Being and Person
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.. The following essay was presented to a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1985. Used by permission of the author.
Metaphysics seems to many a quite "impractical" enterprise. And it is true that some pursue metaphysics simply out of the desire to know. That is surely a laudable motive, and as our culture discourages such interests, it is all the more appropriate that a few of us should continue to encourage it.
Nevertheless, the widespread suspicion of a quest for truth cut off from practice has some justification. There is, first, a reasonable doubt that the human mind is well adapted to find the truth. We know a great deal today about how our thinking is conditioned by culture, gender, and class interest, and is thoroughly perspectival in character, and we become rightly suspicious of every claim to truth that does not acknowledge its own conditionedness and relativity.
Second, we are also aware of the acute urgency of the issues of justice, and even of survival, in the midst of which we live. Seeking a "truth" that does not help us in our shared struggle seems almost a waste of time. In any case, where purely rational criteria cannot guide us in judging among claimants to ultimate truth, pragmatic considerations loom large as providing criteria.
These objections have persuaded me not to give high priority to any metaphysical work that does not make clear both its conditionedness and its relevance to other domains of thought and life. But I am also persuaded that the appeal to practice, when used to evade metaphysical issues, is misguided and profoundly inimical to good practice. When new concerns arise at the practical level, some activists become aware of the metaphysical depths. This has happened in both the environmental and feminist movements. If we metaphysicians, on our side, spent more time showing how metaphysics shapes practice in a variety of fields, the dichotomy between our field and the crucial issues of justice and survival could be overcome.
My own efforts in this direction have been primarily in economics. It is quite apparent, on even cursory examination, that economic theory rests on metaphysical assumptions. To point this out is of minor importance unless one goes on to criticize these assumptions, identify better ones, and show the different consequences for economic practice that would follow if the better ones were adopted.
The two major metaphysical assumptions of current economic theory are about the nature of the nonhuman world and about human beings, thus, roughly, about "being" and "person." In economic thought, the nonhuman world has value only as it commands a price in the market place. It is viewed primarily as matter which can be given diverse forms by technological manipulation. Human beings are separate individuals who work and consume. Work is a disvalue to be engaged in only to acquire enhanced ability to consume. The wellbeing of human individuals is a function of the total price of what they consume.
In the body of my lecture I will not refer directly to the metaphysics of economic theory. Instead I will function more "purely" as a metaphysician. But in my concluding comments I will return to economic theory and practice to consider the implications of my views of being and person for what should go on in economics.
I have reversed the terms of the title partly because I want to begin by explaining how I am using "being." It is not a word that figures prominently in my philosophical vocabulary when I am simply speaking out of my own way of viewing things. But I have, of course, had to come to terms with its centrality for others.
My teacher, Charles Hartshorne, used to contrast being with becoming. He argued that becoming includes being, whereas being does not include becoming. He had, obviously, a particular notion of "being" in mind. For him. being was determinate and static. Being is a property possessed by all instances of becoming, but becoming is more than that. Becoming is concrete and fully actual. Being is an abstract aspect of this becoming.
This is a possible meaning of "being," but what it refers to can, I think, be better described in some other way. We can speak of the constant or unchanging aspects of the world, identifying being as the one such aspect that necessarily characterizes whatever is. When we do so, I agree with Hartshorne that "being" does not identify concrete actuality. The full actuality is always in process.
But it makes just as much sense, or more, to say that precisely because becoming is the fully concrete reality, becoming is the primary form of "being," or that each instance of becoming is "a being." We could then ask whether becoming as the fully actual is the only form of being or whether less concrete things are also forms of being. Either answer is possible and acceptable as long as we remember how we have chosen to use language. Whitehead does not use "being" in this connection, but he does speak of categories of "existence." In these he includes, among other things, pure potentials or what he calls "eternal objects." In his use of language, they, too, "exist," whereas in the use of Tillich (and others), they obviously do not. For Whitehead, to "exist" is to be a potential for participation in the constitution of concrete actuality. Clearly, he does not hear in the word "exist" what the existentialists taught us to hear. But if we remember what he means, his use is valid. And if pure potentials "exist," it would be quite reasonable to say that they, too, are "beings." Again, as long as we remember how the language is used, this is acceptable. However, I prefer the narrower use. I will say that the only beings are processes of becoming.
My choices here are influenced by what I have learned from the Thomists. Being or esse is neither a static property nor a general term for what is real in every sense of real. Esse is the act of being. Far from being static, it is pure activity. It is, perhaps, activity or act itself. In this sense, being cannot be attributed to abstractions. It is the mark of actuality.
