Reproduced from: Bjorhovde, G., Korkka, J. (2021). Exploring Canada: Exploits and Encounters. Bruxelles, Belgium: Peter Lang Verlag. Retrieved Jan 5, 2022, from https://www.peterlang.com/document/1114412
Cite as: Giorgio Baruchello, “From Ontario to the United Nations: An Introduction to the Thought and Influence of John McMurtry FRSC.” In: Exploring Canada: Exploits and Encounters, 97-118. Edited by: Gerd Bjorhovde and Janne Korkka. Volume 36 of Canadian Studies. Bern: Peter Lang, 2021.
From Ontario to the United Nations: An Introduction to the Thought and Influence of John McMurtry, FRSC
University of Akureyri, Iceland
Life, Recognition and Influence1
Born in Toronto in 1939, the third son of a prominent Canadian barrister, McMurtry was educated as tuition-free scholar-athlete at Upper Canada College (1951–57). He then read English (1957–61 BA) at Trinity College, University of Toronto, graduating with A standing while receiving the Clough Memorial Trophy (Outstanding Athlete Award) during his B.A. Subsequently, McMurtry starred as professional football player for Calgary Stampeders during his Master’s studies in philosophy (1961–62, MA awarded 1963), to which he brought his rare experiences as an elite athlete, developing thereafter philosophy of sport and competition qua areas of original research (e.g. McMurtry 1974 & 1983) and, more deeply, ground-breaking critiques of self-maximising games as a general model of rationality (e.g. economic and contract theory; cf. McMurtry, 1984b, 1997b, 2011 & 2012).
McMurtry left graduate studies and professional sport in order to qualify and serve under contract as an inner-city English-specialist for the Toronto Board of Education in the so-called “blackboard jungle” of Central Tech and Parkdale Collegiate, while also fostering as union representative several democratic and academic reforms of the Ontario Secondary Teachers Federation (1963–64 & 1965–67). These professional experiences became the beginning of his research interests in political theory and philosophy of education.
McMurtry has been a published writer from the age of 17, being active since the 1960s in Canada’s print and television media and working for, inter alia, CBC, NBC, Macleans and The Toronto Telegram (e.g. McMurtry 1969). In the 1960s he also began a lifetime of independent overland world travel through over eighty countries and five continents (1964–65 & 1967–68, 1978–79, 1993–94). Setting aside his English studies (cf. McMurtry 1970) in favour of philosophical ones, McMurtry was awarded a Canada Council Doctoral Fellowship for a research project on the image structure of Marx’s thought (cf. McMurtry 1978). McMurtry pursued his Ph.D. studies at the University of London, U.K., under the guidance of G.A. Cohen (1967–70) and, as he writes, “backed into the academic profession after trying almost everything else” (McMurtry 2008).
McMurtry’s (2008) scepticism vis-à-vis academia was caused by his having “perceived the academic’s work as a disconnection in symbolic spheres, ‘merely academic’. Only as [he] came to recognise that concepts are the governors of action did [he] realize that the real action was thinking through the life-blind programmes [he] saw all around [him]. Since thinking through is the vocation of the university, that is where [he] ended up”, teaching as of 1970 at the University of Guelph, Ontario, where he has been University Professor Emeritus since 2006. Over five decades as a university researcher and teacher, McMurtry has published seven books and countless shorter works; edited two more books and, in his capacity as Honorary Theme Editor, authored and coordinated the three volumes of Philosophy and World Problems, that is, the philosophical section of UNESCO’s (2004–present) monumental Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS).
In his concern to connect higher research and knowledge to the real world, McMurtry has also been a consultant of Ontario and Canada’s ministries of education (1976 & 1980), attorney general (1976), environment (1979 & 1991–92), justice (1981) and health (1988 & 1999–2000). He was the Chair of Jurists of the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Tribunal at Toronto’s 1989 Alternative World Summit. He was lead drafter of the benchmark “University of Guelph Policy on International Involvements”, whose refereed disclosures became an international incident prior to the resignation of Indonesia’s President Suharto (1990–94). He served as the Humanities’ representative on the same university’s Animal Care Committee (1993–99), overseeing most experiments on animals conducted in Canada (a position that he resigned when the central administration overrode inclusion of the for-profit purpose of animal experiments on research protocols). For his prolific body of advanced research in philosophy and the social sciences, McMurtry was elected in 2001 to the Royal Society of Canada, whose Fellows are “peer-elected as the best in their field […] who have made remarkable contributions in the arts, the humanities and the sciences, as well as in Canadian public life” (RSC 2001).
