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Science Can't Dictate Moral Actions

cubic tomato

“GMO labeling bill lacks a scientific justification” headlined The Boston Globe’s lead editorial on 7/30/14. Here is the first paragraph:

Advances in crop biotechnology over the past 20 years have multiplied the range of so-called genetically engineered foods in the average citizen’s diet. Despite reassurances from the international and US scientific community about the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the anti-GMO movement continues to gain ground, and has arrived at the state Legislature in the form of a proposal that would create new food-labeling regulations. But until there is a solid scientific reason to believe that genetically modified crops are unhealthy, a labeling requirement would only serve to confuse consumers.

This sounds more like a piece from the Agricultural Producers Monthly (if it should exist) than from the usually responsible Globe. Maybe this reflects the history of the new owner, John Henry, who made his fortune dealing with commodity futures. I can’t see this showing up under the previous owner, The New York Times.

The real issue here is risk, not science. GMOs have yet to achieve the grade of GRAS (generally regarded as safe) which allows the products to be exempt from the FDA labeling regulations. The FDA allows sale of products considered to be GRAS without any kind of warning label, but that does not apply here in any way. There is no general agreement that these products are safe, quite the opposite. GRAS designation comes from long uses of the products without signs of harm. It is far too early to make such a judgment about GMOs. Their safety has to be established on two fronts: safe in the consumer’s body and safe in the fields. I deliberately avoided using “proved” here because proof is the other aspect of the editorial that is misleading.

There may be no significant risk in producing and using these products, but there may be. There certainly is in use in the fields. Monsanto has a history of suing farmers next door to users of their GMO seeds in cases where the GMO traits have become mixed with the farmer’s stock through windblown transport. It doesn’t take a lot of science to demonstrate that these products may be risky; in this case the courts did it.

It is more difficult to “prove” that there is no harm in consuming GMO products. Science cannot “prove” a negative hypothesis simply because the scientists may have asked the wrong question and are consequently, looking in the wrong place. In the case of GMOs, science cannot show everything that happens when a gene is purposely replaced, but the same science is discovering that a single gene mutation can have profound effects on the body. There are between 20-25000 genes in human DNA and only a small number have been fully connected to their effects. That the number of genes remains only an estimate attests to the state of uncertainty about a complete understanding of the role of every gene, and suggests that any proof that playing around with them is safe is far off in the future. What we ingest can certainly modify the workings of our genes. This is the basis of genetically targeted drugs—magic bullets.

The argument in the headline is old and tired. Industry has argued for years that only “sound science” should be used as the basis for regulatory purposes, but know full well that scientists can never prove a negative. I got deeply in trouble back in my MIT days when I asked, during a meeting about a potential industry-sponsored project on science in regulation, “How would you feel if the results showed that less science, not more, would improve the regulatory process?” I got taken to the woodshed. The presumption that more science would benefit industry was palpable in the room. Successful or not more science delays the time until some regulation that restricts production might come forth. The potential bias in industry-sponsored research is so large that many journals demand that the source of funding is made clear. Relying on information from the producer in cases like this is notoriously suspect. We learned that lesson from the behavior of the tobacco industry.

The issue here is fundamentally not about science but about risk. It is the same issue concerning climate change and many of the other pieces of unsustainability. How long do we wait until we take action? The oceans have not inundated Manhattan Island yet, but they may. We deserve a better way of making decisions about risks that effect all of us as do both climate change and GMOs. If the issues are so complicated that the scientists cannot tell us with certainty that all is OK, then maybe we should use fact that itself as the argument on which we base our actions. This process has a name, the precautionary principle, and has been used in European regulations. Industry is not so strong there as here; it’s strength is the primary reason we haven’t become more serious about it. The costs of ignoring possibility can be great. Think of the misery and deaths from tobacco. (They are still at it) Climate change consequences could (I’m being deliberately cautious here.) incur pain and suffering and losses of investments in infrastructure far in excess of anything we have imagined. Not to worry, industry and the science/technology sectors have an associated argument. If it happens, we can fix the damage cheaper than it would be by acting too soon or mistakenly to prevent it.

Surprise, surprise! That’s the closing argument in the editorial.

But few bills [to label GMOs] would achieve so little while costing so much. A professor from Cornell University conducted a study, albeit sponsored by the food industry, predicting a GMO labeling law could increase food costs for a family of four in the Northeast by $224 to $800 per year, with an average of $500. As for Vermont, lawmakers estimate it would cost the Green Mountain State around $8 million just to defend the law..…That’s a steep price to give consumers virtually no useful information.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 30, 2014 12:13 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 July 30, 2014 11:48 AM ::

Institutional Hypocrisy


The lead article in the 7/20/2014 NYTimes Review section is by Arthur, not David, Brooks. Brooks is President of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. The headline, “Love People, Not Pleasure” pretty much tells the whole story. What is most interesting to me is the source. The AEI is a well-known as a wellspring of neoconservative thinking, and was very influential in George Bush’s Presidency.

