishing plans for a course I am delivering at my learning at retirement institute. The subject of the course is “Authenticity” or a look at the notion of self through the ages. It’s a chance to put some of my current thinking on self, being, and authenticity into a historical context. But I have been buried. So when I read David Brooks’ op-ed piece today, as it so often happens, a little voice inside said I would have to respond and not let him get away with it without some comment. As I re-read it, some turned to be a lot.
I found the article so full of errors and misstatements that I am having trouble not to write a dissertation about it. But let me begin with calling attention the important words in the article: faith, belief, spirituality religion, and rationality. Although this will not be a vocabulary lesson, I will try to capture meanings I have gleaned for many places. The quotes sections are all from his piece. Faith is the belief in something that you can’t explain through reason or rational arguments based on scientific theories or facts.
He begins with, “With Hanukkah coming to an end, Christmas days away, and people taking time off work, we are in a season of quickened faith.” I don’t think that faith, itself quickens, especially in this season. The cynics among us attribute the activities around this season more to the institutions of economics than to those of organized religion. It is true that holidays tend to call the slackers like me back to the houses of religion, but, in my case and, as I read, that of most Christians in the US, the draw is from other obligations than the tenets of faith itself.
A few lines later he says, “You’d think faith would be a simple holding of belief, or a confidence in things unseen, but, in real life, faith is unpredictable and ever-changing.” Wrong, David. The notion of faith connotes something to be held until it can no longer be. That was the struggle of Job, and similar cases through Christian history. Brooks and the sources he quotes confuse spiritual experiences and their impacts on our beliefs with faith. A very bad error. We may have such experiences often during our lives and they may then have a profound influence on some of our beliefs. In particular, they may cause us to question other beliefs we are holding that have become rooted through reason or other expressions of faith inculcated by religious affiliations. These comments are all from only the first 3 lines of the article.
Then, he quotes a Yale colleague (no elitism here), who says,
When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?” (My emphasis)
Another confusion between religious experiences and spiritual ones! Humans have had spiritual experiences long before they were institutionalized into religious contexts by those who saw power in invoking god as the cause of these inexplicable, mysterious phenomena, on the basis of what was known about how the world worked at the time. Knowledge by our present standards was in very short supply.
Such “glittering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith.” Half right. Faith refers to the beliefs behind the experiences. If powerful enough, they may lead the experiencing individual to hold beliefs created from scratch to explain what happened. No religion here yet, as Wiman’s, his Yale colleague then argues, but “Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward.”
Wow, he completely misses the point that religions are selling a particular set of spiritualistic ideas to those who have never experienced them. How many even true believers have seen a burning bush or experienced the mystery of the Eucharist. Religions have done a disservice to the idea of spirituality, an individual experience by institutionalizing and killing the spirit, so to say.
Next Brooks writes (I apologize for using so much of his piece, but I find it compelling),
These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.
This is pure gobbledygook. Spiritual moments may do lots of things but not flash images of ethical perfection and merciful love. Phenomenological, they are conscious experiences that we cannot explain. Given this, they cannot flash such images. We can bring them forth later if we try to describe and explain (or rationalize that as based on reason) them. I do argue in my work that that may make us conscious of being connected to whatever appears in these moments. The feeling invoked by watching a beautiful scene may bring forth a sense of connection missing in the hurly-burly of much of life, but where is perfection and love. If a longing, as he pictures it does arise, that is not faith. It is a longing that may cause the seeker to look for other beliefs that help him enrich life beyond what the rationalized belief of modernity can offer. More about this in a moment.
Then he writes, “It’s a hard process. After the transcendent glimpses, people forget.” Sure they do, but they are certain to have that forgetfulness reinforced if they seek to find it in religion, for religion will offer a set of faith-based beliefs as substitutes for whatever was there in his or her moment.
