Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
Jonas Mortensen’s guide to personalism in The Common Good is comprehensive, effective and challenging. Could the relational focus of personalism provide an antidote to the ideology of ‘increased productivity’, of alienation, and of a focus on the development of the individual self above and outside of its situational relationships? Mortensen certainly thinks relationship is the key to understanding personalism. Two other concepts essential to personalism – dignity and engagement – are mentioned roughly 70 and 60 times each over the course of the book. Mortensen uses the word ‘relationship’ 153 times.
As a counterbalance to totalitarianism, Mortensen argues that while personalism’s heyday extended from the 1930s to the 1960s, breathing life into personalism now would reverse the driving trends of loneliness, separation, alienation and other fragmenting experiences that create crises in all societies of the global North. He adds the thought-provoking rejoinder that if healthy relationships, rather than self-realised individuals, became the focus of societies, responsibility would trump freedom. I suggest that freedom is misconceived in any case, and therefore that Mortensen misses the point, but his suggestion makes for an interesting debate.
Firstly, then, is the question of whether or not humanity is in a state of crisis.
In Enlightenment Now! (2018), Stephen Pinker would most likely argue that personalism advocates are ‘progress deniers’, and that the world in which we now live is quantifiably better in every measure than the world in which our ancestors, or even our grandparents, lived. James Hansen’s Storms of our Grandchildren (2009) invites us to ponder a more sobering view of ‘progress’ than the version offered by Mortensen.
The point is, from where I’m standing, that personalism doesn’t go far enough in addressing the crises we face. These extend beyond human relationships into the more-than-human-world that created and sustains us. Mortensen’s book is a brilliant introduction to a relational approach, and it is clear that freedom and responsibility need to be balanced with relationships in mind. But the urgent situations we face in societies across the globe arise from how we view the world, as much as from how we view one another. How we view the world, and ourselves within it, affects how we understand our freedom and capacity to act. So while I agree with Mortensen that how we see something affects how we act, we need to cast the net much wider, and also, we need to recognise that our freedom to act comes from a spirit in the sense of attitude (‘that’s the spirit!’), not a spirit in the sense of holy ghost.
Spirit as Attitude
I was interested in Mortensen’s discussion of how we relate to one another, and with what attitude. Focusing on others, the ethos of what Karol Wojtyla calls ‘altruism’ in our relationships with other people, becomes a joy. The idea is that joy arises because you take the focus off yourself. It is the relationship that matters, and nurturing the relationship is what makes you happy.
Implicit in this is the idea that, from the personalist perspective, you recognise a spiritual core to the other, and to the relationship as well. I think it is equally possible to argue that this approach to altruism is entirely secular, and that the happiness that arises from it benefits both the individual in relation with themselves, as well as the relationships they have with others, but that this also benefits the relationship with the more-than-human-world. There is a great deal of evidence that doing things for others is more beneficial to health and well-being than acting selfishly. The University of Berkeley, California, offers a free online course called The Science of Happiness, which is essentially a compilation of secular, empirical research into the benefits of other-directed action. Doing things for others need not rely on a belief in a soul, though, just as doing things for others need not stop at fellow humans; in fact our response and responsibility goes way beyond human beings.
Mortensen’s analysis is that the crisis created by a kind of default acceptance of individualism very probably ‘crept in quite unnoticed’ as a result of ‘in many cases sensible choices’ made over the past decades (p27). This is spot on, and he seems equally spot on in his view that ‘depersonalisation’ and polar politics are manifestations of the crisis. We did not set out to mess things up, yet mess things up we have, to misquote Paul Simon. This is an important point. In his book, The Compassionate Mind (2009), Paul Gilbert makes the same point about our individual situations: we did not choose to be here. We simply find ourselves here. The same is true of social circumstance, and of course, when we are drawn by default survival motives, to the directions society takes. Mortensen is also right that we simply cannot afford to waste vast amounts of time and energy on confrontation, blame, judgement and associated aggression. These in fact create the crises. I would add that we cannot afford to waste energy on self-blame, shame and even, to a large extent, guilt. I will come back to this idea in more detail when I address the final chapter of Mortensen’s book. We are here largely as a result of choices we were not aware of making. We need to conserve, not waste, energy, and focus on what we can do to shift the dualistic (self/other dichotomous), atomistic paradigm, largely through shifting our own view of what matters. I see the crisis as broader than inter-human, but I also see the work we have to do as individualistic in the following sense: only I can change my own attitude, and my attitude is all that I can change. Solving the human social crisis is directly proportional to addressing the ecological emergency (by which I mean climate change, biodiversity, species and habitat loss, pollution, and all the associated detrimental impacts of the Anthropocene). Our relationship with self, other and the more-than-human-world are all equally fundamental to our survival, are all, in fact, aspects of the same interrelationship. Change happens when we realise there is no ‘it’ separate from ‘us’, or even ‘you’ separate from ‘me’. In personalist terms, relationship is where the dance is, where the action is, and our realisation of our relationship, when it elicits compassion, is our agency. What we need to be aware of is that as agents, we are more than human, and our impact is much, much broader than just interpersonal.
