A Marxist Critique of the Individual, Rational, Self-Interested, Wealth Maximizer

The concept of the individual, self-interested, wealth maximizer goes back to a figure well known to Karl Marx, namely Adam Smith. Smith promulgates a conception of capitalism that relies on “enlightened self-interest.”[1] Such a concept has morphed over time to become the foundational ideology of capitalist economics. It is the sole ideology that defines the psychology of humans and justifies capitalism. This ideology claims humans by nature are individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizers. For this paper, I argue this ideology is the real subsumption of the mind to the commodity form. I begin by explaining Marx’s concepts of the commodity form and real subsumption. Next, I briefly explicate Smith’s concept of the individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer and the modern day adaption of the concept. I then explore Adorno and Horkheimer’s concepts of the culture industry and the mechanization of rationality.[2] I argue Adorno and Horkheimer’s concepts demonstrate how the individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer ideology sublimates humans psychologically, to the extent of real subsumption of the mind, to the commodity form.[3]

At the very onset, it is necessary to explain Marx’s concepts of the commodity form and real subsumption. Capitalism is a system of social relations based on the commodity form.[4] As Harry Cleaver states, “the commodity-form is the fundamental form of capital.”[5] Marx, in Wage Labour and Capital and Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, asserts under the commodity form the laborer’s labor becomes a commodity to be sold in order to earn a wage that the laborer must then spend in order to buy the necessities of life, necessities which have also been turned into commodities.[6] The commodity form, for the laborer, is one where they are merely a laborer and a consumer. In order to survive, the laborer must sell their labor as a commodity to the capitalist in order to be a consumer of the capitalist’s commodities.[7] In the missing Chapter 6 of Capital, Marx draws a distinction between labor that expands capital by producing commodities and labor that supports the reproduction of labor but does not directly produce commodities (e.g. healthcare, education, etc.).[8] Marx also draws a distinction between the formal subsumption of labor and the real subsumption of labor within capitalism.[9] Under the formal subsumption of labor, capitalism takes the existing technological and methodological production processes and incorporates them into the commodity form.[10] Under the real subsumption of labor, capitalism transforms the existing technological and methodological production processes to be to be fully compatible and “imbued with the nature of capital.”[11] A process fully compatible and imbued with the nature of capital is one in which mechanical reproduction of commodities takes place by unskilled laborers, as efficiently as possible in order to produce as many commodities as possible in the shortest amount of time as possible, dropping the value of the commodity to as low as possible.[12] As capitalism is a system of social relations, this process occurs society wide.[13] Thus, capitalism conquers all labor processes, direct and indirect labor processes, to really subsume them under the commodity form. All labor is turned into productions of commodities and everything in society becomes a commodity. In other words, the real subsumption of the labor process under capital is one of mechanical wealth-maximization.

Smith’s notion of capitalism relies on two assumptions: (1) that humans are essentially self-interested and (2) that humans, being utility-minded, will naturally act in the interests of others in order to preserve their own self-interest. I will examine, from a Marxist perspective, how believing in these two premises ideologically shapes human psychology to conform to capitalism.[14] From the starting point of the Marxist position that humans are shaped by the historical and social conditions in which they live, it is clear that the social conditions of existence for humans includes but is not excluded to economics, politics, law and culture. To begin, let’s examine the self-interest ideology as it has morphed from Smith to today. From an economic perspective, In The Wealth of Nations, Smith advocates self-interest as a foundational economic principle. Smith states:

But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer […] It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.[15]

Smith is clear. Humans are psychological predisposed to be primarily concerned with their own self-interest. It is out of our own self-interest that we appeal to others in the economy by appealing to their self-interest. Appeal to self-interest is how the economy functions and it is how we get what we want and need. However, Eamonn Butler states “By ‘self-love’ or ‘self-interest,’ Smith does not imply ‘greed’ or ‘selfishness.’”[16] Butler asserts Smith is referring to a natural concern humans have for their own welfare which is called “prudence” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.[17]

Smith advocates a notion of enlightened self-interest. Such a notion asserts, basically, out of one’s own self-interest, one acts in the best interests of society.[18] Prudence, for Smith, consists of “reason and understanding” and “self-command.”[19] Ultimately, according to Smith, we are rational as defined as being utility-minded. We use our reason, understanding, and self-command to “restrain our present appetites, in order to gratify them more fully upon another occasion.”[20] Self-interestedly, we reason about what would have the most utility in achieving our wants and needs. For Smith, this leads to a system of social relations whereby the capitalist reasoning based on their own self-interest, will act in the best interests of the laborers because the capitalist understands the utility to themselves of recognizing the interests of the laborers.[21] Greed and selfishness are dismissed because the capitalist is conceived of as acting in the long run for the interests of society by seeking their own self-interests.

Smith’s notion of self-interest has morphed over time to become the founding assumption of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School capitalist campaign. In regard to Friedman’s Chicago School, Maurice Stucke writes:

For 30 years, the economic theories of Milton Friedman and others associated with the University of Chicago have shaped American policies. Their theories assume a world of rational people who make optimal choices about spending and saving. In pursuing self-interest, the theory goes, people seek to maximize their wealth and other material goals; they generally do not care about other social goals when those goals conflict with their economic self-interest. When “self-interest and ethical values with wide verbal allegiance are in conflict,” said the Chicago School economist George Stigler, “much of the time, most of the time in fact, self-interest theory…will win.”[22]

Such a theory justifies laissez-faire, free market ideologies where self-interest under capitalism is all that is needed to economically govern society.

Judge Richard Posner has been influential in propagating such a concept in law which focuses explicitly on the individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer. Termed the “law and economics movement,” it takes as its central assumed premise “that human beings are rational maximizers of their individual satisfactions […] A rational maximizer of personal satisfaction adjusts means to ends in the most efficient way possible.”[23] Individual satisfactions may not necessarily be money per se, but anything that provides satisfaction.[24] Posner asserts all “people are rational maximizers of their satisfactions […] in all their activities.”[25] Law, under Posner’s theory, would be a utilitarian calculation of the wealth maximization of the satisfaction of society as a whole. Again, what is important to note is how rationality and wealth maximization have become the guiding principles for rule over society.

