Cultivating Humanity: a Value Re-boot

Now half way the first academic semester, I’m reaching the end of the course I’m teaching on Sociology of Development. Where the concept of development and changing patterns in society are being explored from different angles. We have just started with the part where we creatively think about different futures. Yes, plural! because that is one of the main messages of this course, social change is about the pluralities of futures, we deal with a lot of the “what if’s”…and we have choices, we are agents of change and can choose wisely.

I named one of the themes the course deals with “Cultivating Humanity: a value re-boot”. The title of this particular theme was inspired by Martha Nussbaum‘s notion of  “Cultivating Humanity” and the unique challenges we as human beings face in our contemporary realities.

Martha Nussbaum

 Cultivating humanity: 3 capabilities

Nussbaum herself, a philosopher, delved into what it means to be human during different times in history and focuses on the meaning of humanity and its challenges in the 21st century, she explores the (crucial) role education plays in cultivating “humanity” and in specific the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. The roots of the notion of cultivating humanity stems from the stoic philosopher Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD). Seneca contemplates the capacities that makes us, according to him, human beings. Cultivating Humanity is seen through Seneca’s eyes as a true civilization project. Both philosophers -the classical Seneca and the more contemporary Nussbaum- explore what the particular role of education is in contributing to the ideal of humanity. In Seneca’s vision liberal education plays a crucial role, it not only helps to cultivate individuals with the capacity of critical self-reflection, but most importantly, with a “sense of belonging” to something larger than ourselves. Nussbaum, from a more humanistic liberalism perspective, weaves further on this notion and translates these “required” capacities in 3 golden capabilities for what is needed to become a true citizen of the world:

  1. Sympathetic imagination/empathy
  2. The Critical examination of one self/reflection
  3. The authentic feeling of belonging to humanity/solidarity.

The following short film entitled “Page 23” was made during The 48 hour Film Project 2011 in Utrecht. The film captured my attention as it radically contrasts Nussbaum’s capabilities for the cultivation of humanity. Page 23 not only refers to a page in the well known catalog of the Swedish IKEA, but illustrates the perpetual hedonistic emptiness of trying to buy life-fulfillment, the consuming of life. Relationships are shallow and individuals are being portrayed here as replaceable, just as products in the catalog.

Sustainability requires a change in value systems on different levels

Two development scholars Des Gasper and Shanti George (2010) continue the exploration of the notion of Cultivating Humanity in their article “Cultivating Humanity? Education and Capabilities for a Global Transition”. The authors ask themselves, what new values do humans have to cultivate if we want to save this planet. A rather alarming tone, but very in its place.  What I like about their approach is that they base their rationales on future scenarios from “The Great Transition project” .
“The Great Transition” is an initiative of a body of global scientist that explored the requirements for a transition to a sustainable global society.  The Great Transition explains that civilization is now in a moment of transition in which all components of culture will change in the context of a holistic shift in the structure of society and its relation to nature (…) transforming values and knowledge, demography and social relations, economics and governance, and technology and the environment.” (The Great Transition report)
In the GTI, 6 scenarios are presented on a continuum of utopian stories to drastic dystopian future realities. (Read more on the GTI). Gasper and George stress the importance of a needed value-shift for saving this planet. The authors state that  “people and societies have choices and that their decisions can be influenced by reflection and debate” Comparing scenarios can help us choose a new narrative, a new story we want to live by. An inspiration that can trigger a drastic shift in our values.  The GTI states that 3 value-shifts are required for a sustainable future:
  1. From consumerism, and an ideology of life-fulfillment through buying, to a focus instead on quality of living;
  2. From individualism to human solidarity; including concern for the external effects one posses on others;
  3. from domination of nature to ecological sensitivity
Gasper and George warn us that the shift has to take place on all crucial levels,  that of the individual, the society and on a global level.  On the individual level, people seek meaning and identity, and somehow this has been identified with consuming goods, we engage in consumerism because they embody symbolic meanings. In terms of identity, we need new narratives, a new meaning to the “I”, something like  “I” as part of humanity. The revival of the ‘We’. Start re-discovering the richness of relations instead of productsOn societal level, “collective intelligence” can function as a counterbalance for the language of individualism, according to the authors. I see the emerging of collective intelligence as a synergy of all the unique contributions of each individuals. Change on the global level, requires empathy, the recognition that all humans are equal, or as Nussbaum puts it “all human beings are bound together by ties of recognition and concern”.  Not only in terms of our humanity, but we have to start seeing ourselves as part of an ecology. We don’t dominate nature, we are part of nature. 
The message is clear, we need a value re-boot, by re-configuring our value systems we change our attitude and direct our behavior in a positive way towards “that larger than our self part” we belong to. It’s not easy, we will have to come with new paradigms, new narratives of what quality of life really means, but hey, we are not alone in this, we have each other and we have a choice, we can choose our story of humanity and sustainability. One that is not replaceable!
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