Sunday, November 29, 2015


229. Exclusion as an incentive for terrorism

I speculated about why ISIS is so tempting to some young people, in item 227 of this blog. I granted that the usual explanation from exclusion, neglect, poverty, discrimination and resulting poor perspectives for work, prosperity and social recognition are probably correct. I added that there must be more to it. Young recruits to ISIS not only come from poor, neglected neighbourhoods such as the French ‘banlieues’ and the quarter of ‘Molenbeek’ in Brussels, but also from reasonably well-to-do, ‘ordinary’ families, and some have had a good education. I suggested two cultural reasons.

First, a thirst for absolutist, theistic religion as a source of higher meaning to one’s life, sought with special poignancy in one’s puberty (which now lasts well into the twenties of life). In Western societies such (Christian) religion has evaporated in the lightness of being, while capitalist society does not yield a replacement in some secular source of spirituality and meaning of life.

Second, I proposed that ISIS offers the opportunity to satisfy a Nietzschean will to power, in the atavistic form of master-slave domination and physical violence (rather than the sublimated form of striving to conquer oneself in transcending oneself).

I now want to add something. I granted that the usual argument from poverty and neglect probably still applies, at least to some recruits. Is there any connection between this and the other reasons? I propose the following line of thought.

Surprisingly, this will bring out the possible effect of the idea of supreme duty from the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. What irony, if part of Enlightenment thought were similar to motives for fundamentalist Muslim terrorism, while ‘we’, in ‘the West’ see that as an attack on our Enlightenment values, and mobilize ourselves to defend them.

Kant demanded that we base our ethics on an idea of supreme duty that is absolutely pure of any motives of material desire, interest, position, or even survival. One should do one’s duty even against one’s own interests, even against survival. Kant added that we need to believe in God as a warrant that satisfying this universal duty indeed constitutes the highest Good.

Kantian ethic took the empty, purely formal form of the ‘Categorical imperative’: do only what you would want to raise to a general maxim for conduct. Content concerning specific conduct was deliberately left out, because it would make the rule dependent on circumstance, while it had to be kept universal. It is as formal and empty as ‘in the will of God’ or ‘Inshallah’.   

Philosophers Lacan and Zizek argued that this renunciation of all material value and interest can only work if there is a masochistic, higher-order (non-material, non-lust satisfying) love for such sacrifice of material values or even life.[i] And that is precisely what ISIS offers.   

The point now is this. The lust for satisfying absolute, Kantian duty renders the material values of income and wealth immaterial, irrelevant, indecent, vile, to be despised. Now those material values were the values that some of the ISIS recruits were lacking. In joining ISIS and its promise of absolutist transcendence, that lack turns into virtue. The recruits can feel superior and relish contempt for the material values that were withheld from them, and for those who have those values, wallow in them, and who did the withholding.

For wat it is worth, the argument confirms my rejection of all forms of absolutism, in ethics or anywhere else, as a correction upon Enlightenment values.         


[i] Called ‘jouissance’ by Lacan.

Monday, November 23, 2015


228. What virtue?

In this blog I have argued for an ethics of multiple virtues, inspired by Aristotle. But how many and what virtues does that entail? If it allows much, what moral constraints are left?

There is a contrast with Christian virtue as moral goodness, in benevolence and compassion, and love of one’s neighbour. Nietzsche strenuously condemned that as a ‘slave mentality’, smothering the flourishing of life. He had a preference for values of ‘virtĂș’, going back to the classical Greeks, such as valour, strength, agency, power, and excellence.   

In his ethics of multiple virtues, Aristotle included values of empathy, but also courage, honesty, excellence, moderation, generosity, justice, and above all rationality, in the form of prudence: seeking a position between extremes, such as courage in between cowardice and recklessness.

The position to be taken is not necessarily in the middle. What position one takes between extremes depends on the context. A parent seeing its child running into a street with a rush of traffic should dive after it, no matter what the risk. 

I see the value of Aristotle’s prudence of seeking ‘the middle’. But I am Nietzschean enough to also value Dionysian values of exuberance, risk taking, creative destruction, and ecstasy. Sometimes one needs to seek the boundaries, and break out from them. Excellence breeds on extremes.

