There’s No Such Thing As “Doing Good” (part I)By
In my capacity as president of my family’s Foundation I am charged with reviewing dozens of LOIs (letter of intent) and Full proposals each fiscal year (which, for us, ends on July 31st). Probably the most used phrase I encounter in these LOIs and Full Proposals is “to do good” or one of its variants, such as “provide aid,” “increase capacity,” “reduce suffering,” etc. Up to about the late 1990s, our Foundation had no problem with these “do good” phrases when we encountered them in LOIs and Full Proposals. We would argue, “Do good … everyone knows what that means. That’s what philanthropists and non-profits do.” Well, all of that changed as a result of two events.
The first event was an in-service presentation and workshop by Curtis Meadows of the Meadows Foundation (based in Dallas). During his presentation, Curtis simply said something like, “For a foundation to be effective, it needs a philosophy or theory of giving, of social change.” Curtis told us that the days of writing checks for charities willy nilly are quickly coming to a close. He went on to tell our board and staff that all foundations make a covenant with the federal government (in the form of their IRS Ruling Letter) whereby foundations agree to administer the tax revenue they keep (because of the non-tax status they receive) in ways that go beyond where the government could possibly go. Curtis gave us a bottom line that went something like, “During an audit, the IRS will ask one simple question: ‘by what plan or model or philosophy were you able to do good that goes beyond where the government could have gone?’ ” Curtis recommended that all philanthropists should keep this question in the back of their minds as they review and administer grants. Curtis’ presentation really left an impression on me, and, I would say, our whole Foundation. We spent the better part of the workshop looking at ways of coming up with a philosophy or theory of giving. It wasn’t long after Curtis’ in-service that we began looking at theories of social change, Bowlbian attachment theory chief among them.
The second event was my read of cognitive linguist (turned political commentator) George Lakoff’s 1996 book entitled Moral Politics—How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Writing in Moral Politics (and several follow-up books such as Don’t Think of An Elephant and Whose Freedom?), Lakoff argues that there is no such thing as freedom. Lakoff argues that there is only freedom framed by a particular cultural cognitive model. The two cultural cognitive models that Americans are most familiar with are the liberal political model and the conservative political model. Lakoff finds these model categories to be unsatisfying from a cognitive linguistic perspective. He prefers the frames Nurturant Parent Cultural Cognitive Model (or Nurturant model for short) and Strict Father Cultural Cognitive Model (or Strict model) respectively. Before we look at these two frames or models, allow me to shock your system a bit by asking you to recall your high school physics class.
In my high school physics class I was introduced to a concept known as “scalar quantities.” Scalar quantities fall on some scale or quantitative continuum. Whole numbers and their position on a number scale are scalars … 1,2,3,4 … etc. A scalar quantity can be defined by a magnitude alone. And if you have a scale, you can rank order these scalars … four is greater than three, three is greater than two, etc. Philanthropists will rank order LOIs or Full Proposals all the time, for example, there’s more interest in Full Proposal A than there is in B, so A assumes a rank at the top of the pile. Philanthropists will also use scalars and ranking to bring about evaluation. When we used the web-based collaborative groupware program Share 360 (now defunct), our online grant application form asked for a tracking parameter, say, number of classes, number of school lunches, number of workshops, etc. At the end of the project we would use a simple ranking process to assess outcomes, say, “seven out of the proposed ten classes were offered,” or “100 additional lunches were served over the 500 proposed.”
When I worked at a behavioral health hospital, all patient chart entries had to contain the phrase “as evidenced by.” Behaviorists love evidence. They don’t care about what kind of evidence necessarily; they simply want evidence. It was not uncommon for me (and my fellow therapists) to write chart notes such as, “The patient is doing good as evidenced by a decline in the number of assaults on staff from five per shift to three per shift.” As a side note, it is the behavioral camp that is behind the almost mad drive toward making all interventions evidenced based. But as a psychodynamically oriented workshop presenter told us once, “Garbage evidence in, garbage evidence out.” This presenter went on to say something like, “The evidence has to make sense, it has to be valid evidence, that is to say, evidence in a direction that makes appropriate sense.” He gave us this rather terse bottom line: “Evidence for evidence’s sake is so much bull stuff.” If memory serves, he didn’t use the word “stuff.” What this presenter was getting at is the idea that scalar quantities are of limited value. For quantities to have value—to have meaning—they must be vector quantities. Oh no … more high school physics.
