[back to archive]
P H I L O S O P H Y F O R B U S I N E S S ISSN 2043-0736
Issue number 36
11th March 2007
I. 'Economic Growth as Part of a Semi-Chaotic System' by Wolfgang W. Osterhage
II. 'Sustainable Consumption: Selected anthropological and moral remarks' by
III. Conference on Social Responsibility 16 March, Prague, Czech Republic
Last week, the EU achieved a historic commitment to lower its carbon dioxide
emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 from their 1990 level. The main mechanism for
bringing this about will be an increase in the use of so-called renewables --
water, air, tidal power and biofuels. This is a welcome development, even
though few now believe that there is enough time to reverse climate change. If
the political momentum created by this agreement continues, there will still be
bad effects from climate change but they will not be as bad as they might have
been if nothing was done.
In a few days, I will be giving a talk at a free one-day conference in Prague
on CSR organized by the British Chamber of Commerce Czech Republic and held
under the auspices of the Social and Health Committee of the Senate of the
Czech Republic. Social responsibility is increasingly being seen as the new
ethical norm for business. As I shall argue, how this is to be achieved is a
political challenge. As with the problem of climate change, it is not enough to
see the benefits. You need to be able to trust that if you make an effort others
will make a similar effort.
The two articles in this issue look at different aspects of the challenge posed
by globalisation. Wolfgang Osterhage uses insights from chaos theory to argue
for a rethink of the current orthodox view that continuous growth is the only
way to avoid economic catastrophe, raising the question whether some
alternative mechanism might fulfil this role. Maciej Bazela explores the
phenomenon of consumerism from an ethical standpoint, arguing that no mere
economic recipe for sustainability can address the underlying problems.
Consumerism is merely the 'end result of a gradual process of anthropological
reductionism that has progressed in stages since the Renaissance'. Economics
merely addresses the effects, not the underlying causes.
I. 'ECONOMIC GROWTH AS PART OF A SEMI-CHAOTIC SYSTEM' BY WOLFGANG W. OSTERHAGE
This paper is the first in a series of three to deal with the present situation
of a non-existing framework concerning the global economy. It summarizes the
boundary conditions within which current economic systems perform.
After a short explanation of motives, we will briefly touch upon the
possibilities of organizing the economy in general and on a global scale. Since
part of the explanation of current economic problems will be based on the
insights of chaos theory, a brief introduction to its basics will be given with
respect to economic growth. The questions of costs at the margin and stability
will be discussed. Finally possibilities of an orderly transfer to a different
regime will be speculated upon.
A successor to this paper is intended to deal with transitional models of
global economic relations and a further paper with the humanitarian basis for
economic networking structures.
Scholars of global development [1,2,3] agree on one thing: as of today a world
economic framework no longer exists, although the world economy is functioning.
In this context 'framework' means generally predictable economic development in
the long run, a globally accepted legal basis with enforceable rules and
international institutions that would in the future stand in for the Bretton
Woods organisations (WTO, GATT, World Bank). Instead we are witnessing what can
be termed the fall-out from financial globalisation and new power politics along
the fault lines of new political blocks particularly with respect to the energy
markets on the one hand; while on the other hand one finds the emergence of
public private partnerships even on the level of international organizations
and globally operating corporations, as well as a strong impetus towards a
globally active civil society in the first phases its development.
All these complexities require a fresh look at the present situation as a
starting scenario for the perspectives lying ahead. The aim is not to find new
economic theories or predictable solutions to the present void. It is rather to
try to understand current economic paradigms from an unusual point of analysis.
3. Organisational principles
Economies -- like any other form of organization -- can be limited to two basic
principles: deterministic or stochastic. The deterministic model has discredited
itself with the demise of socialism. For the stochastic approach there does not
really exist a singe theoretical model or practical example -- only
delimitating boundary conditions, within which certain economic developments
may play themselves out: trade barriers, exchange rates, capital available,
work force on the market etc. On top of these there may exist governmental or
international regulations limiting economic degrees of freedom.
Both the deterministic and the stochastic models have one failure in common:
they have not been able to predict major macroeconomic developments on a global
scale in the past. The reasons are multifaceted and shall not be discussed here.
Therefore it has to be concluded that economic developments -- including the
making of its own proper rules -- will always be a function of the dynamics of
an evolving economy itself.