3. Three degrees
Personalism’s approach relies on three core principles or understandings of the human condition. It relies on an ‘anthropology’ (philosophy of what a human being is) that puts humans at the centre of society. This anthropology describes, and sets a framework for understanding, what it is to be human. Putting humans at the centre of society seems sensible and straightforward. This anthropocentric approach that places humans firmly at the centre presupposes a few fundamental, questionable assumptions about our relationship to the cosmos, but I will come to this as I look at each principle in turn.
3.1 Principle of Relationality
The first core principle of personalism states that humans are relational. I brook no argument with this. However, I would add that, being relational, humans are also entirely enmeshed, to use Timothy Morton’s word. What I mean by this is that in a sense, we are no more than the crests of the waves of conditions and circumstances that push a particular moment to the surface, and we are, therefore, intimately and necessarily interrelated with all other circumstances and conditions. We do not choose our genetic heritage, our place, time, or country of birth, yet these influence how we act, and react. This means that our consideration of ourselves as atomistic entities, independent of the physical (and ecological) situation, is outmoded and self-deceptive. We must urgently re-orientate our perspective, so we see ourselves as within, and not atop, these interrelationships, with the capacity, however, for self-reflection that allows a ‘stepping back’ to elicit compassion, the rational response to this reflection. The chances of this happening in time for us to alter the trajectory of the juggernaut that is the common human project is perhaps pretty slim. But our understanding of our relatedness needs to extend much more widely than the human sphere.
I agree that a relational understanding of ourselves is an important project for shifting how we see ourselves. However, I would not call this project an ideology. Mortensen defends his use of the term ‘ideology’ in spite of recognising that it has been a dangerous concept in the past. Ideological thinking, in the sense of the ideation of an ideal, often utopian, state of affairs towards which we should aim, creates gaps between what is actually going on; between reality, as the way things are, and what we want to be going on; an idealised other state; and a vision of what things would be like if we made the requisite changes. These gaps create a vacuum into which much that is hypocritical must flow. The utopian ends can be used to justify many unjust means. If this approach has failed so often and so consistently as an attempt to respond to crises, then it is time we looked for a different way of responding.
I am not sure how many personalists think personalism could incorporate an alternative, anti-ideological view. Imagine a change in focus, taking a ‘wu wei’ (doing nothing) or ‘zazen’ (just sitting) attitude in the kind of critical situation Mortensen and indeed I think pertains. In this way, instead of having a utopian vision, or an aim or goal for society, which is an illusory basis for action in any case (and there is good neurological evidence to support this), this would involve taking a meditative, open awareness to the situation, just as it is. This is very like the attitude of paying attention that is inherent in meditative spiritual practices, but without trying to control the next action. Rather, it is the act of coming to awareness (which, in some traditions, directly corresponds with prayer) and attuning to compassion which is the attitude that arises most readily when we ‘step back’, observe, connect to a present moment awareness. In eliciting compassion, a completely different set of opportunities, possibilities or potential lines of action begin to emerge, and, in Taoist terms, the one that is the Way, where energy flows most optimally, even in dissipation, emerges most clearly. What needs to be done happens through us. We are conduits for compassion, and for the compassionate act.
The major criticism this kind of practice faces is that it is seen as passive, and people have great difficulty in understanding how an attitude that focuses entirely on what is happening at the present moment could possibly create the impetus we need to respond to the kinds of crises and dangers we face both as a species and individually. And yet, surprisingly, there is considerable evidence from neuroscience to demonstrate a measurable impact of practices that include and involve a focused effort on meditative awareness on both personal well-being, but also on interpersonal relationships, human and more-than-human.
The manner in which the line of thinking I have just described might dovetail with the philosophical motivations of personalism is through the idea that we are relational beings. Mortensen’s emphasis on the relationship between ‘you’ and ‘I’, and the recognition that ‘we’ is prior to ‘me’, necessarily, by virtue of ‘you’ existing, is persuasive since it is a rationally grounded argument. My only gripe is that his notion of relationship is painted in exclusively human terms. In a sense, this is an inevitable consequence of personalism’s quest to distinguish itself from individualism, on the one hand, and collectivism on the other. Individualists and collectivists, too, describe exclusively inter-human relationships. The claim that ‘neither the traditional right nor the traditional left is radical enough in the proper sense of the word’ (31) would be substantiated, then, by acknowledging that our interrelatedness goes much deeper than, and is not restricted to, interhuman relationships. Again, I do not see any inconsistency with the ideas of personalism and such a radical extension.
In practice, what would it mean to bring person-to-person relationships to the fore? Mortensen points to the need that we consider our interrelatedness (29), even when this is indirect, and therefore that we need to draw our attention back to the impact of our choices on, say, the Pakistani seamstress or the African coffee farmer. I would simply add that our interrelatedness is even more extensive than this, and that in drawing our attention to the impacts of our actions, we need not limit ourselves to considering the human-to-human effects.
3.2 Humans Engage
Humans do, undoubtedly, engage in the sense that our survival depends upon continuing exchanges between what is happening inside our skins, and what is happening outside. However, I am not entirely convinced that ‘close and engaged’ human-to-human interactions are as fundamental to survival as personalism maintains. There are many among the human population whose engagement with other humans is limited and disengaged, and, while some of these people are undoubtedly unhappy, a good proportion benefit more fully from limiting their interactions than they would from being forced into communion. Finally, humans as ‘beings that engage’ are not necessarily ‘beings that freely take responsibility for their own lives’ (22) unless by ‘engage’, Mortensen means something special and obscure, in which case, the meaning needs unpacking.
Claiming that being human, and able to engage, means taking responsibility for one’s own life relies on a certain set of beliefs about what we can and cannot choose to do, are claims I take issue with. A more accurate picture of how agency (and therefore choice) actually works does not separate the practice into a mental decision, followed by a physical act, but sees agency as a process of realisation where our understanding of what is going on allows possibilities to emerge. This is a hugely demanding shift from one paradigm to another, but it wouldn’t necessarily upset the personalist applecart. It is a reframing that would potentially accord with the work of personalism, and would certainly, in my book at least, enhance our capacity to realise ‘the common good’.
Human engagement in a political context is at the heart of the personalist project. Mortensen makes certain claims about personalism and the freedom to participate, or engage, in political life. Mortensen’s account of personalism paints freedom in a positive light (as the freedom to do something, rather than the freedom from some constraint). Putting my objections to this idea of agency, or free choice, to one side for a moment, I was reminded of Philip Pettit’s definition of republicanism as governance that is a res publica (he makes this point throughout his writing, but most accessibly in an Irish Times article from May 2016). It strikes me that personalism probably aligns better with republicanism, ‘an affair to do with the public’ than with any other political ideology. The problem, as Pettit points out, is that you can be free from, say, interference in your affairs, without being able to do anything (if you don’t have money, for instance, or are geographically or socially isolated). The EU ideal, as presented by Mortensen (in reference to Pedersen’s The Competition State, Hans Reitzel, 2011) is firmly individualistic: we are granted freedoms that allow us ‘to realize our own needs’, and each of us is ‘responsible for his or her own life’. The personalist approach shifts this focus to the freedom to engage: what we need is freedom to ‘take part in political processes’.
I would suggest that current moves to implement the Aarhuus Convention in Ireland, for instance, represent exactly the sort of shift that personalism wants. Part of the implementation process involves working out how to set up PPNs (public participation networks). However, I would add that the problem with implementing strategies agreed upon at the level of the EU (as decided upon at conventions, for example) is that their potency becomes watered down at each level of implementation. By the time they land in communities – and it is only certain members of communities that are ever aware that these sorts of strategies and policies are being implemented, so there is no real sense of ownership, and the relationship reverts to ‘I’/’other’ rather than ‘we’ – they are but a pale imitation of what they are supposed to represent.
I think personalists are right, on the whole, to see the need for the protection of positive freedoms – that is, freedom to, rather than freedom from. However, I think we need to clarify the relational aspect of the system of democratic participation itself: How can relational issues be prioritised? How can those who are content to maintain a minimal number of relationships still find access to public participation? Finally, we need to be clearer about what constitute the basic needs for a human being to live with a minimal/acceptable level of well-being. To what level do we ‘need’ education? Health? Access to nature? If ‘the core of the problem ... [is] really ... our behaviour towards each other, towards society [and, I would add, to all else that enmeshes us]’ (41) then what needs must be met in order for us to be able to re-orientate how we behave?
