The good life and sustaining life: Early reflections on my fall course at Kaos Pilots

With special reference to the neighborhood dugnad

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The subject of my fall course at Kaos Pilots is the connection between the good life and sustaining (or bare) life. Logically and chronologically, the question of the good life must come before that of sustaining life. It is not the case, I shall be arguing, that human beings first seek to secure their basic needs in whatever way this is possible, and then build up an account of their reason for living. Nor is perdurance identical with flourishing. Quite the contrary, human beings must begin with some kind of a conception of the good or of the good life and then seek to secure the goods required for their survival in the light of this conception. Of particular relevance to our time is the ‘thematization’ or ‘making explicit’ of this question:  in what way do I have most reason to live and, by implication, what sort of economic models would be not only consonant with but also an enhancement of this way? I doubt that this question would have so easily fascinated so many in other ages. In the modern age, the question spellbinds us.

In preparation for my week in Aarhus, I have been having a string of conversations with Pete Sims, a good friend and team leader at Kaos Pilots. To a large degree, these conversations mark out a new way of working for me. In the past, I have largely worked out my ideas on my own, in a set of blogs, or in the form of a book and then offered them to others. The idea was to do the thinking alone, to provide some formal arguments, and then to ‘forget all about it’ once I arrived in order to work, there on out, in an improvisational fashion: without notes, without rehearsing, in the face-to-face,–in a word–in what Pierre Hadot nicely calls ‘living discourse.’ Thus far, my conversations with Pete have shown me a different path, one in which the ideas continue to come forth in virtue of the conversations we have. This, I suppose, should come as no surprise since the rest of my philosophical life is structured according to philosophical conversations anyway. The dialogue has come to trump the monologue, the soliloquy, and the monograph.

In the last couple of conversations, I’ve been thinking with Pete about basic economic arrangements. What are the most basic, primary, and legitimate kinds of social acts that, once they are put into a sequence or ‘added up,’ generate various economic sequences? The adjectives ‘primary’ and ‘legitimate’ are supposed to rule out cases of plunder, taking, usury, trade finance, etc. The original three speech/social acts I came up with were:

  • Agree (A and B can agree about X.)
  • Exchange (A and B can swap, barter, trade; can exchange good for service; can exchange cash for service or cash for good)
  • Give (A can give B something without expectation of a return.)

I reckon Pete sensed that these acts were insufficient. What about a request?, he asked. A request is neither a gift nor an exchange nor, I suspect, can a request be derived from a gift or an exchange. Certainly, the concept of a contract can be derived from agreeing and exchanging, but a request cannot. If I ask you to help me lift this heavy box up to the top floor, am I really and necessarily implying that there is an exchange? (In some cases perhaps, but not in all cases. A can of beer for a broken back?)

I request, as Pete pointed out, that you ‘do me a favor.’ Requests seem to bear a family resemblance to gifts without being the same thing as gifts. In one respect, they are similar: the credit that accrues to the one who does the other a favor or to the giver of the gift is not necessarily quantifiable or easily grasped in some relationship of equivalence. Hence, neither are forms of exchange.

So, I find it compelling to add the request to the list of basic social acts that make possible various economic arrangements.

Now, what about sharing? Families share any number of things: cutlery, plates, bowls, bathrooms, cars, etc. Friends may share certain items of clothing without these being swaps, loans, or gifts. Neighbors may share tools. Conceivably, one may have once make a request of another, but it’s also possible that ‘this is just the way we do things around here.’ A public water fountain is a case in point.

Here, then, is the revised, more considered list:

  • Agree (A and B can agree about X.)
  • Exchange (A and B can swap, barter, trade; can exchange good for service; can exchange cash for service or cash for good)
  • Give (A can give B something without expectation of a return.)
  • Request (A asks B if B would do A a favor.)
  • Share (A and B use the same thing at the same time [e.g., a teeter-totter], one after the other, for a stint, on a certain occasion, etc.]

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Let’s test this list for its completeness. One example that Pete brought up was that of the Norwegian neighborhood dugnad. In the neighborhood dugnad tradition, members of a particular neighborhood spend a day ‘chipping in’ in order to complete a common set of tasks. At the end of the day, they eat together and generally have a good time. In some earlier cases, we learn, the dugnad came about by request:

A Norwegian encyclopaedia from 1940 describes the “dugnad” in this way:

It is called dugnad when neighbours and other acquaintances, often on request, comes to a man at the Norwegian countryside and without payment help him to do a certain job at the shortest time possible. The participants must be generously served with something to eat and drink. (Anne Haugestad, ‘Working Together for Sustainable Societies: The Norwegian “Dugnad” Tradition in a Global Perspective,’ my italics added)

According to Haugestad, after World War II and with the rise of urbanization, the neighborhood dugnad ultimately became a regular occurrence. Hence, what began as a request tied to a particular occasion was transformed into a ritualized exercise in community maintenance. About the latter, she concludes,

The neighbourhood “dugnad” is thus a kind of institutionalized system for giving gifts to the community. Through this institution a kind of gift mechanism has thus been able to survive in Norwegian society.

I take it she is right to classify the neighborhood dugnad (as opposed to the family dugnad) as a kind of gift. It is not easy to conceive of its being an exchange as if doing a day’s worth of labor were equivalent to having a communal meal together. That interpretation seems to me far-fetched. Nor is it a case of sharing, though it must make possible sharing certain things–the use of fixed-up roads or cleaned-up gardens. The idea is that everyone pitches in in whatever way is best for each in order to further the cause of the common good. Sensibly, I think, the chief virtue in this scenario would be generosity and the social act would be classified as a gift.

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I am not sure that the list is complete. In any case, what remains to be considered is (a) how to derive more sophisticated conceptions of friendly  economic arrangements (e.g., gift economies, sharing economies, fair and reasonable contracts), (b) how to show that certain conceptions of the good life require participation in certain economic arrangements, and (c) how to make plain the vitalizing, friendly connection between the right conception of a good life and the right economic arrangement.

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