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The American Bipolar Disorder

During the insufferably long campaign circus leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election I offered a perspective on what I believed was the real choice then coming into focus. It wasn’t between Clinton’s domestic and Trump’s international priorities. Nor was it over someone who exposed security secrets of our country, or someone else who denigrates women and minorities. Our decision in November was going to be, really for the first time with such clarity in the history of American politics, whether democracy or capitalism would carry us into the future as a nation.

Everyone knows that our political system was originally set up according to the foundational principles of democracy – empowering citizens to elect their own representatives, assemble around causes that matter to them, protest bad decisions and abuses of leadership, and even to remove incompetent leaders from office as necessary. Democracy’s antitype is monarchy, where one individual rules over all.

As the values of autonomy, reason, and creative authority broke through the thawing ground of the Middle Ages, the imperial arrangement of top-down control became increasingly intolerable. The republican form of democracy instituted among the early colonies and states of America still acknowledged a need for high-level vision and leadership, but it would be ‘the people’ who put them in office, not bloodline, usurpation, or a deep purse – well, okay, that last one has always been more about maintaining an illusion of our equal access as citizens to high political office.

In actual practice, however, political influence most often goes to where the money is – and this makes a good segue to that other force shaping American society. Technically not a political ideology, capitalism is rather a way of organizing (and justifying) an economic system centered in the values of liberty and privacy, where a free (i.e., only minimally regulated) market allows for the production, distribution, and exchange of wealth by individuals and corporations. This was originally a very logical correlate to democracy, sharing its concern that wealth (rather than power) should be liberated from the hands of one or a few and made available to the many.

The framers of our US Constitution were strong proponents of capitalism, and the so-called American Dream has always been more about economic than political aspirations. People do come to America to escape political oppression and persecution in their home countries, but ultimately what they hope for is the opportunity to build their wealth and become financially independent. Early on the role of government was to be minimal, and its interference in our individual pursuit of happiness – long mistaken as the natural consequence of economic success – was carefully sanctioned. America is still for many the Land of Opportunity.

Even in my brief characterization of democracy and capitalism it should be obvious that these two ideologies, one political and the other economic, are driving in opposite directions. As I pointed out in Change Your Lens, Change Your World, their opposition originates in the fundamentally different ways they prioritize the individual and the community. Democracy puts priority on community and regards the individual as a responsible agent in its formation and health, whereas capitalism puts the individual before community, which quickly becomes a mere aggregate of self-interested actors.

In the 2016 Presidential election we had a choice between an advocate of democracy on one hand and an advocate for capitalism on the other. The winner was capitalism.

In this post I’d like to expand our frame to the bigger picture, where the genetic codes of democracy and capitalism are placed on a continuum. Along that continuum are key terms that name distinct modes of human relations. Staying in the middle of this continuum where the tension is more easily managed, but where things can quickly snap and fly apart in opposite directions, are the modes associated with democracy (cooperation) and capitalism (competition).

Of course, the modes of cooperation and competition go beyond politics and economics (think of sports and games, for instance), but I’m trying to diagnose the peculiar form of bipolar disorder that our nation struggles with, so our focus will stay here.

Democracy is basically a political philosophy affirming the primary value and critical role of individuals as co-operators. They work together in a spirit of mutuality – certainly not without some lively competition among their different views and interests – for the purpose of managing a government that upholds their freedoms and clarifies their responsibilities to the community. Together they seek equity, agreement, and alliance around the concerns impacting their shared quality of life.

While equality is the unworkable goal of everyone having an equal share of wealth, access, and influence, equity is closer to Marx’s principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” (It’s important to remember that Marx’s call to revolution was against capitalism and its abuses, not against democracy.)

Farther to the polar left on our continuum is the ideal that democratic visionaries have frequently entertained and tried to realize. Communion is a mode of human relations that comes as close as possible to negating individual differences in the solvent of oneness. When the tension snaps, we are left with a state of being where no distinctions remain, there is nothing for our minds to hold on to, and we are submerged in a mystery that cannot be named. Mystics devote themselves to diving in and letting go, but many of them are notorious misfits when it comes to relating well with others.

