Written by Rachel Plett
Maslow’s Hierarchy is a triangle-shaped theory of psychological health. It’s probably popped up at least once in your feed, posted by one of your self-help guru friends. It starts with clean water and enough sleep, and ends with being the best you can be and finally founding that iguana cafe you’ve always dreamed about starting. You know, the one where folks can get a good latte and cuddle with big lizards at the same time. What’s less-known is that later in life Maslow added another tier to his self-help pyramid called self-transcendence. Props to Abe for adding the dimension of caring for others; but in asserting that caring for others comes after, or is morally superior to, caring for and discovering yourself, the man made a mistake. By defining self-actualization as a precursor to self-transcendence, Maslow reveals the ways in which his thinking is touched by his era and gender. All this would be NBD if this categorical error was confined to one humanist psychologist, however, this particular bias extends beyond psychology into our social, governmental and monetary systems, where it has had a profound impact on the ways in which we organize societies, governments, and markets – that is where things begin to get problematic.
Before getting into the history and economics, let’s take a look at the logic and assumptions behind putting self-transcendence at the top of the pyramid. Self-actualization is defined, simply, as the discovery and fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities. It is essentially exploring and understanding what you’re good at and who you’re capable of being. Self-transcendence is doing something for the sake of someone else, or because of a moral/ideological stance; most moral/ideological stances are beliefs rooted in how one should treat “others.” There’s nothing in the definition of self-actualization that would make it a defacto precursor to self-transcendence. If anything, self-transcendence reads best as a subcategory of self-actualization; a good way to discover your talents and potential.
The issue with thinking about self-actualization as we currently do is that it’s regularly reinterpreted as self-interest – interest in one’s self, personal advantages, growth, and improvement. However, knowing yourself and looking out for yourself are not the same thing. Knowing yourself (self-actualization) is the goal; focusing on yourself (self-interest) and sharing with others (self-transcendence) are the parallel means of achieving that goal. In reality, everything we know about ourselves stems from our reflections on the other’s reactions to what we do. In the words of the excellent hippy Alan Watts, “Self and other define each other mutually.”
On an individual level, putting self-transcendence at the top implicitly suggests that meaning and the personal growth, joy, and satisfaction that comes with caring for others should be postponed until after one has hurdled a long (often growing) list of self-interested goal posts. This sets up a toxic “I can’t be good until I’m good enough” cycle.
It also contributes to a misalignment of self-interest and self-transcendence within society – where one is imperative and the other is impossible. The attainability of self-transcendence within society – more often referred to as altruism – is an ongoing debate that, all to often, elevates altruism to an unrealistic, unrealizable “God status” that one can’t, and shouldn’t be held accountable to. What is worse, some scoff at the whole idea as being a religious fantasy, a psychological balm devised to make this “dog eat dog” world bearable. By making altruism appear as something so unattainable or unreal, we say to each other that the best you can be is Kanye, while dismissing the path to becoming Mother Teresa, Ghandi, or MLK Jr. as impossible. So we reward absorption, enrichment, and dominance with our time, money, and attention, and wring our hands together in bewilderment, wondering why, with all this wealth, the world isn’t getting better faster.
One (if not the biggest) hindrance to this envisioned better world is the fact that we – western, politically democratic and economically liberal societies – have institutionalized the subordination of self-transcendence (caring) in relation to self-interest by relying, almost exclusively, on tax dollars and donations to fund the work and economics of caring. This institutional arrangement creates a perverse incentive system that puts economic quotas on caring and turns self-transcendence into a luxury experience reserved for the well-off, rather than presenting it as an inborn motivation that each of us should be rewarded for acting upon. The alliance of market capitalism and philanthropy is the institutionalization of the “do good after you’ve done well” relationship discussed earlier, and while the desire to recycle one’s excess should be lauded, there are a few issues that emerge from this arrangement. One of the most obvious being high net worth individuals, removed as they are from need and the social issues they aim to impact, generally lack the knowledge and on the ground insight to effectively impact the problems they aim to solve. Another issue is the fragmentation of the capital market that funds the caring economy. According to the SSIR, $390 billion in philanthropic donations are made annually, plus many hundreds of billions in government grants and contracts. However, because those contributions come from hundreds of different foundations, faith organizations, as well as state and federal governments, they create a capital market that is inherently volatile and subject to the whims and pressures of those with political and economic power, rather than being responsive to the needs and demands of the issues and communities actually being targeted. Finally, by setting up a system where the money for care work comes from donations or tax dollars, the system ensures that self-transcendent activities and enterprises have to survive on a trickle of the economic rewards generated by the provision economy, our self-interested endeavours, rather than growing organically to meet our demand for a better world.
