During the last course of each term, with my ESSEC master’s students, after having explored organisations from the point of view of people, analysing the dynamics and functioning of subsystems (groups, cultures, organisational subcultures, etc.) and collectives, we move on to analyse some contextual variables that serve to talk about the ethics of organisational action.  There is one part of this course that they are particularly passionate about and that is the part about collective biases that prevent action. I had two fascinating insights into this part recently. The first was during one of the Thursday evening online conferences of the Complexity Institute and in particular during a conference on ethics that Marinella De Simone gave together with Stefano Zamagni, in which Marinella presented a simple and powerful model of the functioning of the human being. The other is more recent and came to me from reading a really interesting article by John Steiner, entitled “Turning a Blind Eye”.

The biases behind inaction

Before telling you about the biases behind inaction I would like to briefly introduce the first of these two ideas and leave the second as the conclusion of this post.

Marinella De Simone’s model (for more details click on this link) invites us to consider how the human being can be considered as composed of three dimensions, the material dimension, the relational, and the spiritual one. The dimension at the centre of development currently, as it has been understood until now, is the material dimension, which is rooted in the notion of “having”, and which has as its corollary the struggle for survival, competition, hypertrophy in consumption and satisfaction through consumption. Relationships, within this model, also become utilitarian, instrumental, based only on material exchanges. Spirituality remains hidden and is seen as superfluous.

The relational dimension, when it is lived in a complete way, allows us to connect deeply with others, understood as human beings but also with future generations, with climate refugees, and to feel their suffering by developing empathy. It is also the dimension that allows us to live in cooperative relationships.

The third dimension, the spiritual one, is the human dimension that has been less explored, at least by the general public, until now and is becoming more and more explored and present in recent years. It is the spiritual dimension that allows us to feel in search of individual and collective meaning, to feel connected with natural systems, with the Universe, with animals, allowing us to feel part of a Whole.

The mental meta-model that has caused inaction in the past (and present) can be partly explained by the fragmentation of these three dimensions. Concentrating only on the material dimension allows us to feel no pain for the suffering of others and the planet, and to feel disconnected and untouched by the laws of Nature. Focusing on the dimension of having rather than on the dimension of being allows us to continue to delude ourselves that everything can continue as it has been until now, exploiting the world around us in an anthropocentric, subject/object relationship of unlimited exploitation and consumption.

And here we have the biases, the beliefs that are part of this model and that are traps both for individual thought and above all for collective thought, and that lead to inaction:

  1. Illusion of ‘elsewhere’ which leads us to think that, for example, by sending our rubbish, our pollution, to an inconspicuous elsewhere (a distant island, the so-called third world countries, space) the problem is solved; and also, for example, that by hiding intensive farming and not informing us about animal suffering we can believe that our steak was born in a Styrofoam cabaret on the supermarket counter;
  2. Anthropocentrism – the bias that makes us think we are at the top of a hierarchy in which we can freely dispose of animals, plants and the planet’s resources without worrying about the suffering and imbalances we create through our activities.
  3. Illusion of separation – what makes us represent ourselves as separate entities not connected with other human beings and nature
  4. “The invisible hand of the market”. A debatable but very popular interpretation of Adam Smith’s thought that if each individual works in pursuit of his or her own interests this will lead to the maximisation of the interest for society;
  5. The “future miracle” – something will happen, a new technology will come along, progress, a new leader (and in this bias we find the basic Bionian assumption “dependency”) will save us through a solution that is now unimaginable, so it is pointless to worry about anything other than creating the conditions for technological progress to continue, at all costs;
  6. The “good old days” – it has always been done this way, why should we change? The climate has always varied, why should it be any different now? Even though the scientific community is now 100% in agreement in attributing climate change to human activity;
  7. Social conformity – which intervenes at both individual and collective levels preventing us from acting, with the excuse that “others, other companies, other states don’t do it, why should we?”;
  8. The ‘Titanic’ – which leads us to think that the planet is sinking anyway and that the processes of degradation that are taking place are not reversible. And that therefore we might as well enjoy it and continue to consume while we can, resigning ourselves to the fact that the world will sink anyway.


John Steiner, an English psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, in his article “Turning a blind eye” offers an interesting insight into the phenomenon of inaction. Steiner analyses the Oedipus myth and proposes two different interpretations. The first is the classical one. Oedipus is caught in the traps of destiny, guided by “invisible powers” and once he has intuited the possible truth he works to unveil it. But Steiner wonders about the blindness of Oedipus and of all the protagonists of the story, the mother-wife Jocasta, her brother Creon, the chorus of elders, the soothsayer Tiresias. And he issues a second hypothesis. The whole system of actors colludes with “turning a blind eye”. How could Jocasta not wonder about Oedipus’ resemblance to her late husband Laius, about the wounds on Oedipus’ feet that she herself had inflicted, how could Oedipus be blind to information about Laius’ death when he arrives at Thebes, and so on, all the different actors involved, why do they tacitly agree to cover it up, why is it only 17 years after the incestuous marriage that the truth comes out?


The ecological human being

Our house is burning and we are looking elsewhere.  This is the phrase Jacques Chirac used to open his speech at the Fourth Earth Meeting in Johannesburg in 2002. Like the characters in the Greek tragedy, the actors who could act on climate change to reverse its course also seem to be insensitive to the now unanimous calls of the scientific community, and choose, consciously or unconsciously, not to know (or at least not to act, dissociating themselves from what they deeply know about what’s happening). What, therefore, is operating at this deep level in us that leads us to turn a blind eye? Could it be the fear – and the consequent shame – of having to acknowledge that what we are actually doing is killing “Mother” Earth? Is our fantasy of omnipotence so great that we have split off from the idea that we actually need her to feed us, that we are dependent on her?

In order to get out of our blindness, rather than, as Oedipus does at the end of Sophocles’ tragedy, blinding ourselves with Jocasta’s buckle and consigning ourselves to exile by taking “turning a blind eye” to its extreme consequences, we can perhaps still choose to open our eyes, collectively, and help those around us to become aware. This means being able to see the links, being able, as Marinella De Simone says, to consider the dimensions of the human being as multiplicative (rather than additive) and thus collectively saying that the absence of one renders the others null and void. The new paradigm, the ecological human being, leads to the opening up and recognition of the non-negotiable links with the Earth, with future generations, up to the seventh, with the animal world, the end of reductionism, separation, fragmentation, and the creation of an “integral” human being.

PS Thanks to Matthieu Daum and the dialogues we had together on this subject, which were the third source of inspiration for this post!