A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Responsibility Doesn’t Go Away, part two

I take it as both a strength and a weakness that I try to get to the heart of the thing, to the central place from which the rest can be both seen in relationship and understood in function. My beginning is always the natural world – I am willing, even happy, to take this as a beginning, even though I know that it too has a process history of some kind. But, I don’t question the lion’s role on the savanna or the zebra’s. How they came to be is fascinating, but the mysteries there are as comprehensible as the working of a geared clock is a mystery: one knows the spring, gear tooth counts, balance wheel and jeweled bearings do it all while not knowing necessarily the details for that particular timepiece.

But humans add a new dimension to these puzzles, not the least because of our capacity, so nearly exercised, to kill off the world that grew us up – and that I am one.

Many of the human attempts to answer these questions have led to even greater efforts to destroy the fabric from which the answers must be assembled: our religions and most other institutional belief systems have become such utter madness and are part and parcel of our rush to make our world uninhabitable – first as fully functioning members of our species and secondly as a living thing. That this is happening is an incredible mystery.

For example, the Christian fundamentalism that denies the details of scientific discovery (as well as basic functioning biology): claiming a six thousand year old earth with specially created species, one of which is made specially to dominate all the rest of existence, though also as the sycophant of a God who demands the adoration of this creature and tortures and kills them in great numbers when they screw up knowingly or unknowingly: now this is right out of an insane asylum! – though it does give evidence for the needs of our species. We cannot be left to our own devices (literally: we cannot be left to our own devices), but must have constant and important contact with the biophysical Reality or we quickly wobble out of control.

Real walking, real food gathering, real real… We must make real the essential needs of the living thing so that our flights of imagination have some rudder, some keel, for guidance and stability. In the reality of the present only the epistemology of science as fact gatherer and philosophy as summarizing instrument offer an adaptable reality base. The other option is for Reality to come unbidden like a drive-by shooting.

This leads me to who is responsible.

Responsibility is made up of two parts, the various mixtures of which account for its variety of meanings: one is the task or action to be preformed and the other is the assignment of that function to a member or sector of society. Usually, for a function to rise to the level of a responsibility it must be important to the society, and importance is very often associated with activities that have a strong connection to Reality. This, of course, is not always the case and many examples of social responsibilities can be given that are purely driven by social constructs having little relationship to the underlying biophysical world. That said, basic physical and biological needs drive our most obvious responsibilities: sustenance, safety and protection, community order, accurate information upon which to act, need for effective adaptability underlie the responsibilities for education, protection of the weak, honesty, being informed, supplying the basic needs for life as well as the conditions of order, consistency and personal growth.

While every member of a community has a stake in all these responsibilities, we are so complex a creature that assignment of specific responsibilities for action has been essential, not just in “modern” times, but for hundreds of thousands of years.

Who in the society is not meeting their responsibilities?

The general public – In their immediate lives the general public is the most successful structure in the society – people tend for the most part to ‘take care of business.’ But the maintenance of society has always demanded more. This is not a matter of fair or not; it is a matter of fact. Less than half know enough to be responsible decision makers; actually the numbers are closer to a quarter that have a reasonable command of history, current events and a willingness to examine issues beyond simple ideologies [1].

The education establishment – schools are seen as failing to educate our children. The public’s lack of knowledge can be blamed on, to a large extent correctly, our schools. Though it is a much more complicated situation.

Government, broadly – government is so varied that that which we like we tend to see as ‘us’ doing good and that which we don’t like we tend to see as ‘government’ doing bad. U.S. constitutional government is to be the central clearinghouse for institutional responsibility, but it has been almost totally compromised in that role. What that means is that it is no longer a representation of the people’s will and needs, but most of its dominant members work their responsibilities for the business elite, the international business elite at that, even as they give lip-service to public interests.