So, what are these human satisfactions that we seek to maximize? Our culture tells us what they are. Here is where a Marxist critical analysis of the dominant ideology emerges. Adorno and Horkheimer assert “The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry.”[26] We are ideologically shaped by the media representations of culture in our society. All forms of cultural media, from film to music to art, homogenize consumers through a mechanical homogenization of media offerings.[27] Separate classifications of media products (e.g. film, music, etc.) and separate classifications within media as products (e.g. commodities and personalities) are designed by the culture industry as ready-made templates, practically indistinguishable from each other, to which consumers assume their identity.[28]  These ready-made templates ascribe into the identity of consumers their roles in society.[29] The laborer seeks entertainment, but what they find is mechanically homogenized media that reinforces in the identity of the laborer the mechanization and homogeneity found in their work.[30] Adorno and Horkheimer assert, “The more strongly the culture industry entrenches itself, the more it can do as it chooses with the needs of consumers – producing, controlling, disciplining them.”[31] The culture industry entrenches itself as a natural reproduction of reality, and as it does so, it is more able to manipulate consumers. However, the culture industry as a commodity requires advertising to avoid becoming obsolete due to the “satiation and apathy” it produces in consumers.[32] Adorno and Horkheimer state:

Advertising and the culture industry are merging technically no less than economically. In both, the same thing appears in countless places, and the mechanical repetition of the same culture product is already that of the same propaganda slogan. In both, under the dictate of effectiveness, technique is becoming psychotechnique, a procedure for manipulating human beings. In both, the norms of the striking yet familiar, the easy but catchy, the worldly wise but straightforward hold good, everything is directed at overpowering a customer conceived as distracted or resistant.[33]

Adorno and Horkheimer describe how the culture industry has become really subsumed under capital. To be a profitable commodity, the culture industry has mechanically transformed its mode of production and style to fit the labor production process of capitalism. Such a transformation produces not meaningful pieces of culture that inspire critical thought, but absent minded mechanical homogenization. The mechanical homogenization of the culture industry ideologically manipulates the purveyors of the media to fit into the ready-made classificatory roles offered to them within the media, roles of mechanical homogenization to the needs of capital. Through the entrenchment of the culture industry, the needs of capitalism become the needs of the laborers. Advertising, necessarily required by the culture industry, further instills mechanical homogenization on the consumer level. Adorno and Horkheimer state:

But freedom to choose an ideology, which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom to be the same […] the whole inner life compartmentalized according to the categories of vulgarized depth psychology, bears witness to the attempt to turn oneself into an apparatus meeting the requirements of success, an apparatus which, even in its unconscious impulses, conforms to the model presented by the culture industry.[34]

Robert McChesney argues we are constantly bombarded by advertising, reaching into more and more areas of media and society, and that advertising is psychologically manipulating us.[35] Companies are not selling a product, they are “connecting with consumers on an emotional level.”[36] Hyper-commercialization geared toward psychologically connecting with individuals on an emotional level reduces everything valued in a society, such as community, love, education and health, “to commodities provided by the market.”[37] McChesney states, “Social problems either cannot be solved or can be solved only through individual material consumption […] human happiness derives from material consumption.”[38]

The connection between Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the ideological manipulation of the culture industry and advertising and the ideology of individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer emerges. The media of the culture industry and advertising defines what is considered success. What is defined by capitalism as success is the individual who rationally (i.e. utility-minded) determines how best to maximize their satisfactions. Per this ideology, in order to maximize one’s satisfactions one must be a competitive laborer, maximizing profit for the capitalist, because the capitalist will recognize that it is in their self-interest to reward such. The satisfactions to be maximized are those commodities offered by the culture industry and advertising, satisfactions tied to the manipulation of human emotional needs. To maximize one’s satisfactions is to be the most voracious consumer, inciting a competitive consumerism. The culture industry and advertising manipulates people into fitting the mechanically homogenous roles of laborer and consumer, roles of the commodity form.

Adorno and Horkheimer tie the mechanical production process of the culture industry and advertising directly to the psychology of individuals. In this sense, humans carry out the production process psychologically. The production process is an extension of our psychology and we psychologically are an extension of the production process. Marx does the same when he asserts machines are the extension of human knowledge and a society’s mechanical development “indicates to what degree general knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.”[39] Marx is asserting capitalism is a system of social relations between individuals. The capitalist production process is transformed by mechanical general knowledge. Mechanical general knowledge in turn transforms the social relations between individuals. Elsewhere, Marx states:

When we consider bourgeois society in the long view and as a whole, then the final result of the process of social production always appears as the society itself, i.e. the human being itself in its social relations. Everything that has a fixed form, such as the product etc., appears as merely a moment, a vanishing moment, in this movement. The direct production process itself here appears only as a moment. The conditions and objectifications of the process are themselves equally moments of it, and its only subjects are the individuals, but individuals in mutual relationships, which they equally reproduce and produce anew. The constant process of their own movement, in which they renew themselves even as they renew the world of wealth they create.[40]

The direct production process and the material products of that process are moments. What is indirectly produced and reproduced are the individuals and their social relations. The indirect production process is a constant process, producing and reproducing. The indirect production process occurs psychologically within the individuals themselves as subjects of the process. The mechanically homogenous roles of laborer and consumer are really subsumed under capital once individuals see themselves as individual, rational, self-interested wealth maximizers. It is at that point that individual actions, which are continuations of the production process, are “thoroughly imbued with the nature and requirements of capital.”[41]

