Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates

Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates

Article excerpt

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates

Frans de Waal The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates New York: W. W. Norton, 2013

Innovation in the absence of human purpose is literally meaningless, which is to say that it defies interpretation, measurement and evaluation; it is pointless change for its own, which is to say for nobody's sake.

Innovation, in order to have meaning, must be designed to meet some identifiable challenge, to solve some particular problem or to achieve some expressible purpose-even if that purpose is nothing more than delaying or deflecting the inevitable and "buying time" until a better alternative can be found.

In striving to meet some positive objective or escape some negative fate, innovation must have some ethical, moral, political, economic, social or even technological means and ends in mind. Only when it stops being an exercise in wheel-spinning and begins to move down a particular road in some discernible direction can its proponents even try to justify it as an honourable or at least a useful direction. Only then can it be properly understood and assessed. What's more, only when it is put in a definable evaluative framework can its opponents properly criticize it. In short, innovation must be about something.

A singular problem in the contemporary world is that establishing ethical and moral frameworks for governance has become exceedingly difficult. The old banalities such as honesty and integrity don't get us very far, and the vapid encouragements to be cheerful and upbeat in our work are beyond annoying. We lack much in the way of a set of principles to judge policies other than admonitions to be efficient and responsive when we do whatever it is that we do. The best we seem to come up with is some version of a market-driven imperative and the importance of good people doing what the majority of good people among our customers and clients wish to be done.

"Innovation should be about something, it must ... be for some people and against others."

Though its origins can be traced to an age of 'innocence' ... a rather splendid new narrative can be formed in which human beings not only act in concert for mutual benefit, but also become capable of learning consciously to choose good.

Now, don't get me wrong! I am not in principle opposed to "good people"; I just feel deprived of any coherent view of good policies or the standards of goodness according to which we could determine the what, in fact or theory, counts as "good." This is important because, in the absence of an authentically universal system of philosophical truths and a generally valid set of specific social norms that can be deduced from them, innovation is likely to be contemplated and designed within a specific cultural context and, more importantly, devised to serve specific economic, political and social interests. Since those interests are almost surely to be in latent opposition or in manifest conflict with others, any pretense to objectivity by innovators is bound to be false on its face. Since innovation should be about something, it must also be for some people and against others. In short, unless we are content to decide public policy by public opinion polls or, more likely, by the influence of organized interest groups, we have some responsibility to ponder whether public sector innovation is guided by anything other than narrow, utilitarian self-interest in political systems where equal access to governmental decision makers is far from guaranteed.

People in and out of government and the public service, of course, have not been insensitive to the need to see innovation in a moral, which is to say in a political context. We have understood the need and made valiant efforts to come up with universal systems of right and wrong that embrace many cultural traditions and material interests. Evidence of these efforts are everywhere and few are more grand, eloquent and comprehensive as the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. …

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