Bucky Fuller's Dream Revisited

How Do We Attain the Optimum Benefit for All?

Jeremy Bentham’s early 19th century formula, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, has always been challenged by the problem of incommensurable metrics for ‘happiness.’ If we could each cast a vote for what the greatest happiness is, some of our votes would be mutually exclusive bringing us up against the problem that a vote by largest number might entail harm to a smaller number.

In the 1960s, Buckminster Fuller tried to improve on this formula. At a crisis early in his life Fuller experienced a remarkable epiphany after which he concluded his purpose was to spend his life using his creative talents to promote the well-being of all living things. He subsequently developed The World Game, a collaborative simulation game in which players attempt to mitigate suffering and enhance the good of all on the planet. This furthered Fuller’s goal to “make the world work successfully, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” (See The World Game, Buckminster Fuller institute on-line.) Bucky went so far as to state his desire that each person on the planet identify not only as a self but as a part of the ALL. Then, economic well being through massive cooperation would be assured universally and Earthlings would peacefully manage our resources.

The big problem with this plan is its universalizing ethical aspect that presumes people will come to desire to be part of an ALL-encompassing ethic or community. There is a fundamental fact of history thus far that seems likely to continue as long as humans remain social entities: they resist being absorbed into universal commonness. They thrive on originality and difference that allows them to create surprising, ever-changing hierarchical values in all aspects of culture. In no area is this more clear than the field of religion or ideology, where the contest over human purpose and destiny is an exciting ongoing show. In other words, even if all humans in a global society were healthy, wealthy and wise, they would still be unable to act in ways that ‘disadvantaged no one.’ If you do not love me as much as your children you disadvantage me, and if you love me as much or more than your children, you disadvantage them. The key then is not ending all ‘disadvantages or value differences’ but thriving with them in a way that diminishes envy and ill will. These crucial value differences are not a function of economic power differences. They are based in ultimate purposes and social relationships.

Both Bentham and Fuller rely on a metric of economic utilitarianism for the well being of living things. This presumes that health and wealth as equally distributed as possible would bring the optimal happiness or ‘success’ to humanity and other sentient beings. There is now ample evidence that after attaining a modest amount of health and economic stability, friendly social relationships and working for a worthy purpose are more important than anything else for happiness or well being. Nietzsche claimed humans can put up with any "what" for the right "why". Similarly, Viktor Frankl affirmed that happiness does not derive from contentment, but from continual striving for a purpose worthy of the human spirit.

This orientation toward worthy purpose has traditionally been provided on a micro level by loving social relationships and on a macro level by religious or ideological ultimate goals. The social and ideological blend in this respect: we desire the spiritual well being of those we love. If our loved ones are in danger of losing their souls to evil cultural influences, then we feel responsible to eliminate those influences. When there are conflicts over what is good and bad for the soul, these create serious problems for a society.

The optimum social or spiritual happiness or good cannot be measured in strict economic terms. Indeed, in a diverse society people who define the good by different cultural or religious ‘values’ will often be in conflict with each other over the means as well as ends of attaining happiness in this world and beyond. In other words, Bucky’s noble goal of spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone might be achieved on a strict economic metric, but not by social or ideological measures—which matter more to most people than economics.

The way to attain the optimal benefit is to never achieve it once and for all. Instead we must encourage a continual contest of persuasion over what that optimal benefit might be and how to attain it. We already have a practical social scheme to accomplish this that was implemented 375 years ago, becoming the foundation of what was to be called the American experiment.

In 1640 in Providence (today Rhode Island), Roger Williams, a religious zealot and colonizer, observed that a society is like a very large ship on which a diverse crew must work together but without agreement on the ultimate destination of the voyage. He noted that usually the majority of the crew tries to coerce the minority to drive the ship in one direction instead of another. However, because rather frequent shifts occur in the make-up of any social majority, any members of the majority could find themselves, at another time, in the minority. So the tentative majority should never offend the fellowship of tentative minority, but always try to accommodate its desire for counter-advocacy. No attempt to silence or coerce the minority would succeed in the long run as resentment would inevitably lead to revolution. This condition of continual acquiescence to both co-resistance and collaboration is inevitably tense and inefficient. It requires mutual respect, good will, and patience as the ship of society zig-zags an uncertain course through the sea. This means the crew must expect to keep the ship functional with passengers who respectfully and constantly argue over their correct course and destination.

Let’s play Bucky’s World Game now and forever as trustworthy rival contestants for the most persuasive vision of what should be next and why. Let’s go beyond economic metrics alone to measure and contest our deepest reasons for living in our quest for the optimal benefit for all.



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