Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Ethics of Possibility and a Positive Anthropology

Arjun Appadurai argues that our society struggles with a tension between “the ethics of possibility” (of hope, aspiration, desire) and the “ethics of probability” (of systematized rationalities, risk management, and cost/benefits). And the ethics of probability is currently crowding out the realm of possibility. In his timely new book (The Future as Cultural Fact), Appadurai calls for a renewed commitment to an ethics of possibility "grounded in the view that a genuinely democratic politics cannot be based on the avalanche of numbers—about population, poverty, profit, and predation—that threaten to kill all street-level optimism about life and the world. Rather it must build on an ethics of possibility, which can offer a more inclusive platform for improving the planetary quality of life and can accommodate a plurality of visions of the good life.” (299-300)

Indeed. Reading this book, I was both exhilarated and a bit crestfallen that Appadurai so eloquently makes a number of arguments that I thought were my own, and that feature in my forthcoming book The Good Life (Stanford U Press)Appardurai calls for greater attention to the "capacity to aspire" and the politics of hope in understanding development, wellbeing, and the economy. As I also argue, wellbeing requires a sense of aspiration, hope for the future informed by ideas of the good life, and a commiserate degree of agency, a sense of control over one's own destiny.  Living up to the expectations of particular values is in many ways the stock and trade of human existence; and it is this forward-looking, aspirational quality that drives agency. The will is important, but there also has to be a way, and the effectiveness of aspiration and agency is often limited by available opportunities, the legal, social, and market structures.

Such a perspective opens the door onto a “positive anthropology.” Anthropology is more comfortable offering critiques than positive alternatives, but the possibility exists to combine our critical proclivities with non-prescriptive, ethnographically informed positive alternatives that engage public policy debates. If a society’s goal is to have folks live meaningful and fulfilled lives—and not just increase income and consumption at all costs—then we should look to ways to help folks realize their longer term goals, the moral projects of their lives, affluence (and its converse, poverty) as seen in all of its multiple dimensions. This is to advocate studies of economic behavior that work between the “is” and the “ought” of David Hume’s distinction, between how the world can be empirically shown to work (the “is”) and how the competing and diverse value systems that anthropological research documents can be linked to moral reflection about things might be different (the “ought”).  

In Appadurai's words: “we need to commit ourselves to a partisan position, at least in one regard and that is to be mediators, facilitators, and promoters of the ethics of possibility against the ethics of probability.”

1 comment:

  1. The implications of this article are astonishing to me. The push and pull of possibility and probability have resulted in pessimistic perceptions when confronted with any endeavors. The problem with this is that the social constructs that surround us exacerbate these sentiments. The foundation for the establishment of the United States was the ideal of the American Dream; this ideal has been romanticized through the media, in movies, etc. It is what the majority of the population perceives to be the apex of living standards. However, social stratification hinders some individuals from obtaining the aforementioned American Dream. Exposure to racial discrimination has resulted in minority stress, for example. Minorities are thus at greater risk of developing health complications such as high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease. These stress-related illnesses are viewed as setbacks for any individual and can hinder their ability to succeed in the work place. This is just one of many factors that lead to negative thinking.

    So how can we solve this? The first remedy is obviously the restructuring of society, but with the example that was previously stated: you cannot expect to change every individual's mentality. So the next best thing is to promoted positive psychology which parallels to the notion of positive anthropology. From a biological perspective, being human is the culmination of several unique facets: bipedalism, social life, larger cerebral cortexes, and the use of tools and food. From a western perspective, however, being human is having the right to pursue happiness. Positive psychology mandates that the thoughts that you place into the ambiance greatly affect the results of whatever it is that you're pursuing. This is because negative thinking depletes high-cognitive functioning since you're focused on what you can not do rather than what you can do.

    If policy makers are given an ethnography with positive alternatives (as you mentioned) then they are prepared to make a positive impact. The biological basis for this is that positive thinking promotes homeostasis of the body - high cellular energy, balanced blood sugar/hormones, and your oxidation rate all remain steady. This contributes to higher cognitive functioning and would thus solve more issues. Of course, it is not the secret to ending all of the world's problems, but it could prevent many and it could also aid in finding remedies quicker since the mind is not blocked.

    There are marginal cases of individuals that have reached their dreams, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that they have faced, by applying this practice. For example, Oprah Winfrey was sexually abused by relatives and emotionally abused by her mother. But she always told herself that she would lead a better life. As a result, she experienced upward social mobility into the 1% wealthiest members of society. Yes, she had to confront stressful external forces, but she coped with them by utilizing hope and not more stress. Perhaps this seems like a "romantic" idea, but if we all calibrate our minds towards positive thinking, maybe we can all obtain a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness.