Let’s talk turkey about pragmatic ways to address our common human needs: Michael A. Dover

CLEVELAND — Our democracy thankfully prevailed in the last election. But our nation is divided between our rural, suburban and urban areas, divided across generations, and even divided within families. Let’s seize this historical moment to begin talking turkey about how to combine America’s unique pragmatist tradition with modern approaches to human needs and human rights.

It may seem we are merely divided by the various isms — from conservatism to liberalism to socialism. Thus, political and civic leaders have recently emphasized pragmatism, and called for civility and for bipartisan solutions. But pragmatism devoid of attention to human needs and human rights will fail to address the anger about racism and social injustice which sprang forward this year.

The most important source of our nation’s injustices and social divisions is the hierarchy of human value, which has reinforced racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance by viewing people as superior or inferior based first and foremost on race.

But rejecting the hierarchy of human value is insufficient if we do not also embrace the nature of our common human needs. After World War II, the United States ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But there has yet to be a fundamental intellectual and political recognition of the universal nature of our basic human needs.

Speaking to a City Club Forum in 2012 and at a 2020 American Public Health Association webinar on “Racism: The Ultimate Underlying Condition,” Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones of Harvard University argued in both that “inaction in the face of need” that is disproportionally experienced by people of color is one important way that institutional racism manifests itself.

I contend that rejecting the hierarchy of human value and dismantling the system of racism must be realized, if we wish to ensure we can meet the basic humans needs of all.

In his 1966 book, “ Sociology and Pragmatism,” C. Wright Mills explained how John Dewey, the American philosopher whose work drew upon earlier pragmatists including William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and George Herbert Meade, stressed that adaptation between the human organism and our natural and social environment requires reflection that is applied to practical action. At the time, there was no science and philosophy regarding of the nature of human need.

Today, there are two fully compatible theories of human need. The first is the self-determination theory of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and the second is the theory of human need of Len Doyal and Ian Gough, which has been applied to global climate change. Put simply, according to both theories, there are two basic human needs: physical health and mental health. We must optimally meet both needs to reach our universal goals of social participation, well-being and avoidance of serious harm.

Social research based on these theories outlines the resources which can satisfy basic human needs in a sustainable manner. Pragmatism that is not so informed ends up tackling discrete problems separately, and often fails to prioritize prevention. Furthermore, it often ignores the racism and human injustice which have contributed to the multiple crises we face: COVID-19; global climate change; mass unemployment; and how institutional racism has produced both a public health and a public safety crisis.

Let’s compare notes across the political spectrum, from a starting point of open-mindedness, another strong American value. Beginning with the day after Thanksgiving, let’s enter the holiday season with a determination to begin having discussions across boundaries we rarely cross.

Let’s recognize the centrality of racism to our nation’s problems. Let’s clarify our thinking about human rights and human needs. And let’s begin applying the pragmatist maxim of deep reflection leading to commonsense, practical action, in order to collaboratively devise policy solutions that ensure we have achieved equal opportunity to address our common human needs.

Michael A. Dover is associate college lecturer at the School of Social Work at Cleveland State University. Have something to say about this topic?

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* Email general questions, comments or corrections on this opinion column to Elizabeth Sullivan, director of opinion, at esullivan@cleveland.com.

Originally published at https://www.cleveland.com on November 20, 2020.

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Michael A. Dover is a social worker, a sociologist, a social work educator, and a theorist of human needs and human injustice. Views here are my own.

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Michael A. Dover

Michael A. Dover

Michael A. Dover is a social worker, a sociologist, a social work educator, and a theorist of human needs and human injustice. Views here are my own.

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