5 Types of Action
By Jacques Dufresne
Aristotle thought that human beings are by nature political animals (zöon politikon), meaning that it is in their very nature to live in communities. Thomas Hobbes, who inspired a certain form of liberalism, believed the opposite to be the case: that man is a wolf to man (homo homini lupus).
Adopting the Aristotelian rather than the liberal perspective has important consequences. Social engineering corresponds to a vision of society as a passive machine, an artificial collection of private individuals. The Aristotelian concept of society as a living community of social animals requires what I would call a "natural model of social action", a model inspired by Hippocratic principles, the first of which is "firstly, do no harm": Primum non nocere! Social change in this perspective consists chiefly in removing obstacles to communities' self-healing powers. Five types of social actions flow from this natural model for social action:
A liberating action removes the obstacles that prevent people's natural sociability. Some of these obstacles can be legal, financial, psychological and institutional. Our systems of caring have often unwittingly created dependency on services. Creating individualized funding or direct payments could be an example of a liberating action.
These actions are about avoiding or stopping certain behaviours. For example, boycotting a certain product or socially irresponsible corporation is an inhibiting action. "Turn off the TV Week" and "Buy Nothing Day" are other examples. Producing consumer guides and rating systems promote inhibiting actions. In social services, stopping the use of terms like "client" and "caseload" could inhibit the treatment of people as objects within the system. The law can also be an inhibitor of action. But while it clearly inhibits certain undesirable behaviour, it can also inhibit desirable behaviour. For example, people may be afraid to help a stranger in need for fear of a lawsuit.
Catalytic actions could also be considered as homeopathic. They are the small actions of "the right dose at the right time." When the timing and dose are just right the effect is large. Such actions may trigger a breakthrough in how people or communities view themselves. Our systems of care often override timing or prescribe the same dose for everyone.
Inspiring actions connect people to meaning. They remind us that there is something larger than ourselves. Viewing art, writing or reading poetry, engaging in dialogue or walking in a beautiful garden can all be acts of inspiration. How can our systems of care inspire both those giving and receiving care?
People and communities need daily nurturing to remain intrinsically at their best. Nurturing actions consist of planning time and space to make room for the small miracles of daily life: the sense of wonder one feels at beauty glimpsed in a finely crafted object or furniture, a painting briefly lit by a ray of sunshine. As William Blake said :
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise
Perhaps we need to learn to see eternity's sunrise in the smile of the strangers we meet and who, smiling back, we choose to include in our world.