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A Simple Path: Two Necessary and Sufficient Principles

Last updated on 2019-09-21

by Howard Richards

Life’s (humanity’s and the earth’s) bottleneck problems can be solved, I dare to suggest, by applying just two general principles.  The two can be regarded as principles of unbounded organization.   Unbounded organization is the name of a conversation, an academy and a movement (one of many, but not one that duplicates what the others do) devoted to making the impossible possible.  It was founded by the South African scholar and activist Gavin Andersson, based on his experience as a community organizer and as an anti-apartheid activist.  (See www.unboundedorganization.org)    Here I contribute to its conversation the proposal that implementing just two principles will make the impossible possible; namely, a pro-social attitude plus doing what works; or alternatively, a pro-social attitude plus structural understanding.             

Of course, if thus solving the world’s main problems with just two principles makes sense at all, then the two principles could be stated and practiced in many languages, conceived in many theoretical frameworks, etc.  A third principle might be:  There is no privileged language.  Whatever can be said can be said in many ways.  Further, if it is true and useful to boil down ethics to just two principles, it must also be true that the two ramify into innumerable practical norms, of which many or most are transient and local. And it does not stop being true –as H.L. Mencken said—that for every complicated problem there is a simple answer and it is wrong.

One of the thousands of ways to state the first of the two principles was pioneered by Chile’s nationalSanto, Saint Alberto Hurtado: having a pro-social (and pro-earth) attitude.(The days are past when a principle must be a sentence in the declarative or imperative mood.  Nowadays a principle can be an attitude.)  In an essay in social pedagogy addressed to educators and parents, this great twentieth century saint wrote, ‘A great principle well understood is the foundation of a moral doctrine and it will allow those who assimilate it to solve the difficulties that arise, or at least -if the problem is very complicated- it will form a state of mind in it that will prepare it to receive the solution; it will give them a spontaneous sympathy for the truth, a connaturality with the good that will dispose them to embrace it, create in them an attitude of soul that is much more important than science itself.

‘When this attitude exists, the discussion is greatly facilitated, the truth penetrates smoothly, the resistances soften or fall apart.

‘That is why before beginning to study the problems and before talking about reforms and achievements, it is necessary to create in the soul a social attitude, an attitude that is the vital assimilation of the great principle of fraternal love.’ 

Unpacking Hurtado’s principle, a little:  Any problem, including the bottleneck problems like global warming, homelessness, unemployment, racism, poverty and war, are likely to be solved if people and organizations align across sectors for the common good.    (This is Gavin Andersson’s original definition of unbounded organization.)  They will align for the sake of life(or as Erik Erikson puts it, for the sake of vitality) if all concerned really want to solve the problems.  If everybody on earth really, sincerely, with all their hearts and souls, with all their minds, with their lives their fortunes and their sacred honours, wanted to reverse climate change, then we would (I claim) be half way (but only half way) to reversing climate change.     Unpacking a little more: having a pro-social attitude is (as Hurtado held) part, indeed the most important part, of what it means to be well-educated. Aristotle elaborated on this point; A well-educated person finds pleasure in virtue; a badly-educated person finds pleasure in vice.

I would add (in company with many others):  a pro-social attitude is part of what it means to be mentally healthy.  A person with an anti-social attitude, or an indifferent person who does not care, is abnormal, i.e. sick. (Here the word abnormal is used in a standard medical way that has been carefully elaborated by Georges Canguilhem; I comment on Canguilhem’s concepts of health and normality in my article on moral and ethical realism in the current issue of the Journal of Critical Realism.)

Before going on to state the second principle –needed to get the rest of the way there– let me specify that it is impossible fully to apply the first principle and then go on to implement the second.  When being a good person leads to questioning the powers that be, social systems resist ethical enlightenment.   Upton Sinclair expressed one facet of its resistance when he wrote: ‘Nothing prevents a man from understanding more than his salary depending on not understanding.’   Although the educational pessimism of Bourdieu and Passeron is not (in my view) entirely right, it is not entirely wrong.  Pierre Bourdieu and Alphonse Passeron argued that every educational system is based on a principle that is not truly scientific but is an arbitraire cultureldesigned to preserve the pouvoir en place.   Dysfunctional systems reproduce themselves with dysfunctional educations.  They resist the changes at the levels of psychology, therapy, spirituality, religion, science, philosophy and education that –if they were implemented– would lead toward the adaptive social structures that –if they could be brought into existence— would solve the bottleneck problems.  Progress has to be stepwise.   Pro-social education is both cause and effect of social changes that move in the direction of taking homo sapiens off the endangered species list.