If self-interest and self-transcendence are companion paths to self-actualization, and provision and caring are dual requirements for our health and wellbeing, how have we made it to 2018 with an efficient economic system for one and a proverbial cash pinata for the other? Part of the answer is the rise in monogamy and the domestication and disenfranchisement of women. This shift in norms and the social contract coincided with the rise of agriculture and private land ownership. Compared to the 300,000 years of humankind, monogamy is a relatively new social innovation. Current research suggests that monogamy did not emerge as a normative behavior until around 12,000 years ago; the same time society transitioned from hunter-gatherer tribes to agrarian settlements. With this transition came growing obsession with the concept of property and women got folded into this narrative. With few exceptions, these emerging agrarian societies began to treat both women and land like assets; units of productivity traded among families rather than independent citizens. As financial and governing institutions began to crystallize, women were famously excluded from the conversation; they were denied the rights to representation, vote, and own property. Furthermore, as the delegation of the of society’s three fundamental activities – protection, provision, and caring – formalized, women’s biology predisposed them to become the primary participants in the caring economy. The benefits and injustices of this arrangement are hotly debated and not the focus of this article (many others have covered this debate and done it better). The focus of this article is the impact this arrangement has had on the evolution of our economic systems and financial institutions; what we’ve gotten right and what we’ve neglected to build in.
Despite what the ideologues would have you believe, capitalism is not a natural order. It’s a social system that has evolved over thousands of years. From the first green revolution to the current data disruption, it has been enabled and renegotiated with every productivity evolution. Capitalism is a cultural system rooted in the need for individuals and investors to turn a profit. This system orchestrates a positive feedback loop where greater efficiency means more productivity (more stuff), lower prices, more demand, more money, and ultimately greater efficiency again. By design, capitalism rewards provision and motivates self-interest. It’s the best system we have for incentivizing increases in efficiency and productivity that make it possible to provide a growing variety of better quality products and services to global markets. This excess doesn’t always make it to where it’s needed, but it is produced and distributed at peak efficiency. This efficiency is a testament to the success of capitalism as a social system.
If all we required is provision to be healthy and happy, then capitalism is the only economic system we would ever need. For a growing majority, however, wellbeing no longer hinges on provision. Increasingly, our individual and collective happiness hinges on the opportunity we have to hope, find meaning, and forge durable connections; all outcomes that are tied to caring and self-transcendence. That we are drowning in an overabundance of products and options while fretting about the fraying edges of our social fabric, and struggling with loneliness, existential anxiety, and growing tribal animosity is a testament to the fact that uses for capitalism are limited to efficiency and provision and it is failing when it comes to incentivising and rewarding prosocial outcomes that are continually growing in demand.
Social liberals blame this unraveling on social media, and social conservatives point to the decline of family values, but everyone agrees that when both adults in a home “work”, time pressure and stress increase. But, there it is, in that word, “work.” We don’t see self-transcendence as a viable economic motivator. We don’t see care-work as work. We definitely don’t treat caregiving professions like good jobs and the reason for that is simple. The major formal institution that governs exchanges of the care economy’s value is marriage. In this system women and the value generated by the work they do, are traded as an asset between father and groom. But people aren’t assets, and being a care-worker should not economically shackle one person to another, nor should the economy that incentivizes this kind of work be confined by the profit motives of the provision economy and/or the political jockeying of political and religious leaders. Caring needs its own economy, one that can grow or shrink with demand; one that can take into consideration the idiosyncrasies of care-work that prohibit it from fitting comfortably into the dynamics of capitalism.
Traditionally, women have done most of the of the work in the care economy: caring for children; caring for the sick and aging, organizing communities, fortifying social safety nets and norms, and investing in education. In some cultures, if the productivity of one woman wasn’t enough you got another wife – in others, you bought a slave. Either way, the development of socioeconomic contracts that can efficiently broker the exchange of value within the care economy have been stunted by the fact that, for most of our history, care workers have been treated and traded like property. Even when institutions have stepped in, those institutions have been devoid of female leadership. Religious organizations like the Catholic Church were among the first to bring a formal structure beyond matrimony to the care economy; while nuns were the primary purveyors of care, women were barred from priesthood and therefore from the design process of one of the first civil society institutions. The same is true for government. At the time governments began establishing social programs women didn’t even have the vote, let alone equal representation in civil society and government. So, while the policies and norms were laid down for the system we have now, almost none of the primary actors informed or deliberated on the process. Man to man exclusion has led to demonstration, revolt, revolution, and war, and while this may have been disruptive and bloody, it has driven market economics of the provision economy to evolve in ways that the economics of the care economy have not.
The communist/capitalist debate is hack. Today, the majority of countries have mixed market economies – a mixture of command (government controlled) and market (privately held) structures. However, as we discussed earlier, the care economy is mostly a command economy with limited accountability to end consumers. There are other and better answers to the question of: “how do we incentivize self-transcendence and economically reward the work of caring?” (other than through taxes and tithing). Hope, generosity, empathy, idealism, love… These are all powerful, self-transcendent motivators. The fact that we haven’t designed an efficient system to tap into and empower them is proof of the limited amount of innovation and insight that comes from excluding more than half the population – the half tasked with self-transcendent work – from the design process; not proof that the motivation is not genuine or actionable. Self-transcendence is only second to self-interest because our founding fathers and famous philosophers wrote it to be so, while their wives were busy transcending themselves every day in caring for their families, friends, and community.
Give it a little time. Us ladies are just getting to the table.