I’ll divert from the exegesis of Brooks’ piece for a moment and talk about spirituality. I believe strongly that spirituality is a central part on what it is to be human and make this argument in all of my writings. We are meaning-seeking creatures and cannot live without it in our civilized, cultural settings. Meaning entails the explanations we give to everything we directly and vicariously experience through stories from all sorts. The medium of meaning is language. It is the medium by which we embody meaning in our brains and extract it from there. We can place language in four distinct domains that completely encompass human conscious experience. These are experiences involving ourselves, other human beings, all the rest of animate and inanimate material world, and an important fourth origin, those with the transcendent origin. These are the spiritual experiences. They are as much a part of the history of our species as are those with material causes. Our language confronts with them every day. We still encounter them long after science has come to be the rational source of almost everything we are conscious of.
Religion is not the same. Religion is an institution that evolved to organize the spiritual experiences of few. Western religions are largely based on a concept of god as the primary source for all spiritual experiences, and still may be invoked as what brought me that gorgeous sunset that gave me shivers. I obviously do not believe this as my writing indicates, but hopefully is not letting my personal beliefs get in the way of this critique.
The process of faith, of bringing moments of intense inward understanding into the ballyhoo of life, seems to involve a lot of reading and talking — as people try to make sense of who God is and how holiness should be lived out. Even if you tell people you are merely writing a column on faith, they begin recommending books to you by the dozen. Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.
I don’t get the first part of this, but was startled by the last sentence, “Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.” It seems to me that reason, whether conceived by the Greeks, who more or less invented it or by modern philosophers, always refers to a process of argument based or experience and rational or logical derivations of that experience. He has badly confused faith and reason, making a category error. Faith is a form of belief. Belief is the key concept. Beliefs are those truths on which human agency is based as justified. Faith is a kind of belief without reasoned grounds. It is true because I say so. Now this is not a pejorative statement. The “I” may be a single believer who is completely justified in holding any beliefs until they contravene societal mores and norms. That’s the argument William James made in his famous piece, “The Will to Believe.”
The “I” may be the “Books” on which the great Abrahamic religions are based. I will note that faith is involved in even our rational system of beliefs, but I don’t think that is what Brooks meant. Accepting that science and rationality produce the correct model of the world on which to base our culture is a matter of faith, in fact, one of the key articles of faith of Modernity. In fact, science, like religion, is merely another story we tell about our beliefs about the world out there. Modernity changed their priority. What matters is the meaning we draw from these stories and act on.
Then he throws a Talmudic scholar, Joseph Soloveitchik, at us. I am far from a Jewish scholar such as Soloveitchik, but I did go and read the entire “footnote” from which this extract is taken. Here it is the part Brooks quotes:
The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.
Since my immediate reading was that the Rabbi has it completely backward, I thought I might understand his point by reading the whole piece cited. No such luck. I believe religions and science exist in two separate and distinct domains, much like C. P. Snow argues in his famous essay, “The Two Cultures,” which separated intellectual life into science and the humanities. If the humanities are seen as the place from which meaning and its moral consequences come, I might include religions there. Science always needs another distinct domain of intellectual activity to give meaning the knowledge it produces. Soloveitchik is railing against the nihilism that has been attributed by many to philosophers ranging from Nietzsche to Heidegger. But to see objective thought as the perpetrator of all the evil we have seen in our times on earth is, I find, preposterous. Rationality and objectivity are amoral, but do produce the material forces that are and have been utilized by moral arguments far from its reach. If we are to focus on faith in this column, bringing in rationality as a component further fuzzes the picture.
I know I am running on, but can’t stop now. Next we have:
Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”
What are these “claims of reason”? It seems to me that reason make claims only in the sense that we take it to be the appropriate basis for action until we find more reasons to change our beliefs. It is true that we debate which is the more legitimate basis for action in the world: reason-based beliefs or faith-based beliefs, but that debate was won with the enlightenment and the evolution of modernity. Should we abandon what science and reason tell us about climate change and give in to arguments based on faith? Should we abandon a pretty good story about how humans got here is place of a story can only survive on a completely faith-based explanation. We have a claim on reason, not vice versa. So with religion. It is our choice to invoke one of these stories to win our arguments.