Mechanization becomes a crucial point of criticism, particularly the mechanization of human rationality.[42] Adorno and Horkheimer are critical of enlightenment ideals which they conceive of as a systematic progressive process that intellectually and practically analyzes, categorizes and classifies nature through discursive, scientific, thought and based on an assumption of an absolute, unitary, truth of such.[43] Humans seek control over nature and to do so nature becomes objectified.[44] Enlightenment thought processes objectify nature and nature objectified becomes subordinate to humans in a relationship akin to the dictator over the dominated.[45] Enlightenment becomes the dictator over nature and the material world.[46] Individuals of any genus are no longer conceived of as representatives of a whole with a uniqueness of their own but instead become mere fungible specimens.[47] The abstraction in enlightenment thought “amputates the incommensurable,” forcing individuals into conformity.[48]

Adorno and Horkheimer state, “Under the leveling rule of abstraction, which makes everything in nature repeatable, and of industry, for which abstraction prepared the way, the liberated finally themselves become the ‘herd.’”[49] Through the abstract generalization of discursive thought, “truth in general” becomes equated with “classifying thought.”[50] The form of deductive science “mirrors hierarchy and compulsion” of power and subordination in social relations in that hierarchical systems of thought reflect the hierarchical division of labor in society.[51] Adorno and Horkheimer state, “mathematical procedure became a kind of ritual of thought […] it installed itself as necessary and objective: mathematics made thought into a thing—a tool, to use its own term” and “through this mimesis […] thought makes the world resemble itself.”[52] Mathematical, scientific, deductive and discursive thought, reflects a hierarchy of domination.[53] However, within this systematic thought process thought becomes objectified.[54] Thought becomes a thing, a tool, to be used and constructs the world to resemble itself, in its systematic and objectified form.[55] Adorno and Horkheimer state:

world domination over nature turns against the thinking subject itself; nothing is left of it except that ever-unchanging “I think,” which must accompany all my conceptions. Both subject and object are nullified. […] What appears as the triumph of subjectivity, the subjection of all existing things to logical formalism, is bought with the obedient subordination of reason to what is immediately at hand. To grasp existing things as such, not merely to note their abstract spatial-temporal relationships, by which they can then be seized, but, on the contrary, to think of them as surface, as mediated conceptual moments which are only fulfilled by revealing their social, historical, and human meaning—this whole aspiration of knowledge is abandoned. Knowledge does not consist in mere perception, classification, and calculation but precisely in the determining negation of whatever is directly at hand. Instead of such negation, mathematical formalism, whose medium, number, is the most abstract form of the immediate, arrests thought at mere immediacy. The actual is validated, knowledge confines itself to repeating it, thought makes itself mere tautology. The more completely the machinery of thought subjugates existence, the more blindly it is satisfied with reproducing it.[56]

The mechanization of rationality, as a tool to control the world, actually makes the subject utilizing rationality subordinate to the object being analyzed because the subject’s knowledge is truncated to a very narrow understanding of the object. The object is subordinate to the subject while the subject is subordinate to the object. Thus, the subjection of existence occurs at the subjective and the objective levels repetitively, reinforcing and reproducing the mechanized subjection of existence making itself appear as universal absolute truth.

The individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer ideology reduces the subject’s satisfactions to objects to be perceived, classified, and calculated upon abstractly in mere immediacy. The objects of satisfaction are to be assessed merely mathematically, without regard to the multi-faceted expanse of human existence. The individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer does not consider the social, historical and human contexts of the objects of their satisfactions. The subject as such becomes oppressed by the objects of their satisfactions as these objects are oppressed by their mechanized rationality. The mechanization of rationality that reduces satisfactions to objects to be merely calculated mathematically reinforces and reproduces subjugation by projecting the appearance of being natural and inherent. The individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer subjugates their satisfactions to a mechanistic rationality, and in turn is subjugated by their satisfactions, creating a cyclical tautology. This is how capitalist “thought makes the world resemble itself.”[57]

The subjugated individual, rational, self-interested, wealth-maximizer is thus estranged from not only the objects of their own satisfactions but from themselves and other human beings because their calculations exclude social, historical and human contexts. Adorno and Horkheimer state:

Not only is domination paid for with the estrangement of human beings from the dominated objects, but the relationships of human beings, including the relationship of individuals to themselves, have themselves been bewitched by the objectification of mind. Individuals shrink to the nodal points of conventional reactions and the modes of operation objectively expected of them […] The countless agencies of mass production and its culture impress standardized behavior on the individual as the only natural, decent, and rational one. Individuals define themselves now only as things, statistical elements, successes or failures. Their criterion is self-preservation, successful or unsuccessful adaptation to the objectivity of their function and the schemata assigned to it.[58]

Pierre Lamarche states, “we ultimately become mere objects of the form of reason that we have created.”[59] Mechanistic rationality becomes objectified. The individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer becomes objectified as a laborer and consumer. Their actions dictated by mechanistic rationality become standardized and such standardization becomes perceived as inherent and natural. The individual is considered successful the more they exemplify this standardization. In the schemata of capitalism, where competition over satisfactions is promoted, success is measured by the maximization of satisfactions. Self-preservation occurs through the maximization of satisfactions without regard for the social, historical and human contexts. This creates a society of individuals who are objectified, atomized and estranged from one another and perpetuates a society of individuals whose primary, immediate, self-interests are satisfied by fulfilling the roles of laborers and consumers.

