Five Foundations for a New Civilization
by John Cobb
Our civilization hastens to self-destruction. The deep changes needed to stop, or even to slow, this wholesale rush are not even on the table for discussion. We need to redefine our calling.
I do so by focusing on what may be constructed on the ruins of what is now collapsing around us. I will identify the basic assumptions of our dying civilization and then indicate the alternative that could give life to a new one. Any success we may have in promoting these positive assumptions will also moderate the disasters that lie ahead.
1. From Individualism to Community
One strength of modern European civilization was its emphasis on the individual. In most societies, including the Medieval one against which the Enlightenment reacted, the potential ability of all to become creative and self-determining individuals was encouraged, at best, only among the few. The Enlightenment gave vitality to the idea that every individual counted and had rights as well as duties.
Unfortunately, it also built separate individuality into its metaphysical assumptions. This led to
reflections about morality that ignored both the importance of belonging to something larger than oneself and the deep sense of mutuality that builds up healthy communities. The resultant individualistic ethical reflections were then institutionalized in economic thought and practice. Eventually they dominated political and social thought as well.
Ayn Rand’s libertarianism has become the authority for all too many leaders in American society. The rich and powerful no longer feel responsibility for the poor and weak. Ruthless exploitation is increasingly accepted as the norm. Selfish behavior has always been a problem, but it could be countered by appeals to concern for others and for the common good.
But in today’s society, these appeals are regarded as sentimental. It is thought that realistic and tough-minded people should pay no attention. Checks on Individualism are rapidly eroding just at a time when the survival of civilization depends on deep commitment to the common good.
Moral understanding reflects metaphysics. If we want a society in which the sense of belonging is strong, people are concerned for one another, and there is strong commitment to the common good, we need a metaphysics that shows that we are in fact part of larger societies and have no existence apart from our
relations to others. Our individual good is bound up with the common good.
2. From Sense-Bound Empiricism to Radical Empiricism
Associated with the view of each entity as a separate individual is the view that the individual’s knowledge of the external world is gained entirely through the sense organs. We call this empiricism. Given the fundamental metaphysical assumptions of modern European thought, it appears self-evident to many. Its adoption helped to overcome many superstitions and gave rigor to scientific development. When we appeal only to what we touch and see, we can usually agree. Scientific consensus is possible. Enormous progress has occurred.
However, the civilizational cost has been enormous. The Enlightenment originally took for granted that there is also a world of thought and subjective experience that is just as important as the “natural” one studied. Freeing science from distortions arising from subjective beliefs played, on the whole, a positive role.
Sadly, over the course of time modernity gave privileged status to the “objective” world and the methods by which it was studied. The tendency has been to absorb some of what was once the province of humanistic investigation into the “hard” sciences and dismiss what cannot be fitted into this expansion of science. The world of values was relegated to the margins or excluded altogether. The ideal for research, and then for education generally, was to be value free. That meant that there could be no judgment as to what should be studied other than what someone would pay for. And the purpose of gaining an education was basically to prepare oneself for a better paying job.
But civilization is based on judgments of importance and value. For example, a civilization must be concerned about the world it provides for its children. Today, many speak of the value of sustainability, but it still plays a very marginal role in our intellectual, political, and educational institutions. When we downplay other values, the default value is money.
Supported by this value, the rich and powerful orient themselves to their own economic flourishing and inform us that we cannot afford “sustainability.” So insane have we become!
The remedy is not to reject empiricism but to enlarge it. William James called for “radical empiricism.” When we change our metaphysics so as to recognize how our very being, our basic experience, is constituted by relations with others that are by no means dependent on sense data, we will be ready to understand that much else in our experience is just as useful in the quest for wisdom as what modernity has allowed us to consider. A healthy civilization can be built on radical empiricism. One built on sensationalist empiricism is doomed to destroy itself.
3. From We/They thinking to World Loyalty
While the thought-life of modernity has been shaped by extreme individualism, the actual life has been formed much more on the basis of the we/they divide. We are in fact social beings. For hundreds of thousands of years are ancestors lived in small groups that could survive only by strong social cohesion. Changing social structures partially shifted the understanding of “we”to larger groupings. Gender also plays a role universally. Later religion came to be an important factor in identifying the “we.” For modern Europeans, nations came to dominate the self-identification of most people.
Of course, the situation is more complex. Local communities, institutions or professions can be the basis of the we/they divide. Marxism focused on class, with the primary division between capitalists and workers. Today, the most important divide may be between the super-rich and the rest of us.