I do not disagree that the focus must change, as Mortensen prescribes, to a focus on engagement, and I do not think that it is naive to believe that our focus can change. However, neither do I think that the vacuum that exists in the current social frameworks of the global North is a moral one, as Mortensen maintains. While I agree that the focus on competitiveness within society creates increasing fragmentation and consequently, increasing difficulties with cooperation, instead of looking for an ethic, personalist or otherwise, as a principle to guide our response to the joint crises of fragmented societies and ecological catastrophe, I wonder whether a Daoist approach might be considered here instead. Imagine recognising the importance of the manner of interaction, the relationship itself, and focusing on engaging with mindful compassion in relationship. Imagine allowing, in this manner of practice, whatever needs to be done to arise, simply by being open to a realisation of enmeshment, and an elicitation of compassion as the most appropriate attitude. Imagine simply allowing the patterns through which energy dissipates in the most beneficial (that is, the most graduated) way to emerge as responses, rather than reacting, without conscious, compassionate observation, as this latter manner may well obstruct or force the energetic flow to the detriment of all involved in the relationship.
While I do not think it is naive to focus on cooperation rather than competition, I also think that focusing on relationship brings the focus back to the way we engage and interact, rather than towards any end. We then find that a kind of intuitive understanding of what is in the common good emerges. ‘The common good’ therefore expands in meaning to include what is in the broadest interest, for the systems that humans are involved in, and therefore, for humans since it is necessary that the former function well in order for the latter to. Mortensen rightly points out that the structures of our relationships have changed. What created resilience in the past – large households, wide networks of interrelationships – has been lost under the fracturing systems and focus on nuclear households that we now encounter. Mortensen contrasts the current situation with how broad and inclusive households were, for instance, in ancient Greece (42). I would add that the household (oikos) was not only the emotional heart of the community, it was also its economic and aesthetic centre, and included the hinterland, as well as the crops and livestock. It involved an acknowledgment of the even wider context, referring to salient geographical features, mountains, rivers, forests, or the sea.
3.3 Humans have Inherent Dignity
Humans have inherent dignity, Mortensen claims, because, as Kant pointed out, we are ends in ourselves, rather than merely the means to some other ends. This goes for all humans, and this is why human dignity is a core principle of personalism and is universally applicable.
If we take the evolutionary context into consideration, however, we quickly see that humans are not the only organisms that are ends in themselves. What gives us ends, or goals, is the fact of our being alive, and being conscious and aware and of seeking, sometimes in blind reactivity, to avoid annihilation, however we understand this in each moment. This is also true of all other living organisms that also pursue what is ‘good’ for them. If we are going to claim ‘dignity’ for ourselves on this basis, we had better be prepared to extend it beyond the human sphere.
If humans have inherent dignity because they are made in some divine image, then I have a problem: to believe this, you have to have some kind of faith in a supernatural being, or in a dualistic existence that contains the physical and the spiritual. This is a theology rather than a philosophy. Only if we reinterpret the idea of the ‘human spirit’ and bring it back to describe an attitude or an approach, can we find common ground for claiming that human dignity is a basis for a philosophy: we have the capacity for self-awareness, and this includes the capacity to adopt and attitude, a spirit, if you like, of compassion and empathy. If we make this adjustment to the terms, then I think we can speak the same language.
Mortensen describes Levinas’ approach to the issue of human dignity as an affirmation that we must always acknowledge the absolute demand to recognise another’s dignity (77). I add that recognising another’s dignity depends upon being able to empathise, through mindful, compassionate awareness, that the experience of another is in no way less significant or important than one’s own. This understanding arises as a result of becoming aware of how interrelated experience really is.
The minimal conditions for mindfulness, democracy, and, I suggest, for personalism, to survive are financial and personal security. However, for these conditions to be met, we need a minimally flourishing ecological context. The pressures Levinas faced (his four years interned as a Prisoner of War, the killing of his mother-in-law, brother and father during World War 2) took place in an ecological context that, however marred by conflict, was more intact than it is today. Power is ultimately the control of the flow of energy in a situation. When this power is reactive, the focus of its dissipation is often dangerously narrow, benefitting the few and harming the many. Our focus, therefore, needs to shift to take into account a broader understanding of what shapes us, including the ecological backdrop, otherwise we will be thrown back into precisely the situation Levinas faced: to view the Other as restricted to the Human, failing to see that we are intimate with the more-than-human in equal measure.