On the other side of center, capitalism is an economic philosophy that – particularly in the model of Adam Smith – regards individuals as competitors for a finite quantity of market share and wealth. They could be said to cooperate within the rules and regulations of that market, but their primary interest lies in improving efficiency, gaining an advantage over rivals, and achieving excellence in the product or service they offer. Competition provides opportunities for self-improvement, and the matching appetites of opponents drive their mutual pursuit of excellence, taking the lead where they can.

Farther out to the polar right of our continuum is a mode of human relations which amplifies the differences to such a degree that relationship itself is on the verge of extinction – this time not by dissolving into communion but by bursting apart through conflict. This is where competition loses all sense of rivals cooperating on a field of rules, incentives, and goals and becomes instead a ruthless winner-take-all crusade to crush each other. In conflict, opponents refuse to acknowledge their common ground or shared values – if they can even see these anymore.

In this blog I frequently reflect on what I call ‘genuine community’, which could sound as if I favor only the value-set to the left of center – in other words, that I support democracy and have only bad things to say about capitalism. With my incessant interest in spirituality and our more mystical sensibilities, you might also think that I’m not only left of center but a far leftist when it comes to where I believe we should be. Wouldn’t that be something? All of us submerged in the warm bath of mystic union: no self-regard, nothing to upset us, and no aspirations for the future ….

In fact, my understanding of genuine community is not centered exclusively in communion but includes all four modes of human relations. Yes, even conflict will happen in genuine community as the competing interests of individuals and groups flare occasionally into aggressive confrontation. But a healthy community is capable of containing conflict, marshaling the patience, compassion, wisdom, forgiveness, and goodwill necessary for constructive dialogue to take place.

In time, and inside the ground rules of constructive dialogue, opponents discover their common ground and begin working together – first for themselves but eventually for a greater good.

According to this perspective, America is healthiest when democracy empowers its citizens to cooperate in government and community life, at the same time as capitalism provides them with a competitive field where they can sharpen their skills and realize their dreams of prosperity. As a friend of mine recently commented, an ideal situation would be where just-left-of-center Democrats and just-right-of-center Republicans engaged in dialogue, advocacy, and compromise for the wellbeing of all Americans.

Our problem – and this is the heart of our bipolar disorder as a nation in my opinion – is rooted in our apparent inability to stay closer to the center where a healthy balance could be managed. The Republican party is falling farther to the right as the Democrats fall farther left, and the farther apart they get, the less able they are to find common ground and work effectively together. Such extremism (both right and left) throws the larger system into divisions that no longer know how to ‘reach across the aisle’ – so far into opposite ideological directions have they gone.

Now, we should carefully consider the likelihood that our national disorder is really only a projection at the societal level of an imbalance within ourselves individually. Perhaps we have lost our center and that’s why the politicians we elected can’t be the leaders America so desperately needs.

 

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Becoming a Person of Influence

A video version of this blog post can be found here


Here’s the backstory:

You work in a company that manufactures technology goods for the public market. Your job entails oversight of product quality and safety, ensuring that the manufactured goods meet or exceed industry standards. Your product line is highly innovative, but other companies are rising fast and challenging your share of the market.

And here’s your challenge:

Across your industry, a decrease in auditing has led a number of your competitors to compromise on product safety in order to get their goods to market faster and make a quick profit.

You are a loyal employee, and the one who could approve a similar safety compromise in your company. Doing so would keep your company on the competitive edge and likely increase its annual earnings. Who knows?  You might even get a raise!

What values do you consider as you make your decision?

Which level of ethical deliberation holds the superior value and finally determines your decision and justifies your action?