All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves. They are trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience. They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.
This seems to be about religion. That’s where creators live. Look, I am not dumping on religion. I am trying to unpack Brooks’ article and make sense out of it because some of what is here is very important. If he means that those of religious faith are bound by the ethical and moral tenets that have become attached to the religion, I strongly agree. Most, if not all, of the important moral guidance we need for living fully, comes from theologians and philosophers, as the interpreters of what we experience in the world. But it takes more than faith to be attentive to every moment. Faith cannot guide us through the real world without the objective knowledge science provides us. Again look at the case of climate change.
Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”
The process of life is inherently “complex and arduous.” Spiritual dilemmas are no different from existential ones. That’s the real point here, I believe. Science has reveals an awe-inducing amount of knowledge about the world, but which is not very useful in helping individuals make choices in life or explain why this or that happened to me. When faith tries to provide answers to such questions, it is not very good either, because, like science it finds its answers in categories and generalities, like “God’s ways are mysterious, so stop asking that question.”
Finally the last paragraph:
Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”
I don’t follow most of this paragraph, but found in the last line the zinger I was hoping to find. He, I will guess, is pointing to existentialism without meaning to, as a philosophical argument for making the most about what humans are and can experience during a lifetime on Earth. Existentialists, like Nietzsche and Heidegger, whom Soloveitchik rails against as being evil (my interpretation of these passages) also wrote this just before the part Brooks cited:
First, the entire Romantic aspiration to escape from the domain of knowledge, the rebellion against the authority of objective, scientific cognition which has found its expression in the biologistic philosophies of Bergson, Nietzsche, Spengler, Klages, and their followers and in the phenomenological, existential, and antiscientific school of Heidegger and his coterie, and from the midst of which there arose in various forms the sanctification of vitality and intuition, the veneration of instinct, the desire for power, the glorification of the emotional-affective life and the flowing, surging stream of subjectivity, the lavishing of extravagant praise on the Faustian type and the Dionysian personality, etc., etc., have brought complete chaos and human depravity to the world.
The existentialist credo, if such a credo exists, is that individuals are unique; there is no way to put them into the categories of science or religion. To be human is to live one’s finite existence on earth, faced with the constant terror of knowing that there is no ultimate source to call on to guide the next act and get find an excuse for whatever what was done. Science and religion are just stories that may be useful in this regard, but lack relevance in real life, itself, in its everydayness. I will finish with a brief statement that makes a quite different case.
Spirituality, not religion, is what is truly important because it is a basic part of the humanity of our species. Much of the inhumanity of modern life can be attributed to spirituality’s loss to modern categories of knowledge. Science has separated us from the world’s mystery by its reductionist methodologies that separate humans from the world, and weaken the sense of connectedness to it. Love comes naturally from that sense of connectedness, not from some moral statement that merely recognized love as a basic human emotion. Love is a special form of caring; one in which the other is acknowledged as having an equivalent right to exist as the giver. But love like any form of caring is essentially action across some connection. More reason to always focus on spirituality, not religion. One is existential; the other is a reduced institution structure that has substituted dogma for raw human experience.
Descartes turned us into mere objects to be understood just like rocks. The concreteness inherent to the existentialist view of the human being is also important to our view of the world. Science gives us abstract rules to describe its parts, but cannot tell us how the whole organic, complex world is working at any moment or where it will be in the next. Whitehead wrote famously of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” We are forever mistaking the menu for the meal. Perfection is a consciousness of the wholeness and interconnectedness of the cosmos; absolutely unavailable in the machine that science brings us. Both science and religion have squeezed out spirituality from a normal practice in our modern world.