Brooks begins with a quote from Abd Al-Rahman III, caliph of 10th-century Córdoba.

“I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.”

And then adds the kicker:

“I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: They amount to 14.”

Brooks follows with what I find a strange conclusion. He suggests that Rahman did have a problem with happiness, but that he should have been talking about unhappiness. I think Rahman did exactly that, expecting any reader to do the arithmetic: happy 14 days; unhappy days 18262.

Brooks argues that, based on recent findings from cognitive science, unhappiness and happiness light up different parts of the brain; they are not mutually exclusive. One can experience both feelings, but as I read the article, not at the same time. When tested to determine how happy or unhappy one is (two different tests), the results show, unsurprisingly to me, that people can have high marks in both. Then he writes, “If you ask an unhappy person why he is unhappy, he’ll almost always blame circumstance.” Duh, if you ask someone what made her happy, the answer will always be some “circumstances.” Assessments like these are always made after the fact; any causes have to be pulled out of memory and will be accompanied, if queried, by some memory of the circumstances which are attributed to the feelings.

After ruling out money, fame, and sex as sources of happiness, Brooks waxes philosophical, writing:

More philosophically, the problem [of unhappiness] stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek. Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and stranger…We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. This paradox has a word in Sanskrit: upadana, which refers to the cycle of craving and grasping. As the Dhammapada (the Buddha’s path of wisdom) puts it: “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life…Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.”

He boils the problem of happiness down to a simple formula that people are following in everyday life: “Love things, use people.” And then he argues that to find happiness, one needs to invert the formula to read: “Love people, use things.” Here’s where I began to wonder what had gotten into Brooks (Arthur, not David)? Remember this is the American Enterprise Institute speaking. He realizes how radical this statement is by noting that to invert the formula “requires a condemnation of materialism…This is manifestly not an argument for any specific economic system. Anyone who has spent time in a socialist country must concede that materialism and selfishness are as bad under collectivism, or worse, as when markets are free. No political ideology is immune to materialism.” Strange statement from a group whose political ideology is fundamentally materialistic.

He should read one of my favorite books, To Have or To Be, by Erich Fromm. He would learn that human beings have a choice between these two contradictory mode of life. We are not as Brooks says “unambiguously driven to accumulate material goods, to seek fame, to look for pleasure.” How we live is always a choice, but a difficult choice when surrounded by a culture that is fundamentally materialistic, and demands we shift into the having mode.

As I have written on many occasions, Humberto Maturana argues that the most fundamental human emotion is love, but that it has become reified and delegitimated in our materialistic world. Love means acknowledging the existence of the other without any prejudgments, and, then, taking care of the other’s existential needs. Loving is always an individual act, but is supported by many institutions, for example, family, church, and government. Business, that is, enterprise, is clearly not one of them, and I expect, would find it impossible to condemn materialism. Attacking the ACA, cutting all sorts of safety net programs, saber waving-all actions consistent with the AEI ideology are hardly loving acts. I cannot imagine a meeting at the AEI opening with any kind of loving act.

(Photo: Arthur Brooks)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 24, 2014 9:34 PM ::

Unsustainability in Unusual Places

back pain

I am going to physical therapy for a painful back. My therapist is a voluble woman with a deep interest in flourishing. She offered a most interesting piece of data on the deteriorating state of human Being. She has noticed over her 25 years or so of practice that people’s posture and general musculo-skeletal health has gotten increasing worse. She sees that very young children cannot squat with ease. This may sound unimportant but squatting is a common position for much of the global population and is important in maintaining bodily health. Bad posture is often the result of long-term mental stress and prolonged positioning that puts physical stress on certain parts of the body, for example, carpal tunnel syndrome. Dropping one’s head stresses the back and is likely to be one cause of my present aches and pains (apart from aging). As a non-touch typist, I look down at the keyboard constantly for hours a day. Looking down at an iPad in your lap would do the same. This has become a very common scene for young children. I have my own data on this from watching grandkids. The youngest of my nine spends much more time with some screen in his lap than the oldest (14 years older) did. Much larger variety of technology available for him. I am not enough of a specialist to attach cause to effect, but I suspect that what she told me is just another example of increasing unsustainability.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 22, 2014 4:53 PM ::

Our Hidden Civil War

rollin coal

Maybe you saw this recent little news item:

“Rollin’ Coal” Is Pollution Porn for Dudes With Pickup Trucks Diesel drivers in rural America have been modifying their trucks to spew out black soot, then posting pics to the Internet. They hate you and your Prius.

I thought that a few millennia might teach us not to use nature to punish our enemies. Only the medium has changed, perhaps because most of our water comes through pipes. But not entirely as open water reservoirs are a prime terrorist target. Seriously, it is a pretty sad day when people in our presumably civilized country start to exchange rhetoric for real ammunition. We castigate less advanced nations for their tribalism and consequent violence.

