Tim Jackson and the Quest for Post Growth

Ecological economist Tim Jackson is one of the few serious scholars trying to imagine what a post-growth world might look like. Over the past thirty years, this specialty – largely ignored by mainstream economics – has become ever-more relevant to contemporary life. It is becoming clear that growth is not the panacea for what afflicts modern societies.

In the 1990s, Jackson pioneered the idea of “preventative environmental management,” showing how preventing pollution in the first place could improve profits and quality of life. But his journey into post-growth thinking surged forward when he was appointed Economics Commissioner for the UK Sustainable Development Commission in 2004. Improbably, UK politicians wanted a professional, an indepth assessment of the idea of a no-growth economy.

The result – a controversial 2009 report to the UK government – was published as the book Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. (A substantially revised and rewritten edition was published in 2017). This book, now translated into 17 languages, examines the problems of growth and consumerism and the prospects for a new “ecological macro-economics” and a redefinition of prosperity. More is not always better; we need to focus on what helps us flourish as human beings and helps us lead a satisfying “good life.”

More than a decade later, Jackson’s thinking about this topic has evolved in some new and unexpected ways. He has just published a new book, Post Growth: Life After Capitalism (Polity Press), which doesn’t offer economic charts and policy proposals. It is, instead, a philosophical, cultural, and personal exploration of how we might pursue a vision of post-growth.

It’s a brave and radical departure for a serious economist to step back from the number-crunching and plunge into the world of culture, philosophy, storytelling, and the human quest for meaning. Jackson doesn’t consider this a self-indulgent diversion, but a critical task for economics as a discipline.

He shares his thoughts about post-growth in my latest podcast episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #16), just released.

Jackson is Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), which he founded in 2016. He is also Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey in the UK. 

While Jackson obviously remains committed to the challenges of economic analysis and policy, he has come to believe that we need to open up some new conversations, especially about our social relationships, ethical beliefs, and spirituality. It no longer makes sense to talk about “the economy” without engaging with these topics.

Jackson surprised me with the observation that capitalism and Buddhism “both start at the same place” – how to deal with suffering. Of course, he quickly added, each offers “almost diametrically opposed routes away from that. Capitalism says, ‘You can’t get away from suffering, you can’t get away from struggle. So you better get good at that struggle by becoming as competitive and individualistic as possible.’”

“Buddhism, by contrast, says that the way out of suffering is compassion. It’s about understanding that my suffering is what connects me to other people. Neglecting that suffering and turning away from it, is actually a neglect of my responsibility as a human being.” The only real solution to suffering, according to Buddhism, “is to work to reduce the cravings for the things that create the struggle” in the first place.

Jackson believes that economics needs to expand its own field of vision. So in Post Growth he invokes the work of such people as biologist Lynn Margulis, philosopher Hannah Arendt, poet Emily Dickinson and spiritual teachers like Lao Tzu and Thich Nhat Hanh. 

Jackson tells a particularly powerful but little-known story about the emotional breakdown of political philosopher John Stuart Mill, the founder of rational utilitarianism that is the philosophical foundation of classical economics.

Rational utilitarianism is built around the idea that the highest good comes from individuals maximizing their personal utility – a central idea of economics to this day. The discipline has the conceit that rationality, when rigorously applied to every aspect of life, will lead to human perfection and happiness.

As a young man, however, Mill had a monstrous epiphany in the middle of the night. He realized that even if his system of rationality became widely adopted, it would not make him happier or more satisfied as a human being. He fell into a depressive angst for two years and only began to recover “when he read the Romantic poets,” said Jackson. Mill “realized that there is a world outside of rationality – that there is a world that appeals to the emotional and aspires to the spiritual. Eventually, that’s what drew him out of his own crisis.”

It’s a nice parable for the psychic traumas of our time. Locked into so many totalizing systems of hyper-rational control – economics, algorithms, artificial intelligence – modern societies are experiencing their own breakdowns for which standard economics as constituted has little to offer. The enduring answers must come from outside the field. 

You can listen to my conversation with Tim Jackson here. 

 

 

 

Tim Jackson and the Quest for Post Growth

Ecological economist Tim Jackson is one of the few serious scholars trying to imagine what a post-growth world might look like. Over the past thirty years, this specialty – largely ignored by mainstream economics – has become ever-more relevant to contemporary life. It is becoming clear that growth is not the panacea for what afflicts modern societies.

In the 1990s, Jackson pioneered the idea of “preventative environmental management,” showing how preventing pollution in the first place could improve profits and quality of life. But his journey into post-growth thinking surged forward when he was appointed Economics Commissioner for the UK Sustainable Development Commission in 2004. Improbably, UK politicians wanted a professional, an indepth assessment of the idea of a no-growth economy.

The result – a controversial 2009 report to the UK government – was published as the book Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. (A substantially revised and rewritten edition was published in 2017). This book, now translated into 17 languages, examines the problems of growth and consumerism and the prospects for a new “ecological macro-economics” and a redefinition of prosperity. More is not always better; we need to focus on what helps us flourish as human beings and helps us lead a satisfying “good life.”

More than a decade later, Jackson’s thinking about this topic has evolved in some new and unexpected ways. He has just published a new book, Post Growth: Life After Capitalism (Polity Press), which doesn’t offer economic charts and policy proposals. It is, instead, a philosophical, cultural, and personal exploration of how we might pursue a vision of post-growth.

