Nine Theses

Throughout the six weeks leading up to The Gathering we will be sharing some of our vision for a wiser, weller world. This will includes pieces by Art Earth Tech Institute members Rufus Pollock and Liam Kavanagh on topics like “The Way We Live Now” and “Sketches of a Future Society”.

We want to create an ecosystem and culture in which we can transform both production and our spiritual being. We take from ancient wisdom and apply it to our contemporary age. We take from modern production and use it to support ourselves. With these Nine Theses we aim to show the principles on which such a way of living is possible.

Photograph by Sarah Hickson

The Nine Theses

by Rufus Pollock

  1. Much in our society is sick and unhealthy. We want to find ways of living that are harmonious and balanced. We want to live healthily and wholesomely. We wish to develop ourselves as human beings nourishing and cultivating that which is great in us and eliminating the suffering and harm caused by craving and attachment to self.
  2. We do not wish to live apart from our society but wish to engage and, ultimately, transform it.
  3. Our systems of production contribute to this dislocation and a way of being that is self-attached, competitive and exclusionary
  4. Our growing state of abundance is important. Basic – and often more than basic – needs are increasingly taken care of for a good proportion of earth’s population. The technology and resources needed to produce that baseline are lower. This creates surplus of time and energy for that beyond immediate material sustenance. It makes the material relatively less important – when you are starving your only thought can be for food but when our bellies are full our attention can be engaged with these other matters.
  5. New digital technologies give renewed force to alternate paradigms of living, and most importantly, production. For technology to be used to its best ends we must avoid simplistic stories of progress which hold that all new technological developments are good and useful. We should also be wisely critical and choose the role of the passive recipient of change.
  6. We seek a future built on openness, sharing and collaboration. A future where technology and a way of being align. We believe this model is better both materially and “spiritually”.
  7. We are in competition with the old paradigm. And it will fight us. We actively want to take it over and “infect” it with goodness. We also have to understand and resist the fact that the old paradigm creates “its own environment”, enmeshing us in consumerism, competition and craving.
  8. We recognize that alternate methods of production or organization are not enough. We will need a shared “spiritual” and ethical practices, we will need to combine transformation of being with transformation of production.
  9. We therefore seek to marry the possibilities of abundance and the digital revolution with deep spiritual truth and traditions in pursuit of the transformation of our societies and ourselves.

In summary, we are marrying the digital revolution with a deep spiritual truth and tradition in pursuit of transforming our societies. Both parts are needed: we want to break out of the spiritual “ghetto” and transform broad swathes of society. To do that we have to transform methods of production and organization. The digital provides the means. At the same time, the real transformation is in our natures. Moreover, without the anchor of a deep spiritual tradition, we will only achieve superficial and unreliable change and have the constant risk of dissolution and co-optation.

Images by Debby Hudson unsplash

Edited by Brigitte Arndt


Art / Earth / Tech: the Logic of our Purpose and the Reason for our Existence – a Preliminary SCQH

Slides presented at the Art / Earth / Tech sprint in April 2017. This reflects early thinking on a more detailed explanation of purpose of Art / Earth / Tech and the logic for its existence. Note these are my personal views and may not reflect those of everyone else!


Summary: How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life

This is a summary of the Skidelskys 2012 book How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life. The book is important for three main reasons.

First, its argument for the importance of identifying clear end “goods” beyond more material wealth.

Second, that the good life is identifiable and is universal (though they are careful to emphasize that their particular set of goods need not be the final set). This reasoned defence of tolerant universalism is a valuable rebuttal of relativism.

Third, that to move from where we are today towards this “good life” will requires active coordination including intervention by the state (e.g. consumption taxes to prevent over-consumption). This is important, as it rebuts a commonly held view that we can “just rely on the market”.


Chapter headings

  1. Keynes’s Mistake
  2. The Faustian Bargain
  3. The Uses of Wealth
  4. The Mirage of Happiness
  5. Limits to Growth: Natural or Moral?
  6. Elements of the Good Life
  7. Exits from the Rat Race

The question

The title question “How Much is Enough?” is, in fact, a lead in to a more fundamental question: “How Much for What?” to which the answer is to “Live the Good Life”. Thus, the book’s main purpose is to answer the more basic question “What is the Good Life?” — rather than its title.

“The purpose of this book is to persuade the reader that such a thing—the good life—does exist and can be known, and that we ought to strive to live it. How much money we need to live it comes at the end of the argument, not at the beginning.” [Preface]

The answer

The “Good Life consists in realising the following “basic goods” (or ultimate goods or end-values) (see spreadsheet with comparison), as set out in Chapter 6: Elements of the Good Life:

  • Health. By health we mean the full functioning of the body, the perfection of our animal nature. Health includes all things needed to sustain life, or a reasonable span of life, but is by no means limited to them.
  • Security. By security we mean an individual’s justified expectation that his life will continue more or less in its accustomed course, undisturbed by war, crime, revolution or major social and economic upheavals.
  • Respect. To respect someone is to indicate, by some formality or otherwise, that one regards his views and interests as worthy of consideration, as things not to be ignored or trampled on.
  • Personality. By personality we mean first of all the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good.
  • Harmony with Nature. TODO – not that clearly defined by them …
  • Friendship. This is a necessarily inadequate translation of the ancient Greek philia, a term encompassing all robust, affectionate relationships. A father, spouse, teacher and workmate might all be “friends” in our sense of the term.
  • Leisure. Leisure is that which we do for its own sake, not as a means to something else. This contrasts with contemporary use where leisure is synonymous with relaxation and rest. But leisure is not just time off work but a special form of activity in its own right.

Lead-in and Background

Chapters one to five:

  • establish that there is a problem (and why was Keynes wrong that everything would be great by now)
  • some of the causes of that problem (in the nature of capitalism). Their critique of modern capitalism.
  • Critique alternative critiques of capitalism and their solutions: “Before outlining our vision of the good life, we must look at a couple of other influential attempts to halt the growth juggernaut. The first appeals to the concept of happiness, the second to that of sustainability. We are in sympathy with the goals of both movements, but believe they mislocate the real basis of our objection to endless growth, which is ethical, not utilitarian.”
    • “Happiness” — still lacks sensible ends (“happiness is not a well-defined or good end in itself), still obsseses over more (“happier, fitter”)
    • (Deep) Ecology / Sustainability: either has no clear set of alternative ends — “sustainability” — or, the ends are unconvincing — “deep ecology”. Simple sustainability is a utilitarian argument: we are using too much now to be sustainable. Deep ecology is a fairly muddy set of ideas around the inherent value of animals and nature. This may be important but it is insufficient in itself as a powerful vision of the good life.
  • Distinguish “good life” from hedonism – and the happiness obsession. [ed: This is a sensible distinction in my opinion]

Critique of Capitalism

Comment: they argue (rightly) that the very fact of setting out these values and implicitly arguing for their universal validity is important — and radical (irrespective of whether their precise set of values is perfectly correct). Modern capitalism has increasingly got trapped in a false relativistic mindset other based by the following erroneous assumptions:

  • Relativism – “de gustibus non est disputandam”, “chacun a son gout”, “each to their own taste”
  • Hedonism – a focus on pleasure or happiness (a confusion of hedonia with eudaimonia)
  • Insatiability (“more is always better”)
  • [together] => Individualistic hedonistic libertarian relativisim

An aside on growth: “Where does all this leave growth? Obviously no sane policy has growth itself as a final end.”

  • “First, growth might sensibly be pursued as a means to one or more of the basic goods.”
  • “Second, growth might interest us as an index of something else we value. … growth “should not be considered the objective of economic policy, but rather the highly likely outcome … of two things desirable in themselves—economic freedom to make choices, and a spirit of continual enquiry and desire for change.”


A tight, well-written, and well-argued book on an important topic.

  • TODO: Would be interesting to track down responses in media — would give a flavour of attitudes out there.
  • TODO: would be interesting to start doing surveys amongst people on end-values just like e.g. Schwarz is doing on behaviour-values.

What was missing? What could be improved?

