“Sapiens, A brief history of humankind”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part Eight: The creed of greed in a disenchanted world.

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Max Weber claims that the Enlightenment creed of reason has failed to replace traditional religious world-views that once gave meaning and unity to life. All it has managed to do, Weber argues, is free us of our superstitions, prejudices, and errors and create what he describes as ” a disenchanted world”: a world in which we solipsistically and selfishly pursue materialistic goals that have freed themselves of more universal value perspectives.
Thomas McCarthy the translator of Jurgen Habermas’ work “The Theory of Communicative Action” has the following to say about the Enlightenment:

“The Enlightenment’s belief in progress rested on an idea of reason modeled after Newtonian physics which, with its reliable method and secure growth was thought to provide a paradigm for knowledge in general. The impact of the advance of science on society as a whole was not envisioned in the first instance as an expansion of productive forces and a refinement of administrative techniques but in terms of its effect on the cultural context of life. In particular the belief –for us today, rather implausible–that progress in science was necessarily accompanied by progress in morality, was based not only on an assimilation of the logics of theoretical and practical questions but also on the historical experience of the powerful reverberations of early modern science in the spheres of religion, morals and politics. The cultural rationalization emanating from the diffusion of scientific knowledge and its emancipatory effect on traditional habits of thought–the progressive eradication of inherited “superstitions, prejudices, errors”–formed the centre of an encompassing rationalization of social life, which included a transformation of political and economic structures as well.”

Habermas’ response to this modern “disenchanted” state of affairs was to–as he saw it–shift the centre of gravity of theory from the explorations of the powers of consciousness to an exploration of the powers of action and language or communicative action. Communicative action aims at a consensus as a result of mutual understanding in our common lifeworld. The problem is that there are also steering media in a society which attempt to coordinate actions. Habermas characterizes this state of affairs in the following manner:

“the transfer of action coordination from language over to steering media means an uncoupling of interaction from lifeworld contexts. Media such as money and power attach to empirical ties: they encode a purposive-rational attitude toward calculable amounts of value and make is possible to exert generalised strategic influence on the decisions of other participants while bypassing processes of consensus-oriented communication. Inasmuch as they do not merely simplify linguistic communication but replace it with a symbolic generalization of rewards and punishments, the lifeworld contexts in which processes of reaching understanding are always embedded are devalued in favour of media steered interactions: the lifeworld is no longer needed for the coordination of action.”(Volume two of “The Theory of Communicative Action”, p183)

Money and Power are steering mechanisms of the systems of economics and Politics. Habermas is continuing a long tradition of philosophical criticism of these instrumental tools of money and power stretching from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and their followers to Kant, the Enlightenment Philosopher and his followers to those modern Philosophers attempting to build upon the structures that have been constructed by the aforementioned thinkers. Habermas’ only contribution to engaging with this tradition is via a modernist Philosophers criticism of Kant that falsely equates Kantian theoretical philosophy with a Cartesian or empirical epistemology of consciousness. This in spite of the fact that Kantian theoretical philosophy clearly criticized both the epistemological rationalism of Cartesianism and the empirical epistemological tradition of Hobbes, Hume et al. Kant’s metaphysics transcended any and all epistemological approaches with its logical insistence on the principles of non-contradiction and sufficient reason. Metaphysical and Transcendental logic are the real accomplishments of this Enlightenment Philosopher. The Metaphysics of action have an Aristotelian hylomorphic structure that has not been addressed by either of the above epistemologically oriented traditions of Philosophy. Habermas’ criticism is however not primarily philosophical but more in the tradition of social science: Systems theory, Weber and Talcott Parsons being important reference points. A systems environment colonizes the lifeworld and turns it into an almost technological/instrumental arena. Insofar as there is a cultural “system” functioning in accordance with the “mechanism” of a trust in knowledge such a decoupling of lifeworld and system cannot occur because here, it is argued, use has to be made of the “resources of consensus formation in language”. Habermas does not argue this but it is almost as if language itself is a systematic “steering mechanism” rather than something organically embedded in a lifeworld with diverse functions amongst which are of course its rational use. The idea of rationality being a value in itself is regarded in modernist and post modernist discourse as contentious from both theoretical and practical perspectives. In practical perspectives, Habermas seeks to replace this idea of logical rationality with an idea of strategic rationality that necessarily gives rationality both an instrumental and causal structure This violates a crucial Kantian distinction between instrumental and categorical reasoning. The tactic that seems to be operating here is a reduction of the categorical to the instrumental on the grounds that the categorical does not really exist: it only possesses a subjective form. Such a logical move would not of course have been possible if the Cartesian and Hobbesian “counter revolutions” had not created a fictitious “Inner world” inaccessible to observation or any public means of access.

