"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Friday, June 27, 2014

World Cup Soccer Frenzy in the U.S.: A Threat to the NFL?

First, 19 out of 20 brains of former NFL football-players showed lethal brain damage in autopsies. Then, it was 45 out of 46 brains.[1] Missed at first from the initial assumption that concussions from the occasional hard-hits—which make good television—have been the cause of the dementia-causing protein in the damaged brains, was the impact of the more subtle mini-concussions from regular play. A 21 year-old with dementia (CTE) had not had a concussion from a major hit.  Nor had a high-school senior football player with chronic (CTE) brain damage in the front lobe, and thus severe short-term memory loss, difficulty thinking, personality changes, and fits of rage. Suicides are not uncommon, not to mention an abbreviated life-span.[2] Meanwhile, the violence of the sport ironically continued to be the main draw to an American audience, with cheers at the most jarring clashes. What is going on here, and is there light at the end of this tunnel?

The NFL is a wealthy organization, shielded from tax by its non-profit status. From taking in $10 billion a year as of 2014, and that figure expected to go to $25 billion by 2027, a lot is on the line in maintaining the status quo in terms of American culture and sport.[3] The NFL continued for a long time to deny any link between the CTE dementia and football even though the wealthy non-profit organization’s own sponsored study had already admitted to a link—the league kept the result secret for years.

Blinded by the astonishingly high pay, the players too have been complicit, even self-destructive, as they have ignored the incoming scientific evidence culled from the dead brains of former colleagues. The illusion of immortality that typically runs out of steam by age 40 is alive and well in many young athletes. Together with the monetary high, the illusion can feed the denial.

Perhaps even more astonishing, given the huge amount of money on the line for the NFL as well as that league’s players (and the team owners) is the propensity of masses of people to continue right ahead as if nothing had changed, even with the new knowledge. During the 2013-2014 season, two years after PBS’s Frontline exposition of the scientific evidence of “brown matter” in the brains of ex-pro-football players not yet elderly and Frontline’s investigation of the NFL’s cover-up and subsequent damage-control, I discerned no shift away from the huge interest in NFL games among the American public. Sunday afternoons still turned residential neighborhoods into temporary ghost-towns.

Do we not understand the concept of a sport in which head-bashing is a staple as being inherently dangerous? I think we do. Cognitive dissidence, the holding of contradictory beliefs simultaneously, is in all likelihood enabling the denial. This lapse so happens to be in line with the moneyed status quo and popular culture writ large. Change in the sport’s popularity is likely to be long in coming, and so the dollars are likely to keep coming to the NFL, the team owners, and the players. Powerful interests being highly invested in perpetuating the status quo while seeming to adequately address destabilizing news is nothing new.

American fans at the World Cup 2014 in Brazil, cheering on their team. Could the leap in numbers and enthusiasm be a game changer in terms of American sports? If so, will the most dangerous game bear the brunt of the squeeze? (Image Source: Frederic Brown via Getty Images)

The axis of change can come from unexpected places, however, with an earthquake far away setting in motion a sea-change of change eventually from the subtle shifts of subterranean tectonic plates under the sea. The frenzy intensifying at huge viewing parties in major American cities as team USA made its way through the World Cup in 2014, and the increased American viewership up 44 percent over the previous Cup in 2010 may evince such an earthquake, with any subsequent gradual shift under American sports being much less visible.[4]
In the 2014 tournament, a record-breaking 18.2 million viewers in the U.S.—a record American viewership at that point for a soccer game—saw the U.S. game with the E.U. state of Portugal.[5] For the game between the U.S. and the E.U. state of Germany, 1.7 million concurrent viewers were logged on to ESPN—more than the number that had signed in to watch Super Bowl less than five months earlier.[6] For the final, the record broke again, with 26.5 million people in the U.S. watching, according to the Nielson company, with over 750,000 more people watching the game online at any given minute.[7] Generally speaking, the average viewership in the U.S. for all of the 2014 World Cup matches was up nearly 40 percent over the previous Cup in 2010.[8]

Such a leap in popularity raises the possibility that soccer, which is known more accurately to the rest of the world as football, could act as a sort of pressure-release value on the inherently dangerous sport of head-clashes and body collisions. Even though the two sports are played in different seasons, the people over at the danger-plagued NFL must have noticed the dramatically increased popularity of soccer in the summer of 2014.

To be sure, soccer still had a distance to go before triumphing over American football’s major feast-day. After all, American football is, well, American, while taking up soccer means getting in bed with the rest of the world--something anathema to American isolationists and the "City on a Hill" pilgrims. Additionally, as some pundits observed, a low-scoring soccer game can be pretty boring (like baseball?). That's actually a fair point, which is why I advocate the heresy of making the goals wider. Lest too much scoring occur, the economic law of declining marginal returns suggests that the width be brought in a bit, though still wider than was the case for all those low-scoring World Cup games in 2010. Lest the statistics-obsessed traditionalist lose it over this suggestion, those little factoids are merely means, rather then ends in themselves.

Whether or not soccer is spruced up, the huge bump in both fan enthusiasm and numbers of Americans watching the World Cup games may point to a opening void in American sports, festering just under the surface since the bad news for American football Fans from that sport may one day be up for grabs, with the healthier, more athletic sport hopefully scoring more and reaping the benefits.

