What is Good?

Moran-sunrise -KathrynMapesTurner Moran-Sunrise by Kathryn Mapes Turner

This is the question that was the basis for the only philosophy course I took in college. The course, Philosophy of Art, I had hoped would explore the artist impulse that people have to create. And to be able to define what distinguishes a good piece of art from one that isn't.

Unfortunately, the course was neither about art nor how to distinguish what is good. Instead, it was a course in semantics, of how one talks about art, and why art can't be defined.

It wasn't that the professor spent portion of every class denigrating people who had religious faith. It was rather that we talked around subjects, never about them, and therefore never reaching a point of understanding or resolution.

He would take a seemingly innocent or benign idea, like goodness, and through a process of analytical reductive reasoning show us how there is no true idea of goodness. This simple and effective tactic left most of us in the class scratching our heads about what the class was about rather than questioning what we believed about anything.

For probably ten years, I would occasionally dream about this professor. Dream about us debating in class, and me changing his mind. I don't think the professor was so clever to think that he'd make philsophers of us all by tearing down our belief systems. Rather, I think he was convinced that truth could be understood in the analysis of language. And yet, that truth was not true in a values or universal sense, but true to the use of the words in that context.

I think he was an intellectual nihilist, yet did not live that way. He believed in something, and for him it was his art and athletic endeavors. It was what he truly valued. And I'm convinced they gave him a social context of friendship through which universal values were evident in their interaction.

What I understand today is that my professor's approach to understanding could not produce a kind of understanding that is whole, but rather small and fragmented. 

As a kid, did you ever take a part a toy, and then try to put it back together, only to have some parts remaining? The toy is something whole. Something more than the sum of its parts. Language is something whole, more than grammar and patterns of word usage.  

Say the word tide, and it conjures up a range of images. But you don't know what I mean. If I add high or roll to it, two very different images come to mind. The words are parts. Sentences, paragraphs, essays, chapters, and books are wholes. Not necessarily complete wholes, but some whole none-the less.

Art Loeb - Pisgah trailsTo describe the whole of something, or to describe an object as good, is not to describe its parts, but something else. 

For example, this image is of a portion of a map of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. For many of you, it is just lines, shading, markers and names. You can tell it is a map, but it doesn't go much further than that.

The map can serve as a guide, an introduction, to what a person can find here on a visit.  Come this summer, you can visit the Fish Hatchery or swim in the cold waters at Sliding Rock or hike up to John's Rock. Each place is represented on the map. Each a place that has meaning for people who visit here.

For those of us who have spent time here, the map is much more. It is a visual connection point to memories and images of places, people, situations and experiences that we've had in locations noted on the map.

For example, just off the map image there is a place call Mt. Hardy.  Seen at the center of this picture.  Mt Hardy from Devils Courthouse 1 On the map, it is just a name of one of hundreds of peaks to climb. Yet, on a June night in 2003, it was a place of fascination and horror, as we watched lightning flash and strikes all around as a group of us camped.

The place on the map represents more than a name. It is something whole and complete, because we experienced it as more than a name on a map. It is a place that will forever stay with those of us who camped there that night.

When we say something is good, we are not trying to analyze its component parts to identify what makes it good. We are saying something about the whole of the object.

I'm convinced that human thought is rationalized emotion. We feel something, and our words provide us a way to connect with those deeper parts of our lives that we know exist, but have a hard to time expressing. We use things like maps and art to provide a connection between those parts of us that are only understandable as something whole and complete.

When we talk about what is good, we are talking about values that capture for us something whole and often times something that is greater than us. These connections, to me, represent the emergent reality that I wrote about here. We are not just our thoughts or just our emotions. We are not just a bank of talent or a fulfiller of tasks along an assembly line. We are whole beings who cannot be understood in any complete way by analytical reduction. Our wholeness rather is understood as unrealized potential within a particular setting. Wyoming When we look at a work of art, like this painting of Wyomng, that I found online many years ago, we can get really close and look at the technique of the artist, the picture fades and the brush strokes emerge. Then step back, and the picture takes on its wholeness again.

What is good about this painting can be described on many levels. There is the technique. The thematic material. The use of color and perspective. But all those are only parts of the picture. When they are all combined together, do they create a painting that we can say is good? Possibly, but it has a lot to do with the values that we bring to the experience.  And our values are products of our interaction with people in society.

I believe that our lives can be like this painting. Excellent in the execution of the brush strokes and use of color, but even more significant because of the picture itself. When we find wholeness in our life and work, we are more than the sum of activities that we do each day.  We become a work of art whose life and work is good. Create Goodness picture

When the Five Actions of Gratitude appeared in my mind one morning driving through northern Mississippi, this is the sort of thing I saw in the fifth action, Create Goodness.  A couple quotes from my Weekly Leader column.

The ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle taught his students that “every action and pursuit is considered to aim at some good….what is the highest of all practical goods? … It is happiness, say both ordinary and cultured people; and they identify happiness with living well or doing well.” By this he means that the actions born from our individual initiative, through our relationships, in our work and the daily course of our lives aim at goodness, defined as happiness or living or doing well in life and work. ...

Contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in describing Aristotle’s thought on this point wrote,  “ What then does the good for… (humanity) … turn out to be? … It is the state of being well and doing well in being well … . “ The word that Aristotle uses is eudaimonia (eu-day-mo-knee-a), traditionally translated as goodness. Its meaning is much more complex that simply as an adjective for describing a piece of pie or last Sunday’s football game. It touches on ideas related to fulfillment, human flourishing, happiness and completeness. The good person is one whose whole life is an integrated combination of thought, feeling, initiative, interaction, and action, resulting a good life or good work, or a better product, community or world.