As a vocal and committed public intellectual, McMurtry’s correspondence on public affairs and problems of every kind has been continuously published in media of record, chiefly in Canada, as well as professional publications and books with considerable influence world-wide (e.g. McMurtry 2016). In this capacity, McMurtry has received global intellectual attention as the maître à penser for: Peter Joseph’s US-based Zeitgeist movement and film series (2007–present; translated into 40 languages); the website of Saint Kitts’ medical Dr. Bichara Sahely, dedicated to the principles, criteria and applications of McMurtry’s philosophy (2014–present); and Scott Andrew’s New-Zealand-based Project Sanity (2018–present). His work has been used to review and revise the educational system of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which has been famous since the 1970s for its Gross National Happiness official metrics and policy aims (Hayward, Pannozzo & Colman 2009).
Some of McMurtry’s countless shorter works have been republished numerous times, becoming standard reference material for Canadian as well as foreign university courses in philosophy (e.g. “Monogamy: A Critique”, 1972), English (e.g. “Kill’Em! Crush’Em! Eat’Em Raw!”, 1983) and media studies (e.g. “The Unspeakable: Understanding the System of Fallacy in the Media”, 1988). McMurtry has also been a regular contributor to the official publications of policy research centres (e.g. the Bulletin of Science for Peace, the Monitor of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the COMER journal of the Committee on Monetary and Economic Reform) and professional organisations (e.g. the Canadian Teachers Monday Morning, subsequently Journal of Social Studies).
McMurtry’s prolific published correspondence and articles have been featured in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, The Nation, The Hindu, The New York Review of Books as well as the Catholic New Times, Counterpunch, the New Internationalist and, in particular, Global Research, where his numerous republished and translated original analyses of international crises and public affairs since 2009 are archived in their original form. All this has been issued on top of the many expert talks, conference papers and university seminars that McMurtry has been delivering around the world (e.g. Russia Today 2013).
As to the actual ideas thus developed and circulated by McMurtry over five decades, the present introduction cannot pursue a comprehensive account of his vast philosophical production, which has influenced Canadian and foreign researchers alike, whose disciplinary interests range from sport (Hyland 2018) to religion (Lamb 1985). Rather, two alone are going to be focussed upon, called respectively “civil commons” and “life-value onto-axiology” (LVOA). Through them, light is going to be shed on representative concerns, critical targets and constructive proposals characterising McMurtry’s philosophical oeuvre.2
Civil Commons: An Influential Notion3
As the former notion is concerned, McMurtry (2013, 240) lists numerous examples, including:
the nature of language
the air we breathe
the common fire
universal health plans
the world wide web
international campaigns against US war crimes
the Chinese concept of jen
the Jubilee of Leviticus
Across multiple generations – generational and ecological time grounding McMurtry’s philosophy of time, rather than the physics of inanimate particles – all human communities have established, and ipso facto endowed themselves with, all sorts of tangible and intangible institutions allowing for, and ultimately augmenting, the expression and enjoyment of life capacities by all the members of each given community. These institutions comprise an immense selection of intellectual conceptions, physical amenities, traditional praxes, compassionate values and voluntary associations, forms of skilled competence and disciplinary investigation, as well as legal and customary practices. All such human institutions are decoded as “social constructs that enable universal access to life-goods”, that is, “civil commons” (McMurtry 2013, 237).
The civil commons are not fixed once and for all. They have been evolving up to the present time and are open to the ideal future objective of providing all life goods to all who need them, beyond the historical achievement of any past period (McMurtry 1999). In McMurtry’s understanding, all these evolving and evolvable life-enabling ideas, institutions and instruments are, first of all, commons, insofar as they normally regard whole communities, rather than isolated individuals, who are instead the starting point of today’s standard conceptions of human life in economics and social science at large. Nor, relatedly, are these commons confined to private-sector agreements among individual economic agents to sustain their common resource pools, as argued by Nobel Prize economist Elinor Ostrom (1990) while trying to solve the so-called “tragedy of the commons” in terms of self-maximising game theory (McMurtry 2011).
