Politics and Rational Self-Interest

One key element of the modern political tradition that we, as members of post-industrial liberal democracies, have inherited is the notion that a political order can be grounded on the foundation of the rational pursuit of self-interest. This strand in the modern tradition supposes that institutions could be constructed that would channel the rational pursuit of self-interest, such that citizens did not need to be virtuous to secure the common good. As with Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand, the forces of the society could be arranged such that by each pursuing what he or she wanted, all would benefit. The individuals in this society may not be great or noble, but all would be better off because these institutions accord public benefits through the pursuit of naked self-interest.

This was a radical innovation in the tradition of political and ethical thought. For Aristotle and Plato, and for Medieval political thought, the bonds of society were based on obligations between members of different classes, and what held together were these shared duties and goals that all had to pursue in order have a prospering, healthy state. For this tradition, a minimally just state could not be based on each individual rationally pursuing what he or she wanted. The reason for this is quite simple. Societies demand sacrifices from their members in order to secure the common good, and a state will not be able to protect itself from internal corruption and external enemies, if each individual sees the state as a mere convenient way to get what they want. These self-interested individuals will just abandon the society when things are not going well, and therefore such a society will always be in danger of collapse and tyranny.

The notion of grounding of social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest is a powerful notion, and in many cases, it is simpler to rely on people’s self interest to create positive consequences rather than relying on some notion of what we owe to others or the common good. However, I think this notion ultimately fails as a grounding of political society, because it cannot provide an adequate account of what we understand to be good statesmanship and good citizenship. I think it also fails in the realm of economics, but its failure is more contested in that area, so I will focus on the political realm. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the notion of grounding social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest as the “enlightened self-interest tradition.”

Firstly, for the enlightened self-interest tradition there is no reason in principle why anyone, including a leader, needs to value the pursuit of the common good intrinsically, rather than as a means to career prosperity, enhanced reputation or some other extrinsic good. For this tradition self-interest is not what we ought to be interested in so that our lives go well, but instead whatever we happen to value; it’s conception of self-interest is that of the economist. As a result unless the statesman happens to value the common good as part of is own good, the pursuit of the common good will simply be one means among many to pursue whatever his apparent self-interest consists in. Furthermore, there is no reason in principle to think that the enlightened self-interest statesman will value the pursuit of the common good as an aspect of his own good; perhaps some leaders see their own good as bound up with that of their community, but there is no evident reason to suppose that this is in fact the case. Consequently, there is no necessary reason why the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest would pursue the common good.

Now, rightly, in response to this, someone might say the argument just elaborated does not show that institutions cannot direct the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest to pursue the common good, because it is actually in their long term self-interest to pursue the common good. In light of this, we must turn to the question of whether institutions can put cleverness in support of the common good.

Institutions are very powerful tools to direct the energies of people towards particular goals. As an example, the fact that donations to charities are a tax deduction surely makes people more likely to give to charity as their taxable income will be lower if they give to charity. In this way, a person’s interest in keeping more of their gross income supports increased revenue for charities. However, the fact that institutions have this result, in particular cases, does not mean that institutions provide a stable safeguard to ensure that individuals pursue the common good. This is so, for a few reasons.

Firstly, the rules of institutions always admit of interpretation, and consequently even institutions that direct avarice towards public beneficence can be corrupted, if those making decisions are shamelessly self-interested. As an example of this we might consider John Yoo who co-authored legal opinions that made “enhanced interrogation techniques” legal, in the context of the USA, by narrowly defining torture, so that practises that would be commonly viewed as torture could be framed as something else entirely. In this case, reasonable and considered judgment is required in applying the rules of any institutions, whether these rules are formal laws, or internal procedures or policies of a governmental organization. Rules by their nature are general and cannot anticipate all particulars, and so good judgment in applying rules must exist in order for proper statesmanship to be possible. Quite simply, institutions that direct the pursuit of self-interest towards justice are insufficient for justice because judicious interpretation and sound judgment is required when dealing with novel cases and new situations.

But statesmanship is more than application of the rules or procedures of an institution. Instead, legislation is fundamental to the activity of statesmanship. Now, it is often argued that in representative democracies it is in politician’s self interest to rule in a way that aims at the common good, because otherwise they will not be reelected. As delegates of the people, the politician, or statesman, must do what the people see as the common good in order to be reelected. The initial problem here is that what citizens want may not be the common good, especially where long term and short term interests are in conflict. Climate change gives a great example of this phenomena, as politicians often do not want to take significant measures on climate change because while most citizens recognize the problem, many significant changes that are called for would at least have some negative consequences on economic prosperity in the short term. As an example, those who are dependent on high-carbon emission industries for their employment will likely be in a more precarious situation if aggressive measures are made to cut emissions. Selling a short term loss for a long term gain is a difficult task, and made all the more difficult in a situation like the one in post-industrial liberal democracies in which instant gratification is the order of life. In this way public opinion in such societies has a tendency to be excessively conservative and aims at the status quo as people tend to discount long term interests in favour of securing short term ones. As a result even if politicians act as delegates for the people and do what they want, often much of what politicians will legislate will be contrary to what they ought to rationally do if they were considering the overall significance of long term and short-term goals. And if leaders of a society take this path of least resistance and simply focus on being reelected how can it be said that the common good can be secured in this context by the rational pursuit of self-interest in conjunction with institutions of electoral representation? Clearly, the common good will be sacrificed for satiating short term interests.

