Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Disagreement, Dialogue and Creativity

Posted Jul 18, 2013 by Marvin Brown in The Civic, Uncategorized, No Comments

Has there ever been a greater need for creative ideas than today?  If you have been paying attention, you know that the current global economic system is already an unsustainable burden on the earth.  One indication among many:  The biosphere can handle 350 parts of carbon per million, in 2011 we were at 392, and in 2013, at 400.  The gradual destruction of the planet, of course, is not the whole story.  We are also flooded with a multitude of ideas and experiments in developing sustainable communities.  Still, when we look at global economic trends, too often we see those in power using these good ideas to improve things, but not to change them.  Maybe it is naïve to expect much more from people in positions of privilege.  Still, using creative ideas to improve current systems is like adding gasoline to a fire.  We have had about as much “creative destruction” as we can take.  We need some creative transformation. Perhaps we can better grasp the necessary conditions for such transformation by thinking about the relationship between creativity and disagreement.

Creativity, for the most part, requires the experience of something that one does not already know.  If you want to stifle creativity, recruit a group of people with similar backgrounds and expertise.  They may know a lot about one thing, but are unlikely to create anything new.  Creativity, in other words, requires diversity—the encounter of differences.  The diversity may come from diverse experiences, diverse ideas, or diverse populations.  Without diversity, one may certainly improve the way things are, but will seldom change them, will seldom create something new. 

 Creativity, of course, requires more than the appreciation of diversity.  Diversity is necessary, but not sufficient.  Creativity also requires action, and when we turn to the question of what one person or a group should do, our diverse views easily lead us to disagree with each other.  And here, in the face of disagreement, we have a basic choice:  Do we begin to debate with each other, or do we engage in a learning dialogue?  If we debate, the clever ones will probably win, and while the outcome may be quite clever, it may not be very creative.  If we engage in dialogue, in the course of a good conversation, we may say things we have never thought before.  We may see things in a new way that will not just improve things, but will also lead us to transform them.

 If we choose dialogue over debate, we will need to suspend or bracket our own cherished ideas for a moment so we can inquire about the reasons for the cherished ideas of others.  Such a process of mutual inquiry will allow us to explore three different sources of our disagreement that might be sources of creativity as well: different observations, value judgments, and assumptions.[1]

Dialogical Sources of Creativity

Remember that creativity, as we understand it here, emerges not from building on what we know, but rather on encountering what we do not know—on differences. Let’s see how this works with the question of whether work teams should allocate their own bonuses among themselves or not.  We will begin with different observations and then proceed to different value judgments and assumptions.

Different observations reveal different perceptions of what facts are relevant for a particular proposal.  A proposal that teams should have a say in allocating bonuses to their members, for example, could be supported by the observation that teams that have had such power have been more productive.  Someone who disagrees with this proposal could observe that it is also true that sometimes giving team members such power creates divisiveness and destroys harmony among the members.  Now, these different observations can be taken as barriers to deciding what to do or they can be taken as additions to one’s knowledge about working with and in teams.  If we see them as an increase in a group’s knowledge then we already know more than we knew before, which can lead to an appreciation of each person’s contribution.  Appreciating different observations, of course, does not resolve our disagreement, but rather furthers our inquiry.  Why did we select different observations to support our different proposals?  Part of the answer is implicit in the relationship between our observation and our proposal: a relationship that relies on our values.

Values are things that we hold dear, that matter to us.  They include everything from fairness to compassion, to efficiency.  People may also value honor, wealth, and fame.  In fact, we have different values and in different situations we affirm some and in other situations we affirm others.  We are using the idea of a value judgment in a more limited way here.  For example, if we return to the proposal that we should give team members a say in the allocation of bonuses, because they will then be more productive.  The value judgment is already implicit in our argument.  As you might guess, the value judgment is: “We should promote high productivity.” The logic is quite simple: the proposal, observation, and value judgment constitute a syllogism with two premises and a conclusion.  The conclusion is the proposal, and the observation and value judgment are the premises that support it. 

The opposing observation also has its particular value judgment:  If that proposal is, “We should not allow teams allocate their bonuses because it will disrupt a team’s harmony,” then the implicit value judgment world be “We should not disrupt a team’s harmony.”  So we have two values now: productivity and harmony.  Both are important for a well functioning team, which means that once again, as with our observations, we have increased our pool of knowledge that we can use in deciding what we should do.  We are learning from each other by appreciating our selection of different observations and value judgments.  We can also use this increased knowledge about our different positions to explore the different worldviews, or different assumptions, from which they were developed.  

