Monday, July 13, 2015

Is there a hierarchy of ends? (alternative to Maslow)

In my latest post developing the General Theory of the Organization I talked about the effect of time (associated, in the absence of successful innovations, with an increase in entropy, or what is the same, a decrease in the ability of the group to meet the goals of its members) in the different types of organizations, and how this effect pointed towards a consistent way of “corruption” or “degeneration” that redirected the efforts of the group to the pursuit of goals different from the original ones. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t intend to pass any kind of value judgment or to argue that some of those types are intrinsically superior to the others. You may remember that according to which transitions I saw as possible, it may look like I maintain that religious organizations are somehow the “purest” ones, and that all the rest are some kind of degradation of that most excellent type. If that were the case, any group we humans belonged to would be a “second best” option and would imply a certain loss of quality of life or of prestige, as we should just try to find the religious group we could more intensely identify with (one which had not started its path of corruption by pursuing lesser goals) and join it, forgetting about more mundane pursuits. I don’t think that’s an accurate representation of what I think, so I want to devote this post to clarify my beliefs about that supposed hierarchy.

First, about the “corrupting” as a term for describing the process that substitutes the original goals of the organization for different ones, I’m not (yet) claiming that the original ones were nobler, loftier and in some sense better. What I’m saying is that the process is one sided and, once started, very difficult to reverse (it requires a much greater level of innovation, amounting in many cases to a “new founding” of the organization in which the membership may be substantially reshuffled and the rules that govern the rights and duties of each member are rewritten), and I would like to compare it to a well known effect of the second law of thermodynamics: there are many types of energy (kinetic energy, chemical energy, potential energy in the presence of a gravitational field, and finally thermal energy), but when the energy stored in a system changes, it takes additional energy to restore it to the previous state (i.e. you can not just recollect the energy freed and reverse it). The typical example happens when the energy stored in the chemical bonds within a fossil fuel is freed (by burning the fuel); it changes into thermal energy (increasing the temperature of the environment), and after that change there is no way to just store that energy (that is diffused in the surrounding atmosphere) back into the original chemical bonds without a considerable expense of additional energy, and in that sense we say that the reaction (the burning) is irreversible (although, again, given the right conditions it could be reverted, and fuel could be recreated from water, oxygen and carbon dioxide, but it would require a lot of additional energy to recreate such conditions). Another example would be a heavy boulder sitting at the top of a steep hill, thus having a lot of potential energy. If we push the boulder over the top it will roll down, turning its potential energy into thermal energy (lightly warming the air around it and the slope of the hill through friction) until it finally stops. There is no way to use that thermal energy to put the boulder back atop the hill, and in that sense again the change in the system is irreversible (although, again, with another source of energy, and spending much more than what we have gained, we could put it back there). You may see where the analogy is going: when in a closed system all the energy is stored as heat (kinetic energy of the molecules that form the system) and equalized, no more work can be extracted from the system (as the whole universe is the only truly closed system we know of, that’s why we talk of the “thermal death” as the most likely ultimate scenario for all that there is: when all the stars have burnt and gravity has separated every particle beyond the event horizon of every other nothing else can ever happen and time as we know it will cease to exist). In a similar fashion, when an organization has become an economic one, there is not much more tweaking of its goals it can perform to keep the allegiance of its members. Once you have  accepted as the real reason for belonging to an organization to improve your social standing, there isn’t any “lower” goal you may want to work for, and the moment you perceive the group has lost its ability to further that particular end of your, it is time to call it quits.

To review how plausible such a view is, let’s remember the different types of organizations, and the goals that characterize them:

Some readers may wonder, where have I seen something like that pyramid before? Well, I have purposefully taken the format of the arch-famous “pyramid of needs” by Abraham Maslow, developed in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality and since then a staple in management balderdash. Because, let’s be honest, the people that use the pyramid do not have the slightest clue of what people really want, or why it is depicted as a pyramid in the first place –a graphical metaphor Maslow himself never used, or how it connects with whatever else is being presented… it took me a while to figure this out, but I think it is mainly used as a generic “legitimacy enhancer”, so people throws it in the middle of whatever it is they are propounding hoping that, being a well established and generally accepted piece of lore, it will benefit from the credibility it carries.

