Some (lighthearted) definitions

An intellectual: a person who reads for displeasure

A philosophy professor: a person who screams when someone says something true

A university administrator: a person whose job is to take out the garbage but is incompetent at it

A feminist: a person who thinks death is too good for men and so marries them instead

 

 

 

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Philosophical Economics

 

 

Philosophical Economics

 

 

Economics tells us that an economic transaction involves the sale (or exchange) of “goods and services”. This phrase invites conceptual scrutiny. It is notable that an evaluative term is used to describe the commodities sold: goods are good.[1]Services also are inherently valuable: you don’t perform someone the serviceof executing or robbing him (disservice, yes). What kind of good do goods possess? Not a moral good, evidently, since you can’t sellsomeone a moral act or benefit—that would nullify the morality of it. There are no shops where you can go and purchase a moral favor or pay for a moral obligation to be met. Moral goods are trans-economic. Altruism is not a commodity to be bought and sold, on pain of not being altruism. No, goods in the economic sense are goods forsomeone: an economic good is good for its recipient—it does the recipient some good. Thus food, furniture, flowers, and phones: they are purchased because of the personal benefits they afford. But are they really distinct from services? Aren’t all goods imbued with service? Typically, they are manufactured, or at least harvested or mined—they involve skilled human labor. They are not independent of human work, but an expression of it. So they are shaped by “service”, unlike volcanoes or seas or trees (unless cultivated). I would say that all economic goods involve service in this sense; they are not just lying around for anyone to pick up (why pay for them then?). Goods imply services. But what about vice versa? A service is a type of human action with a certain result deemed desirable—say, a massage or a waiter bringing food. But don’t these involve goods? The goods would be muscular therapy and relaxation via pressure, or food being on the table. A teacher supplies the good of information while performing the service of teaching.  A lawyer provides the good of contracts. A doctor provides the good of health by prescribing medicine. Something worthwhile results from the service provided: these are the goods we purchase. A service is no use unless it produces a tangible good. So services involve goods. If someone provides you the service of fixing your fence, he has at the same time given you something good—an intact fence. There is no separating goods and services; there is no essential duality here. There are not twotypes of entity in an economic transaction, but a mixture of the human act and natural raw material. Conceptually, we could unite goods and services under a single heading—say, “products”. People sell products of different types, which might be called “goods and services”. Goods come modified by service, and services are mingled with goods.

What is it that we are ultimately purchasing when we engage in an economic transaction? What is it that we desire when we hand over money? Is it other people’s actions and the physical things they produce? No, what we are purchasing are states of mind—that is the point of the whole transaction. If actions and things had no impact on our state of mind, we would have no interest in buying them. We buy things for pleasure, security, pride, company, joy, excitement, comfort, satisfaction, etc.[2]Thatis what we are ultimately purchasing—goods and services are just the means to achieve these desirable states of mind. Economic value is psychological value. We could summarize this list by saying that we are buying happiness(though this concept is obscure and includes many disparate psychological states). And what do we offer in return? We hand over money obviously, but why does the vendor want our money? To buy happiness, of course: money is what we use to buy goods and services that produce (we hope) happiness. So we buy happiness by offering happiness in return (this is even more obvious when bartering is involved). An economic transaction is thus an exchange of (hoped for) happiness, i.e. psychological states deemed desirable. An economic system, such as capitalism, is a means of generating and exchanging happiness. Goods and services are happiness-vehicles, external means to an internal end. The price of a product is ultimately determined by the happiness it can produce in the purchaser. The entire material substructure is a just a means to allocate happiness through economic activity. The basic commodities are states of mind. The speech act that defines economic exchange is: “I will give you this happiness if you will give me that happiness”. The thing about goods that is good is precisely their effect on mental states—they improve psychological wellbeing. For example, if I exchange with you a guitar for a surfboard, I have traded one sort of happiness for another, giving you happiness in return—the happiness associated with a guitar or a surfboard. There would be no point in the exchange otherwise. Thus economics is psychology in a very direct sense—it is trading in mental states.

Interestingly, no animals operate with an economic system, despite having quite sophisticated mental abilities (such as mind-reading). Animals don’t buy goods and services from each other, though they may exchange goods and expect favors in return. The concept of money is alien to the animal mind. Presumably humans developed economies at some specific period of history, where there was none before. How that happened is shrouded in mystery, but clearly it requires sophisticated social consciousness. When do children begin to understand economic exchange? Economies are biological adaptations with biological payoffs and must have arisen by mutation and natural selection. Perhaps we have an innate economics module in our brain (“the economic gene”). It sits next to our theory of mind module. It requires a tacit understanding of how minds work and how they relate to the material environment, as well as an appreciation of evaluative concepts. Economic transactions now constitute a large part of human interactions, and they shape the way we think of others (perhaps too much). We are always thinking of how to improve our state of mind by entering into economic exchanges with other people, which requires thinking about their state of mind too. We monetize the mind—put a price on it.

