The following piece is slated to be chapter 1 in the second volume of Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (itself based on an Internet-based talk radio show of the same name I did in times past). My interesting and notable partners in dialogue are Gary E. Kessler, Ph.D. and Mark Kingwell, Ph.D. Gary’s words are indicated by the initials GK, Mark’s are MK, and mine are JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. Enjoy this chapter entitled “A Close-Up of Culture.” It is also available as a podcast HERE.
“Cultural politics has been happily construed ‘not as something added to other more substantive domains, but as an arena where social, economic, and political values and meanings are created and contested.’ The frame of cultural politics permits us to ask more sweeping and interesting questions that have to do with the organization of society and its social institutions – of civilization itself. This necessarily concerns values, and values are not always formed by the best uses of human intelligence but often by our prejudices and by our scripted ways of seeing and organizing the world.” ~ David E. McClean
JM: I want to discuss culture, not just because it has an academic fascination, but because it’s relevant to the way we live our lives. Many people in America even hybridize cultures— a Mexican American, a white-collar and blue-collar mixed nuclear family, a gay adolescent. This obviously equals certain advantages as well as special disadvantages. I’m happy to welcome to guests who are well-qualified to speak on this issue. Gary Kessler has a Master’s degree in divinity and also a PhD in philosophy. He taught comparative religion and philosophy at the California State University, Bakersfield. He received his PhD from Columbia University. He was born in Wisconsin, obviously went to school and taught in New York and California, and now lives in Bellingham, Washington. I personally know his book,
First, Gary E. Kessler has a Master’s degree in divinity and also a PhD in philosophy. He taught comparative religion and philosophy at the California State University, Bakersfield. He received his PhD from Columbia University. He was born in Wisconsin, obviously went to school and taught in New York and California, and now lives in Bellingham, Washington. I personally know his book, Voices of Wisdom: a Multicultural Philosophy Reader; its Sixth Edition was published in 2006. He’s working on a book called the Dark Side of Religion.
I’m also pleased to welcome Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. He studied at Toronto, Edinburgh, and Yale – where he earned his PhD in 1991. He is held visiting posts at Cambridge, UC Berkeley, CUNY – places like this. He has won a number of awards and has written for many, many magazines and journals, and he has a number of books that I think are really quite apropos of the current conversation; for example, The World We Want as well as books entitled: Better Living and The Politics of Pluralism. That does not exhaust the list, but I think those are the ones I think contribute most mightily to this topic. Well, without further ado, I am happy to speak with Prof. Kingwell and Gary— Gary and I have spoken before and comfortable calling him Gary…
MK: Hi Jason, please call me Mark.
JM: Will do, thanks for coming on the show. I know both of you have an interest in culture— it’s pretty clear from the books that you’ve written and the things that you study. Any opening thoughts on what this idea of culture is? I know biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote:
“Environmentalists and hereditarians generally agree that almost all the differences between cultures is likely to be the product of history and environment. While individuals within a particular society vary greatly in behavioral genes, the differences mostly wash out statistically between societies. The culture of the Kalahari hunter-gatherers is very distinct from that of Parisians, but the differences are primarily a result of divergence in history and environment, and are not genetic in origin.”
MK: It’s interesting, since we are both philosophers, that there is this convergence because I find among my colleagues here that the critique of culture that I think is part of a larger political undertaking is not always accepted, so I’m constantly finding myself having to make the argument to other philosophers and especially other political philosophers that the critical appraisal of mass culture and media as one understanding of culture is an essential part of that larger project. There are a lot of cultures— there is no single American culture, certainly there is no global culture, but the idea that culture is the place where people find their narratives of direction and meaning, where they gather the material that they try to shape into their lives, to me this makes it a central site of critical investigation and indeed, of philosophy.
JM: Gary, are you familiar with this idea that philosophers are reluctant or something to take a look at culture in regard to how people philosophize and what values they develop and things like this— I’m sort of surprised to hear what Mark said.