The first level of ethical reasoning doesn’t really use much reasoning in making a choice. It is called Self-interest, and its primary value is in the pleasure, satisfaction, or advantage it brings to ‘me’ – as quickly and risk-free as possible. As the one faced with this challenge, your interest is the only one that counts.adam-smith

Individuals who make choices and take action on the values of Self-interest typically assume that others are choosing and acting on the same basis. They believe that deepest-down people are looking out for themselves and their own interests. The economist-philosopher Adam Smith put forth the theory that market competition among self-interested actors serves to strengthen and improve the economy, by eliminating those who lack ambition or who produce goods and services of inferior quality or at too high a cost.

The next level of ethical deliberation broadens the scope of concern beyond self-interest alone, to include the local groups, teams, classes and organizations in which individuals are members. At this level you understand that social endeavors in which individuals must interact and somehow cooperate for common goals require a set of rules for everyone to follow. The primary value at this level is in the success I can have as a player, employee, member, or citizen in helping my team be its best.

We’re used to thinking of Game Rules as the codes for “right” and “wrong” behavior in the field of sports. Each sport has its own set of rules, and anyone who wants to compete and succeed in a given sport must follow the rules. By definition Game Rules are known as conventions – not absolute laws that apply across all of life, but guidelines and consequences invented for the purpose of defining what it means to win and how to play fair.thomas-hobbes

Game Rules can be found across the social landscape – not only in sports and leisure games, but in school, business, and civilian life as well. Your first exposure to Game Rules was likely in your family of origin where you learned how to behave yourself, wait your turn, do your part, and take only your share. Following the rules doesn’t always mean that you get your way. But overall, when your team succeeds, so do you. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that Game Rules, or what he called the Social Contract, are necessary in order to get self-interested individuals to cooperate and not destroy each other.

In addition to Self-interest and Game Rules as stages of ethical reasoning, a third level has to do with a standard of Moral Character. The primary value is in keeping my integrity and staying true to the person I want to be.

Integrity literally refers to the state of being whole, not falling to pieces or changing your values from one situation to the next, but remaining consistent in your Moral Character. A ‘character’ in story is a figure that may grow and develop as the narrative mlkprogresses, but whose core identity is consistent from one scene to the next.

In the same way, Moral Character holds to a standard of self-consistency – presumably as someone who is responsible, trustworthy, and committed to being a ‘good’ person. Understandably, this is also known as Virtue Ethics.

At this level, you are less concerned with how others view you than how you see yourself. In fact, an individual may refuse to play by the Game Rules because one or more rules violate moral values that he or she is committed to live by. An example from history is Martin Luther King, Jr., whose belief in racial equality and human rights motivated him to protest by civil disobedience the Game Rules of white privilege.

You have probably noticed how each higher level in ethical reasoning holds a larger context in mind. First it’s only you and your Self-interest. Next, you take into consideration the various groups, teams, and organizations you belong to, and the Game Rules that govern behavior inside them. With Moral Character the frame expanded still farther, to take in the longer view of your life and the responsible person you are aspiring to be.

So you may be thinking, Is it possible to expand the frame any farther? What else is there beyond me, the groups where I’m a jeremy-benthammember, and the moral core of who I am? One more level of ethical reasoning invites you to be mindful of everyone, anywhere, who could be impacted by your choices and actions. This concern over the ‘utility’ or usefulness of your action in producing consequences that matter is central to Jeremy Bentham’s ethical theory known as Utilitarianism.

At the level of Maximal Benefit, the primary value is in contributing to the health, happiness, and well-being of myself and all those affected by my actions. Me, but not only me. The groups, teams, and organizations I belong to, but more than these as well. An aspiration to stay true to my character as a moral being, but going beyond even that.

An ethic of Maximal Benefit takes into consideration the fact that nothing is really separate from anything else, and that what we call The Universe is essentially a complex system of relationships between and among countless individuals. Some of these individuals are like you, but a vast majority are very different from you. And yet you and they exist in a web of connections, actions, and consequences.

ethical-reasoningIn this diagram, the outer circle and lines projecting from the center are dashed and not solid, to signify an ever-outward expansion. If your action is thought of as a stone tossed into a pond, how far out does the outermost ripple go? If your choices and behaviors are affecting the larger system, what will the consequences be for other forms of life and the generations still to come? Really, how big is the ‘pond’ you live in?