  • A stronger sense of why we have ended up here —- and the strategy for getting to this better place. These ideas are not that novel so would be good to address “if you’re so right, why aren’t more people in agreement”. This would include:
    • Psychological traps (see below)
    • Collective action traps. People are embedded in a network of social relations and financial relations. If everyone were to opt out it would work but if I just do so i may face problems (including access to goods like housing — if everyone stays in the rat race I may find myself priced out)
  • Little or no awareness of Buddhist thought or mindfulness as a practice. Buddhism mentioned just 3 times in main text and then only in passing e.g.
    • “Buddhism is usually counted as the third traditional teaching of China, but in terms of its influence on the culture at large, it can be grouped together with Taoism.” [not even accurate]
    • [Buddhism largely subsumed under Hinduism]“the Hindu scriptures urge us to extinguish it altogether. “He who is without desire, who is freed from desire …—he goes to Brahma.” This ideal, better known to us under its Buddhist name of nirvana, bears some resemblance to the Stoic concept of apatheia or tranquillity, but is otherwise without parallel in the West.”
  • A lack of consideration for the psychological factors. Getting in caught in the treadmill of capitalistic growth may be due largely to strong psychological features (acquisitiveness, competition, individualistic and dualistic ways of thinking). We have to ask why we don’t pursue the ideals they set out — they aren’t, after all, entirely novel. I would argue that a big part of the answer to that is our own erroneous cognitive and behavioural patterns — and that mindful (Buddhist) ontology and practice are central to addressing those errors.



In a previous book, Robert Skidelsky did venture to name a sum that the economist John Maynard Keynes would have considered “enough” to satisfy average needs: £40,000 or $66,000 or €46,000 a year (in today’s money). See Robert Skidelsky, Keynes: The Return of the Master, 2nd edn. (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 142, which also reveals the basis of the calculation. But Keynes was assuming a more settled idea of what the good life was than is now true, and less pressure to lead a bad life than now exists.

TODO: check the reference and the details of the calculation of this number in the referenced book

Critique of insatiability and capitalism

Introduction – p.1

This book is an argument against insatiability, against that psychological disposition that prevents us, as individuals and as societies, from saying “enough is enough.” It is directed at economic insatiability, the desire for more and more money. It is chiefly directed at the rich parts of the world, which may be reasonably thought to have enough wealth for a decent collective life. For the poor parts of the world, where the mass of the people still live in great poverty, insatiability is a problem for the future. But in rich and poor societies alike, insatiability can be seen wherever the opulence of the very rich runs wildly ahead of the means of existence of the many.

Marxists contend that economic insatiability is a creation of capitalism, which will disappear with its abolition. Christians argue that it is the product of original sin. Our own view is that it is rooted in human nature—in the disposition to compare our fortune with that of our fellows and find it wanting—but has been greatly intensified by capitalism, which has made it the psychological basis of an entire civilization. What was once an aberration of the rich is now a commonplace of everyday life.

Capitalism is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it has made possible vast improvements in material conditions. On the other, it has exalted some of the most reviled human characteristics, such as greed, envy and avarice. Our call is to chain up the monster again by recalling what the greatest thinkers of all times and all civilizations have meant by the “good life” and suggesting changes in current policy to help us achieve it.

In doing this, we will be challenging the current obsession with the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the chief goal of economic policy. We are not against economic growth as such, but we may reasonably ask not just growth for what, but growth of what. We want leisure to grow and pollution to decline. Both are part of any sane idea of human welfare. But both are excluded from GDP, which measures only that portion of domestic production that is traded in markets. There is no subtraction for pollution, and no addition for leisure. The extent to which further GDP growth will improve welfare is therefore moot. It surely does so for very poor countries, but it may be the case that rich societies already have too much GDP.

First, he asked something hardly discussed today: what is wealth for? How much money do we need to lead a good life? This might seem an impossible question. But it is not a trivial one. Making money cannot be an end in itself—at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. And what is true of individuals is also true of societies.

Aside: What is wrong with capitalism [ed: our comments more than authors]

  • It does not have base values
  • It ends up substituting its own “non-well” ways of behaving for these values — i.e. greed, envy, accumulativeness etc
  • Note: humans like to compare themselves — so they tend to like metrics that allow for comparison. Capitalism hooks into that big time.

Aside: Notes about environmental point:

  • Environmental “capital” is undermeasured — and under-priced
  • Evidence that we have a problem – and that we mismeasure “growth” if we use GDP
    • Economic Growth, Carrying Capacity, and the Environment. Arrow, Dasgupta et al (1996) [pdf]
    • Are We Consuming Too Much? Arrow et al 2004 JEP [pdf]

Chapter 6: Elements of a Good Life

First, what are useful criteria for “basic goods”? They are:

  • Universal …
  • Final — not just a means to some other good.
  • Sui-generis / largest category version of themselves. E.g. health vs freedom from cancer. Former is the ultimate category for the latter.
  • Indispensable: loss of them would be bad for anyone


An air of arbitrariness hangs over lists of basic goods, to dispel which we must make clear our criteria of inclusion. There are four:

  1. Basic goods are universal, meaning that they belong to the good life as such, not just some particular, local conception of it. To see the universal through the particular requires strong philosophical intuitions, guided by the testimony of different ages and cultures. This latter proviso is frequently forgotten. Too often, the “intuitions” of modern philosophers simply repeat the platitudes of early twenty-first-century liberalism. Nussbaum’s catalogue of central human capabilities includes, for example, “protection against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity, or national origin”—an impeccably progressive list, but hardly a universal one.10 A more philosophical caste of mind might question the equation of universal with modern liberal values. After all, from the standpoint of eternity, our own civilization is just as parochial as any other.
  2. Basic goods are final, meaning that that they are good in themselves, and not just as a means to some other good. (This distinguishes our basic goods from Rawls’s primary goods and from Nussbaum and Sen’s capabilities.) The standard philosopher’s way of uncovering final goods is to ask “what for?” over and over, like certain annoying small children. When no further answer is forthcoming, we know we have hit upon a final good. “What is that bicycle for?” “To get me to work.” “And what is work for?” “To make me money.” “And what is money for?” “To buy me food.” “And what is food for?” “To keep me alive.” “And what is life for?” Blank stare. Life is not “for” anything. In our terms, it is part of the basic good of health.

All basic goods are final, but not all final goods are basic. An explanatory chain might conceivably come to an end with “in order to complete my collection of Soviet stamps.” Completing a stamp collection is a final good—it is not usually for the sake of anything else—but it is not basic, since it fails the test of both universality and indispensability, to be discussed in more detail below.

Many philosophers would want to add an additional last term to any given sequence of explanations, namely “in order to make me happy.” We think this is a mistake. Outside psychiatric clinics and philosophy seminars, people do not generally explain their actions by saying “this will make me happy.” As we have already argued in Chapter 4, this is a strong reason not to treat happiness as the ultimate good.

The requirement of finality rules out many goods that appear at first glance to be basic. Food, for instance, features in many traditional lists of basic goods, but as the above chain of questions shows, it is in fact instrumental to the basic good of life or health. Indulged in beyond this point, it ceases to be useful, and may even be harmful. (This is not to say that all spices and relishes superfluous to health are not good, just that they are not basic goods. We do not wish to reduce everyone to a diet of salad and tofu.) More relevantly to our theme, money cannot be a basic good, since it is essentially an instrument for obtaining other things. Other goods are more ambiguous. Health, security and leisure are on some accounts final, on others instrumental. We return to this issue below.

  1. Basic goods are sui generis, meaning that they are not part of some other good. The good of “freedom from cancer” is certainly universal and final, but not basic, because it can be subsumed under the larger good of health. Whether a good is sui generis or not is often hard to decide. For instance, family relationships, which we have included under the good of “friendship,” might be thought to merit a separate heading of their own. However, since what makes family and non-family relationships good is very much the same set of things—love, trust, stability—we decided that two categories would be superfluous.
  2. Basic goods are indispensable, meaning that anyone who lacks them may be deemed to have suffered a serious loss or harm. The qualification “anyone” is important. That missing, set-completing stamp might cause the stamp fanatic much genuine anguish, but this does not make a basic good. Nor need the loss or harm in question be perceived as such by its victim. Harms are frequently so taken for granted that they no longer register, but they are still harms.

