The Greatest Gift that I Possess

Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

Everywhere I look I see countless miniature empires. This makes sense when one considers the many necrophilous sectarians ostensibly populating Britain, as their morals seem to be founded (if Brexit is anything to go by) in the delusional glory of this little island’s historically imperial sovereignty. Small-man syndrome is a natural phenomenon, even at the state level. However, worryingly, even members of today’s ‘hipster’, left-wing subculture – cultural decedents of a cleaner living, hitchhiking, happy-go-lucky, hippy era – revel in the excesses of their individual realms. Today everyone is an emperor. Myopic, capitalistic narcissism is pervasive. It’s killing humanism and the planet with it.

Taken from his recent book, Happy (his recent and a fascinating serious prose on welfare philosophy), Derren Brown hits the nail on the head, when he says, “‘Get what you want’ remains a mantra of modern living, as if we each had the birthright to accumulate whatever we think will make us happy.” We’re programmed to desire, indoctrinated even. Society is set up to consume. Without our desires being quenched by consumption, we’re destined to be miserable. This is the message we’re sold.

As a result, we’re constantly seeking to expand our empires in the pursuit of something more addictive, more socially corrosive than crystal meth. Purchasing is the tool by which we seek our little hits of serotonin and dopamine, each dose a sparrows-step toward securing a peculiarly phantom mental state: happiness. Obsessively, most of us seek it, but in vain. The era of achieving happiness collaterally is long over. Now, we seek it as an end in itself. More fool us.

We’re so addicted to these minute hits of gratification that we don’t let anything or anyone get in the way of our attaining them. This is not a clean drug, its cut with numerous toxins. It kills. Collateral damages, in the form of physical (1, 2), mental, environmental (1, 2, 3, 4) and cultural sickness (1, 3, 2), have been normalised. It’s an unfortunate necessity but a necessity all the same; a small price to pay for “happiness”. Crucially, we reject that our pursuit of happiness is damningly self-defeating (perhaps through fear of self-loathing). Moreover, those that indiscriminately pursue happiness are often considered virtuous. This is despite their holding a complete disregard for traditional virtues such as moderation, wisdom, morality, or empathy and a sense of community.

Regretfully, and rather non-virtuously, Conspicuous and invidious consumption (purchasing goods to flaunt economic power and incite envy), the bread and butter of capitalism, affect us greatly (the recent #OOTD appeal is a hideous example). Products are designed and marketed specifically to create and then cure anxietynot to promote happiness – which stimulates us to indulge in further self-destructive retail therapy. Possessions are seen and brandished as symbols of identity, wealth and “happiness”. This is no conspiracy theory; it is advertising theory (1, 2). It’s business. As a result, western society has entered a mental health crisis (1, 2) as its free markets mass produce depression and narcissism, as we are all miss-sold happiness.

Social media compounds the issue, providing “short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” (1, 2) which manipulate us into to further embellishing and flaunting our lively possessions – the flags of our empires – in the virtual world, as we unwittingly encourage one another to consume more still.

What is deeply disconcerting is that the means by which we might relearn the value of empathy, community and virtue, and consequently rediscover happiness as contentedness, is being dismantled. With central government stripping powers of discretionary spending from local councils and redirecting the cash to Whitehall, our communal infrastructure is rapidly disintegrating. With it go the remnants of a once humanistic, community-based Great British culture. Youth centres, libraries, care homes, parks and public gardens are being left to ruin, so that the state can financially compete on a global scale in order to recreate the illusion of a “Great British Empire”.

It’s difficult to decide which of Britain’s politico-economic ideologies are causing all this: sectarianism, capitalism or neo-liberalism? It could be any or all of them. However, all of them scream the same battle-cry, wealth and empire are all.

A.C. Stark

Recommended Reading
Happy; Out of the Wreckage; Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered;
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

The Great Misconception About Consequentialism

Philosophy & Ethics

Consequentialism it is almost universally misunderstood and so, by extension, is Utilitarianism.

So, to start, let’s clear something up which I believe is at the heart of the matter: Consequentialism is not per se a normative position. Despite what many will have you believe, it is in fact nothing more than a law of ethics – what I would call a meta-ethical truth. In teaching this truth a typical pedagogue tends to explore abstract scenarios, tasking her students to conduct thought-experiments in order to solidify her students understanding, inspire debate and autodidacticism.

Let me attempt to make my point clearer: In the words of Moore, Consequentialism prescribes that “an act is morally right if and only if that act maximises the good, that is, if and only if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all is greater than this net amount for any incompatible act available to the agent on that occasion”. The typical pedagogue provides this maxim before then turning to a thought-experiment. For instance, the Trolley Problem:

“Edward is the driver of a trolley, whose brakes have just failed. On the track ahead of him are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a spur leading off to the right, and Edward can turn the trolley into it. Unfortunately, there is one person the right-had track. Edward can turn the trolley, killing the one; or he can refrain from turning the trolley, killing the five.” – Judith Thompson

Typically, the students then engage in the thought-experiment – they consider the philosophical implications of the scenario, the ethics of responsibility and will, the distinction between action and inaction, the value of life, explore various definitions of ‘good’ (etc. – etc.) and a plethora of other topics which dress the study of Moral Normativity.