What is Good?

It is a life that is complete and whole, fulfilled, meaningful and makes a difference that matters. The good life is a complete and happy life.  It is a life connected to others just as their lives are connected to ours. And when we find that completeness, our lives are like a painting that evokes values that create goodness and elevate the lives of others. We also become like a map which is a reference point, an example, of what is possible, and for those who know that we have become a reminder of what the experience of a complete life is like.

Trend Lines Going Forward

Lemhi Dawn 4 9-16-04

It is hard to believe that the first decade of the 21st century is now history. It has not been the decade that most of us expected. It has been filled with terror, war, economic disruption, political disappointment, natural disasters that showcased governmental inadequacies, and the emergence of social media as a force. In many respects, it was a decade where society did not move forward, and little prospects for broad scale improvement in the near future. 

Andy Crouch, an insightful cultural interpreter, has posted his assessment of the 10 tends that marked the first decade of the 2000's.

  1. Connection
  2. Place
  3. Cities
  4. The End of the Marjority
  5. Polarity
  6. The Self Shot
  7. Pornography
  8. Informality
  9. Liquidity
  10. Complexity

I'm in basic agreement with most of what Crouch offers here. However, it raises questions for me.

If these are trends, then where are they leading us? 

What is the line that extends from the past through the present to the future?

What should we do in response to these trends?

These trends are markers or sign-posts of changes that have been long in development.  I see these trends leading forward in the following ways.

Connection / Place / Cities / Pornography / The Self Shot

This trend line is complex because it is a mixture of several converging ones.

The need ...

for relationship,

for rootedness in a place,

for a place of openness, discovery and genuine diversity,

for intimacy, and,

for a real understanding of one's own identity.

All these are converging. Each of these trends have their problematic dimension though:

Of the shallowness of online connection

Of the disconnection of people from the physical places where they live and work

Of the economic viability of both rural and urban environments that fail to create an environment for human creativity

Of the failure of the institution of marriage to be a viable form of human intimacy for large numbers of people

Of a religious and political culture that offers narcissism rather than human community as a basis for human purpose.

The End of the Majority / Polarity / Informality / Liquidity / Complexity

This trend line is moving fast away from the social conventions and institutions of previous generations. The status of elite groups and institutions once secured by a culture of common perceptions and simple approaches is under going dramatic change. One-size-fits-all, works-for-all, and is available-to-all is no longer reflective of the way the world works, if it ever truly did.  Instead, complexity is the structure of society. As a result, no single or generic approach works. Instead many different approaches can be effective. The key here then is to understand how complexity impacts us on a daily basis.

Donald Norman writes in Living with Complexity,

"The keys to coping with complexity are to be found in two aspects of understanding. First is the design of the thing itself that determines its understanding. Does it have an underlying logic, a foundation that, once mastered, makes everything fall into place? Second is our own set of abilities and skills. Have we taken the time and effort to understanding and master the structure? Understandability and understanding: two critical keys to mastery."

Questions that I have.

What is the underlying logic that explains the meaning of these trends?

What is the "design (of the thing itself)" of the time we live?  

What is the historical movement that helps us to gain understanding of the past decade, the past generation, and what we may expect of the next decade and generation.

My conclusion is that we are in the midst of dramatic period of unprecedented change. In order to understand these trends, we need to understand the assumptions that have guided human history for the past several centuries.

For example, beginning in the 18th century a shift began that impacted virtually every country. It was the shift from aristocracy to democracy. What may not be readily evident in this shift is the continuity that was maintained throughout these great historic changes.

I wrote about this shift in my review of Lucino Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard. It is a picture of the change from the old aristocratic order to new world order of democratic progressivism. In that post, I include a long dialogue that the Prince of Sicily and the representative of the new modern, progressive government of Italy have. Here's a portion.

The Prince: I am a member of the old ruling class hopelessly linked to the past regime and tied to it by chains of decency, if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions.

What would the Senate do with an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who guide others? No, I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would get bitten off.

Chevalley: Would you seriously refuse to do all you can to alleviate the state of physical squalor and blind moral misery in which your own people lie?

The Prince: We are old, Chevalley. Very old. For more that 25 centuries, we have borne the weight of superb civilizations that have come from outside, never of our own creation, none we could call our own. For 2,500 years, we've been nothing but a colony. I'm not complaining. It's our fault. But we are worn out and exhausted.

Chevalley: But all that's over now. Sicily is no longer a conquered land, but a free member of a free state.

The Prince: Your intention is good, but it comes too late.

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, a long sleep - that is what Sicilians want. They will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even to bring them the most wonderful gifts. And between ourselves, I doubt whether the new kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage. Here, all expression, even the most violent, is a desire for oblivion. Our sensuality is a longing for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings are a longing for death. Our laziness, the penetrating sweetness of our sherbets, a longing for voluptuous immobility, that is ... death once again.

Chevalley: Prince, are you exaggerating? I myself have met Sicilians in Turin who seemed anything but asleep.

The Prince: I haven't explained myself well. I'm sorry. I said Sicilians. I should have said Sicily. This atmosphere, the violence of the landscape, the cruelty of the climate, the constant tension in everything -

Chevalley: Climate can be overcome, landscape improved, the memory of evil governments canceled. Surely the Sicilians want to improved.

The Prince: I don't deny that a few, once off the island, may wake up, but they must leave very young. By 20, it's too late. The crust has already formed. What you need, Chevalley, is a man who is good at blending his personal interests with vague public ideals.