Quite the reverse, these historical and modern commons are community-owned and sustainably governed by customs and rules making them civil commons (McMurtry 1999). They are precisely not marketable pastures available to all members of a particular community to exploit, without supervision or penalty in case of misappropriation or misuse. They are life-supporting social constructions, pastures that the community recognises culturally, that is, in its shared modes of thought and speech, and that the same community strives to protect and exploit with care through generational and even ecological time. Canada’s remarkable welfare institutions and universal health-care provision are contemporary examples of the civil commons, which come across as striking and notably praiseworthy in the North-American context (McMurtry 1995).
Contrary to much expert talk, textbook dogma and unaware secular superstition (McMurtry 1999; cf. also Hodgson 2004 and Block 2018), there is no logical necessity and no historical certainty of the assumed happy connection between seeking private profit and generating societal wellbeing, as shown on the grandest scale imaginable by the ongoing environmental collapse denounced, inter alia, by the United Nations themselves (cf. EOLSS). McMurtry’s civil commons are therefore the opposite of Garrett Hardin’s (1968) textbook commons, the unregulated character and presumed tragic fate of which justify their private appropriation in reverse projection of the problem as the solution.
Private market appropriation for profit not only over-exploits the common life-ground of natural resources and ecosystems, but also multiplies inequalities for the exclusive benefit of the non-producing few (McMurtry 2013). The aristocrats’ arrogation of ancestral common lands in Britain began this process of degenerating the common life-ground for short-term market gains (McMurtry 1999 & 2002), but privatising forces now expropriate for profit the very public and scientific knowledge bases of human civilisation (e.g. for the sake of life-destructive armament sales and financial control over peoples’ life-supporting crops, water resources and old-age pension savings). Canada’s own civil commons, if not defended, can be lost (McMurtry 2013).
McMurtry (1999) argues that in underlying human evolution, organised social agency, both corporeal and conceptual, is designed to spur collective vital ends. Thus, also in Canada, progressive movements unite in such a common cause, even if they are unaware of what joins the dots beneath their specific life concerns. These ends have been variously pursued by perceiving, reflecting upon and, on the one hand, encouraging life-enablement. Or, on the other hand, by revealing, obstructing and/or responding to life-disablement. All these dynamic phenomena are beckoned by the specific types of standardised assessment belonging to each form of civil commons in its unique socio-historical circumstances (e.g. today’s ministerial commissions determining the levels of general literacy in the Canadian provinces, or the medieval churches ringing the tower bells whenever barbarian raiders were sighted).
Much of McMurtry’s output since the mid-1990s has been devoted to show which instruments, that is, which civil commons, are available to resolve the economic, environmental and political crises affecting Canada’s and the world’s communities (McMurtry 2013’s subtitle reads, significantly, “from crisis to cure”). None of these civil commons is intrinsically invulnerable to deterioration, instability or ruin. Life-disablement can be caused by tribal councils, law-enforcers, religious establishments or, as long denounced inter alia by Thorstein Veblen (1923) and Albert Einstein (1949), democratic parliaments captured by private interests (McMurtry 1995; cf. also Galbraith 2004 and Varoufakis 2017). Nevertheless, civil commons remain necessary in order to make social cohesion and coexistence possible, hence economic activity itself as well. If they are not in place, then civilisation ends – or does not even begin.
Almost ten years after McMurtry, faced with the threat to civilised life posed by climate change, Weston and Bollier (2013) developed independently a conception of “commons” which is de facto identical to McMurtry’s, whose preoccupation with regard to the collapse of planetary ecosystems dates back to his second book, The Structure of Marx’s World-View (1978), being therein the main reason for McMurtry’s critique of the industry-prone Marxist paradigm (cf. also Scarry 1985). On the one hand, Weston’s and Bollier’s grotesque repetition shows how compartmentalised academia can be, yet another reason for McMurtry’s original scepticism vis-à-vis academia. On the other hand, it reveals how urgent and necessary for human survival is the proper understanding of societies’ institutions that serve as civil commons, or fail to do so.