Now, formulating the hierarchy of goals that way there are a number of features that make the choice of a pyramid a most natural one. To begin with, each “higher” goal concerns itself with a set of reality that encompasses the “lower” ones: the religious organization is concerned by “what there really is”, a part of which is the material world. The educational one cares about how that material world functions, a part of it being the people who inhabit it and share certain identifiable traits. The political one cares about precisely that group of people sharing a trait, which necessarily encompasses the individual whose advancement is the main objective of the economic organization. Now some may argue that everything is OK, except for the higher level. Because there isn’t anything other than matter (let’s not forget that is the vastly dominant opinion nowadays), so the three first layers do indeed encompass each other, but the fourth one is just a figment of (some people) imagination, and shouldn’t be there at all. Indeed, for those people there is no point in theorizing about religious organizations, as those organizations are congeries of self deluded dupes, and what we should do is abolish them, get rid of them as fast as possible, and not devote any time theorizing how they fit with other  types of organizations that pursue worthier (because more real) goals.

I will then spend the next paragraph justifying my decision to include the religious organization at the top of the pyramid, before moving on. For that, I will call as my witness a person who has devoted his life to such an organization, a wise old man that exemplifies as few others today’s dominant reason. Am I talking about the Dalai Lama? The Pope? The Archbishop of Canterbury? Nope, I’m talking about uber-atheist Richard Dawkins (I could also use Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett or the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, as their thinking is pretty similar in this regard). Now you may be surprised to hear that Dawkins, who these days does little but attack and belittle religion, is the ultimate and paradigmatical exemplar of member of a religious organization, so let me explain. Early on in his life, little Richard came to the conclusion that he had discovered the truth about metaphysics and the existence of something beyond matter: that there was no such a thing. He initially had other interests (like evolution, biology, ethology, the natural history of life on Earth, those kind of things), which he spent some time teaching his countrymen about (and which he reflected in some pretty good books, by the way), but of late his burning desire to communicate what he himself considers a more important and significant and (dare I say it?) transcendental truth leaves him little time to spend on those other tidbits. So he preaches with the ardor of the true believer what he considers the most important  information of all: there is nothing but matter, the only way of acquiring true knowledge is by the “scientific method” (a piece of knowledge, by the way, that could never itself be arrived at by that very same method, making it either internally inconsistent or entirely baseless), and as revealed religions make claims about the material world that he interprets as conflicting with what that method teaches us (metaphor and allegory not having much sway with him, that has used them so beautifully in his first books), they are a bunch of baloney, source of (almost) all the evil History so abundantly provides us with and thus have to be abolished. But for some years now what he has been mainly talking about, what he has devoted the best part of his energies to, what has been at the top of his agenda, the main theme of his many, many (really, many!) public interventions, has not been some product of him being the “Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science” (unless you conflate that public understanding of Science with equally public disdain for religion, something that in his mind has doubtlessly already happened) involved with the transmission of how (this) world works, but with how there is no other world (hence in both The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion he only resorts to the communication of some scientific truth to the extent he can adduce it to undermine a claim of some revealed religion). Indeed, what are the organizations that Mr. Dawkins has been more involved with lately? Oxford University (a mixture of educational and economic one)? Not for sure, but the British Humanist Association and the Bright Movement. Two religious organizations, if there ever were ones, according to our classification, as much as they would loathe to be called that.

So when even the most notorious atheists of our age spends considerable time in religious associations, and needs them to set a foundation of how they act in religious terms (appealing to what there is really “out there”, again, in their case by limiting it to matter and a human nature molded by evolution) I feel doubly assured of the validity of my construct. Now I also wanted to call the readers’ attention to the fact that each goal is construed as having two parts, one theoretical and one practical. That’s why I have represented them as giving an answer to two questions, the first one related to pure knowledge (“what is really out there?”  “how does the world work?” “where do I belong?”) and the second one related to how should I act in the light of such knowledge, how should I guide my behavior (from the very explicit “how should I behave towards that transcendent reality –or lack of it?” to the more indirect “how can I know my knowledge is valid?” which can be formulated as “what practical rules should I follow to ensure the answers I arrive at regarding how the material world works are true?”). What I am implying with such twofold formulation is:

·        First, the only way of truly reaching such substantial goal is by intertwining their theoretical and practical aspects. I need to be able to formulate what is it that I want, but that definition would be empty if it didn’t immediately ensue in some practical rules for putting that knowledge in practice. Indeed, by practicing those rules I will attain a deeper understanding of what I was after, and without such practice it is a legitimate question to what extent I really understood the theoretical tenets of the goal
·        Second, I contend that those goals exhaust the set of goals that can be pursued in groups. They do not exhaust the goals of what constitute a valuable human life, as there are meritorious goals that can be pursued in isolation (improving your body composition, mastering some field of study that admits of self-teaching, getting in better shape, eating more healthily or whatnot), but I think they do include all the categories of what requires other members of the species to be attained in full. Knowing the ultimate truth (if there is one), enhancing a field of knowledge, improving the odds of survival of certain group or improving one’s status are necessarily social activities, that can be meaningful only in the presence of other people. That’s why humans join groups (more or less loosely affiliated, more or less dominant over other aspects of their lives) to pursue them
I think a final word is warranted regarding the goals of the “lowest” type of organizations (the economic ones). It may be argued that stating “improve one’s social status” is too reductionist, as people join commercial and productive companies for a host of reasons, that surely go beyond that (slightly self-centered, egoistical) one. I say bollocks. There have been a number of articles around for the past decade pretending to explain how the “Millennials” have totally different motivations from the “Generation X’ers” (which in turn had totally different motivations from the Boomers), and there was a whiff of verisimilitude about them, so surely there are more things people pursue in their jobs than just “be socially successful” or “increase my social status as much as possible”. I say double bollocks. What is happening between millennials is the following: given the crappy state of the labor market when they joined, they are mostly working with little to no security and for very little money (the vast majority of them, there are exceptions, of course, which the media seems to be fixated in). Under those circumstances, they can not dream to buy a house or a car, so they have resorted to cheaper status symbols, like enjoying craft beers, having more time for their hobbies (including preferentially hanging out with their friends and watching free movies, free TV shows, and listening to free music), traveling on the cheap, etc. Within the circle they move in it would be considered in poor taste to earn a lot, work long hours, to get married, to buy a house in the suburbs and having kids, so they don’t, as those behaviors do not translate in social currency with which to purchase an increased recognition by their peers. But the moment any of them graduates from that milieu and starts interacting with older cohorts they become as materialist and square (the old “sellout”) as your average Joe, become as willing to sacrifice leisure time for a heftier paycheck, start to appreciate vintage wines and more expensive cars and enter enthusiastically the rat race, start to want to keep up with the joneses… the whole package.
I may sound cynical, but I have seen it happen so many times I have little doubts left that is a universal trait of human nature. Having a meaningful job, making an impact in the world (by coding some obscure software almost nobody knows that exist? Or by selling shoes? Or arranging car rides so people pay less than for a cab? Don’t make me laugh!) finding the right balance between work life and family life (you first need to have a family for that, schlub! And no, your high school buddies do not qualify) is all nice and good, and even sound semi-revolutionary in these times of drab conformity and PC discourse. But let’s not mistake revolution with youth being youth (yes, they have discovered sex for the first time in human History, and we have discovered scandal… gimme a break!) So rather than overcomplicate things with the myriad targets people nominally set for themselves, diverse as they may appear to be, let’s cut to the chase and tell it like it is. Kids (and older guys like me) are in it for the money. We may renounce a little of money for other perks we think we can brag about instead (like being in the public eye, holding a certain responsibility that few people can attain –a positional good, or having a bit more independence –the freedom to exaggerate the rewards of what you do without anybody being able to call your bluff) but at the end of the day if we had to decide between our current position and a new one being offered to us, this is what we would put in the balance: will the new job allow me to hold my head higher when I meet the extended family for Thanksgiving? Will I feel more superior when I meet somebody new and tell him what is it that I do for a living? All the rest is window dressing and rationalizing.

Now, recognizing that is how things truly are does not mean I approve of them. It is a sad state of the world where, as we saw in a previous post, economic organizations have become by far the most dominant in our lives, whilst the goals we strive so much for (and which justify joining them in the first place, and sacrificing so much of everything else given that increased dominance) are so… banal, and so little fulfilling in the long run, and specially so conflicting (as my improvement in status can only come at the expense of everybody else’s decrease). It is a sad society in which such a state of affairs prevail, but it is the society we have inherited and, far from correcting it, it’s the one we will be bequeathing to those that come afterwards. What I would argue is that, if we want to steer it in a different direction we first have to understand how it works and why it works like that. And nothing more than that is what I’m after with this little Theory of the Organization. 

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