The Foundation for Ethics and Meaning seeks to reawaken and foster the simple yet transformative belief that people are yearning for meaningful connection to others and to a purpose greater than themselves. We challenge our prevailing cultural emphasis on material self-interest by encouraging a spirit of caring and a process of mutual recognition that will nourish inclusive, sustainable, and just communities.
The Philosophy Underlying the Work of the Foundation for Ethics and Meaning
The Foundation for Ethics and Meaning was founded to realize, and in the process further develop, the ideas and philosophy underlying the politics of meaning (POM). POM was developed by Michael Lerner and Peter Gabel out of their long experience working as activists, theorists, and therapists involved in the anti-war, women's liberation, and labor movements during the 1960s-1980s. Out of these experiences Tikkun magazine was founded in 1986, and the community of scholars, writers, artists, activitists and just plain folks that graced its pages during the past dozen years helped to shape what became both the POM critique of the present socio-political, econonomic, psychological, and spiritual problems facing the country, and its agenda for change.
In 1996 Michael Lerner published The Politics of Meaning, which is the most detailed explanation of the POM to date. As Lerner explains in the introduction:
"The idea of a politics of meaning emerged from the work that a group of
psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, family therapists, union
activists, and social theorists pioneered in Oakland, California, starting
in 1976. Our aim was to better understand the psychodynamics of
middle-income working people, and also to try to understand why so many of
them were moving to the political Right. We set up a Stress Clinic that was
explicitly not psychotherapy-oriented, and worked extensively with the
labor movement and various corporations to attract a range of people who
might never have dreamt of going to therapy....
"What we learned from the thousands of people who participated in these groups challenged many of the beliefs that prevailed among us, and, more generally, in the liberal culture from which we researches had come...
"We found middle-income people deeply unhappy because they hunger to serve the common good and to contribute something with their talents and energies, yet find that their actual work gives them little opportunity to
do so. They often turn to demands for more money as a compensation for the
life that otherwise feels frustrating and empty. In the Left and among many
academics it has been almost a rule of reason to believe that what people
really care about is their own material well-being, and that believing
anything else is just some kind of populist romanticization. But we
uncovered a far deeper desire -- the desire to have meaningful work, work
that people believe would contribute to some higher purpose than
"At first, most of the people we talked to wanted to assure us, as they assured their coworkers and friends, that everything was fine, that they were handling things well, that they never let stress really get to them,
and that their lives were good. (This is the kind of report that many
pollsters discover when they ask superficial questions.) But what we found
as we continued to talk to people over some time (in eight- to twelve-week
group sessions) is that once people got past their initial defensiveness
and desire to present themselves as "together," they began to tell real
stories about their lives that presented a very different and more
"We found thousands of Americans from every walk of life, ethnic and religious background, political persuasion and lifestyle filled with lives of pain and self-blame, and turning to the political Right because the
Right spoke about the collapse of families, the difficulty of teaching good
values to children, the fear of crime, and the absence of spirituality in
their lives. The Right seemed to understand their hunger for community and
connection." (Excerpts from the introduction in Michael Lerner's Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism, New York:
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996, pp 5-7. (Click here to go to our bookstore and purchase this book.)
In 1996, the same year that The Politics of Meaning was published, the National Summit on Ethics and Meaning held, officially launching of the Foundation. Since that time we have worked hard to expand our understanding, critique, and agenda for transforming our community (from the local to the global sense of the word) to include a wide range of traditions, perspectives, and experiences. In doing so we hope to constantly enrich our analyses and prognoses in line with the originating vision of the movement.
What is that vision? Basically it begins from a simple premise: that Human beings are fundamentally in relationship to each other, and need each other's recognition and love. The healthy human being is not the one who can stand alone, but the one who can acknowledge his/her need for others and can recognize in every other the sanctity that makes them worthy of respect and caring.
Human beings have a need to transcend the materialism and selfishness and the manipulative consciousness that teaches them to see others primarily in terms of what they can get out of them. Most people have a hunger to move beyond the "looking out for number one" common sense of this society and to see their lives as connected to some higher ethical and spiritual meaning. Yet most people also believe that this is unrealistic, that ethical and spiritual life can only be ideals for some future eras, and that in the
meantime they must be "realistic" and live according to the rules of our consumer culture and the ethos of selfishness and cynicism it produces at all levels of society.