Now some might argue that the example just mentioned is a case where the failure is one of people being adequately rationally self-interested. From this perspective if people really were rational they would not discount long-term interests for short term interests of lesser severity. However, this argument contains the seeds of its own destruction. Firstly, if humans often fail to effectively pursue their rational self-interest because they do not adequately consider long-term interests, than rational self-interest is an equally imperious foundation for social order to virtue or decency. Part of the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account is that it can take human being as they are and create a just society, rather than having to transform human beings into citizens. But if humans often fail to pursue rational self-interest, the creation of the rationally self-interested agent is a matter of convention, rather than nature. So by accepting the failure of people to be adequately rational as a part of humanity the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account loses one of its largest advantages, which is being able to create a just society without having to transform human nature.

The other reason why this rebuttal fails is that long-term interests include both interests that we need to secure within our own finite lives, but also interests we are pursuing for the sake of future generations and that we will not see the fruits of within our own lives. Even if a state has citizens that are very judicious about ensuring that good things happen within their lives, there is no reason to think that this will mean that they will leave a good community for those who inherit the community after they die. Therefore, the pursuit of rational self-interest even at its most enlightened fails to ensure that we provide future generations with a community that is sustainable and that future generations can adequately care for. But to paraphrase Arendt, politics, citizenship and statesmanship are deeply bound to the fact that we are born into a community that existed before us and others will inherit that community after we die. In this light good citizenship and statesmanship cannot be bound to securing interests within the biological life of a particular person or generation, but instead have to preserve the good community for future inhabitants.

In this way, the best statesman cannot simply try to do what will get him an election victory or make him popular, but will have to act as a caretaker to best ensure the equity, prosperity and freedom of the society he is taking care of for his generation and for future generations. Likewise, being a good citizen does not merely mean participating in politics and voicing one’s opinions. Instead it means reflecting on what is best for the society as a whole, taking into account future generations, and taking action on that basis. Consequently, the idea of founding society based on self-interest fails because it cannot grasp the specifically political aspect of our existence that is incarnated in citizenship and statesmanship.

The Role of the University in Post-Industrial Societies

During its origin in the Middle Ages the University was an institution for elite education, but in post-industrial North American and European societies over the past century the University has become a vehicle for mass education and practical research. As universities have began to occupy this role the justification of their funding, place in society and existence has had to change. No longer can universities justify their place by saying that they pursue knowledge for knowledge sake, or for providing students with a liberal education that uniquely enables elites to be effective leaders. Instead, the university is typically justified on four bases within post-industrial societies.

The first and most dominant justification suggests that universities are required educate citizens so they are able to get good jobs and achieve economic success. University education is then an investment in the young, that will allow them be economically successful.

The second dominant justification of the university is that it produces research and knowledge that will be able to help solve social problems, and ensure our society is innovative and thus is able to succeed in a competitive, economically driven world.

Thirdly, universities are sometimes justified on the basis that they allow people to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake and thus they don’t just help society solve problems, but also allow us to pursue the intrinsically worthy good of trying to better understand the universe.

Fourthly, universities are also often justified on the grounds that the education received, particularly in the liberal arts, will help students develop critical thinking skills, which will enhance democracy. On this view universities are seen to provide students with a well-rounded education that improves their character and capacities such that they are better citizens and individuals.

These justifications deeply differ and might even be supposed to conflict and thus the question I want to ask if it is plausible for the university in a post – industrial society to be able to fulfill all of the goals laid out by each of these four justifications. It seems to me that while it is conceivable that a university could do this in a particular kind of society, in post – industrial societies it seems that these justification are at cross-purposes, and thus the pursuit of one of the justifications will tend to negate some of the others. Hence the university, in its current form does not seem to be able to fulfill all of these goals effectively.

One quite glaring contemporary example of this conflict between the various justifications of universities is made evident by the failure of the bachelor’s degree to ensure economic success for those who pursue it. This problem arises because bachelor degrees, excluding nursing, education, engineering and possibly commerce, do not prepare students for any particular career or vocation. Thus while they may give graduates some skills it is not evident how these skills prepare them for economic success. For example, those who have a degree in the humanities typically learn how to construct an argument, read difficult texts, and write papers, but it is not obvious how these skills translate into any particular vocation, outside of the academy. But the reason why the bachelor’s degree in most forms fail to assure economic success for those who possess it is not because it is poorly designed, but because the degree is structured not simply as a prelude to a particular career, but as an introduction into a scholarly discipline, related disciplines, and to ensure people receive a well-rounded education that improves their capabilities. For example, the need for breadth requirements as part of a bachelor’s degree cannot be justified from the perspective education as a prerequisite for economic success. This is made evident because if I want to be a lawyer, why should I need to have an understanding of fields like the fine arts that have no clear relation to my field? But breadth requirements make sense if we think about the fact that different disciplines probably provide different critical thinking skills, and capabilities. Thus, to be a more well-rounded person, and citizen, you should have familiarity with a wider field of disciplines, rather than just with the discipline that you want to pursue a career in. Consequently, the very fact that the bachelor’s degree is structured, not as a simple preliminary to a vocation, but as a means to achieve a well-rounded education in some way harms its ability to justify itself as a means for citizens to ensure they have economic success. Pursuing an education that introduces you to a scholarly discipline and gives you a well-rounded appreciation of the world is a far less effective education for a career than a vocationally driven one. So, we have a case where one goal that a university is pursuing (well-rounded education) and another (education for a career) are in conflict.

We can also see this issue when we think of the research aspect of universities. The research that society is most interested in funding is often research with clear practical applications, rather than research that would best help us understand the world as a whole. So the university must try to reconcile two conflicting goals, as part of the mission of the university is towards serving as a haven for scholarship to help us better understand the world, and yet the state tends to see the university as a source of useful research that can solve its problems. While in some cases these goals may overlap, there is no reason for them to necessarily coincide.