Neither rationally based nor faith-based beliefs (I should really say religiously-based because that is what goes for faith today) can provide the basis for achieving our human potential, either as individuals or societies. I have called that achievement, flourishing. It can only exist upon a model of human being that is different from one that faith, religious or otherwise, or science can provide.
If this season is to be a time to celebrate our humanity, religion, IMHO, is not the way to do it. We should be learning more about its teachings, rather than its preachings, for there is the place to find invaluable wisdom. Science can do nothing here. I wonder how it got into article. It is very important to avoid confusing categories of belief, as we seek more of what we can become. Beliefs are the foundation for our individual and social actions. We can see them both in our personal habits and the routines of norms of societies. Neither science nor faith has gotten us far enough and seems to be leading us farther from the vision of existential flourishing. But these form the social paradigm that dominates the West. If we truly want to find flourishing and the full expression our unique humanity, we must find our way into a new paradigm. If we are to do that, understanding the words we use is critical. Words carry the meanings we use to build and legitimate the institutions that drive our culture. They underpin the ways we act and feel. Writers, like Brooks have a responsibility to clarify, not obfuscate, them. Thanks again, David, for so much, maybe too much grist, for my mill.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 24, 2014 10:35 AM ::
Never waste a moment again.
Never let the world come in.
Never worry that some one
Will look at you enjoying fun.
Time is money so they say.
Working in our modern way
Spare5, the app, finds jobs to fill.
No chance for existential thrills.
A penny here, a nickel there,
You’ll soon not have a cupboard bare.
But like the Red Shoes dancer,
Life for you will have no answer.
Time is never there to kill.
Nor to deliver you a bill.
It’s all we have to let us be.
Free moments are a part of me.
I need to stop myself some times
And listen to the warbler’s chimes
Without a single moment’s thought
Of don’t or must or should or ought.
I need to let time pass me by
Without thinking what I should buy.
Idleness is part of what makes me human.
Damn technology—no flowers bloomin’.
- Inspired by a Globe article on an app that turns idle time into $$. (slightly revised 12/11/14)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 8, 2014 11:09 AM ::
I have been harping about the decline of the meaning of sustainability for some time. Today, the Boston Globe carried an interview with Jeremy L. Caradonna, author of the recently published book, Sustainability: A History. In the interview Caradonna makes many of the same points I so often do. Here are a few extracts.
In recent years, “sustainability” has become an inescapable buzzword. Companies launch sustainability initiatives; virtually every major American university now has an office of sustainability; and the word is a staple of United Nations commissions and conferences.
Like “diversity” and “social justice,” sustainability is easy to embrace and, not coincidentally, hard to define: It nods to a belief in the wise use of resources while remaining vague about what that actually entails. The term can refer to an initiative as limited as, say, stocking a school’s printers with recycled paper. At the other extreme, it can encompass a nearly utopian vision that extends well beyond the environment.
The author has joined a growing group of former sustainability champions who share the same concerns: the response to a critical deterioration of environmental and social conditions has become effete and toothless. I am certainly one of those. I also agree with his claim that sustainability can refer to a utopian vision, but here one must be very careful about what vision. I haven’t read the book yet (I have requested it from the town library), so I do not know what utopia he is referring to. He’s a historian and may have some previous use of the word in mind, but I see no utopia whatsoever in the way the word is used today. Later in the column, he suggests what utopia he might be writing about.
IDEAS: Was this a radical development?
CARADONNA: I would not say that the sustainability movement and its origins were radical. I would say in many ways they’re critical. They’re critical of deforestation, later on they’re critical of unchecked economic growth and deregulation, and they’re critical of pollution and social inequality. But in many ways, it’s quite conventional. I mean, one of the things I’ve noticed is that some of the early advocates for what we could call sustainable living were aristocratic bureaucrats, or imperialistic bureaucrats who are stationed on islands in the West Indies or the East Indies. Or someone like Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who’s part of the Saxon Dynasty, he’s part of the monarchy there. None of these people, as far as I can tell, are interested in the natural world, in and of itself. None of them. They’re interested in natural resources because they have an impact on the economy and they have an impact on the human realm, in one way or another….Perhaps counterintuitively, the sustainability movement has roots in good old-fashioned economic and monarchical self-interest.
