Creative Responsibility

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:

Much in how culturally mature responsibility is new has less to do with particular choices—even wise ones—than how we go about making choices, with responsibility as a process. Cultural Maturity reframes responsibility. The traditional definition was polar—responsibility set against irresponsibility. A key piece in what is new is how mature responsibility comes to wear a more creative—exploratory and experimental—face.

At a first level, this result follows from a simple loss of handholds—we need to seek out what is to replace them. But more ultimately is involved. Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes make the kind of thinking needed for mature responsibility explicitly creative. This more creative cognitive picture provides the capacities needed to make the needed more sophisticated responsibility possible.

The whole notion that process is an appropriate consideration when it comes to responsibility is new. Doing the right thing, conventionally, was just that. There is a job to do and we do it. At least we confront that what constitutes responsible choice in a culturally mature reality is most often a moving target. But Cultural Maturity’s interpretation has even deeper significance. We face the inescapable fact that goals and intent today represent only part of what we must draw on for fully responsible action.

This is not to diminish the importance of clear intent and pre-established goals. I want to be confidant that an engineer will design a safe bridge or that a surgeon knows everything possible to support my operation being a success. But it does give responsibility a more creative meaning.

Thinking of responsible decision-making as a creative process might at first seem to make choice less precise, less rigorous. But when the territory in which decisions are being made is itself in flux, in fact, it makes decision-making more precise. Add that Culturally Maturity’s changes alter circumstances in particularly dramatic ways and how understanding itself is changing and the conclusion becomes even more irrefutable. Culturally mature truth is more solid truth not because it presents final answers, but because it provides the feedback needed for mature consideration.

I often use exploratory metaphors in my therapy practice—for helping people confront both questions of basic life direction and more specific life decisions (with regard to profession, relationships, where to live, values to hold). Such metaphors help people shape their lives in ways that best honor their unique identity and contribution. In a sense such questions have always been exploratory. But in the past, cultural dictates—for both good and ill—have dramatically restricted options.

For people of more rational bent, I might talk about such inquiry as like the best of scientific experiments. Well-done experiments engage the experimenter in a sequence of creative responsibilities. The first is for asking a good question, one worthy of the experimenter’s time and focus. Next comes responsibility for crafting experiments and developing hypotheses that might shed new light on that question.  Finally comes responsibility for obtaining the most accurate and useful results.

Making good choices in a well-lived life tends to be messier than this. But when external guideposts are limited, we necessarily engage in a similar kind of progression. We start by selecting a worthy creative starting point (if the question concerns work, selecting an endeavor that excites and could prove fulfilling; if it concerns love, choosing someone who we feel caring for and who could be good for us).  And we experiment. We learn and we try things out. And we listen for what brings fulfillment. In the process, we learn about ourselves (and, with love, the other person). And we examine the unique shapes choices can take (how we might approach work, or how to engage love in ways that best reflect two people’s unique natures and their growing connection).

When approaching life experimentally, we need to be exceedingly honest with regard to what works and what does not. Like good science, a creatively-lived life is only in a limited way about getting the answers we want. With both, the most irresponsible thing one can do is alter data so as to better fit our hopes. The task is to seek out what is creatively true. It is through this that we make choices that are right and choices that matter.

Science metaphors are likely to get blank stares—or worse—from people of more emotional or intuitive bent. But the metaphor of the artist’s creative process works equally well. I might talk about composing a piece of music or how a painter applies her craft. The artist’s first responsibility is to discover a worthy creative impulse—a possibility one is deeply drawn to. Next comes trying out different ways to give that impulse expression. Lastly, there is the task of discerning what works and what does not.  Artistic expression is about listening for what is beautiful and exploring different ways to make that beauty manifest. Like with good science, eloquent artistry requires incorruptible self-honesty—fudging the results gets us nowhere. And in a similar sense, we cannot know ahead of time exactly where that honesty will lead.

Exploratory language can be applied just as usefully to responsibility of a more collective sort. The question of how we best manage the often-contradictory potentials of modern invention makes good example. Many of our most important advances, along with promising good, also present significant risk. Responsible management will be critical. But responsibility in the sense of just doing the right thing can be of only limited help. Most often it is not at all clear—except to those of dogmatic persuasion—just what doing the right thing would mean. Evaluation commonly involves complexly interwoven causal factors, and there is always the possibility of wild-card events. In the words of Freeman Dyson, “If we had a way to label our toys good and bad, it would be easy to regulate technology wisely. But we can rarely see far enough ahead to know which road leads to damnation.”

Faced with such uncertainty, how do we best respond? Some people reflexively call for extreme caution. Others may assert that free and open discovery is the only hope we have. And looming over choices with regard to specific technologies is the question of whether responsibly managing human invention and its consequences is really even possible. The drive to be tool-makers may be simply unstoppable, impervious to self-reflection.

A creative/experimental frame provides at least the beginning of a way beyond the apparent impasse. Such perspective begins by pointing out that management as we customarily think of it may not provide the right image. In the end we can’t control invention any more than we can once and for all control the outcome of love, the creation of a work of art, or the results of scientific experimentation—and we would not want to. It continues by emphasizing that a lack of final control does not save us from responsibility—indeed quite the opposite. We may not yet know how to most effectively carry out such shared creative decision-making, but we can be sure our well-being will more and more depend on it. Looking back a hundred years from now, if we are at all successful at devising social structures and mechanisms for making such choices, we will surely regard them as some of our times’ greatest achievements.

Such more creative responsibility demands more of us. At least it requires that we leave behind narrow assumptions and allegiances. Ideology throws us into a polarized world where the needed creativity becomes very difficult. But step beyond absolutist beliefs and not only do we begin to make headway, often wholly unexpected solutions present themselves.

An exploratory framing of responsibility translates readily to the more encompassing task of making sense of what the future asks. Part of the responsibility we hold for the future lies with appreciating how absolutely the future defies final prediction. While notions like Cultural Maturity and the ideas of Creative Systems Theory can serve as crude maps, such maps provide only general direction. In ages past, this amount of uncertainty would have been too much to handle. Like children with their parents, we found it better to leave the future to more reliable agents. Today, nothing more defines our time—and the excitement of our time—than the need to take ownership in the exploratory creation of a human future yet beyond what we can imagine.