Self-interest tied to self-preservation plays a crucial role in the ideology. The production process of capitalism reduces subjects to atomized individuals who are solely focused on their own isolated functions. The production process molds individuals to focus on their own self-preservation by focusing on their own self-interest. Reason by extension is molded into a mechanistic tool, a tool that is used to aid the capitalist schemata. Adorno and Horkheimer state:

In the bourgeois economy the social work of each individual is mediated by the principle of the self; for some this labor is supposed to yield increased capital, for others the strength for extra work. But the more heavily the process of self-preservation is based on the bourgeois division of labor, the more it enforces the self-alienation of individuals, who must mold themselves to the technical apparatus body and soul. Enlightened thinking has an answer for this, too: finally, the transcendental subject of knowledge, as the last reminder of subjectivity, is itself seemingly abolished and replaced by the operations of the automatic mechanisms of order, which therefore run all the more smoothly. […] reason itself has become merely an aid to the all-encompassing economic apparatus. Reason serves as a universal tool for the fabrication of all other tools, rigidly purpose-directed and as calamitous as the precisely calculated operations of material production, the results of which for human beings escape all calculation.[60]

When reason becomes the aid to the all-encompassing economic apparatus, reason is really subsumed to the commodity form. The real subsumption of the mind to the commodity form is achieved when reason itself firstly becomes mathematically mechanized, secondly becomes objectified, and thirdly becomes focused on the individual’s self-interest toward maximizing their own satisfactions. The individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer ideology perpetuates capitalism by fulfilling this process. The ideology reinforces and reproduces the roles of laborer and consumer.

If one is a utility-minded, individual, rational, self-interested, wealth maximizer, then one is going to calculate how best to satisfy their wants and needs and believe that it is only natural that they do so. The subject becomes objectified to the satisfactions they objectify and uncritically fulfills the roles of laborer and consumer required to maximize their satisfactions. Extending this to society justifies a system of social relations that perpetuates capitalism. To believe in such an ideology is to justify being a competitive laborer and consumer, the foundations of capitalism. To justify such on an ideological level is to psychologically shape the mind to be really subsumed under capital to the commodity form. It is to make the mind, which is an extension of the production process, fully compatible to the needs of capital.

[1] I put his term in quotations because it is not my own. However, it is so widely used that I cannot trace the origins of where I first encountered it.

[2] See Pierre Lamarce, lecture, March 24, 2014; I am replacing “instrumentalization of reason” with “mechanization of rationality.”

[3] I must clarify what I mean by the terms “psychology” and “mind” from the onset. I take the terms to be interchangeable and both to encompass, broadly, all human mental processes; emotionality, rationality, knowledge and consciousness.

[4] Lamarche, lecture, Jan. 13, 2014

[5] Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically (Antithesis Press: 2000) p. 81; See also Larmarche, lecture, Feb. 3, 2014

[6] Karl Marx, “Wage Labour and Capital,” The Marx-Engels Reader, Ed. Robert C. Tucker (W. W. Norton & Company: 1978) pp. 204-205; Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Book One: The Process of Production of Capital, Marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/

[7] Ibid. p. 209; See also Cleaver, p. 82 and Lamarche, lecture, Jan. 27, 2014

[8] Lamarche, lecture, Feb. 24, 2014

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. See also Karl Marx, “Formal and Real Subsumption of Labour Under Capital,” Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63, marxists.org, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1861/economic/ch37.htm

[13] Larmarche, lecture, Feb. 24, 2014; See also Karl Marx, “Notebook VII,” Economic Manuscripts: Grundrisse, marxists.org, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch14.htm

[14] This, of course, implies and assumes the Marxist notion of historical materialism (that humans are psychologically shaped by the historical and material conditions in which they live) which is directly opposed to Smith’s essentialism (that humans are psychologically by nature a certain way). It could be incredibly interesting to flesh out this dichotomy. However, I do not think it is necessary to do so in order to conduct the examination I propose. It is enough to recognize that the dichotomy exists. See, Rob Sewell, “Historical Materialism,” In Defence of Marxism, http://www.marxist.com/historical-materialism/ – “’it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.’ (Marx, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.)”

[15] Adam Smith, “The Wealth of Nations,” in Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, Ed. Steven M. Cahn (Oxford University Press: 2011) p. 456.

[16] Eamonn Butler, The Condensed Wealth of Nations, The Adam Smith Institute, p. 11, http://www.adamsmith.org/sites/default/files/resources/condensed-WoN.pdf

[17] Ibid. pp. 11-12

[18] This is Smith’s famous “invisible hand” theory. See Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” in Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, Ed. Steven M. Cahn (Oxford University Press: 2011) p. 446. See also, Butler, p. 49.

[19] Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” p. 449.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Butler, p. 30. Marx would of course wholly disagree with this. For Marx, the antagonism between the interests of the capitalist and the laborer were clear. The relationship between wage-laborer and capitalist is fundamentally a relationship of antagonism because the wage-laborer, separated from the means of production by the capitalist, is forced to sell their lives piece meal to the capitalist in order to survive whereas the capitalist seeks to exploit the wage-laborer to expand capital. See Pierre Lamarche, lecture, Jan. 27, 2014. Another interesting point of departure could be the issue of utility. The issue of utility raises a whole other host of questions from human psychological adherence to such to the economics and ethics of such.

[22] Maurice E. Stucke, “Auditing Self-Interest,” America: The National Catholic Review, December 14, 2009, http://americamagazine.org/issue/719/article/auditing-self-interest

[23] Brian Edgar Butler, “Law and Economics,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/law-econ/

[24] Ibid.

[25] Richard A. Posner, “The Economic Approach to Law,” Philosophical Problems in the Law, Ed. David M. Adams (Wadsworth Cengage:2013) pp. 151-160.

[26] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry,” Enlightenment as Mass Deception, p. 99.

[27] Ibid. pp. 94-97

[28] Ibid. pp. 98-99

[29] Ibid. pp. 102-104

[30] Ibid. p. 109

[31] Ibid. p. 115

[32] Ibid. p. 131

[33] Ibid. p. 133

[34] Ibid. pp. 135-136

[35] Robert W. McChesney, The Problem and the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century, (Monthly Review Press: 2004) pp. 145-153.

[36] Ibid. p. 155.