He could omit the word “perhaps” because, clearly, sustainability has come to mean continued growth. Growth is nothing but some process presumed to lead us to the utopia promised by the Enlightenment thinkers, human perfection, in the eyes of God. In our secular world today, the idea of perfection remains without the theological banner. But it is no clearer today than in Hobbes and Mills time. No utopia, only more or better. The unfortunate truth is that sustainability, as it is being used, is dystopic. Growth, itself is exacerbating the devastation of the environment and contributing to the growing societal inequality. The latter is ironic in that “good old-fashioned economic and monarchical self-interest” is supposed to bring us whatever utopia is envisioned.
Utopian ideas have been around for quite a while as expressions of some world very different from the existing conditions. The word itself is full of irony. Thomas More coined the word from two Greek words meaning “no” and “place.” Literally, it means a vision of no place. Another way to look at it is to imagine it stands for a plea to be anywhere else than where one is. Given this etymology, I find it exceeding difficult to attribute utopian ideas to sustainability.
Caradonna may have included reference to sustainable development in his book. There is no utopia implicit in this definition, only continuing economic development; only means to some undefined end or no end at all. However the word is taken, the results are perverse. It is being used to deny the state we are in. It is used to disguise actions that are clearly detrimental to social and environmental health. It is used to justify acts that are nothing but business-as-usual in both the public and private sectors. I believe it has become dangerous and needs to be stricken from the vernacular, unless and until its true meaning takes over.
It is important to begin to form a utopian vision for our country and others like it. For me that vision comes forth from the word, flourish. Linguistically it is possible to make a connection between flourish and either vision or utopia, but not with sustainability unless a vision is made explicit. As Caradonna notes, that is not so when a word becomes a buzzword. Like any other fashion, it is ephemeral and devoid of intrinsic meaning. That’s enough, but I found it encouraging to see an article about sustainability in the Ideas section, especially one that shows its warts. The column ends with this interchange.
IDEAS: The concept of sustainability leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Do you think that’s a blessing or a curse?
CARADONNA: It facilitates greenwashing for sure, because it’s a term that can be used and abused….What I think is fascinating is that it’s a really flexible discourse and allows for a lot of people to get into the tent together. And I think from a kind of political science-y point of view, it is useful and helpful to get everyone in the tent together.
Great to think about gathering many people under a tent to take up a big problem and thrash out their differences. But, unless they stop and give themselves a vocabulary lesson first, the best they will be able to do is erect a Tower of Babel.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 7, 2014 8:22 PM ::
Brown’s family wants to see every police officer working the streets wearing a body camera. The White House has said the cameras could help bridge deep mistrust between law enforcement and the public.
This paragraph came from a Boston Globe story about plans for sending military equipment to local police force. Most of the article was pretty much gobbledy-gook, but this jumped out at me. How in the world can body cameras build trust? This idea is terrible. It is just another example of the addiction we have to technology. This one is particularly disturbing because of the nature and importance of trust.
Cameras can only provide a record of what happened. They cannot change it. They might help sort out the details of some event, after the fact, but will have little or no effect in altering the event, itself. Would the Ferguson shooting have been different in the Officer Wilson had been wearing a camera. Would Michael Brown even seen it? But the forensic arguments are not what concerns me at all. My concerns are about trust.
Trust has nothing to do with technology. Trust is a quality of relationships. It is not easy to define, but means, more or less, an acknowledgment that the other in this situation shares the same values and norms as I do. So, if any sort of request is made to me, I will consider only the request itself, but not its historical context. Trust is built up over time, and starts to build only when people’s assessments of the past indicate the other is trustworthy.
