7 characteristics of humanistic institutions

Enlightened designers leave open the possibility of either metaphysical specialness in humans or in the potential for unforeseen creative processes. That kind of modesty is the signature quality of being human-centered – Lanier, 2010

What is a humanistic institution?

We may use Maslow’s (1987, p. 105) description of a good society to describe a humanistic institution as one that gives to its members the greatest possibility of becoming sound and self actualizing human beings. [It] is one that has its institutional arrangements set up in such a way as to foster, encourage, reward, and produce a maximum of good human relationships and a minimum of bad human relationships. He continued to add that “A good society is synonymous with psychologically healthy society, while bad society is synonymous with psychologically sick society.

Why do we need humanistic institutions?

I would say to realize the conditions for a lived experience that is as spontaneous, enjoyable and one that enables a full exercise of human aptitudes for all. As we saw in the article Humans are not machines, we are at a dire need for humanistic institutions. Humanity is at a crossroad, faced with challenges of scales unfathomable, but crucially, with an opportunity to change its destiny.

Below are some potential characteristics of humanistic institutions.

1. Humanistic

If you hope for technology to be designed to serve people, you must have at least a rough idea of what a person is and is not – lanier 2010

A humanistic institution must see, understand and treat humans as they are – complex, ambiguous meaning-making, understanding, and feeling creatures that have a unique biologically rooted, intangible mental life with something ineffable – and respect the fact that humans are as wholes in processes; they see things holistically, their ‘minding’ processes are simultaneous functions, not discrete compartments (Humans are not machines).

In other words, a humanistic institution must not seek to mechanize its members irrespective of its well-intentioned goals or values. It instead must allow the pursuit of the human purpose for all its members without repressing, suppressing or arresting individual originality, spontaneity, creativity and ingenuity (Human purpose).

Furthermore, the basis for a humanistic institution must be in the human purpose and not in institutional goals that may lessen or demean the human purpose. For instance in designing humanistic institutions we must consider what kind human relations may be inherent or else nurtured through their arrangements to ensure a maximum of high level and a minimum if no low level relations (8 forms of human relations).

2. Strive for diversity and spontaneity

There is nothing as dangerous as an idea if it is the only one we have!

There is no silver bullet for matters involving the human purpose. Thus rather than strive for a limited expression of human individuality, originality and spontaneity, it is best to allow the diverse expression and growth which are potential for humans. To enforce some way or another of doing something is to mechanize individuals. If for whatever reason we say that all students have to learn how to code, we may in the process be hijacking the various forms of self expression and problem solving that human ingenuity is capable of making. There is nothing as dangerous as an idea if it is the only one we have! If such an idea comes to be seen as the only truth, it stifles creativity, and arrests spontaneity and when it fails, it takes the whole institution down.

Furthermore, we don’t and are unlikely to ever understand the human-as-a-whole well enough to comprehend the human purpose for an individual on a scientific basis (Lanier, 2010). When we use a standardized/computer models of learning or friendship or self actualization, and ask people to conduct their lives through our models, we are potentially reducing life itself (Lanier, 2010). We must be rest assured that such models will encourage narrow philosophies that deny the mystery of the existence of experience (Lanier, 2010).

For matters involving the human purpose (education, family life, law, spirituality, ..), efficiency is irrelevant because there is no perfect being in any of these (Postmann, 1992). The desire for absolute order usually leads to tears in human affairs (Lanier, 2010). The multiplicity of the variants or alternatives is vital for the progression of human expression and spontaneity, and their shifting needs and values.

3. Local

Ideally, a localized institution is attuned to the needs and values of its members as they run it in its entirety. In addition to serving its members, a localized institution is inherently protected from outside control or exploitation as it does not contain connections to external institutions that may make it prone to such abuse. This is true irrespective of the nature of the institution; social, political, spiritual, economic, etc. If any, such relations and connections to other institutions may be in the form of friendship and neighborliness and not proximal abandonment, exploitation, or ethnocentric.

For when the needs of a community depend on some resource outside its control, the community become open to control from the outside (A 100+ rat killing machines). The simple hoarding of oil by oil producing communities causes havoc in communities depending on oil for their everyday economy and life. Similarly, foreign exchange interactions several borders away can affect the intricacies of a community that depend on them.

If democracy can actually be actualized and transcend its current status as an ideology, its best chance will be through local communities where participatory in the everyday activities and decisions is possible by the institution’s members. It is one thing to actively take part in running the matters surrounding one’s life and quite another to have an elected representative to run them (A 100+ rat killing machines).

From a social perspective, a local institution also enhances the formation of high level human relations and a minimum if no low level relations (8 forms of human relations). People are likely to relate to each other in cooperation – as neighbors or friends – while in a globalized institution, they are prone to competing with and exploiting each other. Current economic paradigm are good examples of globalized institutions where destructive aspects of competition and exploitation can be observed. Importantly too, a local institution is shielded from any problem that befalls a global one. The fall of one nation’s market affects other nation’s markets in a global market.

Locality implies a number of aspects including a) A technical/theoretical limit for number of members, b) Self sufficiency – indipendence; a cushioning from global failures, c) Organic design, d) Multi-culture (from a design perspective) and e) Self identity (perhaps comparable to self actualization for an individual). These are described and discussed in brief below.

Number of members

Locality or community also implies a certain limit for institution’s members; theoretically or otherwise. I wish not to get into the technicality of this but inevitably, it becomes impossible to practice democracy in an institution with a large membership. Most often than not, not everyone gets to have a voice, in any case. Inherently and unfortunately in giving up their voice, voters also lose the choice of what matters should be addressed or tackled. They become like students who give up the right not only to decide how and when to study but even more fundamentally WHAT to study. And thus what might have started as local becomes global as the ‘representatives’ are removed from the community and the community distanced from their voice. Philosophically, we can talk alienation but lets not go there for now.

Self sufficient (indipendent)

When we look at globalization, we see complex and intensive links among various institutions of which states have previously been at the helm but have ceded the position to corporations. One aspect of globalization that has remained indiscernible is that these links have mostly been exploitative, destructive and downright inhuman. The recent history offers ample examples of religious, political, ideological, and capitalistic colonialism and conquests, and with each the enslavement of a people to another. What has not been made obvious, in my opinion, in history, is the destruction of indigenous communities, cultures, the displacement of languages, religions, lifestyles, and an array of practices and tools organically designed for the various local contexts.

We know that the independent state is not so because it depends on other states to meet is denizens’ needs. The needs for food, energy, market, labor and others are dependencies which inherently are beyond its control and as such cannot be claimed to be independent. It should not be surprise that the state is now subordinated to multinational corporations which control the intricate dependencies of the globalized world. Regrettably, members of any dependent institution are never in control of their everyday lives. They are perpetually at the mercy of the institutions controlling the dependencies.

Organically designed

The phrase organic design means the embodiment of a user’s shifting needs and values by the design of a tool or a practice (A 100+ rat killing machines). This is a spoiler for those of us who consider ourselves designers, since when we design tools or practices, we most often than not freeze user needs and values in time or even worse, impart our needs and values onto them. In other words, participatory design (PD), user centered design (UCD) are not equivalent to organic design (OD). In PD & UCD, the user, even though active in the design process, is the full recipient of the designer’s hallucinations, spontaneous or deliberate ideological illusions, to put it bluntly and in Henri Lefebvre’s words. On the other hand in OD, the user exercises his human dimensions and capacities to his abilities in designing his own solutions to his everyday problems, according to his personal needs and values.

Multi-cultural (from a design perspective)

Organic design also implies a multi-culture. As discussed in the article A 100+ rat killing machines, an organic design sets the stage for the design for one self, where the emerging culture of tools and practices is a multi- not mono-culture. The practices of monoculture in agriculture, production, education, finance, and all other societal institutions do nothing to the progress of society other than arrest its spontaneity; subjecting their members to rigidly designed (mechanizing) tools and practices. Laws become the tool of choice in enforcing monocultures and inhibiting the spur of a culturally rich society. In education, a select curriculum is mandated, and one of its outcomes is a limited manner of thought, expression, being and living for most who go through it. The impact of stresses experienced in the globalized mono-culture have come to light and are acknowledged; another indicator why a humanistic institution should nurture from a design perspective, a multi-culture.

Self Identifying

..essential nature dictates, growing from within rather than being shaped from without – Maslow.

Individual identity may be said to be determined by the tools and practices that one uses in their everyday life. Maslow (1987, p. 143 – 146) noted resistance to enculturation as a fundamental characteristic of self actualizing individuals. He described resistance to enculturation as “an inner feeling of detachment from the culture” which made the self actualizing individuals autonomous in the sense that “they are ruled by laws of their own character rather by the rules of society”. Thus, it may be said of self actualizing individuals that they identify themselves by their characters, not necessarily by the tools or practices of their culture.

If self actualization is the human need through which individuals may realize their highest potential, then a humanistic institution may not have any business as Maslow (1987 p. 144-146) claims, in enculturating – oversocializing, robotizing or ethnocentricizing – its members. If enculturation inhibits or decimates individuality and autonomy then the identities of enculturated individuals are determined by their culture rather than by their inherent characters.

The same may be said of humanistic institutions. That, for them to attain their highest possible forms, they must be free of external interference, or otherwise resist globalization – but with good reason. External interference or globalization here may refer to the decimation of local tools and practices by external exploitative forces such as political, social or economic. Perhaps just like individuals, institutions may voluntarily adopt foreign tools or practices for the benefit of its members, without there being any hidden agendas of exploitation, colonization or such. To elaborate on this aspect, we may need to revisit a couple of historical events.

The campaign to globalize capitalism has had many fronts one of which has been the “A dollar a day” campaign which has been intended at enabling the ‘poor’ to earn higher wages. In regard to self identity, we may see the “A dollar a day” campaign as an attempt of one culture to determine the identities of another – labeling them as poor and wanting to change them to be ‘rich’ – by suggesting that the one adopt the economic practices of the other. However, such a campaign if successful only results to the decimation of a culture’s identity, its practices, and the commodification and exploitation of all its aspects for the benefit of the foreign culture. If we may review the process involved in such activities, such as the structural reforms dictated by international money lenders (IMF, World bank, ..) we can be left in no doubt as to the impact of one culture imparting its capitalistic identity on another. The resulting globalization of capitalism (the economic practices of a culture), inhibits the development of alternative economic identities by other cultures, as they have to adopt the ideological hallucinations and illusions of capitalism and unfortunately, for their own demise.

We may also use the globalization of Christianity as another example. Before the spread of the ‘good news’, various cultures around the world, had their own myths rooted in their tools, practices and habitats, and spirituality just as with Christianity was achieved in all. The globalization of Christianity decimated many indigenous spiritual identities and removed the contexts of meaning that native religions had in their cultures of practice. Since many of these indigenous religions were not able to resist spiritual enculturation, they became the plaything of every hallucination and deliberate ideological illusion of their colonial masters.

One way through which self identity may be achieved is through organic design; the design, by oneself, for oneself, of tools and practices, that embody individual needs and values, and their shifting over time. If the design of tools and practices for an individual is done by an external party, then such design freezes individual values and needs in time and even worse imparts the values and needs of the external party on the individual. The individual in such a case ingests the parts of others (values, attitudes, opinions or other aspects of their personalities) and incorporate them into their own image and in the process loses their ability to create an identity for themselves.

Must recognize and respect the natural shared heritage

In at least one aspect, a humanistic institution may have a global value system, that of recognizing and respecting the planet as a shared heritage for all humanity including past and future generations. Humanistic institutions must come to regard themselves as guardians of the planet rather than its users. While natural capital will be used, it may not be used in a manner that exploits, weakens and destroys respective ecosystems.

Perhaps the necessity to recognize the planet as a shared heritage can be stressed in the use of natural and man made resources especially when their use in large amounts or high concentrates destroy the global ecosystem either through resource depletion – e.g freshwater, rainforests, .. – or through pollution and environment intoxication – e.g. the hazardous usage and disposal of nuclear waste or the mindless garbage disposal into the planet’s orbit -. Perhaps we ought to take this seriously when we recognize that radiation leakage from nuclear power, chemical and biological plants and fall out from such weapons are neither bound by the manmade borders, nor are their effects bound into a specific generation.

4. Do no evil

Evil is never intended as evil. The contradiction inherent in all evil is that it originates in the desire to eliminate evil – Carse

Some say that two wrongs don’t make a right. And if, as Carse claims, evil is an action intended at eliminating evil, then humanistic institutions may not engage in such actions. Evil implies relating with others in low level forms of human relations – proximal abandonment, exploitative dependence, combative/competitive and ethnocentrism – for you may not be evil if you related with others in high level human relations – neighborliness, friendship, love, or maternally (8 forms of human relations). A few elements of the low level relations are briefly described below.