The picture here is of the clash between the ideals of progressivism and the exhaustion of the old order. With the former there was a belief that the world's problems could be solved, and with the latter, a realization that even in the midst of change, there is not much that changes.

What we can see here is not the replacement of the aristocracy with a populist government, but rather the transfer of power from one kind of elitism to another. It is the elitism of modern democratic progressivism that is reaching the same point that the old order aristocrats reached two centuries ago. That exhaustion is the inadequacy of the ideas and values that inspired revolution to create a sustainable society in a highly complex context. Ultimately, what happens is the loss of the ideals themselves and the adoption of a formula that is designed to resist change and perpetuate the system.

This trend suggests other trends.

The end of institutions as a unifiying force in society.

Whether those institutions are political, religious, social or educational, they no longer command the loyalty or respect by people as they once did.  Instead, communities of causes have replaced them and is seen in Crouch's Polarity trend.

This emerging trend is really the mixture of several changes.

A shift from a global to a local perspective as locus of solution making.

The impracticality of one-size-fits-all approaches to solving social and econonic problems is reflected in the persistance of the recession in its many forms.  This a product of the growing complexity of society that responds better to small, local initiatives than those applied from a single source.

A shift from a national orientation to a relational one.

As I've written previously, online technology enables us to work with colleagues globally as if we are locally connected. National origin means less, and personal values mean more in this context of local collaboration on a global scale.

The emergence of belief as the common bond that unites people organizationally.

One doesn't have to look farther than the passionate advocacy of the environmental movement or the Tea Party movement to see how traditional institutions are being replaced my groups of people who form temporary communities to advocate for a cause. This puts institutional elites at a disadvantage as institutional integrity has been less about causes or beliefs and more about process and operational integrity.

These are some trends that I see, and see them as positive developments. However, there are aspects of these changes that I don't think are quite yet apparent, yet will bring a new level of disruptive change as they emerge.

Many of the governing assumptions of our time are based on social, political and economic philosophies that were born in the era of The Leopard. I'm convinced that the ideologies of capitalism, liberal progressivism and its socialist varient, and individualism will come to be replaced by new ideas that provide a way forward.  It is my impression that we think these are given, guiding assumptions of contemporary society. I'm not convinced that these philosophies represent the future, but the past. It is why I see the two political parties as regressive, rather than visionary.  As these ideologies lose their vitality and relevance, their advocates have become more divisive and defensive. In my opinion, this divisiveness is a sign of the fading viability of these social philosophies.

If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I'd wager that the future trends that we'll see emerging over the next few years are:

New organizational structures that are designed for shared responsibility and collaboration.

Values as the unifying force, not only in organizations, but in society.

New confederations of cities and organizations that circumvent the artificial constraints of state and national boundaries.

Lastly, what should leaders do to be prepared to adapt to these changes?

1. Develop the leadership capacity of everyone in your organization.

2. Build organizational community through an emphasis on and the operationalizing of the Connecting Ideas of the Circle of Impact - Purpose, Mission, Values, Vision and Impact.

3. Take time to develop an understanding of the logic of what is happening locally and globally. Test assumptions, and be positively self-critical. In other words, think for yourself by constantly seeking to develop your capacity to observe, think, assess and make judgments.

My wish for each of us in 2011 is that we find new strength of purpose, greater capacity for leadership, and an ability to make a difference that matters that changes our world for the better.  All the best to you in your leadership endeavors.

9/11 - Learning from the past


You may hear this said a lot today.

"Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." (George Santayana).

It would be also helpful to hear Paul Simon sing the words from his song The Boxer,

"Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

There are many lessons to be learned from the most costly terrorist attack ever on American soil. The question are we in a mindset to learn them?

In an excerpt from his new book, A Journey: My Political Life, former British Prime MinisterTony Blair states,

In short, we have become too apologetic, too feeble, too inhibited, too imbued with doubt and too lacking in mission. Our way of life, our values, the things that made us great, remain not simply as a testament to us as nations but as harbingers of human progress. They are not relics of a once powerful politics; they are the living spirit of the optimistic view of human history. All we need to do is to understand that they have to be reapplied to changing circumstances, not relinquished as redundant.

While we may find some comfort in his words, I'd say his perspective is not large enough.

The nations and culture of the West are products of long historical trends that are at a transition point.

One of those trends was the Enlightenment belief in rationalism, preeminently embedded in our belief in the progress that would come to humankind through Science. For many Science (large S) has become the replacement religion of intellectuals. It did not require a belief in any mystical being or in the aristocratic social and political structure of old Europe. As a philosophy, it was a ideology of revolution that turned upside down virtually every nation in the northern hemisphere.  In a very real sense, this belief in progress was a belief in the morality of science and progress. For as a replacement religion, it inevitably had to have a moral core to its purpose.

This belief in the absolute and ultimate fulfillment of human progress began to erode with the outbreak of World War I. There was an innocence about this belief in progress prior to the war. However, with it, innocence was lost, and irony as Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, was the result.

lrony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence.One reason the Great War was more ironic than any other was that its beginning was more innocent. "Never such innocence again," observes Philip Larkin, ...

Furthermore, the Great War, was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful "history" involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future. The shrewd recruiting poster depicting a worried father of the future being asked by his children, "Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?" assumes a future whose moral and social pressures are identical with those of the past. Today, when each day's experience seems notably ad hoc, no such appeal would shame the most stupid to the recruiting office. But the Great War took place in what was, compared with ours, a static world, where the values appeared stable and where the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honor meant. It was not until eleven years after the war that Hemingway could declare in A Farewell to Arms that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates,"  In the summer of 1914 no one would have understood what on earth he was talking about.