Yet Nietzsche also valued Apollonian values of harmony and balance, similar perhaps to Aristotle’s balancing between extremes. So, following his lead, we need both: harmony, balance, and creative destruction.

In my cyclical theory of invention, presented in item 31 of this blog, I proposed an alternation between stability and transformation. 

I would include most if not all the virtues that Aristotle included, but for me the supreme value would be different. There I would put a religious value, not with a God and not with a hereafter in the form of eternal life, but a different form of transcendence, connection with something bigger than the self. To me that entails a commitment to contribute to a hereafter in the form of what one leaves behind at death, in the fullest possible use of one’s potential of talents, which would constitute a flourishing life.

This comes close to the Aristotelian values of excellence and realization of potential. It also approaches Levinas, I think, in dedication to the other as evoking awe and empathy. I would emphasize that openness and respect to the other is not opposed to a flourishing life, but part of it, since openness to opposition from the other helps to reduce one’s prejudices, and freedom from prejudice constitutes the highest form of freedom (see item 49 of this blog).

How, then, to reconcile Nietzschean will to power, Aristotelian balance and Levinassian regard of the other? Nietzschean will to power is sublimated in the urge to transform, to rise above oneself. Dedication to the other is not limitless, as Levinas demanded. Defending one’s own freedom from suppression by the other is also part of virtue. And opposition to the other is beneficial to him/her, as his/her opposition is to me.

This may also, I think, be rendered, more concretely, in Hirschman’s terms of ‘exit’ and ‘voice’, which I used before, in this blog. The default is voice, deliberating when in conflict, trying to see and accept the other’s position, with the intention of jointly solving problems, in give and take, but with ‘exit’ as the last resort. Voice is Aristotelian, seeking balance of interest and dedication, exit is Nietzschean, in a break-out from compulsion.

How about power?  Earlier, I used the distinction between positive power, in broadening and facilitating choice for others, and negative power, in restricting or imposing choice. I would strive for the first and deny the second. Positive power is powered by both Levinas and Nietzsche.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


227. The cultural roots of ISIS success

 How can ISIS be so successful in its utter evil, attracting ever new young recruits to it?

Doubtless, the cause lies, in part, in frustration of young Muslims, also in developed Western countries, from poverty and discrimination, mobilized for indoctrination by fundamentalist Islamist zealots. But why are the latter successful in their indoctrination?

I think the deeper cause is twofold. First, the fact that in the loss of religion, secular, liberal, democratic, capitalist societies lack clear spiritual values that yield an inspiration transcending hedonistic values of consumption. ISIS competes with a stark, absolutist, transcendent, compelling, easily grasped imperative, with a clear split between the good and the bad; the faithful and the infidels. Second, ISIS offers the perspective of heroism and exuberance in risk and violence, where Nietzschean masters relish the rush of power over slaves. This combination of sense making in higher purpose and the rush of violence seems unbeatable. I expand a bit on both.

In a recent review in the New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff discussed a thesis by Michael Waltzer that in history secular revolutions have been followed by religious counter-revolutions.[i] Examples given by Walzer are Algeria, India, and Israel. Ignatieff concludes that the secularists ‘failed to create a powerful and convincing political culture that would offer what religious faith still offers …, i.e. a spiritual home.’ Salafist Islam in Algeria, Hindu fundamentalism in India, and biblical fundamentalism in Israel.

There are counterexamples, where secular revolutions did not engender fundamentalist religious counter-revolutions: France, America, Russia, and China come to mind. However, what they did offer was a secular transcendent ideology as an alternative to theistic religion: French civic virtue in ‘laicitĂ©’, American exceptionalism, and Russian and Chinese communism. Also non-theistic ideology can yield a sense of transcendence, which is religious in the sense of offering connection to something higher than the self.

Why, then, do some young people turn away from Western societies, lured by ISIS? Has the inspirational value of Western societies been eroded? By what? I suspect that it lies in the excrescence of neo-liberal market ideology, supported by economic theory that claims to be value-free. But that is precisely the problem: loss of values other than hedonism, efficiency and economic growth. It does carry the value of liberty, but mostly in the negative sense of freedom from interference, which turns into a license to exploit other people and nature, for those who gather financial and positional power. There is a lack of the positive freedom of access to resources, justice and competencies, which has been eroded in ‘reforms’ for the sake of markets. That hurts the lesser educated, the old and weak, and outsiders who are discriminated, and lacks a spirit of transcendence.  