[37] Ibid. p. 166

[38] Ibid. pp. 166-167

[39] Karl Marx, “Notebook VII,” Economic Manuscripts: Grundrisse, marxists.org, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch14.htm

[40] Ibid.

[41] Marxists.org, “Subsumption, Formal and Real,” http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/s/u.htm

[42] It is not lost on me that this entire paper is an argument. Thus, it is a sort of process of rationality to which Adorno and Horkheimer would take objection. They state: “No matter which myths are invoked against it, by being used as arguments they are made to acknowledge the very principle of corrosive rationality of which enlightenment stands accused. Enlightenment is totalitarian.” The Concept of Enlightenment, pp. 3-4, http://www.sup.org/html/book_pages/0804736324/Chapter%201.pdf. But, perhaps rationality is not the issue. The issue is an assumption within the mechanization of rationality. The issue is the transformation of critical thought (e.g. deconstruction and constructivism) to a mechanical, homogenous, thought process that leads to heteronomy. Adorno and Horkheimer seem to have no problem with thought in the former sense but do have a problem with thought in the latter sense. Perhaps both the former and the latter are forms of rationality when rationality is conceived of differently. Even if not, if we consider perspectivalism combined with a pragmatic view toward how we ought to orient ourselves and society, then rationality cannot be entirely precluded from human thought processes. Rationality is another perspective. Adorno and Horkheimer could agree. They state: “For enlightenment is totalitarian as only a system can be. Its untruth does not lie in the analytical method, the reduction to elements, the decomposition through reflection, as its Romantic enemies had maintained from the first, but in its assumption that the trial is prejudged” (Ibid., p. 18). The flaw of rationality is that its mechanization assumes all of nature, the world, humans, the universe, even the unknown is mechanized. Its flaw is that it assumes absolute truth and that these absolute truths are mathematically mechanized. Without these assumptions, the process itself is just another perspective. See also the text associated with footnote 56.

[43] Lamarche, lecture, March 24, 2014; See also Adorno and Horkheimer, The Concept of Enlightenment, p. 18.

[44] Ibid.; Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 6

[45] Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 6

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid. pp. 6-7

[48] Ibid. p. 9

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid. p. 10

[51] Ibid. p. 16

[52] Ibid. p. 19

[53] Cf. Lamarche, lecture, March 24, 2014

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 20

[57] Ibid. p. 19

[58] Ibid. pp. 21-22

[59] Lamarche, lecture, March 24, 2014

[60] Ibid. p. 23


King, Beauvoir and Irigaray: An Environmental Ethic of Constructivism, Ambiguity, Myth and Metonymy

In “Caring about Nature: Feminist Ethics and the Environment,” Roger J.H. King argues ecofeminism based on feminist ethics of care from an essentialist or conceptualist standpoint is insufficient for an environmental ethic because the former results in anthropocentrism and the latter fails to explicate what exactly is meant by “care” in the context of lived experiences in relation to nature. On the other hand, argues King, a feminist ethics of care from a conceptualist standpoint can be a viable starting point for an environmental ethic because it focuses on specific, concrete, individual relationships as opposed to abstract principles. In “How to Construe Nature: Environmental Ethics and the Interpretation of Nature,” King argues for a constructivist environmental ethic based on metonymy and imaginative narrative. King stresses the need for us to examine the myths that have constructed our views in order to construct new more pragmatic myths. For this paper, I demonstrate how a feminist constructivist environmental ethic based on ambiguity, myth and metonymy could be conceptualized.  I argue that the insights of feminists Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray can inform an environmental ethic that combines care, ambiguity, myth, and metonymy as a response to King’s objection.

First, I offer a brief overview of feminist ethics of care. Second, I outline King’s argument against feminist ethics of care followed by his conception of humanity’s constructivist relationship to nature. Third, I demonstrate the negative role myths and narratives have played in portraying humanity’s relationship to nature, reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of the myths of woman. Fifth, I demonstrate the positive role Beauvoir’s concepts of ambiguity in ethics and Luce Irigaray’s concept of a plurality of perspectives guided by metonymy can play in constructing a new narrative under the concept of care. I ultimately argue the term “care” itself is ambiguous and a metonymical device by which we can create a new narrative for conceptualizing human relationships to nature.

Feminism remains a multifaceted study of how dichotomous thinking embedded in patriarchal systems of thought has led to many forms of oppression. While there are many variations of feminist ethics of care, each focuses on at least three basic concepts: lived experience, relationships, and care.[1] Ethics of care stresses the importance of lived experience in building and maintaining relationships of care.[2] One objection to ethics of care is that it is “unduly ambiguous,” “[b]ecause it eschews abstract principles and decisional procedures.”[3] Ethics of care, it is claimed, fails “to offer concrete guidance for ethical action.”[4] In line with feminist thought, ethics of care rejects abstract principles that separate the individual from relationships in lived experience. Such principles are thought to be products of dichotomous patriarchal systems of thought. Several questions arise. First, is the concept of care indeed unduly ambiguous? Second, does the concept of care fail to offer concrete guidance for ethical action, specifically for an environmental ethic?

King argues yes to both questions. King, rightly, distinguishes between essentialism and conceptualism (i.e. constructivism) in feminist ethics of care.[5] The essentialist strand of ethics of care, argues King, results in anthropocentrism and dichotomous thinking.[6] For essentialists, women are seen as essentially connected with nature due to “the relation women have to their bodies and to reproduction.”[7] King notes how essentialist ecofeminists focus on environmental issues that affect reproduction and child development.[8] In this sense, King asserts what is meant by care is care for the welfare of humans, which is anthropocentric.[9] Further, essentialist ecofeminism recreates dichotomous thinking in that “[i]t sets up an essential opposition between male and female natures, and its logic reveals an equally dualistic perception of nature, dividing it into those aspects that impinge on women’s well-being and those that do not.”[10] King asserts essentialist ecofeminism focuses on the lived experiences of women as relates to reproduction which dichotomizes women’s lived experience as more morally relevant that men’s while at the same time anthropomorphizes care for nature as being care for the welfare of humans.