[1] Frontline, “League of Denial,” PBS, 2012.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Brent Schotenboer, “NFL Takes Aim at $25 Billion, But at What Price?USA Today, February 5, 2014.
[4] Kim Bellware, “USA vs. Belgium World Cup Match Breaks Another Ratings Record,” The Huffington Post, July 2, 2014.
[5] Kim Bellware, “It’s Official: The United States As a Nation Has Gone World Cup Crazy,” The Huffington Post, June 27, 2014.
[6] Ibid.
[7]David Bauder, "The World Cup Final Was the Most Watched Soccer Game in U.S. History," Associated Press, July 14, 2014.
[8] Ibid.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

On the Banality of Disruptive Innovation

When a herd grabs hold of something, odds are that its original meaning will not only get trampled over, but also in a way that turns it up-side down before spreading it all over as if it were sweet-smelling manure. Particularly striking is the ensuing willfulness that typically contravenes efforts to pen in the herd to the confines of the term’s definition. I have in mind the erroneous and even tautological self-aggrandizing trajectory of the term disruption in the business sector of society. Drawing on Nietzsche, I submit that the offending sickness is centered in an interlarding presumptuousness to define an existing word conveniently, even in ways that are antithetical to the received meaning. That is to say, this cultural problem involves more than garden-variety ignorance.

In his essay in New York Magazine, Kevin Roose maligns all the efforts by business practitioners to fly the flag of disruption as “an all-purpose rhetorical bludgeon” that “can distract.”[1] In spite of disruptive innovation being defined as the process by which “’technologically straightforward’ services target the bottom end of an established market, then move their way up the chain until, eventually, they overtake the existing market leaders,” many “disruptive” start-ups do not actually follow this route.

Tesla Motors, for example, may render fossil fuels obsolete for cars, but the innovation “is not disruptive in the classic sense, since its approach has been to start selling to high-end buyers with the hope of eventually moving downmarket.” Nor are Google’s  “smart” thermostats disruptive either, going at $249 each. According to Maxwell Wessel, “If a start-up . . . launches a better product, at a higher margin, to an incumbent’s best customers—that’s not distruption. That’s just . . . innovation.” I contend that it is precisely such “just innovation” that the self-aggrandizing herd animals are refusing to accept in over-reaching to misappropriate the label of disruption. Undoubtedly, a hardened refusal to go back to mere innovation confronts any effort (such as Roose’s) to defend the integrity of the word. That is to say, a refusal to accept a realistic rendering of one’s achievement is at least one of the sources of the presumptuousness in ignoring or even dismissing such correction.

If my theory holds, the operative dynamic is not a lack of education. To be sure, instructors in business schools may have joined in with the herd, using disruption as a buzzword without pointing out that a tautology—something that applies to virtually everything in a domain—is actually void of any substantive meaning. If disruption is in every company, then disruption is actually the order of the existing status quo. If every innovation is disruptive, then why bother to say so? Why boast of breathing air when everyone is doing it?

Did Mark Zuckerberg know the meaning of the word in its business sense when he was presumably pontificating about it? That he dropped out of Harvard in his second year may imply something about how much he values "book learning." Yet more than just disvaluing the vaults of knowledge in academe is involved in the adoption of a fashionable buzzword and refusing to back down from a tautological and even an erroneous usage. (Image Source: Business Insider)

So ignorance is not extraneous. Not all disruptive change is good; the financial crisis of 2008 resulted in large part from the innovations in derivative security products and the related risk-swaps made infamous by AIG. The corporate managers “blindly waving the flag of disruption” are indeed ignorant of what the term means in terms of innovation. Even if the intent is to engage in “meaningless rhetoric” for motivational purposes, the “incessant droning on” must surely connote a more generalized condition of ignorance to anyone who knows what the term actually means.

Should an attempt to correct the incorrect or tautological use be rebuffed, the ignorance that can’t be wrong manifests something else: presumptuousness like that of ignorance on stilts during a flood—the presumption to being entitled to more than is justified by the facts on the ground. Although a refusal to face the handwriting on the wall is doubtless in the mix, this does not exhaust the explanation for why a person would join the buzzword chorus in the first place. Presumption resides even in assuming a sort of license to use a word to suit one’s own situation without bothering to find out what the word actually means. Ironically, the attempt to vaunt one’s venture by adopting a buzzword gives the manager—and, by extension, the company—a pedestrian, or low-class, air; for in over-reaching in a banal way, a person becomes a grasping herd-animal whose will to power, Nietzsche tells us, extends beyond whatever strength it has innately.

[1]This an all other quotes in this essay are from: Kevin Roose, “Let’s All Stop Saying ‘Disrupt’ Right This Instant,” New York Magazine, June 16, 2014.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Presbyterian Church (USA): Divestment from Companies Helping Israel

By a narrow vote of 310 to 303, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in June 2014 to divest about $21 million in stock from Motorola, Caterpillar, and Hewlett Packard because their respective products were being used by the Israeli Government in violent occupation of the Palestinian territories. The Friends Fiduciary Corp, which manages investments for 250 Quaker groups, had divested from Catepillar, Motorola, and Veolia Environment two years earlier, and in 2013 the Mennonite Central Committee decided not to “knowingly invest in companies that benefit from products or services used to perpetrate acts of violence against Palestinians [and] Israelis.”[1] This point brings up the ethical point of what to do about companies that sell products used in violence by the Palestinians. To occupy is not like being occupied, though violence is violence. Moreover, using divestment from holding equity in a company may not be a very effective strategy, other than perhaps serving as a symbol, though even in this respect the effort can fad without having brought about the desired policy change.