I see that the past decade, in a different way, has brought us back to the place Europe was in 1914. There is a loss of innocence, a loss of purpose, a loss of confidence and loss of knowing what we must do. We live in a time of irony and cynicism, of suspicion and warring factions, where all motives are suspect. We live in a time where words as abstractions that transcend time, giving us perspective and direction for the future, are lost in meaningless of the sales pitch.

As we remember those who died at the hands of terrorists on 9/11/2001, let us not fall into a belief that hope and meaning are lost. That the course of human history is downward toward the apocalypse. Rather, let us see that we are at a crossroads in history, not just the history of our nation, but the history of all humankind.  To see the long view is to see that there is a historical progression that leads to our time.

Let me end with a long quote from Peter Thiel's essay, The Optimistic Thought Experiment.Thiel is co-founder and former chairman and CEO of PayPal, Inc. In his essay addresses the same questions that have interested me over the past several months. He sees two ways forward.

In the long run, there are no good bets against globalization

And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.  - Luke 17:26–30

For the judeo-western inspiration, it is a mistake of the first magnitude to place too much value on the things of this world. Those who busy themselves with the meaningless ideologies of politics, or with the interminable drama of human soap operas, or with the limitless accumulation of wealth, are losing sight of the impending catastrophe that may unfold towards the end of history. The entire human order could unravel in a relentless escalation of violence — famine, disease, war, and death. The final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, even gives a name and a place: The Battle of Armageddon in the Middle East is the great conflagration that would end the world. Against this future, it is far better to save one ’s immortal soul and accumulate treasures in heaven, in the eternal City of God, than it is to amass a fleeting fortune in the transient and passing City of Man.

For the rationalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as for all those who consider themselves cosmopolitan today, this sort of hysterical talk about the end of the world was deemed to be the exclusive province of people who were either stupid or wicked or insane (although mostly just stupid). Scientific inculcation would replace religious indoctrination. Today, we no longer believe that Zeus will strike down errant humans with thunderbolts, and so we also can rest peacefully in the certain knowledge that there exists no god who will destroy the whole world.

And yet, if the truth were to be told, our slumber is not as peaceful as it once was. Beginning with the Great War in 1914, and accelerating after 1945, there has re-emerged an apocalyptic dimension to the modern world. In a strange way, however, this apocalyptic dimension has arisen from the very place that was meant to liberate us from antediluvian fears. This time around, in the year 2008, the end of the world is predicted by scientists and technologists. One can read about it every day in the New York Times, that voice of the rational and cosmopolitan Establishment. Will it be an environmental catastrophe like runaway global warming, or will it be murderous robots, Ebola viruses genetically recombined with smallpox, nanotech devices that dissolve the living world into a gray goo, or the spread of miniature nuclear bombs in terrorist briefcases?

Even if it is not yet possible for humans to destroy the whole world, on current trends it might just be a matter of time. The relentless proliferation of nuclear weapons remains the most obvious case in point. The United States became the first nuclear power in 1945; by the 1960s and through the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, five declared nuclear states (the U.S., the uk, France, the ussr, and China) maintained a semi-stable equilibrium (at least as recounted by the historians who know ex post that the Cold War remained cold); as of today, there are two more known nuclear states (India, Pakistan) and perhaps even more (Israel, North Korea). And what if there are 20 nuclear powers in 2020, or 50 nuclear powers in 2050, armed with Jupiter missiles that can rain down destruction on enemies everywhere? We suspect the answer to this question, for we know that there exists some point beyond which there is no stable equilibrium and where there will be a nuclear Armageddon. A scientific or mathematical calculus of the apocalypse has replaced the mystic vision of religious prophets. 1

On the surface, the world’s financial markets remain eerily complacent. For the most part, they remain firmly rooted in the nineteenth century, when the march of History and Progress were more optimistic and certain. Although it encounters perturbations and larger corrections, the climb of the Dow Jones continues on an inexorable north-easterly path.

The news and business sections seem to inhabit different worlds that coexist on the same planet but rarely intersect. 2 Most financial actors are content to rule their separate kingdom, and to refrain from unprofitable questions about the integrity of the larger whole. Those who ask too many questions are not given a serious hearing. Like the deranged orators in London ’s Hyde Park, the prognosticators of a financial doomsday have been wrong for too long. Consequently, they have been relegated to a marginal role, if for no other reason than that they have lost most of their money and have no significant capital left to invest in anything.

More generally, apocalyptic thinking appears to have no place in the world of money. For if the doomsday predictions are fulfilled and the world does come to an end, then all the money in the world — even if it be in the form of gold coins or pieces of silver, stored in a locked chest in the most remote corner of the planet — would prove of no value, because there would be nothing left to buy or sell. Apocalyptic investors will miss great opportunities if there is no apocalypse, but ultimately they will end up with nothing when the apocalypse arrives. Heads or tails, they lose.

In a narrow sense, it seems rational for investors to remain encamped at the altar of the efficient market — and just tend their own small gardens without wondering about the health of the world. A mutual fund manager might not benefit from reflecting about the danger of thermonuclear war, since in that future world there would be no mutual funds and no mutual fund managers left. Because it is not profitable to think about one ’s death, it is more useful to act as though one will live forever. 3

Such a narrowing of one’s horizon cannot, however, be the last word. After all, there exists some connection between the real world of events, on the one hand, and the virtual world of finance, on the other. For macro investors, it would be an abdication not to wrestle with the central question of our age: How should the risk of a comprehensive collapse of the world economic and political system factor into one ’s decisions?

