Ecological Humanism a Moral Image for Our Emotive Culture

By Fesmire, Steven | The Humanist, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Ecological Humanism a Moral Image for Our Emotive Culture


Fesmire, Steven, The Humanist


In a December 1999 news broadcast, a man in his thirties was interviewed as he sifted through some of the thousands of "Dear Santa" letters that the Chicago post office receives annually.

Each year, he explained, he takes gifts to a few impoverished children who write letters. Asked about his motives, this obviously caring person replied, "Because it makes me feel good inside, so it's like a gift to myself."

Should we take his remarks at face value? Is he motivated exclusively, or even primarily, by a selfish thirst for pleasure? Perhaps he was responding not solely to his yearning for subjective delight but to a larger situation in which others' lives are interwoven with his own. In that case, our individualistic language doesn't provide him the means to tell the whole story.

We think and act as though we're separate from our surroundings, like sacks of skin or disembodied minds. The irony of this individualism is that it is a cultural phenomenon--one that takes an especially extreme form in the United States. We think we exist separately because we have been socialized to believe this. To be free in the United States is to be left alone, not imposed upon by external authority. There is a facile and perverse assumption that we can happily "go it alone" so long as we are free from restrictive political measures and free from demands placed on us by others' lives.

A friend of mine who taught English in Japan relates the opposite extreme. The first time she asked a student, "What do you think?" she expected the reply, "I think...." It surprised her when the student turned to consult classmates and then reported their collective findings: "We think...."

It's crucial to guard individual creativity from being thwarted by an over-organized social environment, like Star Trek's "Borg" collective. But it's equally pressing to construct new conceptions of individuality and freedom in touch with the complexity and interconnectedness of contemporary life. Consider that the world's human population was 1.7 billion in 1900. Today it is six billion. By 2050, the United Nations estimates it could skyrocket as high as 11.2 billion! Family planning aside, we urgently need greater cooperation. Genuine freedom lies neither in throwing off the yoke of social life nor in stoic resignation to it. Ironic as it may seem, we are most free when we welcome shared experience as something desirable and set ourselves to imaginatively tap its potential.

Our cultivation of obtuse egos has become appallingly destructive. John Dewey lamented over eighty years ago that such individualism leads to

   aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in
   his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to
   stand and act alone--an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a
   large part of the remediable suffering of the world.

There is, in John Steinbeck's words, "a failure here that topples all our success." It is a failure to cultivate habits of interworking, of coordinated development, of acting in concert.

Our Emotive Culture

When asked in an interview what inescapable question faces us in the twenty-first century, sociologist Robert Bellah replied:

   The most critical question is how can we give interdependence--which is so
   obvious in connection with everything we do--a moral meaning? ... We don't
   like the fact that we depend on a lot of other people, or that what people
   do in other parts of the world can have effects on our lives.

One of the most interesting studies of individualism is Habits of the Heart by Bellah and his colleagues. The authors found that people in the United States tend to have little sense of the "whys" of conduct: why they live their lives as they do, make the choices they make, and hold a specific set of values to be worthwhile. For example, probed for a justification of his recent shift in priorities from career to family, one person replied, "I just find that I get more personal satisfaction from choosing course B over course A. …

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