Recovering Relationality: From ‘Selfish Gene’ to ‘Hyper-Cooperative Species’

Recovering Relationality: From the ‘Selfish Gene’ to a ‘Hyper-Cooperative Species’

By Marcia Pally

Religion and Ethics, 5 Apr 2016

In the summative speech of the film Margin Call, Jeremy Irons, playing the fictional head of a collapsing Lehman Brothers-type investment house, unconcernedly quips that these sorts of booms and busts have been with us since the famous Tulip crash of 1637.

Making history into nature, he thus justifies the appetitive habitus of Wall Street.

He was wrong about the ahistoricity of our present capitalism, but right to peg the seventeenth century. For by that violent, innovative period, many of the sources of our modern economics were in place, paradoxically yielding boons to longevity and living standards alongside dislocation and poverty.

By sources of economics I don’t mean the particulars of trade and finance, but rather the understanding of the world that undergirds the way those were organized and continue to be organized now. As has been noted by Thomas Piketty, among others, forms of markets, labour, investment and trade on are contingent, emerging from – and reinforcing – a worldview and series of assumptions about the way the world works. Is the world set up, for instance, such that we are motivated by competition or cooperation? Is our survival and flourishing best achieved by the former or the latter?

One aspect of the early modern worldview was separability: the freedom to develop one’s ideas and ways of living separate from the past and one’s neighbours – the freedom to forge the new. It has given us much, but alone it has never been the human condition.

As a matter of physics, evolutionary biology and ontology, our make-up is one in which separability and situatedness are mutually constituted. Economic and political policies that account for them together will yield greater human flourishing as they go with the ontological grain, so to speak. Policies that sever them – that enable extensive separability or extensive situatedness, each unmoored from the other – will yield troubling outcomes as they violate basic conditions of being.

Since undue separability is at present the larger burden in the West – at times exported to non-Western and developing nations – I will spend more time on it in the passages below and suggest a theology of relationality to re-situate and better structure our economics and politics.

I suggest that an ontology/theology – rather than additional economic formulae – is needed for two reasons to which I’ve already intimated. First, socio-economic proposals flow, roughly speaking, from understanding of world. Second, relationally-minded economics is already discussed at the U.N., Davos, and elsewhere. But as relationality has been supplanted – among persons, political leaders and their backers – by a broad separated, individualist emphasis, these proposals lack sufficient popular and political will and go unimplemented.

Separability and situatedness, separated

Separablity – or, identity as a completed entity distinct from surroundings – is associated with personal mobility, innovation, freedom as absence of restraint, and both rationalist and empiricist conceptions of mind as separate from world, world’s observer and manipulator. It undergirds, Gillian Rose noted, both the person who acts unconventionally and the legal freedoms to do so. In some contrast, situatedness takes identity as emerging from one’s point in a nexus of relations, from community, culture(s) and the infrastructures that allow one to become who one is.

Yet situatedness untempered by separability yields what Luigino Bruni calls the group as “gigantic I” – both oppressive top-down control and stultifying conformity and prejudice. In turn, separability untempered by situatedness yields greed, abandonment and anomie. For with persistent focus on separating – on the exit from common goals and endeavours – one might well come to think mostly of oneself (or one’s firm or party) and to assume others are doing the same. A self-absorbed and adversarial stance in politics and economics may follow (which was the diagnosis of both Hobbes and Adam Smith) and the common good – joint priorities and projects – fades in priority.

Or one simply becomes unmoored, which was the Durkheimian diagnosis. Free to choose but with few priorities more commanding than lifestyle – few demanding commitment to goals larger than oneself – one becomes not unsatisfied but unsatisfiable. “The modern buffered self,” J.K.A. Smith writes, is “sealed off from significance, left to ruminate in a stew of its own ennui.” Even assuming one could develop priorities and purposes separably, on one’s own, one would lack the networks, policies and institutions – at the community and governmental levels – to realize them.