“Communicative action” might be a perfect technical disguise for the rhetoric used in ideological exchanges where the aim is “systematic” persuasion.In the light of such a claim, the most reliable perspective on the role that science plays in this unholy alliance between money, power, and science comes from Hannah Arendt’s work “The Origins of Totalitarianism” in which she has the following to say on this topic:

“Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all the others:the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races….free public opinion has adopted them to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views. The tremendous power of persuasion inherent in the main ideologies of our times is not accidental. Persuasion is not possible without appeal to either experiences or desires, in other words to immediate political needs. Plausibility in these matters comes neither from scientific facts, as the various brands of Darwinists would like us to believe, nor from historical laws as the historians pretend, in their efforts to discover the law according to which civilizations rise and fall. Every full fledged ideology has been created, continued and improved as a political weapon and not as a theoretical doctrine…Their scientific aspect is secondary and arises from the desire to provide watertight arguments, and second because their persuasive power also got hold of the scientists, who no longer were interested in the result of their research but left their laboratories and hurried off to preach to the multitude their new interpretations of life and world….The blame is not to be laid on any science as such, but rather on certain scientists who were no less hypnotised by ideologies than their fellow citizens.”(p159)

Could it be that the very attitude that Harari praises: the hypothetical attitude that, in professing its own ignorance and refusing the certainty of the moral law, made the scientist more susceptible to the arguments of these times? Can we be certain that murder is wrong when it is so commonplace in the animal kingdom, wars and primitive societies? Perhaps our system of moral convictions constitute only a hypothetical theory awaiting further evidence that might prove its falsity? Perhaps life is a struggle for survival, red in tooth and claw? The Philosophy of Science of Aristotle and Kant would reject this hypothetical observation-based relativism, but as we all “know” science to its own satisfaction, has conclusively “disproved” the validity of these theories via the empirical revolution and its economic and technological benefits(are these part of the system of rewards and punishments Habermas referred to in his discussion of the steering media?). Habermas’response to our modern dilemma is to stir and shake a cocktail of empiricism, social science and speech theory with a twist of systems theory.

Harari is in agreement: Money and power steer us blindly unless we are persuaded by the communicative action of influential ideologists. Arendt describes the period immediately after the end of the first world war as a period after a devastating explosion that had destroyed the world as we knew it. There was no longer anything to be certain of except perhaps that we cant be certain of anything ever again. This was the perfect environment for the steering media of money and power to “colonize” what was left of our lifeworld. Hannah Arendt points out how Imperialism was preparing for the advent of totalitarianism in the three decades prior to the first war from 1884 to 1914. Amongst these preparations was the challenge of the bourgeoisie to the nation-state and its inability to provide a framework for the further growth of the capitalist economy. The ensuing struggle for power was indecisive. The nation-state with its institutions resisted “the “brutality and megalomania of imperialist aspirations”(Cecil Rhodes’s desire to colonize even the planets). The bourgeoisie pointed to the obvious fact that trade and economics had already involved every nation in world politics. In the resultant “communicative action” there was no quiet and reflective weighing of philosophical ideas of justice and morality but only a restless desire to get what one wanted whatever the cost.

Harari points to the creed of growth and places a positive spin on what Arendt has described and explained in her philosophical and historical reflections:

“Money has been essential both for building empires and for promoting science”(p341)

It has certainly never been essential in Philosophical activity. The paradigmatic attitude of Philosophy toward this “steering mechanism” is to acknowledge its existence in the lifeworld but firmly limit its influence in accordance with the more important virtues that structure our life in society. Socrates pointed out, for example, that the medical doctor’s primary concern is the good of his patient and payment for his work is only a secondary concern. This “institution of care” begun in ancient Greece is still with us today. No doctor will refuse to treat someone whose life is in danger at a road accident or in an airplane. The doctor is a breed of ethical scientist. He may be ignorant of many things including what to do about viruses but he is not ignorant about what needs to be done when his patient’s lives are in danger. The nation state obviously supports such ethical institutions. To the extent that the nation state was seduced by the businessman’s persuasive arguments the concept of “expansion” became political despite the fact that conquest and empire building had very few political arguments in their favour. There were political parties and movements, however, that were more than ready to push this concept to its limits.