It’s a brave and radical departure for a serious economist to step back from the number-crunching and plunge into the world of culture, philosophy, storytelling, and the human quest for meaning. Jackson doesn’t consider this a self-indulgent diversion, but a critical task for economics as a discipline.

He shares his thoughts about post-growth in my latest podcast episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #16), just released.

Jackson is Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), which he founded in 2016. He is also Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey in the UK. 

While Jackson obviously remains committed to the challenges of economic analysis and policy, he has come to believe that we need to open up some new conversations, especially about our social relationships, ethical beliefs, and spirituality. It no longer makes sense to talk about “the economy” without engaging with these topics.

Jackson surprised me with the observation that capitalism and Buddhism “both start at the same place” – how to deal with suffering. Of course, he quickly added, each offers “almost diametrically opposed routes away from that. Capitalism says, ‘You can’t get away from suffering, you can’t get away from struggle. So you better get good at that struggle by becoming as competitive and individualistic as possible.’”

“Buddhism, by contrast, says that the way out of suffering is compassion. It’s about understanding that my suffering is what connects me to other people. Neglecting that suffering and turning away from it, is actually a neglect of my responsibility as a human being.” The only real solution to suffering, according to Buddhism, “is to work to reduce the cravings for the things that create the struggle” in the first place.

Jackson believes that economics needs to expand its own field of vision. So in Post Growth he invokes the work of such people as biologist Lynn Margulis, philosopher Hannah Arendt, poet Emily Dickinson and spiritual teachers like Lao Tzu and Thich Nhat Hanh. 

Jackson tells a particularly powerful but little-known story about the emotional breakdown of political philosopher John Stuart Mill, the founder of rational utilitarianism that is the philosophical foundation of classical economics.

Rational utilitarianism is built around the idea that the highest good comes from individuals maximizing their personal utility – a central idea of economics to this day. The discipline has the conceit that rationality, when rigorously applied to every aspect of life, will lead to human perfection and happiness.

As a young man, however, Mill had a monstrous epiphany in the middle of the night. He realized that even if his system of rationality became widely adopted, it would not make him happier or more satisfied as a human being. He fell into a depressive angst for two years and only began to recover “when he read the Romantic poets,” said Jackson. Mill “realized that there is a world outside of rationality – that there is a world that appeals to the emotional and aspires to the spiritual. Eventually, that’s what drew him out of his own crisis.”

It’s a nice parable for the psychic traumas of our time. Locked into so many totalizing systems of hyper-rational control – economics, algorithms, artificial intelligence – modern societies are experiencing their own breakdowns for which standard economics as constituted has little to offer. The enduring answers must come from outside the field. 

You can listen to my conversation with Tim Jackson here. 

 

 

 

Buddhism as philosophy

Let’s say that a religion consists of beliefs–and, often, practices–that many people consider deeply important and that unite them as a community.

By this definition (derived from Durkheim), communism and some forms of patriotism may be religions, but there is no such thing as a solitaire religion. For one thing, most believers value unity and belonging. In the Abrahamic faiths, professions of faith are singular (“I accept Jesus as my personal savior …”), and an adherent could prefer–or be forced–to worship alone. Nevertheless, the basis of an Abrahamic religion is a revelation made to a group of people who formed a community when they accepted the revealed truths. To believe is to join that community. In other traditions, it may make even less sense to be a solo believer.

Finally, many religions claim–to various degrees–to be comprehensive and final. They offer conclusive answers to all the most important questions. This feature helps them to unify their believers and to occupy a major portion of their adherents’ inner lives.

In contrast, let’s call a philosophy a list of beliefs–and the relations among them–that a person arrives at by reflection. One’s reflection need not be rational as opposed to emotional, but it is personal. Everyone can arrive at a different philosophy. If we are wise, we assume that the beliefs on our own list are provisional and incomplete. When we bring our ideas into a public space, we expect disagreement, which may sometimes cause us to adjust our ideas.

By these definitions, a specific belief may play an important role within one or more religions and also one or many philosophies. The belief has the same content but a different function.

Over its long history, Buddhism has been a philosophy for many and a religion for many more. Ideas attributed to the Buddha and his influential followers have served to define and unite believers and have been deeply interwoven with other aspects of the believers’ shared cultures, such as their art, music, and ritual. In that sense, we can talk about Tibetan Buddhism or Buddhist architecture–cultural categories.

Meanwhile, individuals from diverse backgrounds have sometimes assessed ideas from Buddhism and have adopted one or more of them into their own thinking, often in an eclectic fashion, without considering them complete or final, and without necessarily feeling any sense of belonging. The latter is Buddhism as philosophy.

The philosophical approach involves assessing each belief associated with Buddhism, asking whether it coheres with your own experience and your previous reflections and with the other ideas on the list of Buddhist beliefs. This process actually requires a prior step: deciding which ideas are important to Buddhism–a sensitive task, given the variety of views held over more than two millennia of development. The outcome is a list of zero or more ideas that you feel you should provisionally endorse, along with any the other ideas from any other sources that you also hold. For example, I would ask whether each Buddhist idea coheres with major findings of 21st century natural science.