Ethical development refers to your growing capacity for acting deliberately within an expanding horizon of values.

With ALL OF THAT in mind, what is the best thing to do in a given situation? What action will benefit the maximum number of stakeholders – all those who will be, are likely to be, or one day might be affected? That’s what is meant by Maximal Benefit.

Now let’s come back to the ethical challenge posed at the beginning:

Across your industry, a decrease in auditing has led a number of your competitors to compromise on product safety in order to get their goods to market faster and make a quick profit.

You are a loyal employee, and the one who could approve a similar safety compromise in your company. Doing so would keep your company on the competitive edge and likely increase its annual earnings. Who knows?  You might even get a raise!

What values do you consider as you make your decision?

Which level of ethical deliberation holds the superior value and finally determines your decision and justifies your action?

An ethic of Self-interest disregards any values that have no obvious and direct gain to you. Your decision will be determined by whether you feel that the personal payoff outweighs the risk of getting caught. If you can get away with it and there’s a chance for a pay-raise, then you will allow the safety compromise without much hesitation.

An ethic of Game Rules is most interested in rules and shared expectations governing your behavior. Your decision will be determined by a desire to play fair and help your team succeed. The dilemma is complicated by the fact that other companies competing with you in the bigger game called the Free Market are not playing by the rules. Even though safety standards have been in place for a while, perhaps the times are changing and your company needs to keep up.

An ethic of Moral Character strives to stay true to yourself by acting in a way that is consistent with your understanding of a ‘good person’. Your decision will be determined by this inner voice of conscience. One complication here has to do with the matter of whether one’s conscience is inherent to human nature or a product of social upbringing. To the degree that it is learned and reinforced by society, some individuals go into adult life without much of an inner moral compass.

An ethic of Maximal Benefit considers what effect your action is likely to have in the bigger picture and longer view of things. Your decision will be determined by a pursuit of greatest well-being. In the case of your decision over product safety standards, a possible salary raise, the competitive advantage of your company, and even whether or not a compromise would break your commitment to moral integrity are secondary to the bigger question of what consequences your decision might have farther out and later on for all concerned.

 

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Change Your Lens, Change Your World

phoropterMost of us have had the experience of getting our vision diagnosed by an optician. A fancy instrument, called a phoropter, is maneuvered in front of our face and positioned on the bridge of our nose. As the technician clicks various lenses over each eye and we try to read some letters or view a scene, we are asked to judge which of two clicks makes the picture more distinct. Eventually we arrive at the specific power of refraction that will compensate for the weakness and astigmatism of our unaided eyesight.

If we think of the phoropter as a metaphor for culture and the way it clicks various lenses between our minds and reality, we have a useful illustration of constructivism. The basic idea is that our minds do not merely look for and find meaning in reality, but instead they make meaning by constructing a model of reality and using this model as a frame for draping the stories, theories, judgments and expectations that constitute our personal worlds. I’m using ‘worlds’ in the plural because each of us manages a world unique to us (so we all have one), and we also progress through a variety of distinct worlds (or worldviews) over the course of our lifetime.

In a recent discussion with others in the wisdom circle I attend, we were reflecting on the different worlds of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States, and the profound differences between our Western world and the worlds of other cultures and nations. From the ancient Greeks we inherited our accent on the individual as a separate and irreducible center of identity, dignity, sentiment, and agency. Perhaps as an effect of the fact that the Greco-Roman culture overarched a wide region of numerous indigenous societies, the detached and self-standing individual became the locus of supreme value. After the ‘dark age’ of medieval Europe, this priority of the individual reasserted itself with the Renaissance ideal of the hero-artist.

lensesOther cultures, both ancient and contemporary, view reality through a different lens from that of Western individualism. Instead of looking at the collective through a preference for the individual, they define an individual through the lens of community. It’s not that the individual is unimportant; rather, the individual only makes sense as a function of the whole. Self-sacrifice on behalf of one’s community takes precedence over competition among individuals for self-advancement.