Second, the lure of heroic violence and subjugation has been nourished, I think, by a hotbed of thought fed by Nietzsche’s rejection of the ‘slave mentality’ of Christian compassion and his celebration of the ‘will to power’. In the wake of that, a shift has been going on from ethics to aesthetics, where the self or life is to be constructed as a work of art (Foucault, Onfray), stepping out of the symbolic order, in the ecstatic joy of ‘real’ life (Lacan). Some of the texts (e.g. in Onfray’s ‘sculpting he self’) are redolent of fascism.

I have been struggling with that in this blog. On the one hand I have been advocating a Levinassian philosophy of the other, and on the other hand I have tried to carve out space for a flourishing life for the creative individual. I have tried to show that they are not antithetical, that regard for the other is a source of a flourishing life. I have arrived at an ethic of reasonableness, of discourse between diverse views, with notions of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, and ‘debatable ethics’. It is a modest view of ‘imperfection on the move’.

Is this enticing, inspirational, transcendent enough to appeal to the human spirit that cries out for the vertical transcendence of theistic religion? I proposed a transcendence that is immanent, within life, and  horizontal, from people to people, and is enticing in furthering a flourishing life in the best use of one’s talents, to contribute to the hereafter of what one leaves behind at death. Is this enough? Is it strong enough to resist current evil? 

I think that it could be, in the Nietzschean ethic of power in the form of transcendence, transformation, reaching for the sublime even while knowing that it will never be quite achieved. That can be exhilarating. It avoids the atavistic regression to power in the form of violence that is found in ISIS.     
     


[i] Michael Ignatieff, ‘The religious specter haunting revolution’, The New York Review of Books, June 4, 2015.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


226. A basis for independence

An old debate on basic income is being revived, in Europe. In item 154 of this blog I discussed the arguments and uncertainties involved, and I will not repeat them here. The arguments are both social and economic. Here I want to add a ‘deeper’, philosophical argument.

In different ways, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Onfray strove to liberate the individual from the hold of social systems. Unleashing will to power, Nietzsche proposed. Getting away from ‘das Man’, Heidegger said. ‘Creating one’s life as a work of art’, Foucault proposed. Sculpt yourself, Onfray proposed  Deconstructing the established order, Derrida said. Stepping out into ‘jouissance’ of reality outside the symbolic order, Lacan urged..

In the preceding item I offered entrepreneurship as an opening for rebellion, in creative destruction, as an element of capitalism. But there are limitations to this. I mentioned that corporate capitalism tries to muscle out genuine entrepreneurship. But also, not all people have the guts and the stomach for it. And is the breathless momentum of creative destruction to be maintained continually? Is there no need for stability next or in addition to change? I will later dedicate a series of items to that question.

A basic income provides a basis for independence and personal agency. It is  an unconditional cash benefit for all people above a certain age, regardless of further income or capital. It frees recipients of social benefits from the ‘poverty trap’: the fact that any additional earned income is taxed for 100% (surrendering the benefit when finding work). The scheme may seem off the wall to many readers, and unrealistically expensive, requiring an unacceptable rise of taxes. That is not necessarily the case, but I will not argue that here (see item 154).

In the present context the point is that a basic income strengthens the power of a worker with respect to his/her employer, since in case of injustice or mistreatment he/she can exit and fall back on the basic income. It improves the worker’s bargaining position by offering a basis for independence.

One might argue that this is a double-edged sword, since it also makes it easier for employers to fire employees, easing the qualms about sending someone into unemployment. But there seem to be few such qualms anyway, and presently unemployment benefits already take away any qualms that may be there.

Basic income also facilitates entrepreneurship as an escape, since it provides the funds to tide over the difficult period of setting up an enterprise, without income from work, and difficulties in obtaining funds from banks or investors before one has developed a demonstrably viable prototype of a new product or service.

It enables exit as an artist, or to provide unpaid or low-paid social support that is no longer offered in public health.

Another economic point that I did not mention before is the following. After digitalization of music, books and film, it has become hard for their makers to appropriate the returns from them as income. As more activities become digital, his phenomenon will spread. To maintain the production of such things the makers need another source of income. Basic income may become inevitable for that reason as well.