The fact that universities are given the task of pursuing all of these unique, and conflicting goals puts them in an awkward place, and I cannot see universities being able to be successful at effectively pursuing all of these goals. Quite simply, when an institution tries to pursue multiple conflicting goals it tends to fail to deliver on any of them effectively. For example, the artist who tries to both be commercially successful and to produce something unique and interesting is not going to be able to deliver on either goal. He may try to produce something unique and interesting and end up creating something commercially successful, and vice versa. But as soon as he tries to simultaneously pursue both ends he will struggle as these goals do not always coincide and may conflict.

Does this mean the university should be abandoned? Certainly not, but it means that we need to stop being surprised that universities are unable to effectively pursue all of the goals they are tasked with. In addition we need to begin to think of how the university and mass education can be reformed so that the system of education, learning and research in our society can effectively provide vocational education, well-rounded scholarly education, produce practical research, and provide a haven for the pursuit of scholarship and science for its own sake. This may mean that the university needs to be supplemented with other institutions that can be tasked with some of the goals that the university is less adept to deal with. The existing vision of the university as a space for pure scholarship, practical research, education for economic success, and well-rounded education is well intentioned, but typically when one institution tries to pursue many disparate goals it will fail to deliver on any of them well.

Freedom of Contract, Poverty and Democratic Citizenship

It is typical in advanced capitalist nations for employers to make employment conditional on employees agreeing that they will not do anything to damage the reputation of the organization they work for, including publicly criticizing that organization. Of course, most companies have whistleblower policies that provide employees with a process and channel to report about breach of existing policy or regulation through internal mechanisms. However, while these mechanisms offer a means to raise grievances about coworkers or the company as a whole breaching their existing policy or the letter of the law, they are not designed to deal with more generalized criticism of the organization on ethical grounds.

In light of the fact that existing whistleblower protections do not provide a channel for more generalized ethical critique of an organization’s operations I want to turn to the question of whether it is legitimate for employment to be made conditional on an employee not engaging in public ethical criticism of the company they work for. To limit the scope of this question I will look at Canada, in particular, rather than advanced capitalist nations as a whole. In particular, I will argue that under the existing political economy Canada this kind of employment clause is not legitimate as it undermines democratic citizenship, but that under more egalitarian economic conditions these clauses could be legitimate.

The general defense for the legitimacy of making this kind of non-criticism clause a condition of employment is that according to the notion of freedom of contract citizens should be able to agree to contracts with other citizens or organizations as far as possible. The key to this view is that the freedom to make agreements and engage in contracts is integral to the freedom of a society. Consequently, citizens should not be prevented from engaging in contracts as this would be paternalistic and not respect the right of citizens to make their own decisions.

Futhermore, another point that supports the legitimacy of employment contracts that include a non-criticism clause is that even if this non-criticism clause imposes a significant burden on persons, someone always has the right to leave their job. Thus, while they may give up their right to critique an organization or set of organizations publicly, they do not give up this right indefinitely as they can always leave the company if they choose to engage in this criticism.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to this defense of freedom of contract based on considerations of fairness and equity that are codified in Canada’s laws. For example, citizens are not able to sell themselves into slavery even if they want to, as this would alienate one’s most basic freedoms. Furthermore, one cannot agree to a contract that pays below the minimum wage even if you are so desperate that agreeing to this wage seems desirable, as it is postulated that all people who work should not be paid below a certain level. However, while there are quite a few exceptions the case remains that the notion of freedom of contract dominates the social imaginary of Canada.

Under the current conditions in Canada while there are some social protections for the vulnerable the state typically does not ensure that all of its citizens are guaranteed an income that can support a decent life. While minimum wage laws and social assistance ensure that all are provided with some level of income, relying on these sources of income is not enough to avoid poverty or support a decent way of life. For example, about 1 in 7 Canadians lives in poverty which goes to show that there are still many Canadians who are not being provided with adequate resources and opportunities (material, educational or otherwise) to secure a decent life.

While poverty does not equally affect all groups in Canada, as aboriginals, the mentally and physically disabled are at greater risk, the statistic provided above shows that poverty is a significant risk for all Canadians. No matter what your race, sexual orientation, gender and physical and mental capabilities are in Canada you are at risk of being in poverty because if you do not have either a income sufficient to avoid poverty, or someone to support you financially, there is no guarantee that you will have enough to live a decent life, and it is most likely that you will not have enough to live reasonably well.

This is the context in which Canadians live and under which non-criticism clauses are made conditions of employment. Consequently, I think it is deeply problematic, in this context, to legitimize non-criticism clauses as this forces citizens to have to choose between economic security and their ability to publicly critique their organization for engaging in legal practises that they and others may find deeply problematic.

Now, it should be noted that some public criticisms of an organization by an employee may be reasonable grounds for dismissal. For example, going on Facebook and calling your boss a “fucking douchebag prick” because he would not let you take Monday off seems to me to be reasonable grounds for dismissal. However, if I work for a construction company and publicly write on my blog that the company that I work for needs to stop taking advantage of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) because this is having a pernicious effect on Canada, and our specific community, I hardly see this as reasonable grounds of dismissal. And yet under the current regime of non-criticism employment clauses this would be reasonable ground for dismissal because if my blog had gone viral and lead to a boycott by other companies, or by criticisms from NGOs, this would negatively affect the ability of the company to make profit. Consequently, as an employee I would have done something to damage the companies reputation and cause it to lose profits. In which case I have violated the terms of employment and am subject to firing by taking actions as a citizen to protect the public interest.