Seven Basic Goods

There are seven basic goods:

  • Health
  • Security
  • Harmony with Nature
  • Friendship
  • Respect
  • Personality
  • Leisure

Comparison in a table.


Health. By health we mean the full functioning of the body, the perfection of our animal nature. Health includes all things needed to sustain life, or a reasonable span of life, but is by no means limited to them. It implies vitality, energy, alertness and that ruddy beauty favored by Tolstoy and other moralists over more decadent ideals. Health is generally associated with absence of bodily pain, but its value is not purely utilitarian, for a comfortably ill person (on a morphine drip, say) is still worse off than a healthy one. Above all, health means a happy obliviousness of one’s own body, as of a tool perfectly fitted to its tasks. In the words of French physician René Leriche, it is “life lived in the silence of the organs.”12 Health looks outwards. Illness throws one back upon oneself.

Many philosophers have ranked health lower than the other goods, on the grounds that it belongs to our animal as opposed to our distinctively human nature. “It is for the sake of the soul,” wrote Aristotle, setting the tone, “that … goods of the body are desirable at all, and all wise men ought to choose them for the sake of the soul, and not the soul for the sake of them.”13 If this is true, then health is not final in our sense, and so has no place on a list of basic human goods. But why deny health the status of a final end simply because animals can enjoy it too? Is that not just an intellectual’s prejudice? Our admiration of a young man’s vitality need not involve the further thought that it will help him walk to work, serve his country or whatever. We can admire it for its own sake, just as we do that of a playing dolphin or leopard cub.

Today, health is the one good on which liberal states feel entitled to take a positive stance, for, unlike the goods of the soul, it carries the authority of science. But is there really a distinction here? Science can tell us whether drug x treats condition y, but not that condition y itself constitutes “ill-health.” This latter presupposes a pre-scientific, common-sense understanding of what it is for human beings to flourish. We all know a healthy baby when we see one, just as we all recognize blindness and lameness as disabilities. Other cases are more controversial. How fat does one have to be to count as overweight? How bodily capable to count as fit? Our answer to these questions will depend on what we think of the martial virtues, of sport, sex and much else besides. In short, judgments of health are objective in the same sense and to the same degree as ethical judgments: they too rest on an idea of human flourishing.

Given this relationship, it is not surprising to find that the eclipse of teleological thinking in our culture has proceeded hand in hand with an unravelling of the concept of health. The process is similar to that we have already traced in connection with money. An earlier notion of health as being in “tip-top condition,” with everything “working as it should,” has given way to a new ideal of perpetual improvement. One symptom of this slippage is our obsession with longevity. Older medical traditions aimed to help individuals realize their natural lifespan; dying “of old age” was not deemed a calamity. But if there is no such thing as a natural lifespan, only a shifting, culturally relative norm, then death at any age can be seen as a regrettable and remediable failing. Modern science has rekindled the old alchemical promise of eternal youth; meanwhile, people who a few decades earlier would have died swiftly and relatively painlessly are kept alive in a state of chronic, debilitating sickness.*

Another symptom of this disorientation is the disappearance of any sharp distinction between curing the sick and enhancing the already healthy. Once the dividing-line was clear-cut: vital operations fell on one side, cosmetic improvements on the other. But if there is no such thing as perfect health, then any undesirable condition can be defined as illness and made an object of medical treatment. (And, as we saw in Chapter 1, there is no limit to the number of things that people can find undesirable.) This whole process is hastened along by the drugs companies, who have a strong interest in identifying the illnesses that their products will cure. The role of Pfizer, manufacturer of Viagra, in transforming what was once part and parcel of the human comedy into the fearsome new ailment of “erectile dysfunction” is a case in point.

Ultimately, this assimilation of medicine to the economic rat race destroys the very idea of good health. If every state of the body can be seen as defective relative to some other, preferred state, then we are all in a sense perpetually ill. The world becomes, as Goethe said it would, a vast hospital, in which everyone is nurse to everyone else. What is more, where the demand for health is insatiable, medical costs expand in tandem with or faster than income, keeping us tethered to the work/growth treadmill. It is thus crucial to our purpose that health not be defined in this demand-relative sense, but retain the older meaning of the body’s natural perfection. For it is only in this sense that it can function as part of a criterion of enoughness.


Security. By security we mean an individual’s justified expectation that his life will continue more or less in its accustomed course, undisturbed by war, crime, revolution or major social and economic upheavals. Security is a necessary condition for the realization of other basic goods on our list, in particular personality, friendship and leisure. But it is also a good in itself. Like any creature, a human being has an environment, a set of taken-for-granted objects against which his life runs its course. If this environment is changed abruptly or frequently, he will feel perplexed and threatened, like a cat in a new house or a caged animal released into the wild. Of course, as intelligent beings, we have in us that which transcends any environment—which sees “the stars above the roof,” as the philosopher Josef Pieper puts it.14 Nonetheless, roofs and all that they imply are still necessary, not least as providing a stable location from which to gaze upon the stars. Across the world, the word “peace” has a soothing ring, while “turmoil,” “chaos” and their equivalents bode ill.

To be sure, there are types—tyrants, speculators, romantic poets—who thrive on chaos. Chairman Mao, a tyrant and a romantic poet, loved chaos so much that he renamed it “permanent revolution.” In the West, security has so long been vilified by bohemian artists and intellectuals that admitting to a fondness for it now is almost like admitting to a fondness for garden gnomes. Yet the truth is that security is cherished by all creative spirits—including poets, when they are honest with themselves—as a condition of their own productivity. W. B. Yeats, writing in 1919, as Ireland descended into war, prayed that his young daughter would grow up to enjoy security:

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house

Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;

For arrogance and hatred are the wares

Peddled in the thoroughfares.

How but in custom and in ceremony

Are innocence and beauty born?

Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,

And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Yeats was not immune to the romanticism of disorder. He had written rapturously about the “terrible beauty” of the Easter 1916 uprising. Yet faced with real chaos, his choice was clear. He knew that extreme civil disorder is destructive of the arts of civilization.

What are the effects of capitalism on security? Nineteenth-century liberals argued that le doux commerce would have a pacifying influence on international relations, since nations that traded with each other would have no good economic reasons to go to war. This argument has something to it, though of course trading nations can still go to war for bad economic or non-economic reasons, as they did in 1914. Internally, the effect of free markets on security is less salutary. “All that is solid melts into air,” wrote Marx famously, referring to the endless revolution of technologies, skills and ways of life under capitalism. This perpetual ripping up of the social fabric is wearisome for both workers and consumers. It is particularly taxing for those over the age of 40 or 50, who may have lost their taste for novelty. Free-market fundamentalists respond to such discontents with thinly veiled contempt. Those who cannot find work locally are urged to relocate, those whose talents have become redundant to “retool.” This is to get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings. That was the guiding principle of the early twentieth-century social liberals, whose enlightened efforts to minimize the insecurities of capitalism have now largely been jettisoned, as we shall see in the next chapter.


Respect. To respect someone is to indicate, by some formality or otherwise, that one regards his views and interests as worthy of consideration, as things not to be ignored or trampled on. Respect does not imply agreement or liking: one can respect an enemy. It does not imply any special admiration. But it does imply a certain recognition or “taking account” of the other’s point of view, an attitude fundamentally different from that shown towards animals. One can have great affection for a pet dog, but not respect or disrespect.*

Respect is a necessary condition of other basic goods, friendship in particular. But it is also a good in itself. Everywhere, slavery—that is, the complete withdrawal of respect—is regarded as a calamity second only to or worse than death. Indeed, as has often been said, slavery is a kind of social death, since the slave, though still human in the biological sense, has lost the status of a human being. “That look was not one between two men,” writes Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, recalling his cross-examination by a Nazi scientist.15 Those exposed regularly to such looks soon come to assimilate their perspective. Self-respect cannot long survive the withdrawal of respect.