It is useful to keep these points in mind when running a business. We need to remind ourselves of what we are really buying and selling—what the true meaning of the phrase “good and services” is. It isn’t the object as such that is important but its effect on the consumer—what good it will do forthe consumer, psychologically speaking. It is the meaningof the product that matters. And it isn’t just what is reallygood for the customer that counts but what the customer believesis good: if the customer doesn’t think that something genuinely good is really good, he or she will not buy it. This is why persuasion is always part of a functioning economy. Savvy advertisers know this very well, so they draw attention to the psychological benefits to be derived from a particular product—not its physical characteristics. A successful business must therefore be psychologically astute and psychologically attuned. It should also have a clear philosophical understanding of what it is up to.

 

[1]We speak of “dry goods” but we don’t speak of “wet goods”. Why?

[2]We also buy things to protect our lives, but we only value our lives because of the states of mind they make possible.

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Kafkaesque

I used to describe my situation as “Kafkaesque”. I’m now reading Kafka’s The Trial and almost feel that I am reading about myself (“Hello, K., I am M.”). The predominant feeling, aside from evil, is absurdity.

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Capitalism Reconsidered

 

 

Capitalism Reconsidered

 

 

What is capitalism and is it a good thing? The OEDgives the following definition under “capitalism”: “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state” (the word “capital” comes from a middle English word for “head” or “top”). Two features of this definition may be noted: trade and industry under capitalism are owned and controlled by private individuals and not the state; and they are run for profit and not (say) for charity or amusement. The reference to private owners is indeterminate as to who those owners might be, so long as they are not “the state”, which is itself quite vague. The owners could be company executives, or they could be workers, or they could be shareholders, or they could be the royal family, or the folks next door. The essential point is that they are notthe state. The reference to profit is an additional condition not contained in the first and logically independent of it: an industry or corporation could be privately owned and not run for profit, or it could be run for profit and not privately owned. So we need to consider economic and political systems that have one of these features but not the other: would these count as capitalist or are both features necessary (as well as sufficient)? The OEDappears to think that they would not be, since it mentions both features, proposing a conjunctive definition. Then an industry run for charity and owned by workers would not count as capitalist, even though it is not publically owned. Likewise an industry run for profit and owned by the state would not count as capitalist either. In order to qualify as capitalist an organization needs to be owned in a certain way and be motivated in a certain way—by non-state actors and in order to make a profit. Thus nationalized industries are not capitalist and charitable foundations are not either, by virtue of failing to satisfy one of the stipulated conditions. That sounds reasonable enough by way of definition.

But where does this leave the system known as “state capitalism”? Presumably the phrase must be convicted of outright contradiction, since it violates the private ownership condition. The word “state” here might be interpreted to mean an autonomous sovereign state or a regional part of a federation such as the United States of America. If a profit-making organization is owned by a state in either sense, it is not counted as a capitalist enterprise. But that sounds wrong: surely such an organization should count as capitalist. For one thing, it is run for profit; for another, such organizations can be in competition with each other in just the way intra-state organizations can be. Thus two companies existing in different states (sovereign or federal) might compete for profits in just the way two companies operating in the same state may. The important point is that these state-run companies would not be owned or controlled by some furthercollective or individual—as it might be, a hereditary king or a democratically elected world government. Thus, for example, the steel industry in China can compete with the steel industry in America: these are separate organizations run to outcompete the other for profit. Structurally and logically, there is no difference between this type of set-up and companies operating within a given state. That is why the phrase “state capitalism” does not strike as immediately oxymoronic. So the definition of capitalism given by the OEDis inadequate—it ignores state capitalism. What would not count as capitalist (following the spirit of that definition) is an industry owned and controlled by the entire world—“world capitalism”. For then there would be no competition for profits with separately owned organizations—unless, that is, we consider possible competition with organizations from other planets. That wouldintroduce the structure needed to create a capitalist system. The concept of competition among a plurality of companies is not mentioned by the dictionary definition, but it is crucial to the definition—it doesn’t matter whether the plurality consists of private individuals or states or even planets. Nor does it matter who the owners are: worker-owned businesses can be as capitalist as other forms of business, so long as the ownership doesn’t extend to everybody in the universe. We can already see from this point that capitalism is not by definition exploitative of workers; it all depends on how those workers are treated and what their role is. A company owned by shop-floor workers who pay their managers low wages relative to their own is not thereby anti-capitalist: it is merely one form that capitalism can take, properly understood. We should therefore amend the dictionary definition to read: “an economic and political system in which trade and industry are run for profit and are owned by an entity that exists in competition with other such entities”.[1]

But even this definition isn’t quite right, or at least it misses an important conceptual point. Do we really want to say that a system of world government in which trade and industry are globally owned is not a form of capitalism? There would be the same factories, workers, bosses, banks, accountants, lawyers, and so on, despite the fact that ownership was collective. People would still go to work every day just as they do now, earning their daily bread by selling their labor. The system would still be geared towards maximum productivity, with the same emphasis on profits (whole industries could still go extinct as technology advances). There would still be competition among different manufacturers to make a superior product. The ownership structure would make little difference to how things operate. So we might want to amend the definition to capture this common thread: we could say that a system is “capitalist*” if and only if it operates by competition among industries to produce things that generate profits. Call this condition CIPP (Competition among Industries to Produce and Profit): then capitalism* is that economic and political system that conforms to CIPP—whatever its ownership structure may be. Intuitively, it is that type of system in which people maximize productivity for profit. If we drop the asterisk for ease of pronunciation, we can say that capitalism in its broadest sense is the system that requires people to use their time (their lives) working to produce profitably. Industrial capitalism is the system that does this by means of machinery, plants, shifts, and paid labor. Ownership is irrelevant.