The political establishment – this is separate from government, but supplies its players. A quite distorted structure has adapted here; a reasonably knowledgeable and often thoughtful group of people have made it their business to appeal to an uninformed electorate in such a way that they actively and consciously attempt to misinform the public for political advantage. This is a monumental breach of responsibility.

The Press – Actually formerly, the Press; now ‘the media.’ The Press was to report on the events of the world beyond our personal lives and has had its ups and downs, but the expectation has been – the responsibility is – that reporters consciously worked at recognizing their bias and reported as factually as they could. It was therefore possible, when several independent sources were available, to get some bit of perspective – it was expected. Directly lying was considered bad form. ‘The media’ has different values.

Entertainment and the Arts – the responsibility of the Arts has always been to interpret the complexities of life and offer guidance in how to think about, participate in and gain perspective on, life’s beauty, joy and vicissitudes. This has always depended on bringing specially gifted and perseverant people into this service. The Arts in general have been folded into ‘the media.’

Business and commerce – our perspective is mixed here; if business has only the responsibility to make a profit in a capitalistic survivalist world, then we get one answer. If business is to be part of the society with responsibilities to social process and life in general we get quite a different conclusion. Segments of business have been meeting the very narrow “responsibilities” of profit, but have been abject failures at true social responsibility.

Religion – just what religion is to be responsible to and who is to serve as the locus of religious responsibility is very unclear. And yet, we traditionally see religion at the very center of moral responsibility. Religion has taken on more and more the narrow business model with similar results.

Secular social and special-interest organizations – like business, these entities can be looked at as having very narrow interests and responsibilities, such as funding medical care for children in need, setting up scholarships or for influencing zoning of a neighborhood, or they can be seen as part of the whole process of society and life.

The picture here is of many disarticulated segments of a whole complex social system functioning with increasingly narrow and truncated goals, and the individuals in them seeing their responsibilities in terms of those goals. Segments of society that formerly served as functional units of the whole are acting as their own system, denying the whole system the fulfilling of their specialized responsibilities and being denied the fulfilled responsibilities of other segments. This requires that these subsystems create their own need meeting designs that often conflict in both form and function with the other subsystems forced into the same behaviors. The responsibilities do not go away just because they are not being met.

Business becomes its own religion, creates its own police and armed forces, institutionalizes its own arts and entertainments, designs its own Press and begins to isolate its own population. Religion becomes a business and adds in the other functions. Each subsystem claims the needfulness and superiority of its responsibility meeting methods. Business tries to dominate governance. Religion tries to dominate business. The Arts and entertainment are absorbed into commerce. And all this, as unmet responsibilities are rearranged, attempted and played for advantage.

With the exception of the elites, all of the segments of society are populated by people with some level of shared membership in the general public. The failures of responsibility in the various sectors come from the failure of the people to maintain the vigilance necessary for so complex a task as a modern representative democracy. There can be no other primary source of failure.

This begs the question of the possibility of maintaining, over the everyday, long-run, experience of life such a level of vigilance; and if it is possible, what would be required since the present design seems not to be working. The excuses are multifarious: institutional dishonesty, media control of experience, requirements of daily life and work, poor quality of education, materialist culture and even our distorted understanding of “human nature”; but they only verify that it is in the people that both the failure and the solution resides.

Intellectual bases are forming in the public for the people’s ideas and values, bases with a wide cacophonous variety of formulations. The people must at the same time begin to take on the responsibilities that they have let slip away, responsibilities taken by dysfunctional segments of society – and costing us dearly. The base that I personally endorse is what is called ‘The Left’, though not in total. This must become a period of reformation; it is our responsibility to speak up and test our understandings, courage and actions, and use that effort to learn and to demand that the other segments of society meet their responsibilities as well.

I find again that I am not done: the role of leadership, the drive for privatization of responsibilities, heuristics as decision-making tool and other topics for the next one.

[1] However, it is the stability supplied by the general public that sustains us even through terrible breaches of responsibility by other parts of society. But social stability is eroded by the failures of our institutions like rocks by trickling streams.

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