Consequently, what is wrong these non-criticism clauses in the current economic context of Canada is that they are too vague, and require citizens to not only engage professionally with their employer, but also to be a loyal ambassador for their company in public life, if they are to maintain employment. It may be legitimate to require that employees do not engage in personal criticism of other staff, or slander against the company, but it is not legitimate to require that employees do not engage in public ethical criticism of your company’s practises as this undermines democratic citizenship. It undermines democratic citizenship because in an economic context where being unemployed puts one in danger of poverty asking people to choose between economic security and freedom to critique will likely encourage people to choose economic security. While the freedom to speak out is deeply important, it is a far less pressing need than those immediate basic needs that economic security takes care of, and so far fewer people will be willing to risk unemployment and speak out against what they see as legal, yet unethical practises. Inevitably, most people will choose to remain silent on these kind of things if they feel that they risk not being able to provide a decent live for themselves and their families. By using these non-criticism clauses we thus insulate organizations from public criticism of questionable practises and thus weaken the ability of the citizenry to question and debate the validity of these practises as far fewer people will speak out. This undermines democratic citizenship as it weakens the ability of the body politic to effectively understand existing questionable practises in organizations and discuss how to deal with them.

This negative effect on democratic citizenship is further reinforced, as there are very few employment options that do not require an employee to agree to a non-criticism clause. Some very small businesses do not have these kinds of clauses due to their general informality, and being self-employed also would avoid this, but these options are not significant enough to create a significantly unburdened option apart from risking unemployment and not engaging in public criticism of one’s employer.

Therefore, while, in the current Canadian context banning the kind of non-criticism clauses that prevent employees from publicly speaking out about legal, but potentially unethical practises, that the organization they work for engages in, would go along way to strengthening democratic citizenship, it is still not an ideal solution. While democratic citizenship is important, so too is the prevention of poverty. And banning these aforementioned legal clauses will not necessarily help combat poverty. As a result I think it would be better to change the existing political economy so that the risk of poverty was so negligible that citizens were not forced to choose between economic security and the freedom to critique legal, yet ethically questionable practises. Under these conditions there would be less of a need to ban these clauses as they would not undermine democratic citizenship, as citizens would not have to risk poverty if they were to speak out against the organization they work for. But I suspect that this change in political economy will not occur anytime soon given that we currently inhabit a political moment dominated by an ideology of privatization and efficiency, so perhaps loosening the ability of employers to silence employees in this area is a good step in the right direction.


Works Cited

“Just the Facts.” Canada Without Poverty RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.

2015 Alberta Election: Citizenship, Community and Economic Interests

While I sometimes write about politics on this blog I rarely talk about concrete the political events that occur in my more immediate community, but, Alberta, the province that I live in, is currently in the lead up to a provincial election so I would like to say a little about some events that have transpired. The events of this election have brought to light an interesting question regarding the nature of political community; they have raised the question of whether political communities exist for the sake of economic interests. But, before I turn to this specific issue I would like to give a little bit of background about Alberta.

For those who are unaware Alberta is often thought of as the Texas of Canada in that it is arguably the most conservative province in the country and its economy relies heavily on agriculture, cattle ranching and most of all the extraction of oil and natural gas. The picture of Alberta as a very conservative region is further engrained by the fact that the Progressive Conservative Party, a centre-right party, has ruled Alberta for 44 consecutive years. This shows that Alberta seems to tend to be both ideologically conservative and conservative in its unwillingness to elect other political parties. This image may not be entirely accurate, but it is certainly the overriding image of Alberta within Canadian political culture.

In the upcoming election on May 5th, in somewhat of a shock, the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP) seems to be in the lead in most polls. I say this is somewhat of a shock, rather than a complete shock, because while the NDP have never been particularly strong in Alberta, and have typically been the third most popular party rather than the main opposition, the circumstances in Alberta at the moment have been fortuitous for the Alberta NDP. But these particular circumstances are not relevant for this discussion as in this entry I am not interested in discussing what caused the NDP to gain in popularity, but what the reaction by certain elements of the Alberta community to a possible NDP government illuminates.

In light of the fear of a the election of a NDP government business leaders and pundits have suggested that this will cause businesses to leave Alberta and relocate elsewhere as the NDP have campaigned on reviewing the structure of natural resource (oil) revenue, raising corporate taxes and raising personal income taxes for wealthy Albertans. (Kleiss) It should be noted here that Alberta currently has by far the lowest provincial tax regime within Canada. The sentiment expressed by business leaders and pundits suggests a view of politics as being bound together by nothing more than mutual economic advantage. According to this understanding of politics our membership in a political community is merely something that secures us from crime and violence so that we can maximize our economic prosperity. Consequently, according to this conception of politics when the conditions in one political community stop serving to maximize economic benefit there is nothing problematic about moving to another community that will better serve your economic interests. This view of politics is very prevalent and might be called the Economocentric view of politics because of its focus on economic interests above all else.