GK: Well, I’m not surprised; clearly some are, especially when it comes to the study and criticism of mass culture or pop-culture. I think there is sometimes an idea among philosophers that is sort of a snobbery with respect to the word culture. I think culture is not really an entity out there impacting us; it’s kind of a shorthand word for talking about everything that people do or say. Human production and human creation – the sum total of that is culture. We talk about various kinds of culture by designating either a locale or a place in history such as 20th-century American culture or whatever it may be. But our values and our ethics, our philosophy of life and all of that are simply parts of culture and there is a kind of feedback loop that operates among the various kinds of parts. The reluctance on the part of philosophers to give serious consideration to culture is true of some, but of course, not true of all.
JM: I guess it was a surprise to me because the way that I study psychology in my undergraduate institution was about looking at people in regard to their social ecology, in other words, the systems in which they are embedded, and I guess it was just a foregone conclusion in my head that culture makes a massive impact. I would like to take one of these philosophers and asked them to go spend time in an underground crystal meth-using culture and see how they fit in and maybe that would impact their opinion about how important culture is to the way that a person thinks. Let me ask you, Mark, what impact do you think culture has on a person’s values?
MK: That’s a good question, and I do want to agree with Gary that what I mentioned off the top is not to condemn the entire profession of academic philosophy, though it’s guilty of many sins. There is room for this kind of critical study, and I like the way that he put it that in the Freudian sense, couture in the German is sometimes translated into English as “civilization,” which is a little bit misleading simply as he says “the sum total of the thoughts and actions and meetings that are created by humans together living in society. Given that, it is a central fact – or as I put it, “a site of meaning” – and again I think there is a complex feedback loop between an individual and their circumstances and their value-creation and their narrative construction; complex and often conflicted because one thing we have to constantly be on guard against or remark in current circumstances is the way that the desires that we feel are manipulated or distorted or fed back to us – usually at a mark-up – in order for some to take advantage of others. The idea of a “culture industry” in particular, as Adorno and Horkheimer analyze it, is a central fact of our current circumstances, and this gets in the way of the kind of narrative constructions or creations of identity which are central ethical tasks for each one of us.
JM: Ok, so that was just slightly difficult for me to follow…
MK: [laughs] yeah, I was to just teaching Freud this morning to a first-year class, so I’ve got this on the brain!
MK: I’m happy to unpack anything that didn’t make sense….
JM: Well, maybe I am defending against your explanation, you know, maybe! Let me ask you this follow-up question: is it possible to be in a culture and not have that culture make a massive impact on your values? I think of somebody like the participants in a traditional Japanese wedding and how structured that is with the protocol and the make-up and the secondary position. And then you think about a biker culture, or you envision the artsy culture in New York, and you think about how different all of those are, and I wonder if a person could exist in the culture they grew up in without that being the absolute substrate on which they build everything else…
MK: I myself wouldn’t say absolute substrate, but is it possible to exist in the absence of those kinds of circumstances? No. The interesting question, for me, ethically and politically is: what we do as individuals as we examine and test ourselves against expectations and narratives that are on offer in a given set of circumstances. So if you take contemporary, let’s call it “developed-world culture” – the mass culture of consumption— the choices that we make in respect to that are key ethical challenges for us as individuals. It seems to me one of the tasks of critical reflection, including philosophy, is to make sure that this is something that is “front of mind” for everyone, for it’s all too easy to simply reproduce the existing narrative given by the existing circumstances and not take up a critical position with respect to it.
GK: I certainly would agree with Mark; I think that culture is sort of like the water and which fish swim; it’s part of the environment; it’s there. And we start, apparently, from all the psychological studies that I’ve seen, living in that in a very, very early age. I think the key question, or an important one that philosophers want to ask is: At what point, and how, can we become critically reflective of our culture? Sort of like, asking the fish to jump out of the water and look at where it is been swimming; it’s not an easy thing for a lot of people to do. So I think that most people reflect and react to the culture that they live in without much intellectual reflection; they reflect it in the sense that a mirror reflects an image. At some point, I think we all need to take a look at the image before us and ask, “Is that really an image of value and importance and one that’s constructive for the future of humanity?”