This means that, whatever limiting artificial factors are employed, the world
economy will always evolve through a succession of uncertainties and possibly
crisis until a new semi-stable state is reached. This state than can be
analyzed, its rules be determined and proper planning and action mechanisms be
executed within its new framework. In the end we come from the unpredictable to
the more predictable for a certain period of time until some as yet unknown
trigger sets the whole system moving again. In this sense the economy will
finally find its own way of organization in spite of what is set against it to
prevent it from doing so. This is no excuse for fatalism since this scenario
leaves ample potential for influence both concerning the triggers of change and
then -- during restructuring -- the modelling out of the new stable environment.
4. Chaostheoretical concepts
In the 1970s a formal theory evolved based on a variety of disparate concepts
dating back to as early as the 1940s that became known as chaos theory [4,5].
Without wanting to go into any deep elaboration of it there are some salient
features that can be useful for the analysis of economics. From early on the
application of non-linear science to economic phenomena seemed tempting.
Applications included: the development of stock prices, the dynamics of global
financial flows, the investigation of the distribution of large and small
incomes, disruptive behaviour in the changing of market prices.
Some of the more important concepts include: fractals, strange attractors and
quasi-chaotic states. Fractals mean self-similar shapes in nature or in
diagrams, where the gross shape is created by a combination of smaller elements
resembling each in miniature to the gross shape itself. Some types of fractals
are the basis for so called strange attractors, which are of some interest for
our further discussion. Strange attractors can be made visible by using certain
mathematical transformations (phase space), but appear in the real world e.g. as
patterns in the flow of liquids or the regular behaviour of a pendulum. Some of
these states are known to be quasi-chaotic, i.e. they can be regarded as being
in equilibrium but a minute impulse from outside can trigger them to dissolve
into non-linear, i.e. chaotic dynamics. One famous example can be found in the
changing of the weather.
Physically speaking, a strange attractor may also be regarded as a state of
minimal energy, to which any system tends to migrate, whereas additional energy
is required to lift the system from that state to a higher energetic position,
which is inherently unstable. The migration from such an unstable state is
often unpredictable and follows chaotic behaviour until a new equilibrium is
It is obvious that some of the above features can be used to model economics or
parts of it.
5. Application to economic growth
It has been argued over and over again that (moderate) economic growth is a
precondition to economic stability, i.e. zero growth or economic shrinkage lead
automatically to decline and in the long term to a break down of the (world)
economy in general. Recently this discussion has been re-activated by asking
such questions as what constitutes growth etc. Let as for the moment take the
assumption that growth is a pre-condition for a well functioning economy.
5.1 Quasi-chaotic state
In the language of chaos theory this means that any economy is following a very
narrow line between overheating and abyss. Economy as we perceive it therefore
functions continually within the boundaries of a quasi-chaotic state. This
means that any incremental impulse from within (market) or without (nature) may
cause it to tilt into chaos with all the non-linear consequences for those
depending on it.
Moderate growth seems to be the strange attractor that succeeds in maintaining
an otherwise inherently unstable system manageable. However, since growth
depends in the long run on resources that are outside the scope of
manipulation, like the limits of global markets or the continuing improvement
of human ingenuity, it can never be taken for granted to continue without
restraint in all possible future. The challenge that is put before us thus is
to deal with the question, whether the strange attractor 'growth' can be
replaced by some other mechanism without delivering the whole system to the
slippery slopes of nonlinear turbulence.
As already outlined, classical economic theory holds that economic stability
can only be maintained, if constant growth is guaranteed. This means that on
top of the general stability problem posed by the 'strange attractor' all
possible means of ensuring growth have to be employed to keep the economy at a
steady state. As a consequence there is a continuing process for maintaining
the economy at a higher and higher level riding on a smaller and smaller path
in quasi-chaotic conditions. The consequences are twofold:
(i) exposure to breakdown by incremental disturbances
(ii) ever increasing costs at the margin to avoid (i).