From the point of view of an investor, one may define such a “secular apocalypse” as a world where capitalism fails. Therefore, the secular apocalypse would encompass not only catastrophic futures in which humanity completely self-destructs (most likely through a runaway technological disaster), but also include a range of other scenarios in which free markets cease to function, such as a series of wars and crises so disruptive as to drive the developed world towards fascism, anarchy, or both.

Since the direct approach to our central question leads to paradoxes, absurdities, or at best money-losing investment schemes, it might prove more profitable to explore the inverse as a thought experiment: What must happen for there to be no secular apocalypse — for what one might call the “optimistic” version of the future to unfold? And furthermore, which sectors will do well — surprisingly well, in fact — if the world more or less stays intact, even if there are some major bumps and dislocations along the way? Any investor who ignores the apocalyptic dimension of the modern world also will underestimate the strangeness of a twenty-first century in which there is no secular apocalypse . If one does not think about forest fires, then one does not fully understand the teleology of each tree — and one badly will undervalue those trees that are immune to all but the greatest of fires. Even in our time of troubled confusion, there exists a chance that some things will work out immeasurably better than most believe possible.

(Read the whole essay.)

The task before us is large because we are venturing into an unknown world where the past is not our greatest asset, but a distraction. We need to see history in its proper context, and learn new ways of being a global society. This is the conversation that we should have today. And I hope that you'll take some time with loved ones to reflect back nine years, and then ask the optimistic question, without doubt or guilt or recrimination, how could we make this different a decade from now. Then our remembrance of those lost will honor their lives, and not simply feel sorry for them and angry at their murderers.

May God give us all peace and wisdom on this day of remembrance.

Image: The Great War and Modern Memory: The Illustrated Edition, Paul Fussell

Is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Out of Date?

Megan McArdle of The Atlantic posted Finding What You Are Looking For, a column about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. She writes,

One of the things I find most wearying about writing about economics is the extent to which people attempt to hijack economics to "scientifically prove" that their value judgments about things like the proper size and role of government are 100% factually correct--as if there were some way to empirically validate the correct marginal tax rate for people making over $100,000 a year.  
But even when you're careful, it's distressingly easy to find what you expect. The result is a history of science developing models that used "scientific evidence" to bolster the social hierarchy of the day.  We think that phrenology and 19th century racialism are obviously preposterous--but they clearly weren't, because some very smart people believed them, and were not conscious that they were simply confirming their own prejudices.

McArdle points to a post by Keith Humphries criticizing Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a way to validate the social hierarchy of his day.   The Wikipedia entry on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs describes is research.

Maslow studied what he called exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, writing that "the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy." Maslow also studied the healthiest 1% of the college student population.

Is it too far a stretch to imagine that Maslow counted himself within this social cohort, or at least desired to be seen as one with them?  All this reminds me of reading a leading contemporary theologian's reconstruction of the life of Jesus. After reading it, I realized that what the author had done is projected his own personality and value system onto Jesus, so that they were virtually twins separated in time.

I am a product of a 20th social science / liberal arts education. I'm also fully aware that there is a world of difference between the laws of physics and the laws of economics or sociology. It was from this perspective that I posted to my Twitter feed that end up on my Facebook page the comment in reference to McArdle's post, "Partly why I'm a Maslow skeptic." and two friends who asked for my reasons.

Part of my response was,

It is the formulaic nature of it. I don't think it is a linear progression of steps. I don't think it is hierarchical. And even if it was, I don't believe the hierarchy is accurate. I don't think self-actualization is the peak of the pyramid. I see it as a mid-point, and that the social dimension should be higher. In essence, Maslow sets up a social philosophy that the individual is more important than society. It breeds a narcissistic view of life which is inherently unsustainable and socially divisive.

I agree with Humphries when he states,

Psychologists and social scientists generally still venture repeatedly today into the territory of human values and attempt to claim the ability to make objective judgments about which are the most healthy or scientifically validated. They don’t ever seem to learn that they are often just trying to rationalize cultural fashions: In the 1940s the “mentally healthy” person was one who respected tradition, but he morphed into the to-be-pitied “organization man” in the 1950s. Psychologists valorized divorce as the “mentally healthy choice” for those who were not “growing” in the 1970s, whereas today they tend to say that it’s better to stick it out and stop complaining so much. Maybe humility should go at the top of the pyramid of psychological development for psychologists. In a democracy, social scientists and health experts should not cast themselves as able to render objective judgments on how everyone else should live.

I have many friends and colleagues in the psychoanalytic profession who are far more humble and circumspect about what they tell their clients. They are responsible social scientists who are not trying to validate some social bias. They are genuinely caring individuals who, often out of their own healing experience, bring hope and healing to people who are in pain.

One of my real issues is the use of science - yes, I'm a believer in science - for ends that it is not designed to provide. It has become a tool for promoting all kinds of political and social ends that are not really based in science but in a pop philosophy of morality that needs scientific objectivity to prove its validity. 

Does this mean that every scientific statement is subjective or merely relative? No. It means that science cannot objectively prove that Bill Gates is a superior individual to a child with Aspergers. Those measures, like Maslow's, are values based, and as a result are essentially moral codes for determining who is in and who is out in a society.  Because they are values based, they are rooted in cultures that embed those values in norms and rituals.  If you step back an listen you will hear those norms spoken by people. Just turn on the TV news, and what you find are intelligent people doing the same thing that Maslow did, and which McArdle laments.

We need to be humble about our ability to be truly objective. We need to let science be a process of skepticism and discovering, not promotion and social validation. And we need to realize that the challenges of the future were not in view when Maslow created his system.

