L7 Prosociality

Tools For A New Political Economy

Moral Creativity and the Prosocial Imperative

A fundamental challenge in considering any approach to political economy is our return to a more prosocial mode of operation — both individually and collectively — and a conscious departure from antisocial trends that have increased momentum over the last century.
A growing amount of research (in evolutionary biology, psychology, etc.) points to prosocial traits reinforced through group selection and social selection as critical considerations for the fitness of our species throughout most of its history: traits like generosity, gregariousness, cooperation, self-sacrifice, concern for others, helping the weak and so on. But our current global political economy, grounded as it is in industrialized, growth-dependent crony State capitalism, has been striving for over a century to undermine these patterns of fitness — amplifying atomistic individualism, promoting commercialized economic materialism, expounding the primacy of private ownership and profit over civil society, undermining societal cohesion and harmony and so on. So the dominance of what is essentially an antisocial, combative, coercive and antagonistic cultural mode has been intimately bound up in the progression from feudalism to mercantilism to capitalism that sprang up quite naturally from post-agrarian assumptions about private property, exclusive ownership, labor appropriation, plutocratic governance and obsessive egocentrism. Which is why the proponents of the current capitalist status quo are so invested in proselytizing their view of human fitness purely as associations of mainly self-interested, competitive, acquisitive, rational individual actors, and this has created a mountain of persuasive propaganda and false assumptions to overcome if we ever hope to move beyond a transparently self-serving agenda (see neoliberalism).

The result is that we have two competing threads of societal evolution in play; opposing takes on which cultural traits and behaviors (i.e. aggregate expressions of individual evolutionary traits and adaptive behaviors) will dominate or provide the greatest fitness, and which undermine successful evolution of human society.
  One of these threads is supported by both empirical research and natural empathy, and the other in rather short-sighted (and short-lived, in terms of the totality of human evolution) attachment to aggressive greed. Regardless, however, nearly all decisions made in modern political and economic spheres seem to be grounded in (and intrinsically polarized by) the one evolutionary view or assumption or the other, and the masses of consumers and grass roots activists are also operating — either consciously or unconsciously — within those same ideological values and energies. At one extreme, we might encounter hoodwinked voters, religious fundamentalists, imbibers of fake news, and responders to false advertising; at the other extreme, we might encounter soup kitchen volunteers, social workers, healers, therapists, community activists, and socially conscious entrepreneurs. So in a very real sense, these assumptions, ideologies and conditioned habits are creating conditions that will evolve society in a specific direction, and indeed seem to be impacting epigenetic trends over multiple generations. In other words, we are generating either antisocial or prosocial traits and habits based on the systems and cultural practices we reinforce — either feeding the wolf of avarice, contentiousness, egocentrism, hostile competition, and self-segregating tribalism, or feeding the wolf of compassion, kindness, integration, harmony and cooperation.

Which is how we arrive at the importance of moral creativity.
In a general sense, moral creativity indicates both the preconditions for moral development, and the ongoing synthesis of moral maturity; it describes an aspect of the human condition in which our collective beliefs, aspirations, values and strength of character shape the trajectory of our society over time. In a meta-ethical sense, it is akin to saying "we create our own moral realities," but this does not mean those realities are purely subjective, arbitrary or relativistic. As an example, I write in Political Economy and the Unitive Principle:

"If we accept the belief that a cohesive and compassionate society, a just and moral society, is desirable and worthwhile, we tend to assign moral weight to this belief. So it follows that the degree to which we are willing to invest in society - from the perspective of embracing collective responsibilities - may depend on our relationship with that basic assumption, the quality of our imagination, our capacity for love, and whatever innate proclivities we possess to make such an investment. In essence, it will depend not only on the quality and quantity of affection for our fellow human beings, but also on our creative capacities for expression."