All the while the students subconsciously submit to the assumption that Edward’s unfortunate situation and their related evaluations (or at least aspects of them) are practicable in reality, in Consequentialist terms; they believe that what Consequentialism is telling us about what we ought to do, is to do what is ‘right’. But in doing this they assume a normativity that was never prescribed in the first place (and where other writers may describe the principle as possessing this characteristic, I contend that it should not). And this is where the problem lies.

You see, it is in the nature of such thought-experiments that true answers are only ever discoverable once the boundaries of the envisioned scenarios are absolutely defined. Such thought-experiments describe abstract closed systems wherein, by definition, there exist no spatiotemporal extensions beyond their descriptions. Or in other words, they define all the relevant epistemological factors of a given ethical conundrum. From within, and only from within, these closed systems can Consequentialism be appropriately assumed to have normative value (i.e., be appropriately applied). For, it is only from within closed systems that certainty can be made with respects to the consequences of all the potential optionable actions. When you concern yourself with the Trolley Problem, once you are given all the parameters and provided the rules, when asked about what Edward ought to do, there is only one correct answer. (In our case we are yet to define what ‘good’ means but if we were to adopt a Hedonistic sentiments as Utilitarianism does, the answer would be only to turn right). However, rarely in the real world is there such certainty surrounding the parameters of any ethical situations.

Reality is not a closed system. Or rather, if it is a closed system (in which case it must have a definitive spatiotemporal beginning and end, and be strictly determinate), in the real world we never obtain all the relevant epistemological factors for any ethical situations – possibly besides vacuous ones. Hence, we can rarely, if ever, confidently appropriately apply Consequentialism, trusting that we have strictly conformed to its maxim. Hence, whilst navigating ethical conundrums in the real world, one should rarely attempt to apply Consequentialism in an active sense because in doing so one would invariably contravene the maxim (or put another way, if Consequentialism incorporated a normative characteristic within its maxim, it would be as though it were ordering you always to take the right action whilst never really letting you in on which action is right).

Hence, for the most part, it is only really appropriate to consider Consequentialism as descriptive. It is a meta-ethical truth and nothing much more.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, Consequentialism deserves another run in. But this time we need to understand it and teach it correctly. Otherwise, it’s destined to carry an unjust reputation. As to how it’s compatible with other ethical theories, it’s precisely because it is not normative that it is so. But I’ll leave expounding upon that subject for another rainy day.

A.C. Stark

There’s Something Funky About Mr Cheese: Education and Minimalistic Living

Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

It’s been reported recently that a great portion of UK graduates find themselves in non-graduate roles. The numbers vary depending upon where they’re sourced (1, 2), but the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) find this to be the case for 59% of graduates. On top of that, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) reports that while graduate employment is increasing, graduate salaries are decreasing. Our once financially accessible, comprehensive education system has caused an imbalance. We are now inundated with ‘over-qualified’ and ‘underpaid’ workers. This is apparently a bad thing, and undoubtedly provides the government with ammunition as they continue to make higher-education less financially feasible.

“The assumption that we will transition to a more productive, higher value, higher skilled economy just by increasing the conveyor belt of graduates is proven to be flawed. Simply increasing the qualification level of individuals going into a job does not typically result in the skill required to do the job being enhanced – in many cases that skills premium, if it exists at all, is simply wasted.”      Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD.

However, we ought to ensure that education and qualification are not conflated, nor used in politico-economic equivocations. They are very much separate things, valuable in their own distinct ways. Indeed, whilst someone may well be overqualified, no one can ever be overeducated. Such a thing just doesn’t exist. The idea that education is only valuable insofar as it provides us with routes to prosperity is flawed (such sentiments perfectly encapsulate the nature by which our democracy is cannibalised by our economic culture). Education has many more advantages other than simply enhancing one’s qualifications. It provides the ability to navigate complex moral scenarios. It enables informed democratic participation. It facilitates compassion and understanding. Education provides the tools with which we can properly avoid or manage conflict. Qualifications provide little value in comparison.

So, whether they realise it or not, Mr Cheese, the BIS and the political arguments their reports endorse, all of them are firing blanks. The key to this professed problem is not to discourage education, nor to make it less accessible. Rather, it is to encourage a culture that embraces education as it is, valuable in and of itself. A culture which, as a benefit of being educated, is versatile, inclusive, resourceful and sustainable. Hence why I do not believe that a country containing a considerable number ‘over-qualified’ graduates is a bad thing. The same goes for working a job that is well within the limits of one’s capabilities. You can have a PhD and be shopkeeper, a dustbin-man, a cleaner. That’s fine. Your qualification might have gone to waist but your education certainly has not.