JM: That’s a very good point— not only is it a challenge to figure out how we will relate to our culture, and once we have a conception of that, make a very rational and purposeful determination about how we wish to relate to our culture, because I think it’s one of the preconceptions that I have that just because you are from a particular culture, it does not make that culture’s ways your ways.
Maybe that’s me putting a little too much emphasis on the individual, but I noticed differences between myself and my culture, and I’m sure if I were raised in ancient Sparta I would noticed some of those differences, but on the other hand, some of those things it would have rubbed off on me and it would have been like me as a fish in the water and I wouldn’t have questioned the Spartan lifestyle that I was living.
I do want to reflect on the fact that Socrates, in ancient Athens, to the degree that I understand it, was very different than the culture in which he existed. I think he probably had influences from previous philosophers, but it’s my hope, or my belief, that there was something about him that was special and that he was able to challenge and critique his culture in a very incisive way. In fact, he was so effective at it that they asked him to leave or kill himself, and he chose to kill himself because he didn’t want to “sin against philosophy” because he felt that would denigrate his commitment to some of the ideas that he was living if he just all of a sudden dropped them and recanted; it’s as though he felt he would be betraying the ideals and values that he had if he renounced them and said “You’re right, I have been corrupting the youth and I deserve to be banished.” I’m happy that he didn’t do that, and I think it’s a shining example for all of us who find ourselves with some sort of “rub” in regard to the way we view our culture.
Here’s a quotation by M. Scott Peck. He’s a psychiatrist and also a religious person, a proponent of a deep kind of spiritual growth and love. He says, “It is only when one has taken the leap into the unknown of total selfhood, psychological independence, and unique individuality that one is free to proceed along still-higher paths of spiritual growth and free to manifest love in its greatest dimensions.”
So, cultural universals. The anthropologist George Murdock did some interesting work on a thing called the Human Relations Area files. Basically, he listed sixty-seven cultural universals for all of the hundreds of cultures (societies might be a better term) that American anthropological science had studied by 1945. I would certainly like to see if this has changed in the intervening half-decade. These, in other words, are the things (i.e., phenomena, traits, developments, characteristics) that mark every human society, presumably. Cannibalism and the legality of theft are, of course, not on the list because they are rare, taboo, and illegal. Many intuitive things are on this list, and some are on here which are a bit surprising. Obviously, things such as a nuclear family being the norm for child-rearing or looking one in the eye when conversing are not universal. Puberty customs is, but puberty is not (because puberty is a biological imperative and by definition, universal). It is interesting to think about the degree to which these are “genetic.” I tend to think, as would E. O. Wilson in his book, that if a thing is present in every single culture of homo sapiens, it is based in genetics, biology, chemistry, etc.
Note that values and virtues such as knowledge, courage, honor, and ingenuity are not apparently “societal universals” in this sense. Ethics is universal. The absence of values without which society would never take root (e.g., creativity or justice) is curious, bordering on vexing, but if I were more educated in anthropology, it might make better sense. When you hear someone say something like “Love is the most important thing” or “Greed is simply part of human nature,” think of this list! It’s intriguing to think of ethics as genetically-based and culturally-universal. Well, without further ado, they are:
Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, [the use of a] calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, and weaving.
Not wanting to publish a book without using this wonderful quotation, here is the perfect chance: “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has,” by Margaret Mead – no coincidence perhaps, a cultural anthropologist.
Let’s transition to looking at origins of culture. It has been posited or decreed ever since Plato (and definitely right on through the Thomas Aquinases and the Popes of the world) that values and ethics are “out there,” special, sacrosanct, ethereal, timeless, immutable, universal, God-given Forms (in Platonic parlance).
