Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Twelve

The Ethic of “Self-Actualization”

The decline of faith and honour as motivating emotions only partially explains why so many people seem incapable of motivating themselves beyond despair in order to deal with environmental collapse. A decline in a previous emotion doesn't explain why nothing better has come along to replace it. We also need to understand the motivation that most people have used to fill the void left when these two older ideals disappeared. The best label that I can think of to describe this replacement is “self-actualization”.

The term itself is most strongly associated with Abraham Maslow (it seems there is some debate about the actual origin of the phrase.) In a nutshell, his overall psychological theory posited that human beings are motivated by what he called the “hierarchy of needs”. These are hierarchical in that one particular need needs to be met before the next one presents itself to the human being. Starving people will take great risks to get food. But once someone has enough food and water, their willingness to take risks declines dramatically. And until someone has a certain sense of security in their life, no one cares about what other people think of them. Finally, until someone feels a certain level of self-confidence about one's place in the commuity, no one is going to invest much effort in following their particular dream. In Maslow's view, therefore, “self-actualization” is the pinnacle of human achievement.

The meaning of self-actualization is encompassed in the title. The idea is that each individual (i.e. “self”) has a certain potential to achieve a variety of things. Once the lower-order essential needs of that individual have already been met, then a drive manifests itself to work on and realize this potential (i.e. “actualize”.) Maslow summed this up by saying “What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.” According to this theory, people who have achieved this goal, tend to manifest the following personality traits:

  • They tend to have a realistic appraisal of both themselves and the world around them.
  • They tend to be interested in solving the problems that they see in the world around them.
  • They tend to be spontaneous and can at times be unconventional in behaviour.
  • While capable of being gregarious, at times they embrace solitude as an opportunity to focus on developing their skills and potential.
  • Self-actualized people do not become jaded with the world. Instead they continue to experience a sense of wonder all through their life.
  • They also often experience what Maslow termed “peak experiences” of seemingly profound emotional importance.

Maslow's theory makes a lot of sense if you understand the time at which it was written. The Great Depression had ended, the Second World War had been won, and modern technology was promising limitless material wealth. For the first time absolute want was gone for the vast majority of people in Western nations. Secondly, the great totalitarian threat posed by the Axis dictatorships had been removed which meant that many people felt safe and secure for the first time in decades. Finally, the postwar growth of the welfare state and the spread of democracy to the whole of the “Western world” implied a great “leveling out” of the old class structures that had once placed the majority of citizens in a precarious social position (think, for example, of the great strides we have made in civil rights.) And indeed, during the 1960s it seemed that huge numbers of people were following the dictim of “What a man can be, he must be.”

I'm prepared to give Abraham Maslow the benefit of the doubt as to what exactly he intended with this theory. He was attempting to offer a descriptive definition of the sort of life that he thought the very best of humanity pursued. Unfortunately, this viewpoint inevitably morphed into a prescriptive ideal that was offered to individuals who were perplexed about how to live their lives. Probably the most famous prescriptive statement in this vein was by Joseph Campbell: “My general formula for my students is 'Follow your bliss.' Find where it is, and don't be afraid to follow it.”

Unfortunately, this ideal became debased to the popular “do your own thing”, which often ended-up being bastardized into not much more than simple ego gratification. And, if we think about the implications of what his theory says, the spread of this “dumbed-down” version shouldn't come as any great shock. First of all, the ideal of “self-actualization” makes no mention whatsoever of anything outside of the “self”. The traditional virtues of faith and honour were not inward directed towards the individual, but outwards directed to either God or society. To replace this outward focus, the most that Maslo could come up with to replace this was the concept of “peak experiences”.

“Peak experience” was the label that Maslow used to identify what had previously been described as a “religious” or “mystical” experience. It is very clear from his little book, Religion, Values and Peak Experiences, that he was consciously trying to come up with a way of describing the experiences of religious people in terms that excluded all reference to “God” or any other sort of supernatural reality. In effect, he was trying to pull out what he considered the “core” of spirituality from the incidental cultural and historical effluent (e.g. “religion”) that had built up around it.

