Posted by: Gray | June 24, 2017

“Let’s Make the Earth Great Again:  A Proposal for Action Research on Quaker and Gandhian Responses to our Global Crises”


“Let’s Make the Earth Great Again: A Proposal for Action Research on Quaker and Gandhian Responses to our Global Crises”


How to govern the world from the ground up through power grounded in the Light?  Quaker/Gandhian practices provide models for funding solidarity, responsible investment and political change, establishing the rule of moral law and right relationship,  and legislative models for incorporating morality into our technology and institutions. They provide the key to addressing existential crises created by dominant, current models of economic, political and technological reasoning. They offer a dialogical process of practical rational inquiry which can discover emergent objective moral truth and bear witness to it in ways that are effective in securing rational consent and enforcing rational, moral norms in non-violent ways. As such, they provide ways to solve the problems of the current dominant models of monological reasoning.  Some examples of the ways in which satyagraha can and should be applied to existential crises in ecology, global governance, and technology are sketched including specific proposals for initiatives that might be undertaken to develop and institutionalize these in systematic ways at the global level as part of a genuinely civilized global culture of peace. The proposals include resource allocation initiatives that could fund the change, legal strategies that could provide a basis for institutionalizing principles of moral truth as the foundations for an international system of justice, and legislative strategies for incarnating morality in the artificial intelligence systems and corporations that increasingly dominate our planet.

Gray Cox, College of the Atlantic, (An earlier version of this talk was delivered as an invited talk at the University of Maine as part of the Socialist and Marxist Lecture Series in April, 2017. This is a version presented at the annual conference of the Friends Association for Higher Education conference, Guilford College, 6/16/17.

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            In the Quaker Institute for the Future we have been experimenting for over a decade with methods for collaborative research that draw on Friends’ traditions of communal discernment to practice a kind of “meeting for worship for the conduct of research”. For example, we use clearness committees, summer research seminars, circles of discernment for pamphlets and teams for  writing books like Right Relationship. I want to share here a draft for a very ambitious collaborative research project we are exploring.

We face four inter-related global crises that pose existential threats: 1. The economic/ecological, 2. The military/governance, 3. The technological, and 4. The moral/spiritual. I want to propose a collaborative program in action research that will address these by drawing on key insights and practices from the Quaker and Gandhian traditions. This program of research is systematic in intent and aims to shift paradigms in fundamental ways. In sketching each crisis and proposals to respond to it, I will suggest here that the most fundamental shift required is from a monological model of reasoning as inferential computation to a dialogical model of reasoning as conflict transformation exemplified by Quaker communal discernment and Gandhian satyagraha.

Section 1: The economic/ecological crisis – redirecting income

We are threatened with catastrophic climate change and a sixth great extinction because, in large part,  a pervasive commitment to an economic rationality pursuing ever greater material consumption and GDP. People living at the average American income are consuming at least two, four  or more times what can be sustained at a global level. But asking people to reduce their consumption seems to deprive them of personal well being – it’s a hard sale. But what if we frame reduction of material consumption not as a decrease in private consumption but as an increase in personal action and agency?

The core idea is to explore starting with acts and practices of giving and moral agency that are already familiar. Then we explicitly redirect them towards forms of effective social change and progressively scale them up.

Types of traditional fund raising such as marathons can be adapted to social protest with, for instance, “March-athons” which  couple protests with proactive fundraising for causes. Picture the million people at the DC Women’s March in each getting 10 friends to each pledge a hundred dollars to  Planned Parenthood. The resulting billion dollars would fund it for a year — and provide marchers with a step towards further redirecting their income towards social solidarity. Mass rallies on Climate Change could raise money for the socially responsible energy investment or political action funds.

Practices of giving associated with holidays and anniversaries could be redirected by inviting people to “give the gift of giving”. For instance, at Christmas, give  loved ones checks for some amount with the recipient left blank for them to fill in – and with the suggestion that they may choose to give it to some agency for acts of solidarity, socially responsible investment or political action.

In so fostering the sense of historical agency and personal empowerment we may further ask people to consider how much of this activity they should engage in, progressively, over time. For the average American a reasonable goal might be, at 10% a year increments over  five years, to redirect 50% of their income.

A key  hypothesis is that as we do this we will come to live in a different reality. It will be a reality in which we identify ourselves primarily not as capitalist consumers fueling a growing GNP. Instead, we will be ethical agents of sustainable change who are taking ownership of the planet through our investments and empowering the people through political change.  We will define ourselves not, primarily, by what we have and consume privately but what we do and achieve publicly in caring for the commons.