Respect need not be equal or reciprocal. I can respect someone who respects me less or not at all. Nonetheless, reciprocal respect is uniquely satisfying to both parties, for our deepest wish is for the respect of those whom we ourselves respect. (The adoration of a sycophant or a mob leads more often to self-contempt than to self-respect.) In all ages, we find groups of “peers” or “equals” respecting each other while looking down on everyone else. The citizenry of ancient Athens was one such group, as was the medieval nobility. Modern democracy extends the circle of peers to all adults in a given territory. Whether or not its triumph is guaranteed by History, as Francis Fukuyama has claimed, it now has the support of almost all the world, at least on paper. No modern vision of the good life can be such as to thwart it. This rules out, as we noted in Chapter 3, values such as mastery and “greatness of soul,” which cannot in principle be universalized.

Respect has many sources, varying from culture to culture. Strength, money, land, nobility, education and office have all figured prominently at one time or another. In modern bourgeois societies, the two basic sources of respect are civil rights and personal achievement. Civil rights confer what one might call “formal” respect; they guarantee their possessor protection against the worst forms of arbitrary power. But because they are bestowed on all citizens regardless of their merits, they are powerless to create real respect. For this, an individual must make something of his life; at the very least, he must earn an “honest crust.” Rank and title no longer automatically confer respect. The modern-day duke must prove his worth by sitting on charitable boards and so forth; otherwise he appears little better than a parasite.

Equality of formal respect can coexist with inequality of real respect, but only up to a point. If the gulf grows too gross, formal equality will come under strain. Suppose (what is not too implausible) that persistent unemployment were to lead to the division of society into two hereditary castes, a working majority and a jobless minority. It would then be all too easy to enshrine this de facto distinction in law, with differential civil and voting rights. Democracy as we know it would cease to exist. It is also important for mutual respect that inequality not exceed certain bounds.16 An elite that lives, plays and learns entirely separately from the general population will feel no bond of common citizenship with it. A more equal—not a completely equal—distribution of wealth and income is a requirement of democratic solidarity.

It is a feature of our approach, in contrast to most recent liberal discussions, that the requirements of justice are not seen as fixable in isolation from the good but as flowing from a particular conception of it. Equality is founded on fraternity, not vice versa. It follows that there can be no abstract, a priori answer, of the kind attempted by Rawls, to the question “how much inequality is too much?” One must look to the effects of inequality on the moral fabric of society, and on the political system in particular. Where the rich behave with lawless arrogance, the poor with impotent resentment and politicians with obeisance to money, inequality has exceeded the mark.


Personality. By personality we mean first of all the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good. This is what Kantians call autonomy and Aristotelians practical reason. But the term personality implies something else as well, an element of spontaneity, individuality and spirit. Many philosophers—Kant himself springs to mind—have been models of rational self-government yet sadly lacking in personality.

Why distinguish personality and respect? Are the two concepts not correlative: respect is paid to personality; personality calls forth respect? But there is a subtle difference. One can picture a community—a monastic order, say, or a revolutionary phalanx—where all property is shared, all affairs open to scrutiny, and all wills bent on the common good. Members of this community might hold each other in the highest respect yet would lack personality. Personality implies a private space, a “room behind the shop” as Montaigne called it, in which the individual is at liberty to unfurl, to be himself. It denotes the inward aspect of freedom, that which resists the claims of public reason and duty.

Personality is pre-eminently a post-medieval, European ideal; it corresponds roughly to what the French liberal Benjamin Constant called “modern liberty.” But its appeal is not just local. All cultures have their holy fools and star-crossed lovers, honored in verse and song if not in real life. A society devoid of personality, where individuals accepted their social role without tension or protest, would scarcely be human. It would be more like a colony of intelligent social insects, of the sort envisaged in certain science-fiction films.

There is a tendency in modern liberalism to elevate personality—or autonomy, as it is usually called—into the ur-good from which all others derive. Something like this underlies, as we saw, the reluctance of Rawls, Sen and Nussbaum to discuss final ends. We think this is a mistake. Autonomy is one good among others, with no special precedence. (It can, without obvious absurdity, be sacrificed to love.) Detached from any broader background of ethical concern, autonomy degenerates into that “liberty of indifference” for which all things are possible and nothing matters. The modern rhetoric of “choosing values” is one symptom of this confusion. Properly understood, choice responds to value. Where it is allowed to create value, its exercise becomes arbitrary—like firing arrows into a barn door and drawing targets around them.

Private property is an essential safeguard of personality, for it allows individuals to live according to their own tastes and ideals, free from the tyranny of patronage and public opinion. “Stable fortunes … are an invisible social asset on which every kind of culture is more or less dependent,” wrote the French economist Marcel Labordère in a letter to Keynes. “Financial security for one’s livelihood is a necessary condition for organised leisure and thought. Organised leisure and thought is a necessary condition of a true, not purely mechanical, civilisation.”17 Note that it is specifically property, not income, that has this liberating influence. Soviet apparatchiks, with access to consumables of all sorts but not to capital, were not free to develop their personalities. Neither are those Wall Street traders whose huge pay packages vanish immediately in “necessary” expenses.* Independence is distinct from opulence, and vastly more important.

This “personalist” defense of property is central to modern Catholic social teaching, where it forms part of a subtle, two-pronged attack on both free-market capitalism and state socialism. The foundation was laid in Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum. Every householder, argues Leo, should possess the means of providing for himself and his family now and in perpetuity. To be without such means is to be forced into a degrading dependence on the managers of capital, be they private individuals or state servants. “The law, therefore, should favour ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”18 These ideas were to flow into the “distributionist” movement of early twentieth-century England, as well as into Christian Democratic thought in Germany and Italy, as we shall see in the next chapter.

The personalist argument for private property is distinct from the standard free-market one, and has different implications. For mainstream economics, property is simply part of the legal infrastructure of capitalism. Its distribution is not fundamentally a matter of concern, except insofar as it leads to monopoly pricing. By contrast, from a personalist point of view, the concentration of property in a few hands violates its essential function, which is to provide individuals and families with an independent livelihood. Property must be broadly distributed, or it cannot do its ethical job. How such a distribution might be brought about will be a central theme of the next chapter.

Harmony with Nature

Harmony with Nature. The case for treating harmony with nature as a basic human good was argued for in the last chapter. But the issue remains controversial. Martha Nussbaum reports that some of her South Asian colleagues dismissed the whole idea as “a romantic Green Party flourish.”19 We have encountered a similar reaction from Chinese friends. There is no denying the proneness of modern Westerners to wax sentimental over nature, sometimes to the extent of overlooking the weightier demands of human suffering. Nonetheless, a sense of kinship with animals, plants and landscapes is hardly a Western peculiarity. The abundance of nature poetry in Sanskrit, classical Chinese and other languages around the world is sufficient proof of that.

Harmony with nature has often been understood to favor rural over urban life. Ever since the days of Babylon and Rome, cities have appeared as sinks of squalor and vice. But the opposite point of view has also had its defenders. Socrates found all the wisdom he needed within the walls of Athens. Marx spoke of the idiocy of rural life. There is no need for us to enter into this old debate; both sides have some truth to them. What is new, however, is the sheer scale of the modern city. An inhabitant of eighteenth-century Paris, then the largest city in the world, had only to walk thirty minutes to find himself in farmland. His modern equivalent would have to walk six hours through crowded traffic. Here is the source of that typically modern feeling of urban malaise and that yearning, often comic in its effects, to “get back to nature.” The ill-effects of urban overcrowding on behavior and mood have been well documented by psychologists.

Should we abolish the modern city, then? With current population densities, such a policy would only succeed in transforming the country into a vast suburb. But we should strive to ensure that cities are not entirely alienated from their rural surroundings. For millennia, local food markets served as the main point of contact between town and country. These are now largely gone, and with them all sense of place and season. The modern British foodie can tickle his jaded palate with Japanese tempura, Sichuan chili, Moroccan couscous and a host of other pickings from the global storehouse, all equally detached from any context of meaning. Alienation from nature is just one of the unpriced costs of consumer choice.