King notes how conceptualist ecofeminism is opposed to essentialism.[11] Conceptualist ecofeminism focuses on the moral discourse used to conceptualize humans lived experiences and relationships to nature.[12] King notes how conceptualist ecofeminism “draws on the vocabulary of an ethics of care.”[13] He quotes Karen Warren as asserting conceptualist ecofeminism begins from the context of “relationships conceived in some sense as defining who one is…Ecofeminism makes a central place for values of care, love, friendship, trust, and appropriate reciprocity-values that presuppose that our relationships to others are central to our understanding of who we are.”[14] As such, King notes how Warren places particular importance on the role of first-person narrative in articulating the context of these relationships.[15]

King asserts the conceptualist strand of ecofeminism avoids the anthropocentrism of the essentialist strand, but is problematic because interpretations of lived experiences are varied and the concept of care is ambiguous.[16] First, King asserts personal narratives based on lived experiences are based on “cultural, as well as personal, interpretation of experience.”[17] Not all interpretations of lived experience are going to be deemed as caring and many are going to conflict with each other.[18] Varying interpretations of lived experiences must be picked through in order to find narratives that are representative of caring relationships in order to determine ethical action.[19] We must have a general understanding of what it is to have a caring relationship with nature; “a general interpretation and understanding of nature and its moral standing.”[20] But, if we must have a general understanding of what it is to have a caring relationship with nature, then “normative force” does not simply “emerge from the personal narratives of lived experience.” There must be some other concrete conceptions of care and the moral standing of nature underlying and validating personal narratives. King asserts, “[t]his points to the need concretize and particularize the reference to lived experience in order to avoid yet another abstract ethics.”[21] Secondly, King asserts personal narratives do not explicate what it means to care about nature nor do they explicate what is morally significant about care.[22] Care becomes “subjective feelings” that have “no practical implications for the welfare of the one who is cared for.”[23] Thus care is “little more than a subjective sense of aesthetic appreciation, with no particular moral importance.”[24] While King commends the conceptualist strand of ecofeminism for rejecting abstraction by focusing on specific, concrete, individual relationships, both of King’s points assert that personal narratives contextualized through the language of care are too ambiguous to guide ethical action.[25]

King himself argues for a constructivist, or contextualist, approach to environmental ethics.[26] King states:

The moral status of Nature is determined by the contexts within which non-human entities are incorporated into human cultural understanding. Since our ability to value the non-human world is mediated by this understanding of what Nature is, a contextualist environmental ethics would direct our attention to the social and political matrices within which human beings become cognizant of that world.[27]

King’s approach is opposed to the foundationalist approach which seeks to find within nature the objective and eternal characteristics outside of human thought and cultural interpretation that are morally relevant.[28] King argues this approach assumes that “Nature is a determinate something, independent of our culturally based interpretations and understanding of what it is” and “that our understanding of Nature and its moral law comes from unmediated access to the way that Nature is in itself.”[29] In other words, the foundationalist approach not only assumes nature is independent of human thought and cultural interpretation, but that we determine our moral relationship to nature through access to nature in its objective form.[30] King asserts our understanding of nature determines our moral relationships to nature.[31] Our understanding of nature is based on humanity’s historical and cultural interpretation of nature and it is with this interpretation that we relate.[32] He asserts human access to nature, thus human interpretation of nature, is limited by the “intellectual, artistic, emotional and technological resources available to us.”[33] These resources are the matrix, or context, from which we construct our interpretations of nature and our moral relationships to nature.

A pragmatic contextualist environmental ethic is one in which individual subjectivity constructs interpretations of itself and its relationship with nature through metonymy and narrative.[34] King asserts “we need to articulate the meaning of moral concepts by embedding them in wider narrative structures and imaginatively embodying them in images of possible life practices.”[35]  King argues abstract arguments fail to appeal to the independent subjectivity because arguments are “not intelligible until we begin to imagine the kind of situations, practices, and life stories within which the relevant concepts would play a role.”[36]  King asserts a pragmatic environmental ethic seeks to be intelligible to its intended audience and in order to be so it must “link the concepts used with the existing web of beliefs, narrative tendencies, and imaginative resources” of the audience.[37] In other words, as independent subjects in a matrix of existing historical and social constructions, we require an environmental ethic that appeals to our own conditions of existence so that we may be able to fully conceptualize how our existence is interconnected with nature. King quotes Alasdair MacIntyre as stating “We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making […] Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”[38] King continues:

In order to interpret the meaning of particular elements in our situation, we must be able to form an understanding of the whole action and what it means. We are led forward in our interpretation of events by our anticipation of proper endings, appropriate supporting roles, salient details. If this is so, then our construction of our relationships to the non-human world will follow the same path.[39]

A pragmatic contextualist environmental ethic then needs to “undercut habitual interpretations of moral experience in such a way that the audience is led to rethink the whole and, in rethinking the whole, find new meaning in the individual experiences.”[40] We are individual subjects who exist within a historical and social matrix. For us to interpret our own existence within the larger historical and social matrix, we must understand the entirety of the matrix. Guiding our interpretations are concepts already constructed within the matrix. Our interpretations of our moral relationships to humans and non-humans are constructed within the matrix and guided by pre-constructed concepts. An ethic that seeks to re-conceptualize the pre-constructed concepts needs to demonstrate to the individual subject a new way of interpreting the whole and finding meaning in the subject’s own existence.