The Caterpillar bulldozers used by the Israelis to topple Palestinian neighborhoods in shows of “collective justice” had actually been sold to the U.S. Government, which in turn either sold or gave the trucks to Israel. Even if Caterpillar’s management could possibly have predicted the eventual transfer from the buyer to a third party, holding the company ethically responsible for the actions of the U.S. Government would be unfair. To be sure, were the product inherently dangerous, such as a grenade, the eventual use could be anticipated even by the manufacturer, but a bulldozer truck’s use is not inherently violent. Nor would it be fair to draw attention to the company simply out of frustration with the U.S. Government, given the power of the main Israeli lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). If the U.S. Government is looking the other way as it hands over billions of dollars in aid to Israel even as it continues to occupy Palestinian territory and build still more settlements, taking frustration out on the companies that sell to Israel’s government violates the ethical principle of fairness. Even if divestment pressures the companies not to sell to Israel, the products can wind up there in ways that are beyond the ability of companies to control.

Furthermore, how much financial damage to the three companies is exacted from selling $21 million in stock? Presumably buyers exist—the Dow at the time heading close to 17,000 and the S&P above 1960. The principle impact, I submit, is symbolic; a religious group of 1.76 million members essentially says “No” to Israel’s violence-ridden occupation of a people. The ethical dimension is salient owing to the fact that the group is religious in nature. Yet even in this respect, like the years of divestment from South Africa to free Nelson Mandela and put an end to apartheid, the creation of a symbol does not portend quick results. Indeed, the condition of divestment can itself become part of the status quo, rather than an event.

Additionally, the symbol may backfire. At the Presbyterian assembly meeting, Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, described the vote as coming out of a “deep animus” against “both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”[2] To be sure, as depicted in the Oscar-winning 1947 film, Gentleman’s Agreement, anti-Semitism can be as subtle as simply saying nothing after a joke at a dinner table. Following the defeat of the Nazi Germany, many Americans were doubtless able to conclude that anti-Semitism and racism had been squashed “over there”—meaning there’s none of that here. The film demonstrates just how pervasive denial can be. Nevertheless, anti-Semitism (and racism) can also be used as a weapon that obfuscates the real point of a decision such as that of the Presbyterians. The violence of an occupier is sufficiently galvanizing for observers that the alternative charge of anti-Semitism has the air of phoniness. In other words, a person can be against such violence without hating Jews.

Therefore, both the divestment strategy and the charge of anti-Semitism can be viewed as weak responses. To the extent that political mobilization would be futile too, given the political power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, D.C., we might just be left with a “no good alternative” situation in which the quagmire goes on and on. With regard to the natural frustration at the status quo protected by long-entrenched, powerful interests, perhaps the sad reality is that most people simply tune out.

[1] Jaweed Kaleem, “Presbyterian Church (USA) Makes Controversial Divestment Move Against Israel,” The Huffington Post, June 20, 2014.
[2] Ibid.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Trading Egalitarian Reputational Capital For First-Class Business: JetBlue Airline

It may sound trite, but managers really do compromise or expunge their company’s reputational capital altogether in order to chase down the additional revenue obtainable from a market segment that had been extraneous to the reputation. If the new advertisements have a Janus-like duplicitousness air, the source is not likely even to admit to the previously long-held principles. Indeed, the contrivance can be discerned from the way in which artful managers use words themselves—stretching them for an intended effect well past their respective meanings and customary usages. Unfortunately, the made-up diction can be contagious in a society that esteems organizational position.

I have in mind Jet Blue’s switch from its egalitarian single-class cabins to the first/coach bifurcated model. Left in the jet-wash is the company’s long-standing principle of egalitarianism, lost in the anticipation of more revenue from business travelers. Jami Counter at a website that includes reviews of airlines suggests that Jet Blue would no longer be “challenged winning their fair share of corporate and business contracts because they didn’t have a true premium experience.”[1] What, pray tell, is a premium experience? How does a true one differ from the mere garden-variety? In the case of JetBlue, the benefits to the business traveler include “the longest, widest flatbed seats” on any route within the U.S., and four “suites”—single-seat “pods” with their own doors.[2] The latter reminds me of the forts my elementary school friends and I used to make in the woods behind the school; each of us would pick a bush and use its base to build a tiny enclosed “fort.” It would seem that adult business travelers have the same instinct.

In any case, we don’t have to look far to see where verbal garbage like “a true premium experience” comes from. Perhaps the experience-warping complimentary “signature drink” before take-off and a “cocktail” before dinner might render experience itself transparent, such that the airline could indeed market “experience” itself. All the same, I would be more interested in the 100 channels on the seat’s 15-inch screen, and whether I could plug my laptop into it as I sit in my little fort as the elongated tin can careens forward at 30,000 feet at 500 miles an hour.