Such support too is undermined, for with excessive separability comes a fraught view of government. In a culture of exit, government – the largest agent of common effort – is suspect, and so too its educational or economic programs that might give people a leg-up. As the enforcer of common responsibilities (such as taxes, market and environmental regulation), it is seen as the foe of freedom. Significant expression of this is seen in the present U.S. Republican party but more importantly in the millions of ordinary citizens who are attracted to its position that, as Ronald Reagan put it, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Today, the U.S. Tea Party, UKIP, Le Pen’s National Front, the Danish People’s Party express versions of this sentiment.

How did we come by this? Catherine Pickstock, Jean-Luc Marion, John Milbank among others begin the genealogy in the late Middle Ages, with Duns Scotus’s view of Being as a transcendent category prior to God, shared by both God and creation. Rendering God one being among others – albeit an infinite one – this gives world and persons existence independent of the divine and sees persons as disconnected from an encompassing cosmology and worldly community, each person autonomous and separable. It is the beginning of the great unmooring and the separable, extracted self.

Charles Taylor somewhat similarly locates undue separability in the modern “immanent frame,” where a sense of place within a divinely-created system is replaced by the thrill of detached autonomy, a nominalist fascination with the internal workings of the mind separated from nature, lordship over nature, and an inflated sense of self-sufficiency. As Paul Tillich wrote, “The synthesis between individuality and participation … was dissolved.”

It was dissolved, both the Catholic Taylor and the Protestant Tillich hold, not only by Scotism, the immanent frame and notions of self-sufficiency, but also if inadvertently by Protestantism in what can be called the problem of autonomous doing. With the mandate for each person individually to strive towards moral conduct and God, individual striving per se became part of the modus operandi, a frequent, lauded activity which we moderns got good at, a well-exercised muscle, flexed – because it was laudable – throughout life’s arenas. Individual striving as both habitus and Zeitgeist. One outcome, Taylor writes, is that moderns became “aware of the possibility of disengagement” from each other, from the commons, from our shared infrastructure and purposes.

An alternative: separability-amid-situatedness

Theologies of relationality propose instead an understanding of world as separability-amid-situatedness – an ontology-to-ethics paradigm by which the aims and processes of markets, civil society and government may be set.

It begins with the Thomist view that being is not a transcendent prior to God but is of God, cause-of-causes and source of all that is. Franz Rosenzweig called it “the eventfulness of the limitless possibilities that will come to exist.” After the kabbalist Ein Sof and Schelling, it is that which not so much what precedes effects as what is realized as it yields effects. It makes sense, David Bentley Hart writes, “to ask what illuminates an object, but none to ask what illuminates light.”

This understanding of God amends Plotinus’s idea of the self-emanating source, which, though of interest to Abrahamic thinkers, renders the existence of beings automatic and renders beings themselves identical to their source. Following Ibn Sina, particulars cannot be identical to their source as they have existence and discrete essences while the cause-of-causes is a simple unity in which essence and existence are one (Tawhid). Maimonides and Aquinas concurred.

Because the cause-of-causes is at once both existence and essence, it self-unfolds both being and differentiated beings. “God himself,” Aquinas writes, “is properly the cause of universal being which is innermost in all things [beings] … in all things God works intimately.” Persons (existence and varied essences) are thus different from structuring cause (existence and essence are one) yet we partake of structuring, unfolding cause to exist at all.This difference or separateness from structuring cause yet partaking/relation to it is the way anything comes to be: the grammar of existence is distinction-amid-relation, separability-amid-situatedness.

Owing to the radical alterity of the cause-of-causes, we do not partake of the kenotic cause-of-causes identically or proportionally – my person does not express something of structuring cause, only smaller. We express something of the cause-of-causes analogically, as an analogy expresses its referent, with different features but an undergirding of-a-kindness.

In Aquinas’s rendering of the analogia entis, the analogical outpouring of being goes from God “all the way down” to each being – as John Milbank puts it – and participation in being by beings goes “all the way up.” Each particular, person, language, and culture is one (analogic) expression of being, one matchless instance of what can be. “Transcendence no longer hangs over man,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “he becomes, strangely, its privileged bearer.”

