The Primacy of Being

A core pillar of Life Itself’s approach to social change is what we term The Primacy of Being. The vital role our ways of being play in human existence is of course not a new idea. Its variants can be found everywhere from ancient wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, to Virtue Ethics, to Heidegger and other Continental thinkers and even the work of path-breaking cognitive scientists such as Francisco Varela. Nonetheless, explorations of what this might mean for our efforts towards social change, and how we might organise modern society more broadly, are still few in number. 

‘Being’ here is shorthand for ways of being. Individual ‘Being’ is our psychological and cognitive habits and processes, and, more than that, our way of being in the world’, the way we see the world, the way it occurs to us. Collective Being is culture: the habits of individual and collective thought in the group, the stated and unstated beliefs and values, the rituals and practices. These two forms of being of course inter-depend.

So what does a commitment to the primacy of being actually entail? Put simply, it implies that being is the most important factor in social change, and in particular should be given priority over social structure or technology when considering our efforts to this end. We must acknowledge the huge importance of technology, and social structures such as our economy or institutions of governance. However, in a context of material abundance it is a transformation of being — at the macro cultural level as well as at the personal micro-level — that will really make the difference in securing flourishing societies. Collective development in these other spheres, for all the potential it has, fundamentally has a ceiling. It is only through a shift in being that we can attain the radical social transformation necessary to secure the flourishing of all life on earth.

Note, the claim here is not that a cultural shift (I will use the terms cultural shift and shift in Being interchangeably, given we are discussing transforming societies themselves) is necessary and sufficient on its own. Advances in technology and structure are both possible and beneficial independently of shifts in Being. Thus, we are not arguing for a sole focus on Being, only that when all is said and done Being is a more important ingredient in truly transformative change than any other. Advances in technology and structure, whilst useful, are necessarily bounded with regards to the improvements they will bring for human flourishing. A world where everyone is supremely wealthy would not necessarily be a world free from suffering or planetary exploitation. It is quite possible, and in fact plausible, to imagine technological advancements enabling huge leaps in material prosperity alongside a continued relationship to our earth as little more than a resource, and for many of the dissatisfactions characterising a wealthy, consumerist existence to persist. Similarly even if we manage to radically transform the dysfunctional structures of political-economy which grip our current civilisation into ones of cooperation and fair distribution (you can substitute in whichever idealised vision of the global order here you may please), and there is here in my view an open question as to whether or not such systemic transformation is even possible without a major shift in Being, this would not seem on its own to address the deepest roots of human suffering and discontentment even if it did rectify some of the more immediate ones. It is this boundedness that leads us to emphasise Being.

An implication of this position is that so-called ‘techno-solutionist’ or ‘structural-solutionist’ interventions aimed at bringing about radical social change, from space colonisation to blockchain based economics to classical marxism, are all doomed to fall short of the level of transformation and benefit they aspire to for the same reason. While, of course, in the history of such movements there has been a number of failure modes, we hold that had these befallen them or not, all such movements would have been destined to fall short due to the simple fact that they are inadequate in their incorporation of individual Being and collective culture when considering levers for, and impediments to, change. 

I will discuss what exactly I mean by this later, but in short, while of course it is implausible to say that such major shifts would have absolutely no impact at all on the Being of those experiencing them, it is similarly implausible to say that they alone would be enough to entirely flush the deeply ingrained, detrimental ways of being from ourselves and our societies. State compelled shared ownership under a marxist regime will not automatically foster a deeply felt sense of interconnection and interbeing between citizens who have for generations considered themselves primarily self-interested individuals, for example. Instead, without shifts in Being, major technological or structural changes risk at best leaving the core of human (and broader planetary) suffering largely intact, and at worst being captured and used to advance the same selfish, exploitative and damaging impulses which characterise much of our current societies.

An obvious question at this point is, even if these implications seem plausible, why might we believe the initial premise of the primacy of Being that they rest on? I do not have the space to give this question as full a treatment as it deserves here, but aside from the gestures made to this effect by the numerous traditions and disciplines mentioned in my introduction, there are a number of observations that may lead us to believe that Being should be afforded primacy over other facets of society with regards to transformation. 