The following exchange between Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, and Congressman Harry Waxman, in a 2008 congressional hearing, provides a good illustration of what we mean here by basic assumptions.

WAXMAN:  This is your statement [quoting from Greenspan]—“I do have an ideology.  My judgment is that free, competitive markets are by far the unrivalled way to organize economies.  We have tried regulation, none meaningfully worked.” That was your quote.  You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  You were advised to do so by many others.  And now the whole economy is paying the price.  Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions you wish you did not make?

GREENSPAN:  What I am saying to you is, yes, I found a flaw.  I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I have been very distressed by that fact.

WAXMAN:  You found a flaw?

GREENSPAN:  I found a flaw in the model I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.

WAXMAN:  In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology was not right, it was not working.

GREENSPAN:  Precisely.  That is precisely the reason I was shocked, because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that this was working exceptionally well.[2]

What is called a worldview here can be easily understood as a basic assumption about how the world works. Such assumptions, which can also be about human nature or human relationships, are not easily changed.  In fact, they are our reality, until some other reality confronts them.   Our assumptions constitute our interpretations of the worlds in which we live.

            Most of us live in multiple worlds, and we move among them without much difficulty.   In fact, sometimes, their boundaries are very thin and they even overlap with each other.  Still, we know the difference between a professional or business relationship and a family relationship.  We know that there are different expectations among brothers and sisters than among co-workers.  We may have some inkling of the difference between being a consumer and a citizen, but we may not know how to clearly express it. 

             One way to think about these different worlds is to use Kenneth Boulding’s triad of integration, exchange, and threat as three aspects of how we maintain systems.[3]  Integration refers to shared values.  Exchange refers to rewards and incentives, and threat refers to rules and regulations.  Different worlds have all three, but not in the same ratios.  The world of education, for example, is dominated by shared values with some rewards and a few rules.  The world of prisons, on the other hand, is maintained mostly by rules and regulations, some rewards, and a bit of integration. If we look at the world of business, we see mostly exchanges, with some rules and some shared values, such as the dream of prosperity.  When we think of these different worlds, they are not simply our projections.  They are socially constructed with on-going communication patterns and expectations.  We enter them, and by participating in them we perpetuate them. 

            So what are the assumptions behind the disagreement about whether teams should distribute their bonuses or not?  One way to figure this out is to think about what we would have to assume to agree with the different views.  What would you have to assume about how things work to agree that teams should decide about the distribution of bonuses?  Would you have to assume that there is some team spirit or camaraderie that provides the basis for rewarding different team members differently?  Or would you have to assume that individuals in the group had similar notions of fairness and justice?  If you did not agree that teams should have this authority to allocate their own bonuses, what assumption would fit with that position?  Perhaps you assume that people, even in a team, really look out for themselves first, and those who receive less are going to blame other team members.  For team harmony, is it better to direct the blame outside of the group instead of inside of it?

            So we see that it is possible to develop different assumptions for opposing views, but even that will not lead us to action, to a creative transformation of the world.

            Here is our dilemma.  We live in worlds.  We are worldly creatures.  So how can we change something in which we exist?  One way is to wait until there is a crisis, like the financial crisis that shocked Alan Greenspan to admit that his worldview was flawed. People in positions of privilege—people who benefit from the world as it is—may decide to wait for such a crisis.  They probably have the resources to endure it.  Most of the world’s population does not.  If we take them into account, there is an urgency to find an answer to how we can really change the world.

            I want to suggest that we are not totally enclosed in our different worlds and we can experience this not only by experiencing other worlds, but also by recognizing that we are not only social beings, living in our worlds, but also natural beings, living on the earth.  We share a common humanity.  Recognizing our common humanity from our different social worlds can provide a space in which we can engage in a dialogical process that has the potential to discover the creative solutions we need.

Our Common Humanity

It is easy to forget our common humanity because of what David Abram has called our “astonishing dissociation—the monumental forgetting of our human inherence in a more than human world.”[4]  What we have in common, in other words, is our participation in the life of the planet as one species among others, dependent on the same solar energy and faced with similar life cycles.