Jamie Perry, the airline’s director of product development, delivered a line as if on cue that the novelty would not be limited to the “Mint,” or first-class” experience; an “effort to reinvent the core cabin”[3]—where “core” is a cover for coach—boils down to bigger seats, power-outlets at each one, and up to 100 channels of television undoubtedly to placate perturbed pre-existing customers accustomed to flying egalitarian. Perry's linguistic over-reach—the larger seats and additional plugs hardly constituting an invention in any sense of the word (and reinvention being an oxymoron, like rebeginning)—points to a certain round-aboutness that is anything but up-front and transparent. 

Behind the "reinvented cabin" is a manufactured shift from the longstanding egalitarian premise to that of all boats rising—just not to the same level. The lack of equivalence is precisely what the fuzzy word-play is meant to blur. That is to say, the crafty wordplay—“core” for coach and “premium experience” for first-class service—dovetails with the wily switch from the long-held principle to one that allows for broader revenue streams. 

I disagree with Counter’s contention that JetBlue did not change its business model in the process; in fact, I would say that the first-class/coach standard fare deprives the airline of the more distinctive model, and thus of the associated reputational capital. To be sure, Counter does acknowledge that the change “could alienate the loyal JetBlue flier who now has to walk past (five) rows of a very premium experience.”[4] There we go again! How exactly does a person walk past an experience? Does a person say, “Hey, guess what—yesterday I was out doing errands and I drove right past an experience!” The response is likely to be, “Time for your medication again, dear.”

In actuality, the coach passengers are to walk past rows of more spacious seating arrangements and larger television screens. Putting the matter thusly, rather than artfully and without concrete substance, makes the cost to the airline’s reputational capital transparent—especially with respect to the loyal (i.e., long-standing) passengers who will of course instantly notice the unpalatable change. Such passengers need only look over at Southwest Airline, whose approach to attracting more business passengers was to expand to big-city airports and offer “business select” priority boarding, a free drink, and extra frequent-flier miles rather than introducing a separate class of seating.[5] That is to say, Jetblue managers could have went with alternatives to the old first-class/coach model. The principles that a company supposedly “stands for” are indeed expendable, particularly when they grind up against an untapped source of revenue.

1. Charisse Jones, “Egalitarian JetBlue Tries Out First Class,” USA Today, June 12, 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ben Mutzabaugh, “Southwest Finds Itself at a Crossroads,” USA Today, June 30, 2014.

Monday, June 9, 2014

On the Toxicity of Ineptitude and Denial: The Case of Wal-mart's Pharmacy

On June 6, 2014, Walmart conducted its annual stockholder meeting under “scrutiny on all fronts.”[1] Revenue at the company’s stores in the U.S. had declined for five consecutive quarters. Walmart was also facing ethical questions over how the company’s executives handled bribery allegations at the Mexican division, as well as on the low wages going to non-supervisory workers (esp. part-timers). In short, the question facing the management was whether the company was being managed by cutting corners, as manifest both in terms on incompetence and unethical conduct. That the shareholder proposal to split off the chair of the board from the CEO did not meet even a preliminary tally of votes suggests that the company would sooner go under than that its management would be held to account.

On the day of the meeting, I happened to be at a Walmart store for what must have been two hours. I had stopped in to pick up medicine only to find that the pharmacy employees had lost my prescription. “You cancelled it and it was handed back to you,” an employee informed me. The system says you have it. Well, I didn’t, and after waiting over an hour for a manager to look at the camera footage, I was coming to the conclusion that someone had lied to cover up the mistake. For the prescription was cancelled and returned to me forty-five minutes after camera footage showed me leaving the store for the day. “You could have phoned in the cancellation,” the store manager suggested. Unfortunately for him, that would not explain how the paper prescription got into my hands.

Turning to his assistant, the shift manager, I asked if it is likely that the prescription had been inadvertently thrown way. “Oh, no, that doesn’t happen here,” she assured me. “Well,” I concluded, “then if no one handed it to me, and your employees don’t throw things out in there, then the prescription should still be in there, right?” Even as she nodded affirmatively—meaning the paper had been misplaced—the store manager interjected his view that the chances are minimal that it is still there. “The system indicates that it was given to you,” he said. I was stunned. Had he not been listening? I began to understand how it could be that the front managers and cashiers could have been getting away with treating customers so rudely right under the nose of the store’s manager. He went on to add that he and his assistant had done “excellent due diligence” and unfortunately the camera angle did not give him a clear view of me talking with the pharmacist after I had dropped off the prescription so he couldn’t be sure—in spite of having “an excellent camera system.” I was stunned at the sheer disjunction in what the guy was saying.

Clearly, someone had lied, as no one had handed back my prescription to me (and I had not cancelled the prescription). In this case, the lie had staying power, for the medical provider who had written the prescription refused to reissue or revalidate it even when the pharmacist called to explain the situation. Even though Walmart had erroneously cancelled and lost my prescription, it was “my responsibility.” I was between a rock and a hard place, neither one being willing or even perhaps even capable of deviating from a rigid script. Not having a primary-care physician locally, I would have to go without until the end of my visit.