Expanding on this basic idea, I would assert that mature moral creativity represents an intersect between functional intelligence and advanced moral development; in other words, it indicates a high level of self-actualization and integrity in our ability to operationalize our values hierarchy, while at the same time being primarily motivated and guided by inclusive and "wise" moral sensibilities. But there's the rub: this can't happen in a vacuum. The conditions that support the development and expression of all moral imagination are social, cultural, institutional and systemic in nature — in order for mature moral creativity to thrive, it must be intersubjectively and interobjectively excited and reinforced; we must address any remedy at all levels — individuals, communities, institutions, governments, infospheres, etc. — in interactive and interdependent ways. Ultimately, there is a synthesis of all such factors that depends on both nature and nurture.

Now what I’ve covered so far might be considered a fairly confusing or abstruse explanation, and it is dependent on a lot of other concepts that I've developed over time they may not be familiar to the reader. So I'll offer yet another way to approach the importance of moral creativity in the context of evolving and maintaining prosociality. . . .

Let's say moral function runs along a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is emotionally repressive, antisocial and destructive conditioning that is rooted mainly in fear, and is centered around amplifying and justifying individual egoic impulses (I/Me/Mine). At the other end of the spectrum is a emotionally expressive, prosocial and constructive mutually affirming interplay that is rooted mainly in love (agape), and is centered around amplifying and enhancing collective well-being. 
In this context, moral creativity describes both the consequence and supportive conditions of this mutually affirming interplay; it is a semantic container for the generative and expressive social dynamics of a compassion-centered moral function, patterns of thought and behavior that invite ever-enlarging and more inclusive arenas of action and intention. So, instead of limiting moral judgments to black-and-white dualism, a vast array of subtle variables and perspectives can be included — ambiguity and uncertainty among them. As such, mature moral creativity can become a self-reinforcing upwards spiral toward the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the greatest duration...rather than a downward spiral into the freezing wasteland of an isolated, atomistic, self-serving ego that can't help but oversimplify and reduce moral judgments to vacuous polemic. At least...well...it is my contention that this is the fundamental belief that can (even if it is not self-evident to the skeptic) generate its own positive consequences. As is the case with most assertions regarding prosociality, the proof will be in the pudding.

Lastly, we might still ponder: why is moral creativity socially dependent — or in any way conditional? Shouldn't it flow naturally and effortlessly from an individual's state-of-being, regardless of conditions or precursors? In rare instances, and with sufficient strength of character, a person of high functional intelligence and advanced moral orientation could operate as a rebellious non-conformist in a less developed, unsupportive society — at least for a while. But there is ample evidence from human history that the interpersonal tensions such a contrast will inevitably produce most often lead to mistrust, derision, ostracism and conflict — a consequence at the heart of the saying "a prophet is never welcome in their home town." In order for advanced moral function to bear fruit — that is, to instigate an advanced morally creative synthesis — there must at a minimum be sufficient social acceptance of a majority of goals and values represented by the proposed moral position, so that it can be collectively reified. This is, in fact, an extremely critical consideration, and it is why I believe the fortified islands of I/Me/Mine that are supported by individualistic, economically materialistic cultures are so antagonistic to human development. It is also why — and this is a main thrust of Political Economy and the Unitive Principle — advanced political economies will ultimately fail without careful attention to the issue of moral creativity.

Finally, in order to counter the deluge of contradictory memes in a capitalist society — and then encourage the moral creativity, evolution and maturity that will support any more advanced political economy — I have proposed that some form of integral practice and supportive community will be necessary to break what is essentially an ongoing cycle of self-abuse ans self-oppression. That is what
Integral Lifework and Community Coregroups seeks to accomplish in grass roots way — but really this could be accomplished by any concepts, practices, systems and communities that embody our strongest prosocial proclivities in consistent and supportive ways. In other words, creating conditions and communities where interpersonal relationships nourish and strengthen our better selves.

