Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life As A Finite Pie: George M. Foster's image of limited good

The notion of life as a finite pie is correlated to the image of limited good, a term famously and controversially coined in 1965 by Anthropologist George M. Foster (yes, I know, old white guy) to explain peasant behavior:

"peasants in all societies share a common 'cognitive orientation,' which he calls the image of limited good. Since nothing can be done to increase the resources that peasants divide among themselves, one person's gain is inevitably another's loss. ...[This] accounts for a great deal of otherwise puzzling peasant behavior. For example, people who believe that good is limited will understandably be secretive about their own successes and envious of others'; they will avoid cooperative work situations for fear of being cheated; and they will resist innovations that, in their view, cannot increase the available good. ...this 'image' often persists into an era in which cooperation and acceptance of modern techniques could lead to a better life for all. Peasant communities have strong sanctions against innovation: 'The villager who feels the need for Achievement and who does something about it, is violating the basic, unverbalized rules of the society of which he is a member'..."
-(Rethinking Psychological Anthropology, Bock p. 144)

The above is essentially a verbatim definition of how one might be expected to behave in our world of Swindlers and Fools. Thus the predicament in Russia - one of 'cognitive orientation' (which sounds so - I don't know - sterilized) - is not a unique one. (On a side note, the controversy boils down to essentially that his conclusions were a little too general; probably true, but shouldn't undermine the larger and very valid point.)

What is of interest, in my view, is that ultimately we aren't giving those holding the image of limited good enough credit, when perhaps we should consider such a 'cognitive orientation' may stem from an actual reality: a material world whose resources are indeed limited and finite.

Foster's view is in this sense ethnocentric, because the underlying assumption is that in truth, life is not a finite pie, but one of possibility, freedom, and liberty. The benefit of one does not necessarily entail the detriment of another.

If we accepted the premise that a world exists somewhere in which good is indeed limited and finite, then we run into a bit of trouble when it comes to creating Liberty there:

Liberty consists in being able to do anything which does not harm another.
- Declaration of the Rights of Man

Well, in the world of Swindlers and Fools, you can't do much at all that benefits you without harming someone else!

Thus we have a bit of a problem on our hands.

This is why the spirit of the Russian, French, and American revolutions were all essentially the same: models committed to the preservation of human liberty against - in spite of - what seems to be an inevitably rising tide: increased discrepancies between rich and poor, a greater gap between haves and have nots, increased corruption, greed, croneyism, nepotism, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

One might argue the question, "What is to be Done?" has yet to be adequately answered.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I would argue that George M. Foster has completely misunderstood the so called "peasant view." That is, a belief in limited resources does not discourage sharing and cooperation at all. Quite the contrary, it is the belief that resources are unlimited and infinite which discourages sharing and cooperation, because then we can justify our greed and selfishness by convincing ourselves that no matter how much we take, there is still an infinite amount left for other people to take as much as they want, too. Therefore, sharing is unnecessary, and anyone who tries to force us to share is just lazy and doesn't want to work. If, however, we recognize that resources are in fact limited and finite, then we can no longer placate ourselves in that way, and must accept that our greed and refusal to share causes pain and suffering in others. Hence our own moral feelings (assuming we have them) compel us to share with others in a world of finite resources.