“Growth” is an economic reality argues Harari. From 1500 up until today, the total production of goods and services have expanded from 250 billion dollars to 60 trillion dollars. The economic pie has increased in size, and credit, Harari argues is the main driver of economic expansion. The modern scientist with his prejudice in favour of induction and its role in the growth of knowledge through the accumulation of observations also believed in “growth” and quantitative progress. The bank giving its businesses credit and the scientist both trust in this growth and progress principle. The bank has a revolutionary theory of mankind which Harari traces back to 1776(the era of the Enlightenment):

“The belief in the growing global pie eventually turned revolutionary. In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations”, probably the most important economics manifesto of all time. In the eighth chapter of its first volume, Smith made the following argument…an increase in the profit of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity. This may not strike you as very original because we live in a world that takes Smith’s arguments for granted…Smiths claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history..revolutionary not just from an economic perspective but even more so from a moral and political perspective. What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.”(p348)

I am not sure that Smith is claiming everything Harari says he is claiming here but let us comment on Harari’s commentary. Now interrupting one’s holiday to attend medically to someone having a fit on an airplane is disrupting one’s holiday and may give rise to the urge not to help the patient. But this urge is not to be indulged but rather denied if the doctor is to do the right thing here. A community of doctors giving in to their private urges at the expense of the lives of their patients would not be a lifeworld most of us would wish to be a part of.
The above argument is very typical of our modern period. Take something morally questionable like greed or egoism and reverse its polarity(because we can never be certain of anything can we? We must admit our ignorance must we not?) and then find some argument that will appeal to the personal desires of the mob and persuade them that the very negation of what they thought to be true is really true. It is of such stuff that our modern revolutions are made of. The logical conclusion of this kind of thinking is that this greed can result in devastating consequences for the finances of the world as was the case of the Lehman brothers crash in 2007 for which no one was held legally responsible: this state of affairs prompted an economic criminal emerging from prison just after the crash to say “I see greed has become legal while I have been away”.

Capitalism colonized our lifeworlds and what was left of Ancient Greek institutions and ideas: it also colonized the Enlightenment Philosophy of Kant that provided a counterargument to Smith’s revolutionary thesis. All of these things were submerged in a mainstream popular movement that Harari describes well:

“Capitalism began as a theory about how the economy functions. It was both descriptive and prescriptive–it offered an account of how money worked and promoted the idea that reinvesting profits in production leads to economic growth. But capitalism gradually became far more than just an economic doctrine. It now encompasses an ethic–a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children and even think. Its principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good because justice, freedom and even happiness all depend on economic growth.”(p351)

Now whilst the characterization of Adam Smith is questionable, this description of a theory of how capitalism functions and how this theory has colonized the arena of our ethical beliefs and convictions is certainly accurate. Not only has this “new ethics” colonized our everyday lifeworlds it has also brought about significant historical events. Harari describes brilliantly how “companies” using this “new ethics” contributed to the building of empires with mercenary armies and engaged in the disgusting practice of buying and selling human beings in the service of the supreme good of economic growth as characterized by economic theory. Toward the end of the chapter the author raises a controversial question:

“much like the Agricultural Revolution, so too the growth of the modern economy might turn out to be a colossal fraud. the human species and the global economy may well keep growing, but many more individuals may live in hunger and want.”(p372

Capitalists respond in two ways to this. Firstly, the capitalists have now created a world that only capitalists can run. Communism, the only serious alternative has failed miserably to demonstrate that it can run societies. These kinds of society, Harari argues, “are worse in every way”. Secondly, we need to trust the Capitalist a little longer. Soon everyone will be satisfied with their slice of the pie:

“true, mistakes have been made such as the Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of the European working class. But we have learned our lesson, and if we just wait a little longer and allow the pie to grow a little bigger everybody will receive a fatter slice”(p372)

Weber talked about our disenchanted world and the above quote is an excellent example. Compare the above image from the bakery with Socrates great speeches about justice and virtue, or with Kant’s writings about the awe and wonder we experience in the presence of the starry heavens without and the moral law within. These great moments in our intellectual history do now seem to be part of a lost world which we are mourning for in silence against the background of the promise for a little more pie from the bakery.