Sunday, April 19, 2009

Something existential this way came -- Chickeman's "chicken and egg" problem!


Recently (April 12) I reviewed Joshua Cooper Ramo’s “The Age of the Unthinkable” on my books blog, and one particular statement quoted from Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger struck me. It struck me as a “neo old rule of engagement.” Here it is (again):

“The universal principle must be established that every able-bodied adult must in the course of his life hold a job in both the production systems and the caring economy and participate in some part of his working life or working year in the responsibility of caring for the old, the young and the infirm beyond the limits of family."

I’ve entertained the idea before that there could be a “rule” that everybody prove that he or she can support somebody by the self. A good term for a “rule” like this would be “mandatory generativity.” It supposes that emotional as well as financial uncertainty needs to be shared, as part of a new push toward "sustainability".

As a general matter, the conceptual requirement is unconditional, whereas in modern individualistic society, it is usually conditioned on behavioral choices (even “private choices”) such as causing a pregnancy. This ukase has two sides: it's your typical "chicken and egg" problem.

Unger and Ramo connect this concept to a “peer mediated” society where a network of peer communication (social networking sites certainly provide a modern mode) pressure everyone into this mode.

But, really, we had this rule in the past, perhaps until the 1960s, when it fell away during the Civil Rights movement and resistance to Vietnam, the draft, and corrupt administrations. But in previous generations, it had been implemented by social structures: family, church, community, government (including a military draft). A lot of it came from the authoritarian structure of formal religion (such as the Vatican). "Generativity" was considered as morally compelling as today's notions of more immediate "personal responsibility." And, unfortunately, older collective (and often religious) moral thought turned a blind eye on mass forms of high-level social injustice (racism, malignant nationalism, and the like), which sometimes led to the leftist reaction of “class warfare” but gradually encouraged the classically liberal solution of individualism – which, we found, could leave people out. Today’s post-9/11 world of unpredictable technology and economic tricks, peak fuels, climate change, weaker families and “demographic winter” seems to be bringing back this kind of thinking. Compare to previous generations, it will be less gender-related and broader; we’ll hear more talk of practically mandatory national service and “volunteering.”

Whether it is a “rule” or just a “community experience” becomes a Spanish puzzle, an existential question. The “rule” projection comes from the need to let every individual know what the bottom line expectations are. It seems that we have come to realize in recent years that what a lot of us want, even crave, is “meaning” or “brain belief”. If we commit ourselves to someone else for a half-century and forgo some our the operation of our own judgments (especially those from feelings, fantasy and apperception), we want it to “matter”, to have an effect on others. Often this means a demand for loyalty – even reverence -- from other family members, even as adults. Sometimes it leads to soap-opera style jealousy. But, after all, many people sincerely believe that their "life's work" must make someone else better before it has any "meaning." This viewpoint does not bode well for "personal autonomy", or the idea that one makes one's mark on the world independently first before intimacy, especially for people who may be more vulnerable to the unpredictabilities of "the system" and need interdependence on others more than they are willing to admit.

Modern medicine may be reinforcing the need for family solidarity in previously unimagined (in Ramo-talk, “unthinkable”) ways. Transplants and radical life-extensions are sometimes only conceivable with sacrifices from other family members, but maybe two decades ago many such treatments were not even possible so the whole ethical dilemma (“playing god”) could not even come up. Technology has a way of running us full circle, very much like a loop on a child’s model railroad set.

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