If human dignity is for something, it must be something to do with our search for a ‘good’ life (14). Whole conferences have been dedicated to the discussion of this somewhat Aristotelian concept. The answer is not material: personalism is not a materialistic anthropology (17). Is this because a materialistic anthropology is seen as reductionist, reducing our understanding of ourselves to mechanistic, reactive processes? If so, I do not agree that this is what is necessarily entailed when we take a physicalist stance. Physicalism includes and implies the organistic, probabilistic evolution of processes and systems. We are not less human because we are physical beings, nor need we be less humane just because we recognise that we need basic material needs before we can flourish.
Understanding ourselves as enmeshed in physical processes does not deny that emergent elements of human experience, like consciousness, don’t also exist and matter. Further, a materialist (or physicalist) approach need not mean that we cannot adopt a deeply compassionate attitude to our condition. In fact, just such an attitude (accompanied by the attitudes of humility and forgiveness, when we gain insight into the extent of our enmeshed-ness) is elicited as soon as we practice the effort of mindful attention. I venture to think that a version of personalism could align itself with this understanding, that the naked claims of human dignity could be woven back into the systems that we are a part of. This version of personalism would then develop its understanding of our need to pay attention to how we interrelate, and therefore to the relational aspect of humanism, as though our lives depended upon it, as well they do, since without the generous spirit of compassion (‘spirit’ here used in the sense of ‘that’s the spirit!’, as an attitude, stance, approach, or, in the Daoist sense, ‘way’), we shrivel with depression and anxiety, or lock ourselves out of the rich benefits that interdependent understanding brings to our own and others’ destruction.
4. A Critique of Personalism
Why, then, if personalism is basically viable as an approach, has it not caught on? Mortensen claims that personalism has been neglected because it was outcompeted by existentialism. This strikes me as a strange proposition, given the dearth of evidence that academic existentialism forms the basis for political, economic or social action. Politics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has perhaps decided periodically that ‘a suitable blend of collectivist and individualist trends’ has been found (25). But the constant shifting in allegiances and power structures globally, and in particular in the EU, demonstrates that this blend is never entirely satisfactory, is always being reformulated, for individualist and collectivist reasons, no doubt.
A better reason for personalism’s lack of philosophical traction might be that it is better understood as a theology. While there is certainly a growth of interest in, and the perception of a growing need for, an ethic that will fuse and stimulate current and future generations in their quest for a better world, personalism’s reliance on the unstated, but implied assumption of the human soul as the centre and focus of value is in direct parallel to, for instance, the Catholic call to social action. If personalism is a theology, then it is a strong one. However, if it is to be understood in secular terms, then a more robust case for locating value at the centre of every human being needs to be made, and if this is to happen convincingly, personalism also needs to differentiate itself from Humanism.
As an ideology, personalism is in competition with not just the two wings of the political system, but with Green politics and the emerging political activism of different stripes, representing the interests of disenfranchised communities and groups. An unfortunate corollary of this confusing array of represented interests is an increasing lack of focus on an integrated understanding of social activity. Adding an ideology to this mix will not necessarily be beneficial. It is the deliberate turning away of attention, rather than alienation or depersonalisation that is the problem. Advertising, for instance, obscures the origins of products and services. This obscurity is associated with a deflection of attention away, for instance, from the violence that sustains the social and economic (and perhaps political) systems in which we are enmeshed. Although Mortensen recognises the need to understand the effects of our indirect relationships, we need also to address the active ignorance that is encouraged so that we do not question farming practices that are inhumane, that use vast quantities of agri-chemicals that wash into rivers, soils and the sea. The labyrinthine chains that link the production of our clothing, energy sources that fuel transport, heat our houses, and so on are rarely investigated, and we are thereby encouraged to ignore, or to work hard not to think about, the polluting of rivers in China, the exploitation of factory workers, the desecration of the Niger Delta, when it comes to buying a new dress, driving to work, or turning on the central heating.
I would correlate this distraction of attention as also manifested in the increasing narcissism that Mortensen refers to (36-38) that is celebrated in the culture of ‘selfies’, ‘Facebook’ and the propensity towards a kitsch self-presentation that obscures or shies away from the difficult-to-articulate, nuanced understanding of our interrelationships. Interactions are mostly either sickly sweet, or vicious, and short; only rarely are they thoughtful, considered and lengthy. Would a personalist approach address this attention deficit? Mortensen concludes that it would because the cause of the problem is the weakening of relationships. I could only agree that it would if we also manage to turn our collective gaze from its exclusive focus on the human-to-human relationships and pull back to include a view of the relationship between humans and all other Earth-systems.