To deepen the philosophical argument, I go back here to the tension between ethics and justice discussed in item 224. A basic income yields more scope for a Levinassian ethic of dedication to the humanity, the ‘face’ of the other, with less pressure for exploitation and rivalry, while it is also an item of justice, in its universal application to all, as an unconditional benefit.

As an element of justice it has also been justified as a ‘social dividend’, a return on the various forms of capital that have accumulated, as a shared heritage, over many generations, at the cost of much blood and toil. Think of the rule of law, democracy, culture, science, technology, and physical infrastructure of roads, railways, etc. Entrepreneurs pride themselves on their achievements as if those were entirely their own, while in fact they have built their success on leveraging this joint heritage from which others also deserve a return.          

Friday, November 6, 2015


225. Rebellious capitalism

In opposition to Levinas, who demanded surrender and awe with respect to the other person, Lacan, and followers Zizek and Badiou, focus on how others can hurt, constrain and gag the self.[i] They seek to break out from the repressive dictates of convention, claiming space for rebelliousness and authenticity, and acts of defiance. Such striving for escape from the institutionalized order is also to be found in Foucault and in Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ of such order.  

Zizek claims that the ‘postmodern valorization of diversity, glorification of contingency, flexibility, hybridity, and flux mirrors the logic of capitalism, which thrives on the proliferation and dispersion of identities … (so that) postmodern politics replicates capitalism’s dislike of boundaries’.[ii]

Ruti quite rightly notes that ‘neo-liberalism … permits the heterodoxy, rebelliousness’[iii] that Zizek seeks. Indeed, as recognized by the economist Joseph Schumpeter, entrepreneurship wreaks ‘creative destruction’ of the existing order. The economist Friedrich von Hayek, considered to be a godfather of neo-liberalism, called competition a ‘discovery process’, and claimed that the prime virtue of markets is that they give scope and opportunity for idiosyncratic ‘local knowledge’ in ways that central planning never could. Instead of being thankful to capitalism for offering this opportunity for rebelliousness, deviance, which they seek, Zizek and Badiou castigate capitalism for it. Capitalism has to be the evil force, no matter what. But it is communism that takes out the scope for rebellion.

Yet I also am deeply critical of the way capitalism has developed. I recently published a highly critical book on markets.[iv] They are having perverse effects. I go so far as to make the radical proposal that the utilitarian ethic that underlies present economic science should be replaced by a virtue ethic, in a variation upon Aristotelian virtue ethics.

What now? Where is the good and where the bad of capitalism and markets? Schumpeter distinguished between conduct of corporations and that of independent, new entrepreneurs, coming from outside, and predicted that in the development of capitalism the latter would be replaced by the former. Here I adopt and develop that idea.

In my scientific and advisory work on innovation I ran into this contrast. One can distinguish between incremental innovation, with improvements on what exists, and the creative destruction of radical innovation. The latter entails what economists call radical uncertainty, as opposed to calculable risk. Under radical uncertainty one does not know what may happen. Economics as the science of rational choice cannot deal with such incalculable uncertainty which therefore is an extraneous, embarrassing phenomenon that is best ignored.

Radical innovation is not in the interest of established, large corporations, since it creatively destroys the economic value of their current investments. In many ways, large firms try to halt or slow down the creative destruction contrived by outsiders. For politics, the uncertainty of radical innovation also is an embarrassment, with eight out of ten projects not achieving their professed goal. Funding that is seen as largely funding failure. But it is in fact warranted, since the successes are worth the failures, and failures are a source of learning. However, this is difficult to sell in a society that has become pathologically averse to risk.

So, an unholy alliance arises between politics and large business, where corporations can exercise their lobbies, in funding incremental innovation in large firms. As a result, the obstacles are increased for radical innovation by the rebels, the outsiders.

Also, large-scale, concentrated business yields the excesses of unjustifiable remuneration, tax evasion, hiving off risks unto society, and the mutual embrace in what earlier in this blog I called ‘system tragedy’.