Twisdom: Twitter Wisdom - by @TomVMorris - a Leading Questions review

(Welcome to friends and followers of Tom Morris, our Poet Philosopher of Twisdomville)

Let the tweeting begin!


The morning: Right after the fog, clarity comes.

Before engagements, prior to the mix, a brief, full moment of calm.

Bird songs begin the soundtrack for this docu-drama of life. A distant rustle. A buzzing bee.

The morning: This morning, never to be again. Attend to it. Relish it. Use it well.

A crunch of toast, a spread of jam, a topping of nuts, and I just am.

“Everything on earth is subject to change.” The I Ching

Lemons to lemonade: When the place burned down where the band Deep Purple was about to record, they wrote the hit “Smoke on the Water.”

“The loftiest towers rise from the ground.” - Chinese proverb. We all start from where we are.

Just wrote on our economic and political crises, “Living in Plato’s Cave.” Plato and Aristotle nailed it for us.

A thought: One half of human nature got us into our current troubles. It will take the other half to get us out.

These are the first tweets of Tom Morris.

Last spring, in an off-hand comment, I commented to Tom that he should be Twittering. I thought it was a good outlet for his congenial approach to ancient wisdom that he shares daily with people through his books and presentations.  Little did I know that a Twitter phenomenon of Vesuvian proportions would erupt. 

Partial proof is found in the pages of this marvelous book by Tom called Twisdom: Twitter Wisdom. The tweets you see above are his first ones. What is missing are his thousands of responses to the ReTweets and messages that came in response to his sharing of himself.  Tom Morris on Twitter is a picture of the joyous philosopher at work in the garden of life. After knowing him for almost forty years, I can say that this is some of the best work he has ever done, because it is built on his own personal interaction with people. The Tom you see in Twisdom, is the Tom that many of us have known over the years.

When I first picked up Twisdom, and begin to read, I thought: "Tom's a poet. Who knew?"

This is ancient wisdom as the great philosophers of Greece and Rome would have written. Read Marcus Aurelius and you find short bursts of insight, written down in the midst of the crush of being Roman emperor. Read Plato and Aristotle, and you'll find philosophy for living, not the dry, boring, over-written tomes written for the academy and not for the common citizen.

What Tom has discovered is a virtual Lyceum, a place to practice his profession as philosopher where he can reach out through the tools of social media and touch the lives of thousands of followering Twitterers. This isn't just a curious incident, but rather the convergence of the ancient art of the imparting of wisdom and a communication vehicle perfectly suited for one another, and the right teacher to make it work.

A few questions for Tom:

1. Today, what are your Twitter numbers? How many are following you, and how many tweets have you done.

I started on Twitter with two followers. Thanks to you, it wasn't just one!  Now, having done nothing to gain followers except to try to do interesting tweets about life, I have over 5,600, and the number is growing each day. (And Tom is approaching 22,000 tweets as I write.)

2. How have you changed since you started Twittering?

I think using Twitter has made me a more focused thinker and a succinct communicator. I have come to value more than ever the ability to distill wisdom into a small nugget that can expand in the reader's mind as they mull it over. I can wake up in the morning and within a few minutes bring a little ancient wisdom or some modern insights into the lives of thousands of people, an opportunity I otherwise have had only by flying around the country and speaking in the larger meeting facilities and convention centers.

3. Has this impacted your business ventures? What are you doing now that you were not when you started?

Twitter has broadened my sense of business opportunity. For example, in connection with the new book, some accomplished Twitter friends started a Twisdom Store on Zazzle, with various of my tweets available on shoes, mugs, T Shirts, postage stamps, cards, and other items. This is something that literally might never have occurred to me.  

4. Where does this Twitter thing go? How can it grow to be more substantial in linking people together?

I think we'll be coming up with more and more ways to integrate Twitter and the Twitter community into larger communities and enterprises, for social good, personal growth, and business opportunities. I don't think anyone anticipated a year ago how big Twitter would become and how fast it would grow. Now, almost anything seems possible.

Twisdom is filled with "really good stuff." More importantly, it shows how a simple media tool like Twitter can be a vehicle for influence and impact. If you are not on Twitter, you should be, and even if it doesn't make sense to you, at least join up, and follow Tom.  It is the Twisdom way.

Here are three random samples to give you a further taste of this special book by Tom. 

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A Conversation about Constant Change - 3

Here is my response to Steven Devijver's questions (below) author of the free ebook, The Strategy of Constant Change

Q1: You’re this amazing guy with a really special view on leadership and human relationships. What’s your view then - with all this background - on the three human universals? I ask this because you’ve only just recently written on your blog about The Golden Rule. I would like to understand why you think these tree human universals are novel.

Steven, I'm not sure that these universals are novel. I think your identification of them is insightful. They are what I observe in my dealings with people. They want to be treated with respect, kindness and given the opportunity to grow. Yet, at the same time, as people, we make mistakes.

There are two aspects of this worth identifying. There are mistakes that come from a lack of knowledge or ability. These can be corrected by instruction and training. The other kind of mistakes are ones of character.  These are more serious because they are not so easily subject to being changed by training, but by disciplined action. If what I say sounds like Aristotle, you'd be correct. I believe of all the ancient philosophers, his perspective on how we are to live is the closest to what people raised within an institutional context need today.  The parallel insight is of the management philosophers (Say and Schumpeter, especially) of the past couple hundred years who described entrepreneurialism in similar ways. From Aristotle through to Peter Drucker, the virtuous, happy person is the one who acts and creates new things.

