I recently heard Harvard-based sociologist, Robert Putnam, discuss his recent co-authored book, The Upswing. He claims that US society has fallen to a level of separateness not seen since the 19th century Gilded Era. His research shows an I-we-I pattern with a “we” peak around 1960. Levels of economic inequality, political differences, frayed social capital, and rampant individualism are higher now than in the 1890’s. The social “we” has virtually disappeared.
Putnam and Garrett argue that restoring “communitarian virtues” is critical in reversing this trajectory. In the 1890’s, the Gospel Revival supplied them. In today’s secular world, this source cannot be counted on. Alternatively, Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic from his Sand County Almanac can provide the necessary moral guidance.
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise … The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land … A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.
If “biotic” is appropriately read to include humans, his statement lays out, in simple, stark terms, such a guide toward those communitarian virtues. No metrics are needed. Leopold here is pragmatic to the core. But, there is more to this story. New knowledge about our brains adds to the sociological tale in The Upswing and to Leopold’s ethic.
Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary on brain lateralization, that is, hemispheric differences in the way we attend to the real world, argues that the rickety state of our world arises from an improper imbalance between the hemispheres. Modern cultures, like ours, reflect dominance of the left over the right contra to the more primal condition of our species.
The “I” culture Putnam describes fits closely with left hemisphere dominance; the “we” fits the opposite. McGilchrist adds that cultures reflect the dominant side of the right/left proportionality, which ratio has vacillated over time. Building on McGilchrist, my book, The Right Way to Flourish, argues explicitly that our basic modern beliefs about the nature of the world and human beings reflect left-brain functions—abstracting parts from the whole and reducing them to generalities.
A few lines from McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter With Things, help us understand Putman’s findings: “At the risk of over-simplification, the objectified self, and the self as an expression of will, is generally more dependent on the left hemisphere; whereas the self as empathically inseparable from the world in which it stands in relation to others…[is] more dependent on the right hemisphere.”
The collective intelligence of a society mirrors the individual hemispheric balance. The left-side is blind to the world the right takes in—the only world that counts in determining whether our actions maintain its integrity or not. As McGilchrist writes, we need both hemispheres, but with the right in charge. Unlike times past, the left-side seems more firmly entrenched and resistant to giving up its control.
What’s to be done? Putnam asks “whether we can resurrect the earlier communitarian virtues in a way that does not reverse the progress we’ve made in terms of individual liberties.” No effective answer to this question can come from anything that traceable exclusively to the “will” of the left brain, ruling out virtually every proposal now on the table.
But, I believe there is an answer to be found in combining my idea of flourishing as the most basic focus of human life, McGilchrist’s divided-brain model, and Leopold’s ethic. Flourishing, offers an ultimate end for human endeavors, and, in place of the today’s reductionist metrics, would guide the re-design of institutions and enabling technologies. Additionally, McGilchrist’s divided-brain model would provide principles for that re-design process. We must restore right-brain primacy. Industrial designers already know how, but have lately chosen deliberately to favor the left-side, especially in social media and digital devices.
Lastly, Leopold’s ethic gives us a guide to judge the moral rightness of our actions and serve notice of their effectiveness. While the concatenation of these three elements would change the practical context of our daily lives, it would also, importantly, produce a different kind of human being. So different it merits a new name, Homo curitans, the caring human, in place of Homo economicus, the calculating human. No single one of these elements can restore the proper functioning of our individual and collective brains, but together they can create the right kind of world, along with the hopefulness we sorely need, but find missing in action.