In the case of the police and black men, there is no such history. Whether justified or not, the assessment of the police, as I read about it in the news, is that they cannot be trusted to treat you like others. There is no acceptance that they acknowledge you the same way as white men. Much will be written whether this judgment is valid or not, and police will defend themselves against the claim, but truth here is irrelevant.
An assessment is an assessment and as such sets the context for action. If either side wants to get beyond reactions without trust involved, only a change in the nature of the relationship has any chance of working. Offering up technology is a poor, thoughtless substitute, and indicates to me how little understanding of the true nature of this problem and other related issues we share.
Human beings all carry many prejudices around in their brain. It’s part of our enhanced cognitive abilities. It is part of the evolutionary tools we carry to avoid danger. We have evolved to have instinctive, that is prejudged, responses to certain situations. When these prejudices become unreasonable, for example, fear of objects that do not pose a danger, they get called neuroses or worse, psychotic phobias, and the normal response is to seek treatment.
I do not see any difference between this and the situation in Ferguson or any other place where police roam the streets. Some sort of therapy is essential to sever the link between the prejudices on both sides and their immediate responses. Technological solutions can do little and may even make the situation worse by delaying the essential trust building processes.
To call this situation an act of racism is to inflame those who deny or downplay its existence. President Obama, the most potentially powerful actor, risks using the term for obvious reasons. But, what if we looked at the situation as one where human prejudice is at work, as it does in many less tragic cases. The word prejudice, if understood properly, loses the negative and pejorative context of racism and other isms. It is a normal, although problematic, human trait.
This case is only one where acting out of prejudice is causing harms to individuals and our collective society. The stalemate in Congress has prejudice at the base. “I have the right idea bout this situation and I am going to act on it before I pay attention to anything you say.” Fuggedaboutit.
Trust is a mood that may have developed to deal with prejudice as human culture evolved. It permits reasonable or normal action to take place even when latent prejudices are present in the brain. Trust creates a conversation like, “You are an object I instinctively reject, but I have learned not to let that run me, so lets get moving together.” Learning is absolutely essential and, again, cannot be substituted by some artificial mechanism installed to overcome that instinctive rejection.
When trust is absent, people are more likely to be hurt, as consequent actions come from prejudice (instinct) and fail to utilize the parts of the brain where experience and reason operate. The lack of trust in Congress is a national tragedy, with far more serious consequences than the case in Ferguson. Perhaps, if people would begin to see the equivalence, they would call for as much action as is following the tragedy there, but only of a non-violent kind. The President could use his bully pulpit without being called a racist, himself. It might even be possible to redefine compromise as a necessary human, not political, process.
Only talk therapy will work, psychotherapeutic drugs will not work here. Please stop trying to evade its necessity by following one of our civic addictions, the use of technology to solve all our problems. Are we afraid to talk to one another? Why? Is it that the solution to the problems we share may lie somewhere beyond the horizon of my prejudice. Have we forgotten that as humans we have both prejudice and reason, albeit in different parts of our brains? We are here today only because we learned to use both parts in combination. We cannot afford as a species to let either one decay.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 2, 2014 1:53 PM ::
Part of my family was gathered for Thanksgiving. We enjoyed a sumptuous meal. An organic turkey from Vermont. A luscious Vouvray that went perfectly with the meal. The proprietor of the wine shop had said to me that this was the one he was going to open. Four varieties of pies. Two kinds of potatoes. My greatly admired stuffing and gravy. Much all around to be thankful for. My son-in-law was in the middle of the second week of chemotherapy, but feeling well enough to eat heartily.
While sitting around after the meal, I noticed that one of the children’s jeans had frayed severely at the knees. Then, Ruth said to me that they come this way. People spend lots of bucks to get already damaged jeans. I checked the Internet and found that, indeed, a pair of damaged jeans can cost more than $150.00. I thought if only fashion had been like this when I was young when worn-out jeans were a sign of either carelessness or poverty. Not really, I am appalled at this.