Not only might competition of this sort be discouraged in community-oriented cultures, such a mentality and behavior will likely be condemned, even punished by banishment from the group. A Western individual is apt to condemn this attitude in turn as both repressive and ignorant, since a community exists for the sake of individuals and not the other way around.

Not all Westerners are individualists, and we could surely find many individualists within the more community-oriented cultures of our day. The point is not to draw a geographical or even a cultural boundary between the two types, but to reflect for ourselves as to which lens holds priority for us. As we view reality and construct our worlds, which lens is in front of the other? Our first lens (the one in front) will automatically filter and qualify the other, as the core beliefs by which we construct our worlds and live our lives.

The answer is probably more complicated than my question leads us to think.

When the individual is before (i.e., in front of the lens of the) community, typically the rights of the individual will take precedence over his or her responsibilities to the community. In my recent post The Great American Divide I suggested that capitalism, as one of the seedbed traditions beneath the American world(view), is based on a philosophical preference for the individual over the community. According to this view, a community is essentially a collective of individuals seeking economic opportunities that will support and promote their personal ambitions. This is not to say that capitalism necessarily breeds selfishness in its devotees, but Adam Smith did affirm ‘rational self-interest’ as one of its driving forces (competition being the other).

A preference for the individual over community keeps the tether of moral values firmly staked to a concern for the benefits and risks to the self. If altruism plays any part, then it’s in the form of what the communitarian philosopher Philip Selznick calls ‘bounded altruism’ (The Moral Commonwealth, 1994). Here the outreach of individuals extends to familiars and fellow members, but not to strangers or outsiders. The reciprocal turnaround of value back to the individual needs to be fairly short in order to justify one’s investment, charity, or sacrifice on behalf of others. Generally speaking, commitments of this kind to strangers or outsiders do not bring reciprocal value to the benefactor – a liability for which American capitalism offers compensation in its provision of tax write-offs for donations.

On the other hand, when community is before (i.e., in front of the lens of) the individual, a responsibility to the greater good sets constraints around individual rights. This doesn’t mean that individuals can be arbitrarily stripped of property and freedoms whenever it serves the collective interest, which is how individualists often paint the problem. Granted, when the collective is really little more than an aggregate of individuals under the control of a dictator or special-interest bureaucracy, the individual – particularly those at the bottom or outside the circle of power – is, we might say, perfectly expendable. History has shown this time and again.

So obviously we need to be more careful in the way we define ‘community’. It is decidedly not merely a synonym for the collective, that essentially disconnected aggregate of individuals mentioned above. A community (literally “together as one”) represents a qualitative shift in consciousness where the self-other reciprocity and competition of capitalism is transcended (included and surpassed) in the experience of empathy, advocacy, and communion. The individual is not subtracted or subordinated, but rather honored and lifted into this higher consciousness of community life.

Again, in my post The Great American Divide I made a case that democracy, as the second seedbed tradition beneath our American worldview, is based on a philosophical preference for the community over the individual. For Jefferson and other framers of the US Constitution, this order of priority meant that individuals are not essentially competing units of self-interest; rather they are self-transcending agents in the synergy of ‘a more perfect union’. With its emphasis on our individual responsibilities to the community, this tradition of American liberal democracy insists that our rights as individual citizens are only defensible within a larger culture where individuals work together for the common good.

So what I earlier called the ‘great American divide’ turns out to be a fundamental dilemma posed to each of us. As we step into our creative authority, it is up to us to decide which of these lenses has priority to the other. Each commitment provides some counterbalance to the other, and in their tension is where we must construct a life of meaning.