The case of unaware repetition by Weston and Bollier (2013) is peculiar and unique. Since its first appearance in the 1990s, McMurtry’s notion of civil commons has been gaining widespread acceptance amongst human and social scientists, across disciplines and fields of study. Exemplary cases include: business studies (Hodgson 2001; Mook & Sumner 2008), economics (Anielski 2007), development studies (Mishori 2010), politics (Sekyi-Otu 2009; Giacomini & Turner 2015), pedagogy or educational studies (Burch 2012; Davidson-Harden 2013; Beroš 2018), sociology (Dickinson, Becerra & Lewis 2009; Streeck 2009), jurisprudence (Baruchello & Árnason 2016), public health (Dallari 2000), gender studies (Taylor 2003), cultural studies (Findlay 2000), Asian and African studies (Sekyi-Otu 2018; Turner & Brownhill 2004), media studies (Uzelman 2011) and Canadian studies (Florby, Shackleton & Suhonen 2009; Peekhaus 2013). The most palpable realisation of a philosopher’s success is that other scholars think about the world through a concept devised by that philosopher. McMurtry’s “civil commons” are exactly one such instance.
Life-Value Onto-Axiology: A Deep New Theory of Value
Underneath McMurtry’s broadly adopted notion of the civil commons lies the more basic original concept and foundational principle of the life-ground, which denotes the dynamically evolving natural and human life substance of terrestrial existence whence all life-value develops (McMurtry 1998; cf. also Baruchello 2007). This concept undercuts the standard dualities of man/nature, male/female, mind/body, individual/collective, etc. by integrating the fundamental ontological fields of thought, felt being and action into one life substance admitting of infinite diversities of range and capacities and expressing their underlying life support systems of terrestrial evolution with no ultimate division among them (McMurtry 2009–2010). No other value is allowed supremacy over life-value to which the latter may be subjugated or sacrificed; God, the Market, Technology, whatever has long stood in as supreme over life-value itself (McMurtry 2004).
Far fewer scholars have paid close attention to this broader, articulate and complex theory of value underpinning and comprising the now-commonplace notion of civil commons (Baruchello & Johnstone 2011; Newson, Polster & Woodhouse 2012; Noonan 2018; Sahely 2014–present; Sumner 2011). Nearly all of them are based, or have studied, in Canada. McMurtry himself developed fully his theory of value, LVOA, only in the 2000s, especially with his own book-length contributions to EOLSS, which is to date the largest online repository of information about sustainable development.
LVOA pivots around the reasoned claim that, pace fashionable post-modern relativism and older positivist value-neutrality, it is possible for our reason to ascertain an objective and universal ground of value. There are indeed many conceptions of what may be stated to be good and bad, and disagreement can be as lively as it can be diverse. Nevertheless, some determinations are, au fond, better than the alternatives, given that, in their absence, no other determination whatsoever would even exist. As McMurtry (2009–2010 para. 1.16) argues, we can “follow reason where it leads”, namely “to recover step by step the missing life-ground of values and the ultimate meaning of how we are to live”, beyond local disagreement and beneath local agreement, to which contemporary theorists confine themselves, if they ever venture into this line of inquiry (cf. Doyal & Gough 1991).
The first step in this process is the positive recognition and evaluation of “life support systems”, as these are defined by the United Nations (UNESCO 2004–present):
any natural or human-engineered (constructed or made) system that furthers the life of the biosphere in a sustainable fashion. The fundamental attribute of life support systems is that together they provide all of the sustainable needs required for continuance of life. These needs go far beyond biological requirements. Thus life support systems encompass natural environmental systems as well as ancillary social systems required to foster societal harmony, safety, nutrition, medical care, economic standards, and the development of new technology. The one common thread in all of these systems is that they operate in partnership with the conservation of global natural resources.
The second step is the definition of the “life-ground” itself: “Concretely, all that is required to take the next breath; axiologically, all the life support systems required for human life to reproduce or develop” (McMurtry 2009–2010, Glossary). Without air, water, food, open spaces, rest, acculturation and socialisation, no value whatsoever can be given, experienced and appreciated, not to mention argued about. No value whatsoever – moral, political, religious, scientific, legal, economic – can be outside of the life-ground itself (hence LVOA’s descriptor “life-value”). In other words, life is the essential precondition for the existence of any and every other value (hence LVOA’s prefix “onto-” i.e. “concerning being”).