Friendship. This is a necessarily inadequate translation of the ancient Greek philia, a term encompassing all robust, affectionate relationships. A father, spouse, teacher and workmate might all be “friends” in our sense of the term. As mentioned above, this might seem to blur a crucial distinction between family relations, which are unchosen, and friendships in the strict sense, which are elective. But examined closely, the distinction is not so clear-cut. All family relationships have an elective element—beyond a certain point, one has to work at being a mother or a sister—and all deep non-family relationships have a binding force, often expressed by the extension to them of family terms: blood-brother, mother superior and so forth. Family and other personal relations vary in structure and importance from culture to culture, but some such relations are clearly essential to any conceivable version of the good life. “No one would choose to live without friends,” noted Aristotle, “even if he had the other good things.”20

Why do we speak of “friendship” instead of “community,” a word that has become horribly popular in recent decades? Our concern has to do with reification. It is all too easy to talk about the “good of the community” as though this were something over and above the good of its constituent members. The term “friendship” is not open to this kind of abuse. My friendship with Paul is clearly a relation between me and Paul; it does not float above us, ghost-like, with interests and rights all of its own. If we could learn to think of communities in this fashion, as networks of friends, one notorious source of political oppression would be removed.

Friendship was taken seriously in the ancient world. Aristotle, in his classic discussion of the subject, distinguishes friendship proper from utility-friendship (based on a coincidence of interests) and pleasure-friendship (based on shared amusements). True friendship exists when each party embraces the other’s good as his own, thereby bringing into being a new common good. It is a relationship possible only between people of virtue, who love one another for what they are, not for what they can offer. Friendship is both personal and political. It binds together members of a family and, by extension, citizens of a polis. It is “the greatest good of states and what best preserves them against revolutions.”21 These words sound strange to modern ears. We are used to thinking of the state as an alliance of self-interested individuals, and of friendship as a purely private relationship, of no political significance. But from Aristotle’s point of view, a state without friendship is no state at all. A state is not “a mere society … established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange.” It is “the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honourable life.”22

Writing a hundred and fifty years before Aristotle, on the other side of the world, Confucius nonetheless shared his belief in the political importance of personal relationships. “Those who in private life behave well towards their parents and elder brothers, in public life seldom show a disposition to resist the authority of their superiors.”23 But the resemblance is superficial only. Confucius’ focus is on deference to authority, not participation in shared goods. And whereas Aristotle subsumes the family under the broader heading of philia, the Chinese philosopher singles it out for special commendation. “Surely proper behaviour towards parents and elder brothers is the trunk of Goodness?”24 These differences of attitude are still visible today. Western children often grow up to view their parents as “friends” in the narrow sense, whereas in China the relationship remains one of mutual love and sacrifice throughout life.

Friendship is not primarily an economic good, but it has economic prerequisites. Social trust does not flourish in times of famine. And an economy marked by continual restructuring, downsizing and outsourcing will not be hospitable to deep, long-lasting relationships. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” writes American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini, a message reiterated in countless self-help books and websites.25 In Aristotelian terms, friends acquired with the specific aim of “energizing” oneself are not real friends at all, but utility friends. Still, they are a predictable feature of a culture that prizes autonomy and mobility above almost all else.


Leisure. In contemporary parlance, leisure is synonymous with relaxation and rest. But there is another, older conception of leisure, according to which it is not just time off work but a special form of activity in its own right. Leisure in this sense is that which we do for its own sake, not as a means to something else. The philosopher Leo Strauss wrote of his friend Kurt Riezler that “the activity of his mind had the character of noble and serious employment of leisure, not of harried labor.”26 It is in this sense that we wish “leisure” to be understood.

Leisure in our sense has no very close connection to leisure as it is generally understood. Paid work could be leisure in our sense if undertaken not primarily as a means to money but for its own sake. (Many writers would carry on writing even if they earned nothing for it, or could earn more doing something else.) Conversely, many “leisure activities” are not leisure in our sense, either because they are undertaken instrumentally—playing squash to lose weight, for instance—or because they are too passive to count as action at all. (Watching television and getting drunk are actions only in the minimal sense that everything we do is an action. They lack the spontaneity and skill characteristic of action in the full sense, and are therefore best viewed as “rest” rather than leisure.) Leisure in our sense is distinguished not by lack of seriousness or strenuousness but by absence of external compulsion. It thus comes close to what Marx called non-alienated labor, which he defined as “a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life.”27

The importance of leisure has been recognized by civilizations across the world. The three great Abrahamic religions all set aside a weekly Sabbath or day of rest, though this is not quite leisure in our sense, being primarily for the purpose of worship, not free activity.28 Aristotle came closer in his distinction between the “liberal” and “mechanical” arts, the former being those suitable to freemen, the later to workmen and slaves (“We call those arts mechanical which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind”).29 But it was in Edo Japan that the cultivation of leisure was taken furthest. Deprived by centuries of peace of its traditional occupations, the feudal aristocracy turned instead to the arts of life, transforming everyday activities like bathing and tea drinking into exquisite ceremonies. The French philosopher Alexandre Kojève looked to Japan as the first successful “post-historical” society. We may hope, he wrote, tongue only partially in cheek, “that the recently begun interaction between Japan and the Western World will finally lead not to a rebarbarization of the Japanese but to a ‘Japanization’ of the Westerners.”30

Why is leisure a basic good? The reason is clear: a life without leisure, where everything is done for the sake of something else, is vain indeed. It is a life spent always in preparation, never in actual living. Leisure is the wellspring of higher thought and culture, for it is only when emancipated from the pressure of need that we really look at the world, ponder it in its distinct character and outline. (The ancient Greek for leisure, schole, hints at this connection.) “When we really let our minds rest contemplatively on a rose in bud, on a child at play, on a divine mystery, we are rested and quickened as though by a dreamless sleep,” writes Josef Pieper. “It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together.”31 Without leisure, there is no genuine, but only that “mechanical,” civilization spoken of by Marcel Labordère. The modern university, with its machinery of “targets” and “outputs,” embodies this grim spectre.

Such a conception of leisure may seem narrowly highbrow, but that is not the intention. All recreations involving active, skilled participation—playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends—are leisure in our sense. What matters is not the intellectual level of the activity, but its character of “purposiveness without purpose.”

What are the economic conditions of leisure? First of all, a reduction of toil, a category that includes not just paid work but all necessary activity, including commuting and housework, and excludes paid work undertaken primarily for its own sake, such as that of the devoted writer or artisan. Where toil occupies so great a portion of one’s day as to leave time only for sleep and rest, leisure is impossible. But a mere reduction of toil is not sufficient for leisure in our sense, as the figure of Keynes’s bored housewife suggests. To live “wisely and agreeably and well” requires not just time but application and taste. It is ironic, if unsurprising, that the old arts of life—conversation, dancing, music-making—are atrophying just when we have most need of them. An economy geared to maximizing marketable output will tend to produce manufactured rather than spontaneous forms of leisure.

Realising the Basic Goods

The role of the state …

If the first goal of the individual is to realize the good life for himself, the first duty of the state is to realize, insofar as lies within its power, the good life for all citizens. (This principle of justice is founded on the good of mutual respect, as discussed above.) The qualification “insofar as lies within its power” is important. Health and friendship lie largely in the lap of fate. Personality, respect and leisure depend partly on individual agency. Still, the state has an important and legitimate role in creating the material conditions under which these and other goods can flourish. Such conditions include not just a certain overall level of national wealth but its just distribution, its wise public expenditure and much more besides. The rest lies in the hands of individuals and civil institutions. To adapt a phrase of Keynes, the state is the trustee not of civilization but of the possibility of civilization.


