Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hell is other people?

L'enfer, c'est les autres, or so Sartre said in his cynical, left-bank way. Is it true? Let's pull just one view of the good life out of the a longer post on Maslow (below) again.


This in turn means that the good society is the one that has its institutional arrangements set up in such a way as to foster, encourage, reward, and produce a maximum of good human relationships and a minimum of bad human relationships. p105

A lot flows from this, if you accept it and think about it. For one thing, it means incentives to cooperate are fundamental to the good life. Few other questions would be more important than how we reward good human relationships.

But that is something we seldom do directly, except in the sense of restricting violence or outright prejudice.

Our market system is very successful at fostering certain kinds of productive relationships, of course. That is its supreme advantage. And as Steven Pinker argues, it may be that the development of trade helped subdue older traditions of cruelty and violence, as systems of mutual positive-sum exchange encourage peacefulness, diligence and honesty. Market pricing works better than older systems of communal sharing or authority tanking.

But we do little or nothing to promote good human relationships in any concrete way as an objective of policy. It is relegated to Oprah-style tv or the self-help industry.

it is not really taught directly in schools. The average high school is riven with cliques and lonely, unpopular kids and mean girls and the other horrors of teen life.

And we take for granted that there will be problems in organizations, and work is often unpleasanrt in terms of interpersonal conflict or subjection.

Take Robert Sutton's book on what he calls assholes in the workplace, which we discussed here. So much of the daily texture of peoples' lives is tied up with workplace relationships. On a day-to-day basis, how you feel when you arrive home from the office makes up much of how you live your life.

And everyone has seen examples of petty tyranny or small-minded power-mongering or self-interest. Sutton estimates at least a third of Americans have had involvement with seriously maladjusted colleagues. These "assholes" may be productive in isolation - but they destroy the culture, demean others, and weaken the organization.

Every organization has its pathologies and rigidities and time servers and screamers. Daily life at the office tends to be a series of political melodramas for many people. There is a surprising amount of tolerance for screamers, so long as they make their sales quota or targets. And every company has people who were promoted simply because they hit their target, not because they have any aptitude for managing others.

To be sure, over time the workplace has likely become more civilized. Intrinsic motivation works better than old-style carrots and sticks. And people do have more intrinsically interesting jobs to do in many fields, at least compared to the monotony of old-style auto assembly lines or agricultural work. Employees are challenged and use their skills, they enjoy the company of colleagues, and they may even have a sense of mission or calling or purpose in what they do.

But we take almost for granted how many jobs are not interesting or enjoyable, or are suffused with fear or humiliation or boredom.

Instead, public discussion largely revolves around the number of jobs, rather than what kind of jobs are created. Perhaps we have the question back to front. If we thought about what kind of jobs were created, the kind of incentives we have, and what people wanted, it might be easier to deal with labor market issues.

If we actually accepted Maslow's definition of the good life above, negative workplaces or organizations would be much more of a problem for society as a whole. The design of jobs and the workplace, and organizational culture in aggregate, would be linked to rewarding good human relationships - at least in part.

We would have some kind of metric to measure interpersonal relations or culture. Some companies do employee surveys, but most do not. And managers are more often promoted by focusing on the bottom line than how they handle relationships.

The best or highest-skilled companies may want to promote healthy work relations because they rely on creativity or cooperation, or because they want to retain staff. But many organizations do not care.

The point is that looking for ways to help people flourish and grow in the workplace is not something to pursue purely for instrumental reasons, because it may ultimately promote efficiency or the bottom line (although it may well do so). If we take the good society or good life seriously, there is a strong case that it IS the bottom line.


Gross National Loneliness


In the same way, 43% of Americans over 18, or 96 million people, are single. Many of them are single by choice, of course. But it may also mean loneliness is a much bigger problem in society than we generally recognize. And we generally leave it to relatives or religious groups to help, if any help is forthcoming at all. It certainly is not considered an objective of policy at national level to reduce loneliness.

Yet it is possible you could make more difference to the good society by just a few institutional innovations thart helped people find company, or made it easier to meet friends in person rather than on facebook, or reduced the number of divorces, than hundreds of billions of dollars of welfare transfers. Our allocation of resources may not make sense. We spend trillions on social security, but do little to help isolated elderly people find others to talk to.

Of course, good human relations is a subjective issue, and perhaps the last thing we would want is for the state or politicians to have an excuse to interfere in important areas of life in a way which might undermine human relationships. But should producing a maximum of good human relationships and minimzing the bad be an objective for society, as Maslow suggests? Surely the answer is yes.

And surely it is more important as the accelerating pace of economic change often disrupts the informal institutions and structures that do promote good relationships. Affluence may itself undermine prudence.

If people's needs are moving up the hierarchy, from material survival needs to problems of abundance, then we have to confront issues like the daily texture of human relationships more directly.


No comments:

Post a Comment