The other principle is do what works. Adding the second principle to the first makes my philosophy true by definition.  If we do what works, the problems are solved.  If the problems are not solved, then whatever we did, we did not do what works.  (I claim that the truth of this general idea survives adding the qualifications that would be needed to state it precisely.)  My philosophy can still be called trivial, or called an abstraction that is useless in the real world, but it cannot be called false.  

Let me give an example to show that (like the natural science definition that proves that an atom with four protons is carbon) do what works is an ethical philosophy truth-by-definition abstraction useful in the real world and is not trivial.  Consider a central point the American neoliberal economist Milton Friedman made in his 1976 Nobel Lecture.   The populist measures taken by left-leaning governments to achieve full employment and build a welfare state did not work.  Echoing his intellectual allies Karl Popper and Friedrich von Hayek, and also echoing innumerable editorials in the mainstream press, Friedman provided empirical evidence that their unintended consequences were inflation and unemployment.  

Innumerable editorials in the same vein have made ‘populist’ a pejorative term.   ‘Populist’ names politicians who are, or are alleged to be, irresponsible and less than honest.   To get votes they promise people things they want (like pensions and health care) when they know, or should know, that they cannot keep their promises.  If they are elected, their government will not be able to raise the money to pay for implementing their programme.  The editorials regularly conclude with lines like, ‘inevitably, it is the poor who will suffer the most.’ Similarly, detractors of Pope Francis have been known to call His Holiness ‘a populist Pope.’

Do what works is a right-wing principle.  When Margaret Thatcher opens her purse, takes out a copy of The Fatal Conceit by Friedrich von Hayek and proclaims ‘This is what we believe!’ she is saying:  We do what works.   Labour does what does not work.  History and logic prove it.

Treating do what works as a basic philosophical principle is a way to recommend do what works as acommon normative framework shared by right, left and centre.   It is a way to avoid what Lewis Coser called absolute conflict.  In absolute conflict conversation is useless.   The opposed parties cannot reason together because they start from incompatible premises.  An important example today is the land issue in South Africa.  A political party called the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) advocates nationalizing land owned by whites without compensation, and then letting it out on long term leases to farmers. (This system would somewhat resemble traditional African customs that regarded the land as belonging to the ancestors, and administered for the benefit of all by the Chief who would periodically redistribute working rights to the land among appropriate persons who would farm it.)  The EFF starts from the premise that the whites took the land from the blacks by force and they should give it back.  Today they live in poverty, unemployed or paid starvation wages in their own country that yesterday was stolen from them. The white farmers start from the premise that nobody now living is to blame for what their ancestors did hundreds of years ago (and what blacks did to other blacks in tribal wars before the whites arrived).  They themselves bought their land with their own money from willing sellers, and they worked hard all their lives to improve it to make it more productive.  And today, unlike 1648 when the Dutch began their conquest of South Africa, respect for property is a universal human right.  It is a right that was solemnly guaranteed in the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994.  Incompatible premises. Absolute conflict. Violence.

Do what works. For a realist, to make a pragmatic compromise is not to betray one’s ideals.  Pragmatic compromise is the ideal.  Remembering the sabbath and keeping it holy is an ideal, but if a child or an ox falls in a ditch on the sabbath, the higher ideal is compromise for the sake of what Saint Alberto called the great principle of fraternal love. (Luke 14;5) (The graduate student later to be a saint, Alberto Hurtado, argued in his doctoral thesis at Louvain University that the educational philosophy of the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey was compatible with Christian ethics and social teachings.)

But what if there is an ideal that should never be compromised, like do not torture.  (an ideal that is in fact routinely violated, and is no doubt being violated somewhere at this very moment as we speak).  Then my principle do what works is still true by definition because here by definition avoiding torture is a universal aim and therefore a criterion for distinguishing what works from what does not.  A law enforcement method that achieves its aims only by torture cannot properly be said to work, as a business plan cannot be properly be said to workif it generates profits at the cost of exploiting workers, deceiving consumers, poisoning the environment, evading taxes and cheating creditors.

Most importantly, taking doing what works as a common premise leads to (that is to say, using appropriate educational methods it can be a starting point that leads to) structural understanding.