While the Economocentric view of politics is quite common when business leaders and pundits express it much of the response from Albertans that I have read on social media and online, and talked to in person is to say “good riddance” to those who were only in Alberta to maximize economic advantage. While this kind of reaction does not explicitly express a view of politics, I think it is plausible to see a view of politics underlying this sentiment that affirms a more robust conception of citizenship than the Economocentric view. According to this view politics is not just something we use to pursue our own economic advantage, but rather being a citizen of a state means being a member of common project to create the best society for all of its members. For this account of politics somebody fails to understand what it means to be a good citizen if they move away from a state merely because they were not making quite as much profit as they used to. On this view thus the Economocentric view of politics fails to grasp that a political community is not just one that exists for economic advantage, but one that tries to create the best possible common life for its members. Now the economic prosperity that individuals experience certainly contributes to the best common life, but the common life is wider than the economy and includes education, health, fine arts, athletics and the practise of self-government itself. This is why Aristotle says

It is a clear that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families, and aggregation families in well –being for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life. (Aristotle, 1280b-1281a, Pg.74)

Initially it should be noted that when Aristotle refers to the state, he does not mean the bureaucratic apparatus of the modern state but the polis or political community. Consequently, Aristotle’s point seems to be that what makes a political community is not the fact that it engages in economic activities under common laws, but over and above this, that it shares in and aims at the best possible common life. As a result citizenship would seem to mean doing one’s part in this common endeavour.

Therefore, we might say that those who say good riddance to business interests who would merely abandon the community at the fear of paying slightly more in tax are emphasizing the Aristotelian notion that our community is not merely one of economic interests, but one in which we share in a life together that transcends mere economic interests, and in which we each must do our part to ensure the success of the whole. This response to those who fail to recognize their obligation to do their part (those who abandon at the fear of slightly decreased profits) is one that suggests that the state would be better off with them, as they fail to understand the basic substance of what being a citizen means. These kind of citizens might create jobs, but they do so at the expense of degrading our common life by making is subordinate to their economic interests and thus we are better off without them.

No doubt anyone who has read this entry, or many of my other entries, can tell that I tend to favour the Aristotelian conception of politics over the Economocentric one, but beyond that the example that has has been discussed is an instance of the general tension between more economic and more civic understandings of politics. I say this is an instance of a general tension as whenever we see the questioning of the rampant pursuit of economic growth at the expense of well-being, health, education and existing traditions we see the conflict between the imperatives of Economocentric conceptions of society and Aristotleian ones. Furthermore, this seems to be one of the most fundamental apparent tensions within developed societies. For example, we are constantly told that good economic management requires a particular set of laws, and yet very few people seem to fully except that we must found our laws simply on the basis of economic interests.

Now, I should say the NDP have never put out a criticism of pursuing economic interests. In fact, one of the pillars of their platform is that they would better serve most Albertan’s economic interests better than other parties. Yet much of the sentiment behind the increased supported for the NDP seems to recognize the importance of economic interests while also recognizing that we should not only focus on pursuing economic growth at the expense of all else.

Works Cited
Aristotle. The Politics and the Constitution of Athens. Trans. B. Jowett. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.
Karen Kleiss. “Businessmen attack NDP’s “amateur” policies.” Edmonton Journal 01 May 2015. Web. 04 May 2015 http://www.edmontonjournal.com/Businessmen+attack+amateur+policies/11022132/story.html

Capitalism: The Gap Between Employer Expectations and the Terms of Employment

In workplaces it is common for employees to be asked to work additional hours over and above the terms of their employment, without additional compensation, in order that the firm can meet its goals. Often when asked to do this, employees will say yes because even though they are not being adequately compensated for their work, they do not want their coworkers to have to bear an unbearable burden of the work that needs to be done, and they know that if they do not work additional hours one of their colleagues will have to do even more of the work. In this situation capitalism makes use of the laudable desire of workers to support their colleagues and prevent them from bearing an undue burden in order to exploit those very workers by drafting terms of employment that do not reflect their actual expectations of their employees.

In most jobs within the context of capitalist societies the terms of employment for a position explicitly reflect the notion that the employee will work X hours at the rate of pay Y dollars/hour. Yet, as has been noted above, at the same time, it is often expected that employee will work additional hours over and above the legally expressed terms of employment in order to meet certain goals that the firm has without additional financial compensation. That this is an expectation that employers have is clear from the way in which they praise workers who go above and beyond and work additional hours without compensation, and condemn those who just put in the hours that are expressed in their terms of employment, as if the good worker was the one who ensures that the firms meets all of its goals, and the bad worker is the one who just puts in his time without concern that the firm meets it goals.   Workers typically go along with this expectation for the reasons that they do not want to put an undue burden on their colleagues as was noted above and they do not want to be condemned as a bad worker for not doing their part to help the company grow. In this way, the commendable desire of the employee to avoid putting an undue burden on his or her fellow employees is turned against the employees themselves, and used to further the efficiency and growth of the firm.

This rendering of commendable desires into tools for the purposes of efficiency and growth is particularly exploitative in this context, because the terms of employment that the employee formally agrees with do not express the expectation of the firm. In this way the business employs people under the pretense that they will have to work X hours a week at a rate of Y dollars/hour while recognizing that the hours expressed in the terms of employment will not be sufficient for the person to complete their work.  The impetus to take this kind of approach often results from budgetary and other constraints and does not suggest that employers are evil people, but it is exploitative because in order to respect someone you must be completely forthright and honest in making legal agreements with them. Otherwise, you are merely trying to manipulate the other person, and turn them into an instrument for your own purposes, a mere means, so to speak. Yet in this case the legal agreement laying out the terms of employment does not reflect the expectations of the employer, but instead only something that the employer thinks that the employee will agree to, and thus in this instance the employer manipulates or exploits the employee.

It might be argued that in many contexts overtime is used to compensate people for the hours they work over and above those stated in their terms of employment. In response I would say that while this is true, there are many contexts where claiming overtime is not condoned because of budgetary restraints, and in which people are still expected and asked to work additional hours without compensation.  So in this context my point holds in its entirety.