This may or may not be a valid thing to do, but the practical result of his particular formulation (and all its subsequent popular incarnations) makes the entirety of the “peak” experience revolve around the ego of the individual experiencing it. This completely inverts the traditional relationship that exists between religious mystics and their conception of the Divine. If you read the literature of mysticism you will find time and again that mystics humble their ego to embrace the “God within”, “Buddha Mind”, “Brahman, “Dao” and so on. Ultimately this puts the religious mystic into the headspace where their prayers boil down to not much more than “Thy will be done, Lord”. Because Maslow decided to pull out all the---what he thought “extraneous”--- religious stuff out of mysticism, the casual reader cannot help but think that the only option left is to understand “Peak Experience” as being not much more than “My will be done.” As a result, mysticism ceases to be about shrinking the ego in order to embrace the universe and becomes instead a glorification of the ego.

This becomes obvious if you think about how one of the supreme virtues under the Maslow viewpoint, “spontaneity”, can very easily slide into being an out-and-out vice. As I have pointed out above, the ritual and routine of monastery and regiment have proved essential to inculcating the willingness of individuals to place the needs of the many before the desires of the individual. The ideal of spontaneity turns this totally on its head and suggests that it is a very bad thing to think of the greater good and the long-term instead of the here and now.

If the Benedictines had viewed spontaneity as an ultimate virtue, they would never have submitted to the routine of the monastery---which involved things like rising in the middle of the night to chant the divine service. It is also very hard to believe that they would have drained the swamps and built the abbeys that were necessary to tame the howling wilderness that Europe had become after the barbarian invasions. And if soldiers in the Allied armies of WWII had valued spontaneity very highly, it is doubtful if they would have submitted to the tyranny of drill seargants and “official regs”. And the end result of that would probably that we would all be currently living under some form of totalitarian nightmare.

It is understandable that a psychologist living in Maslow's time and place would suggest that spontaneity is a virtue and that the highest good is to “self actualize”. He was writing when the USA was going through a post WWII boom that had brought prosperity beyond the wildest dreams of any other human civilization. Moreover, he was addressing a population that had suffered regimentation and external discipline that was also unparalleled in human history. Millions of self-employed farmers had been forced to migrate to the cities and learn to follow the dictates of the clock and foreman on an assembly line. Moreover, because of conscription, almost all adult males had been forced to submit to military discipline while in the armed forces. Given the extreme regimentation of personal life in the 1940's, 1950's and early 1960's, it was almost inevitable that some sort of backlash would present itself. And once prosperity and peace took away the fear of poverty and invasion, people were ready to accept any notion that suggested that submitting to authority was not only annoying, but wrong.

But if an entire civilization gives itself over to “doing its own thing” it becomes fundamentally incapable of dealing with any sort of existential problem. I would argue that one of the reasons why our society seems incapable of dealing with the environment is because far too many people have bought into a watered-down and bastardized version of Maslow's philosophy of life. As a result, they think that any idea that they should “do without” and “suck it up” for the greater good is not so much unnecessary as it is existentially wrong or even immoral. The ordinary members of the public who are simply casting about for an excuse to do nothing can latch onto this ideal and use it to ignore any calls for sacrifice. And the people who are in a leadership position in the environmental cause refuse to use the language of morality, civic responsibility and self-sacrifice because they buy into the Maslovian “ur-philosophy” of the West to the point where they feel it would be “wrong” to use such language.

Of course anti-environmental politicians and religious groups have no such scruples. They routinely mobilize their followers using the language of morality and sacrifice. The fact that liberals refuse to engage in this sort of discussion reinforces their belief that the Left is a danger to society specifically because it is “amoral”. In their description, liberals are proponents of “situational ethics” who do not understand the difference between right and wrong. Unfortunately, these right wing people who do have an ethical bedrock have chosen a bizarre set of fundamental issues to ground it upon. Most seem to believe that denying the right of women to have an abortion is far more important than preventing wars that kill and maim innocents through “collateral damage”. Many also seem to believe that preventing the use of contraceptives is more important than preventing the spread of terrible diseases like AIDS. For almost all, the right to use private property trumps all attempts to deal with poverty and structural inequality, or any other calamity such as environmental collapse.