Thomists have not always drawn from this utterly dynamic character of being the conclusion that it is to be found in processes rather than static objects. They speak often of the act of being whereby apparently static objects remain in being. But the Thomist "act of being" fits better with a view that what is is dynamic, that indeed these acts of being constitute the actual world.
This means that even "process" or "becoming" is too vague to identify a being. Our whole conference here can be viewed as a process, but it is not a single act of being. It contains a very large number of such acts. It is those individual unit acts that are beings in the fullest sense. Any other use of "being" is derivative from that.
Although acts of being are beings, there is a tension between viewing them as acts and as beings. Consider the act of being that is the process of constituting my experience in the sheer present. Qua act it has not yet a determinate outcome. When there is a determinate outcome that act is over. That act is past.
We have here a profound challenge to our intuitions. Sartre worked with this in terms of the "in-itself" and the "for-itself." The past, which is the given, consisted for him in the in-itself. The present is the for-itself. But the for-itself is not yet anything. It is only the becoming of something.
Sartre compounded the problem by treating the congealed in-itself as external to the for-itself. It is for him bad faith for the for-itself to allow itself to be informed by the inert in-itself. The for-itself is called to be just that, totally undetermined by the past. For Sartre the idea of God is the idea of the utterly impossible identity of the in-itself and the for-itself.
There are other options for metaphysical thought that correspond much more closely with lived experience. These depend on further refinement of the understanding of the act of being. What does the act of being do? Does it bring something into being out of nothing? No, it brings a new being into being out of previous ones. It is the unification of the given many into a new one. This means that, in Sartre's terms, the for-itself is properly and necessarily constituted out of the in-itself. It is not bad faith to reenact elements of the past. What would be bad faith would be to forget that the new act of being is truly new. It is a creative act. The new being is not simply the causal resultant of the past, although for the most part it is in fact just that. The new being participates in its own determination. To fail to exercise the freedom that is involved in that participation, to eschew responsibility for that over which the for-itself does have some control, is indeed bad faith.
The temptation, when we speak of an act of being, is to look for an actor outside the act. But the actors are within the acts. The given beings, that is, the completed past acts of being, act in their way. They provide the causality of the past. The new being acts in its way. It provides the element of self-determination or freedom without which there is no genuine act.
But Sartre's concern does not disappear. It remains true that freedom and definiteness cannot co-exist. As long as there is the act of being, there is not yet a completed being, only the process of the becoming of the being. Once the being is complete, it participates in the act of being by which new beings are formed, but it is no longer a self-determining for-itself. One could say that in the sheer present there is not yet a being, and that past beings, in the fullest sense of "are," are no more. There seems to be no moment of transition in which the freedom of self-constitution is united with the determinateness of full actuality. That also means that to attribute full actuality to what is determinate is to separate actuality from the act of being. If to be a being requires both act and determinateness, then there is in fact no being. But it is better to say that there is being in two forms: being in process of becoming determinate, and being that is the determinate outcome of past acts of being. Each has what the other lacks, and lacks what the other has. The full meaning of process appears most clearly when we see how the success of the drive to attain definiteness deprives the being of its internal act. The renewal of act is at the cost of definiteness.
I have talked of "being" with human beings primarily in view. But acts of being are by no means limited to us. There are other animals, down to one-celled organisms. There are molecules and atoms. Other acts of being include the tiny bursts of energy that we call quanta, and still others make up that mysterious energy of empty space. The entire universe is constituted of acts of being, present and past.
Once we have understood that, in the fullest sense, being refers to present and past acts of being, we can allow a freer use to refer to conferences and automobiles, wars and solar systems, all those things that are ultimately composed of acts of being. Since these are the things about which ideas of being were first formed in philosophy, it is important that as we refine our ideas we not divorce them from their place of origin. On the other hand, it is important that we not allow this secondary use to dominate our reflections about being.
Consider how that can damage us. For the most part the thought of being was shaped around reflection on the objects of sense experience. Beings were things like tables and stones. The characteristics of being were then developed in terms of what seemed reasonable to say about tables and stones. There then arose the question: what about the knower? Is the knower a being, too? Most of what had been said about beings did not fit the knower. It fit the human body much better. One could accordingly treat the knower as a being when the knower was viewed as a body. If one still wanted to know about the knower and the knower's experience, this could be treated in a secondary way as a particular form of the body or a relation of the body to external objects. The other solution was to say clearly that, Yes, the knower is also a being, and then to think of that being in analogy with tables and stones. Like them, then, it is treated as a substance. Yet it is a very different kind of substance, mental rather than physical, thinking rather than extended.
