Over time, we learn what to care about and what not to, and who to care about and who not to. Much of this comes down to the social circles in which we move, and wider cultural norms that drive our sense of what we want (from work ideals, material and consumable goods, to relationships). The more we are exposed to, the greater choice we have in terms of what and who we care for. This differences in exposures and choices between us are not about social ‘inequality’ but rather ‘inequity’ – inequity refers to conditions in life that are unfair (here’s a visual that captures it well).
If you are someone who has worked hard to get where you are, you should know that this also comes down to your luck in life. Your place of birth, skin colour, family origins and support network all weigh in heavily. But the remaining ‘individual’ part of you pursuing that ‘luck’, given the inequities, in Western societies draws from your sense of freedom to decide your own fate.
The feeling of being able to decide your own fate is important to acknowledge because it also drives your sense of moral and social responsibility. I am intrigued by the extent to which having a greater sense of control over fate clouds understanding of what others feel they can control, shaping our sense of care for social inequities and divides. Currently, the self-bias of neoliberal (‘free will’) beliefs seems to mainly spur a lack of care about the ‘luck’ factor in life.
In anthropology, the tensions between social ‘structure’ and personal ‘agency’ continuously seesaw. If you are a determinist, the seesaw will likely fall comfortably on the side of cultural-neurological fates and structuralist explanations for all conscious experience and social differences. But, as Sarah Bakewell reminded me recently, arguments for indeterminism (the freedom fighter) found in phenomenology do not merely reject determinism:
We often mistake the very things that enable us to be free – context, meaning, facticity, situation, a general direction in our lives – for things that define us and take away our freedom. It is only with all these can we can be free in a real sense … I may not choose what happens to me, but I can choose what to make of it, spiritually speaking – Sarah Bakewell (2016: 157).
Phenomenology emphasises the experiential human capacity to decide for oneself ‘what to make’ of our otherwise determined circumstances. What we are conscious of matters more to us than the pre-conscious building blocks of that experience. And arguing for these unknown, indeterminate or ‘spiritual’ matters of life need not feel so contrarian and meta-physical, either.
Phenomenology privileges the human capacity to feel ‘free’ from what is otherwise prescribed by God or cultural-neurological explanations. Confusingly, religious believers, atheist believers and phenomenologists all throw about the notion of ‘bad faith’ when people aren’t being ‘true’ to individual potentials.
A show of bad faith can be used to describe the lack of openness to counter-arguments when debating a viewpoint (such as whether free will exists), or when we contradict previously expressed values (playing with ‘post-truths’, perhaps). For Jean-Paul Sartre, one of phenomenology’s founding philosophers, ‘bad faith’ is to be fatalistic or to not live in enthusiastic and ‘authentic’ pursuit of the not-yet-experienced.
Of course, both beliefs in lived feelings of free will (Sartre’s ‘good faith’) or lack of free will (Sartre’s ‘bad faith’) are self protective mechanisms. Yet, despite the contradictions in phenomenology (we cannot actually capture lived experiences that are over before consciousness of them began), the conscious feeling pertaining to ‘good faith’ is humanistic. Surely we need a bit of good faith to keep moving through our lives, towards our not-yet-known futures?
So, phenomenological ‘good faith’ is, I believe, more relevant to our lives as they play out and the sense of control we feel we have. Further, to keep living without absolute certainty for how things are going to turn out gives us scope to change, and to care about change.
To ‘be the change’ we believe in (reiterated one last time by President Obama as he departed from office) first requires us to believe in something different from, or ‘more than’, what currently is. This means deciphering what does not sit right in the lives we are already so immersed in. This means having the time and energy to consider our own position relative to others’ positions.
Because I grew up with what I now understand to be more diverse social exposures to how people live, paying attention to social differences and disparities has become part of my own means of self-care. Further, I try to live in ‘good faith’ that social change is possible via wider social care.
Critically, however, what people perceive to choose to make of their own and others’ circumstances does not easily come with an appetite for change. To be familiar with circumstances and ideas maximises our feelings of certainty – about ourselves, about what we know, about what matters, and about who or what to thank or blame for undesired outcomes.
Then in regard to how much pre-determined ‘luck’ compares to perceptions of social mobility, it is useful to remember that both luck and feelings of free will play into social inequities. Social security measures that aim “to help people help themselves” could better acknowledge whether people really feel like they have a choice to contribute to their own and others’ circumstances, and then care for ‘being’ part of that change.
We cannot neatly de-bias ourselves from our own circumstances or protective perceptions of how much ‘choice’ people have over their lives. But, given a chance to consider what it means to feel some level of security and mobility, we might better recognise that the feeling of control in choosing either more of the same thing or something different could come with greater opportunities for caring.
The apple does not fall that far from the tree without rolling at least a little inwards, but the faith given to us by our support systems – that of family, friends and government social securities – opens up different paths of possibility. When might perceived choices about self-care start to consciously involve greater capacity for social care?
[Image by Julia Brown]