I find it very hard to keep thinking about flourishing amid the angry exchanges taking place around the world, particularly because, for me, flourishing can only exist in a global, systemic sense. As hard as we, or any group or nation, try to paint ourselves as different, we are part of the same world. Every newborn carries the same basic genes that turn it into a human being, not some other species. Every human beings relies on the earth for life. Every human being relies on every other human being to flourish.

Our separateness in the United States, which seems to be growing, is due to many factors. I will pick only on one to comment here, our fundamentally polarized two-party political system. We have deliberately chosen not to adopt the more common parliamentary, multi-party system of our European parents. Over the years, we have boasted about the speed at which we are able to enact our laws and run our government, compared to these other nations, but these days we cannot continue to boast. Multi-party systems may be inefficient, but they force compromise and coalition-building at the top, actions that have a chance to trickle down to the rest of the party members and their partisan supporters.

Here in the US, this polarization was built-in almost from the start with a two-sided argument about the way the country should be shaped. We were able to move forward only because the argument extended to and was settled by an honest public debate. In defense of the polarized state of today, some historians argue that we were always a politically contentious and divided nation. Perhaps, but much of the country was ignorant about the goings-on in Philadelphia and later Washington. There was no national or social media. What politics existed were, as Tip O’Neill said, mostly local. Any differences at the center of government were diffused by the time they got to Peoria, maybe even to New York.

Today, there is one big difference: the technology of mass communications. Differences in Washington are instantly felt in Peoria. Tip’s admonition must be badly strained today. It’s easier to overlook the importance of living in harmony with your neighbors when their individuality gets broad labels that have little to do with how they behave locally. It’s easier to organize partisan activities than to demonstrate solidarity. These same media turn serious business and the need for public conversations into entertainment and platforms for bloviating.

There are only two ways that I know of to settle differences and live side-by-side. One is to establish and enter into a conversation; the other is to get into a fight with the more powerful getting to call the shots. The reality of the world is that neither probably works alone or for long. Life is indeed very complex and not amenable to simple solutions. Maybe that’s why power is used more frequently than talk which has a less predictable immediate outcome.

Differences of opinion are inevitable and even desirable in a democracy like the US. Resolving them peacefully is always a matter of words. Conversations are powerful in that almost anything is possible, as words create possibility. The consequences of a conversation are virtually infinite. Technology is different; technology creates futures, but not possibilities, except when unintended consequences arise. Otherwise the futures made present by technology are bounded by the design. “Rollin’ Coal” is an example of the harm that technology can do. Not just the ability to modify a diesel engine to make it smoke, but the more insidious feature of mass communications that the sense of neighbors with different ideas becomes a generic image of otherness. The [Republican] Prius driver might simply have found it more economical than a smokin pickup.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 11, 2014 3:54 PM ::

The Devil Is in the Details


One of my favorite targets for critical blogs is David Brooks. I generally find Brooks worth reading, either because he has stumbled into something interesting or he is far from the mark. Today, his column was in the latter category. As a preface, I may simply be in a terrible mood today because it hasn’t stopped pouring for a long time, the radar map says it won’t for perhaps another day, and my roof started leaking again.

In lieu of celebrating July 4th, Brooks was celebrating social science:

A day without social science is like a day without sunshine. Fortunately, every morning Kevin Lewis of National Affairs magazine gathers recent social science findings and emails them out to the masses. You can go to the National Affairs website to see and sign up for his work, but, in the meantime, here are some recent interesting findings. (Note carefully the weasel words in most of the items.)

Here are the headlines of items in his column:

  • Working moms sometimes raise smarter students.
  • The office is often a more relaxing place than the home.
  • Hearts and minds may be a myth.
  • Attractive children attract less empathy than unattractive children.
  • Too much talent can be as bad as too little talent.
  • Title IX has produced some unintended consequences.
  • Moral stories don’t necessarily make more moral children.
  • Good fences make good neighbors.

Given that he is a pretty smart fella, I think he was taking the holiday off and having fun at our expense. There is not enough said about any of the items to make a judgment about the quality of the work and the accuracy or generality of the conclusions. I remember a number of articles debunking studies that show correlations between all sorts of things and phases of the moon. (As I suspect Brooks also did not, I did not carefully examine the article(s) being cited.) Here’s a part of one of them.

Ivan Kelly, James Rotton and Roger Culver (1996) examined over 100 studies on lunar effects and concluded that the studies have failed to show a reliable and significant correlation (i.e., one not likely due to chance) between the full moon, or any other phase of the moon, and each of the following:

  • traffic accidents 

  • crisis calls to police or fire stations
-domestic violence
births of babies
  • suicide
  • major disasters

  • aggression by professional hockey players
  • violence in prisons
  • behavioral outbursts of psychologically challenged rural adults
  • lycanthropy
  • vampirism
  • alcoholism
  • sleep walking
  • epilepsy
  • and 10 more in the original

Science is designed to give us a sense of reality; a sense essential in acting effectively. Natural science uses a methodology that produces universal theories and facts. Universal, or quasi-universal, because they can be applied outside of the specific conditions of the experiences from which the facts were gleaned, but not without limits. The methods of social science are not so powerful that they can easily produce such universal results. Unlike pure science, the conditions under which the facts are derived are ephemeral; the world of people is always changing and what I learned today may not be “true” tomorrow. Moreover the ability to generalize the sample being studied is not practical in most social science. Whatever results are obtained can be extrapolated to the larger world only with great uncertainty. As Brooks certainly knows, correlations never directly show cause. Other factors not examined may produce significant outcomes. It is exceedingly difficult to single out the variables to test in complex systems,.

