Or only what they do?
I think that ultimately what most matters is what they do, the choices they make, but the scope of what they can do--the scope for their freedom--is expanded or limited by what one thinks or believes. And how one thinks is shaped by the underlying story he tells himself about the sense or nonsense that the world makes.
But it is also important what the people around us think or believe, what their expectations and aspirations are for themselves and for us. What is the accepted measure by which we measure up or fail to? In other words, it matters what the culture in which we find ourselves thinks and believes. That is the 'social imaginary'--and it structures our assumptions about possibility and impossibility.
I do not believe in the power of positive thinking. I do not believe that believing it so makes it so, but I do believe that one's mental framework creates the workspace for action. This is simple in the psychological sense of self-fulfilling prophecies. People who have a positive outlook expect good things to happen, and even when bad things happen, they see it as a temporary setback and keep at it. People who expect things to go badly, are less likely to put their heart into it, because, well, what's the point? The article the other day in the NYT about a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders that found that depressed people have a higher likelihood of to repsond well to treatment when compared to those who don't.
“I think it’s a scientifically sound way of measuring things that have to do with people’s experience of spirituality,” said Torrey Creed, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think about this as a study of cognitive styles, that there’s a pattern of thinking that helps people get better in treatment. And two examples of this pattern of thinking are ‘I believe in treatment’ and ‘I believe in God.’”
Randi McCabe, director of the Anxiety Treatment and Research Center at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Ontario, said, “People’s belief that something is going to work will make it work for a significant proportion of people,” similar to the placebo effect.
That makes sense to me on its own terms, and this kind of belief or outlook has very little to do with the deeper and more mysterious thing, which is faith. Faith, in fact, is very often accompanied by an anguish that is simply incommensurate with any discussion about having a positive outlook. I think we're all of us the richer that St. John of the Cross, Pascal, Kierkegaard and others didn't go into 'treatment'. Mother Teresa, we've learned, was often deeply anguished. William James did not identify himself among what he called the "healthy minded." Healthy mindedness has its limits. I have no patience with people who think that religious faith is some kind of opiate to dull wits incapable of confronting the world as it is.
But quite apart from the question of 'faith', the test of any social imaginaray is the degree to which it promotes sanity and decency. Sanity is the measure of human capacity to allow the world to disclose itself on its own terms. Decency is the measure of human capacity to act in the world as if one's own interests and concerns were not the only or most important consideration. One's capacity for one is reciprocal with the other. And yet if we live in a social imaginary in which one's dreams, interests, personal ambitions are celebrated as core values, whose realization is the measure of a life lived successfully or not, how is sanity or decency a possibility in our political arrangements?
I lay those thoughts out as a prelude to what I hope to get around to talking about, which is the dialogue between Millbank and Zizek about the possibility of working for justice and peace in the political sphere. Their discussion takes these basic ideas about the relevancy of thinking and believing to a different level. Millbank argues that Zizek's Hegelian ontolgoical nihilism makes any aspirational work toward a just society unsustainable. And although I don't understand Zizek yet well enought to agree, this is an argument that I've made here frequently about secular Liberalism, and I think we're seeing its failure played out all around us. The aspiration for justice and peace is not sustainable or even remotely possible in a "flat" social imaginary, if by flatness we mean closed to transcendence. There is at best Hobbes's perpetual cold war.
More on this as we go along.
UPDATE: In the NYT this morning there was this article entitled "On Wall Street a Culture of Greed Won't Let Go." So what else is new? But it relates to the point I'm trying to make above. Wall Strett is the reductio ad absurdum of the American individualist dream. The article states that
Virtually every top M.B.A. program in the country now teaches ethics classes, many of them required. In 2008, a coalition of students started the MBA Oath, a voluntary pledge among students to “create value responsibly and ethically.” So far, more than 6,000 students have signed the pledge.
And yet, the report and other anecdotal evidence suggest that whatever is being done both in the classroom and on the job is not enough. According to a controversial study called “Economics Education and Greed” that was published in 2011 by professors at Harvard and Northwestern, an education in economics surprisingly may be making the problem worse.
“The results show that economics education is consistently associated with positive attitudes towards greed,” the authors wrote. “The uncontested dominance of self-interest maximization as the primary (if not sole) logic of exchange, in business schools and corporate settings alike, may lead people to be more tolerant of what other people see as morally reprehensible.”
So you get require everybody take an ethics course, which everyone dutifully does with eyes struggling not to roll upward. In my experience these ethics courses are often more about what is legal or not, rather than what is ethical or not. But let's say you get somebody in there who wants to grapple with the ethical realities these kids are going to face. What does he have to work with? Everything outside his classroom militates against whatever he's might want to teach about embracing a code of basic decency.
The people who go into MBA programs are already predisposed to think of self-interest as the only really important motivator, and everything they see around them reinforces it. So this guy in an ethics class wants to suggest an alternative mo? Whatever. What a waste of time and effort.
Do you think my minimalist definition of decency as the 'capacity to act in the world as if your personal interests are not the only ones or the most important ones' can get any traction in such a social world? There are no resources in the social imaginary of the larger secular culture to combat a mentality in which decency is merely an aesthetic preference. Go for it if 'being decent' floats your boat--but you have no right to judge me if what floats my boat is the thrill of winning in a high-stakes game. By what standard can you make such a judgment about better and worse?
Our political economy is such an obscenity because the obscene people who are its primary actors think they are completely morally justified, even benefactors of humanity, in pursuing their interests because they are social Darwinists in the Gordon Gecko idiom:
Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.
This is very compelling if you operate in a world in which it's not just an idea, but an accurate description of the way the most successful people around you think and behave. What works to counter it, some pre-school admonition "to share" or "be nice"? Why? Why should I share or be nice? I did it when I was younger because I'd earn the teacher's disapproval if I did not, but now I earn my peers' and superiors' disapproval if I do. Decency is for losers. Ask Rick Santelli.