None of these theories should arise if we remember that the fundamental acts of being are momentary events. Some we think of as bursts of energy; others, as occasions of human experience. But these are not two metaphysical orders. An occasion of human experience is a burst of energy, and all bursts of energy, like all occasions of human experience, are acts of self-constitution out of the world.
Let us turn now to "person." Consider the person first as the complete psychosomatic organism from birth to death. In the broad extension of the word "being" that I have proposed, this "person" is a "being." For many general purposes--when we ask how many people are coming to a party or what someone's name is-- this broad use suffices. But when we ask more refined questions, we require more refined distinctions.
We can go to the opposite extreme and define the "person" in terms of the act of being through which present experience is being constituted. There are times when that makes sense. If some woman has made a mess of life, a counselor may say to her, "You are not that person who made those mistakes. You are the person who you are right now. This person can take charge of her life and make it new." One can be a new person.
The same concentration on the present can be over against the future instead of the past. Most of us are so intent on preparing for what is to be, or what we fear may be, that we do not enjoy the act of being that is all that we are right now. A counselor may remind us that all those futures with which we are so concerned will be nothing other than more acts of being. If we waste the present act of being out of worry about them, we are likely to waste those later ones worrying about still later ones in their future. We must learn to "be" rather than always "doing" with the future in view. One is only what one is in the immediate present.
This concentration on the present still leaves open another choice. Is one simply the one act of being that is the unified human experience at that moment? Or is one the whole psychosomatic organism? If one is a psychophysical identist, that question is unimportant. If one is a dualist, one will decide against the body. But if one understands that the body is a society of many acts of being distinct from, but intimately related to, the unified human experience, the question is an open one.
This is too important to pass over without further clarification. I propose greatly to simplify the nature of the body by thinking of it as a society of cells, and greatly to simplify the cells by thinking of them as successions of acts of being. The question is then whether the "person" now is just one act of being or many.
Posed in this way the answer must be--one. That means that the person is the unified human experience and not the society of cells composing the body. Yet this negation is quite misleading. To see how the person does include the body, we must return to the understanding of the act of being.
Each act of being is a unification of many completed or given acts of being into one. Each cellular act of being unifies the acts of being that constitute its past and its environment into one. It also includes in this unification the act of being that is the person in the narrow sense. It is, thus, a unification of the whole psychosomatic organism from its cellular perspective. In the same way, only more richly, the personal experience is the unification of past personal experiences with all the cellular acts of being that make up the body. In this thoroughly serious and realistic sense, it is not the body as a multiplicity of distinct acts of being, but it includes those acts, albeit imperfectly, in itself. The experience that constitutes the person now is somatic through and through. It is an enjoyment of bodily feelings and, through the bodily feelings, of the wider world.
The next question is whether, when we speak of ourselves as persons, it is appropriate to focus entirely on a single act of experience, omitting the flow of experience that has led up to that moment? There is no question that this is a possible use of the term. Yet much that we say about persons is in tension with it.
We saw in relation to the inclusion of the body, that it was not necessary to think of the person as a vast multiplicity of acts of being in order to do justice to the bodily character of personal being. A similar point can be made with respect to the personal past. That past is included in the present. The present moment in the long flow of experience is what it is largely by its inclusion in itself of those past moments.
An example will show how rich and full that inclusion can be. Suppose one is listening to music. One is hearing the end of a musical phrase. Thought of simply in a momentary sense, one might suppose that one was hearing only the concluding cord of the phrase. But if that were the case there would be no music, only a disconnected series of sounds. The reality is that the earlier notes in the musical phrase are part of the present momentary experience. What is heard is the completion of the phrase. The previous moments of listening to the music are included within the present moment. They are past, but they are the way the past is in the present.
I have stated my example very conservatively. If only the beginning of the phrase were present, the enjoyment of music would be quite limited. For some it seems that a whole movement of a symphony can be present as the movement ends. But my point is not how vividly how much of the past is in the present. My point is only to show that the present consists largely of the inflow of the past. To say that we will identify the person with the single, present act of being does not exclude the personal past any more than it excludes the body.
Nevertheless, there are problems with this limitation. Very closely associated with the notion of person is that of responsibility. There is a sense in which I am responsible only for what I am doing right now. The counselor was emphasizing this in relation to the woman who feels her life is ruined. But for most purposes, ethical and legal, responsibility is not understood or experienced so narrowly. If I lie in one minute, I cannot in the next deny responsibility. I must at least apologize.