In any case, if this is what Brooks calls social science, it would bring a bit of hilarity, maybe not sunshine, into the room. But I would not have picked up on this piece save for its conclusion.

Most social science research confirms the blindingly obvious. But sometimes it reveals things nobody had thought of, or suggests that the things we thought were true are actually false.

That’s a message for you, federal appropriators.

Is he telling someone in the government to use more social science. Who are these “federal appropriators?” Does he mean the budget committees in Congress? Is this a plea to avoid ideology? If it is, it is a very weak one.

One does not need to evoke any kind of science to see the reality out there. Science is needed only to understand it so that the actions one takes are expected, with confidence, to produce the results desired. In an interesting juxtaposition, the adjoining column by his fellow Times correspondent, Paul Krugman, argues for action to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. So is science needed to make decisions about whether to spend our funds on rebuilding it? Social science (economics) presumably can show some correlation between the condition of our infrastructure and GDP, but always with some use of weasel words. (The economist uses the familiar, on the one hand…) Poets can often do a better job than scientists in discovering truths about the world; Robert Frost did need science in the case of item number 8. Maybe we should be paying more attention to our artists than our social scientists if we are interested in dealing with the reality of our world. Brooks reinforces the old saw that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

(Cartoon credit: Mark Anderson)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 4, 2014 9:30 PM ::

All about Care (2)


I am more and more convinced that the way to flourishing is through Being. Understanding Being takes us onward to care, a central concept in my framework to move modern society out of the unsustainability trajectory. This poses a big problem because Being is an elusive concept both per se and in practice. Being is to humans as water is to fish. It is the medium within which we exist, but cannot be aware of it until we are removed from it. Fish can never understand that they live in water because they lack the cognitive capability, and would quickly pass out of existence if they were removed from it. Humans can, however, discover Being because we have a cognitive mechanism that permits us to examine the medium within which we exist even though it is invisible in daily life. We are able to reflect on our conscious experience as an “objective” observer. I put objective in scare quotes to emphasize the difficulty in understanding what objectivity means and how one can become fully objective when contemplating something.

Science has come to provide the most universal way of being objective. By the rigorous application of scientific methodology, we can arrive at statements about the objective truth of something. Scientific methods apply, in principle, only to phenomena we can observe under controlled condition so we can repeat applications of the method and tweeze out universal facts and theories. The social sciences are often criticized for the inadequacy of their scientific methods to arrive at objective, universal truths, but they can be undoubtedly applied to show distinctions in observed phenomena, say human behavior, and support hypotheses made about such behavior.

Motivated by historical references to the difference between having and Being, Erich Fromm sought to refine the understanding of the consequence of these modes of human existence on people. Were they happier? Did they suffer less or differently? Did they deal more competently with the real life they experienced? And so.

Fromm, who comes from a psychoanalytic perspective writes in To Have or To Be that

“For many years I had been deeply impressed by this distinction [between having and being] and was seeking its empirical basis in the concrete study of individuals and groups by the psychoanalytic method. What I saw has led me to conclude that this distinction, together with that between love of life and love of the dead represents the most crucial problem of existence; that empirical anthropological and psychoanalytic data tend to demonstrate that having and being are two fundamental modes of experience, the respective strengths of which determine the differences between the characters of individuals and various types of social character.” (emphasis in the original)

His methods are scientific in nature, with criteria and hypotheses coming from the science of psychology. I was struck by his writing when I first encountered it years ago and still am impressed with his focus on the impact of these two differing beliefs on human behavior and its consequence on life quality. Not surprising since he spent his life trying to improve that quality in individuals as a clinician. I also was influenced by Martin Heidegger whose major philosophical work was on the subject of Being. As a philosopher, not a practitioner, he was more concerned about understanding and describing the phenomenon of Being than in its practical consequences. He like, Fromm, found his way to Being by using a method, phenomenology.

I have, as I noted earlier, been reading on existentialism this summer. Partly because I read Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus in a course I was taking last spring and realized how little I knew about existentialism. As I have in the past, I thought about teaching a course on it to my senior peers as a way to understand it better myself and so piled up a stack of books by existentialist writers and other scholars. But having worked my way into the subject a little, I have begun to realize the close tie between existentialism and Being. Heidegger, although called a key existentialist by every source I have, eschewed the term. He did what fishes cannot do, finding a way to examine Being from within its enveloping container. The primary method of phenomenology, developed by the philosopher, Edmund Husserl, is called bracketing or epochē, which method presumes that one can put aside one’s presuppositions and prejudices when studying some thing and, thereby, focus on the thing itself, Being in Heidegger’s case. He radically applied Husserl’s methodology, designed to relate to real objects-in-the-world, to the thing called Being.