Speaking the next day with a pharmacist at a Walgreens after I tried again in vain by stopping by the offending hospital’s emergency room, I learned that it was indeed unusual for a prescription provider to refuse to revalidate a prescription that had been erroneously cancelled. I also gathered from that pharmacist that I had erred in supposing that the pharmacy at a Walmart would somehow be immune from the sort of incompetence that plagues the company at the store level.

That very evening, a Walmart truck-driver killed one comic and seriously injured Tracy Morgan and two other passengers on the New Jersey Turnpike after going without sleep for than 24 hours.[2] In response, a Walmart statement claimed that the employee had not violated any federal regulations. Nevertheless, police charged him with manslaughter and assault. Interestingly, Congress was at the time bowing to industry pressure by backing off proposed regulations that would have required companies like Walmart to see to it that their truck drivers are getting enough sleep. One might say that Walmart’s management is asleep behind the wheel, even amid claims of being fully alert.

[1] Anne D’Innocenzio, “Walmart Faces Shareholder Scrutiny at Annual Meeting,” The Associated Press, June 6, 2014.
[2] David Jones, “Truck Driver in Tracy Morgan Crash Had Not Slept in 24 Hours: Complaint,” The Huffington Post, June 9, 2014.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Living the Urban Life: Increasing Economic Inequalities?

Richard Rinaldi, an innovative photographer in New York City, devised an interesting photo series, titled "Touching Strangers." It provides an answer to the following question: If brought together literally through touch, will two people who have never met begin, after some initial discomfort, to feel comfort, even a feeling of caring for the other person? Richard traversed the streets of Manhattan looking for pairs to put together. Seeing one person, and then another, who together would make an interesting picture, he would ask them simply to stand together. The  resulting picture would depict any initial reluctance. Then, he would arrange the two so they are touching each other in a friendly way.

A curious thing came out in the resulting pictures: a feeling of caring. Astonished, the subjects invariably reported that merely from the touching they actually had actually begun to care about a stranger! Reflecting on this feedback, Richard said in an interview that his “experiment” reveals humanity that lies within us, that we wish there were more of in the world, and that existed in the past. By “the past,” the photographer was referring to the photo shoots.

If we are willing to go a bit farther back in our reflection, say to the state of nature, whether mythic or historical, we can profit from the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which can explain why we do not feel more caring and compassion as we inhabit great edifices of modern business, government, and society. Indeed, it may be that those tremendous artifacts within which we work, argue, and live may have gradually changed human nature itself—and not for the better.

In his Discourse on Inequality,[1] Rousseau argues that humanity was in a much better condition in the state of nature, before all the artificialities of society changed us. Indeed, the question we might ask the eighteenth-century philosopher is whether forming commercial enterprises, governments and societies has modified human nature itself, or merely our proclivities. Rousseau’s view of “primitive” humanity is best grasped in a bundle.

With “savage man, wandering about in the forests, without industry, without speech, without any fixed residence, an equal stranger to war and every social connection, without standing in any shape in need of his fellows, as well as without any desire of hurting them, and perhaps even without ever distinguishing them individually one from the other, subject to few passions, and finding in himself all he wants, let us, I say, conclude that savage man thus circumstanced had no knowledge or sentiment but such as are proper to that condition, that he was alone sensible of his real necessities, took notice of nothing but what it was his interest to see, and that his understanding made as little progress as his vanity.”

We are naturally inclined to far less social interaction than is foisted on us by living in towns and cities. Less social intercourse meant less conflict and even fewer desires—hence my question of whether human nature was different. All that the savage man desired was limited to whatever nature could provide of its own making, rather than by means of man’s cultivation of forest and field. “The first sentiment of man was that of his existence, his first care that of preserving it. The productions of the earth yielded him all the assistance he required; instinct prompted him to make use of them.”

Like Hesiod’s and Ovid’s idyllic descriptions of a Golden Age, whose natural wealth literally grows on trees for the easy taking, Rousseau (unlike Aristotle, whose notion of natural wealth involves the labor of cultivating land) views labor for the savage’s subsistence as nugatory; real labor kicks in when people start to desire wealth. In the simple life enjoyed by primitive man, free time gave rise to more and more “conveniences.”  Through regular use (given declining marginal utility), they “lost almost all their aptness to please, and even degenerated into real wants, the privation of them became far more intolerable than the possession of them had been agreeable; to lose them was a misfortune, to possess them no happiness.

"There being no wealth or property and only limited contact with other humans at first, pride and jealousy from comparisons with others were either not yet in human nature or latent in its bowels. Hence, Rousseau rejects Hobbes’ theory that constant warfare exists in the state of nature and thus justifies the institution of government—even a tyrant. In fact, Rousseau refers directly to Hobbes’ theory in remarking, “so many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state.” To Hobbes life in the state of nature is short, cruel, and brutish. Rousseau totally rejects this view.

Rousseau argues that pity, or empathy for others who are suffering, is  a sentiment natural in human beings:

"(P)ity is a natural sentiment, which, by moderating in every individual the activity of self-love, contributes to the mutual preservation of the whole species. It is this pity which hurries us without reflection to the assistance of those we see in distress; it is this pity which, in a state of nature, stands for laws, for manners, for virtue, with this advantage, that no one is tempted to disobey her sweet and gentle voice: it is this pity which will always hinder a robust savage from plundering a feeble child, or infirm old man, of the subsistence they have acquired with pain and difficulty, if he has but the least prospect of providing for himself by any other means.”

