Did you hear about the car aerial that married a satellite dish; the wedding was a bit boring but apparently the reception was brilliant. Sadly, I can’t apply this adjective to the response I received for my set of posts over the New Year about entitlement. Yet, unabashed by the evidence that the longer I talk about an issue the less convincing I become, I am this week planning to write a series of posts on aspects of human development…..
Last Thursday I chaired an event at which Richard Sennett spoke about his new book Together. As tends to be the case with Richard’s work the book is often fascinating, sometimes inspiring and occasionally baffling. His core thesis certainly struck a chord.
Sennett joins many other thinkers in identifying both the importance of collaboration to human prospects in the 21st century but also the challenges of living and working with people – often very different to ourselves in values, backgrounds and lifestyles – in a fast moving, shrinking world. He suggests three attributes which people need to be able successfully and enduringly to function together (and alongside these, three apparently similar attributes they must supplant).
First, we must seek dialogic rather than dialectic communication (in essence this means conversation which accepts and negotiates different perspectives rather than seeking to find a single shared view). Second, we should aim for a subjunctive rather than a declaratory form of expression. Sennett writes:
‘The subjunctive mood counters Bernard Williams’ fear of the fetish of assertiveness by opening up instead an indeterminate mutual space, the space in which strangers dwell with one another…’.
Third, the sentiment that suits modern togetherness is empathy rather than sympathy:
‘Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but one is an embrace the other an encounter…Sympathy has usually been thought a stronger sentiment…I feel your pain puts a stress on what I feel; it activates one; own ego. Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get outside him- or herself’.
Rather like the objects in an impressionist painting the edges of Sennett’s concepts tend to blur into each other, but what struck me was the congruence with the idea of self-authorship developed by developmental psychologist Robert Kegan. Using a similar framework to Jean Piaget’s pioneering work on child cognitive development, Kegan’s masterwork is The Evolving Self, in which he describes the stages of psychological development, each subsuming the one before, which take place not just in childhood but throughout life.
Kegan argues not just that we should aspire to greater self-awareness but that we need to reach a higher, more empathic, level of functioning to meet the practical requirements of twenty-first century citizenship. In particular, successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles “requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions, rather than be captive of them”. Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”. In a 2002 overview of survey evidence for the OECD, Kegan concluded than only one in five people across the world have achieved the competencies necessary for what he termed a ‘modernist’ or self-authoring order of consciousness.
The view that there is both the need and the scope for human beings to develop to a ‘higher’ level of functioning has many adherents. Another version lies in my articulation of the RSA strap-line ‘twenty first century enlightenment’. But many questions arise?
How distinct is such a view from well-meaning but vacuous view that it would be a better world if we were all better people?
Among the different accounts of human beings need to develop to thrive in the modern world, what are the important similarities and differences?
How credible is the view that human development can enhanced. Perhaps it happens anyway (cf the Flynn effect or Steven Pinker’s recent evidence of declining violence) or perhaps, as John Grey would no doubt argue, we flatter ourselves with the idea we can somehow transcend the flawed character of our species.
Broadly, what routes to enhanced human development hold out the greatest promise: education, culture, institutional innovation, spiritual awakening?
Specifically, what examples are there of sustained improvements in human psychological and behavioural development and can these examples be scaled?
As a strong advocate of a necessary human development thesis, my aim here is to sharpen the case rather than find holes in it. I was excited last week to be contacted by Robert Kegan himself who has said some very generous things about the RSA’s 21st century enlightenment thesis. But I am also impatient of making the same broad case time and again but not yet feeling it carries sufficient conviction let alone a concrete set of policies and practices. Of the questions above my sense is that the last is both the most important and the hardest.
Time for books seven and eight in the RSA Books of the year list. Tomorrow will see the unveiling of the last two and my choice of the overall winner.
I am choosing this book for three reasons: First, because Polly and David were ahead of the curve in their attack on the super-rich and those who pander to them; second, because the book contains a series of thoughtful policy recommendations (more on one of these below); and third because some of the comment on the book from old-school right wing columnists and bloggers (who have apparently never forgiven her for being ungracious about Auberon Waugh after his death) was so abusive and gratuitous it continues to need balancing.
One of the recommendations in Unjust Rewards was to insist on the publication of tax returns so companies and individuals who are abusing tax loopholes can be exposed. I was told the other day that HMRC are, in one area at least, exploring a similar approach. Sadly I didn’t know enough about the tax system to fully understand, so I stand ready to be corrected if I’ve got it wrong. As I heard it companies and individuals wanting to test out new ways of exploiting tax loopholes can take their case to HMRC Special Commissioners. After hearing the case the Commissioners’ ruling is published.
But because companies generally don’t want the public to know how they are trying to evade tax they often withdraw their appeal just before it goes to the Special Commission. The idea being explored (implemented?) is to put appeals into the public domain earlier in the process. Thus, a company seeking to evade the spirit of tax law by exploiting the letter of tax law would have to defend its actions in public.
If I’ve got this right, it is an interesting example of the kind of ‘nudging’ advocated by Thaler and Sunstein, in this case using public opprobrium, rather than more conventional tools of law and regulation, to achieve public policy goals. Not only is this good for the taxpayer but it is ultimately better for the system. If we all obeyed the spirit of taxation rules we would need a much less complex system. As Polly Toynbee said in her lecture here, rich people and companies complain about the complexity of the tax system when that complexity is primarily a result of their own sophisticated attempts to open and exploit loopholes in the system.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the event with Richard to launch his book – very disappointing, as I count him as a good friend and an earlier book of his, The Fall of Public Man, influenced me greatly. In The Craftsman, Richard opens up a fascinating debate about the importance of craft in the functioning of society and provides us with an alternative way of thinking about the value of work in our lives – in contrast to the devalued corporate culture he critiques in ‘The Corrosion of Character’.
And all the books mentioned here are available at the RSA Bookshop!