  • HealthAverage life expectancy in Britain rose by just over seven years from 1974 to 2009. This increase owes little to growth, however. Life expectancy has improved in almost all countries over this period, regardless of growth rates, mainly as a result of advances in medical technology and infrastructure.36 China and Brazil now trail the West by only six or seven years, while Cuba, one of the poorer nations of the world, boasts a life expectancy equal to that of the USA. Moreover, as argued above, mere length of life is a poor index of health, since it tells us nothing about quality. “The good life is surely not measured by its length in years,” wrote an 86-year-old James Lovelock, “but by the intensity of the joy and good consequences of existence.”37
  • health may actually be deteriorating with affluence
    • Alcohol-related deaths, obesity, prescriptions for depression, rise in depression, work-related stress
    • By historical standards, we remain extremely healthy, but the old assurance that this state of affairs would continue in perpetuity is fading


  • Full employment as a goal of macroeconomic policy was abandoned during the Reagan/Thatcher era and has not been reinstated.
  • In Britain and the USA, jobs for life have increasingly been replaced by temporary or open contracts. Job tenure for British men fell 20 percent from 1975 to 1995.
  • At the same time, there has been a marked growth in temporary, especially agency, workers, whose numbers have doubled since 1992
  • These trends are partly structural, an effect of the ongoing shift from industry to services, but they have been exacerbated by policy. Security has been regarded as a legitimate sacrifice to the greater good of growth, not as a basic human need.
  • TODO: What about other aspects, such as crime, war, …?


  • The greatest barrier to mutual respect in most Western nations is the emergence, beginning in the 1970s, of a permanent body of state dependants.* Once shielded by a residue of Christian and social democratic sentiment, “chavs” and “scroungers” are now treated with open contempt in the press and on television. Another barrier to mutual respect is excessive inequality. This destroys respect not just for those at the bottom, but also those at the top, especially if their advantages are perceived as unmerited. Inequality has risen in most Western countries since the 1970s, in Britain and the USA especially, as Chart 12 shows. This trend is partly a function of autonomous social forces, but the slashing of the top rate of income tax under Thatcher and Reagan undoubtedly accentuated it.
  • Finally, the “turbo-capitalism” enshrined in Wall Street and the City of London over the last thirty years has led to a brutalization of working relations. “His BlackBerry and security pass are taken from him by burly men, he has no further access to work email, and five minutes to clear his desk,” runs an article describing the fate of an equity analyst, sacked for taking time off to see his sick wife.43 Such scenes are all too common. Today, high salaries are no security against proletarianization and its attendant humiliations.


  • We have said that the main economic safeguard of personality is property. This might seem to spell good news for Britain, where home ownership rose steadily over the course of the last century and now stands at 68 percent, having fallen from an all-time high of 71 percent in 2003. However, since most property is bought on mortgage, with outright ownership coming only late in life, if at all, its effects are anything but emancipatoryMortgaged property binds its owner to a regular job. It is specifically wealth —that is, an individual’s total assets minus his or her liabilities— that confers freedom to pursue an autonomous plan of life.
  • The overall picture is not encouraging for the advocates of growth at all cost. Despite the doubling of UK per capita income, we possess no more of the basic goods than we did in 1974; in certain respects, we possess less of them. We have chased after superfluities and neglected necessities. This, incidentally, may explain the “flat line” of happiness discussed in Chapter 4, if indeed it is anything more than a statistical artifact. It could be that people sense, correctly, that their lives are objectively no better now than they were then. Jil Matheson, head of the UK Office for National Statistics, has identified the things that matter most for happiness as “health, relationships, work and the environment”—a list that tallies closely with our basic goods.55 Given that our lives have not noticeably improved in these respects since 1974, it is hardly surprising that we do not feel any happier.

Chapter 7:  Exits from the Rat Race


My Introduction to Gautama’s uncommon wisdom

Long ago, when I was in a Boy Scout summer camp, we were making out way through a pack of candy that a few of us had pooled our money to buy (“Nerds”, I think) when we noticed that there was a prize competition. Thousands of dollars of prizes were there to be won, and to us, it was life changing money. We mused about the possibilities of the prizes at stake, and in our unrestricted childish imaginations the musings quickly acquired lifelike resolution, and we were nearly living in the new lives that Nerds were offering.

Then, suddenly, when our conversation had driven us to some new height of titillation, the question of sharing arose. Details are hazy, but it went something like: My friend Steve and I had split the cost of the pack of Nerds, and were planning on sharing the prize. Somebody else pointed out that he had shared much better candy that he’d brought from home freely, and thought that this should entitle him to a share of the prize others thought that we should just split the prize equally, for their various reasons. Ideas differed. I do clearly remember the instant when eyes shifted around our loose circle and souls coiled as us kids looked for a chance to make up winning sides in the argument. At some point, it occurred to me that this was all over some prizes that were a lot like the lottery tickets that my Auntie and mother usually bought and threw away with sighs that were small, and even then seemed half-feigned.

I blurted this out. We all realized immediately that we were being stupid, and passions fell, and we exchanged the sorts of apologies that our mothers had made us rehearse over the years, and we went back to being friends and went swimming, I think we threw out the prize mail-in form, in an act of solidarity. I think even then I regarded as this as a life lesson. It was one of those occasions where you watch your mind run away with reality. Looking back, I would call the lesson that was learned a lesson in attachment.

It is uncontroversially unwise to attach yourself to lottery prizes, adults played their own lottery with individual tickets, but generally, they do not care much when they lose. It seems to me that people are more attached to the small thrill that comes from the possibility of winning – this is regular and reliable element of the experience, the ritualistic part that you can hold on to, without being burned. Its a bit like how, when the ability to experience sexual desire is a new thing, we get infatuated with celebrities (or in some cases, porn stars,) but learn to just enjoy looking at them and vicariously experiencing their life. We are all intuitive experts in attachment, and the common wisdom is definitely to get attached, but to get attached to things that are sure or worth the risk. The uncommon wisdom of the Buddha is that since nothing is sure, there is only certainty of cessation, and so nothing is worth the risk, better to simply not be attached to anything, and that it is possible to live this way, though this requires total concentration. Undoubtedly this message always struck me strongly because of a more consequential childhood event.

I found out that nothing is a sure thing, nothing is forever, at a young age. When I was in the second grade my Dad had a seizure while driving on a late November day and lost control of his vehicle. His truck swerved into a lake and and he drowned. He worked two jobs, running a construction company, and teaching calculus in high school, and was not around too much, but when he was, he was a character. He was big and tall and garrulous and charismatic, and people loved him. A tough guy who was full of laughs and stories around the dinner table. He was smart and fierce, he also used to coach American football, leading his school, the St. Lawrence Vikings, which had no previous distinction in the sport, to four titles in eight years as coach before retiring to try his hand at construction. He walked like a guy who did that, and your silly inconsequential little chest swelled with pride being around him, you felt tough too. He was also sensitive, lying on the bed face down and crying when the family dog died. I don’t remember than much of our time together we really hung on those legs tight when he was around, literally attaching ourselves to him with a tight grip as our young bodies could muster.

We grasp onto reliable things, the big and safe embrace of a parent, our soft bed and drink in the evening. They make their impressions into our memories, and we turn memories into anticipations, anticipations beget cravings. Just look at your life, and you will see this directly. Cravings are fulfilled and strengthened over and over again, and over and over, establishing ever more well worn deep impressions of experience into our inner life, the habits of feeling that make up make up reality. We equate reality with the feeling of solidity and heaviness. If all goes well, these things don’t one day vanish and leave us with with our drives, our cravings calling out to be met in vain.

They had his funeral in the gymnasium of St. Lawrence High School and people filled past the casket in lines, and told us how sorry they were. Not as sorry as we were, I remember still the persistent shocks at realizing, time and again, that he wasn’t coming home tonight, again, as in the early evening according to schedule, anticipation of his presence arose. It was impossible to let go of the sensations that felt so real, the anticipation of the routine that had been so solid for so long is deep and unconscious and lawlike, and it is only at certain points in life, when suddenly it is yanked away, that you find out how deep. We foolishly made our mother and aunt to promise us that they wouldn’t die too. It was impossible to entertain the idea that something similar could happen again. Taking the view that God couldn’t possibly let this happen to us twice helped to chase this away, it helped reliably, I found myself quite attached to that one. But it was obviously untrue, and so we needed it to feel more real, and hearing things make them seem real, so we were in turn attached to asking again and again that Mommy and Auntie would not go and die, and hearing “no” in a certain voice.