As distinction-amid-relation is what the cause-of-causes self-expresses in world – as it is the grammar of existing – not only are persons distinct from structuring cause yet of it, we are also distinct from each other yet in necessary relation. God’s kenotic self-unfolding of distinction-amid-relation makes the human condition and society a matter of distinction-amid-relation.

We are each distinct yet inextricably bound. On one hand, even identical twins differ in character and approaches to life. On the other, each of us becomes who we are through nexes of relations (to the transcendent, world, other persons). Relations may begin with those near but extend out as we become our distinct selves through the (infra)structures around us – the relations that construct our education, health care, economic opportunities and so on.

In short, attending to our reciprocal impact yields greater flourishing than other possibilities. This may sound like a political program, but note that it is a consequence of the grammar of existence. Persons, of free will, may ignore it, but what is ignored is the condition of being.

Precisely because it is the nature of being, relational theology does not run counter to scientific findings but is supported by physics, developmental psychology, evolutionary biology and the brain sciences, among other disciplines that are catching up to the theology described above. Post-quantum physics finds that sub-atomic particles exist at any given moment only in relation to other particles in the environment and to the form of observation used to locate them. “That our actual world does not have separability,” Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner write, “is now generally accepted, though admitted to be a mystery.” Or has Karen Barad puts it, “The primary ontological unit is not independent objects with independently determinate boundaries and properties but rather what Bohr terms ‘phenomena’,” which “are the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting components.”

Similarly, the neuro-chemical pathways of the individual brain are not only genetically set but are formed and changed by interaction with world and persons, by relation. This begins in infancy, as Daniel Stern’s work on the child’s “core self” and the “core self-with-another” suggests, and continues throughout life.

Evolutionary biology finds that, in contrast to our closest cousins the chimpanzees, we are a “hyper-cooperative species” (Paul Schmid-Hempel) in which “reciprocal altruism” structures not only dyadic and kin relations but large societal networks and interactions even among highly mobile persons and groups absent long-term contact. Evolutionary benefits to hunter-gatherer societies (95% of our evolutionary history) included improved hunting among cooperative rather than competitive clans and more stable child-rearing as families and communitieshelped each other with offspring.

Even our most murderous effort, war, is not genetically hard-wired but rather, David Barash writes, “historically recent,” and “a capacity.” Capacities are “derivative traits that are unlikely to have been directly selected for, but have developed through cultural processes … capacities are neither universal nor mandatory.” War, on this view, is contingent and an abrogation of our evolutionary relational set-up.

Implementing relationality

In short, theologies of relationality are not working against the “natural” proclivities of the “selfish gene” but rather explicate the relational structure of existence. Applied to public policy, this would mean not so much an ethics codex but a process of reciprocal consideration-worthiness, where the concerns of the other are taken to be as worthy of consideration as one’s own, to be accounted for in praxis and policy as one’s own are.

Such a process reveals two things: common needs and goals as well as differences, which – if we are to avoid the ills of separated-ness – should be approached precisely relationally, brokering the participation and concerns of all involved into policy and praxis. Adam Smith, supposed guru of greed, proposed just this: in markets as in all of society, each should “endeavour, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer.”

Relational theologies will not change market relations, but they will change relations within the market, prioritizing them. They will alter political and economic transactions by configuring them with an eye to our reciprocal impact and within common goals and projects.

Several ideas on how to do this sit in books and reports, including regular inclusion of stakeholders in legislative and regulatory procedures, subsidiarity in banking and industry, substantial societal investment in education and job (re)training, corporate responsibility for externalities and to the communities in which they operate, risk-sharing by lenders along with borrowers, and global regulations to prevent the race to the bottom in labour, pay and environmental conditions.

If these are not good ideas, others will be, but the question of their implementation returns us to the beginning of this article: if the ontology and political will are lacking, they will be discussed and ignored.

Marcia Pally teaches at New York University in Multilingual Multicultural Studies and at Fordham University, and is a guest Professor in the Theology Department at Humboldt University in Berlin. She is the author, most recently, of Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.