A fortiori, life’s ontological preconditions are themselves paramount and their paramount value is inescapable in any, each and every other evaluation, whether we are conscious of it or not (hence LVOA’s “axiology” i.e. “value theory” or “theory of value”). Even basic cognitive values like truth and falsehood require the life-ground, which is the ultimate principle of verification and falsification, even if scientists may not recognise it:
The unseen flaw of scientific method as such is that it too has no internal principle of consistency with universal life support systems – “to be in accord with reality” in the deepest sense. Partial science and rationality blinker out this wider plane of coherence. What most distinguishes scientific method – openness to disconfirming evidence and resolute attention to anomalous outcomes – has thus been abdicated where these standards reach furthest and count most. Science cannot be in accord with reality until it takes this excluded baseline of all human reality into account. More exactly, scientific conclusions are not valid until tested against common life support requirements. They are false insofar as they contradict these requirements in principle or in downstream effects. (McMurtry 2009–2010, para. 12.11.4)
In nuce, there can be no life, not to mention any good life, detached from the life-ground: “Life support systems […] may or may not have value in themselves, but have ultimate value so far as they are that without which human or other life cannot exist or flourish” (McMurtry 2009–2010, para. 6.2.1).
The third step is a logical consequence of the previous two: denying the life-ground’s supreme importance is a performative contradiction. Whoever wished to negate the life-ground’s primary standing would do so only after having satisfied their own life-needs for the considerable length of time needed to develop physically and intellectually and therefore become capable of such an act of negation. As to the inveterate sceptics, relativists and nihilists populating much of Western and Canadian academia, they should better think of the mythical Greek philosopher Pyrrho, whose friends were prevented from being crushed by horses or falling off cliffs because of his misgivings vis-à-vis human perceptions. Even Pyrrho was willing to suspend his “judgment in all matters which do not refer to living and the preservation of life” (Laertius 3rd century AD/1853; emphasis added). Suicides, pessimists and Gnostics affirm themselves the life-ground implicitly, and precisely via negativa, for they do so on the assumption of a more desirable life that is no longer, that is imagined, or that is expected after one’s own death (cf. Baruchello 2007 and Noonan 2018).
From a strictly logical perspective, it is possible to separate life’s intrinsic value from the life-ground’s instrumental value. From an ontological perspective, though, such a separation is implausible and impossible. As McMurtry (2009–2010 para. 6.1.4; emphasis added) writes: “All that is of worth consists in and enables life value to the extent of its experienced fields of thought, felt being and action (intrinsic value), and what underlies and enables these fields of life themselves, life support systems”. Abstracting from the life-ground in theory requires relying upon it in practice.
The very same passage reveals yet another step in LVOA’s articulation. McMurtry (2009–2010 para. 6.1) conceives of life as manifesting itself in three fundamental ways: “action” (“biological movement” or “motility”), “felt being” (“experience” or “feeling”) and “thought”. This additional step is confirmed by human experience at many levels. In the medical profession, for instance, we encounter these three fundamental ways of life-manifestation as physical, affective and cognitive health or lack thereof. Men and women of faith encounter them in their gratitude to the Almighty for their own being alive, the comforting or moving sense of the Almighty’s presence within their heart (e.g. during sacred rituals) and the exhilarating intellectual gimmicks of theological reasoning. Canada’s influential human rights activists, lawyers, judges and lawmakers encounter them as norms about the limitation of working hours, the prohibition of child labour, or the mandatory dissemination of scientific knowledge and culture.
Whilst logically distinguishable from one another, no ontological tri- or dualism is to be found in McMurtry’s (2009–2010 para.6.3; emphasis removed) tri-partite conception of life-manifestation: “Although we can distinguish the cognitive and feeling capacities of any person, this does not mean dividing them into separate worlds as has occurred in the traditional divisions between mind and body, reason and the emotions. Life-value onto-axiology begins from their unity as the nature of the human organism”.