In fact, given the tremendous contributions extravagant lifestyles pay towards the destruction of our biosphere, living a little more minimalistically is nothing short of applaudable. It ought to be encouraged even. When the common conception of a good job is one that pays well, something has gone awry. Higher earners, with their gas-guzzling cars and imported goods, their hasty purchasing and disposal of needless novelty products, their Christmases, Valentines Days, Easters, Halloweens, not to mention several dozen somewhat insignificant celebrations dotted in-between, their urgent desire to buy bigger, better, more – the higher earners definitely contribute more to global warming. Far from speculation, this is simply the truth of the matterSomewhere in the region of 26% of all the UK’s emissions are created by domestic and international transport, imports and exports. The more you consume, the greater your involvement in that statistic. The typical Brit will emit as much CO2 in one day as a Kenyan will in a year. The average American emits 2000 times more than someone living in Chad. Such statistics seem a little extreme, but they definitely highlight the point. Aren’t their any limits to the excessive compulsions of those who have a little doe? The culture we’ve been raised in demands us to consume. It says, earn more, buy more, eat more – repeat, and sells it all under a light of good intention, but tells us little of the wider ruinous effects it has on the natural world, the poor and underprivileged, indigenous communities, and future generations. Minimalism, or at least living a little less extravagantly, given our currently fragile position, is now a moral requirement.

This is why the statistics surrounding graduate employment are to some extent encouraging. How can we expect anything less if this is what is morally required of us? By embracing minimalism and realising the true value of education as something entirely distinct from any qualification it may or may not underpin, the concept of over-qualification becomes entirely redundant. So too does the notion that a broadly accessible, comprehensive education system can produce anything other than desirable effects on the whole.

As soon as I read these reports I could smell that there was something a little funky with Mr Cheese and his gang. Their equivocations failed to go undetected.

A.C. Stark




Why Ethics Should Centralise Around Nature

Philosophy & Ethics

Call me a misanthrope, but there isn’t one ethics that is universally valid. The Golden Rule, in all its forms, has proven time and time again to be problematic. Even the principles laid down by Kant are tenuously justified, as he puts the cart before the horses at the earliest stages of his Groundworks in order to give personhood centre stage. A similar error is made by Mill when he prescribes welfare as the primary subject of any truly ethical endeavour. The problem is, in order to discover an ethics you need something to deduce it from. And that something is invariably described as intrinsically valuable, worthy of eternal pursuit. But, I dare to say, it’s never sufficiently justified as being so. Why? Well, precisely because nothing is, nor can anything be intrinsically valuable. Not personhood, not consciousness, not welfare, not happiness. So far as the universe is concerned, everything just is. Nothing is more significant than anything else. Value is allocated, not discovered. This is why no ethics is universally valid.

So, the story of ethics is different to how we’ve been led to believe. No subject of an ethics, nor any ethics itself is intrinsically valuable. They are, for all intents and purposes, valuable only instrumentally. They are valuable for the sake of a concept. In the case of knowledge, intellect, consciousness, that concept is personhood. In the case of happiness, that concept is well-being. This is why contending ethical principles are inherently contradictory. From differing ambitions arise conflict. So maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Indeed, searching for a universal ethics seems entirely futile.

Maybe what we ought to ask is whether anything is fundamental to the essence of all conceivable ethical paradigms. Is it possible that we might discover something which is valuable for the sake of ethics itself? Well I believe some such thing exists. Where is it? What is it? It’s glaring us all in the face. Just how ethicists and philosophers over the past few millennia have managed to miss it bemuses me. Nature. It’s nature! Surely nature is the ground from which the groundworks of any ethics ought to start.What is essential to performing an ethics? What is essential to personhood, to well-being? Nature. The existence of ethical agents, subjects and concepts themselves require it. Well-being and happiness do too. Nature, in its fragile contingent state, provides the conditions necessary for them to subsist. So nature must be the fundamental foundation to all ethics.

It is plain to see, for me at least, that the existence of all ethical paradigms, however valid or invalid, are attributable only to nature. Nature allows them to exist. The principles and paradigms that have been discovered are attributable to the specific natural conditions of this world from which their manufacturers were born. To uphold the values of any ethics we must enable the continued existence of those specific natural conditions. Far from being a universal ethics itself, that is just a fact. The delicate equilibrium of nature’s properties preserve us; they’re integral to our being. As Derek Parfit and many other contemporaries would undoubtedly agree, any ethics which is self-defeating is repugnant. So, any ethics which contradicts this fact is repugnant also.

Whatever your perspective on life, however you see the world – left-wing, right-wing, theist, atheist, optimist, pessimist, whatever! – in order to realise an ethics,  in order to do ethics, you must first embrace nature. The catalogue of reasons to pay reverence to nature has a new member. Nature gave ethics. It’s time to give ethics nature.

A.C. Stark