He dissected Being philosophically, and wrote many pages about how it exists in the world and what its ontological structures comprise. How is it that we are able to grasp and think about Being? Does it have any essential features? How does it show up in human behavior? He argued that it is essential that humans come to an understanding of their own Being if they are to understand the being of other objects. Given the extreme difficulty of lifting oneself out of the milieu of existence, it is not surprising that Heidegger’s arguments are highly tortuous and abstruse.

His was an essentially “purely” philosophical study without a formal investigation of the normative or practical consequence of man’s understanding of Being, and living a life according to its ontological structures. Fromm clearly puts a normative slant on Being as do those that ignited his interest. It is better for a human existence to Be rather than to have. Becoming a fully functioning human Being is closer to whatever makes our species unique than owning all the goods in the world. The implications of this inequality are supremely important as the principle norms of our and other modern societies are just the opposite. Materialism runs the ship of state. Being has faded into the background if it is present at all.

I began to equate “sustainability” to flourishing by accident and did not fully recognize the implications of this definition. Over the years, I have come to discount sustainability (see many other posts) and to hoist flourishing as the important distinction. I see it now as the only vision or norm that can lead us to a truly “sustainable” world—one in which all creatures human and otherwise exist in some homeostasis within the world: changing, but stable over time, able to rebound from unseen upsets, providing the necessary resources for the future. Until we move significantly in that direction, “sustainability” will continue to mean maintaining the materialistic, growth-oriented culture found everywhere in the affluent parts of the Earth. Materialistic measures of human well-being can be and are converted to numbers. But flourishing, like the beauty of Old Master’s painting, is in the eye of the beholder; it resists being metricized and measured.

As I read further into the existentialist literature, I find more and more evidence that flourishing, while unnamed as such, lies squarely within that field. Many existential writers eventually come to argue that freedom of choice is at the center of human existence, not freedom to do whatever one wants—particularly what one wants to do with his or her property. Freedom to Be what one chooses is the core. To Be is not all that easy, however. One must choose to Be and that turns out to be very daunting. So much so that Sartre wrote that “Man is condemned to be free.” An important part of the existentialism argument is that the world has no intrinsic meaning to be grasped as a guide to the good life, and so humans must choose what they are to Be from nothingness. It is significant and ironic that the idea of freedom as central to Being comes from a denial of the meaningfulness of the world. Our historic political interpretation of freedom comes from the Enlightenment thinkers, who were convinced that it was part of human essence, waiting to be served by the market and political institutions.

Finally, flourishing is a form of Being which itself is a form of human existence based on care. This simple relationship provides a new foundation for constructing a “sustainable” society by following a simple rule: transform the market and other institutions to enable people to care, instead of creating and satisfying need. Goods and services are as central to Being as to having, but in importantly different ways. Amartya Sen argues that the fundamental purpose of an economy is to provide the capabilities to flourish, although he uses other language and elides an an intermediate step—caring. First come capabilities to exercise care, which, when fulfilled, create the possibility of flourishing. Being is already all around us. It is available merely by using our freedom to choose it. We can, as Nike says, just do it. So why then is it so little present? We have been accustomed to live by a set of extrinsic standards set by society, so much so that we are deaf to another calling, the calling of Being.

(Image: Edmund Husserl)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 2, 2014 5:31 PM ::

Empathy and Truth Are Companions

empathy When all you have is a hammer, everything looks just like a nail. In my case, right now, I am immersed in existentialism and everything I read reeks of it. Here’s what I mean. Linda Greenhouse’s column in the NYTimes today was a commentary on the just-issued decision to ban warrantless cellphone searches. Her theme was that when the issue at hand is something the justices can relate to personally, the opinion could be said to more humane, less ideological. Here’s the closing paragraph.

I had planned to conclude my discussion of the court and the search cases with a mention of “empathy,” the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, so often missing from the Supreme Court’s criminal law decisions but perhaps on display here. But on reflection, it’s not really empathy. The justices are walking in their own shoes. The ringing cellphone could be theirs — or ours.

The tie to existentialism is in what Greenhouse started to call empathy, but changed her mind. It was a sense of concreteness that is missing from most cases. Existentialism has roots in phenomenology which is characterized by a focus on the thing itself, as its founder, Edmund Husserl, said. What he meant was that to appreciate the concreteness of a perception, one had to bracket one’s ever present presuppositions and beliefs about what the object held in consciousness “is.” Existentialism grew out of the application of phenomenology to human beings, reflecting their peculiar thingness. Humans are unlike anything other being. Existentialism grew out, in part, of the criticism of applying scientific thinking to the human condition and human behavior.