But a consumerist, market-ruled world, and the cynicism such a system produces, causes great psychic pain to many people. The ethos of selfishness and cynicism plays itself out in a weakening of families, loving relationships, and friendships--because the more people internalize the cynical view that most other people, especially those in positions of political and economic power, are only out for themselves, the harder it becomes to trust anyone or to believe that they will really be there for you when you most need them, when you don't have so much to give back and can't make the relationship an "equal exchange" (in market terms). Nor can you trust corporations not to pollute the environment or others not to rob you on the streets or at home. As trust dissolves, fear increases. Those that can afford to gate themselves in to ever smaller communities, those that can't are left with an increasingly privatized public culture and infrastructure that doesn't serve the needs of those from whom it can not profit.
For much of this century liberals and progressives have focused on economic needs and indivdual rights--and have fought against corporate or governmental forces that deny each. A progressive politics of meaning supports the liberal agenda on these issues (including civil liberties, women's liberation, economic justice, choice, ecological sanity, etc.). Yet liberals have too narrow an understanding of human needs, often seeing us as creatures whose primary interest is in economic survival or individual freedom. They've been unable to recognize the ethical, spiritual, and psychological needs that are equally central. Moreover, too often liberals have treated those of us desiring to live within a "traditional" world view with hostility and even contempt, instead of the understanding, tolerance, and compassion with which they demand minorities and other, more easily recongnizable demeaned groups be treated. This has only served to alienate people who are also suffering--even if not economically or politically--and with whom we need to be in dialogue if we are going to effect real and lasting healing and transformation in our society.
Thus because liberals and the Left never really address what we term the crisis of meaning, economic and especially social conservatives (better known as "the Right") have been able to position themselves as the primary meaning-oriented political force in society, bemoaning the ethical and spiritual decline and the crisis in families. Yet it is undeniable that the sectors of our society who most vociferously promote thise agenda(s) are simultaneously the champions of the very ethos of selfishness and materialism in the world of work, whose consequences lead to all this pain in personal life.
Based on the above analysis, we feel that only a progressive politics of meaning, one that moves beyond traditional dichotomies of Left/Right and Liberal/Conservative, and thus one that can critique the more basic worldview on which these dichotomies rest, has the power to bring the many differerent (and often competing) perspectives and worldviews, and political-economic interests into the kind of sustained dialogue that can move our society toward a more just, caring, and ecologically sustainable future.
Conceptual Framework for the Foundation's Work:
The following constitutes a "primer," if you will, of basic concepts which
are central to the Foundation's understanding of it's work, and which
undergird the affiliation of local chapters, and national task forces with
1. We affirm the possibility of restructuring our society in ways that would replace the dominant ethos of selfishness and materialism with an ethos of caring, idealism and spiritual solidarity.
2. We seek to change the definitions of productivity and efficiency so that they are no longer defined solely in terms of maximization of wealth and power, but rather in broader terms that include the degree to which the given institution or social practice tends to create ethically,
spiritually, and ecologically sensitive human beings who are capable of
sustaining loving relationships.
3. The ethical, spiritual, and psychological needs of human beings are as central to a decent life as our need for economic security and individual freedom.
4. People are oppressed when these ethical, spiritual and
psychological needs are systematically frustrated, regardless of their membership in a particular community.
5. We seek to emphasize the commonality of all human brings. We reject most forms of "identity politics" and attempts to privilege "difference" as the central notion of progressive politics. We are committed to seeking diversity within our movement - not out of guilt - but because we can learn from each other's wisdom, culture and accumulated experience.
6. We seek a cross-class alliance between middle-income people and the poor and powerless. We seek to broaden our circles of caring, so that we build a world in which people care about each other both locally and
7. We are a progressive pro-families force. We include in our definition of families "non-traditional" family forms.
8. We support social responsibility - an ethos of caring for others at the individual, corporate and governmental levels.