Mortensen’s account of personalism (33) maintains that ‘the other’ imports meaning and significance into our deeds and possessions. I agree with this, but I think ‘the other’ has a broader meaning. Also, I think we need to maintain a sense of pragmatism. While I thoroughly agree that a well-being index (34) is a far better way of assessing the health of a nation than the GDP, there are material limits below which human relationships suffer and break down. The problem is that if the majority of people in a community fall below a certain income threshold, relationships become even more difficult to sustain.
5. In Praise of Personalism
What personalism gets right, I think, is its focus on the way of living, and the way of thinking, that needs to occur if we are to re-democratise the political process. This also includes how we approach our understanding of health and well-being. What is good for us is not so much getting (although basic material security is a necessary prerequisite) as giving. Mortensen points out the correlation between charitable giving (and I would add, more broadly, compassionate action) and well-being (30). There is extensive research to show that compassionate action, from charitable giving to the compassionate consideration of others during daily interactions, has a profound impact on human well-being, most particularly affecting the person who is adopting a compassionate attitude, but also, of course, having an impact on all those this person impacts. I have no argument at all with this. It is a plausible, evidence-based understanding and I think there is room for exploring the impact on human well-being when this compassionate attitude is extended to other animals, and to the wider ecological systems in which we are enmeshed.
If compassionate action has an impact, it has it non-dualistically. Mortensen quotes Wojtyla’s assertion that ‘body and soul’ are not two separate realms, and this parallels the assertion that ‘body and spirit’ are not two separate realms, but that spirit, in the sense of attitude, is brought into being when we become aware of what is going on. This, in turn, elicits an attitude of compassion for our individual? situation, and our common situation, which then becomes our spirit or attitude. This allows us to maintain the spirit, as in attitude through which what needs to be done can be done.
If personalism is to appeal to a secular audience, it needs to be able to reframe the claims and assertions of the largely Christian cohort of personalist representatives Mortensen identifies (Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Karol Wojtyla, N.F.S. Grundtvig, Hal Koch, among others) in broader terms. One example is Wojtyla’s emphasis on the importance of the ‘intentional act’ (30). It would be possible to understand this notion in terms of awareness: when we become aware of a situation, we become free from the reactive chains of cause and effect since we become aware of what needs to happen, rather than reacting. We do not choose how to respond, in the traditional sense, but the response emerges into activity as a result of the compassionate observational stance we have taken. The focus on the ‘I’/’You’/’We’ relationship would, in non-dualist terms, become a ‘forgetting of the self’ (as Dōgen put it in the Shōbōgenzō). I think it is possible that these two approaches could come to an accord, since what they both bring to the fore is the interrelationship, rather than the individual.
6. Personalism, Punishment and Reconciliation
In terms of reparation and restoration of relationships, Mortensen’s, and personalism’s take aligns well with the non-dualist approach, which also recognises the importance of making every attempt to restore a relationship between the two parties involved, perpetrator and victim. Personalism and in parallel, the Daoist tradition, the ethically neutral, approach, would also have in common a strategy of looking at each situation on a case-by-case basis. For instance, if a victim is made to feel obliged to seek a restoration of relationship with her abuser, that may well add another layer of guilt to an already overburdened psyche. Even personalists recognise that a fractured relationship is better to be severed entirely than endured to the continuing suffering of one party. When a relationship can be restored or created, in the case of say, the surviving relative of a murder victim who had no initial relationship with the murderer, this can be a powerful way of expanding the empathetic perspectives of both parties.
Personalism recognises the need to rehumanise relationships and not to dehumanise others. Every war, every terrorist attack demonstrates the danger inherent in dehumanisation and we must, indeed, find ways, again and again, to re-establish our understanding that others are like us in fundamental ways. However, our responsibility, in the sense of our ability to respond, is much more nuanced, arising through realisation rather than will-power, and we need to learn to exercise it on that basis for it to have any power. The more sensitised we become to the importance of relationship, the more we recognise that our relationships include those with other animals, from those we live with as companions, to those that live around us, to those we eat, or use for clothing. We can become mindfully aware of all these relationships. This does not mean that we will necessarily stop eating or wearing animal products, although becoming mindful of the source of what we are eating or wearing will create the possibilities of shifting how we relate, including asking more questions about how animals are treated, and possibly looking into other food sources. Our relationships also include the context of the soil, the land, the biodiversity (or monocultures) that grow, the landscape itself, the seas, rivers, sky, the relationship between human technological interventions, including cities, ships, infrastructure and the internet, and the sources that support and sustain this technos.