Also there are times when I try to remember what I did or thought at some time in the past. This project is not the same as trying to decide what someone else did or thought at that time. I consider myself to be the person who so acted.
Or again, if I find that some good thing is coming into my life because of another's action, I feel grateful. If I find that it is happening because of my own past action, I feel pleased, or proud, but I do not ordinarily feel grateful. I consider the giver to be the same person as the recipient.
I may be belaboring the obvious. The term "person" is used overwhelmingly as if the person endured through time. For most people the problem arises in just the opposite way. They assume that one is a self-identical person throughout life. The puzzle is that there are times when we speak of becoming a new person or judge that one is no longer responsible for acts committed long ago. But this common view of what is problematic arises from a quite different metaphysics than the one I am proposing.
My suggestion is that we use "person" to refer to the flow of personal experience through time, recognizing that the degree of identity, and hence of responsibility, varies. I am clearly and emphatically the same person I was a few moments ago when I lied or heard the beginning of a musical phrase. On the other hand, when I hear a story about something naughty that I did at the age of three, I feel no such identity. I am, for most purposes, a different person. But there is no sharp line. It is possible that under hypnosis some traumatic event of my early childhood would vividly recur to me as something that had happened to me. I would understand features of my present emotional life as inwardly determined by that event. The sense of personal identity would be strong.
One way of understanding the identity as a matter of degree is in terms of the persistence of common characteristics. If I am moody and irrascible now and was so as an adolescent, I may judge myself, and be judged by others, to be the same person I was then. On the other hand, if there was an earlier time in childhood when I had a sunny disposition, we might judge that I was a different person then.
Another way of viewing this identity is in terms of memory. The way I remember my own past experience up to a certain point is different from the way I remember what happened to other people. I may remember seeing another listening to music. But I also remember hearing the music myself. Phenomenologically these are quite different. But with the passage of time, this changes. When I am trying to recall what I did on some occasion in the remote past, I am likely to picture myself in that situation much as I would picture another. On the other hand, I may succeed in triggering an internal memory of how I felt or how the world looked to me from that perspective. As long as the latter occurs, or as long as we have reason to anticipate that it may recur, we are likely to affirm our personal identity with the one we remember.
Another line of thought brings the unconscious aspects of our personal life more fully into play. Much of what characterizes present consciousness is shaped by effects of the past in the present that are not conscious. Some of them could be made conscious; some could not. Still one can say that as long as the nature of one's present experience is significantly affected by unconscious forces generated in one's past experience, one is the same person.
These ways of affirming personal identity through time place the emphasis on the peculiarly strong causal influence of past experience upon present experience. The accent is thus on continuation of past characteristics. This is important. But not all change counts against identity. Consider, for example, learning. In one act of being I incorporate my past knowledge together with new information into a larger whole. This is normal development and growth. It does not make me a new person. It is rather the healthy maturation of the person. Indeed, to be simply the same in character and knowledge now as I was twenty years ago would mean that I was not the same person who until then had been changing and growing in a normal way.
What then are the kinds of changes that render personal identity questionable? The clearest are cases of multiple personality. Our label for this phenomenon makes the point. Each person is distinct, with different habits, different memories, different inheritance from the past. Also, an injury to the brain or a deterioration of the brain because of a tumor or Alzheimers can have results that lead us reasonably and appropriately to say that the person we once knew is no longer there.
More important for our consideration are changes that do not involve pathology. These depend on the fact that the acts of being that constitute the person unify not only the bodily events and the personal past but also the wider environment including especially other people. Personal identity depends on the primacy of the personal past in shaping who we are. But sometimes environmental forces predominate, and when these change drastically, the personality changes with them. Consider a child brought up in emotionally deprived circumstances and brutalized by abuse. What the child will become in later life will never be unaffected by that. But there is the possibility that if the child is placed in a good home and is given various kinds of assistance, the effects of early abuse will be subordinated to the effects of love and caring. The child may become a new person. Similarly, some religious cults have separated their converts from their familiar contexts and provided new ones in ways that have made them new persons for good or ill. Indeed, all authentic conversion has something of this character.