By the way, there is some textual evidence that this is how the Buddha wanted to be received, although I don’t know whether that evidence is historically valid. In any case, I would start the philosophical analysis with the Four Noble Truths, which are fundamental across the whole tradition.

The first is the truth of suffering. It is not wrong to try to phrase this as a proposition, in which case some candidates might be: “Suffering is inevitable,” or “Suffering is universal,” or “Suffering is intrinsic to life.” You can also consider which propositions are incompatible with it, such as “Everything happens for a good reason and works out well in the end,” or “Only people who deserve to suffer ultimately experience suffering.” Buddhism rejects such claims.

But there is a good reason that the noble truths are not usually presented as propositions. To endorse the first noble truth is to feel the significance and ubiquity of suffering: not only one’s own but also everyone else’s. The truth is closely connected to the mental state of compassion. To endorse it is to be compassionate, and vice-versa. The philosophical question, then, is whether such universal compassion is virtuous and valid.

The second noble truth is the truth of the origin of suffering. Spelled out in propositional form, the origin is said to be craving, desire, or attachment (tanha). This is certainly a claim that one can reason about. Does desire inevitably yield suffering? If so, why? Is the reason metaphysical, or is it a feature of human psychology? What kind of emotion (or action?) qualifies as tanha? These are issues within Buddhist philosophy and worthy of inquiry. But, again, the second truth is not typically phrased as a proposition because it is equally important to try it out. Does it seem right that craving, or clinging, or some such emotional state is involved (often or always) in the suffering that one feels and observes?

The third truth is the truth of the cessation of suffering. Removing the cause, which is craving, will remove the suffering itself. This claim is philosophically contestable. Assuming that craving does cause suffering, are we confident that ceasing to crave will remedy the damage already done? Is a life without craving and without suffering a good life? Is it the best life? Again, I think these are questions within Buddhism, not critical of the tradition.

The fourth truth is the path to the cessation of suffering. In medical terms, we have already explored the condition (suffering), the diagnosis (craving), and the cure (ceasing to crave). We need a prescription to accomplish the cure. The prescription is a set of right actions and right thoughts, often spelled out in detail. The specific content is contested and has varied within the tradition, but we can identify some typical elements.

First, right action is moderate. It is the Buddha’s “middle way” between asceticism and self-indulgence. You can’t remove the cause of suffering either by rejecting all pleasurable experiences or by filling your stream of experience with pleasure. You are wiser to put temporary pleasures in their proper place within a life that is ordered and responsible and attainable by actual human beings. By filling your life with this kind of moderation, you occupy time that would otherwise be colonized by immoderate will, which would worsen suffering.

Second, right action helps other sentient beings but without ignoring the actor’s condition. In Owen Flanagan’s phrase, the ideal is “equanimity-in-community.” By being a helpful part of a community while also tending to one’s own mental equilibrium, one fills the time that would otherwise be occupied with indulgence or asceticism, which would worsen suffering. This balance between individual and community complements the moderation of the middle way.

Third, right thinking (and right action) must be consistent with the noble truths. To start with, the first truth implies–or actually is–compassion; therefore, good thought and action must be compassionate. The more mental space we occupy with compassion, the less will fill with craving. The desire that others escape suffering has the unique feature of not causing the desirer to suffer. And if we are truly compassionate, we must act in others’ benefit. Emotion and action come together.

Fourth, right thinking reflects correct metaphysics, which has at least two important features.

The doctrine of no-self holds that there is no autonomous, durable (let alone immortal) self, the kind of thing that might be labeled a “soul” in other traditions. Introspection identifies many specific thoughts and experiences that arrive in a rapid flow. It does not ever identify the self that “has” these experiences, because there is no such thing. Per the second noble truth, the impulse to find a self and to preserve it amid the flux is a form of craving that inevitably yields suffering. Really believing the doctrine of no-self helps to accomplish the cure promised in the fourth truth. Apart from anything else, it makes one much less concerned about oneself, thus leaving more space for compassion.

The doctrine of dependent origination holds that everything happens as the inevitable outcome of the conditions that were in place before it. This is very much like a core metaphysical assumption of modern science. It rejects the notion of a “final” cause (in Aristotle’s sense). Things do not happen because of some independent end or purpose. For instance, I may believe I am raising my hand in order to get attention, but the real cause is the firing of neurons, which happens because of prior neurons’ firing and other physical circumstances. A related doctrine is impermanence: everything inevitably changes.

We should believe in dependent origination and impermanence because they are true and also because they help us on the path from suffering. Believing in final causes–that things happen for good reasons–and in permanent objects of value causes frustration because we constantly observe bad outcomes and change. Instead, we should acknowledge that things just happen. That includes suffering, which arises because of prior conditions, but especially because of prior expressions of craving. Compassionate action interrupts that causal cycle.

What about two famous doctrines that seem much less compatible with modern science and with the moral experiences of modernity: reincarnation and karma?