In the state of nature, the compassion is not yet overwhelmed by the vices borne of the close proximity of other people in society. Empathy can check anger and fighting in the state of nature. Before the institution of property and law to protect it, “goodness of heart” was “suitable to the pure state of nature.” Furthermore, “nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state, when . . .  he is withheld by natural compassion from doing any injury to others. . . . For according to the axiom of the wise Locke, Where there is no property, there can be no injury.”

Rousseau embraces Locke’s theory that property arises from one’s labor. “(I)t is impossible to conceive how property can flow from any other source but industry; for what can a man add but his labour to things which he has not made, in order to acquire a property in them? . . . enjoyment forming a continued possession is easily transformed into a property.” To Rousseau, mine and yours came about in the process of societalization. “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.”

Furthermore, because man in the state of nature was oriented to “his real necessities,” no impetus kicked in to trigger industry. Hence, there was no economic inequality beyond that which nature grants. Referring to human beings in the state of nature, Rousseau maintains,

"(A)s long as they undertook such works only as a single person could finish, and stuck to such arts as did not require the joint endeavours of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse; but from the moment one man began to stand in need of another's assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished; property started up; labour became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.”

The increased industry involved the development of reason and understanding, which have also led to problems. The savage man needed only to learn “to surmount the obstacles of nature, to contend in case of necessity with other animals, to dispute his subsistence even with other men, or indemnify himself for the loss of whatever he found himself obliged to part with to the strongest.” As the mind grew more enlightened, “property, and along with it perhaps a thousand quarrels and battles” more than countered the epistemological benefits. Whereas Hegel hails the progression of reason through human history, Rousseau sees a link between the expanding use of reason, increased wealth, and more wants and thus comparisons and conquest. In other words, modern man uses reason much more than is natural, and this had led to problems confined to society rather than based in the savage man.

In political terms, “Those who heretofore wandered through the woods, by taking to a more settled way of life, gradually flock together, coalesce into several separate bodies, and at length form in every country distinct nations.” From the increased interaction between people, jealousy and warfare take off. “Every one [sic] begins to survey the rest, and wishes to be surveyed himself; and public esteem acquires a value. . . . From these first preferences there proceeded on one side vanity and contempt, on the other envy and shame; and the fermentation raised by these new leavens at length produced combinations fatal to happiness and innocence. . . It was thus that every man, punishing the contempt expressed for him by others in proportion to the value he set upon himself, the effects of revenge became terrible, and men learned to be sanguinary and cruel.” Increased contact with others from that of our natural state leads to tremendous problems. Interestingly, the increased cruelty suggests that the human race has become weaker, as it is the weak person who seeks to dominate who is intentionally cruel.

According to Rousseau, our bad qualities have surged ahead of our pre-existing good ones. Society and the ensuing established relations among people draw on “qualities different from those . . . derived from their primitive constitution.” The question is perhaps whether the bad qualities had been merely latent, or altogether absent from human nature. Put another way, have the artificial aspects of society changed human nature or merely altered the balance between a number of instincts that we have come to see as good and bad?

In referring to different characteristics of man coming to dominate others, Rousseau implies that human nature has not changed. On the other hand, he also writes that “natural compassion” has “suffered some alteration” as human interaction has increased. Moreover, "the spirit of society" and "the inequality [that] society engenders" have changed and transformed "all our natural inclinations." This would seem to go beyond merely increasing some and decreasing others, suggesting instead that human nature itself has been altered, even transformed.

The implications from the change in context being able to transform human nature could only be highly significant. It would seem that societal artifacts, including systems of business and government, can render humans less humane in our very nature, which is perhaps to say human, all too human.

1. All quotes are from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1910).

Rousseau: Natural and Artificial Inequalities

In his Discourse on Inequalities, Rousseau distinguishes two types of inequality among people: natural and moral.[1] Natural inequalities, which exist in the state of nature as well as society, result in difference outcomes owing to innate differences in “genius, beauty, strength or address, merit or talents.” Such differences—both in sources and outcomes—pale in comparison with those from “moral” inequalities, such as exist between rich and poor, professionals and the unskilled, and the powerful and the subjugated.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

“Now, if we compare the prodigious variety in the education and manner of living of the different orders of men in a civil state, with the simplicity and uniformity that prevails in the animal and savage life, where all the individuals make use of the same aliments, live in the same manner, and do exactly the same things, we shall easily conceive how much the difference between man and man in the state of nature must be less than in the state of society, and how much every inequality of institution must increase the natural inequalities of the human species.”

Wealth is a case in point—the extremes in the American societies, for example, dwarfing the subsistence differences in the state of nature.

“Riches, before the invention of signs to represent them, could scarce consist in anything but lands and cattle, the only real goods which men can possess. But when estates increased so much in number and in extent as to take in whole countries and touch each other, it became impossible for one man to aggrandise himself but at the expense of some other; and the supernumerary inhabitants, who were too weak or too indolent to make such acquisitions in their turn, impoverished without losing anything, because while everything about them changed they alone remained the same, were obliged to receive or force their subsistence from the hands of the rich.”