9. There is no one correct strategy. The process of change involves consciousness-raising as well as concrete struggles to change the bottom line in many economic and social institutions so as to emphasize the
creation of loving caring relationships. We envision people in every
workplace consciously reshaping their work and taking positive actions to
introduce ethical and spiritual sensibilities in the institutions that they
create and sustain in private life.
10. We are committed to a policy of compassion for our allies as well as for those with whom we disagree. In dealing with those with whom we disagree our thinking should be "What are the legitimate needs that
underlie these mistaken politics and how do we separate these from policies
we see as hurtful." We are committed to challenging our own cynicism about
the possibility of creating a more loving and caring society.
11. We believe that American life would be greatly enriched by an infusion of wisdom from the world's spiritual and religious traditions. We regard the world not only for what it can do for us, but also from the standpoint of awe, wonder and amazement.
12. We reject the anti-leadership tendencies that have crippled so many liberal and progressive movements in the past.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is the frustration of our need for community, connection. mutual recognition and spiritual or ethical sensitivity as real as the pain caused by economic suffering?
A: Yes. The deprivation of meaning and love is real and often overlooked as a cause of our leading materialistic and consumeristic lives. the psychologist Kushman describes it as "the empty self," by which he describes how our disconnection from one another, and the lack of feeling that we are contributing to a higher purpose than the satisfaction of our own immediate needs and desires, perpetuates the cycle of our reaching for external "things" to fill us up. Thus so many Americans over-indulge in drugs, alcohol, work, shopping, and food to off-set and minimize the pain.
It's true that having enough money to live on is important to our existence and we must be concerned about those who do not have enough for food and basic necessities. However, many of us need to ask ourselves, "What is enough?" We need to question our own drive as well as the cultural message "to look out for number one"--which, it is important to note, is quite often framed in (and thus blurred by) slogans advertising unity and coming together--and the market mentality this creates in our personal relationships, as well as the way it inhibits our innate connection others and need for loving community.
Let's be clear here. We recognize the validity of those who argue that this kind of pain is less severe than the pain of hunger and homelessness. But part of the reason that liberal and progressive forces have been losing in the past few decades is precisely their insistence on creating a pecking order of oppressions that privileges economic oppression or the denial of political rights, while minimizing the importance of spiritual, ethical, and psychological oppression. The covert message that the traditional Left has given to others has been something like this:
"You can only join our movements if you are
one of the most oppressed, or if you are
willing to acknowledge that your pain is less
important than the pain of the most oppressed."
Well, that message hasn't worked to bring people into the progressive movement. Instead, it has led many Americans to implicitly say back: "Fine, you can be the most oppressed. And screw you. You don't seem to care about me, so why should I care about you?" In short, this way of talking has pushed people away rather than brought them in, and as a result, the
progressive social change movements have been unable to mobilize the support
for their agendas that they deserve.
Want to change that dynamic? Then address the crisis of meaning. But you can't do that in a merely manipulative and opportunistic way, because that won't work and to boot it's a mistaken way to approach the pain of your fellow human beings. Instead, liberals and progressives have to really
understand the crisis of meaning and purpose, really take seriously the
ethical and spiritual needs, and this requires a whole new way of thinking
about politics, as well as a whole new way of approaching our lives.
Q: Isn't it utopian and fanciful to imagine that you can overcome the tidal wave of consumer culture (made even stronger by globalization) and the materialism, selfishness and cynicism it produces?
A: Yes, we are utopian in the same sense that it is utopian to imagine that one can overcome racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc. And isn't that a refreshing way to think?! All it takes is that you begin to believe that it is possible, challenge the negatives and take action in whatever way you can to make utopia come true.
Tens of millions of women and some men involved in the women's movement ignored the cynicism that patriarchy could not be changed. Through consciousness raising and individual plus collective action, they have, and still are, dramatically transforming society. So while we understand that our goal of changing the bottom line of the society seems somewhat fanciful, we see many groups besides ours whose goals are quite consonant with ours and we believe that the Politics of Meaning ideas will play a large role in American political and cultural life within the next few decades once we begin to build a movement around it.
