Saturday, February 04, 2006

How can we get better?

So my friend Mizuho sent me the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn a couple of years ago, but I didn't get around to reading it until a couple of weeks ago. It's interesting--definitely stirred up some thoughts in me. I was curious enough after reading Ishmael to get another of Quinn's books, Beyond Civilization. I've almost finished that one, and I guess now's as good a time as any to begin reflecting on some of his ideas, which maybe are pretty powerful. So...

I liked
Ishmael but I got kind of annoyed that Quinn was telling all his ideas through a dialog with a gorilla. I wanted to strip the whole gorilla teacher thing out and just get the ideas. Beyond Civilization which is just a bunch of short essays that have all the ideas and with no story concocted around them, which I like better.

I don't know if I am on the same wavelength with Quinn on everything (probably not), but I am real interested in his ideas about how moving things in the right direction doesn't involve sacrifice or cutting back so much as getting what we really want. It's just that our culture has put up all this stuff that we're supposed to want, and so rejecting it seems like a sacrifice, or some kind of pure altruistic act.

Here's some examples of what I mean:

For a while when I became a vegetarian, I was like "It's wrong to eat animals because they are treated bad, and it's bad for the environment, and the slaughterhouse workers work in dangerous and exploitive conditions..." and so on--a moral admonition against eating meat. So I could say to people, "You shouldn't eat meat because it is morally wrong for the following reasons..." which didn't go very far, as you might imagine.

People are conditioned by our culture that eating meat is the proper, civilized, decent, and essential thing to do. To not eat meat would be this major sacrifice--you would be denying yourself the accoutrements of an enviable and successful lifestyle. At first when I became a vegetarian I agreed with this -- that yes, you must sacrifice the accoutrements of the mainstream lifestyle because to accede to them is morally wrong.

Well, maybe that's right, but I didn't get much traction for transforming the world from that line of argument. And besides, I myself wasn't that much transformed, since I was still adhering to the mainstream idea that eating meat is the "natural" thing to do, and to not do so was "unnatural" but required in order to avoid moral or ethical contradiction.

I was relying on my own sense of "pure altruism," and hoping to stimulate this in others, to make an appeal for giving up something "natural" and making an act of personal sacrifice in effort to attain a higher common moral status.

Quinn seems to believe, and I agree in this case, that people have both selfish and altruistic tendencies. It's important that both of these aspects of "human nature" are recognized, in some sort of dialectical sense. Dualistic philosophies that take the side of one or the other tend to produce bad outcomes.

For example, the present dominant neoclassical form of economics (sometimes called "neo-liberalism") vastly overstresses the selfish side of humans, based upon a decontextualized and perverted reading of a few sentences out of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Neoclassical economics either denies that altruism exists or deprecates it by calling it a "market distortion," like in the case of taxes or tariffs intended to redistribute wealth to the poor or protect fledgling businesses.

Anyway, without too much of a digression into classical versus neoclassical economic theory, the point I want to make about dualistic philosophies of either pure altruism or pure individualistic selfism is that that they are failures. And if I expected people to become full altruists and sacrifice eating meat and accept the "hard life" of vegetarianism, then I would fail to recruit many (or any) fellow vegetarians.

Then I read some passages from Beyond Civilization in which Quinn stresses doing what you want to do. And I realized then that no, I am not this dietary saint, taking the moral high ground and refusing to eat animals even though I would be "better off" if I did--I actually don't want to eat meat! I just prefer not to!

I would rather get all my necessary calories and nutrition from plant-based foods, and from animal products that can be derived without killing the animal (e.g. eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese...). Now there is a whole constellation of reasons why I prefer this diet, including that it's better for the environment than a meat-based diet, and that I feel sympathy for the way animals are treated--so I buy free-range, cage free, organic, etc. animal-derived products--and so on. But the bottom line is, for a variety of reasons I am better off--not worse off--for not eating meat.

This may seem like a trivial shift in attitude on my part, but I wonder if it's actually a huge clue about identifying effective strategies for changing the world. The default mantra from our culture is that to be "sustainable" we have to "cut-back," "consume less," "stop driving," "give up" all sorts of things, "tighten our belts", etc. These things all sound bad--like we're giving up good things for some vague greater moral common good. Well, in today's hyper-individualized and selfism-stressing world (a la neoclassical econ.) these sentiments are roundly rejected. Proponents of these moral admonitions to sacrifice are generally ridiculed or ignored.

And why shouldn't they be? When has that tactic ever worked to get people to change? Why not ask the Catholic Church if it's admonitions against sexual congress really prevent people from "doing it"? Another point Quinn makes several times is "if it didn't work last year, or the year before, or the year before that...why expect it to work this year, or next year, or the year after that?"

So skinny hipster geeky environmentalists like me can wag our fingers at SUV drivers all we want--but, and let's be honest, is that really going to change anything? Probably not. In fact, almost definitely not.

You know what will change things though? People wanting to bike to work instead of driving the Hummer. People wanting not to eat meat, or to eat less of it. People wanting to work less and consume less and spend more time with their families and friends.

The epiphany is this: when you make a change away from mainstream culture, your life gets better, not worse. You are not giving up, sacrificing, cutting back, biting your lip while taking the moral high ground. You have stopped acceding to what mainstream culture tells you to want, and you are getting more of what you really want. This isn't pure altruism. It's not pure selfism either. It's a much more complex dialectical relationship between the two, where feelings of self-interest and feelings of other-interest commingle to produce a strategy that is better for the individual and better for the community simultaneously.

And this, I realized, provides the basis for a much more effective strategy for changing the world--helping people to see that these types of changes will make them better off, not worse off. No moral admonitions here. Just a facilitation of the awakening of peoples' knowledge of themselves and their preferences, and some helpful guidance and support for them to realize them. Helping people to change in a way that's in accordance with their values and that gives them more of what they really want sounds like a much more effective strategy for changing the world than admonishing people to stop doing destructive things that (they believe) they want to be doing.

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