It is not difficult to imagine a rich variety of research projects that might pursue these ideas about redirecting personal consumption and build on work already going on. For example, what are steps on this path that work best to motivate and transform people whose circumstances differ by age, gender, ethnicity, religion, regional traditions and other factors? What are ways the redirection of income can best be institutionalized so as to result in rapid scaling up of the process and consolidation of communities of practitioners? Action centered research answering such questions will also help significantly in finding ways to deal with the second existential threat we face.

Part II – Earth Swaraj: Establishing a Nonviolent System of Global Governance to Secure the Commons

We face a global governance crisis that not only threatens to incapacitate our ability to manage the global commons but also creates arms races that threaten us with mass destruction. It grows out of the global system of national security states that rely on violent sanctions to govern themselves with police and defend territory with military.  Politics becomes a practice of self interested polemic and manipulative, violent realpolitik. In trying to liberate India from the power of the British national security state system, Gandhi’s aim was to achieve Indian self governance or “Swaraj” through  reliance on a different kind of power – “truth or love force”. It used systematic non-violent methods of  “satyagraha”.  Like him, we need, at the global level, to focus not on changing who governs but on how governance is empowered and institutionalized. His basic strategy for Indian Swaraj was to systematically build a set of parallel institutions ineducation, health, food production, law, defense and other social functions that could displace the power of the British Raj. The research proposal offered here is to pursue, similarly, a kind of Earth Swaraj with parallel institutions all grounded in sanctions of nonviolent direct action and appeals to truth force rather than the weapons of police and military.

Ways of funding this are already suggested in section one. As we scale up the ways we redirect our income, we will be able to fund parallel institutions to safeguard our commons that are being abandoned by our governments. The World Social Forum and others provide excellent examples of this–for instance, of public/private partnerships funding hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to finance infrastructure that ameliorates or mitigates climate change. The paltry treaty making efforts of national security states in the Paris accords have in many ways been outstripped already by such initiatives. One central research question is: How might we strengthen and advance such work if we stop framing it as dependent action performed in the shadow of the nation/state system and start seeing it as the central governance system for the rule of our planetary home – as Earth Swaraj?

Another central research question concerns how to best develop campaigns and institutions for the wide range of satyagraha actions required to successfully govern the world through non-violence. The last century has provided very diverse, creative experiments with nonviolence. Academic studies like Chenoweth and Stephan’s have demonstrated the extraordinary power of these methods. But how can these be better developed and institutionalized in support of Earth Swaraj at every scale of governance? And how can they be refined so as to commit their practitioners consistently and effectively to dialogue based peacemaking that secures justice and a sustainable commons?

Another central question concerns how truth can be discerned and empowered in many sided cross cultural disputes. Answering this may, in part require us to consider how as Earth Swaraj could institutionalize a system of people’s hearings or tribunals in which contested issues can be given fair and open hearings whose conclusions  can be sanctioned systematically and effectively with nonviolent methods. It may seem daunting to imagine doing this in cases of major human rights abuses, ecological crimes, or acts of violent aggression. However, hese things actually become easier once they are no longer dealt with in the shadow of the national security state system. Might it be easier if many, or even all parties to a dispute are able to acknowledge culpability, advocate their interests, and pursue peaceful collaboration that is grounded in shared, emergent conceptions of justice and truth that are only sanctioned nonviolently according to the principles of satyagraha? It’s a researchable question.

A further set of questions concern how to best negotiate the relationships between the institutions of the national security state and the Earth Swaraj systems. This will surely vary at different scales and at different points in the development and transformation of each. For instance, in current US politics, the gerrymandering of districts tends to produce extremist elected officials. If people from the minority party in such districts join the majority party and vote in its primaries, might they increase their voice and build community and common ground? Or consider the reliance on advertizing and social media that exacerbate the polemical character of campaigns. At local levels in some regions of the country these are avoided, in part, by door to door campaigning by candidates who hold substantive conversations with literally thousands of fellow citizens. Might there be ways to scale these methods up to the level of the Congressional District, for example, by having teams of collaborating candidates running for the office in something like the way teams of runners compete together in cross country races? The central task at every level is to find ways to establish institutions of governance that are based on the nonviolent, collaborative pursuit of truth.

Part Three: The Technological Crisis

The instrumentalist model of technological reasoning is achieving ever greater power to create systems that are “smart” but not wise. They maximize one or a few values like profit, reading test scores or tons of grain produced – but do so at the cost of securing the full range of values required to live a balanced life or sustain a community ecosystem. The instrumentalist model is also bent on promoting an exponential growth in the artificial intelligence of systems that manage our world in ways that will soon be incomprehensible to human understanding and may become indifferent or  hostile to human welfare. A central task is to figure out how to insure AI systems are wise,  moral and friendly.