The Foundation seeks to work with these groups, and the movements they represent, to transform our bottom line and build a community spirit of caring. Sometimes, our cynicism is based on past experiences of believing in a cause that just didnít make it. We need to acknowledge our skepticism and/or our anxiety about caring enough again to get involved and go forth. We need to acknowledge and recognize people, events and efforts that are making a difference as this gives us hope and challenges our cynicism and our inaction.
Q: But if a Politics of Meaning approach argues against self-interest, how can it appeal to people who are already so deeply immersed in self-interest?
A: We don't think that people are bad or destructive if they want to have nice things in their lives, like a comfortable apartment or house with
attractive furnishings, nice clothes, a decent musical system, a good
quality computer, and the like. We live in a world where we could meet
everyone's basic needs, and still have many other goods that are considered
luxuries. People are not bad to want those things. However, we do distinguish between narrow, short-term material self-interest and our collective long-term self-interest. Our appeal is for us to recognize that our long-term self-interests lie in living in a society that does not reward people for making decisions primarily based on their short-term material self-interest. When we live in a society based on short-term material self-interest, we get the kind of market mentality that fosters a worship of celebrity and economic wealth and power (and the individual and cultural narcissism this produces), that undermines loving relationships and friendships, and that diminishes our spiritual capacities by encouraging us to view each other and the world in narrow materialistic and manipulative categories. This creates a world in which 1% of our society owns close to 40% of the total wealth of the society and we are unable to unite with sufficient power and vision to re-balance the world's resources towards a more equitable and sustainable system. We see a basic convergence between the long-term self-interest of the human race and the traditional ethical and spiritual concerns.
Q: What about the globalization of the economy and the resulting economic insecurity of middle-income families? Isn't this best dealt with by a progressive economically-oriented solution?
A: No. There is ample evidence of the take-over of the world economy by mega-corporations and the diminishing of the middle class. In fact, the forces that have allowed the globalization of the economy emanate from
a social consciousness that elevates the material self-interest of a
small percentage of stockholders over the need to build stable, loving
communities. To solely seek economic solutions, we would miss the fundamental problem, which is so eloquently addressed by David Korten, who notes that "the universe is a self-organizing system engaged in the discovery and realization of its possibilities through a continuing process of transcendence toward even higher levels of order and self-definition."
We must transcend the existing fundamental structure of mega-corporations and the free market based on the accumulation of money to a holistic one based on the quality of life. This will not be done by concentrating only on economic solutions. There must be a change in our collective psychological, spiritual and ethical orientation toward the world that includes our need for loving relationships, mutual recognition, physical and emotional safety and a sense of purpose and meaning.
For those who wish to emphasize economic change there is ample opportunity within this movement and elsewhere. One way is to join with other likeminded people in the workplace and find ways to support one another in transforming the bottom line from within corporations. External pressure can be applied through ballot initiatives on the community level (for more information go to www.unlimiteddemocracy.com), or through legal and populist pressure from organizations like Richard Grossman's Charter Inc. and Alliance for Democracy as well as through the Foundation's social responsibility efforts like our Ethical Impact reports on government, corporations, and other public bodies (such as schools). The middle class economic insecurity is valid but we need to seek holistic solutions for lasting change.
For this type of change to occur, Americans would have to expand their circle of caring to include people throughout the world. If Americans fought for a world in which poverty and inequality were eliminated, we would not only strengthen the economic bargaining power of most Americans, we would also achieve a world in which immigrants would not be so desperate to cross our borders, because they'd be able to achieve a good life in their own countries.
But extending the circle of caring is precisely the opposite of the dynamic prevalent in American society today. The dynamic flow of energy is toward smaller and smaller circles of caring, so that many Americans imagine that we can build a good life by just caring about the smallest possible
arena--ourselves, our immediate families, and for the more "communitarian"
amongst us, our neighborhoods. It is this illusion that we can protect
ourselves and our own interests by turning our backs on others that is at
the core of the fantasies that keep people from accepting progressive
It's only when people really understand that much of they want most in the world--loving relationships, mutual recognition, friendships based on loyalty and commitment, physical and emotional safety, a sense of purpose and meaning for their lives--cannot be sustained in a world that is
continually narrowing the circles of caring to smaller and smaller units,
that they will be willing to fight for a different societal ethos. Without
this kind of a change in our collective psychological, spiritual and
ethical orientation toward the world and each other, those who advocate a
progressive economics are simply whistling in the wind. There will continue
to be people in the progressive social-change movements and in the left
wing of the Democratic Party who articulate these kinds of economic ideas,
but they will remain isolated until a POM oriented movement
explicitly challenges the dominant ethos of materialism and selfishness in
Q: Isn't it self-indulgent to focus on the "pain" of the middle-income people when the pain of poor people, the hungry and the homeless are more pressing and morally compelling?