One way to interpret these ideas would be as background assumptions from the cultural milieu of the Buddha and his South Asian followers. Other Indian traditions also teach karma and reincarnation. In the Mediterranean region, the comparable background assumptions were the survival of the soul after bodily death and the existence of an afterlife. We don’t find it especially interesting when an ancient Mediterranean thinker assumes that souls go to the underworld. We could likewise attribute karma and reincarnation to the cultural milieu and not take these ideas seriously as core ideas of Buddhism–much as we might dismiss the classical Buddhist list of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), which they shared with Mediterranean peoples. To be a Buddhist today does not imply belief in the four elements, and maybe it doesn’t imply karma and reincarnation.

A different response has the advantage of being more interesting. After all, the popular summaries of both karma and reincarnation contradict major points summarized earlier in this post. If there is no-self, how can the soul transmigrate to a different body after death? And if everything happens through dependent origination, why should good actions always yield benefits to the person who acts well? Why would the universe be set up so nicely?

Perhaps we should revise these doctrines to make them more compatible with the rest of Buddhist thought. In fact, the best any of us can do is to adopt the background material of a culture and revise it in the light of our own best thinking to create a framework that illuminates something about the reality of an existence that is too complex for human beings to grasp in full. In that spirit, let’s reconstruct what a believer in the four noble truths, no-self, and dependent origination would make of reincarnation and karma.

I think reincarnation becomes a doctrine of continuous rebirth. There is no self, just a stream of experiences. In that sense, the self is constantly being reincarnated. Furthermore, most of our experiences are not original to us. We feel things that others have felt before and that still others will feel after we are gone. Even the words we inwardly use to name these experiences belong to languages spoken before and after our time. Thus the components of our experience travel from organism to organism, and the process of rebirth outlasts the natural lives of individuals. This theory is but crudely expressed by the literal idea of reincarnation.

And I think karma gains an ethical gloss. It is not that some cosmic scorekeeper gives us positive points for good behavior and demerit points for bad behavior and calibrates our suffering accordingly (in our current and future lives). We are not literally paying the price for bad actions that we performed in past lives, for there is no self that carries over from yesterday to today, let alone from one death to another. Rather, there is a tendency for craving to cause suffering and for compassionate thoughts and acts to reduce it. Craving is like any other factor in a deterministic world of cause-and-effect: its influence tends to ripple out and affect other people. The best way to block it is to exercise compassion instead. Ideally, that will radiate out positively. In this sense, each of us experiences the total of the good and bad karma of many past lives. There is, however, no one-to-one correspondence between a specific past life and a specific current one.

If these glosses are correct, why are they not communicated more clearly and prominently, at the expense of the literal versions of karma and reincarnation? Here the “three vehicles” idea from Mahayana Buddhism is helpful. We can reduce suffering in several different ways, and any way that works is valuable. If it helps to believe that every bad action accrues to the actor and causes suffering later on–in the next life if not in this life–then that is a welcome result. One who believes this theory will strive to be compassionate and will thus tend to suffer less. However, this theory isn’t Really True. You might instead believe that everyone should be compassionate for its own sake even though the outcomes are uncontrollable and determined. This theory has the advantage of being more philosophically defensible, but it is not very inspiring–except for the wisest among us. So people need a choice of vehicles that they can ride on the path away from suffering.

None of this is meant to be original–it just represents my personal effort to explore some aspects of Buddhism as philosophy. If it has any value, it is as an example of a worthwhile exercise.

It is not final. I assent to several of the Buddhist theories because of my other experiences and my commitment to contemporary science, but experiences and scientific findings change. Also, I did not discuss in any detail my skepticism about some of the theories.

It is not comprehensive. What I have written here says nothing about political institutions or social justice, epistemology, or aesthetics. It is all about ethics and metaphysics (and incomplete on those topics). Of course, thinkers who identify as Buddhists have developed political, epistemological, and aesthetic ideas, but that doesn’t mean that their ideas are implied by the core tenets of Buddhism. If we treat Buddhist ideas as philosophical, we would expect any list to be incomplete and for specific ideas to appear in various philosophical structures that also draw on other sources. Comprehensiveness is impossible.

Finally, the result is not redemptive or salvific. The advice may be good, and you may tend to benefit if you follow it, but you will not be able to honor it completely enough to banish suffering. (It is said that the Buddha experienced headaches even after his enlightenment.) On the other hand, it is possible to envision a person who has followed these principles thoroughly enough to have overcome existential dread. That requires no suspension of the usual physical or metaphysical rules. It is a psychological accomplishment, and it offers as much consolation as one would derive from the news that there was a life after death.

See also: the grammar of the four Noble Truths; freedom of the will or freedom from the will? (comparing Harry Frankfurt and Buddhism); how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; scholasticism in global context; what secular people can get out of theology; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives); rebirth without metaphysics; is everyone religious?, three truths and a question about happiness; etc.

legislative capacity is not zero-sum

One way to think about the power of any legislature is the decisions it can make–for instance, to raise or lower taxes or to ban or legalize various things. Its power is almost always limited by other institutions, such as an executive or courts. And its power is finite, which means that the distribution of power within the body is zero-sum. If one party bloc makes a decision, the other parties do not. If the speaker, prime minister, or legislative leader gains influence, the rank-and-file loses power. If the committees are powerful, the whole body is weaker.

Given this model, it is puzzling why power sometimes centralizes within a legislature (as it has in the Massachusetts State House). Since each member has an equal vote, why would most members vote for leaders and rules that empower the leaders as opposed to the rank-and-file?