A vector quantity has both magnitude AND direction. Speed is a scalar quantity because it is speed in no particular direction. Velocity is a vector because it is speed in a particular direction. Doing good is a scalar. Doing good framed by a particular cultural cognitive model or theory of social change is velocity. Too often philanthropy uses scalars: speed in no particular direction. At the aforementioned psychiatric hospital it didn’t matter that our patients were still violent as long as their speed was decreasing. What cognitive scientists like Lakoff argue is that for there to be true good, true freedom, true morality, or even true empathy, it must be framed by a particular cultural cognitive model or theory of social change. Sure, Lakoff will admit that we all have a core or “gut” sense for these values, but once they hit the so-called rational mind, they are extended using cultural cognitive models. As an example, in Moral Politics, Lakoff describes how a liberal extension of empathy tends to take the form of “individual minds knowing other individual minds.” In contrast, conservatives extend empathy by focusing on the empathetic relationship that forms between an individual mind and the collective mind expressed by the Strict model. So, “increasing empathy” outside of a cultural cognitive model is a scalar; “increasing liberal empathy” or “increasing conservative empathy” are vectors in that they use, draw meaning from, or are extended by cultural cognitive models. Rather than getting into a lengthy discussion of Nuturant model versus Strict model, let me just give you an example, one that Lakoff uses quite often in his writings (which is where this example comes from).
Lakoff writes that “tax relief” is a very powerful conservative, Strict frame. Allow me to unpack this frame a bit so we can see how it operates (cognitive operations that usually take place at an unconscious level):
- What’s the drama or action of the frame? – The imposition of a tax.
- Is the action or drama good or bad? – The term “relief” conveys the sense that the action—“imposing taxes”—is bad.
- Who is bringing about or imposing the bad action or drama? – Liberals. Liberals impose taxes. Liberals wear the black hat in this drama.
- Who is the target of the bad action or drama? – The general public.
- Who will “relieve” this pain and suffering? – Conservatives. Conservatives reduce or eliminate taxes. Conservatives wear the white hat in this drama.
- How will conservatives bring about relief? – Conservatives will reduce or eliminate the burden, the pain, the suffering of taxes.
It’s quite amazing that two little words can create a frame that then goes on to tell an entire story with bad guys (liberals), good guys (conservatives), an action or drama (the imposition of a burden of taxes), and a resolution to the action (reduction or elimination of taxes). Cognitive science tells us that we are easily drawn to stories and easily bored by data. As Lakoff regularly reminds us, we think using frames (e.g., stories) and not facts. You can run the same Lakoffian analysis on such conservative frames as “death panel,” “death tax,” and “class warfare.” Overall, these frames or theories convey the sense that conservatives are heroes, rescuers, the good guys, friend and protector to one and all. See how conservatives, using the Strict model or theory, frame good: relieving the burden of taxes from the shoulders of hardworking individuals. Hopefully Nurturant liberals are yelling and screaming, “Hey, hey, hey … that’s not how we define ‘good.’ ” Lakoff tries to counter the “tax relief” frame by using the “revenue” frame. Liberals feel that in order to do good, revenues must be raised that can provide for a commons, a public space that will help one and all, not just certain individuals. As mentioned above, an IRS Ruling Letter transfers tax revenue from the government to the non-profit. What a non-profit does with these “tax revenues” or “tax reliefs” depends a lot on the model or theory they use. As an example, a presenter at a decidedly conservative gathering of philanthropists told us that grants (e.g., deferred tax dollars) should be made to encourage at risk youth to start businesses as a way out of poverty. The presenter told us about a grant that was made to a youth center to purchase computer equipment so that the youth there could make money making and selling greeting cards door-to-door. Sounds great from a conservative model perspective (one that tends to focus in on the relationship between an individual mind and the collective mind of free market dynamics). Sadly (for liberals that is), Lakoff points out over and over in his writings that conservatives are masters at framing (e.g., telling stories) whereas liberals are not. Liberals tend to tell facts, which, as mentioned above, become boring very quickly. For a recent example of the above, see this article by Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling.
We’ll continue looking at the possibility that there’s no such thing as “doing good” in part II of this two-part series. To whet your appetite, in part II I’ll argue that all doing good falls on some form of the Midgley Continuum (named for British systems thinker Gerald Midgley). Here’s the Midgley Continuum for your consideration:
worldview <==> ideology <==> methodology <==> intervention
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