I see in your identification of these human universals an ancient truth that is emerging in discussions about organizations and institutions in our day. I point most specifically to my good friend Tom Morris who has been writing and speaking on the value of ancient wisdom in the context of modern corporate institutions for almost twenty years. His perspective informs much of my own.

To be human is to create, and this comes from action, from taking initiative to transform abstract ideas into concrete realities. I believe that this is why God made us, and is God's most indelible mark upon us.

Q2: You mention the human point-of-view on organizational change. How important are human beings and relationships in organizations according to you, and what else should we pay attention to to help organizations thrive?

What I wrote above is about the individual person. Every person, however, exists within a social context, or, rather, many social contexts. There is our family, our neighborhood, our associations whether they are religous, political, or interest based, and then, of course, our work context. What I find is that social organization leads in one direction without intentional human intervention. I find that most organizations grow towards minimizing ambiguity, resist change, exclude outside influence, and become uniform,closed systems of relationships that squeeze out human initiative in favor of social compliance. One of the unintended consequences of universal education is to remove human initiative in favor of comformity. We treat education as a management exercise where efficiency is valued over effectiveness. This is true in every institution that I have had contact with during my lifetime. I do not think that this is intentional, but rather a logical result of how we think.

We think like managers who do not own the work we do. We simply have organzed our lives around the performance of certain activities. Ask people what their purpose is, and rarely does it have anything to do with the work they perform. We think like managers instead of as leaders because we have been taught to work within an institutional environment. I heard yesterday that a million people have lost their jobs in the United States over the past year. Those businesses that lost those people are now more efficient, but are they more effective. Are they capable of taking advantage of opportunities that still exist? I don't think so. Now, imagine, all those million people starting new businesses. Imagine the creative energy that will be released into world as a result.

From my perspective, I see a need to reconceptualize not only what it means to live an authentic, happy, virtuous human life, but also what this means within a social and insititutional environment. As a result, I'm interested in the nature of human relationships. Let me give one example of what I see.

Over the past decade there has been an explosion in the level of social interaction that takes place on line. You and I met through our involvement in the Triiibes online social network. I see in the growth of social media an expression of the basic human need for companionship.  However, I don't see all this social interaction as necessarily their purpose. Instead, taking my lead from Aristotle, I believe that our human interaction should lead to collaborative human action. Through these social media tools, we should be forming relationships where we work together to achieve some impact. If all they are is a place to talk, they will not be sustainable. They will degenerate into a narrow clique built around a few strong, influential voices, and a circle of people who compliantly go along. It is a picture of all social institutions in microcosim.

What is the solution? I return to Aristotle and entrepreneurism. We must become virtuous people who act to create new ways of meeting needs and opportunities. My personal responsibility is to be a person that others can trust. This trust is built upon not only personal integrity, but openness, honesty, humility and the recognition that we each have a role to play within every social context. Sometimes it is to lead, others times to follow, some moments to give and others to receive.  It is from this philosophical perspective that was born my Johnny Bunko 7th lesson - Say Thanks, Every Day. Giving thanks in this perspective is an act of creative openness that affirms the connection that exists between us.

Q3: What’s your view of change is bad, and should be avoided?

I don't see change as either bad or good. I simply see it as the context of how we live. Every change has within it some good that can be identified. For example, suffering is a kind of change. We can view suffering as something to be avoided or we can see in it the opportunity to gain strength.  We have a choice in how we deal with change. We either see it as an opportunity or as an inconvenience. The choice we make determines whether we will find happiness.

We need to develop our capacity to adapt to change. Returning to Aristotle, I believe that this is what he writes about as becoming habituated to doing virtuous acts.

Okay, my next question for you.

Q. Why is it important for human beings to experience discovery? How can we do this on a daily basis? And how do businesses and organizations develop ways to discover?

Truth and Reason for Building a Trustworthy Business

Two items this morning point me to deeper thoughts about the place of character in business.

First, Dr. Ellen Weber's Top Ten Signs That Truth Guides Your Business.  Simple, straight-forward indicators of leadership character.

Second, a more philosophical, and on the surface seemingly less relevant to business leadership, commentary by Lee Harris- Socrates or Muhammad? - on Pope Benedict XVI's speech that Moslem extrememists took umbrage at. (HT: The Belmont Club)

Here's what I gain from these pieces. 

First, without reason we lack clarity about where we are, and the consequences of our decisions and actions.  Many times in talking with people about their organizations, I find that they don't really know why their are either succeeding or failing?  They don't know why they are in trouble, have problems or are in crisis.  Why is this?

What I have concluded is that these leaders have lost touch with the connection between their decisions and actions and the consequences of them.  Whether it is the overwhelming nature of change or the heavy demands and expectations that their work places on them, there is a disconnect that leads to confusion and a sense of alienation.  What follows is bad decision-making and the lack of effective follow-through.

Second, when we look reasonably at our businesses, we also take responsibility for the outcome of the business.  In essence, we seek to establish a truthful perspective.  A central part of this for leaders is to shoulder the burden of responsibility for the problems within the business and for their solution.  This is the point of The Arbinger Institute's fine little book Leadership and Self-Deception.  Maybe the most important book any leader should ever read. (Is that a strong enough endorsement?)  What this means is that we are not looking for someone else to blame for our poor performance. 

Third, by embracing a reason-derived truth in the spirit that Lee Harris and the Pope present, we have the opportunity to see beyond our momentary dilemmas to see where solution's path can lead.  We can become more flexible and adaptible to the flurry of changes that sweep in on us everyday.