I have thinking hard about what this fashion could possibly signify. An Internet search turned up a few articles. I do not understand fashion well in the first place. What I learned didn’t help much. Here’s one item:
Ripped, torn, and otherwise distressed denim is once again in style this spring. This season’s incarnation of the trend, however, is a bit different from how it looked in previous decades. Instead of giving off a rebellious or grungy vibe, spring 2010 ripped denim is all about looking sultry and seductive with a little bit of edge. If you’re dying for a trendy new pair of jeans, pick up some ripped ones, and follow our tips to rock them right.
I wear jeans and have forever, and, for me, that’s a long time. I once wore them with cuffs rolled up. That was the biggest fashion statement my peers could imagine. When a pair started to show wear, my mother would sew a patch on. But what really did get me about this incident was the nature of the inherent consumption in the purchase of damaged jeans. It’s an insidious form of conspicuous consumption, no different than flaunting one’s furs or wearing a designer dress to the Oscars. But these last two instances are usually associated with rich people. My grandkids are pretty well off, but not in the same class as the fur wearers or movie stars.
I have written a lot about consumption as an indication of the individualistic and materialistic values of our culture. Consumption is a key contributor to the unsustainable world we are moving or have moved into. I was about to write another screed continuing to rant about purposely damaged clothes, but another event stopped me. Ruth and I are going to our long-standing couples books club tonight. The choice of book we made earlier was The Grapes of Wrath. I have been hastily reading it as it is over 600 pages long, and found myself getting angrier and angrier as I got further into it. Also immensely sad. I cannot remember a book that has moved me so. Maybe it’s just Steinbeck’s fine hand, but, no, it’s the story itself. Everything the Joad’s had was damaged. Run out of their homestead by the tractors (Steinbeck’s metaphor for efficiency), they followed thousands of others to find work in California. Even the food they were able to scrounge was metaphorically damaged. Unlike many of their fellow travelers, they managed to retain some pride as they struggled to live another day. The homes they lost were not the houses they inhabited but the land on which they were built.
The tale is a outcry against capitalism and greed. Steinbeck was criticized for his blatant socialistic morality. Written in 1939, it won a Pulitzer and eventually contributed to a Nobel prize for Steinbeck. I could not stop thinking about damaged jeans as I read. Here is a family living from day to day by consuming as little as they could. Converting an old, broken down truck into a moveable home, they made it to California, only to find the same capitalistic forces at work. There are many negative messages here, but the positive one that strikes home for me is the power of care. The Joad’s best moments in terms of quality of life come from times when the misery is lightened by connections made with others along the way. The inhumanity of the “deputies” is contrasted to the humanity that emerges from the ways that care presents itself. The book ends as a Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon, having just lost a baby prematurely, offers her breast to a starving man.
The Joad’s story is being rewritten today. The factories in China that manufacture and then damage the jeans we buy are staffed by Chinese Okies. Their wages are held down because there are others in the wings willing to work for less because are starving. American Okies exist today in many places. They no longer are migrants because work opportunities exist in many places. Steinbeck’s tractor has completely won as few families own and work their land. Wages for the lower classes have been dropping for quite a few years. Those that can find work are getting less for it. Homelessness is widely evident. Many lost their homes by foreclosure during the recent financial collapse. I hear echoes everywhere. It’s banks again and again.
I recently wrote a chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion. I agreed to write it only if I could point out the oxymoronic sound of the title. To my surprise, the editors agreed. I believe that almost everything in the book, like so much else under the name of sustainability, is only decreasing unsustainability. Issues like paying workers living wages are addressed. Recycling and the avoidance of toxics are included. The role of fashion in human culture is covered. I can see, albeit dimly, a place for fashion even in a flourishing world. But one thing is clear. Intentionally damaged jeans or other goods have no place there.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 30, 2014 2:08 PM ::