Mindful awareness of these interrelationships is also and equally necessary if we are to address the crises we face with sufficient effort and attention. This is the polar opposite of the attitude expressed in Mortensen’s quotation of N. F. S. Grundtvig who, however important as an advocate for the human good, did no service to the larger relational context when he claimed, as Mortensen quotes in his book, ‘that man and the people do not exist for the sake of the state, nor for that of agriculture, capital, or the trade balance, but rather the earth and all earthly things exist for the sake of man and the people and should be used for their good’ (61). This attitude is still entirely prevalent across much of the so-called ‘free world’ but being a majority view does not make it right, or in the broader common interest.
7. A Brief Word on the Postscript: Psychology and Personalism
Above, I discussed briefly the idea that societies and cultures have coalesced towards a default mode by accident. Alienation, fragmentation, loneliness and the other crises personalism seeks to address have become prevalent not, as Mortensen recognises, in any way deliberately, but as an indirect result, just like the road to hell, of the often profoundly good intentions of those creating policies and strategies. I added above that this is true of individuals, just as it is of societies: we do not create the circumstances into which we are born, our genetic heritage, the level of wealth we happen to have or not have, the educational possibilities, the amount of freedom. Often these circumstances incline us, by default, towards pathological acts and behaviours, and our fight to free ourselves with what we think of as the ‘will’ or ‘freedom of choice’ become desperate and tragic struggles. What we are born into are all accidents of fate, as it were. Where I think we can come to a different relationship with these circumstances is through reflection on the relationship we have with circumstance. Mortensen offers a view of psychology that is essentially sympathetic to the idea that how we relate is key to how we free ourselves from an inevitable chain reaction to context. Again, however, I do not think his proposal goes far enough.
One thing that struck me when I read the postscript – and this is something very close to my own heart – was the emphasis on value in creating a framework through which psychology might work. Nicholas Maxwell (2016) has done extensive work on this in the context of further education, calling time and again for what he calls ‘aim oriented empiricism’, which is the idea that we decide what we ‘urgently need to develop a new kind of academic inquiry that has as its basic intellectual aim to seek and promote wisdom, and not just acquire knowledge – wisdom being the capacity and active endeavour to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others.’ (Maxwell, 2016). This seems to accord closely with what Mortensen is arguing for here: psychology that situates the human firmly in relationship. Marshall Rosenberg’s approach to psychology (2003), which he calls ‘non-violent communication’, also firmly places relationship at the centre. It is our sense of connection that enables us to stand back from and reassess our feelings, in the light of our needs, which are universal, rather than an analytical assessment of our pathological behaviours, which simply disconnects us still further from their meaning as (unhealthy) means to achieve needs. Psychology certainly stands close to science, in the sense that it is a methodology for understanding, and giving a voice, a language, to, the human mind. But this does not take place in a vacuum, and analysis without wisdom is, as I hope Mortensen would agree, neither useful nor valuable.
I could not connect with Mortensen’s view on the idea of re-establishing a vertical value system. Like most agnostics, the great chain of being looks redundant. I certainly do not see a hierarchical ontology that creates a pyramid between phytoplankton and God. It seems much more important to me to consider humans as and within webs and systems of energy and matter. While this might seem objective and to lack value, it is clear to me that there are states in which systems operate that are ‘good for’, in the sense that they maintain and allow the continuance of, systems, and therefore that, from the human perspective, some of these states are more valuable than others. For instance, if energy flows through a system too quickly, it will collapse (think of an epidemic or a tsunami); if too slowly, energy will not be able to flow and will become obstructed (think of plastic pollution, where energy cannot be used by the systems surrounding the plastic objects because their breakdown is so slow). Complex, particularly complex biodiverse, systems are ‘good’ for humans because energy flows through them gradually. Where I agree with Mortensen is in his call for an empathetic (or, as I would prefer to call it, a compassionate) approach to psychology. Considering what is a ‘meaningful life’ is, I think, key to the kind of approach to psychology that would radically alter how we help one another to health. Reference to the Cacioppo study(2010) on loneliness and longevity is spot on: we need to understand ourselves in context. However, again I would reiterate that the human context is enmeshed within the ecological context, and that, in turn, within geosystems that we also relate to, whether we like it or not. Bringing this into awareness would reconnect us much more fundamentally with what is good for us. Mortensen’s concern that we invoke a value-driven psychology is, I think, well-founded. His proposal that we focus on empathy, however, is, again, too narrow. My own inclination is to point to the benefits of eliciting compassion for ourselves, for the systems we find ourselves enmeshed in, and on out to the systems that contain and sustain us at a global level. It may look challenging to hold all of this in awareness, but compassion itself, as the research Mortensen points to, generates its own energy. There are many studies suggesting that empathy, on the other hand, burns out. We can hold ourselves open to the suffering of others for only so long. But if we can find a way to elicit compassion, first for ourselves, and then, as an automatic consequence, for all others, as we realise deeply how much our lives are bound by circumstances over which we have had no control, we will tap into the energy to shift perspective.