 

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The Will of the People

The biggest problem for Republicans these days is that their 2016 presidential candidate is not a Republican. He is by name, of course; Donald Trump’s name is on the GOP ticket. But Trump apparently has little understanding of or regard for the principles of civility and decency, cooperation and respect, dialogue and compromise, ethical leadership and responsibility, temperance and self-sacrifice on behalf of ‘we the people’ – in other words, little understanding or regard for the foundations of liberal democracy.

As the circus approaches election day, even Republicans are offended and embarrassed, poised now to renounce their candidate in the interest of our nation’s future. How did he get this far? How was it possible that a dozen or so much more qualified contenders got pushed off the stage – a few of them viciously maligned and forced (or so it must have felt) into some mud-slinging of their own? A few reputations and political prospects were not only injured but maybe even permanently wrecked in the fray.

I have a theory.

In evolution there is a force at work that Darwin named ‘natural selection’, which has to do with the ongoing necessity of living things to maintain their ‘fitness’ in the interest of survival and reproduction. A later proponent of evolutionary biology, Herbert Spencer, coined this idea into the phrase “survival of the fittest,” referring not simply to the strongest and most aggressive individuals who can bully their rivals and out-compete for females, but to any organism that can successfully adapt to its environment and find a provident niche where it can thrive. By putting this requirement on living things, nature has raised a gradient against the likelihood that genetic mutations and individual deviance will survive and reproduce, unless it can win this struggle for fitness.

In economics there is another force, which the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith saw at work in free-market capitalism, where rational self-interest and competition in business conspire toward ‘the wealth of nations’. As individuals and industries compete with each other for market share, the cost value ratio of what they offer to consumers keeps the quality of their goods or services from slipping out of favor. This is another kind of selection, and fitness here allows a commercial enterprise to survive and maybe spawn a new generation of innovations. Smith wasn’t praising selfishness in business but rather an interest in building one’s own competitive edge in delivering genuine value.

And in politics there is yet another force, which in liberal democracy has been called ‘the will of the people’ or ‘the general will’. The idea here is that the collective effect of individuals voicing and voting for what they want is a clarified expression of what is best for the body politic. In representative government the people elect officials who carry the responsibility of defending and promoting the majority interest of their constituencies. Not everyone gets what they want, but a broad base of shared value is eventually established where the security, freedom, and each individual’s pursuit of happiness can (at least in theory) be protected.

Now over many decades the Republican Party has been steadily undergoing a transformation of character, from the republic-defending, ethically centered, and unifying efforts of Abraham Lincoln, to what we have in Donald Trump. (Just put those two individuals side-by-side in your mind for a moment and you should start to feel the twisting vortex of cognitive dissonance.) Along the way, the Grand Ole Party sidled up to various special interest groups, some endeavoring to forward a few constitutional rights that are more period-specific than they want to admit (like the right to bear arms against the encroachments of a hostile government), and others seeking to bind our nation to a religious orthodoxy that historically has condemned the advances of science, the liberalization of morality, the creative authority of individuals, and the rise of inclusive community.lincoln_trumpThere is a deep underground reservoir of repressed insecurity, resentment, and bigotry in our national unconscious, which has been kept below a thin threshold of civility – at various times not so successfully. As things progressed for liberal democracy, many of these inner demons made their way into legislation while others got projected onto whatever scapegoats we could find. Unfortunately this repressed shadow attached itself to the Republican Party, altering the platform from a philosophical avant-garde for individual freedom and social responsibility, to something just short (maybe) of institutionalized racism and bully politics. This is not Lincoln’s party, and it’s not what Americans aspire to be.

My theory is that this mysterious force called ‘the will of the people’ orchestrated the steady elimination of worthy GOP candidates and left us with this one very crass and blatantly bigoted contender for the presidency, for the purpose (not conscious, mind you) of pushing the Republican Party into extinction. If there is to be a resurrection at some point, Republicans will need to get their house in order.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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