A: To focus on the meaning needs of the middle-income people does not exclude lower income or even, for that matter, affluent people who are also feeling similarly disconnected from meaningful connection and a higher purpose. To focus only on the economic needs of poor people leaves us in the same position as explained aboveónot addressing the underlying cause of economic oppression. Having an economy without an ethical or spiritual consciousness leads to deprivation and inequity.
If we could eliminate hunger and homelessness or deal with economic survival issues first, we would. But social movements that have put those issues first have been unable to succeed in mobilizing a majority of
Americans around those issues. Even in the more liberal sections of the
country, the people who bother to vote in Democratic party primaries, a
focus on these issues has not triumphed--and that is why the Jesse Jacksons,
the Jerry Browns, and other progressive candidacies have failed. If you
want to add here that they didn't have enough money, or that the media
undermined them, well fine--but that is likely to continue to be the case
with future progressive candidacies as well.
So our point is this: If we could solve the economic problems of the poor, we would have done so. But we can't, because we haven't yet been able to win over a majority of Americans. As a result, those who insist that these issues must be first are actually betraying the poor, while seeming to care for them, because their strategy of focus on the poor is no longer capable
of delivering very much for the poor. Instead, if you really want to care
for the most oppressed, you must begin to talk to another form of pain and
oppression--the pain of those who are suffering from the ethos of
selfishness and the frustration of meaning in this society (which includes
not only middle-income people, because that same crisis of meaning
permeates all sectors of the society, including the poor).
Moreover, this movement challenges the "social services" culture of "providers" and "clients" and seeks to replace it with one based on our interconnection. If we give from a place of "doing good" for poor people, we leave intact the power differential between the giver and the receiver. If we approach social change and giving from a place of being connected with one another, we empower both the giver and the receiver. A nun involved in the movement explained the difference in this way: "I was transferred from Florida to Buffalo, New York in the middle of winter. I was not prepared with appropriate clothing. I stood in the middle of the hall in my dormitory and loudly exclaimed, 'Sisters, I have no warm clothing.' Within minutes, I was cheerfully inundated with all the warm clothing that I needed." That is the spirit of giving for those in need that this movement fosters.
Q: Is the Politics of Meaning anti-capitalist?
A: We are agnostic about the traditional economic debates between capitalism and the various proposed alternatives. We are trying to develop a language that transcends the normal Left/Right dichotomies. Instead, we try to refocus public discussion on the criteria for what a good society would be. We
believe that such a society would be one that encouraged ethical, spiritual
and ecological sensitivity and tended to create human beings capable of sustaining loving and caring relationships.
For reasons articulated above, we think that most market societies today do not meet this criterion. But could they change in ways that would make them fit? On this we are agnostic-and that's what we mean when we say that we are agnostic about the traditional economic debates.
If you are a leftist who feels that the "real" solution is to change the economic system, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that capitalism really can make changes such that it would foster loving and caring human beings who are ethically, spiritually and ecologically sensitive? If not,
then you can wholeheartedly embrace the Politics of Meaning, since it
articulates what in essence would be, in your view, an anti-capitalist perspective.
If you feel that capitalism has tended to increase people's capacities for caring for others, their ability to sustain loving relationships, and their ethical, spiritual and ecological sensitivity, make your argument on those grounds, showing what it is about capitalism that makes this a likely outcome. If you can make that argument, then you can embrace the POM too--and show people why the market would tend to foster that kind of human being. What you can't do is to switch the grounds of the argument to say that this system is the one that is going to produce the greatest wealth, and defend it on those grounds, because the POM rejects those grounds as the ones on which to evaluate a society. The POM may not resolve this debate between Left and Right totally, but what it does do is to switch the grounds on which it is conducted. Instead of a sterile debate about economic philosophies, we move to a debate about the best way to achieve the things we really want in our lives--a world that privileges ethical, spiritual, and ecological sensibilities and that fosters caring and loving relationships.