Moral inequalities are marketed by the “haves” as moral and thus legitimate and even generally beneficial to society, when in truth the inequalities involve much undeserved harm.

“In fine, an insatiable ambition, the rage of raising their relative fortunes, not so much through real necessity, as to over-top others, inspire all men with a wicked inclination to injure each other, and with a secret jealousy so much the more dangerous, as to carry its point with the greater security, it often puts on the face of benevolence.”

The sordid “moral” inequalities are possible only in a civil state, which in turn exists in a society, as such inequalities stem from institutions in business, higher education, and government (among others). For example, corporations may be designed so that executives and board members benefit disproportionately relative to middle managers and “below.” Governments, even if democratic, may fit into a societal system more broadly in exchanging campaign contributions for legislation that would modify the system in favor of increasing economic inequality. 

Moreover, according to Rousseau, society is not simply biased toward increasing inequality; society gives rise to the inequalities. “(A)s there is scarce any inequality among men in a state of nature, all that which we now behold owes its force and its growth to the development of our faculties and the improvement of our understanding, and at last becomes permanent and lawful by the establishment of property and of laws.” To protect these from usurpers, warfare and aggression come to dwarf the pre-existing natural human compassion or empathy for those who are suffering. “(I)t is merely the spirit of society, and the inequality which society engenders, that thus change and transform all our natural inclinations.” Indeed, being in society may transform human nature itself.

Society engenders the “universal desire of reputation, of honours, of preference, with which we are all devoured, exercises and compares our talents and our forces.” Society thus “excites and multiplies our passions; and, by creating an universal competition, rivalship, or rather enmity among men, how many disappointments, successes, and catastrophes of every kind . . .  it is to this itch of being spoken of, to this fury of distinguishing ourselves which seldom or never gives us a moment's respite, that we owe both the best and the worst things among us, our virtues and our vices, our sciences and our errors, our conquerors and our philosophers; that is to say, a great many bad things to a very few good ones.

Most significantly, “the origin of society and of the laws . . . increased the fetters of the weak, and the strength of the rich; irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, fixed [forever] the laws of property and inequality; changed an artful usurpation into an irrevocable title; and for the benefit of a few ambitious individuals subjected the rest of mankind to perpetual labour, servitude, and misery.”  The artificial variety of inequalities can be expected to increase, silently aided by institutional designs, until the people bled dry finally have had enough and revolt. This involves a different sort of state of nature than that out of which society originally arises.

“The progress of inequality: “the establishment of laws and of the right of property was the first term of it; the institution of magistrates the second; and the third and last the changing of legal into arbitrary power; so that the different states of rich and poor were authorized by the first epoch; those of powerful and weak by the second; and by the third those of master and slave, which formed the last degree of inequality, and the term in which all the rest at last end, till new revolutions entirely dissolve the government, or bring it back nearer to its legal constitution. . . . Tis here that everything returns to the sole law of the strongest, and of course to a new state of nature different from that with which we began, in as much as the first was the state of nature in its purity, and the last the consequence of excessive corruption.”

In short, the sort of inequalities that society and its various species of institutions create and perpetuate clashes with natural right. The exceptional inequality of incomes between CEOs and workers in the U.S. is simply not natural, given the human nature that happily exists in the state of nature. Put another way, the tremendous inequality of wealth both results from and encourages a transformation of natural inclinations that could alter even human nature itself into something much uglier than what it was in the state of nature. The “kind of inequality which obtains in all civilised nations . . . is evidently against the law of nature that . . . a handful of men should be ready to choke with superfluities, while the famished multitude want the commonest necessaries of life.” This is bound not to end well for the human race, whether through society’s impact on the planet (e.g., global warming) or something within the human race, such as nuclear war or a plague.

1. All quotes in this essay from Rousseau are taken from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1910).

Rousseau on Inequalities in Society: An Instance of Kantian Enlightenment?

Kant defines enlightenment as “man's emergence from his inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.”[1] By making public use, Kant means “that use which anyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public.”[2] By sufficient freedom, Kant means that ideas that threaten the power of the guardians of institutional or societal rules are not excluded.

Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century philosopher famous for his duty-based ethics.

For example, an enlightened Roman Catholic priest would publish ideas questioning and even criticizing Church dogma when he is acting as a scholar, even though he would fulfill his duty in his conduct as a priest by defending those very teachings. A priest could thus go public as a heretic as long as he does so on his own time as a scholar and member of society, and an enlightened bishop would tolerate the scholar’s freedom to think and publish outside the box.

Rousseau would object to Kant’s prescription for how to become enlightened and Kant would object in turn to Rousseau's preference for the state of nature over society and the associated expansion of reasoning. Does Rousseau fit Kant's concept of enlightenment even though Kant would object to some of Rousseau's ideas?

Rousseau was a “heretic” of sorts. Writing to people living in societies, he was critical of the very existence of society itself, and thus of the power of its guardians. In his essay on inequality, he contends that the unnecessary, or artificial, sources of inequality stem from humans living in society rather than in the state of nature. Every inequality of institution must increase the natural inequalities of the human species.”[3] Accordingly, “the origin of society and of the laws, which increased the fetters of the weak, and the strength of the rich; irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, fixed for ever [sic] the laws of property and inequality; changed an artful usurpation into an irrevocable title; and for the benefit of a few ambitious individuals subjected the rest of mankind to perpetual labour, servitude, and misery.”[4] By thinking freely and publishing the results, the citizen of Geneva aimed a lethal arrow at not only human society, but also its guardians. Rather than coming from the guidance of guardians, his ideas on the impact of them, as well as the defended institutions, properties, and laws arose from his own reasoning. He was free thinker, enlightened in Kant’s sense of the word.