LVOA states that all that is intuitively recognised as distinction, justice, contentment or health is – if it is genuinely good – a fertile and inclusive expression of life-value, in one or more of the three ways in which life manifests itself: action (e.g. bodily vitality), felt being (e.g. the joys of expressing bodily vitality in a free and healthy space) and thought (e.g. fairness in the decisions of a just tribunal assessing damages resulting from improper uses of bodily vitality).
Since some of these dimensions apply to non-human creatures and ecosystems, these living beings will have to be taken in due consideration too, consistently with the aims of Canadian environmentalism and the world’s conservationists at large, namely “just ecological integrity” and “the maintaining of planetary life” (Miller & Westra 2002; cf. especially McMurtry 2009–2010). It is not only what humans can make of or with nature that is valuable, according to McMurtry (2010, 72), but also “the nonhuman life web of the environment, with its countless habitats and variations of life-being”. Concisely, the fundamental axioms of LVOA read as follows:
X is value if and only if, and to the extent that, x consists in or enables a more coherently inclusive range of thought/feeling/action than without it
x is disvalue if and only if, and to the extent that, x reduces/disables any range of thought/experience/action.
(McMurtry 2009–2010, para.6.1)
These two fundamental axioms can be applied to all forms of human agency. For instance, as concerns the much-debated notion of sustainable development lying at the heart of UNESCO’s EOLSS, McMurtry (2013, 42) distinguishes between “zero growth” and “zero bad growth”, deeming the former bad and the latter good, insofar as “growth of production that serves universal human life-needs is necessary and good the more there is deprivation”.
Following McMurtry’s lead, the reader may wish to consider performing analogous discriminations with regard to value-laden terms deployed incessantly and without deeper reflection in the scholarly and journalistic literature of our day, in Canada and abroad. In this manner, a deeper ground of assessment can be found for notions that are often taken as axiologically ultimate and logically foundational: “development”, “change” (McMurtry 2001), “love” (McMurtry 1992), “inequality” (McMurtry 2001), “fascism” (McMurtry 1984a), “war” and “peace” (McMurtry 1989 & 2010), “left” and “right” (McMurtry 1979), “freedom” (McMurtry 1998 & 2001), “public sector” (McMurtry 2001), “market” (McMurtry 2002), “innovation”, “disruption”, “taxation”, “regulation”, “business” (McMurtry 2001), “competition” (McMurtry 1991 & 2000) and “rights” (McMurtry 2001).
By deriving truly profound insights from the only seemingly obvious, LVOA achieves an aim that is quintessentially philosophical. In essence, it determines in principle what is good and what is bad, cutting across received dichotomies and dualisms that frequently paralyse academic and political debates (e.g. laissez-faire/central planning, freedom/paternalism, monetary value/ecological value, etc.). Also, LVOA makes comprehensive life-enablement paramount, rather than the means whereby this comprehensive life-enablement may be obtained under specific circumstances.
In principle, the decisive axiological criterion is simple: “good” means “comprehensively life-enabling”; “bad” means the opposite. In practice, the evaluations that must be made are not necessarily so simple. Complicated situations, if not veritable dilemmas, are part and parcel of our existence. Not even the most astute axiology can save us from them entirely. Nevertheless, if LVOA is correct, then any, each and every better option is going to be necessarily the result of assessments of coherent life-value, given that no good whatsoever can subsist outside the life-ground.
Concluding Remarks: The Meaning of Life Is What We Need Most
McMurtry’s work addresses primarily social forms of human agency. Yet, LVOA’s fundamental axioms apply to individual forms too. These two axioms, in point of fact, distinguish between good and evil, that is, the decisive poles of evaluation in any individual’s political, moral and existential activity. LVOA is said to aim at “recover[ing] step by step the missing life-ground of values and the ultimate meaning of how we are to live” (McMurtry 2009–2010, para.1.16). Comprehensive life-enablement is good, whilst life-disablement is bad – also at the individual level. A good life, in other words, is a life in which comprehensive life-enablement takes place as broadly and as deeply as possible. Offering this sort of wisdom about the human condition is yet another classic philosophical aim that LVOA accomplishes and, tested out, it can truly enrich the life of anyone who does so.