To move solutions to humanity’s bottleneck problems out of the category of the impossible and into the category of the possible, structural understanding is the second most important educational outcome, second only to a pro-social attitude.  Let me give an example to illustrate why:

Another of humanity’s bottleneck problems is mass unemployment.   It can be lumped together with poorly paid, precarious and miserable employment.  Together they make joining the advancing juggernaut of the culture of drugs and gangs for many people young and old by far the more attractive option.  But the solution to this problem is not pleasing investors to ‘create jobs’ at all costs, come what may.   To make this point one can concede to Friedman that social democratic policies led to stagflation and therefore did not work; but then add that a system that fails to provide pensions, health care, clean air, a sustainable biosphere, and good employment does not work either.  The real solutions, the solutions that really work, must be ones that free humanity from the necessity to please investors at all costs, come what may.Structural solutions.

We can restate the second of the two principles as:  structural understanding.  Then do what works would be reframed as a privileged common normative framework.   It is privileged because it is a starting point that leads to structural understanding.  In Paulo Freire’s terms it is a bisagra, a hinge.   In Roy Bhaskar’s terms it is a transcendental argument:  it is a transcendental argument because it proves the necessity of an economy of solidarity starting from a premise that people who initially disagree with you accept.  Structural understanding makes it possible to see that solidarity really works, while individualism (what André Orléan calls séparation marchande and E.F. Schumacher called ‘institutionalized irresponsibility) at the end of the day does not work

An economy of solidarity (taken as a generic name for a loose coalition of many progressive tendencies today whose adherents would voluntarily accept the label) advocates an ethic, namely solidarity. Its ethics is neatly expressed by the founder of permaculture, Bill Mollison, as:  1. Love the land, 2. Love the people. 3.  Share the surplus.  Solidarity is similar to Austrian liberalism because its foundations are ethical; but different from Austrian liberalism (sometimes called libertarianism) because its ethical foundations are different.     Both realize that a social structure is, after all, an ethics.   Structure is about norms and roles, rules and rights.   For Austrian ultra-liberals like von Hayek and von Mises the heart of ethics and the heart of structure is the same heart.  It is found in contract rules and property rights.  

If we start from do what works we can have a conversation.  Instead of simply saying you see it your way, I see it mine, we can treat each other as persons of good will and look at the evidence together.  We can have what Linda Hartling calls a dignilogue, dialogue with dignity. (Linda Hartling is one of the psychologists –the other was Evelin Lindner—who founded Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, www.humiliationstudies.org)

Shortly before Milton Friedman argued that social democracy did not work because it tried to create full employment and a welfare state, Jurgen Habermas in The Legitimation Crisis gave different explanations of why social democracy does not work.  The modern state (he had in mind states at least somewhat similar to Germany, his own) is overburdened and overwhelmed.   It has to attract investment, which implies spending money on infrastructure, security, subsidies and education while keeping taxes on the investing class low.  It is pledged to make into realities the social human rights promised the masses during and after World War II, such as employment, housing, health, and pensions.  Its constitutional frame is one of limited government, defined by private law.  The bulk of society’s wealth is beyond the government’s reach, beyond its power to tax.  In modernity the market is the primary institution; the government is secondary.  Markets govern states more than states govern markets.   Making matters still worse, the system-world (the world of business and government) is dominating the life-world (the world of families and personal relationships).  But it is in the life-world where persons are formed. The former cannot function without the latter’s human values.  

Habermas is one of many to include in a bibliography of authors to read to learn structural understanding.  He helps his readers to see both why the world as it is is not the world as it has to be, and also why Friedman in his Nobel Lecture was telling the truth about the world at is.   Trying to create full employment and welfare for all within the constraints of the now-dominant structures, built on the now-dominant values, really is impossible.   Unbounded organization is a conversation, an academy and a movement devoted to making the impossible possible.   It has emerged from theory, but it has also emerged from practical experience, for example from community organizing in the town of Bokfontein that has made Bokfontein immune from waves of communal violence that have periodically swept over similar South African towns. That experience will be described in a forthcoming book from Dignity Press by me with the assistance of Gavin Andersson. Those seeking more detail on how general ideas like those above have practical applications might be interested in the two appendices to my older (2004) Understanding the Global Economy (with a Preface by Betty Reardon). It is available free in PDF on the Internet. One appendix is about ending war. The other (which has been published in Acorn, TheJournal of the Gandhi-King Society) is about ending poverty.

Mother Teresa titled her autobiography A Simple Path to make the point that anybody could do what she did.  I would suggest, similarly, that anybody can follow these two simple principles; PRACTICE A PRO-SOCIAL ATTITUDE and DO WHAT WORKS.

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