Grieving, suffering, is the process of letting go of these built up attachments, and the more sharp and brutal the change in our situation the more searing the pain will be, the more resolutely we hang on to them the longer the pain will last. Of course, all good things come to an end, but if we are lucky things slowly fade away, the fire of new love, the vitality of a parent, or we know the end is coming like at the end of University or a trip, and we learn intuitively, to manage our attachments accordingly. When people suddenly vanish, however, we are brought into awareness of the gap of the world of the attachments, which is the world of the past, and the present actuality of the world.. And we are always aware, no matter how much we might prefer blissful ignorance that we and others, are impermanent, and so the truth of the world is always in tension with anticipations, and there is always fear tinging life.

The anticipated world that we are always expecting, every moment, and the cold colossus of actuality find themselves out of line, and the result is pain, just pain, that drives our mind to contort one way or another, till, perhaps, we find some way to feel about it. We find ways to feel about something by taking different views of it. He’s in a better place, it was God’s will, life goes on, time heals all wounds, and so on. These allow us to reflect on our loved one’s basking in the glories of eternal life or reappearing in a shiny new vessel just arising from a woman somewhere who we’ve never met, but who is no doubt lovely, or the ways in which this event must somehow add to the splendor of the world. Or, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that all things, even pain, are temporary, though probably not as temporary as we are attached to feeling that it is. We then in turn get attached to these views, and our take on reality is rigid, as pile views on top of attachments, and conversations must be cut off. With original attachment, such accumulation is inevitable, and so it has seemed to me, the Buddha was indeed wise.


Open-mindedness and Non-attachment to Views

… Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

Thich Nhat Hanh, First Mindfulness Training “Reverence for Life”1

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.

Bacon, 1620, Novum Organum Aphorism 46

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir”

John Maynard Keynes, Economist, (Apocryphal)

Consider that one of the greatest obstacles to our well-being is our attachment to views — our desire to believe that we are right and others are wrong. As a result, we find it hard to change our views and to hear others. This can result in dogmatism, fanaticism and violence – both physical and emotional. At a personal level, our attachment to views may be one of the greatest obstacle to our own well-being and enlightenment because of the difficulty we face relinquishing deep-rooted beliefs in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’.2

In this primer we look at three areas related to this issue. First, we look at what we mean by attachment and non-attachment to views and their relationship to engagement and detachment. We clarify that non-attachment is not de-attachment but rather un-attached engagement and open-mindedness.

Second, we present scientific evidence on attachment to views: that we resist changing our views despite strong, contraryevidence. We discuss various reasons why that might be and the impact of this materially and spiritually.

Third, we explore the deeper connections with ontology and our ideas of self in philosophy and Buddhism.

What are Attachment and Non-Attachment?

Ordinarily we think of attachment as something positive or even neutral: I’m attached to this old watch because my father gave it to me, or the boat is attached to the shore by a rope. And conversely to be unattached sounds a bit negative. For example, if you say “I’m unattached” it means you are without a romantic relationship — whereas to be attached is to have one (observe that common slang for getting married is to “get hitched” which roughly approximates to to “get attached”).

And this sense is still there when it comes to views. Not to be attached to a view is often called de-tached. Whilst this can be a positive sense of dispassionate and independent as in “the judge considered the arguments with a sense of detachment”, there is also the sense of being uninvolved and uncaring: “the man watched the dogs attack the fox with an air of detachment”.

Thus our use of attachment may be surprising. In ordinary english attachment is often used in as positive context: we are attached to places, people and things that we like and care about. Conversely, the opposite of attachment — *de*tachment — has a mildly negative sense of emotionless unconcern, anomie, lifelessness — “he kissed her with an air of detachment”, “he lived detached, absent, as if something were permanently missing”.

Our use of attachment and non-attachment derives from a Buddhist tradition. In that tradition “attachment” is the translation for key concept around the way that we “cling” to things: experiences, things, ideas, even consciousness. It can be found as a key phrase in translations of the Four Noble Truths, the core teachings of the Buddha3:

  1. Life involves suffering
  2. Suffering arises from attachment [also translated as “craving”, “clinging to” …]
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment ceases
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

The special usage also explains why we use *non-*attachment rather than de-tachment as the contrast to attachment. Non-attachment, which is our focus here, is not detachment. It is not simply an absence, a lack of attachment. Rather it is something positive, a positive choice that makes true engagement and commitment possible.

Consider an analogy with listening. When we listen to another person we can listen in several ways. One way to listen is to do passively. It is listening just as not talking but without really engaging with what the person is saying. What they say comes in our ears but we do not really hear it or listen to it in a true sense. This is “detached” listening. On the other hand, there are times when we truly listen and listen deeply. This is an active not a passive act. We actively engage ourselves with what they are saying, opening our mind to it, positively welcoming what they are saying.

Attachment in Everyday life and Science

If we look around us: at newspapers, at our friends, even in our own lives, it becomes clear that misinformation is ubiquitous, and that false and erroneous beliefs are widespread and persistent.

For example, over half of all voters in Republican Primaries in 2011 were “birthers” who believed that President Obama was not born in the United States despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Other famous examples are denial of evidence for evolution and for global warming.

The famous phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, is consistent with ancient beliefs about attachment to views. Psycholigists define Cognitive Dissonance as the negative feeling of mental stress that one feels when confronted with two contradictory beliefs, or engaging in behavior that conflicts with beliefs. In a review of studies goal pursuit, a team of psychologists lead by William Hart found that the more beliefs are important for a goal (i.e. the more we are attached to them), the more we tend to experience dissonance that causes us to avoid information that contradicts these beliefs, and tend minimize or discount information that contradicts our positions, even when we cannot avoid it. In comparison, subjects show minimal avoidance of information that conflicted with beliefs that were not important for the maintenance of a goal (i.e. beliefs to which participants were not attached.) This shows that attachment to a particular goal can distort our reality, and so we should be mindful of our attachment at all times.

A recent New Yorker article, I don’t want to be right chronicles the attempt of a team of scientists to take psychology out of the lab and change deeply held, but wrong real-world beliefs. These scientists designed interventions to change views on “birtherism” and the belief that autism is caused by vaccines, which has its origins in a single retracted study. Their efforts to change beliefs have been largely unsuccessful, overall what they found was that “if information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.” When beliefs that are central to a person’s self-concept or which are the basis for important decisions, such as whether to have their children immunized, are challenged they will tend to resolve to resolve the resulting discomfort by discounting or undermining the challenging information.

The lone intervention that makes a (small) difference is having participants engage in self-affirmation, recounting positive moments from their past. This increased faith in one’s self helps to buffer subjects from conflict between the threat to their self concept that comes from being told that they might “be wrong” about something.

Buddhist teachings would suggest not to be attached to being right in the first place. This non-attachemnt is cultivated through the practice of being mindful of one’s attachments. These include not only the unpleasant sensations that come from being challenged, also the emotional attachments, such as pride and righteousness, that are the ultimate source of our attachment.

Note that as mentioned above, with regards to detachment, this does not imply that one should not care about truth. We are so used to depending on attachment to pride in being smart or morally superior to justify our attempts understand the world, that we can’t imagine any other way. It is a contention of Buddhism that such a way exists. This may sound extraordinary, but it is not. Just think about the last time that you learned something new, that you had no ego involvement in. You were probably interested, but were also able to change your mind from one moment to the next. Non-attachment is simply inhabiting such a state all of the time.

This is done by simply acknowledging our feelings but not be “caught-up in them” – not giving them great importance. This helps to maintain a calm mind, essential to reasoning clearly, and changing one’s mind when the facts change. This is part of common mindfulness practice, which helps to calm emotions and a racing mind. Science in its relatively short engagement with Buddhist philosophy has not tested this notion thoroughly, but published reviews of the mindfulness literature suggest links between the extinction of attachment by mindfulness training and well-known phenomenon, such as extinction of fear by exposure conditioning 4.

A Loving Father Rejects His Son

An old story attributed to the historical “Buddha”, Siddhartha Gautama, communicates the Buddhist perspective elegantly (Recounted in The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh, pp.87-89.)