It is likelier that values, virtues, and ethical admonitions are not given from upon high, or sacred, but merely evolutionarily-defined, culturally-transmitted adaptive mechanisms that function to keep society moving ever-forward. This takes some of the gleam off special concepts such as truth and honor, but so be it. What’s true is true. Just because something is evolutionarily adaptive and naturally selected through hundreds of thousands or millions of years of humanity’s progress does not cheapen it. It may, in a way, ennoble it.
In this way, culture (and, the genes that act as counterpart in this humanistic and atheistic enterprise) are jointly and significantly responsible for the values and ethics that are some of humanity’s most prized possessions. As Wilson wrote in his compelling book about the integration of all science and art, Consilience:
“To translate is [the factual] into ought [the normative, prescribed behavior] makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts. They are very unlikely to be ethereal messages outside humanity awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind. They are more likely to be physical products of the brain and culture.”
A few pages prior (p. 270), he notes that:
“Religion is the ensemble of mythic narratives that explain the origin of a people, their destiny, and why they are obliged to subscribe to particular rituals and moral codes. Ethical and religious beliefs are created from the bottom up, from people to their culture. They do not come from the top down, from God or other nonmaterial sources to the people by way of culture (emphasis added).”
Wilson also wrote on page 163 of Consilience:
“The etiology of culture wends its way tortuously from the genes through the brain and senses to learning and social behavior. What we inherit are neurobiological traits that cause us to see the world in a particular way and to learn certain behaviors in preference to other behaviors.”
…Gary, your book Voices of Wisdom: a Multicultural Philosophy Reader is an astonishing look at wisdom, and I think probably, values from a perspective that takes culture into account but that in a way is kind of culture-free. Confucius is in their and obviously he is from ancient China, all the way up to more modern thinkers. Let me ask you two: is it true to say that, although culture exists, that there are ideas that… how do I say…. I am thinking about morality, and how, in my opinion, culture influences morality and so on, but yet there is this thing called “right” and also “wrong” that is kind of separate from culture. For example, I can look at a cannibalistic culture or a polygamist culture and make assessments about that – I think that it is right, or it is wrong. Can we let people throughout the world do things that are not right because of a cultural exploration for that? Does this make sense?
MK: It’s a very controversial issue, of course. Two thoughts spring to mind based on comments you’ve just made Jason, and previously as well. When we think about Socrates, and the challenge that he posed to his own circumstances, it seems to us in many ways like a radical break, but in fact, I think it’s better-read as a kind of expression of tensions and internal contradictions that were present in Athenian society already, and his insight and thinking becomes a flashpoint for the moves that are going to happen in that culture becoming more self-conscious and self-critical. So in that sense, anyone of us finds one’s self in circumstances where we have to consider the real options for us; you mentioned being a Spartan warrior or a samurai or something like this; these are not real options for the three of us on the line here, and presumably not for the people listening either. But there are real options; there are choices that need to be made and we can’t
So in that sense, anyone of us finds one’s self in circumstances where we have to consider the real options for us; you mentioned being a Spartan warrior or a samurai or something like this; these are not real options for the three of us on the line here, and presumably not for the people listening either. But there are real options; there are choices that need to be made and we can’t simply, if we are to be fully-responsible individuals, go along with merely reproducing the current circumstances
The other thing that I think is important to say along these lines of cultural relativism and cross ethical comparison is, we can come to certain kinds of political accommodations, but at a certain point, those political accommodations may well breakdown and we might have situations of genuine conflict which are unresolvable by rational means, and I don’t think that at that point that invocations of “right” to us very much good. But I’m a firm believer in Aristotelian naturalism— the idea that when we do these kinds of ethical comparisons take into account the idea of human flourishing and we can get past individual rules or particular moral codes and uncover that question and then we might be able to advance the dialogue that way.
JM: Gary, what do you think?