Marx found that the capitalism of his day exploited workers, and that was its chief evil. But that is not integral to capitalism as such—at least, it isn’t the exploitation of workers by owners (as opposed to the system itself). So is there no objection to forms of capitalism that don’texploit workers in this way? Marx felt that capitalism was historically inevitable and inherently desirable but that it should be prevented from allowing workers to be exploited by owners—hence the desirability of worker-owned businesses. And indeed the system has conspicuous merits, which is why it has spread almost everywhere. It may be that no conceivable economic system is better. But that doesn’t mean that it has no downside, no difficulties—it may yet have substantial negative impacts. And these may be remediable once they have been recognized, or at least mitigated. So what would a non-Marxian critique of capitalism look like?  I think the answer is obvious: capitalism tends towards a type of hegemony of productivity and profit. Not that there is anything wrong with these things in themselves; the danger is that they come to assume too prominent a place in human life. Life comes to be shaped entirely around these activities and values with other things squeezed aside. The urge to be moreproductive and moreprofitable eats into time and temperament. The result is (or can be) distortion and alienation, discontent and spiritual malaise. Human life becomes one-dimensional, driven, and desiccated. Simply put, we end up spending too much time and effort in producing and profiting. In this respect capitalism does not differ from other social systems: all tend towards a narrowing monism of purpose. Thus consider militarism and religiosity, as exemplified by Sparta and a medieval monastery. In both systems one value comes to dominate the rest, reducing human possibility. It is not easy to flourish humanly under unrestrained capitalism, even the “socialist” kind (collective ownership). Capitalism serves its purpose admirably (economic well being) but that isn’t all there is to life—there needs also to be leisure, art, contemplation, family, or whatever else you think belongs on the list of the Good. So the real flaw in capitalism (broadly understood) is that it tends to be all consuming, not that it is intrinsically exploitative or unjust. It therefore needs to be restrained, moderated, and kept in its place. This is not out of the question, and historically is what has happened: shorter hours, more humane working conditions, automation, better wages, holidays. But there is still plenty of room for improvement—the beast has yet to be tamed. Not eliminated–but tamed, tinkered with, humanized. Enthusiasm for something is never incompatible with criticism of it. Recognizing weaknesses is consistent with asserting strengths.

Social systems tend to generate ideologies, not vice versa (a Marxian theme). These may include theories of history, of human nature, of divine will. Capitalism is no exception (compare monarchy, feudalism, theocracy, militarism). The ideology associated with capitalism posits a theory of human motivation, a theory of value, and a vision of human progress. We should be alert for distortions and mistaken emphases in the capitalist ideology, as in all ideologies. This doesn’t mean that it is intellectually or morally bankrupt, just that it may be unduly hegemonic and narrow-minded. Capitalism generates an ideology to justify its hegemony, just like other de factosocial systems. Critical reflection on it serves to counter its possible defects and limitations, while accepting its undeniable strengths.[2]

 

[1]It is a consequence of this definition that monopoly and capitalism are logically incompatible. When companies have monopolies, whether by law or force, they are not part of a capitalist system—capitalism requires the “free market”.

[2]It is hard for people at this point in history to discuss the merits and demerits of capitalism without descending into ideological rigidity, but it is the job of the philosopher to consider the matter clearly and impartially without regard for dogma and special pleading. Inevitably this can result in his pleasing no one.

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“Toxic Masculinity”

 

“Toxic Masculinity”

 

I saw that Meryl Streep was being castigated for not liking the phrase “toxic masculinity”, which might give the impression that the speaker believes that men are toxic. She was solemnly assured that the phrase is intended to connote a certain stereotype or model of maleness in which strength is preferred to emotion (or some such thing). Of course no one is claiming that all men are toxic or that this is an inherent attribute of maleness! It made me wonder whether anyone would object to a similar concept of “toxic femininity” intended to connote a certain stereotype or model of femaleness in which a woman is irrational, over-emotional, shrill, and vindictive. The user of the phrase insists that he doesn’t mean all women fit this stereotype (though he agrees that some do) or that it is inherent to femaleness. It is rather a cultural norm to which women gravitate—as men gravitate to the cultural norm of unemotional aggression. Somehow I don’t think this defense of the phrase would be found acceptable, so I wonder why the logically parallel “toxic masculinity” is. Is it perhaps because users of the phrase really do believe that men are (or tend to be) constitutionally toxic? To me the phrase is highly tendentious. Compare “toxic Englishman” or “toxic New Yorker” or “toxic lawyer”.

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