The Buddha tells the story of a merchant, a widower, who went away in a business trip and left his little boy at home. While he was away, bandits came and burned down the whole village. When the merchant returned, he didn’t find his house, it was just a heap of ash. There was the charred body of a child close by. He threw himself on the ground and cried and cried. He beat his chest and pulled his hair. The next day, he had the little body cremated. Because his beloved son was his only reason for existence, he sewed a beautiful velvet bag and put the ashes inside. Wherever he went, he took that bag of ashes with him. Eating, sleeping, working, he always carried it with him.

In fact, his son had been kidnapped by the bandits. Three months later, the boy escaped and returned home. When he arrived, it was two o’clock in the morning. He knocked on the door of the new house his father had built. The poor father was lying on his bed crying, holding the bag of ashes, and he asked, ‘Who is there?’ ‘It’s me, Daddy, your son.’ The father answered, ‘That’s not possible. My son is dead. I’ve cremated his body and I carry his ashes with me. You must be some naughty boy who’s trying to fool me. Go away, don’t disturb me!’ He refused to open the door, and there was no way for the little boy to come in. The boy had to go away, and the father lost his son forever.

After telling the story, the Buddha said, ‘If at some point in your lifeyou adopt an idea or a perception as the absolute truth, you close the door of your mind. This is the end of seeking the truth. And not only do you no longer seek the truth, but even if the truth comes in person and knocks on your door, you refuse to open it. Attachment to views, attachment to ideas, attachment to perceptions are the biggest obstacle to the truth.’

Successful Debiasing Psychological Science in the Public Interest December 2012 13: 106-131,

  • Lord C, Lepper MR, Ross L. Biased assimilation and attitude polarization. The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1979; 37: 2098-2110.
  • Hart, P. Sol, and Erik C. Nisbet. 2012. ‘Boomerang Effects in Science Communication How Motivated Reasoning and Identity Cues Amplify Opinion Polarization About Climate Mitigation Policies’. Communication Research 39 (6): 701–23. doi:10.11770093650211416646.
  • Fishing a Superfund Site: Dissonance and Risk Perception of Environmental Hazards by Fishermen in Puerto Rico
  • Garrett, R. Kelly, and Brian E. Weeks. 2013. ‘The Promise and Peril of Real-Time Corrections to Political Misperceptions’. In Proceedings of the 2013 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 1047–1058. CSCW ’13. New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.11452441776.2441895.
  • Lewandowsky, Stephan, Michael E. Mann, Nicholas J. L. Brown, and Harris Friedman. 2016. ‘Science and the Public: Debate, Denial, and Skepticism’. Journal of Social and Political Psychology 4 (2): 537–53. doi:10.5964/jspp.v4i2.604.

  1. [return]
  2. Taken from the definition of “ontological addiction” in Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013a). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 63–71. [return]
  3. See e.g. [return]
  4. How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural PerspectivePerspectives on Psychological Science , 2011 6: 537, Britta K. Hölzel, Sara W. Lazar, Tim Gard, Zev Schuman-Olivier, David R. Vago and Ulrich Ott [return]

Non Attachment to Views by Jonathan Ekstrom

Non-attachment is a subtle and far reaching internal orientation away from depending on things. These things include all “objects” which the subject might fallaciously come to believe are either itself, or needed to support itself. This includes cars, food, relationships, ideas, thoughts, emotions, indeed all phenomena which occur in “experience”. Objects which confuse experience also includes all “spiritual experiences, awakenings and states”.

Illustration by Emily Bowers

The yoga sutras on patanjali focus on just this issue, in that they presuppose that the problem of existence is that “consciousness has become entangled with the world” and the disentangling of the two is the work of the yogi. In this way yoga practice is very similar to buddhist practice (the difference being that the yoga tradition believes that pure consciousness exists whereas the buddhist tradition, at least theravada, also regards consciousness as a construct, the true reality being just emptiness). In this way buddhism has been regarded as superior to the yoga traditions of india because only in buddhist is there a focus on not only letting go (becoming non attached), but also of letting go of letting go (being non attached to becoming non attached). This is essential because it avoids what was known in the western christian traditions as “the sin of the saints”, ie that of pride in ones spiritual attainment.

On a practical sense, what is going on phenomenologically and moment to moment in perception is that we think objects (thoughts, emotions, cars, food) which are somehow “out there” or indeed “in here” are appearing to “us”, the subject. When they do, several things can happen. In the worst cases, the ego is in need of such support (being an incomplete ego, noting that the function of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in the west is to construct a strong ego) that the ego identifies with the object: “I am a person who drives a porsche”. When the porsche disappears, suffering occurs, the inherent dukkha in existence: “wherever there is clinging, there is suffering”. This is going on in all human beings. Those humans who engage in some practices of awareness and non-attachment will hopefully suffer this type of experience less, but however they will still be experiencing the aversion and the attraction to sense objects as they arise moment to moment. For example, being attracted to sunshine and aversive to clouds on gloomy days in cambridge. One of the main insight practices taught these days is developing an awareness of how our aversion and attraction to sense objects arises, as this is said to begin to reduce attachment and ultimately to demonstrate the emptiness of the subject-object as a construction in perception.

This last point is critical because whereas almost all other traditions aim to reach some kind of pure unchanging level of consciousness, sometimes equated with religious ideas such as God, the Buddha noted that the very experience of existence (which he called “consciousness” appeared out of a chain of interdependent events in the process of cognition. In other words, our experience of being a subject experiencing the world (object) has no intrinsic reality and is a fabricated consequence of the process: event, sense door data, perception, recognition etc. Liam knows this much better than me because the same set of events in the construction of perception now appears to be well verified within cognitive science. The fabrication of perception and indeed our experience of existence through interdependent co-arising, paticca samuppada, is the central doctrine which leads to the perception of emptiness and the incalculable freedom that entails.

Illustration by Emily bowers

One very important and easier way to practice non attachment in the world is non-attachment to view. This is simply not being attached to your viewpoint, it being a construction based on conditioning which has nothing to do with “you”. If we could even get beyond something as simple as attachment to view in the world, we would have no more wars. Hooray.

An attachment which is notoriously hard to let go of is the attachment to body and mind. Most of us think we are our body and our mind, and even when we realise this is simply ridiculous, we continue to be attached to the pleasant states of mind and body. Many people appear to practice meditation and do physical exercise simply to increase the amount of time they are in pleasant mind body states, indeed often i realise my practice in everyday life has been reduced to this rather poor mode.

Why is non-attachment great? Because it is one of the characteristics of freedom. Buddha did not teach about being good, or achieving something spiritually, he simply taught a method for freedom. You could summarise these practices as “Things don’t exist, and therefore freedom does”. But then again, that is simply another view….

by Jonathan Ekstrom


Co-X: What is all this Co-X Stuff (Co-living, Co-working, Coops) and Why Do We Care?

Here are the slides from my talk at the Art / Earth / Tech 2016 Gathering in July 2016:

Helsinki Version – September 2016

I produced a revised version of these slides a month later for a talk in Helsinki:



A community for people seeking a wiser world

Though living in societies which have never been so rich our sense of purpose and connection is often missing. A growing number of us are seeking lives that are meaningful as well as productive yet we struggle to find a balance, finding ourselves trapped in conflict.

With Art / Earth / Tech (Life Itself) we want to offer a way to combine wiser and weller ways of living whilst remaining engaged in conventional society.

Our approach focuses on fostering a community of people seeking a wiser world. We do this by providing space, a network and knowledge. Space in the form of physical places that can act as homes for our community members to work, meet and stay. Space in the form of gatherings that bring the community together to reflect, learn and connect. Knowledge in the form of education and research to develop and share ideas, approaches and best practices.

We are practical and natural. We connect the ancient and the modern. Our interests ranges from nature to neuroscience, Dada to data. We seek harmony and balance: art and techne, earth and spirit, science and wisdom, freedom and discipline, mindfulness and intention. Our name reflects this commitment to a holistic approach.

Art: because it develops self-expression – our the fundamental need to express ourselves and to explore what it means to be human.

Earth: because to understand the earth is to see oneself as part of something both greater and something whole. To find respect the earth is to find respect for ourselves.

Tech: because our techniques and technologies delimit and create our present and future. Tech is both a question of developing our craft but also of shaping what we create.