Fourth, all of this comes back to the leader, his or her character, and their willingness to be rational by basing their assessments on truth.
  This means that truth is not something in the eye of the beholder. But something real and tangible.  When we retreat to a personalist standard of truth, then it opens the door for the kind of self-deception noted earlier.  By embracing truth as the ancients understood it , a business leader has the opportunity to develop the kind of open communication with constituents that Ellen points to in her blog.  This becomes the basis for trustworthiness.

Brain science and leadership

Read Strategy & Business article - The Neuroscience of Leadership.

Two quick reactions with more a more thoughtful response to come later.

1. I agree that Behaviorism and Humanism has failed.  They failed not because they were not based on brain science, but because its philsophy of human nature was not realistic.  It was an abstract notion applied to human beings.  It goes to show you that you can prove anything with a grant.

2. That the mental side of leadership and organizational behavior is important.  Here's a quote:

How, then, can leaders effectively change their own or other people’s behavior?

Start by leaving problem behaviors in the past; focus on identifying and creating new behaviors.

I clearly see this in my work.  Over time as I continued to conduct planning projects, I realized that I spent too much time trying to resolve old issues.  As a result, we'd just retilled old ground and didn't nourish the soil with new organic matter.  So, I now start with where they are today, and move to where they want to be tomorrow.  And the key to that is being absolutely clear about this. 

The deeper side of this is that focusing on the actions that I need to do now develops character.  It is experiential learning that creates strength.  Breakthroughs in perception come when you directly tie perception to action right now.  If you hold some vague idea about what you are about, then you probably have a difficult time understanding precisely what decision you must make or action to take that moves you forward.

I want to reflect on this some more, and will be back to say more.

Next day ... after rereading this article and reflecting on it overnight here are my take aways.

1.  The most important thing to understand about human personality is the role of freedom and choice. Most leadership and management philosophy over the past century has been focused on what I call the "herding cats" theory.  In essence, people can't be lead so they have to be forced to do what you want them to do.  Hence, autocratic leadership styles become the dominant paradigm of, in particular, corporate leadership philosophy.

If instead of leading by coercion and force, by the failed modernist philosophies of behaviorism and humanism - Yes, failed - you have to lead to inspire or nurture personal initiative.  Personal initiative is the free choice of the individual applied in a specific context for a particular purpose.  At the heart of leadership is this action of initiative.  It takes place in three areas, the arena of ideas through the development of vision statements, marketing approaches, clarification of standards and values.  purpose statements and a clear sense of identity.  The challenge for leaders is working in the arena of ideas and the arena of relationships whereby people desire to take initiative to adopt shared conceptions of the work they are called to do, and to do in communal, shared sense.  The third arena is that of organizational structure that provides the foundation and support for ideas and relationships.

What I see in this article is the affirmation that leaders need to relate to people in such a way that they exercise their own free choice to join in a collaborative effort to acheive a shared vision for impact.  If we view all participants as volunteers, then we begin to understand the nature of human freedom in the context of leadership and organizational development.

2.  Moving knowledge from the working memory to the basal ganglia is the process of learning and mastery of knowledge and skills. This is a core priniciple in the thought of Aristotle.  Excellence in life is a matter of habit, of mastery of a field of knowledge or work, and it appears that brain science affirms this essential truth of ancient wisdom.  If you want to understand more of this from Aristotle's perspecive, pick up a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics.

I now understand why I get intense headaches.  It is because pattern of living is built around inquisitiveness, curiosity, of exploration and learning.  What this suggests is that I need to get more exercise and rest that provide time for making connection between the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia.  Wow, how cool is that!!!

3.  The section about error messages is fascinating. It reminds me of what Dave Grossman's writes in his On Killing about how military and law enforcement officers in a fire fight can learn to manage their physical reactions.  What I learned from Dave is that by managing our heart rate through controlled breathing, that we keep blood flow to the brain from being constricted.  If fear constricts blood flow, then I suspect that our emotional reactions to "error messages" also constrict that blood flow making it more difficult to think clearly.

4.  "When people solve a problem themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline.  This phenomenon provides a scientific basis for some of the practice of leadership coaching. Rather than lecturing and providing solutions, effecive coaches ask pertinent questions and support their clients in working out solutions on their own." This is why this blog is called Leading Questions.  It may be all well and good for me to have an opinion and get the ego rush of sharing it.  But it is far more important to ask a question or tell a story that produces an insight that the other person arrives at on their own.  This is a profound insight on behalf to these scientists.  It is validated everyday in my work.  It is why I ask three times the number of questions than I do make declarative statements.  Leading people to make their own conclusions, their own choices, identify their own solutions is what leaders should be doing. And the best will be able to do in such a way that a more unified, more deeply committed group results.

5. Focus on solutions, not problems.  Help people own their choices.  Be clear, focused, action oriented, and the brain will respond appropriately.

6.  Let me also recommend you spend some time reading Ellen Weber's blog Brain-based Business.  She is working with this science daily to help businesses succeed.  I find many very interesting and incredible things to learn there.

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Go Big at GE

Some corporate annual reports are worth reading for more than the numbers.   I enjoy seeing how businesses articulate their mission and strategic aims to investors.  Often it is just so much yada, yada, yada. But GE's often is not.

Here's General Electric's annual report.   It is entitled "go BIG".

Open the report, and you find this statement.

"Even as the world seems to grow smaller, the challenges - and opportunities - of a global economy are bigger than ever.
And that's good news for GE.
In a more complex world, GE's size is an advantage.  GE dreams big ideas, tackles big problems and anticipates big growth now and in the years to come"

OK.  Good.  I'm for it.  Let's look deeper.

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