GK: Well, moral relativism and ethical relativism and rational relativism are of course big topics right now in the area of philosophy and very difficult problems to solve. There is no question that what we take to be rational and what we take to be moral at any given point in time is always to a certain extent local in the sense that we can’t “jump out of our historical hides” so to speak; we can’t be, as Mark put it, Greek warriors so there is a sense in which we are always swimming in the water even when we think we are getting out of the water to take a critical look at it. On the other hand, one of the important characteristics that I think of humans is a drive for a kind of
On the other hand, one of the important characteristics that I think of humans is a drive for a kind of self-transcendence; that is, a drive to live, if you will, the examined life as Socrates would put it— which is also a drive for self-transcendence – and while that will allow us to look back on certain values that we have held or certain choices that we’ve made and review them from a critical viewpoint perhaps change them, we can’t assume that doing that we have thereby made it to some, how should I put it – free-floating, transcendent, God’s-eye realm – in which we have discovered some sort of absolute truth for all time and all eternity and all places. You’re always embedded in something. The hope is, of course, that the perspective that you move to is a wider, broader, more tolerant if you will, compassionate perspective.
This is why I think it is terribly important – and I don’t think Americans are very good at this – for people to travel to other cultures, to learn other languages, to live in other cultures, and thereby see that things are in fact, different, and rather than reacting negatively to that difference, that they can see value in the difference. Whether or not that makes them then change is another question. But at least, they can see that there are different “goods” if you will, different right ways to live, and those differences enlarge our view of the world and hopefully our values.
JM: Mark, you referred to a fish in water; can you please describe this “water” in which the contemporary American finds him or herself; in other words, the characteristics of American values, American culture, American morality. If, let’s say, an alien said to you, “You’ve studied culture – what is this thing called ‘American culture’, what is the American mindset like?
MK: It’s interesting that you’re asking the Canadian to take that on! It’s an interesting truth that the very slight deflection from American culture that is the typical Canadian affords a unique perspective, and I have to say, I come from Manitoba, and that has an interesting effect on people when you realize that nobody’s keeping you there and that you’re allowed to leave! To answer your question, it’s very hard to establish valid generalizations, but there are certain kinds of things that I keep seeing myself as I try to sift through the materials of American culture. One of them is something that Tocqueville noticed a long time ago in Democracy in America, which is the persistence of contradiction or even hypocrisy if one is being pejorative within the American cultural scene. That is, at the same time that there is a great amount of excess there is also a great amount of Puritanism – so a lot of license and a lot of constraint.
For example, the television and film worlds are filled to a degree that would have astonished our parents with people wearing almost nothing and swearing and having sex on screen and so on, while at the same time many Americans are finding their main site meaning in religious communities and experience. So, from an outsider’s point of view – the anthropologist from Mars – would find American culture fascinating because it seems to be shot through with these kinds of contradictions. And they don’t seem to be intentioned so much as they seem to be mutually-reinforcing in some peculiar way.
JM: Gary, you’ve been looking at cultures in a comparative way and the wisdom of various cultural perspectives and also comparing religions to each other, what do you think about American culture?
GK: Well, I think all cultures contain contradictions, and is just a question of which contradictions are most evident in any particular culture at any particular time, and certainly I would agree with Mark that American culture has the contradictions that he talked about, and many more. And so does, from my limited perspective, Canadian culture. I live in Washington in the great Northwest, and everything is perfect here exhalation point! I don’t want to repeat myself, but the idea of living in Canada and looking back at the United States or living in France and looking back at America, that’s perspective can make you more aware of these contradictions and with knowledge comes a certain amount of freedom.
To stand back and see the contradiction between, say, a kind of selfish and self-centered consumerism and the ethical idea of altruism and compassion and helping others helps you make your choices about what you want to do there. Americans are amazed after 9/11 – why do they hate us?? Well, they can’t understand, for example, that in many parts of the world what Bush and America are doing now is seen as a terrorist act. Terrorism is something that other people do, it’s not something that we do. Whether or not you would agree with a critic that says well, America has been engaging in State terrorism and needs to take that into account, understand that and reflect then upon the choices that you make politically or in other ways; that’s an important growth process.