Non competitive, non combatant

Competition by default enforces conformity; every idea, action or behavior that does not contribute to the competition and its being won is undervalued, even punishable. Rather than look for ways of co-existing in a cooperative manner, we are now hellbent on competitive behavior that distorts reality. Competition inevitably breeds combatant behavior. Even in a simple game, a player may deliberately seek to injure an opponent just to win the competition. History provides us with numerous examples of how economic, social and political competition has resulted to wars.

When self identity is found from within rather than from the outside, and in comparison, it has potential to be original, creative and with a signature of self expression. If an institution’s freedom is not having power over others but the ability to change itself, then that institution can seek alternatives to competitive and combatant behavior in dealing with the needs of its members. If evil results from the competition for fuel and other resources, shouldn’t an institution seek alternatives to such dependencies?

Non threatening, non-controlling

A humanistic institution has to be the change it wants to see in the world. If none is inherently better than the other, then one’s freedom in relation to others is neither the freedom to change others nor the possession of power over others, but the freedom to change oneself (Carse, 1986 p. 120).

The cold war irrespective of its driving forces resulted to the amassing of weapons of mass destruction in a scale unseen before. It is not far fetched to say that the domino effect was a fundamental aspect that drove the amassing of those weapons. When one country built some weapon, the other sought to build multiples of the same if not far sophisticated. The incremental amassing of more and sophisticated weapons by one country spurred incremental and sophistication of weapons in the other. Behind the domino effect was the perception and consideration of one country as an enemy of the other. Whether this was the case is a different story. The motive in each nation’s reaction was to threaten or attempt to control the other. It is important to note that such actions of self arming and drawing boundaries are not acts of friendship. In fact, the relationship is explicitly described in the acts rather than in words.

To put it simply, sustainable peace and co-existence cannot be obtained from threatening or controlling behavior. If anything, such behavior, according to Carse (1986, p. 33) is evil, even though it is never intended as so, since “the contradiction inherent in all evil is that it originates in the desire to eliminate evil”. If any attempt to eliminate evil results to evil, then a society that seeks to eliminate evil ends up nurturing it wherever it exists and plants the seeds of evil in itself.

To go back to the cold war scenario, if one nation had pursued a more positive goal such as improving its education or health institutions rather than arming itself, it may have led to the other nation abandoning its efforts of legitimizing its military industrial complex and thus enmity with the other and instead pursuing goals in the direction of public good.

Guard against ethnocentrism

Another characteristic that might be even more challenging to attain for a humanistic institution is the ability to guard against ethnocentrism. History provides numerous cases where all sorts of institutions – religious, business, military, political and social – have orchestrated events that can be described as being ethnocentric.

Learning to see and accept things beyond the boundaries created by one’s institutions or else keeping an open mind about what is beyond one’s horizon is important if institutions or individuals are to guard against ethnocentrism. As Postmann (2009) argues, it is not an easy task: “There is probably nothing more dangerous […] than a man in the process of discovering that the language of his group is limited, misleading, or one-sided. Such a man is dangerous because he is not easily enlisted on the side of one ideology or another, because he sees beyond the words to the processes which give an ideology its reality.

We must however make the attempt if we intend to bring about progress and build culturally rich societies, as well as live and interact as neighbors and friends. As Alan Watts has noted: ‘irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world.

5. Generationally inclusive

.. every one of our national institutions is a place where men, women, and children are isolated according to some limited aspect of their total humanity – John T. Gatto

The separation of generations irrespective of criteria has created large cities filled with strangers, where a healthy community life is replaced by the competition for the custody of every generation for the sake of the dollar. This separation has resulted to the creation of waste persons for whom there is no vibrant, satisfying communities, who are denied a reciprocal part in any continuous, well-articulated community and are profoundly alienated from their own human interests (Gatto, 1992 p.50 – 60; Carse, 1986 p.133). Here is how Gatto (p. 55-56) puts it:

Large cities have great difficulty supporting healthy community life, partly because of the coming and going of strangers, partly because of space constrictions, partly because of poisoned environments, but mostly because of the constant competition of institutions and networks for the custody of children and old people, for monopolizing the time of everyone else in between. By isolating young and old from the working life of places and by isolating the working population from the lives of young and old, institutions and networks have brought about a fundamental disconnection of the generations. The griefs that arise from this have no synthetic remedy; no vibrant, satisfying communities can come into being where young and old are locked away. … Having been concentrated there as the end product of fairly well-understood historical processes, they are denied a reciprocal part in any continuous, well-articulated community. They are profoundly alienated from their own human interests.