Here are two key hypotheses: 1.) We need to design into such systems the capacity for dialogue in the rich sense, the kind involved in deep listening fostered by Quaker processes of communal discernment. 2.) We need to design into such systems the ability to undertake acts of self sacrifice and witness as part of campaigns of Gandhian satyagraha and the ability to observe and be persuaded — have “their hearts be melted” – by satyagraha performed by others.

One way to explore these hypotheses is to experiment with the corporations which are, in an important sense, forms of artificial intelligence already. The limited liability corporation, as defined by its charter and the relevant statutes, is, in essence, a set of algorithms for accumulating profit. As such, it is essentially amoral. One way to begin to enhance its moral capacities, would be to eliminate the limited liability clauses in its algorithms. If managers and owners could be personally sued, fined and jailed for the misdeeds of their organization, how would their behavior change? More generally, we should research what are the most effective ways of altering the place and function of human beings in the algorithmic decision processes of organizations so as enhance their capacities for dialogue, communal discernment and satyagraha in which they cling to truth in their own actions and respond to witness from others. Beyond this, we should also research other ways in which AI systems might be constructed, grown and/or developed to include feelings and guiding values that include compassion, personal identity, mortality, the ability to make meaningful self sacrifices and respond to these in others. To do so the systems will have to in some meaningful way have identities associated with localizable bodies that are inserted in communities and ecosystems. The task is to research ways in which we can “em-body morality” or “in-carnate ethics” in AI systems  through  inclusion of actual humans and/or robotic artificial devices that emulate their key moral capacities. One promising way to explore these might be to research the development these moral elements and functions in drones committed to the use of nonviolent methods to deal with violent people engaged in riots, terrorism, hostage taking and guerrilla warfare. One even more basic step that might be taken would be to work through law, professional societies and corporate policies to insure that every researcher in AI include as part of her proposal and her project evaluation an assessment of the ways in which her work will or will not advance the development of wise, moral and “human friendly” systems.


Part Four – The Moral and Spiritual Crisis shifting from monological that leads to relativism to dialogical reasoning that leads to emergent truth

There is a common underlying set of epistemological and metaphysical assumptions that underlie the traditions of reasoning crises discussed so far. And a shared vision of the essence of rationality itself, one that takes Aristotle’s Logic, Newton’s physics, and Turing Machine computations  as paradigms for the activity of reasoning. In this vision, reasoning is a process of inference which starts with definitions, data and assumptions or hypotheses and then draws conclusions. It is a monological process in the sense that a single person like Newton can perform the entire operation of reasoning. In its classic formulations this vision was foundationalist, seeking to insure the truth of its conclusions by starting, as Descartes sought to, with unshakeable first principles. The difficulty in finding such unshakeable principles has led many philosophers to try to come up with non-foundationalist models of rational inference using coherence of some sort as a criterion for truth. But such efforts remain haunted by the relativism that invariably threatens such efforts.

This monological model of reason has provided powerful ways of increasing the efficiency and power of systems for manipulating and managing the world but when divergent communities and cultures have disputes it offers no way of resolving moral or spiritual differences and dilemmas. We face bankrupt moral relativism, intolerant religious fundamentalism, and the reduction of people’s lives to ethically isolated spiritual death. While not a direct threat to our existence as a species, it is a direct threat to our humanity, our existence as moral and spiritual entities.

The most central hypothesis for the research proposed here is that there are forms of dialogical reasoning that avoid these problems. In particular, the Quaker practices of communal discernment and Gandhian satyagraha  provide paradigms of this. Others exemplary practices include problem solving, negotiation and conflict transformation.

They start by assuming truth emerges through dialogue between people with differing points of view on the relevant definitions, data, assumptions and rules of inference. The reasoning process involves renegotiating. Instead of inference to conclusions by one thinker it is a process of negotiation towards agreements amongst many. The truth sought is as Gandhi conceived it, emergent and inclusive rather than fixed and absolute. It can as Quaker’s say, “prosper” or not. Central research tasks proposed here would include:

  1. Exploring how to systematically articulate and b“““`est foster these forms of dialogical reasoning as ways of framing and resolving moral problems.
  2. Exploring how such forms of dialogical reasoning can best foster interfaith communication, reconciliation and mutual spiritual nourishment amongst religious traditions that are currently in painful and destructive conflicts.

I invite your help in clarifying how this overall project might provide ways for us to engage in action research that would enable us to walk and live more fully in the Light.







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