The first is the role our ways of being play as a mediator between external phenomena and our internal states. The views, values and patterns of behaviour we hold affect how external occurrences impact us. From the level of well-being we derive from the same material circumstances to how we respond to compliments and insults, our attitudes towards scientific expertise to how we approach problems such as climate change and the consideration we afford future generations, our ways of being play leading role in how we engage with the world, and how it in turn shapes us as individuals. It is our ways of being that also shape how we might use the same technological and structural features of our society. The same artificial intelligence can be used to develop new medicines or more effective weapons, and, as the history of failed Communist experiments has shown, even economic systems designed to be highly egalitarian can be captured and abused for the gain of a select few. In each case it is the ways of being of those controlling the technology or structure, their levels of greed, individualism, fear, aggression and so on, which determine how it is used. Given this, a strong case can be made for a focus on the Being of the individuals which will inhabit and inherit the seemingly inevitable stream of technological and structural change which carries our civilisation through history, as it is this Being which will in turn determine whether it carries us towards a future of flourishing or collapse.

As well as the observation that the effects of other changes are mediated by Being, it is also notable that whether these changes are able to take hold at all, and in what form, is further determined by Being. Appetite for radical social transformation is determined in no small part by the views and values of populations, such that even if what we are aiming for is transformation of other kinds, we would still do well to focus on shifting the Being of the societies we seek to transform. Take universal healthcare in the US, or even issues such as reducing meat consumption to aid climate change mitigation. In each case, those of us with a more progressive bent would see these as being blindingly obvious courses of action and yet they, along with many other types of social change, are heavily resisted by large portions of the population. The reason is largely that they are perceived as a threat to a certain set of values (freedom, autonomy, responsibility and so on), and at odds with particular ways of being which are privileged and fiercely protected. Thus again, if we are to enact any form of serious social change, there is a strong case that we would do well to focus on shifting the ways of being which determine how receptive our populations are to it.

These arguments for the primacy of being can be seen to play out in the context of collective action problems such as climate change. Here, a focus on being is essential to an effective response. 

First, one might argue that if we had only devoted a proportion of the resource we have spent on thus far ineffective interventions at reducing our environmental destruction on work focused on changing our cultural relationship with the planet and environment, and in trying to cultivate modes of Being that are more intertwined with the natural world, then we would be in a far better position with regards to the spectre of climate change. In other words, we might be able to muster an adequate response through other means, but it would simply be more efficient if we would (have) focus(ed) on being. Given the impossibility of constructing a relevant counterfactual for comparison, such a claim is of course hard to support evidentially. However given how short we are set to fall from our already over-modest climate targets there remains quite some intuitive plausibility.

One might alternatively claim that, without a focus on Being at their centre, any solutions to such collective action problems will not be as effective as they could, or in fact need to be. It is not that different methods (focus on being vs technology and/or structure) are differently efficient at reaching the same threshold of response adequacy, but that this threshold is in fact different. Such a claim differs from the first argument above in the following manner: while the first argument holds that maximally effective technical or structuralist response to collective action problems are possible. Consistent is claiming that this would still leave us falling short of a maximally flourishing society as this flourishing is a matter of Being, and cannot be technically or structurally secured. 

This second point by contrast holds that, irrespective of considerations of flourishing, without a focus on Being our responses to these problems will fall short. How would this be so? The answer is that climate change and other such collective action problems have a common root, and that root is in our Being. We could imagine that a flurry of investment makes viable carbon capture and storage technology readily available within the next few years, averting the worst of the climate crisis. Nonetheless this solution, while solving the problem at the superficial level, leaves us little better equipped as a collective to deal with future existential risks and collective action problems. The separated, individualistic and exploitative modes of Being which characterise our current world order will persist. We are then resigned to a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole, scrambling to address each such threat as it arises. To draw on a medical analogy without addressing being our responses will continue to simply address symptoms, without curing the disease. In this sense, they will never be as effective as they could be. 

Even if we accept the primacy of Being, arguably the more important question is: what then follows? What must we do if we are to shift Being in the ways required for social transformation. The first and most obvious answer is to undertake further exploration. Given this approach to social change is far from commonly accepted, there is a huge amount of room for further research and experimentation. A better understanding of how ways of being do shift at the individual and collective level, how they impact and interact with other external phenomena, and which ways of being are most conducive to a flourishing planet will be hugely helpful if we are to achieve the ontological transformation required to secure our planetary future.

The prior discussion of the primacy of Being can be used as a lens to view social change work itself in a number of ways. The first relates to what we should actually focus on to try and secure social transformation. In line with the discussion of collective action problems above, our thesis would place shifting ways of Being as the central lever for social change, and argue that far more attention and resource should be devoted to this end across the broader social change sector. Here, the claim is that affecting ontology is the most important route to change, whatever that change may be.