The separation of generations has meant that no one generation can withstand, understand or know how to interact with the other. The young do not understand adults nor can the stand them. The adults do not understand the young. No one understands or can stand the old, the poor, the sick and so on. They are waste persons, and like the garbage they are, they have to be placed out of each other’s sight: the young in school, the poor in slums, the sick in hospitals, the ‘evil’ in prisons, the old in nursing homes, the dead in graves, … (Gatto, 1992 p. 55; Carse, 1986 p.133; Mate, 2011 p. 223). The resulting society is one where its individuals are maladjusted to dealing with their own human condition.

If waste is a source that for whatever reason we have deemed it useless, and since as Mate (2011 p. 223-224) puts it “… we are now comfortable with giving people the sense that they are valued only for their utilitarian contribution and are expendable if they lose their economic worth”, we have to clearly understand the impact of our categorizing and treating others as waste persons (Carse, 1986 p.133, Mate, 2011 p. 223-224). Our ignorance even as to numbers will be slight in comparison to our inability to grasp the psychological, health and moral consequences of the precarious condition in which a majority live.

Generational inclusion here is not mentioned for the mere reason that a family should not be torn apart by the social economic and political pressures it finds it self in but also fundamentally, for the health reasons. Mate (2011) convincingly discusses how the stresses resulting from relating with others in low level human relations are major chronic disease causation factors and are also transmittable across generations as have been indicated by the Adult Attachment Interview experiment and the Strange Experiment studies.

6. Malleable and self destructive

It is quite unfortunate that ‘every institution’s unstated first goal is to survive and grow, not to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself’

A humanistic institution should be as malleable as possible to accommodate changing human values and needs. For instance, a religious institution may allow the definitions of family, spirituality and other values to be changed, adapted or done away with so as not to arrest the spontaneity, originality, and ingenuity of individual and cultural expression.

If some aspect of the human purpose can be achieved without a respective institution, then, such an institution need not exist, and if it has, it need not continue to. If a familial institution is no longer necessary to meet the need of its members or it no longer does so, it should have in its making the mechanisms for its destruction. This should absolutely be the case if the institution comes to inhibit the achievement of, or in conflict with the human purpose. Gatto (1992) a former school teacher, makes an example of this in describing how, to him, the school institution conflict with the human purpose: “Indeed, without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children, our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher. No common school that actually dared to teach the use of critical thinking tools — like the dialectic, the heuristic, or other devices that free minds should employ — would last very long before being torn to pieces.”

According to Gatto (1991, 57-58) even schools are not an exemption:

Nearly a century ago a French sociologist wrote that every institution’s unstated first goal is to survive and grow, not to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself. … The first goal of a permanent military organization is not to defend national security but to secure, in perpetuity, a fraction of the national wealth to distribute to its personnel. It was this philistine potential — that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expand into an institution for the protection of teachers, not students — that made Socrates condemn the Sophists so strongly long ago in ancient Greece.

7. Voluntary participation

From the point of view of fostering self-actualization or health a good environment is one that offers raw materials and then gets out of the way and stands aside to let the organism itself utter its wishes and demands and make its choices – Maslow

Participation in humanistic institutions must always be voluntary. No one should be forced to become a member of or play a role in any institution. If, as discussed above, one’s freedom in relation to others is neither the freedom to change others nor the possession of power over others, then no individual or group can force another to conform to a tool or practice for doing so would make it evil (Carse, 1986 p. 120). As such, humanistic institutions should feature a neutral state; where non members can reside (Design for voluntary participation).

In addition, humanistic institutions should minimize if not eradicate the creation of waste persons by affording its members the freedom to seek optimally engaging (pleasurable, satisfying and meaningful) experiences, turning on the awareness that self identity and vitality can only be found from within, and respecting patterns of individual expressiveness, spontaneity and originality (Design for voluntary participation). As George Carlin once put it, it would be dangerous for an individual to be a member of a community where he either has to do certain things in a specific way or cannot do those things in his own way.


  • Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
  • Postmann, N. (1992). Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology. (p.84-113)
  • Gatto, J. T. (1991). Dumbing us down: The hidden curriculum of compulsory education. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.
  • Maté, G. (2011). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Random House LLC.
  • Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and infinite games. New York: Ballantine.
  • Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget. Random House Digital, Inc.

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