Common Good from an Integral Perspective

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Cynthia Bourgeault:

"at what can only be seen as a major inflection point in the evolution of consciousness, it seems that rather than wasting our time trying to rekindle the fading embers of the mental/rational notion of the common good, we would do better to look instead to the notion of the common good emerging out of a whole new structure of consciousness.

The basic building blocks of this new vision have already been well prefigured, but not in the places we are accustomed to looking. It is not to the traditional “usual suspects”—i.e., to philosophy, political science, and jurisprudence—that we must look to perceive the lineaments of the new arising. These disciplines are still too tied to the old, to the mental structure of consciousness that birthed them. Rather, it is from the sciences and social sciences that the new models are emerging, particularly from quantum physics and systems theory—together with the perennial mystical insights of all the world’s great sacred traditions, which have been pointing since time immemorial (generally under the rubric of “unitive” or “nondual”) toward a still largely unrealized capacity of human consciousness to move beyond linear, atomistic thinking and grasp the whole directly.

That’s exactly the inflection point on which we’re now evolutionarily situated. To put it simply, this means ceasing to think from the part to the whole (i.e., incrementally, by simple aggregation) and beginning to think from the whole to the part (i.e., integrally, deductively). It’s as quantum an evolutionary leap as that one now lost in cosmic history when those endlessly repeating domino chains of “supermolecules” suddenly shapeshifted to unveil the cell, the foundational unit of the biosphere.

What, then, might the common good look like when viewed through the Integral structure of perception? I would suggest that it has three distinguishing earmarks: 1) dynamism (i.e., “flowingness”); 2) autopoesis; 3) goodness. Over the next three posts I will explore each of these in turn. Let’s start at the top.

Dynamism means first and foremost, that we are dealing with a moving system, a system that intrinsically changes, morphs, and flows. This is in and of itself a huge shift from how we have traditionally approached the notion of the common good, and certainly of how our founding fathers approached it. In the mental structure of consciousness (on which all our traditional philosophical models are built), truth is seen to be static, and something is truthful in exactly the same measure that it proves to be “unchanging.” In the new structure of consciousness, there is no such stasis perceptible anywhere in the manifest universe. It is an illusion created entirely by the mental structure of consciousness itself. In the rising Integral structure of consciousness, systems are intrinsically dynamic; they are always in motion. Hence, the common good must be seen not as a fixed set of principles but as a flowing truth, which will manifest situationally in continuous dynamic feedback with the conditions under which it flows. According to the old philosophical models this notion would be named “relativism” and dismissed as an assault on the credibility of the gold standard of unchangeability. Under the new lens of perception, it is simply the way things are. As we observe phenomena in the created order across the board—in every domain and at every scale, we observe no place whatsoever where change and reciprocal feedback are not in fact the order of the day. So why would it make any sense at all to assume that our natural systems of human self-governance are not subject to these same conventions? Whatever the common good may unveil itself to be in the Integral structure, we must begin by assuming that it will be a flowing good, a dynamic good.

That is why, in an earlier post, I introduced the metaphor of high-volume traffic on a freeway as a way of reframing our notion of the common good. The common good is best served by keeping the traffic flowing, allowing everyone to reach their destination “severally” (in that great old Shakespearean world, individually, but within a common whole.) Basically, it will prove to be much the same in an Integral revisioning of the common good. We must begin not through reference to an idealized absolute, but in the realization of harmonious flow within a complexly ordered dynamic system.

Perhaps the most useful reframing I might suggest here, prompted by Adrian Bejan’s groundbreaking articulation of what he calls the “Constructal Law” (see his Design in Nature, 2013) is that we begin by considering the United States of America as first and foremost a flow system: that is to say, a dynamic structure through which a current is moving, on which the structure itself depends. Not quite the usual way of looking at this, right? But hear me out.

Technically, a flow system is a concrete biophyscial entity—like the root system of a tree, a river delta, or a human lung—through which flows the nutrients needed for the entire system to survive. But structural engineer Bejan was among the first to recognize that there are many other kinds of flow systems as well—for example, an information system, a financial system, or a transportation system. Bejan was one of the project engineers for the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport and specifically designed it to expedite the flow of passengers to and from their gates according to his Constructal Law, which stipulates: “For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.”

If the flow system fails to deliver the goods here—if the currents are unintelligently managed or permanently blocked, the system will eventually falter and die.

Viewed from this perspective, it is not a wild stretch of the imagination to envision our American republic as a flow system. The current flowing through it is the constitutionally proclaimed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, it exists primarily to deliver to the American populations the tangible benefits for which the American Revolution was fought. To the extent that this can be realized, and that all corners of the system feel and participate in this life-giving stream, the common good is served. To the extent that it is not felt—for example, if the main arteries usurp all the blood so there is no blood left for the fingers and toes, or there is a blockage in some vital part—the system will begin to exhibit symptoms of systemic distress. It is not rocket science to fill in the blanks in this metaphor any more than it is rocket science to see that is exactly where we are impaled as a nation right now. The polarizations, the culture wars, the private interests and gerrymandered moral conscience have brought us to the brink of systemic collapse. The obvious starting assumption is that the common good is best served by keeping the flow moving, and by making sure it reaches all parts of the system. This is not simply old-fashioned ethical compassion; it is biodynamic common sense.

tree rootsAs I have noted, the engineering and social sciences are already way out in front of the humanities in assimilating this sea-change in collective reorientation. But to the extent that we begin to re-envision our 234-year-old experiment in democratic self-governance as a flow system rather than as a static collection of unchanging principles imposed top down on an ever-shifting streambed, we will be in a much better position to accept local variation, give-and-take, and even local instability as part of a healthy system, and to commit ourselves first and foremost to maximizing the flow not by eliminating constriction, but by using it far more strategically to sculpt and support a new and more internalized method of self-regulation which looks less and less like a domino chain of supermolecules and more and more like a cell."

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