If we approach our different worlds, aware of our common humanity, we can see that our different worlds actually rest on relationships with human and non-human communities and the living planet.  In this space, between our common humanity and our different worlds, we find a space for true creativity.  I name it the civic, because we are all members based on what we have in common and, as civic members, we are all morally equal in conversations about how to repair and restore our everyday life

The civic is not merely this space, but also an activity.  Like language, the civic exists in civic conversations, which are dialogues about how to live together.  To understand this, we can expand on our earlier discussion of the difference between dialogue and debate by making a distinction between commercial debates and civic dialogues.

Commercial Debates and Civic Dialogues

In a commercial debate, we haggle over the value of something, and try to convince the other that our product or idea is the best one.  This takes place in what is commonly called “the marketplace of ideas.”  Such arguments appeal to our interests, and we seek to find a coincidence of interests—a win/win situation—where we can agree.  In commercial debates, we treat our ideas as properties or commodities that we try to sell to others.  So how does this differ from civic dialogues?

In a commercial debate, people exchange their ideas with each other.  Each person exists isolated from the other and they market their ideas to each other.  In a civic dialogue,  people work through their disagreements in a shared civic context.  Much like we are now engaged in the English language, as I write and you read this text, citizens become engaged in a civic conversation through participation.  In these conversations, instead of trying to sell their ideas as though they were commodities, participants spend time developing new ideas that will move the conversation forward.

This difference between selling ideas and co-creating them is central for understanding civic dialogues. If we think we own our ideas, then we protect them as we protect property, or we sell them for the right price (a promotion, salary increase, or at least some recognition).  If we see ourselves as civic members, then we can enjoy the further development of different ideas—our different observations and values—as we participate with others in figuring out how to say what needs to be said.

As members of the civic, we can acknowledge each other as global citizens. This membership does not replace city or national citizenship, but rather expands it to include those with whom we share the planet, share this time, and share a similar planetary future.  To be a member is to acknowledge that we are all in this together, and that as members, we all have equal moral status.  This moral equality of all members carries with it a second implicit civic norm: the norm of justice or reciprocity.  The claim here is quite simple:  All members should receive good for doing good.  The relationships among the members should be reciprocal.  Actually, reciprocity also plays a role in justifying differences.  As Ernst Baker has pointed out, reciprocity fosters “balanced social relations.”[5]  A balanced social relation does not mean that everyone has the same amount of things, but it does mean that the differences are among members, instead of among members and non-members.  In such civic dialogues, I want to suggest, we have real possibilities for creating new ideas that emerge out of the clashing of different worldviews.

So does creativity require the transformation of assumptions?  I want to argue that it does.  Without such a transformation, I fear that instead of being creative, we are being clever, and instead of transformation, we get merely improvement. A good example of this difference can be found in the recent reports of two CEOs of major American companies, Ray Anderson of Interface Inc., and John Mackey of Whole Foods Market. 

Creativity as Improvement or Transformation

            John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, in his book on conscious capitalism, with a forward by Bill George the former CEO of Medtronic, writes: “We need to discover anew what makes free-enterprise capitalism what it has been: the most powerful creative system of social cooperation and human progress ever conceived.”[6]  Following Edward Freeman’s notion of finding solutions that make all key stakeholders better off, Mackey believes that conscious businesses can create win-win strategies for everyone.  The trick is really quite simple: allow businesses to realize their true purpose. “Collectively, ordinary business exchanges are the greatest creator of value in the entire world.  This value creation is the most important aspect of business social responsibility.”[7]

            For Mackey, the world of business is a world of “voluntary exchanges for mutual benefit.”[8]  The purpose of his book, as I read it, is to persuade readers to believe in this worldview of business.  His view actually is quite similar to Alan Greenspan’s before he was shocked by the financial crisis of 2008.  For Mackey, the financial crisis was not a shock that forced him to reevaluate his worldview, but rather, as he says,  “a type of cancer that is corrupting the healthier parts of the larger business system.”[9]  The free market was not flawed, but only needed some medicine to recover.  In fact, conscious capitalism appears to be unconscious of any real “other” that would actually question its free market ideology.  Ray Anderson tells a very different story.

            Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, Inc., a global carpet company, had a very different reading of capitalism than John Mackey.  Some of you may know Anderson’s story about how reading Paul Hawkin’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, changed his life.  As a leader of industry, Anderson felt indicted as a “plunderer of the earth.”