This is not to say that the content of Rousseau’s essay on inequality conforms to Kant’s prescriptions for how more people or a people can become enlightened. For example, Kant laments that the constrained use of reason that had become second nature to the vast majority of people in his day who astonishingly were virtually incapable for the time being of freeing their use of reason.[5] According to Rousseau, however, the increased use of reason stimulated by living in a society instead of in the state of nature engenders self-love, and therefore pride, jealousy, and increased as well as technologically more severe warfare. Antipodal to society itself, “it is reason that makes man shrink into himself; it is reason that makes him keep aloof from everything that can trouble or afflict him; it is philosophy that destroys his connections with other men.”[6] Living in society is self-contradictory with respect to the impacts of the expanding and more complex reasoning.[7]

In short, the Prussian professor claims in his essay that a greater use of reason is part of becoming enlightened, whereas the citizen of Geneva advocates in his essay a reduction in the use of reason to that level and simplicity that is natural for human beings (i.e., in the state of nature). That Rousseau's published ideas on reason conflict with the significance of reasoning in becoming enlightened does not mean, however, that Rousseau's reasoning about reason in the state of nature versus in society is not an instance of enlightenment. That is, Rousseau's own use of reason can fit Kant's definition of enlightenment rather than the lesser reasoning that Rousseau prescribes. Put another way, Rousseau was a philosopher who claims in his essay that philosophy destroys a philosopher's social connections.

As a professor of philosophy at a university, Kant undoubtedly defended and protected the discipline institutionally; that is, old Kant was a guardian of some things not present in the state of naturenamely, professorships in philosophy, the discipline of philosophy, and philosophizing itself. Rousseau's published ideas critical of the artificial sort, or excess, of reasoning that is the root, trunk, and branches of philosophizing thus evinces freedom of public thought beyond the guidance of institutional guardians such as Kant; the philosophical establishment (e.g.,  tenured professors) would have been inclined to discredit or even ban Rousseau's threatening ideas. In writing published texts in philosophy, Rousseau was doing the very thing that he argues in his essay should not be done; he was doing Kantian enlightened public thinking.

Furthermore, Kant claims that people “will of their own accord gradually work their way out of barbarism so long as artificial measures are not deliberately adopted to keep them in it.”[8] A society’s guardians determine and defend such measures. Although Rousseau too is critical of the artificial measures and their societally rather than naturally powerful enforcers, he advocates a return to the state of nature (including barbarism) rather than moving toward an enlightened society.

Therefore, Rousseau would oppose Kant’s advocacy of an enlightened prince who considers it his duty in religious matters not to prescribe anything to his people as a means of encouraging more people to become enlightened. Under his rule, “ecclesiastical dignitaries, notwithstanding their official duties, may in their capacity as scholars freely and publicly submit to the judgment of the world their verdicts and opinions, even if these deviate from orthodox doctrine.”[9] To Rousseau, who is less concerned in his essay on inequality about the religious domain than is Kant in his essay on enlightenment, the various forms of government, including monarchy, “owe their origin to the various degrees of inequality between the members, at the time they first coalesced into a political body.”[10] The solution to the increased societally-based inequalities is to return to the state of nature, rather than to count on an “enlightened” prince, who is actually compromised by power and position (i.e., inequality). So Rousseau criticizes a governmental means by which a people can become enlightened in a Kantian sense, but in doing so, he demonstrates that his freedom of public thought was not constrained or guided by a prince.

Therefore, Kant would have to obey his own reason in counting Rousseau among the enlightened as per Kant's own definition, even while rejecting and perhaps even attacking Rousseau's ideas that would detract from such enlightenment if put into effect. To the extent that Kant himself was not enlightened, he would hardly have been able, at least for the time being, to tolerate such ideas even as he would have had to admit that Rousseau was enlightened. Put another way, being both an institutional guardian and a philosopher, Kant would have been in a tight corner. Generally speaking, we can conclude that enlightenment exists uneasily with the lack thereof in a society, especially if the lack pertains to the guardians. Accordingly, I suspect that a society is at ease only if the vast majority of people, including most or even all of the guardians, are enlightened.

[1] Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (World ebook Library).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1910).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kant, An Answer.
[6] Rousseau, Discourse.
[7] Interestingly, Kant’s first version of his categorical imperative, a criterion useful for assessing whether a given act is ethical, logical contradiction in a maxim being universalized such that it holds for everyone indicates that the act is immoral even if performed by one person rather than everyone. We are rational beings, so a logical contradiction means bad news. Therefore, does the logical contradiction in universalizing an increased use of reason in society to everyone resulting in everyone impeding society itself mean that living in society is unethical? Perhaps Kant would say that society would have to be impossible rather than merely impeded for there to be a logical contraction.
[8] Kant, An Answer.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Rousseau, Discourse.