These are extreme cases. But change in the circumstances of life affects us all. With the passage of years it becomes hard to say whether we are what we are primarily because of the cumulative effects of all our past experiences or whether our recent past experiences are more the product of new influences and circumstances than of the remote past. There is a decline of our sense of responsibility for acts performed in that remote past and expressive of quite different attitudes and values than those we now have. We know that we are in part the same persons we were then, but we also think that in part we are not, that our present being draws on quite different sources. Our courts of law, with general approval, recognize this declining identity and responsibility with the passage of time.
Whereas an individual act of being is what it is, regardless of how it is labeled or described, this is not true of groupings of such acts. Often there are real relationships in nature on the basis of which such groupings are identified in language. A chair, for example, all of which moves together, has certain physical bonds among its molecules. But if we replace a cushion and still call it the same chair, the objective basis for this identification in nature declines. And if we then proceed to replace other parts of it as well, in the process changing its shape and texture, eventually we may laugh at ourselves if we still call it the same chair. It is a matter of linguistic choice when we decide to stop emphasizing what is the same and begin to emphasize its newness.
Much the same is the case with "person." There are real connections among the successive acts that constitute personal experience through time that differ from its connections with other things. To speak of the person as identical through time usefully and appropriately calls attention to these distinctive connections and their practical and existential importance. But we should not be led by that to suppose that, over and above the several acts, there is another act that is in fact the person. And in the absence of that, it is a matter of choice just how determinative the connectedness must be in comparison with other relations and influences to warrant the assertion of personal identity. Our judgments here will probably vary in terms of the concerns that control them. One will sometimes speak of one's identity with the baby to which one's mother gave birth. One will sometimes deny identity with the troubled or confused teenager who did some crazy things. As long as we know that this is all a matter of degree, and a matter of choice as to just how we judge that degree, we can allow these loose edges of inconsistent use to remain.
The result of the use of language that I have selected is that in the strict sense, persons are not agents. Persons are successions of acts of being, each of which is inclusive of many past acts of being. Agency is located in the individual acts of being -- not in the succession. Of course, the person now is an act of being; so the person now is agential in character.
Although the individual acts of being are agential, they are not "agents" in the sense in which that term is normally understood. Usually, it is thought that an agent has some existence prior to the act, or that the agent somehow stands behind or underneath the act. In short, substance notions are inherent in most uses of the word "agent." These are, of course, precluded by the account of being and person I have offered. An act of being has a double agency. It determines itself and it acts upon its future. It could, therefore, be called an "agent" if that term could be freed of all substantialist connotations. But before falling into ordinary usage with its ordinary connotations, it is best first to point out that in fact the act produces the agent, not the agent, the act.
It is sometimes objected that this process view undercuts personal responsibility. It does describe it in a different way. There is no "person," self-identical through time, who has acted in different ways at different times and is responsible for all those actions. There is a person now, inclusive of many past personal acts of being, responding freely both to that past and to the present circumstances. This response is, or should be, thoroughly "responsible."
But to what extent and in what way is the present personal act of being responsible for what has occurred in the earlier acts of being that constitute the person. Clearly, the meaning of "responsible" here is quite different. There is no possibility of now altering those past acts of being. They are forever settled. The issue now is how the present act of self-determination should be affected by promises made or sins committed in earlier acts. Does the fact that this is now a different act, and that there is no substantial underlying agent of both acts, mean that the present act is morally free to ignore what happened in the previous act?
At this point my account of the person underlies my answer. Personal identity is a matter of degree. In the case of multiple personalities, to hold one person responsible for what another did is not justified, although there may be some responsibility for allowing other personalities to assume control. Also, promises made as a child are not always binding on an adult. In many other cases, responsibility for past acts is a matter of degree.
But to whatever extent I am now constituted by those past acts, to whatever extent I am their continuation into the present--and normally that extent is quite large--they obligate me in the present. Of course, such obligations are not absolute. If fulfilling a silly promise would cause major harm to my family, other obligations supervene. But the promise still carries moral weight.
This way of understanding responsibility now as determined by past acts of being applies to responsibility for communal promises and sins as well. Often people insist that they as individuals have no responsibility for the sins committed by their ancestors or their nations. If persons are viewed as individual substances responsible only for their acts, this is, of course, true. But if a person now is an act of being inclusive of past acts of being, those past acts of being are not limited to those that constitute that person's personal past. Indeed, a person as an act of being is also inclusive of many other acts of being, including many that took place before the person came into being and without that person's support.
I am thinking here, as an example, about my responsibility as a white Southerner toward Blacks. On a purely personal basis I could argue that my record is reasonably good, that I do not have so very much to repent of. Can I then say that I have no special responsibility to help overcome the consequences of the slavery and segregation imposed on Blacks by my family and community?