Perhaps the members of a large body face a classic coordination problem: they don’t really like the distribution of power but cannot organize themselves to challenge it. Perhaps they would rather have a strong leader than be walked over by the executive branch. Perhaps the party leadership obtains loyalty by influencing election outcomes. Or perhaps the average member is simply content without a lot of influence. There could be a vicious cycle, in which the kind of person who wants to influence legislation gets frustrated and leaves, and the remainder vote to empower the leadership.

The other way to think about this issue is in terms of capacity rather than power. A legislature does many things. It collects input from stakeholders, investigates the other branches of government and public problems, considers policy proposals, assimilates research, develops proposals, builds consensus within and beyond the body, amends and refines bills, and (finally) makes decisions by voting.

It can do more or less of this. At a minimum, it may barely scrape by, passing the laws that are constitutionally required, such as a budget (or may even fail to accomplish that). At the maximum, it can operate like the US Congress in 1965, which wrote, refined, and passed landmark bills to create Medicare and Medicaid (plus the NEH and NEA), enfranchise people of color, involve the federal government in K-12 and higher education, and open the US to mass immigration. Whether you like those laws or not, they represented much more lawmaking than usual. In fact, the year 1965 perhaps saw more federal lawmaking than has occurred during my entire lifetime, and I was born in 1967.

Power (in the sense of the first paragraph) is zero-sum. But capacity is not. Just because one group of legislators is working away on school reform does not mean that a different committee can’t be holding hearings on taxes.

Total legislative capacity can be expanded. That requires attracting talented and dedicated legislators. It may require a favorable climate beyond the legislature. It also requires nuts-and-bolts support. For example, legislators have more capacity if they have more staff, both in their own offices and shared by the body. In the Massachusetts legislature, the typical House member has one employee, which is not enough to do much legislative business.

Less capacity in the legislature can mean more power for the other branches, particularly the executive. That is a finding of Bolton & Thrower, “Legislative Capacity and Executive Unilateralism,” American Journal of Political Science, 60(3), (2016), pp. 649-663. However, it is also possible for an entire government to lose capacity.

Newt Gingrich cut congressional staff in Washington, especially the staff of the nonpartisan legislative-branch bureaus, which employ fewer than one third as many people as they did before 1990. This made sense for what he wanted to accomplish. If total capacity is smaller, it is easier for the leadership to control the body. (In that way, zero-sum power is related to capacity.) Besides, Gingrich’s legislative agenda was very simple–tax cuts, above all–and it didn’t require nearly as much capacity as center-left legislation would. Still, the result was a national legislature that cannot do much legislating of any kind.

There is an interesting wrinkle in the two graphs below, taken from Bolton & Thrower 2016. Congress was at its most active and ambitious while its staffing was rapidly rising, but not yet at its peak. The peak lagged a decade or so behind. That fits my general impression that the modern welfare state proved challenging to manage and sometimes overburdened our institutions–meaning all three branches of the federal government, states and localities, interest groups, and the press. After Congress enacted the major elements of the Great Society, it turned to managing those programs and gave that task serious attention for about fifteen years. Then conservatives tried to cut the programs (consistent with their principles and their mandate) but also cut the capacity to manage them without actually abolishing them. The result has been successively worse implementation.

From Bolton, A., & Thrower, S. (2016). Legislative Capacity and Executive Unilateralism. American Journal of Political Science, 60(3), 649-663.

Today’s Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recognizes the problem. They call for increasing the capacity of Congress, “increas[ing] the funds allocated to each Member office for staff,” raising staff pay, and hiring “bipartisan [committee[ staff approved by both the Chair and Ranking Member to promote strong institutional knowledge [and] evidence-based policy making.”

This is an important agenda, and we need similar changes in Massachusetts.

See also: an agenda for political reform in Massachusetts; a different explanation of dispiriting political news coverage and debate; civic renewal in a state legislature; etc.

“you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”

One should accept the advice of those who are able to direct others, who offer unsolicited aid. One should be the pupil of everyone all the time.

– Shantideva, The Bodhicaryavatara 5:74, translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (ca. 700 CE)

The fifth book of this major work is devoted to “The Guarding of Awareness.” Here Shantideva offers many precepts, of which this is just one. For instance, in the previous verse, he recommends moving quietly: like a crane, a cat, or a thief.

No one could fully follow all these instructions all the time. That is a problem of which Shantideva is fully aware. Chapter 4, “Vigilance Regarding the Awakening Mind,” addresses the inevitable backsliding that comes after an oath to attain Buddhahood. “Swinging back and forth like this in a cyclic existence, now under the sway of errors, now under the sway of the Awakening Mind, it takes a long time to gain ground” (4:11). The best we can do is try. “If I make no effort today I shall sink to lower and lower levels (4:12).

Therefore, the question is not whether it is possible to be the pupil of everyone all the time (it is not), but whether that is a valid aspiration. It isn’t obviously so. After all, many people communicate false and even wicked ideas. Why listen to them? We are also very repetitious. I offer virtually nothing that hasn’t already been said better by others. Why should everyone be my pupil; and I, theirs? And if we are always listening to everyone, when are we acting to improve the world?