Dedicated teachers, healthcare professionals, true friends, responsible leaders, park rangers and caring parents can easily understand how this life-enablement must be comprehensive, that is, embrace both the intending originator and the intended beneficiaries of an individual’s agency. Self-centred dandies and selfish stockbrokers may find this notion more difficult to grasp. Real people, though, are always members of communities and, as such, life-enablement cannot but entail the notion that pursuing the good life ought to make us sources of life-enablement for others, and other living creatures too, thereby mixing inextricably self-interest and care for others – hence the old saws: kindness begets kindness; callousness begets callousness (cf. Calvo 2018 and Smith & Wilson 2019).
Under this perspective, we can understand why libertinism, nihilism, Stalinism, National Socialism, Objectivism and other ideologies rejecting the equal value of all persons come across as morally dubious, if not as horrifying, because the good that they are after is not comprehensive. LVOA directs us squarely in the opposite direction. The more the life-capability, the better it is, both individually and collectively: “Against the ‘red in tooth and claw’ dogma […] the evidence increasingly shows the ‘co-operative principle’ at work here confers survival and development advantage […]. The more human beings subsume the requirements of their fellows’ and their environment’s life-capital capacities into their organizational regulation, the better off they are” (McMurtry 2013, 310).
Understanding better what vital needs actually are represents another major achievement of LVOA, and it is the one with which I wish to conclude this introduction to McMurtry’s thought (cf. Dover 2011). As McMurtry scholars Alison Assiter and Jeff Noonan (2007, 175) state: “N is a need, if and only if, and to the extent that, deprivation of N always leads to a reduction in organic capability” (cf. also McMurtry 1997a). What truly counts as need is “that without which life-capacities are always reduced – the ultimate criterion of all life-goods and capital that exist” (McMurtry 2013, 19). We can undoubtedly live, and even prosper, without cell phones or fashionable shoes, but we cannot live, not to mention prosper, without “sufficient nutriment, clean water, sewage facilities, learning of society’s symbol systems, home and love, and expert care when ill” (McMurtry 2013, 1).
Separating the grain from the chaff, McMurtry (2009–2010) identifies himself the “universal life goods/necessities”, that is, “All goods without which human life capacities are reduced or destroyed” (Glossary), namely seven vital goods referring to as many vital needs:
atmosphere (breathable air, open space and light); organism (clean water, nourishing foods, waste disposal); home and habitat (shelter and a life-enhancing environment); care through time (love, safety and healthcare); human culture (music, language, art, play and sport); human vocation (meaningful work of value to others); life justice (right to enjoy these life goods and obligation to help provide them).
If these goods are not delivered, then vital needs are not satisfied; and if vital needs are not satisfied, then human capabilities break down, to the eventual point of individual and/or social extinction. If these needs are satisfied, instead, then human capabilities do not simply persist, but they can actually blossom into the good life, individual and social. Catering to scientifically crafted consumer wants, the current economic order has instead been depleting the life support systems allowing for the provision of such universal life goods (McMurtry 2002; cf. also Galbraith 1967 & 2004 and EOLSS).
Wanting something is not the same as needing something. As Canada-based Jeff Noonan (2006) notes, genuine needs can be distinguished most clearly from economic preferences (or wants), pace their mutual conflation in standard economics textbooks and, more worryingly, in daily business practice: “deprivations of needs always lead to harm whereas deprivation of wants is only harmful in light of revisable self-interpretations” (xiv); moreover, “needs are satiable whereas wants are not” (57). People may queue for days in order to purchase a new cell phone; some may even kill another person to steal their fashionable shoes; yet neither consumer “good” will ever be vital, unlike food or water (cf. also McMurtry 1997a & 2002).
This point may sound like a truism but, again, that is where the deepest philosophical insight can spring: from what is assumed as obvious but overlooked in its underlying depth of meaning. In today’s world, there are billions of cell phones and millions of fashionable shoes, as well as millions of human beings who do not have access to food or water. The reader should pause and ponder upon the apparent truism of this condition. Some “goods” traded worldwide are really good; others are not nearly as good; and some others – perhaps the lion’s share – may be, in truth, demonstrably bad (e.g. weapons, cigarettes, polluting pesticides, toxic cosmetics, etc.). LVOA can help us distinguish tersely between good goods and bad goods, hence revealing the axiological ineptitude of standard economic jargon, media slogans and business praxis, which lump together all tradable items as “goods” and pursue unqualified growth on their basis (McMurtry 1995 & 1999).