Science works through abstractions, generalizations made from the particular conditions of the observations on which they are based. Abstraction is “the act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances.” Except for very special cases, if they ever do exist, abstraction always omits something from the concrete situation being viewed. When I argue, as I often do, that unsustainability is an unintended consequence of modernity, I am referring to the general tendency to scientize everything with the result that the concrete reality of life is incompletely represented in our decision-making processes, results in these surprises.

Arguing that the world is complex, not machine-like, is another way of getting at the inability of abstractions, the heart and soul of science, to give us precise enough tools to create the future we, as human beings, are always moving toward. (You will find another existential fundament in this last statement.) My usual counter to the ubiquitous use of positivistic frameworks for all our “problems” is to apply pragmatic thinking and processes to find our way through these problematic situations. The essence of pragmatism is simply that every situation is concrete (and complex) and it possible to develop effective solutions only by careful observation of the situation without the blinders and distortions put in place (consciously and unconsciously) by one’s presuppositions. Such pragmatic solutions are the “right ones” to apply, but may lack the “truth” to be found through positivistic methods.

Empathy is another word that fits the existential, phenomenological context for acting. Empathy means uncovering the “truth” that forms the context for another’s actions. Putting yourself in someone’s shoes is an incomplete metaphor for empathy. To be fully empathetic, you need to get into another’s head (a different, but more accurate, metaphor) where you would find the basis of their actions. I put truth in parentheses to indicate that the truth involved in creating human action is different from the truths given to us by science and all forms of positivistic thinking. It is different from ideological beliefs which are also abstractions taken from life, but without the benefit and universality of scientific methodology.

Existentially or phenomenologically derived truth is a statement about whatever concrete situation it refers to. It is the antithesis of scientific truth which is explicitly a generalized statement. Scientific truths assume the constancy of phenomena. Newton’s law applies at any instant. Gravity dose not change over time. Any situation which involves human beings is unique in time and confounds attempts to find generalized truths to describe it.

So now back to the Supreme Court. Laws are forms of generalization, rules designed to apply to general circumstances. The legal system recognizes the existential character of human action and often requires the finding of “intent” and examines the context of a life when passing sentence. But ultimately laws are intended to govern human behavior and to protect one’s humanness. Given that, for practical purposes, laws are written to apply in general, the concreteness of human existence always takes a hit in any particular case. Our legal system of jury trial by a panel of one’s peers and the availability of appeal attempts to return concreteness and “truth” to the system, but does it only imperfectly.

Greenhouse is pointing this out to us in her article. She gives other examples where the decision comes in situations outside the context of the judge’s normal existence.

The Roberts court has too often been on the wrong side of history, most pointedly in its retrograde refusal to protect the right to vote; Wednesday was the first anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder, the shameful 5-to-4 decision that undermined the Voting Rights Act. When it comes to technology, however, the court seems free of ideological baggage and is trying hard, collectively, to get it right.

Justice Kagan’s appointment to the Court was complicated by the President’s mention of empathy in his discussion of what qualities he would look for in a nominee. During her confirmation hearings, the following Q and A with Senator Kyl took place.

Kyl: Let me start by asking you the standard for judges in approaching cases that we talked about, starting with the president’s idea. I’ll remind you. He’s used a couple of different analogies — one was to a 26-mile marathon — and said that in hard cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction and interpretation will only get you through the first 25 miles… . He says the critical ingredient in those cases is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart, or the depth and breadth of a judge’s empathy. My first question is, do you agree with him that the law only takes you the first 25 miles of the marathon, and that the last mile has to be decided by what’s in the judge’s heart?
Kagan: Senator Kyl, I think it’s law all the way down. It’s — when a case comes before the court, parties come before the court, the question is not do you like this party or do you like that party, do you favor this cause or do you favor that cause. The question is — and this is true of constitutional law, it’s true of statutory law — the question is what the law requires. Now, there are cases in which it is difficult to determine what the law requires. Judging is not a robotic or automatic enterprise, especially on the cases that get to the Supreme Court. A lot of them are very difficult. And people can disagree about how the constitutional text or precedent — how they apply to a case. But it’s law all the way down, regardless.

I find this colloquy an example of how stilted our public dialogue has become. There is no contradiction between applying the law all the way down and approaching the case empathetically. Empathy is a stance taken to understand what was or is in play in another’s actions. It does not reside in one’s heart even metaphorically. It is a wholly cognitive process wherein one examines a situation after putting aside one’s prejudices, presuppositions and anything else that impairs locating the “truth.” It is an antidote to ideology, methodology, and prejudice. Senator Kyl confuses it with compassion, which is an emotion related to concern another’s situation. In the long run, the rule of law in the US is grounded on the concept of protecting the concrete individuality of every real human being. One would have to say that, on this point, that our founding fathers were existentialists.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 26, 2014 3:19 PM ::

Why democracy is Necessary for Flourishing

small d

Before you write me that there is a typo in the title, don’t bother. The small “d” is intentional. I am not writing about the big sense of Democracy, as in Democracy versus Socialism or any other political ideology. I want to focus on democracy as a particular way of interacting at all scales from families all the way to nations. If we are to flourish as both individuals and a global community, we must change our routine behaviors, that is our norms, such that the unintended consequences that are producing unsustainability and the growing departure form our common visions disappear entirely or shrink to a point that they become insignificant.