The first quoted sentence recommends taking advice from “those who are able to direct others”–presumably those who have something valuable to offer. It doesn’t imply the striking second sentence, which tells us always to be learning from everyone. Why?

Maybe it is hyperbole: an exaggerated reminder to be more open to other people (and other animals) than we would otherwise tend to be, but not a rule that the wise would apply literally.

Or maybe it connects to Shantideva’s core recommendation: compassion for all. The argument would go: Each of us knows the most about our own situation and context. We each have a world of our own, which is a portion of the whole world viewed from our particular spot. The best life is a life of compassion for all those individuals. To be compassionate toward them requires understanding their situation as much as possible. And that implies being their pupil, all of the time.

Is this right? How does it relate to the virtue of justice? And what should we think about scientific methods of discernment? For instance, is surveying a representative sample of Americans a way of being a pupil of them all? If not, why not?

See also: how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; Empathy and Justice; etc.

how people estimate their own life expectancies

How long people expect to live could be important for at least two reasons.

First, individuals may know information about their own circumstances that affect their predictions. Maybe they know that they are sick or in frequent danger from gun violence. In that case, their prediction of their own life-expectancy might be a proxy for their social circumstances.

Second, their prediction may change some of their own cost/benefit calculations. There is, for example, no economic or other extrinsic reason to pursue education if you fear that your life is nearly over. Then again, you might procrastinate on getting more education if you think you have a very long time left to live.

Therefore I am interested in who makes optimistic or pessimistic estimates of their own life-expectancies. Of course, younger people will expect to live for more years, on average, than older people, and that doesn’t reflect optimism. So I adjusted for age by looking at the difference between how long people expect to live and how long the Social Security Administration (SSA) predicts that someone of their age and gender will live. If people give a higher number than the SSA, they are optimistic; a lower number reflects pessimism. Pessimism may be entirely warranted and reasonable, but it could still have negative effects on some important behaviors.

Data: Tufts Equity Research Group. Analysis: Peter Levine

The scatterplot shows that individuals’ predictions correlate with what the SSA would say, but there is a lot of variation. One young dude expects to live for another 110 years, whereas the SSA would give him 58 years. Several people expect to die very soon. What accounts for these differences?

Using the Tufts equity research survey, I looked first at the factors that are incorporated in prominent actuarial models–the things that we’re told actually lengthen or shorten our lives. If you go to a “longevity calculator” like this one, it will ask you to enter your own year of birth, gender, race, education level, body mass index, income, whether you are retired, and your habits of exercise, smoking, and drinking alcohol. It will tell you how many years you probably have left to live, based on your answers and a significant body of research.

Some of those factors affect optimism, but some do not. Reporting results from a regression model that are significant at p<.05:

  • Younger people are more optimistic, meaning not that they expect to live more years than older people but that their predictions for their lives are higher in comparison to the SSA’s predictions for them.
  • White people are more optimistic than people of color, and they have a basis for that.
  • Higher body mass index (BMI) correlates with pessimism.
  • Regular vigorous exercise predicts more optimism.
  • Education, gender, marital status, income, employment status, and drinking and smoking are not related to optimism, even though they are significant predictors of life expectancy in actuarial models.

I also went looking for measures that might predict optimism even though they are not in the actuarial models that I see online. Some of them are quite significant. When added to a regression model with the variables listed above …

  • Frequency of attending religious services predicts optimism.
  • People with better overall health (per their self-report) are much more optimistic.
  • Stress about climate change comes close to predicting pessimism (p=.054).
  • Whether you own a gun and whether you planned to vote for Trump or Biden are not related to optimism.

To some extent, people seem to be making accurate predictions based on life circumstances. For instance, they are right to worry about high BMIs. They seem to be missing some important factors, such as smoking and drinking. The correlation with religious participation could reflect the beneficial results of participating in communities, or perhaps religion makes one optimistic about one’s own life, or perhaps people who think they have a long time to live are motivated to attend services.

See also: how predictable is the rest of your life?; the aspiration curve from youth to old age

how predictable is the rest of your life?

Last year, I had a chance to add this question to the Tufts national survey of equity:

Imagine that someone summarized your life, long after your lifetime. To what extent do you already know what that summary would say?

I was interested in how people’s life circumstances might lead them to answer that question differently, and what different answers might mean. For instance, you might be a successful young student for whom the unpredictability of the rest of your life is a sign of broad options and unlimited possibility. You might hate your current situation and feel depressed because you don’t believe it will ever change. You might feel precarious, so that your uncertainty about the remainder of your life is mostly stressful.

I hope to investigate how various subgroups answer the question. In the meantime, I ran a very simple regression to try to predict answers based on people’s demographics (age, race, gender), their perception of their own economic trajectory (Are you better of than your parents, will you be better off next year, and will your children be better of than you?), their sense of civic or political efficacy (Can you make a change in your community by working with others?), a measure of stability at work (How far in advance do you know how many hours you will be working per day?), and a measure of stress about climate change (to see whether worries about the climate were making some people uncertain about their lives).