Even if I said that, I might still recognize that greater justice for Blacks today is an important consideration. But I am not asking that question. I am asking whether it makes sense for me to feel guilt with respect to what my people collectively have done to Blacks collectively.
My answer is that it does make sense. I am partly constituted by many past acts of becoming that involved extreme exploitation, as well as sanctimonious justification of that exploitation. I am shaped by a society that benefited economically from that exploitation. In other words, I am a product of centuries of unjust treatment of Blacks. As a product of those acts of being, my responsibility here is continuous with my responsibility for my past personal acts.
Reflections of this sort are important to me also as a Christian. During the past twenty years we have become aware of our collective crimes as Christians in an unprecedented way. I will refer here only to our crimes against nature, against Jews, and against women. As one who is profoundly constituted by the past acts of being that have made up the Christian movement, I share in responsibility for all this evil.
Some former Christians, when they became aware of Christian guilt, have chosen to renounce their Christian identity. I believe that this does in significant ways reduce their responsibility for this past. The acts of being that they now are do not include identification with the acts of being that constituted historic Christianity. Of course, these are still important for them, but they are externalized and hence do not play the same constitutive role that they do for us who remember them again and again as our history.
There are obvious advantages in this dis-identification. My own judgment, however, is that I am called to a different response. This is one of personal and corporate repentance. Such repentance includes the moment of remorse, but it is primarily change of direction and purification of the transmitted tradition so as to cease to commit those crimes in the present and try to insure that they will not be renewed in the future.
It may seem inappropriate to end my discussion of the person by speaking primarily of the communal and corporate. However, I hope that I have made it clear that my metaphysical view of being and person requires this. I believe that our society continues to suffer from views of being and person that are substantialist and individualist. I do not want to deny that there are individual acts of being and individual persons. But in my view each act of being includes other acts of being. I have emphasized that, in the human case, one set of such included acts constitutes, with the including act, an individual person. But I have also tried to show that the way in which the wider community is included is not fundamentally unlike the way in which the person is included.
I began this lecture by speaking of the importance of relating metaphysics to other domains of thought. Some of this I have done in the concluding part of the discussion of "person," but only in formal ways. I want now to return briefly to the discussion of economic theory which I initiated in my introduction.
There I noted that economic theory treats the nonhuman world as "matter" subject to having its form changed by technology. In my metaphysical discussion of being I proposed that all things are composed of acts of being, each of which begins as a for-itself and becomes an in-itself. If this is correct, then the category of matter is profoundly misleading. "Energy" is a far better way of looking at our world. When we view our environment in this way, we must take account of entropy, as economists typically do not. If we do so, we will see that all of our actions in the world are costly, transforming low entropy resources into high entropy waste. This is very different from simply imposing changing forms on an indestructible matter, and the practical implications call for conservation rather than continued exploitation. The efficiency we need is to gain maximum end use from minimum degradation of our environment rather than maximum production from minimum labor.
Also the view that nonhuman things have their value only in relation to human beings is false. Human beings are composed of the same "stuff," acts of being, as are all other things. If human beings have value for themselves; so do all things. We may make differentiations of many kinds in this regard; indeed, we should. But we cannot justify the dualism and anthropocentrism that underlie almost all economic thinking.
When we turn to the view of the human, the implications of the metaphysics I have proposed are just as contrary to those of the dominant economic theory. That theory posits substantial individuals for whom relations to others are purely external. For this reason, effects on human community do not play any role in judging the consequences of economic actions. If agricultural policies allow fewer people to produce more goods, for the orthodox economist destruction of thousands of rural communities does not count against their virtue.
But if the acts of being that make up human persons include the acts of being that make up others, then persons are communal beings. The well being of persons is deeply affected by the health of the communities to which they belong. Economic practice that consistently undermines community is fundamentally misdirected.
I am sure that you do not all share my metaphysical views. Nevertheless, I doubt that you agree with those that underlie economic theory or, for that matter, most of the other academic disciplines. My deepest interest in this lecture is not to convert you to my personal metaphysical views, although I am always glad when others share them, but to urge that you examine and criticize the theories now underlying academia from your own metaphysical point of view. It is time for those who practice metaphysics consciously and rigorously to go on the offensive against the erroneous metaphysics of most of those who presuppose particular views without examining them. It is especially important for those of us in academia to lift to consciousness for critical discussion those assumptions that govern the practice of scholarship and the structure of the university.