The Enlightenment also supported a we/they division between human beings and the rest of the world. One could appeal to its principles to develop a universalist humanism or a religion of humanity. Not long ago something that was called “scientific humanism” played a significant role in the intellectual community. However, this ideal had little effect when it became fully separate from the traditional faith that gave rise to it. The Enlightenment teachings in fact gave no reason to be concerned about strangers or people in other parts of the world. The modern empires had little hesitation to exploit the conquered. The deeper we/they feelings set the conquerors over against the conquered and provided little sense of their togetherness as a “we.”
That any we/they ordering of human concerns is inherently destructive is obvious. As technology draws humanity more and more together, we need more and more to identify ourselves in a more inclusive way. Whitehead speaks of the need for world loyalty. A new civilization must order itself and its teachings so as to hold the inevitable we-they distinctions in check, always emphasizing the larger whole to which both we and they belong.
4. From Anthropocentrism to Biophilia
There have been anthropocentric tendencies in most civilizations. But none has been as systematic in this regard as that of the modern West. The dualism of Descartes juxtaposes the human mind to everything else – even the human body. Animals are part of the world that is turned over to science for objective study. They are not supposed to have any subjectivity. Although Westerners, for the most part, do not really believe that animals have no subjectivity, our treatment of animals today, as we raise them for food, reflects this dominant theoretical position. Even those who call for avoiding the extinction of animal species typically provide only anthropocentric arguments.
Earlier I indicated the importance of reaffirming the marginal Enlightenment view of humanity as the crucial “we.” This certainly cuts in the right direction on many issues, but it does not touch this one. As long as
serious and influential thought remains completely anthropocentric, the likelihood of real restraint in wiping out other creatures is slight. This is true even when the consequences are obviously deleterious to us -- as in extreme overfishing of the oceans and damaging of its physical capacity to sustain marine life.
We need to expand the ideal of benevolence to all human beings to biophilia. Children have biophilic tendencies. These can be encouraged, whereas they are now taught to think of them as merely sentimental. A biophilic civilization can be a sustainable one.
My own judgment is that biophilia needs a further support. We need to understand life as a force present everywhere including in us. It is not only what makes us alive, but also what heals many of our sicknesses and injuries. Of course, doctors do much to free it to do its work. It is the same force that leads to more complex forms of life and finally to love and thought. It is a force with which we can seek to align ourselves. Whereas biophilia relates us well to particular living things, it is also important to devote ourselves to the service of this life force.
I call it “God,” and see it as playing a role even beyond the living world. But other labels are fine, if they draw forth the gratitude, love, and service of those who use them.
5. From Conventional Morality to Counter-Cultural Morality
Although in intellectual discourse, morality as a whole has lost its force, society depends on a measure of conventional behavior. Also, few parents really believe that right and wrong are completely meaningless ideas. Indeed, most children are brought up legalistically. There are things they are taught they must do, and others, they are taught they must avoid. In many instances these do’s and don’ts are associated with religion. Because sex is an area in which most parents feel the need to restrict their children’s behavior, many of these moral rules deal with that.
Many of the rules are good in the sense of promoting smooth functioning of the family and the larger society. But some create guilt of a useless and even damaging sort. The experience of discovering the arbitrariness of some of the rules of conduct learned in childhood is a major factor in anti-religious feeling as well as the widespread belief in the relativity of moral teaching.
The role of morality in Western civilization has markedly declined. But what there is, remains largely conventional, and conventional morality, among other things, supports the status quo, whatever that is. Today the status quo is a society committed to its own destruction.
Especially in our present society we need a countercultural morality. That requires taking very seriously our responsibility to live rightly and a strong sense that “right” is very different from “wrong.” But it requires an equally strong skepticism about rules that specify do’s and don’ts. It calls for a radically non-legalistic morality, one that places the well-being of the whole created order above any rules and regulations.
I have learned this from Jesus and Paul. I do not know of better, or even, equally good, teachers, but I know that one can learn much the same lesson in other traditions. I believe that a sustainable civilization will need to encourage the kind of ethical thinking that produced the countercultural reality of the pre-Constantinian church. That will be quite different from those later churches that called people to serve themselves and became the upholders of conventional morality.
Redefining our calling
As we redefine our collective calling, there is a place for the individual, for local communities, for science, for conventional morality, for religion, for joy. But our very capacities for becoming whole people are enriched by questioning the five assumptions named above, and as we explore alternatives, we can help bring new life to a dying civilization.
The need is to move beyond preoccupations with my calling to ourcalling as creatures among creatures on a small planet. Part of the problem of individualism in the modern world lies in the assumption that callings are always individualized. They can be collective, too. We may live in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, North America, or Oceania. We may be young or old or in-between. We begin where we can begin, with the only day we have today: today. With the courage to challenge modern ways of thinking, there is hope.