Q: But isn't it too abstract?
A: Meaning needs, and how to meet them, only seem abstract because we are not accustomed to taking them seriously, just as we are not accustomed to
seeing our emotional life as being as real as our physical life. But our
meaning needs are real hungers and they can, if taken seriously, lead to
important changes in the society.
What would some specific ramifications of the politics of meaning look like were people to implement them in the public sphere? A POM suggests programs that might address meaning needs in the economy, health
care, education, the family, aging and other areas. Consider the following
concrete steps as illustrative of what a Politics of Meaning approach might
look like in contrast to traditional liberal politics.
I. Teaching and Rewarding Empathy:
1. At every grade level, a course should be designed aimed specifically at teaching students how to see other human beings as intrinsically valuable and deserving of respect (or in religious language, how to see others as created in the image of God), how to recognize and respect the feelings of others, and how to reject the demeaning of others that is the core item in racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other public
distortions. It will also teach students how to develop compassion for
their parents, their fellow students, and for people who hold different
values and different lifestyles. While for some people, learning empathy
may involve learning to stop demeaning gays or lesbians, for others this
may involve learning to stop demeaning Christian fundamentalists, people
with traditional values, or people who hold beliefs that you find
implausible or wrong-headed.
2. Find alternatives to the SAT, GRE, and LSAT exams as the predominant way to evaluate student competence:
While a certain level of literacy is necessary to master college studies, and should be evaluated, the SAT exams are inhumane, privilege a certain narrow kind of symbols manipulation, and avoid more central questions about the level of wisdom and compassion that a student has. Instead, we must develop methods to assess a student's empathy and compassion skills-and these should be central in college entrance and particularly in graduate and professional school entrance. If you want an empathic society, reward empathy in the process of education. Preferential Hiring for those with High Empathy and Community Service. We opposed the initiative in California that repealed affirmative action.
However, we think it might be appropriate to put a new initiative on the ballot that gives preferential hiring (and awards of contracts to firms that give preferential hiring) to people who have a history of community service (to whatever community they are part of) and/or a high level of empathy skills. Because we oppose government setting up a commission to determine who has these skills, we would urge each community to set up their own voluntary commission which would have their own criteria and measures for how to determine who had in fact made a high commitment to serving the community. Measures might differ, for example, in an ethnic community from those adopted in a religious community-and it would not be the goal of this plan to create a single standard. But it would be the goal to foster a
society-wide understanding that what was going to be rewarded was community
service or empathy-and not solely one's mastery of math and language skills.
By privileging hiring in this way, we would give schools a strong incentive
to develop the empathy program we support above.
These are just a few of the measures that might flow from a POM orientation. You could disagree with these specifics and still agree with the general analysis. You may have better ideas on programs that embody this new politics. We are like the women's movement in its early
stages-developing a powerful new analysis, but not necessarily committed to
a particular programmatic direction. There were plenty of disagreements
within early feminism-for example between those who thought that what was
needed first was for women to go into corporations and demand jobs
previously reserved for men and those who though that their goal ought to
be to reject corporate life entirely, or between those who thought that a
programmatic focus and a national organization was central and those who
thought that small group consciousness raising was necessary. The truth, in
retrospect, was that all of these contributed to the growing power of
the women's movement, and that it would have been a mistake to focus on
just one or another direction. So too for a politics of meaning movement.
We believe that some people should become engaged in small group
consciousness-raising around these issues, others should build political
programs, still others should work inside public institutions or corporate
institutions to popularize these ideas.
Q: Isn't there a danger that in your desire to bring ethical and spiritual concerns into the public arena you will undermine the traditional separation of the public sphere form private religious and spiritual concerns?
A: A polarity has existed between Liberals and Conservatives with Liberals focusing on individual rights and economic solutions while Conservatives espousing individual values without noting the harm done by the values of mega-corporations. It is time for both sides to introduce an holistic alternative vision of ethics and spirituality, one that supports the greater good economically, socially, and politically.
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