This is of course not to say that every one of us should immediately down tools and turn our attention to this end; a holistic approach to transformation requires innovation across a range of domains. It does however imply that perhaps securing ontological change is more neglected than it should be. Experimenting with the use of activities and practices capable of tapping into the deeply felt portions of human experience will be important, as well as efforts to build their mainstream credibility. Much can be learned from the expansion of mindfulness practice into broader society, for example, but there are a plethora of other practices whose transformational potential at the social level remains latent. At Life Itself we are attempting to support these efforts through our Praxis Hub, a space where we will experiment with a range of collective practices and rigorously evaluate their impacts.

In turning our attention to shifting ways of Being, local work takes on a new significance. Local initiatives enable connection and felt experiences in a way that those operating at larger scales often struggle to match, and therefore are likely to be a vital tool in any efforts to shift ways of Being. 

The primacy of Being also has ramifications for how we engage in other activities which do not directly target these shifts. As Being is taken to be a major mediator and influencer of other external phenomena even if our work does not seek to directly influence it, it must account for it. Regardless of objectives or focus areas, considering how our work might interact with the views and values of various demographics, what this might mean and how we might tap into these to further our goals is a vital stream of work. 

Innovations of all kinds, and particularly social innovations, are impactful only to the extent they are broadly accepted and adopted. This acceptance will in turn depend considerably on how these innovations relate to the views, values and ways of Being they are presented to. In the case of climate change, for example, much of the resistance to proposed social shifts away from consumption and production as a way of reducing emissions comes from the deeply embedded worldview that these material facets of existence are what matters, and what provide us with happiness and satisfaction. Were this worldview not so paradigmatic of developed Western capitalism, then movements such as degrowth, well-being economics or transformative adaptation would arguably have gained significantly more traction.

This observation, superficially obvious as it may be, has profound implications for how we approach social change. In almost any domain, coming up with answers or solutions alone is not enough. Just as important is the cultural engagement which will form the lynch-pin of their success. Considering how our proposals for change might interact with the views, values and social narratives of different social demographics, and how they might be framed to play positively to these, will be vital if the plethora of amazing ideas and innovations existing in the social change sphere are to be translated into concrete shifts in society. This is not to grossly simplify a phenomenon as complex as social change and explain it away using a single variable, merely to note that this is an area deserving considerable attention, regardless of the type of change one is pushing for.

Finally, our thesis says something about the type of social change, or society more broadly, we should be aiming towards with our efforts. Often, when we consider (positive) visions of the future we imagine shifts in our technology such as renewable energy, artificial intelligence or engineered genetics. Perhaps instead or alongside we might paint images of transformed social and economic structures, such as transformations of social class hierarchy or the distribution of economic wealth and prosperity. What remains underdeveloped in many such visions is the Being of their inhabitants, or in other words, what their ontological foundations are. The primacy of Being tells us that it is this ontological component of social transformation which should take centre stage, and be the primary focus of the visions of the future we use to guide our efforts. This is not to say that economic redistribution or human-aligned and beneficial AI should not feature, or are not worthy of attention. Instead, it simply states that the shifts and futures we must aim for should be primarily ontological in nature, with such other features playing a more supporting role.

These three implications overlap with bear significant similarity to one another, so it is worth pointing out their subtle differences. The first deals with shifting ontology somewhat instrumentally, claiming that this should be the primary lever for social change and that thus more social change efforts should focus primarily on shifting Being. The second states that, given the importance of ontology as a lever for change, Being should play a major role in strategies for social transformation even when these don’t directly relate to shiftin Being. Here the distinction is that, while implication one argues more of us should directly be directly trying to shift Being, implication two argues that even those of us doing other work (e.g. political or economic reform) must factor Being heavily in our strategy for this work.  The third states that it is a shift in ontology which is of ultimate importance as an end for social transformation, and hence should sit centrally in the visions of future societies we use to guide us forward. Here the claim is that, as well as ontology being important as a lever for change or a tool for other ends, it is the most important determinant of flourishing at an individual, collective and planetary level.

The outline of the primacy of being and its implications I have offered here is necessarily still quite general. As much as anything, this piece should be read is a call to action; ontology’s role in social change is still very much underappreciated and underexplored. To give substance to the high level observations I have made in this piece, and to begin translating these into genuinely transformative social change will require a great degree of further contemplation and of action. At the very least, I hope I have managed to provide a useful provocation for further discussion and activity.


The original notes for this article can be found here