In addition, someone might argue that employees are not really exploited because even though their terms of employment do not express the expectations of their employer, employees usually know that they are expected to work more hours than expressed in their terms of employment to meet the firm’s goals. So, it is not as if the employees are being fooled or duped.

Whether it is true that employees understand that the terms of employment do not reflect the employer’s expectations is an open question that could only be answered through empirical research, but it seems unlikely that this objection holds water. If all employees understand that the terms of employment they agree to do not reflect the actual expectations of their employer than there is little reason for employers to not explicitly express their expectations in the terms of employment. A defender of this objection would have to answer the question of why employers do not express their expectations in the terms of employment if this is not to try to manipulate people and make employment at their firm seem more enticing than it actually is.

One question that the preceding discussion raises is whether this form of exploitation is a necessary part of capitalism that is brought on by the economic imperatives that it unleashes, or whether these exploitative practises could be eliminated while preserving capitalism. One’s ultimate position on this issue will determine where one stands on the future of capitalism, but whatever position one takes one must recognize the affront to human decency that is represented by the forms of exploitation that were discussed above. Unfortunately, the practise of disguising expectations behind more enticing terms of employment has become so commonplace that we have forgotten that it is fundamentally exploitative.

Kant on Citizenship, Civil Independence and Enfranchisement

In the “Metaphysics of Morals” Kant claims that while subjects of the state must be treated in accords with natural laws of freedom of equality, in order for individuals to qualify to be full citizens of the state, and consequently have the right to vote they must possess “an independent position among the people.” (Kant 139) The consequence of this argument is that servants, women, minors and some kinds of tradespeople are not eligible for citizenship. The rationale behind Kant’s argument is that in order to meet the ideal of citizenship one must not depend for one’s existence and sustenance on the “arbitrary will of anyone,” but rather one must only “one’s existence and sustenance to his own rights and powers as a member of the commonwealth.” (Kant 139) Kant calls this civil independence. This argument seems plausible and intuitive, but unfortunately its consequence is that nearly all members of modern liberal democratic societies are unqualified for full citizenship as any person who is dependent on an income for survival is necessarily dependent on the arbitrary will of others. Consequently, we must take Kant’s argument very seriously because it shows the tension between being a citizen and being a jobholder within the economic structure of modern liberal democratic societies. It may be possible to rethink citizenship in such a way that the qualifications for citizenship are compatible with the economic structure of modern liberal democratic societies, but if it is not then perhaps the economic structure of modern liberal democratic society needs to be overcome before the ideal of citizenship for all can be fully realized.

Kant reasoning as to why servants (including domestic tutors), certain tradespeople, women and minors are not eligible for full citizenship and the right to vote is that these people are dependent on the will of others because “they have to receive orders or protection from other individuals, so they do not possess civil independence.” (Kant 140) Now while Kant does not take his argument any further within the text, it seems plausible to think one reason why Kant is worried about giving full citizenship to those who do not possess civil independence is that because these individuals are dependent on others, they are in some way beholden to them, so they will easily be corrupted into voting for laws that do not represent the common interest, but rather that support the interests of those they are dependent upon. Furthermore, because individuals who do not possess civil independence are in positions in which they take orders from others, they will not have fully developed the capacity for free and independent thought, and thus they may not fully reflect when they are voting because they have not fully developed this capacity. Consequently, it seems that Kant’s argument is intuitive and plausible as those who do not possess civil independence do seem to be in danger of being ineffective, if not corrupt, citizens.

However, one issue with Kant’s argument is that he argues that academics, and carpenters both possess civil independence, but on reflection it seems that individuals in these professions would not possess civil independence. The academic does not possess civil independence as his employment and consequently his income depends on the funding of the university, and him retaining his standing within a profession, that like any profession, is full of trends, and in which positions accrue to those academics who are viewed by other academics in a positive light. Thus, academics are clearly dependent on the arbitrary will of others as their income depends on their retaining good standing within the eyes of others, and of the continued funding of post-secondary institutions. They are not dependent on any one individual’s arbitrary will, but they are dependent on the collection of arbitrary wills of the group, and the arbitrary will of the group as a whole.

Likewise, a carpenter is dependent on the arbitrary will of others for his income because in order to support himself he must sell his works, and to sell his works he must create something that will sell at a high enough price relative to the effort put in to make the work. And what will sell at this price is dependent on the arbitrary will and preference of the buying public. Kant seems to want to say that those who have no direct superior are in some way more dependent on the arbitrary will of others, than those who must sell their expertise as an independent contractor, but who do not have a direct superior, but this does not seem to be the case, because the carpenter is dependent on the arbitrary will of the buying public, just as the domestic servant is dependent on the arbitrary will of the family that he works for. However, this does not show that Kant’s argument that possession of civil independence is a qualification for citizenship is problematic, it only means that he drew erroneous conclusions from that argument.

In light of the preceding it seems that nearly all adults within modern liberal democratic societies will fail to possess civil independence as they are all dependent on the arbitrary will of individuals in that they must sell their labour either directly to the buying public, or to a company, or the state, in order to ensure the income required to sustain their own lives. Consequently, they are dependent on the arbitrary wills involved in particular companies or the state, or the buying public at large. Only the very rich who have enough capital not to be dependent on an income for their sustenance, and the farmer who grows his own food and consequently does not need to deal with the arbitrary will of the buying public possess civil independence. So according to Kant’s argument about civil independence it seems that nearly all members of modern liberal democratic societies will not possess civil independence and consequently not be eligible for citizenship.

