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November 05, 2005

Thick We's

In his book The Ethics of Memory, the contemporary philosopher Avishai Margalit differentiates between what he calls 'thick we's' and 'thin we's'. Thin we's have abstract, thin bonds -- all Americans, all human beings, all "20-somethings". Margalit is more interested in exploring ethical issues among people whose relationships are 'thicker'; who have shared experiences and shared memories that raise questions of caring and hatred.

There's much we can do with this distinction. Especially, if we expand and enrich the two concepts to fit how we actually lead our lives in the 21st century. In my book On Value and Values -- and in the posts to this website like my other writing -- a 'thick we' is made up of people who inescapably share one or more meaningful aspects of their fates with one another and who inevitably must together balance individual self-interest with the purposes they share as a 'we'. Because they share fates in various real, tangible and everyday ways, thick we's must both shape and implement some common good together.

Let's unpack this a bit. Your family is a thick we. You have friends who together with you make for a thick we. Those with whom you interact daily at work are a thick we. If you regularly play soccer or go bowling with others, that's a thick we. If you attend religious services with a persistent set of folks, that's another thick we.

In each of these illustrations, there is some meaningul and important aspect of your fate - of your health, wealth, well being, etc -- that is wrapped up with the same aspects for the other folks involved in your thick we.

In contrast, people who might identify themselves with 'thin we's' have simliar interests or concerns, but do not really share any aspect of their fates with one another in tangible, gritty and everyday ways. They do not even know one another by name. There's nothing requiring them to shape a common good or take action together -- to hold one another accountable -- for implementing their common good.

Consider, then, "red" versus "blue" Americans. Yes, these thin we's matter a heckuva lot to the future of the United States (and the world). But, 'red' and 'blue" Americans are better understood as market segments comprised of individuals who in their roles as voters and customers influence political and other markets. Importantly, the people in these 'thin we's' have no responsibility whatsoever to implement or hold themselves accountable for the actions of the candidates or the impact of the policies supported. Rather, as voters, consumers, family members and friends, people in thin we's look to the thick we's elected -- political parties, congresses, executive offices, governmental organizations -- to shape and implement the share purposes of those organizations - -of those 'thick we's'.

Thus, Congress is a thick we. Indeed, it's an excellent example of the following nuance: in differentiating thick from thin, I am not suggesting 'good vs. bad'. Thick we's have the strongest and most predictable shared values - but those values - that blend of belief, behavior, attitude and speech -- can be predictably bad, predictably good or predictably in-between. Congress is a thick we on whom the thin we's named 'red' versus 'blue' Americans depend. The question for Congress -- like any thick we -- is what constitutes Congress' common good, Congress' shared purposes, Congress' blend of concern for value ('reelection') with the concern for values ('governance'; 'liberty and justice for all")?

It is in thick we's -- not thin we's -- that our concern for value (money, profits, winning) is most tested against our concern for values (family, social, political, religious and so on). It is in thick we's -- not thin we's -- that our individual concerns about ourselves -- about 'me' -- are most tested against the concerns and purposes of the group, of the thick we.

In the early 21st century, most thick we's in which any of us participate tend to favor one of these concerns over the other. At work, our thick we's -- the organizations in which we are employed -- routinely use value as a trump card over values. The shared purposes -- the common good -- is denominated in terms of profits, winning, shareholder value and the like.

At home, in church or at play, our dominant concern is one or more values as opposed to value.

All of which contributes to the profound split between value and values in our culture. We lead dual lives -- pursuing value over values from 9 to 5 and the reverse during the remainder of each day.

This is not sustainable. Consider only resources and power. We live in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. The vast majority of power and resources lie in organizations and, therefore, shape where those organizations will take the markets and networks of our world -- indeed, the world itself.

Today, the vast majority of those organizations pursue value over values. Others -- and the less powerful ones -- pursue values over value. Neither of these strategies are sustainable. Churches, schools, non-profits and so forth cannot sustain themselves by ignoring and being blind to value. But -- and this is by far the more serious challenge -- neither can for-profit organizations (whether Wal-Mart or GM or Roche -- or a small bookstore or cleaners or barbershop) sustain itself if value -- if profits, wealth, shareholder value or winning -- is the trump card for every single serious issue and question on the table. Eventually, that approach eviscerates and hollows out the values -- social, political, spiritual, environmental, medical, legal and others -- on which the very value pursued rests.

Thick we's have become the central, most critical crucible in which our thin we's fates -- all six billion of us on the planet -- are now being shaped. If we can restore a healthy, blended concern for both value and values in our thick we's, we can and will pass along a healthier, saner and more sustainable planet to our children and grandchildren.

Posted by Doug Smith on November 5, 2005 02:14 PM | Permalink

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