A Moral Lineage

(Excerpts from
Political Economy and the Unitive Principle)

Regarding a moral lineage of Western society, my thinking about the progressive strata of moral valuation was initially inspired by Ken Wilber's research and observations in Integral Psychology. Later on, I was delighted to have these ideas reinforced by Lawrence Kohlberg's Essays on Moral Development, particularly in his discussions of agape. My insights have also been informed by ongoing work with clients and students, some formative mystical experiences, and the perpetual intersection of ideas from a wide range of sources. Among these are Aristotle, Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, Mill, James, Hāfez, Rumi, Aurobindo, J. Krishnamurti, Piaget, Gebser, Merton, C.S. Lewis, Teilhard de Chardin, Freud, Jung, the Bhagavad Gita, the Christian Biblical canon and Nag Hammadi texts, the Dhammapada and Prajñāpāramitā, Plato and Lao Tzu. I also would add fiction writers like Dickens, Austen, Proust, Tolkein, Bradbury, Le Guinn, Steinbeck, Asimov and Philip K. Dick to the mix, as well as the many musicians, poets, painters, filmmakers and other artists who have injected memes into my consciousness over the years. And, like Marcus Aurelius, my own ethics and ideas about moral development have much to do with the friends, colleagues, mentors, lovers and family members who inspired me by example, nudging me onwards and upwards by love's design. Integrating all of these wonderful input streams has been as much a felt experience as an intellectual and spiritual one, mirroring the landscape of moral creativity itself. . . .

Are there other lineages to consider? There are probably hundreds, some of which take an entirely different direction regarding moral function, promoting alternate values hierarchies and different meta-ethical assumptions. As one example, when we remove the ground of loving kindness, we suddenly find ourselves in new territory, and indeed an entirely different heritage of Western thought. We encounter frames like nihilism, egoistic hedonism, Epicureanism and Randian objectivism, where the primary aims of individuals and society are the facilitation of pleasure, unfettered free will, or narrowly defined self-interest. These may become equated with "virtue" to the neglect of many of the other moral concepts enumerated in the love-based lineage; in fact, anything hinting at egalitarianism, benevolence or altruism is sometimes forcefully rejected. As examples, Hobbes and Nietzsche might regard such constructs as contrived by society to corral a naturally brutal or amoral human animal - such aspirations would be imposed or persuaded conventions rather than innate impulses or self-evident virtues.

Unfortunately for Nietzsche and Hobbes, neuroscience has begun to show us that many prosocial ethical responses are hardwired into our neurobiology, and that what we believe to be rational considerations, objective self-interest or even conditioned social mores may have far less relevance in our choices than those neurological structures (see the research of Grit Hein, Scott Huettel, Ralph Adolphs or Antonio Damasio for examples). The evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser goes on to assert that our neurobiology is actually genetically predisposed to acquire a universal moral grammar. Moreover, empathic complexity, sociality, and other precursors to moral constructs are readily observable in many primates and other species, as the work of Frans de Waal and Barbara King have extensively explored. And if we entertain Edward O. Wilson's hypothesis - or even Leslie Stephen's ideas in The Science of Ethics a century earlier - this social cohesion has provided a critical evolutionary advantage throughout the emergence of homo sapiens; an advantage that, it could be argued, would be existentially risky for us to abandon.

Still, is social cohesion a worthwhile objective? It does facilitate the peaceful coordination of society, and the basic survival of our species, but it also inspires loving kindness between human beings and refines the skillfulness of that loving kindness. This, in turn, leads to a much richer, creative and multidimensional flourishing for all, a thriving that seems essential for intellectual, emotional, cultural and spiritual complexity and advancement; that is, for multidimensional evolution and the enlargement of consciousness. This evolutionary complex can then provide our meta-ethical justification for a consistent values hierarchy; we are still trapped in a self-referential loop, but one that marries pragmatism, love and art.

Resources and Research on Prosociality








Evolution, Culture, and the Human Mind
by Mark Schaller (Editor), Ara Norenzayan (Editor), Steven J. Heine (Editor), Toshio Yamagishi (Editor), Tatsuya Kameda (Editor)


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