The fact that Kant’s argument concerning civil independence suggests that nearly all citizens of modern liberal democratic society are unqualified for citizenship does not mean that Kant’s argument is implausible. However, it does demand a response from those who believe that modern liberal democratic societies can realize the ideal of citizenship for all, as it challenges the very idea that a society based on an economy of jobholders could ever realize this ideal. I am torn on the question of whether it makes sense to think that the ideal of citizenship for all could be realized in modern liberal democratic society. On one hand certain institutions such as the secret ballot make it so that even if we are dependent in our economic lives on the arbitrary will of others, we have no reason to think that we should vote for their interests, as our vote does not need to be disclosed, so it seems that in some cases at least economic dependence on the arbitrary will of others does not prevent effective citizenship. On the other hand, the economic structure of modern liberal democratic societies does not encourage people to become effective citizens. Most of our energies are put into excelling at our jobs to ensure an income for ourselves and our families. Consequently, our dependence on the arbitrary will of others for our income encourages us to be more focused on our private, professional lives, and less on the common public life we share, and thus it is not clear to me that Kant’s argument is wrong. I am not sure, but the ideal of citizenship for all may require a different societal form than the one that currently exists in the form of modern liberal democracy. Contrastingly, it may be possible to conceptualize the insights that Kant presents such that citizenship for all is compatible with modern liberal democracy. However, I do not have the answer to these questions, but by raising the questions at least we will begin to recognize that the economic bases of modern liberal democratic society is in tension with certain elements of the ideal of citizenship.

Works Cited
Kant, Immanuel. “The Metaphysics of Morals.” Political Writings. Ed. H.S Reiss. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 131-176.

Economics, Politics and Self-Interest

It is quite commonplace within the political culture of liberal democratic societies to view politics and politicians in an exceedingly negative light. Many people will often speak of how all politicians are “crooks”. Furthermore, we often hear people using the term “politics” to refer to any situation involving illegitimate bias, partisanship or unfairness. For example, when people refer to a workplace as “political,” they tend to mean that people are not rewarded by their merit, but because of other factors including manipulation and deceit. Consequently, it seems that “politics” as a subject occupies a particularly negative place in the popular imagination of liberal democratic society. However, the trouble with this attitude towards politics is that while it rightly condemns the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest within politics, it cannot explain why politics should not operate according to self-interest, when the broader economy largely operates according to this logic.

Within liberal democratic culture it is seen as perfectly legitimate to try to secure the best possible job for yourself as long as you do not violate the rights of others. To a large extent this has become the dominant maxim of public morality within liberal democratic culture. But while letting the relatively uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest dominate within the broader economy may be acceptable, it leads to a deep problem at the level of politics. For example, when politicians are motivated by the need for re-election they will pass legislation that ensures their re-election, rather than legislation that best serves the interests of all. Furthermore, the person who switches his views at a financial institution to get a promotion or to keep his job, is viewed is prudent, but a politician who takes a different position to ensure re-election is viewed negatively. This disconnect between politics and the broader economy show that the morality of the broader economy is inadequate to govern politics in that we think that there is something wrong with a politician putting career self-interest before the common good, whereas it is legitimate for a person working within the broader economy to do this. Consequently, politics seems to require a more robust morality than the mutual pursuit of self-interest. Rather, in order for politics to reach its moral potential it must operate according to some kind of commitment to the common interest to ensure that legislation is passed that actually serves the common interest.

The trouble is that within liberal democratic culture there seems to be very few voices who speak of the importance of being committed to the common interest, rather at one moment we seem to view politics as just another job that should operate according to the same logic as others, but at the same time we seem to hold politicians to a higher standard, but without being able to explain why they should be held to a higher standard. Consequently, we need to recover the distinction between the morality governing the broader economy, and the morality governing politics so that we adequately grasp the differences between these two realms. If we fail to grasp the difference between these two realms then our criticism of politics will seem incoherent, as we will be criticizing politics and politicians for engaging in actions that are perfectly legitimate outside of politics, without being able to explain why politicians should not engage in these actions while they are involved in the practise of politics.

The Appeal of Amon Amarth – Violence, Independence and Domination

As I was listening to Amon Amarth this past week I began to ponder why a significant portion of the population of post-industrial societies are fascinated by, and drawn to, the brutal way of life of the Vikings, the Huns, and other conquering peoples. The norms of these people are absolutely opposed to our own, in many regards, but yet people seem to be attracted to the way of life that they lead, and furthermore, it does not seem that we simply see it as a manifestation of evil. We might see their way of life as cruel and inhumane, but there is something that we esteem in their way of life.

For those who are unaware Amon Amarth is a melodic death metal band whose lyrics revolve around Norse mythology and the Viking age. In Amon Amarth’s song “Gods of War Arise” they offer a fictional chronicle of Viking raids. At one point in the song the lyrics say:

“Some seek shelter in the church
A refuge for those with faith
But we know how to smoke them out
A pyre will be raised

But those who choose to stand and fight
Will die with dignity
For the unfortunate few who survived
Waits a life in slavery”

This is a very stark statement of the notion that the pursuit of survival for its own sake lacks dignity and that the real “man” is someone who takes what he can get and will fight to the death rather than accept a servile existence.

To some degree it is difficult to take Amon Amarth seriously as their lyrics seem to espouse a “Viking” perspective with such candour, that it is hard to imagine any member of the band actually is endorsing this perspective. Nonetheless, there must be some reason why they chose this topic and why many find their lyrics fascinating. It seems to me that the appeal of their lyrics is a result of a couple of factors.