It is clear that we cannot solve our problems, if unsustainability or the loss of any part of our American Dream is deemed a “problem,” by applying the standard methodologies derived from our unreflected reliance of positive knowledge and its fruits in the form of technology and rational decision-making (technocracy). The clarity of this statement derives from both a philosophical/systems stance that argues that no problem can be solved by restricting our thinking and choices to the knowledge domain that we used in creating the conditions causing the problem (paraphrasing Einstein’s famous quote), and the practical/experiential sense that we observe the situation as worsening.

As I have written elsewhere, the way out of this dilemma is to start thinking and acting distinctly differently. Not just any old way, for example, relying on miracles, other than the familiar positivism, but thinking and acting pragmatically. Pragmatism is an extraordinarily powerful way to shape the beliefs that underly normal behavior, but, because we only rarely consciously use it, have many misconceptions about it. The nature of the beliefs that pragmatism creates is what makes it so important, not the method itself.

Pragmatism has a very interesting history. It grew out of the work of C. S. Peirce, a nineteenth century American logician and philosopher. Peirce began his investigations with an inquiry about how ideas (concepts) became fixed in the mind and then formed the ground for habitual behavior. This connection, made by others than Peirce, is critical to understanding how persistent problems arise and how they can be eliminated. Peirce was interested in individuals but the same connection between beliefs and routine behavior guides collective behavior. Institutional norms (routines, habits) are the result of enacting the rooted beliefs shared within the institution.

His colleague and fellow pragmatist, William James’s affirmation that if, under certain conditions, a belief creates actions that makes one happy, the belief can be accepted as true. So if a belief in the existence of God makes life satisfying in many ways, then it is not necessary to be able to prove this by rational or scientific methods. In practice, the conditions James set forth are largely overlooked. To accept such a belief without an acceptable proof, the consequences of the choice to believe or not has to be live, forced, and momentous. It has to a matter of serious concern (live), unavoidable (forced) and make a real difference (momentous). For atheists, the question of the existence of God does match any or all of these conditions

James’s criteria for accepting a belief is not the same as other pragmatists, although it might seem so, and he has been criticized for it as a consequence. The “standard” notion of pragmatism is that a concept (belief) that produces satisfactory results when used to underpin action can be accepted as meaningful (right, not true). Peirce’s so-called pragmatic maxim ties a meaningful concept to the sum total of all the effects (desired and not) it produces.

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

Such meaningful beliefs come with another condition, different from James’s criterion. The beliefs must be generated by a rigorous inquiry by a community of interested parties, that is, people concerned about the outcome, not the belief. Pierce thought the process should follow scientific methods, but others relaxed the process, but not the rigor or community aspects.

The key difference between James and the rest is that James’s “truth” had to work only for the person considering the outcomes. It did not matter how badly the rest of the world might fare. He completely ignored the possibility of unintended consequences outside of the context of the believer. Pierce and Dewey argued for a community that included all those with an interest in the outcome, so, if an inquiry produced a belief that pleased some but not all, the inquiry would have to continue until some sort of consensus were reached.

Peirce would not accept a jihadist’s claim of the existence of a God instructing him to slay the infidels as pragmatically meaningful since he (Peirce) presumably would have an interest in remaining alive. This is one reason why one should be careful in quickly accepting beliefs made under James’s criterion. Both James’s beliefs and those of conventional pragmatism can be called faiths (small f), but they are categorically distinct, a very important difference.

The rightness of a pragmatically derived belief springs from its origins from a community of inquirers, perhaps including some acting as agents for others. If it produces an outcome all are happy with, it carries normative legitimacy. If the outcomes are normatively desirable, the belief they are based on can be considered right, but not necessarily true. John Dewey tied democracy and pragmatism together arguing that all who have an interest in the outcome (everybody in a democratic nation) should be involved in the inquiry, and that pragmatic beliefs, not ideologies should form the foundation for collective action.

Scientific beliefs could be considered as pragmatic, that is, meaningful, within the scientific community. Peirce thought so. But since science has been accepted as producing truths about the world, scientific beliefs (theories) are also considered to tell the truth. For non-scientists, who are non-interested, non-inquirers, such beliefs may not be accepted as true or meaningful with serious societal consequences. Creationism and climate change denial are two such current cases. Flourishing depends on having a world view that avoids unintended consequences bearing on individuals and on the whole of society. Only pragmatic experience can do that, but pragmatism won’t work without a democratic core of interested and concerned people.

ps. I have been reading texts about existentialism this summer and, although pragmatism is rarely mentioned, this broad area of inquiry and action seems to me to be very similar in its focus on concrete, not abstract experience, when human beings are concerned. When the richness of concrete experience is reduced to abstract concepts, something always get omitted. The result is the appearance of unintended consequences. When almost everything we do as a society is based on abstractions or theory, those unintended consequences have become what we now call unsustainability.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 24, 2014 5:03 PM ::

Even the NYTimes Needs Critical Thinking


Let’s go back to first principles. Call it automation, call it robots, or call it technology; it all comes down to the concept of producing more with fewer workers. Far from being a scary prospect, that’s a good thing. Becoming more efficient (what economists call “productivity”) has always been central to a growing economy. Without higher productivity, wages can’t go up and standards of living can’t improve.