Also, the shared avoidance of risk has yielded a pre-occupation with efficiency rather than quality and innovation, and an orientation towards detailed forms of control that are suffocating professional work and innovation.[v]

So, the compulsion and suffocation by the established order, constraining deviance and rebellion, derive from  a degenerate form of capitalism.  
      


[i] See Mari Ruti, 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan; Self, other, ethics’, Bloomsbury.
[ii] The same, p. 90.
[iii] The same, p. 133.
[iv] Bart Nooteboom, 2014, paperback 2015, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Edward Elgar.
[v] I have been conceptually developing and promoting leaner, more trust-based forms of ‘horizontal control’. See item75 in this blog. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015


224. Ethics and justice

As discussed in item 62 of this blog, Levinas made a sharp distinction between his ethics of the face of the individual, and public justice that transcends individuals. Is this distinction viable? To quote Mari Ruti: ‘Ethics and justice are irreconcilable but also indissociable’.[i]  

There are good reasons for the distinction. Justice, in laws, should be regardless of interest or position, to avoid class justice, cronyism, corruption, … Laws are intentionally impersonal, without regard to the Levinassian face.

In this blog, I criticized the strict universality of Kantian duty ethics, but there is a kernel of truth in it. What is just should not depend on individual interests and emotions. However, while I would apply that to laws, I do not apply it to ethics.[ii]

While Levinas sharply distinguished between ethics and justice, he did not separate them. Voices from the ethic of the other should continue to inject their spirit in the formation and application of systems of justice. To repeat a quote from Levinas: ‘One sometimes hears them in the cries that rise from the folds of politics that, independently from official institutions, defend “human rights”; sometimes in the songs of poets; sometimes simply in the press and in the public spaces of liberal states ...’[iii] The ethics of the individual forms the conscience of collective justice.

There is a need to continually mediate between ethics and justice, to fritter ethically at the boundaries of the law. This is nothing unusual: judges do it all the time, trying to apply the law not only to the letter but also to the spirit behind it, taking into account personal conditions.  

For an illustration of the problem, see the present efforts to accommodate the hosts of refugees streaming into Europe. From an ethics of compassion, laws and rules are bent, but this imposes great stress on feelings of justice among the population, where people have to allow precedence to refugees in the allocation of housing and jobs.

So, what more can be said about how are ethics and justice are related? As elsewhere in this blog, I take a dynamic approach: how do they affect each other in their development? For this I have two proposals.

First, I go back to my discussion of meaning, earlier in this blog, where I picked up the distinction between sense and reference, taken from the work of Frege, but with a twist (item 32). As is customary, I took reference to be what a term or expression is intended to refer to (or the truth value of a proposition). Less customary, perhaps, I took sense as the way in which identity is identified, or truth established. Reference is public, outcome of intersubjective agreement. Sense is private, tapping from personal repertoires of associations collected along one’s life path. People individually construct what is to be intersubjectively agreed.

Could this serve as a model here? Could personal ethics similarly form, construct, reconstruct or break through public justice?

Second, to complement this, I go back to my stories about the ‘hermeneutic circle’ (item 36) and the ‘cycle of discovery’ (item 31). By applying existing general, publicly accepted, ideas in novel contexts, one detects their limitations or errors, and insights in novel opportunities from local practice, to arrive at experimental hybrids that may develop and consolidate in novel general ideas of wider scope and application.

In the present context: established normative ideas, principles of justice, taken as universal, are applied in new fields of society, new conditions, new cultures, to discover conduct that does not fit and yet somehow ‘works’ in the local context, raises empathy, and may yield new perspectives, in experimentation with hybrids, which may develop into a new, more widely shared moral universal. 

Here the distinction between normative and intentional universals (see item 222) appears. In applying norms as widely as possible, as one best knows how, the wider universality of intention opens up benefit of the doubt, detection of the limits or errors of norms, and new possibilities, which may yield hybrids, in experimentation, possibly yielding consolidation in new, perhaps more widely shared norms.                


[i] Mari Ruti, 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan; Self, other, ethics, Bloomsbury, p. 35.
[ii] Elsewhere in this blog I adopted an Aristotelian ethics of multiple virtues. How does that connect with Levinassian ethics? Perhaps the virtue of compassion is the prime virtue, instead of the virtue of reason,
[iii] In: Immanuel Levinas, 1991,  Among us, essays on the thinking of the other.