The first factor seems to be that despite the fact that we are all civilized, polite people we value elements of the brutal way of life that was manifested in the Viking age. One element of the Viking way of life we value might be colloquially known as the value of the “badass.” The badass takes whatever he or she wants and does not cow to anyone’s commands. They are truly self-directing, and because of this they need to have no regard for the claims of justice or public morality. Likewise the Vikings as a people took what they desired to have and did not bow down to anyone. The badass is very spirited and so are the Vikings. The point of this is not necessarily to gather riches or material goods, but rather to be a person or a people whose will does not bend to the will of others. We may not endorse the activities of the badass, but secretly part of us wishes we could be like them. Consequently, the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to at least partially lie in our appreciation of the value of the “badass” as it is manifested through the images of the Vikings that Amon Amarth presents.

However, our appreciation of the value of the “badass” is at odds with the very social norms of our own society. Most people will necessarily have to work within a hierarchical structure, and working in a hierarchical structure encourages compromise and servility. One can only be so authentic when working with superiors who control one’s ability to support oneself. To some degree, we must placate our superiors and censor ourselves to ensure that we have a stable income and a comfortable life. In a sense, the significant group who accept this compromise are like the person who chooses the life of slavery over fighting to the death. They choose survival and existence over independence. In this sense, the value of independence stands in stark contrast to much of life in postindustrial society. This is further supported by the fact that in postindustrial society we acquire goods through commerce and trade, rather than force.

However, while this factor explains part of the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics it does not necessarily explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. For example, in “Gods of War Arise” the vocalist roars

“The day draws to an end
The night comes dark and cold
We return to our ships
With silver, slaves and gold
We gave them agony, as they fell and die
The gods have granted victory
For our sacrifice”

Spiritedness and independence need not take on the violent form that they do in Amon Amarth lyrics. So, we are still are left to explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. These lyrics not only seem to see violence as an important means of the acquisition of property for the Vikings, rather they suggest a kind of glorification of violent conquest as something that is to be valued for its own sake.

While I am not entirely sure why people find the the violent elements of Amon Amarth’s lyrics fascinating it seems to me that the best explanation is provided by the fact that we have an unrecognized desire to dominate over others. This desire is not the dominant desire of humanity, but to deny its existence in the face of human history seems to be questionable. The desire to master others and be a little tyrant whose every wish is obeyed seems to be a natural desire for all human beings. This is evident when we witness the tantrum of a two year old. The two year old who has a tantrum does so because their parents are not obeying them as good subjects should obey a tyrant. In a sense we can overcome the desire to dominate others by discouraging them and encouraging the desire to be seen as an equal rather than a master, but I do not think we can completely escape our desire to dominate over others. Consequently, there is a part of us that will always be attracted to violent domination. There is a reason that video games, films and literature that portray violent domination are often more popular than those that portray ordinary civilized human relationships. Thus, the appeal of the violence of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to lie in this deep seated desire to dominate others. Once again we do not endorse the Vikings brutal domination of others, but on some level we cannot help but being impressed by their ability to dominate their enemies.

The preceding analysis points to a problem for post-industrial societies. That problem is how to deal with our desire for a fierce form of independence and our desire to dominate over others. To some degree we sometimes pretend that these desires don’t exist, but our art and our entertainment seem to suggest that they are very real. Consequently, we cannot simply ignore these desires. Some may wish to try to rid society of these desires, others may want to try to direct them towards something useful, but we must recognize that we have these desires and cautiously consider the dangers these desires pose and how they are best dealt with. It is unclear to me what the best course of action is, but we must begin to think and talk about this side of our nature.

The Rich Life of Homo Economicus

Homo Economicus or James Peterson as his friends called him was a confident teenager just entering the prime of his life. However, despite his confidence James had some very difficult choices ahead of him.

During High School, James played in a hardcore punk band called “The Rotting Mung Beans.”  James acquired a great deal of pleasure from playing in the band, and according to his calculation playing in this band was what gave him the largest percentage of the overall pleasure that he acquired through living. According to his calculation playing in “The Rotting Mung Beans” accounted for 40% of the pleasure that he gained on an average week while spending time with friends and family gave him 35% of his pleasure in an average week.

James was a fine guitarist and “The Rotting Mung Beans” had developed a significant following within the Sequoiaville area. Their sound could be compared to  Black Flag, the Dead Boys and Minor Threat.  After realizing how much pleasure he derived from playing in the band, and their relative likelihood of success, James made the difficult decision of not entering a post-secondary institution so he could devote all of his time to playing with his band. While this decision was difficult for him to make, it was fairly simple. James merely discerned that he would gain the most pleasure and experience the least amount of pain if he took this path.  Even though James had graduated at the top of his class and could have pursued any profession this was irrelevant as according to his calculation every other life path he could have taken, besides playing with “The Rotting Mung Beans,” would yield more expected pain and less expected pleasure. In fact, he had discovered that the level of expected pleasure he would gain by devoting his time to playing in his band was 50% higher than the rate of expected pleasure that he would gain by pursuing any other career. Likewise, the rate of expected pain that he would experience by devoting his time to playing in his band was 30% lower than any other life path that he had before him. 

James applied this decision procedure to all of his decisions, and this decision procedure was not something that he had constructed, but rather it was something that was a natural part of his constitution. Making decision in any other way was unthinkable to him. He thought to himself “how could anyone make a decision in any way except according to the rational weighing of expected pains and pleasures? Surely any other method would be irrational and artificial.”                

Furthermore, this decision making method had worked for him in the past. While he had never done something magnanimous or honorable, he had managed to live a pleasant life thus far. Furthermore, he was a well-regarded person, because even though he was not particularly charming, his decision procedure had led him to treat people with respect, as this would ensure that no one would prevent him from leading his life according to his decision procedure.