The results are below. (A positive coefficient indicates less certainty.) I’ll summarize the results that are statistically significant (p<.005):

  • Certainty about the story of one’s whole life rises with age, but the coefficient is small. People tend to get just a tiny bit more certain with each passing year. I am more interested in the small relationship than its statistical significance.
  • Certainty rises with more education. At least if you put the whole sample together, it seems that people who have more education don’t feel greater uncertainty because their options are expanded. Rather, they feel more certain, perhaps because they are more secure or feel more control over their lives.
  • Certainty falls with civic efficacy. Apparently, if you think you can make a difference in the world around you, you are less confident that you know the whole story of your life. I hope this is because you believe that unexpected good options might open up.
  • Certainty is lower for people who see their own families on a positive economic trajectory. Maybe perceiving that you are getting wealthier makes you hope for unexpected futures. I find it interesting that economic optimism and education have the opposite relationship to this outcome.
  • The demographic measures, stability at work, and climate stress are not related to this outcome.

As always, I would welcome any thoughts about these very preliminary findings.

See also: youth, midlife & old-age as states of mind; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; to what extent do you already know the story of your life?; the aspiration curve from youth to old age

Philippe Aigrain (1949-2021): An Appreciation

Nearly twenty years ago, just after I published Silent Theft, my first book about the commons, I was mingling with strangers at a conference reception at Georgetown University. The World Wide Web and open source software were still in their infancy, and few people in mainstream circles gave much thought to the implications of copyright law on human freedom and creativity. Suddenly a French fellow appeared out of nowhere and introduced himself to me, saying that he wanted to talk about the commons.

Philippe Aigrain, 1949-2021

And that is how Philippe Aigrain soon became a friend and my first European colleague in studying the commons, circa 2003. With great sadness, I learned last week that Philippe died on July 11 following a hiking accident in the French Pyrénées, at age 72. I share the heartbreak expressed by Francophone commoners and beyond at this crushing news.

Philippe was a computer scientist and activist who led many early fights against software patents, especially as director of the Software Freedom Law Center. He was also a cofounder of the French advocacy group La Quadrature du Net in 2008, which fights for basic human rights on digital networks, free software, and the commons.

In 2005, Philippe published a lengthy essay, Cause Commune, that proposed that we begin thinking about information commons as an alternative to intellectual property, which has so many anti-social, anti-competitive, and politically restrictive effects.The piece was one of the earliest, most thoughtful pieces in any language to develop the idea of the commons with respect to knowledge. He later published Sharing: Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), which gave a richer development to the whole idea of digital knowledge and culture commons.

What I found so memorable about Philippe was his astute political insight, quiet courage, and his deep well of gracious humanity. As his colleagues at La Quadrature du Net wrote in its appreciation of him:

Photo of flowers posted on 'Atelier de Bricolage Litteraire,' July 10, 2021

We admired [Philippe’s] capacity for indignation, the thoroughness and depth of his analyses, the way he could set aside certain activist reactions to size up a situation in all its complexity. When there was a risk of drowning in the details of an issue, he would encourage us to step back and return to the fundamental political issues at stake….Philippe taught us that it is possible to combine a lucid view of the world and a high level of political commitment, while never forsaking either care for others or for oneself, nor indeed joy and poetry.

Philippe’s colleague Jérémie Zimmermann admired him as “a rare being, with a humility that was matched only by the strength and freedom of his thought.”

When I visited Paris with my family in 2005, Philippe and his wife Mirielle went out of their way to invite us to their apartment for a fantastic dinner. We talked long into the evening, and I recalled how his generosity of spirit turned strangers into friends and made the world a more welcoming place.

Much of Philippe’s attention in recent years was devoted to the plight of refugees. He also directed the publishing house PublieNet, and published his first novel Sœur(s) [Sisters], which deals with the issue of surveillance. Some of Philippe’s poems and other writings can be found at Atelier de Bricolage Littéraire. Heartfelt condolences to Mirielle and the Aigrain family.

Philippe Aigrain (1949-2021): An Appreciation

Nearly twenty years ago, just after I published Silent Theft, my first book about the commons, I was mingling with strangers at a conference reception at Georgetown University. The World Wide Web and open source software were still in their infancy, and few people in mainstream circles gave much thought to the implications of copyright law on human freedom and creativity. Suddenly a French fellow appeared out of nowhere and introduced himself to me, saying that he wanted to talk about the commons.

Philippe Aigrain, 1949-2021

And that is how Philippe Aigrain soon became a friend and my first European colleague in studying the commons, circa 2003. With great sadness, I learned last week that Philippe died on July 11 following a hiking accident in the French Pyrénées, at age 72. I share the heartbreak expressed by Francophone commoners and beyond at this crushing news.

Philippe was a computer scientist and activist who led many early fights against software patents, especially as director of the Software Freedom Law Center. He was also a cofounder of the French advocacy group La Quadrature du Net in 2008, which fights for basic human rights on digital networks, free software, and the commons.

In 2005, Philippe published a lengthy essay, Cause Commune, that proposed that we begin thinking about information commons as an alternative to intellectual property, which has so many anti-social, anti-competitive, and politically restrictive effects.The piece was one of the earliest, most thoughtful pieces in any language to develop the idea of the commons with respect to knowledge. He later published Sharing: Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), which gave a richer development to the whole idea of digital knowledge and culture commons.