King asserts, it is through language and metaphor we come to understand the historical and social matrix.[41] Metaphors create narratives that act upon the imagination of the individual subjectivity thereby becoming meaningful to the individual subjectivity’s interpretations of the historical and social matrix and thus the existence of the individual subjectivity and its moral relationships.[42] Metaphors create narratives to which we find ourselves living out, like actors on a stage we did not design yet we are nonetheless thrown into the action. Narratives provide the context for which we exist and act.[43] Thus, we must first understand the metaphors that have shaped the narratives of our existence within the historical and social matrix we exist. Second, if we are to re-construct our existence and our moral relationships within the historical and social matrix, then we must re-construct the narratives.

King speaks of how the “nature as woman” metaphor has constructed human relationships to nature.[44] The metaphor of nature as woman also involves metaphors of nature as victim, as mother, as fragile, as vengeful, as fecund being.[45] Such metaphors create “contradictory images of women” and nature, thus, have “contradictory implications for thought and action.”[46] Beauvoir details several of the same metaphors and their associated myths.[47] Woman and nature are both passive and ambiguous.[48] Woman and nature are both the givers of life and the bringers of death.[49] Woman and nature are both the Other, the object to the male subject.[50] Both are to be conquered and possessed.[51] Yet, both are wild and uncontrollable, irrational and dangerous.[52] Beauvoir asserts the contradictory nature of the myths reveal an ambivalence man has to both woman and nature.[53] Man at once both desires and fears woman and nature.[54] At times revered, but more often than not, nature as woman and woman as nature are oppressed and exploited. The myths surrounding the metaphors of woman as nature and nature as woman justify the oppression and exploitation of both woman and nature.

The nature as woman and woman as nature metaphor, along with its associated myths, has constructed our narratives and actions toward nature in such a way that individual subjective lived experiences to nature are void of care. King is critical of the use of the concept of care as a guiding ethical principle because it is too ambiguous both in conceptualization and in lived personal experiences. Beauvoir argues human existence is fundamentally ambiguous in that the individual subject experiences its existence as both an internal boundless freedom and as crushed by external determinants.[55] We cannot flee ambiguity, thus we must accept it.[56] In line with King, Beauvoir asserts morality is historically and socially constructed.[57] Beauvoir asserts “it is not impersonal universal man who is the source of values, but the plurality of concrete, particular men projecting themselves toward their ends on the basis of situations whose particularity is as radical and as irreducible as subjectivity itself.”[58] The source of values is not a singular, abstract, universality but a plurality of concrete, individual, subjective existents. Beauvoir asserts while an ethic needs to recognize the interconnectedness of individual separate existents, “An ethics of ambiguity will be one which will refuse to deny a priori that separate existents can, at the same time, be bound to each other, that their individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all.”[59]

To relate back to King, humans exist as both subjective individuals, as members of the historical and social matrix and as members of the whole of nature. Human existence as such is ambiguous and any ethics must take into account the ambiguity in the existence of the individual to the historical and social matrix and again to the whole of nature. The concept of care may indeed be an ambiguous concept, but that ambiguity arises from the ambiguity of human existence as an individual subject and a member of the whole of nature. Nature, like humans, places restrictions on our existence. Thus, the ambiguity of care is not to be rejected but accepted. In other words, the ambiguity in saying one cares for in animate nature arises from the ambiguity of the human relationship to nature. The ambiguity of the human relationship to nature is fundamental, we cannot escape it. Thus we must accept the ambiguity. To explicate what is meant by care in some definitive way and what makes care morally relevant in lived experiences is to deny this fundamental ambiguity. It would be akin to Beauvoir’s “serious” human, who attaches absolute meaning and value to a concept to which they then become subordinated to.[60] In regard to Beauvoir’s ethics, Shannon Mussett states:

Only the authentically moral attitude understands that the freedom of the self requires the freedom of others. To act alone or without concern for others is not to be free. As Beauvoir explains, “No project can be defined except by its interference with other projects.” Thus if my project intersects with others who are enslaved-either literally or through mystification-I too am not truly free. What is more, if I do not actively seek to help those who are not free, I am implicated in their oppression.[61]

A Beauvoir inspired response to King would assert that the individual subjective existent demonstrates care for nature by recognizing that their own free existence requires the free existence of nature. The oppression of nature restricts one’s own freedom and one is morally obligated to help abolish the oppression of nature. In this way, Beauvoir’s ethics can be seen as a new narrative, in conjunction with ethics of care, to re-conceptualize an environmental ethic.

The ambiguity in the concept of care also lends to a metonymical use of the word care in which care does not come to represent an absolute, univocal, truth but instead is a word that symbolizes a plurality of interrelated concepts. The metaphor of woman as nature has constructed a narrative in which both woman and nature are oppressed and exploited. Due to this, for a moment allow me to equate woman with nature as has been done in our historical and social matrix. Irigaray asserts one way to challenge the oppressive patriarchal narrative “is to interrogate the conditions under which systematicity itself is possible: what the coherence of the discursive utterance conceals of the conditions under which it is produced, whatever it may say about these conditions in discourse.”[62] Irigaray asserts, in line with King, that the discursive narratives, the language we use to speak of our conditions of existence, constructs our conditions of existence; the way we use language constructs the way we think and act.[63] However, she goes a bit farther than King. She asserts, in order to challenge oppressive narratives, we need to interrogate the language, not just the words, but the syntax, the grammar and the metaphors of the narratives.[64] What we find when we do so, is that a plurality of discursive perspectives is oppressed by a single, unified, discourse.[65] Irigaray states:

the issue is not one of elaborating a new theory of which woman would be the subject or the object, but of jamming the theoretical machinery itself, of suspending its pretension to the production of a truth and of a meaning that are excessively univocal.[66]

The goal is a plurality of perspectives which can only be achieved by jamming the theoretical machinery. Such theoretical machinery is run on a discursive narrative that gives primacy to a singular, absolute, system of rules that defines the proper use of language, and thus thought, as being fixed, unified and coherent. Irigaray continues:

They should not put it, then, in the form “What is woman?” but rather, repeating/interpreting the way in which, within discourse, the feminine finds itself defined as lack, deficiency, or as imitation and negative image of the subject, they should signify that with respect to this logic a disruptive excess is possible on the feminine side. […]This “style,” or “writing,” of women tends to put the torch to fetish words, proper terms, well-constructed forms. This “style” does not privilege sight; instead, it takes each figure back to its source, which is among other things tactile. It comes back in touch with itself in that origin without ever constituting in it, constituting itself in it, as some sort of unity. Simultaneity is its “proper” aspect-a proper(ty) that is never fixed in the  possible identity-to-self of some form or other. It is always fluid, without neglecting the characteristics of fluids that are difficult to idealize: those rubbings between two infinitely near neighbors that create a dynamics. Its “style” resists and ex­plodes every firmly established form, figure, idea or concept. Which does not mean that it lacks style, as we might be led to believe by a discursivity that cannot conceive of it. But its “style” cannot be upheld as a thesis, cannot be the object of a position.[67]

Recall we are equating nature with woman as has been done in our historical and social matrix. Where Irigaray asks: “What is Woman?” King asks: “What is Nature?” Both have been socially constructed under this oppressive discursive system that demands a single, unified, fixed, unfeeling, abstract definition. If you want to challenge this, then you have to challenge the entire linguistic system. To require the concept of care in lived experiences to be explicated, definitively, is to return to a discursive system of oppression. It is to impose upon lived experiences a single, unified, fixed, unfeeling and abstract conception of care. It is to disallow a plurality of lived experiences in which care is to be conceived of metonymically. Care need not be explicated in a unified, fixed, singular concept. Care can be construed as tactile and fluid. Such a conception of care allows for a new narrative in which a plurality of perspectives on care gives rise to a plurality of lived experiences in which care of nature becomes tactile and fluid. An environmental ethic that allows for a plurality of perspectives of care allows for inclusivity of differences. It allows for an overarching social narrative that encourages a plurality of narratives within it and a connection with nature on a level that recognizes the tactility and fluidity in humanity’s existence with nature. In other words, human existence in nature goes beyond sight. Additionally, nature and humans do not have fixed existences, both are fluid. Allowing for a conception of care as a metonymical concept that is tactile and fluid allows for humans to incorporate these aspects of nature and humanity into their existence.

If King is correct in asserting our conception of nature is constructed and thus to create a new environmental ethic we need to understand the contexts of has nature has been constructed then reconstruct using more pragmatic methods, then Beauvoir and Irigaray offer crucial insights into how we can do this. King offers insights into how metaphor, myth and metonymy have and can be used to construct nature. Beauvoir offers insights into the metaphors and myths that have both defined nature and woman. Beauvoir also offers a way for us to conceive of care within environmental ethics as being ambiguous. Irigaray offers a way for us to conceive of care as not only ambiguous, but fluid and tactile within a plurality of perspectives linguistically conceived through reconceptualizing the discourse by which we discuss nature and care.

[1] Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams, “Feminist Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-ethics/#FemAppEth; Maureen Sander-Staudt, “Care Ethics,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/care-eth/#SH3a.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sander-Staudt, online

[4] Ibid.

[5] Roger J.H. King, “Caring about Nature: Feminist Ethics and the Environment,” Hypatia, Vol. 6, No. 1, (Spring 1991), pp. 75-76.

[6] Ibid. pp. 81-82

[7] Ibid. p. 81

[8] Ibid. pp. 81-82

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. pp. 82-83

[11] Ibid. p. 83

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. p. 84

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. pp. 84-85

[21] Ibid. p. 85

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. p. 86

[26] Roger J.H. King, “How to Construe Nature: Environmental Ethics and the Interpretation of Nature,” Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions, Ed. David R. Keller, Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 352-359.

[27] Ibid. p. 352

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid. p. 353

[30] What King is explicating is a realist versus anti-realist conception of nature. Specifically, King asserts nature is not independent of human thought and culture which is dichotomously opposed to the realist claim that nature is independent of human thought and culture. This in itself is a dichotomy that feminism could challenge. I will proceed not by taking a side in the dichotomy itself, but by pointing out that within a feminist framework whereby one rejects dichotomous thinking, one can proceed to understand nature and human relationships to nature via a plurality of perspectives, namely ambiguity, myth and metonymy.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid. p. 357; Roger J.H. King, “Narrative, Imagination, and the Search for Intelligibility in Environmental Ethics,” Ethics and the Environment, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 23-38.

[35] King, “Narrative, Imagination, and the Search for Intelligibility in Environmental Ethics,” p. 27.

[36] Ibid. p. 28

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid. p. 29

[39] Ibid. p. 30

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid. p. 32

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid. p. 33

[44] Ibid. p. 32

[45] Ibid.

[46] King, “Narrative, Imagination, and Environmental Ethics,” p. 32

[47] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, pp. 139-198.

[48] Ibid. pp. 142-143

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid. p. 142-143

[51] Ibid. p. 152

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid. p. 144

[54] Ibid.

[55] Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, pp. 7-9; Shannon Mussett, “Simone de Beauvoir,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/beauvoir/#SH2b.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid. p. 15

[58] Ibid. pp. 17-18

[59] Ibid. p. 18

[60] Ibid. pp. 50-51

[61] Mussett, online.

[62] Luce Irigaray, The Sex Which is Not One, pp. 74-75.

[63] I have to add a caveat here, while this may be true, Irigaray does assert there are essentially different masculine and feminine discourses. Men and women have naturally different discourses. While I think there is an argument to be made for how one could actually read Irigaray as not falling into this dichotomy between essentialism and constructivism, it is beyond the scope of this paper. The point to be emphasized here is that one sort of discourse has constructed a system in which another sort of discourse is deemed inferior and to be avoided. I intend to show how this relates to a discourse in which the ambiguity in the word “care” is deemed inferior.

[64] Ibid. p. 75

[65] Ibid. p. 78

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid. pp. 78-79