JM: Mark, about this aspect of American culture which is about consumerism and consumption and also the related idea that there are certain institutions have certain power over the typical American and I think a lot of Americans don’t probably realize the degree to which they have given up their power or never even had it, and the degree to which a just sort of go along with the culture without asking themselves searching questions. I think that’s contrasted with the idea that, with activism for example, you know activists say “We don’t think it’s right that you have this amount of power over us because you are our employer and we would like to have the ability to take a lunch, the ability to only work for eight hours in a row, things like this. Am I making sense?
MK: It’s a basic fact of the cultural circumstances and political circumstances of the developed world— consumption is at the center of many people’s lives. You know, I wrote a book about happiness some years ago and when I set out to write the book, I began from what I took to be an obvious fact that peoples conceptions of happiness were deeply embedded or tangled up in their material consumption patterns. That was true, of course, but what I found that was maybe less obvious was that the enduring unhappiness of being so entangled was actually of deep concern to many people but they had no tools, no theoretical apparatus, through which or by which to address that fundamental unhappiness.
And so they found themselves, as many of us do, in apparently perpetual cycles of desire, satisfaction, and dissatisfaction – but with very little capacity to reflect on the economies of desire which are facilitated or even created by things like advertising and large corporations and so on. So, we actually have to shift gears – and this is really an old, Marxist point – and instead of talking about consumption we should talk about the production of consumption. That is, the ever-renewed creation of the need to consume, the desire to consume, which covers over the emptiness that many people feel. I think that leveraging the emptiness and trying to find that sort of chink in somebody’s armor where they say “I’ve got everything and I’m still not happy.”
That’s an interesting philosophical move and I think in many ways that’s where the action is, that’s where you can get people to begin reflecting about their own personal circumstances and then very soon I think they see that there are social and political circumstances that are part of it. Instead of that ancient idea of the narrative that is the good citizen or the good person, they are unwittingly falling into the identity of the good consumer and yet, it’s leaving them hollow. So this is a moment where I think philosophy can actually intervene and change both the individual and the social circumstances.
One of the conundrums that a critic of culture is, of course, the things that people desire are often actually desirable. I mean, you don’t want to turn into one of these killjoys who denies the pleasures that are to be had from travel for driving a fast car or from owning a nice pair of shoes or whatever it is. People’s desires are not to be disdained; but I think once you acknowledge that, then I think you start looking at these structural issues and how desires are set up and sometimes set against itself. The strange truth or paradox of desire is – and this is something that Freudians failed to see because they thought that satisfaction of desire might be unsatisfying – but what they didn’t see was that the problem with the satisfaction of desire is that it is the death of the desire, and so it leaves us feeling this emptiness we need to fill in with something else, and hence the constant renewing quality of the cycle.
JM: Gary, as you hear this discussion, what do you have to say about fulfillment?
GK: Well, I think that consumerism and consumption is, as Mark seems to be saying, a kind of two-edged sword. By consuming we fulfill some of our desires, and by fulfilling some of our desires we make ourselves happy. But in consuming, we spend money, and the people that want us to spend more money— because they get rich off of that money— are going to find very sophisticated ways to manipulate our desires. It’s not just a car that we need, it’s a particular kind of vehicle that is large or sleek or whatever it may be. And in manipulating our desires so they can make money, we didn’t come into a kind of cycle that leads to never-ending emptiness as Mark pointed out. I’d like to slant that a little bit different way; it also leads to great overreaching in consumption.
To get back to American culture, one of the things Americans have to look at is the fact that we are not only a culture of consumers, we are a culture of over- consumers. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but Americans constitute something like 25% of the world’s population but consume, control, or use 80% of the world’s resources. Well, the more we use, the less there is for others, assuming we are talking about a finite resource like oil. That means you are going to get competition, and the person who can use or control it is going to is going to be part of the so-called “rich class,” and that inevitably produces resentment and in the in the poorer sections of the world. The vast majority of the world’s population of course is very, very poor compared to American culture – or Canadian culture, for that matter. So, I think that there is not only an individual emptiness that can arise out of being a card-carrying member of the consumer culture, but there are also political implications such as resentment and effects on other people that can lead to wars, terrorism, or violence.