8. Conclusion: personalism for The Common Good?
Personalism and the process it supports for the common good – democracy – is more than a theoretical position. It is a way of life, a practice, a way of recreating and engaging with the processes that allow individuals to participate and engage with one another and with public life. Interestingly, the idea that democracy involves a conversation, and is developed as a way of living, a culture of participation, is something that aligns very strongly with the current stated efforts by the EU to create more participation in political institutions, and in the creation of policies and strategies.
Nevertheless, the problem with an ideological approach becomes glaringly apparent here. It is precisely through the structures of the EU that the engagement of the vast majority of the public has declined. Movements like ‘Occupy’ and other forms of public dissent remain a key tool for members of the public who experience hardship or injustice in the face of a propaganda-like insistence that the EU is among the most democratic and fairest of institutions.
Occasionally, we see evidence that gives the lie to the integrity of those at the top of the EU hierarchy when politicians like Christine Lagarde, Jean-Claude Trichet (I really have nothing against the French), and Dominic Strauss-Kahn come into media focus as a result of alleged scandalous behaviour. The question, then, arises: Would personalism advocate the continuing of the EU project, as a tool for democratic participation, or does it see the institution as a cause, not of stability and freedom, but of oppression and fragmentation? Yet Mortensen writes with admiration of a number of strategies adopted by the EU (the 2011 Year of Volunteering) and of a number of prominent EU leaders (Herman Van Rompuy, Denis de Rougemont, Jacques Delors) with personalist backgrounds who have shaped the EU political project. I have to admit to a certain amount of cynicism when it comes to the EU’s record in advancing democratic aims (and Mortensen might put this down to a change in direction, since he suggests that today, it is questionable that the EU reflects personalist values) (108). My own view is that the line we have been sold about the stability of the EU region arising as a direct consequence of the creation of the union is only half true. Where personalism can help in this process is in bringing attention back to the interrelationships between structures, and, in particular (and as long as it can avoid the problems with small-town conservatism that see power sucked up by a few) by bringing the focus back to local communities. A way of life is not ‘out there’: it is also in how we understand what is going on in our own lives. Mortensen’s picture of how individual thoughts create the context for individual, and then for collective action strongly echoes my own view. The attitude that we adopt of mindful compassion to a situation is a practice in both senses: we both practice, as a pianist practices, in order to get better at what we do. But attuning to compassion is also a practice, in the sense of a way of life. In the first sense, then, adopting an attitude of mindfulness, from a perspective of compassionate observation, is something we get better at (albeit, sometimes slowly). While the idea that this is a practice aligns, as I have pointed out earlier, with the idea of the way, the manner, being the important element to our activity. This is the aspect over which we have control. This, the attitude with which we realise what is going on, is our agency.
This is not quite the same thing as the ‘participation or alienation’ to which Wojtyla refers (70). It is more like awareness, or ignorance, of what is going on. However, awareness is a manner of participating, and ignorance is a manner of ignoring, or refusing to think about, or understand, the roles and relationships one participates in. It is still worth comparing the two approaches.
Likewise, the idea that small acts (awareness is, after all, not even an act in the ordinary sense) are important is often lost in the political arena. Yet how we engage with one another, the attitude (the spirit, if you like) with which we interact, creates the nature of the interaction. To quote Gandhi, ‘Be the change you want to see’. If we want to create the means for the common good to be realised, we need to be the means by which that good comes into being. Just as if we want to create peace within our world, we need to begin by creating peace within ourselves, since this, in turn, creates the means for peace in our families and communities, and in turn, in society and across the globe. Is personalism a naive approach to the crisis? No. There is no better way to create change than to focus on relationship. I would simply add that relationship can be understood much more broadly, more secularly, with ethical neutrality, and, ultimately, non-dualistically, than personalism envisions at present. Nevertheless, as Mortensen himself argues, what we call this process is irrelevant. There is a profound dissatisfaction with the competitive, egoistic, narcissistic, distracted social context we are enmeshed in. Any process that recognises this, and works to shift the focus to the benefit of the whole, and away from the emptiness and destructiveness of exploitative materialism, is worthy of deep and serious appreciation. Is such an approach enough? David Mitchell’s final lines of his novel Cloud Atlas summarise my response: ‘My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?’