Current book project #1: Strong Seeds: Human Flourishing and the Power of Seemingly Small Acts
I’m still in the early stages of this project. The courses I teach each semester on human flourishing are generating a wonderful effervescence of ideas and practical life-experiments among my students, and I’m learning right alongside them as I go. My current thinking is to divide the book into four complementary sections: personal/psychological, spiritual, national, and global. Since each of these dimensions of human flourishing relies on the others for its full fruition, it makes sense to distinguish them analytically while still considering them holistically as elements of a common group.
• The personal/psychological portion of the book will explore two millennia of writings about what constitutes a life well lived, and seek practical ways to apply these ideas to our own lives in the present. I’m particularly interested in the remarkable tools that have become available over recent decades, ranging from psychotherapy to mindfulness meditation to gratitude journals. The findings of positive psychology will feature prominently here.
• Part 2 will focus on the question of transcendence – the powerful relationship that many people find (or at least seek) between their individual selfhood and a greater sense of purpose or meaning. For many this quest finds fruition through organized religion, while for others it assumes more informal or secular forms (think for example of an environmental activist working to preserve a healthy planet for future generations). Here I’ll survey the long and variegated history of this quest for transcendence among the people of many cultures, exploring how their experiences might be relevant to our own lives today.
• Next I’ll look at the national and community level, analyzing the socioeconomic, cultural, and political systems of the Scandinavian countries, and comparing them point by point with the American system – assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses on either side. Since the Scandinavian countries consistently rank highest in the world in the self-reported life satisfaction of their citizens, it’s possible that the citizens of other industrial democracies may have a lot to learn from them. To what extent are the distinctive features of Scandinavian society uniquely suited to that part of the world, and to what extent are those features “translatable” to other nations and cultures?
• Finally I’ll turn to what it means to be a good global citizen, and how much impact a single individual can make. None of us can flourish if war, famine, pandemics, or climate disasters render our planet increasingly uninhabitable. What do we owe each other, across the oceans and continents? Where do the boundaries of identity and belonging really lie? Here I’m particularly interested in the question of human agency – the range of effective action that is open to us, whether as individuals or through concerted efforts with others. What are the most promising pathways for confronting the planet-level challenges that face humankind?
Most importantly, I’m interested in the synergies lying latent among these four dimensions of human flourishing. How, for example, might a daily meditation practice affect the way we engage in the political and economic affairs of our nation? How does the factor of transcendence influence the way we see our kinship with total strangers on the other side of the world? My hypothesis here is that by bringing these four dimensions of flourishing into active dialogue with each other – on a daily basis – we stand a better chance of living healthier, more engaged, and ultimately more meaningful and fulfilling lives.
Current book project #2: Overflowing Goodness: How to Improve the Lives of Two Billion People (without harming anyone else)
What can be done to reduce world poverty as effectively, humanely, and enduringly as possible? I began researching this question only two years ago, so I’m still very much in the exploratory phase, mapping out the contours of this subject.
A world in which poverty, disease, and illiteracy afflict billions of people will never be a peaceful or stable world – not to mention a just one. Dealing with this age-old problem will pose an especially daunting challenge over the coming decades, because the spread of AI-powered automation means that the disparity between rich and poor is likely to get even worse as the years go by. Many nations will probably be forced to start setting up a variety of Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI) schemes for their citizens, as the rising pressure from chronic mass unemployment becomes irresistible. This in itself will create a major planet-level problem, because such nations will become targets of greatly increased legal and illicit immigration. The potential for heightened nativism, xenophobia, and outright conflict will grow swiftly; borders will become even nastier places than they are today.
Reducing world poverty has been on the international agenda for decades – with mixed results. Extreme forms of poverty – outright starvation – have declined significantly, but billions of people still languish in terrible living conditions. Poverty is known to development experts as a “wicked problem:” while its symptoms are stark and relatively simple to observe, its underlying causes tend to be extremely complex in nature. Fighting poverty requires sophisticated, multi-pronged interventions that attack the problem simultaneously at multiple levels – from the economy to healthcare, from the laws to education, from culture to the environment. No single “solution” in itself provides the key.
Having said this, however, it’s still worth asking: Could a system of Guaranteed Minimum Income ever be made to work well at the global level? Five sets of questions arise in connection with this idea.
- Why spend money on GMI as opposed to other forms of aid?
- How might it work, in practice?
- What might be the positive and negative impacts?
- What are the principal obstacles to its implementation?
- What are the moral arguments for and against such a program?
As I grapple with this topic, I’ve found the work of the following writers particularly helpful: Thomas Piketty, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, William MacAskill, Paul Collier, Annie Lowrey, Peter Singer, William Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs, Muhummad Yunus, and Roger Thurow.
Current Book Project #3: What Makes Us Human? From Neurons to the Sistine Chapel
I’ve been working on this project for many years. My aim is to provide a synthesis of contemporary research on human nature and personhood, ranging across the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences. We are entering an era of heightened controversy (and anxiety) over the impact exerted by science and technology on our lives. Over the coming decades, our informatic machines will become ever more powerful, challenging some of the age-old boundaries that have separated us from them; at the same time, our advanced biotechnologies will allow unprecedented forms of modification of human bodies and minds.
In this emerging historical context, the question of “what makes us human” will become an increasingly urgent one – not just for the philosophically inclined, but for all of us, as individual citizens, as families, as members of a social whole. I envision a book divided into five parts:
Part I: Emergence: a necessary paradigm
1. How new forms of complexity arise from patterns in the interaction of simple parts
2. Emergence and human biology
3. Emergence and human society
Part II: The human panorama
4. What the anthropologist saw: core human traits across time and space
5. Human nature: six dimensions of our being
Embodiment, Cognition, Affect, Community, Identity, Engaging the world
6. Key attributes we share with animals and machines
Part III: The biological infrastructure of personhood
7. Genomes, epigenomes, and environment
8. The brain in the body in the society
9. How evolution contributed to shaping us
Part IV: The social infrastructure of personhood
10. Language, mind, and culture
11. History and human nature: how our civilizations have changed us
Economies, institutions, laws, morality
Part V: Seven emergent qualities of personhood that set us apart
12. Divided within: the experience of being a personal self
13. Creativity (and unpredictability)
14. Intrinsic value
15. Free will and moral choice in a world of constraints
16. Our shadow side: the distinctively human failings
17. Intimations of transcendence