I stood indicted as a plunderer, a destroyer of the earth, a thief, stealing my own grandchildren’s future.  And I thought, “My God, someday what I do here will be illegal.  Someday they’ll send people like me to jail.”[10]

What did Ray Anderson do?  He transformed the very purpose of his carpet company from selling products to providing services—floor covering services.  This allowed Interface to integrate the production, distribution, and disposal of carpets, and to recycle everything possible.  Furthermore, he aimed his company toward becoming not just sustainable, but restorative.  He wanted business to restore nature where it had damaged it.  He was able to do this because his encounter with Paul Hawkin’s book allowed him to see the world of business in a new way, and therefore transform his company’s participation in it. 

So what are the key differences between these two business leaders?  First of all, even though Mackey claims to advocate what he calls “system intelligence,” he never examines the causal connections between different parts of the system.  Anderson does.  In fact, it is the causal connection between economic growth and environmental destruction that hit Anderson, as he said, “like a spear in the chest.”  For Mackey, on the other hand, environmental degradation is a problem that capitalism, if it were conscious, could fix.  Here is what Mackey says about the business system:

No complex, evolving, and self-adapting organization can be adequately understood merely through analyzing its parts and ignoring the whole system. . . . When we fully comprehend the larger business system in action, with all the interdependencies and opportunities for voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit that exist within it, it can be beautiful and even awe-inspiring.[11]

His rhapsody for free markets may remind you of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  Smith too, as I documented in Civilizing the Economy, ignored the fact that free markets, as he knew them, depended on the slave markets of the Atlantic trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.[12]  It is hard to believe that Mackey, and others in the Conscious Capitalism movement, would be so unconscious of the legacy of capitalism.  Like Smith, Markey disassociates the misery of the real producers of wealth from consciousness, and then projects a false optimism about market dynamics.  It is the height of hypocrisy to call this “conscious capitalism.” Any conscious person would hardly call economic systems that enslave millions, destroy cultures, and now are destroying the earth “awe-inspiring.”

From Mackey’s perspective, problems such as global warming or environmental destruction are problems that businesses can solve by including them in its list of stakeholders.  Capitalism is not the problem, in other words, but the solution.  Ray Anderson provides a different reading of environmental issues.  In reading Paul Hawkin’s book, he experienced a realm beyond the business world—a living, vibrant planet.  This planet did not belong to business as one of its stakeholder’s, but rather was the context in which one did business.  For Anderson, other realities than the world of business, such as the living planet, place limits on, as well as boundaries for, the business world.  Awareness of these limits and boundaries—of the otherness of the other— led Anderson to transform his business.

In a world of making and trading, one could argue that the type of thinking that fits with this world is strategic or clever thinking.  Clever thinkers work with the parts they have, and are smart in rearranging them for the best outcome.  The clever thinker finds ways to make things work better.  There is nothing wrong in being clever in a world that is maintained more by exchanges than by shared values or rules and regulations. 

When one considers our current situation, however, improving exchanges is not enough.  If a system is not working, the last thing you want to do is make it not working better.   We need creative ideas that put us on the path to a real transformation of our current economic order.  I think we can move toward such possibilities if we engage in dialogues that occur in the civic space that holds together what unites us—our common humanity—and what divides us—our different social worlds.  If we are really conscious, we know we live in multiple worlds, and we also know that we are planetary beings.   This awareness of our own differences offers us the possibility of moving into civic dialogues with others; dialogues that can transform our worlds.

[1] Marvin T. Brown The Ethical Process: An Approach to Disagreement and Controversial Issues (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003).

[2] Quote from Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy, (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2012), p.16-17.

[3] Kenneth Boulding, Three Faces of Power (Newbury Park, CA, Sage: 1989).

[4] David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World (New York: Vintage books, 1997), p. 260.

[5] Lawrence Becker Reciprocity (Chicago, Il and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986) ,p. 26.

[6] John Mackey and Raj Sisodia Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business University Press, 2013), p.23.

[7] Ibid. p. 37.

[8] Ibid, p. 45

[9] Ibid. p. 100.

[10] Ray C. Anderson with Robin White, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, people, and Purpose—Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009), p.14

[11] Mackey, p. 168

[12] Marvin T. Brown Civilizing the Economy: A New Economics of Provision (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010).


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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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