What I found so memorable about Philippe was his astute political insight, quiet courage, and his deep well of gracious humanity. As his colleagues at La Quadrature du Net wrote in its appreciation of him:

Photo of flowers posted on 'Atelier de Bricolage Litteraire,' July 10, 2021

We admired [Philippe’s] capacity for indignation, the thoroughness and depth of his analyses, the way he could set aside certain activist reactions to size up a situation in all its complexity. When there was a risk of drowning in the details of an issue, he would encourage us to step back and return to the fundamental political issues at stake….Philippe taught us that it is possible to combine a lucid view of the world and a high level of political commitment, while never forsaking either care for others or for oneself, nor indeed joy and poetry.

Philippe’s colleague Jérémie Zimmermann admired him as “a rare being, with a humility that was matched only by the strength and freedom of his thought.”

When I visited Paris with my family in 2005, Philippe and his wife Mirielle went out of their way to invite us to their apartment for a fantastic dinner. We talked long into the evening, and I recalled how his generosity of spirit turned strangers into friends and made the world a more welcoming place.

Much of Philippe’s attention in recent years was devoted to the plight of refugees. He also directed the publishing house PublieNet, and published his first novel Sœur(s) [Sisters], which deals with the issue of surveillance. Some of Philippe’s poems and other writings can be found at Atelier de Bricolage Littéraire. Heartfelt condolences to Mirielle and the Aigrain family.

scholasticism in global context

In The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, Georges B.J. Dreyfus describes Tibetan monasteries as homes for “scholasticism,” using a word originally coined to describe a form of Catholic thought and practice that was most influential in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries–later to be mocked and repudiated by both Protestants and Catholic Humanists. As Dreyfus notes, this word has also been used to describe specific traditions in Islam, and more recently in Hinduism and Buddhism. In his book, he explores strong parallels in Judaism.

It could be that scholasticism is an option within any heavily organized and sustained tradition of thought, whether we classify it as a religion or as something else.

One core component is a belief in argument–not just discussion and disagreement, but contentious, often competitive pro/con debate. Debates in Tibetan monasteries are high-pressure, competitive affairs conducted before active audiences. The same was true in medieval universities, where students paid the lecturers individually and enjoyed competitive showdowns. King and Arling write that Abelard’s “quick wit, sharp tongue, perfect memory and boundless arrogance made him unbeatable in debate—he was said by supporter and detractor alike never to have lost an argument.” Dreyfus recalls the Jewish practice of havruta, learning in pairs, and emphasizes that these pairs debate each other.

In scholastic traditions, debate is not seen as a temporary necessity while we sort out important topics once and for all. Instead, it is a form of religious practice, comparable to meditation or ritual and something like an end in itself.

Martin Luther hated it for just that reason. Luther was a formidable debater, but he was trying to defeat heresy. He would have been deeply disappointed to learn that people are still debating theology centuries later. In contrast, I think that Tibetan monks work to keep the debate going. They see it as a good way of life.

Debating what is actually said in the most revered texts of any tradition is risky. While arguing about such texts, it is hard to avoid arguing with them. Therefore, an interesting pattern in scholasticism is a tendency to argue about the previous commentators. According to Dreyfus, “Tibetans emphasize less the inspirational words of the founder (the sutras) and more the study of their content as summarized by the great Indian treatises.” In theory, “the authority of the Indian commentaries is extremely important; practically, they are used in Tibetan education relatively rarely by teachers and students.” Instead, Tibetan monks memorize and debate Tibetan commentaries on the Indian summaries of the sutras that are attributed to the Buddha. My sense is that Catholic commentaries on Aristotle, Jewish Talmudic study, and Islamic jurisprudence have a similar flavor.

Again, this style drove Luther crazy. The truth was in the original Word of God (sola scriptura) not in pedantic commentaries. Erasmus opposed scholasticism for a different but compatible reason. For him, the ancient texts–including but not limited to the Bible–made better literature than the ponderous tomes of the scholastics. The classics had style and form. However, if you want to keep on debating forever, then it makes sense to focus on the commentaries and let them accumulate, layer upon layer.

Another common feature is a focus on law–not necessarily in the literal sense of state-enforced rules and punishments, but at least the question of what counts as the right action in all kinds of circumstances; call it casuistry, jurisprudence, or applied ethics. I’m guessing this is a fruitful focus because we can invent new ethical questions endlessly. Besides, if the real purpose of the debate is self-improvement, then good behavior makes an ideal topic.

Social stratification often emerges in these traditions, to the point where the scholastic authorities can be quasi-hereditary. Yet the traditions offer stories about talented teachers who came up from nowhere. That is the point of the opening story of the Platform Sutra, when an illiterate monk grasps the point that the educated ones have missed and becomes a great authority. (This is my example, not Dreyfus’, and it might not be germane.) Jean Gerson, who became the most senior scholar in Paris, was born as one of twelve children of pious peasants. Of course, meritocratic anecdotes serve as great justifications for hierarchical systems.

I share this generic definition of scholasticism without a value-judgment. I am not sure how much I admire these traditions or resonate to them. Presumably, they are best assessed as parts of much larger social orders that offer other options as well. In any case, it seems valuable to recognize a form of life that recurs so widely.

See also: Foucault’s spiritual exercises; does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?; Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life; avoiding the labels of East and West; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; is everyone religious?; etc.