Instructor, Antioch University
Our society, our species and our planet face a number of severely grave problems that threaten our survival. Social injustice, including all forms of hatred and oppression, along with ecologically unsustainable practices, dominate our lives. The number of people living in poverty is increasing. The levels of racism, sexism and other forms of structural violence tend to intensify as the economy falters. Climate change, pollution, and the misuse of our natural resources have already devastated our planet’s ecology to such an extent that some scientists predict that we only have a few years to turn the situation around.
While things look bad, all is not lost yet. We can greatly improve our situation and change the world through a relatively simple set of practices that I want to outline here. These practices are so elementary that we can use them in our everyday lives. Yet they can be so profound that they amount to a revolutionary spiritual awakening. I sometimes stop what I’m doing out of habit, contemplate the (often unintended) consequences of my potential course of action and consider the ethics involved. When I change my behavior and put my values into action, I’m engaging a process philosophers sometimes refer to as praxis.
Praxis is an ongoing process of action-reflection that aims to bring our conduct into alignment with our intentions. When we switch off that “auto-pilot” which seems to run so much of our lives and act with conscious awareness, we have the ability to make the world a better place. That awareness of our ability to create the world through our everyday actions is referred to as reflexive consciousness by sociologists, who also say that this form of awareness is not only uniquely modern but increasing. Supposedly, earlier humans did not really grasp how the structural features of their social worlds were the direct consequence of their actions. The structured nature of their social worlds was simply regarded as “the way things are.”
To borrow language from Emile Durkheim, society’s structure was seen as “external to and constraining of" their actions, but not really meaningfully connected to them. This leap in consciousness and realization that we make the world through our actions compels us to act with intention. When we re-evaluate our habitual actions and choose to change the way we do things, and thus put into motion our most cherished values and ethical standards, we are doing praxis based on reflexive consciousness.
Before we engage in the contemplative processes necessary for praxis and reevaluate the consequences of our actions, we need to:
1) Know our values;
2) Have a vision of what a better world would look like;
3) Have knowledge about how our current actions contribute to social problems, social injustice and ecological devastation; and
4) Accept responsibility for the state of our social world and our planet.