The ethical choices that the Right grounds its politics upon have convinced Liberals that it is fundamentally wrong-headed to even use the language of morality. This discredits appeals to morality of all sorts---which in turn reinforces their commitment to the Maslovian worldview.

Society seems to be stuck in the self-reinforcing situation that Yeats described all so well: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. People of good will who might get involved in saving the planet if there were any sort of leadership find themselves adrift, which leads to despair. And people of good will who might be able to be leaders in the fight for Mother Nature find themselves intellectually incapable of actually pursuing this goal in an effective manner because their commitment to the self actualization ethic makes it impossible to articulate the environmental crisis in terms of moral faith and/or patriotic duty.


Jim714 said...

Dear CWO:

Thank you for this thoughtful column. For thirty years I taught Buddhism in various capacities; as a monastic, as the Abbot of a Temple, as a Prison Chaplain, in courses as Junior Colleges. The one aspect of Buddhism which I found impossible for the students to absorb was renunciation. Any time renunciation was brought up (and you can’t really talk about Buddhism without discussing renunciation since renunciation is central to its world view) people would argue that renunciation is not necessary, or no longer necessary, or that it is misguided; that one can have everything one wants on a material level as well as spiritual attainment. In discussions I have had with other Buddhist teachers my experience has been affirmed, they also found it literally impossible to communicate the place renunciation holds in Buddhism. (One wit put it that Buddhism in the west is ‘the upper middle class way’.)

There is an illustrative parallel to this in contemporary Quakerism. If one reads the manuals of community practice from the early Quaker period, or some of the Journals, the early Quakers were highly committed to renunciation, to turning away from ‘worldly’ activities. The early manuals are called “Rules of Discipline”. Today these manuals are called “Faith and Practice” and the teaching of “Plainness” has morphed into a mild urging towards “Simplicity”.

For sure there are genuine practitioners in both of these traditions, but the trend is clear enough. Sacrifice and renunciation are a very hard sell in the west today.

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Always a pleasure to hear from you. I'm actually writing about North American Buddhism today in my book so I'm looking forward to comments from you when I post that part.

In a vein related directly to your comment, I had a conversation yesterday afternoon that left me extremely sad but for reasons I couldn't understand. The co-owner of my house wanted me to help her with a financial arrangement so she could buy a property as an investment and where should can retire to.

This conversation hit me like a fist and I spent all night wondering why I was so saddened by it. When I was reading your comment, it suddenly struck me was that what really bothered me was that I once saw this friend as a bit of a "kindred spirit", but as the years have gone by she has increasingly adopted that conventional attitude that you found when you were trying to teach Buddhist philosophy.

People are so profoundly materialistic in our society. They seek happiness in the things of the outside world instead of in their hearts. In retrospect, this friend of mine was going through a period of youthful idealism when we purchased our home and now she feels she is stuck with a worthless investment that she cannot disentangle herself from.

This isn't a particularly odd viewpoint. In fact, I think she is merely espousing the overwhelmingly convention attitude. But it was just another reminder of how profoundly "odd" I must seem to everyone else. (When I was young this didn't bother me very much, but as I age it seems to be a burden that I carry around.)

People sometimes remark that I am not really a "hermit" because I live in the city and have many friends. But experiences like last night point out to me how incredibly isolated I truly am.

Tell me Jim, do you sometimes feel the same way?

Jim714 said...

Dear CWO:

My apologies for taking so long to get back to you and respond to your question. I have been working two jobs until last week and this has constrained my online time (I was doing census work in addition to my regular full time job; so I was working maybe 70 hrs a week). But that's done now.

Yes, I do feel that way at times; actually fairly often. My closest friends have not the slightest inclination for simple living, let alone renunciation. Thomas Merton wrote about this (I think it was in "Contemplation in a World of Action"). He pointed out that in America, even among Catholics, monastics are considered to be fringe and odd. Why would one want to live such a severe life?

For me, simplicity and renunciation is about finding out what is important and not having my mind scattered in too many directions. There is an old expression, which I believe has a Taoist origin, "Things are thieves of time." And I have found that to be true; the more things I have the less time I have to engage in those things which truly nourish my soul.

Best wishes,