JM: That’s pretty deep, I like that. Well, let’s transition to another question, again for you, Gary: in studying enough to create Voices of Wisdom, which is in its astonishing sixth edition, what can you say about what ancient cultures thought about what is wise and what values are good and how we can find fulfillment?
GK: That’s a big question, and a hard question to answer, because cultures are very complex and we tend to over-generalize, but there are clearly values that we can learn that we either don’t practice were used to practice but don’t anymore. For example, in ancient Japanese culture there is an aesthetic sensibility there— think of the tea ceremony— that certainly is of value to Americans who often lack aesthetic sensibility, perhaps most when they are buying cars! In ancient China, when Taoism was an important element in their culture, and this certainly parallels Native American culture, there was a kind of ecological awareness— the perspective that all things are interconnected and that you can’t just ignore many of the factors and assume you can just kind of go at your own. In traditional Africa, the importance of community and the importance of living in community. In ancient Greece, wisdom – philosophy means the pursuit of wisdom, the love of wisdom – which reminds us that wisdom is something that we really don’t possess, we don’t know the absolute truth (though we often act like it!), But we should live a life in pursuit of it. That is, we should always have a certain amount of humility and a recognition of our own fallibility because it’s a goal that’s out there, ever elusive, but pulling us on.
JM: Yes, I am very aware of my own fallibility! Can I get an opinion from each of you about what the future will be like for humanity? I should probably ask the question straightforwardly: are we going to get to continue to live on into the future, and if so, what would be a few of the hallmarks of future civilization, and if you had the power to make one little change to help us in the future, what change would you make?
MK: Well, clearly from our discussion, we would agree there are trends which can’t continue. It’s not even a case of “We don’t want them to continue” or “They ought not to continue” – they can’t. Certain resources are finite and the demand for those resources is not. It’s a very simple economic equation at a certain point. We don’t know, but we can easily predict, what will happen if we don’t find alternative energy sources to fossil fuels, for example. We are not going to be able to sustain the way of life that many of the richest members of the planet have become used to. I’m not a cataclysmic kind of thinker; my colleague here at the University of Toronto has written a great book called The Ingenuity Gap, which is about humans’ ability to adapt to changes in circumstance, but he predicts that at a certain point, even our remarkable ingenuity might not be equal to the task, so given our knowledge of this circumstance, we have to start thinking now much more clearly and aggressively in terms of sustainable future.
To my mind, it’s rooted in the very same norms of flourishing that I mentioned before which are at least as old as Aristotle and in fact older in other traditions, we have to live in a greater degree of harmony with each other and with our natural circumstances. One of the ways to motivate us, of course, is fear of the cataclysmic future, but a better way if we can do it is in terms of our duty to future generations. If there was one thing that I could create using a magic wand it would be a greater sense of obligation to future generations among members of the present one, because I think only if we think that way are we going to change some of the really dangerous and harmful trends that we are currently allowing to run riot.
That’s a great one, as I think about the debt that America currently has – twenty trillion in 2017 dollars – that’s a huge debt that you don’t, Mark, but I own $30,000 worth, and so does every other American, in addition to whatever they have on their credit card or in student loans. So we have to take a look at something like that. Obviously, global warming is obviously not a foe that we can easily dispatch; if you’re living on the coast, you’re not going to be living on the coast in a dozen or two dozen years. I think another thing you pointed out there, Mark, that was interesting is that the richest among us will also be suffering to the degree that we don’t get our house in order as humans. Obviously, a lot of us are suffering – I think about two-thirds of the world doesn’t have access to clean water, but the rest of us are going to be suffering too – in addition to the “moral suffering” that we are currently going through, if you will.
Gary, I’m afraid I have to apologize to you; I don’t have time to ask you for your final thought; but I would like to thank you both heartily for your participation. I’m really a fan of you two, after your joining me on today’s show and having participated in the book Living a Life of Value; I’m really happy to be aligned with you two in some way, and I appreciate the opportunity to ask you some questions.