Works by John McMurtry
1969. The student revolt: Marxism in a new dimension. Canadian Commentator 13(11): 17–23.
1970. The Dimensions of English. Toronto: Holt Rinehart & Winston. 1972. Monogamy: A critique. The Monist 67(4): 588–600.
1974. Sport or athletics: A conceptual analysis. In Murray, Alex J. (ed).Sport or Athletics: A North American Dilemma. Windsor: Windsor-Herald Press. 10–16.
1978. The Structure of Marx’s World-View. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1979. How to tell the left from the right. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 9(3): 387–412.
1983. Kill’em! Crush’em! Eat’em raw!. In Rosa, Alfred & Paul Escholz. Outlooks and Insights: A Reader for Writers. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 174–180.
1984a. Fascism and neo-conservatism. Praxis International 41(1): 86–102. 1984b. Free-enterprise, rationality and competition. Business Ethics 2(1): 43–47.
1988. The unspeakable: Understanding the system of fallacy in the media. Informal Logic 10(3): 133–150.
1989. Understanding War: A Philosophical Inquiry. Toronto: Science for Peace.
1991. How competition goes wrong. Journal of Applied Philosophy 8(2): 201–209.
1992. Good love and bad love: A way of evaluation. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 6(3): 226–241.
1997a. Needs and wants. Canadian Social Studies 31(4): 169–171.
1997b. The contradictions of free market doctrine: Is there a solution?. Journal of Business Ethics 16(7): 45–62.
1998. Unequal Freedoms: The Global Market as an Ethical System. Toronto: Garamond Press.
1999. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism. London: Pluto Press.
2000. Competition. In Becker, Lawrence C. & Charlotte B. Becker (eds). Encyclopedia of Ethics vol 1. 2nd ed. New York & Williamsburg, VA: Routledge Press & Garland Publications. 277–280.
2001. “Agribusiness”; “Change, progressive”; “Change, regressive”; “Charter of economic rights and freedom of states”; “Public sector”; “World classes”. In Jones, R.J. Barry (ed). Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy. London: Routledge. 16–17, 147–148, 148–149, 153–154, 1287-1288, 1705–1706.
2002. Value Wars: The Global Market versus the Life Economy. London: Pluto Press.
2004. Understanding market theology. In Hodgson, Bernard (ed). The Invisible Hand and the Common Good. Berlin: Springer. 151–182.
2008. The human vocation: An autobiography of higher education. Nordicum-Mediterraneum: Icelandic E-Journal of Nordic and Mediterranean Studies 3(2). https://nome.unak.is/previous-issues/issues/vol3_2/mcmurtry.html
2009–2010. What is good? What is bad? The value of all values across time, place and theories. In Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems. Paris & Oxford: EOLSS.
2009–present. Archive of published articles for Global Research. https://www.globalresearch.ca/author/john-mcmurtry. Accessed 11 May 2021.
2010. Environmental peace and holistic theories. In Young, Nigel J. (ed). The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 70–74.
2011. Reclaiming rationality and scientific method: The life-coherence principle as global system imperative. Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems. Paris & Oxford: EOLSS.
2012. Behind global system collapse: The life-blind structure of economic rationality. Journal of Business Ethics 108(1): 49–60.
2013. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism From Crisis to Cure. 2nd ed. London: Pluto Press.
2016. La fase cancerígena del capitalismo. De la crisis a la cura. Valencia: Tirant lo Blanch.
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- I am grateful to Prof. McMurtry and the University of Guelph for providing much of the detailed information contained in the first section of the present text.
- As typical of all philosophical endeavours, McMurtry’s own theory moves beyond the sole Canadian context and aims at humankind at large, using abstract and universal terms. Its unique creative origin, choice of concrete examples, historical academic channels and practical offshoots, however, retain a close connection with Canada.
- Over the past two decades, I have written extensively about McMurtry’s philosophy. As a result, my outline of McMurtry’s most original technical notions reiterates inevitably analogous accounts provided in older works of mine, duly cited in the bibliography (see, in particular, Baruchello 2017).