What’s wrong with this quote? It appeared in an oped piece, by Steven Rattner in today’s (June 22, 2014) NYTimes Sunday Review section. The topic, as this quote suggests, was about the “danger” of losing jobs to more innovation. Here’s a one-liner about him from Wikipedia: “Steven Lawrence Rattner is an American financier who served as lead adviser to the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry in 2009 for the Obama administration.”

Two of the five sentences are arguably true and two false. Which ones? The first one is a simple request, neither true or false. The second one is true as it merely defines the topic. The third one is false, at least according to my calculus. This sentence typifies the problem with economics. It may be true or false depending on the premises that are either stated or unstated (as they are here). Presumably producing more using less labor creates a producer surplus, assuming (unstated) that people will continue to buying the excess production at the same price. The truth of the statement depends on how that surplus is distributed. If it goes to the capitalists, it will exacerbate income inequality. In the aggregated accounting of standard economics, distribution isn’t counted and carries no moral weight.

If you do not care about who shares in the surplus, then the statement can be held to be true. But for those who believe that those who own the capital, at least in the affluent US, don’t need more wealth to flourish, this statement is patently false. To the argument that capitalists include many of the working class through investments of pension funds in the capital markets, I would counter that those so represented are those who were holding jobs at the time their funds were added to the pot.

No matter how you explain or justify inequality, it is a fact. It is a fact starkly contradicting the very fundament of our country: “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.” In our secular age, the phrase pointing to the Creator as the source is longer to be translated literally. We are equal, perhaps, only immediately after we emerge from the womb, but given the huge difference in the realities of life that surrounds every one of us from the moments of our births, the idea of some endowment of equality is more a myth than a fact.

I will return to this shortly, but onto the next sentence. The next sentence is true within the workings of conventional economics. It is simply a verbal statement of the mathematics of neoclassical economics. Efficiency is central to economic growth, ceteris paribus (the infamous all other things being equal that without which economists would be lost), but the irrelevance of the truth of that statement shows up in the next and key sentence. Wages can certainly go up without higher productivity. That they don’t is a sign of the amorality of the capitalist system. Walmart can, without any real restraints, increase the wages of its employees. Of course that would mean that the Walton family and other shareholders would have to settle for less. If the top managers of many corporations would accept wages below those which have become no less than obscene, workers could earn more without a dime’s worth of change in the P&L.

Having shown that wages can go up even without gains in efficiency, the last clause also becomes false. That, however, is not the real problem with this last clause. It is neither true or false, but irrelevant. “Standard of living” is an arbitrary term having little to do with how people actually do exist. It perhaps measures what stuff they have around them to assist in daily chores. It is used by economists and others (politicians) primarily because it can be enumerated, and, as every first-year MBA student knows well, things have to be measured if they are to be managed. I agree that “things” do need to be measured to be managed, but life is not a thing. What matters to human beings, even if they ignore it, is the quality of their existence, and quality is difficult, if impossible, to manage. Ask Picasso if he created his works by measuring, or in another related metaphor, try to create a masterpiece with a paint-by-numbers kit.

I could go on for quite a while exposing Rattner’s prose for what it is: an arbitrary set of sentences build on many hidden presuppositions, but I want to close on a different subject. What I have just written is a rudimentary example of critical thinking. Critical thinking is little more than passing what one sees and hears though a set of “truth” filters. As this tiny example indicates, more so-called truths offered up in public (and private) conversations is the end of a chain of reasoning based on unstated presumptions and presuppositions. Only if one is aware of all these precursors to what is heard or seen, can one assess the truth of a statement. Since the world works best, maybe only, when the truth comes straight from the world, the importance of critical thinking should be clear.

Yes, you may say, “John is not telling us anything new,” but then, “Why are your children being less exposed to critical thinking than more by the growing emphasis on the so-called STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and math).” I find this very ironic in view of the few sentences I have cribbed to start this post. These (STEM) are the very subjects that are assumed to be the basis of the improvements in efficiency that will cost some of these very students their jobs in the future. When that happens and someone says to them, “Sorry, but it’s a fact of life that with more efficiency comes less jobs,” they will not have the tools to dig down to discover the arbitrariness behind that “truth.” And without that ability, they can do very little about the quality of their lives. Vaclav Havel, the intellectual liberator and President of Czechoslovakia, wrote, “Keep the company of those who seek the truth-run from those who have found it” Steven Rattner is a small example of the many who claim to have found it.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 23, 2014 3:43 PM ::