Thus the concept of economic growth itself generates maintenance costs, which
again have to be overcompensated by growth itself, before net growth is
If conventional wisdom keeps its way, ever increasing costs will indefinitely
maintain economic stability by underwriting growth at ever more complex a
level. Alternatives seem to be outside the rational:
(iii) the end of growth -- meaning in effect economic shrinkage -- and thus the
possible slide into real chaos,
(iv) a controlled step down from the growth scenario into yet uncharted terrain,
(v) substitution of growth in monetary terms by something else at less cost.
There have been attempts to envision combinations of (iv) und (v) and it is
worthwhile looking at some transitional models to overcome the impasse without
alienating the key players in the global economic concert. A follow up paper
will take a closer look at these.
Most people agree that the current global economic system lacks a framework
that makes gross economic developments more predictable. The instruments of the
past have lost their relevance, and there is a sense that a stable level of
economic development serving all interested parties has not yet been reached.
This is in part a burden left over from the old capitalist-communist
confrontation and otherwise due to technological developments.
If economic growth is set to be a pre-condition for advancement and stability
in the long run this can be put into perspective by applying certain elements
of chaos theory. As a consequence it can be shown that such a system
continually borders on the fringes of stability and is maintained in such a
state at ever increasing cost. The task ahead is to investigate whether a
controlled deviation from such a norm can lead to an intrinsically stable and
at the same time more transparent situation serving a broad coalition of
1. Grzybowski The World Social Form: Reinventing Global Politics, Global
Governance, Vol.12, No.1., Jan.-Mar. 2006
2. Bull et al. 'Private Sector Influence in the Multilateral System: a Changing
Structure of World Governance?', Global Governance, Vol.10, No. 4, Oct.-Dec. 2004
3. Coleman et al. 'The Origins of Global Civil Society and Nonterritorial
Governance: Some Empirical Reflexions', Global Governance, Vol.12, No.3,
4. Gleick Chaos, Cardinal, London, 1988
5. Mandelbrot The Fractal Geometry of Nature, W.H. Freeman and Company, New
(c) Wolfgang W. Osterhage 2007
II. 'SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION: SELECTED ANTHROPOLOGICAL AND MORAL REMARKS' BY
We can trace the origins of the term sustainable consumption back to the United
Nation's Conference for Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (1992).
The Conference primarily addressed the problems of environmental pollution and
social injustice as the two most worrying side-effects of economic
globalization. It was then that the idea of sustainable consumption emerged as
a capsule form to denote production and consumption patterns which tend to
reduce environmental impact and meet basic needs of all human beings.
Similarly, the concept of sustainable consumption was used again during the
World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (2002). Also in that
case, participants called for rich countries to introduce and promote
fundamental changes in production and consumption of goods since the industrial
methods and consumer habits that prevail among rich nations are neither
sustainable, nor can they be globally universalized.
Both conferences underlined that if the consumer society model, which
presently exists in rich countries, is adopted by emerging economies, it will
lead to terrible environmental crisis and social turmoil due to resulting
shortages of natural resources. With a view to avoiding this grim scenario, all
countries, but primarily the rich ones, are called to redirect their economies
towards sustainability. More precisely they are asked to adopt sustainable
solutions in production and consumption. Thus, sustainable consumption denotes
responsible consumption inasmuch as it should minimize environmental impact,
enhance overall quality of life, entrench social justice, and give a chance to
future generations to meet their needs as well.
In the light of political pronouncements like those in Rio de Janeiro (1992)
and Johannesburg (2002) or the Kyoto Protocol, it seems that we commonly fear
the consumer society for two reasons: (1) the environment -- because current
models of production and consumption are predominantly dependent on
non-renewable resources and cause irreparable damage to the biosphere; (2)
social justice -- because rich countries are partly to blame for the misery of
the poor since they consume nearly eighty percent of all natural resources,
offshore their waste and defend a cartel-like economic status quo which hinders
development of the impoverished.
This reasoning is plausible. However, it does not take into account either
anthropological, or certain fundamental moral aspects. Even though I agree that
the consumer society is impossible in the long run for physical reasons, since
it does not respect the natural bounds of planet Earth, I truly believe that
the real dilemma regarding prevailing consumption patterns is not ecological
but moral. Distancing myself from cliched utterances of international bodies
and journalists, I hold that a mere 'greening' of consumption practices cannot
be the ultimate goal of a sustainable agenda. If it were, we would save the
biosphere, but it does not mean that we would resolve intrinsic social and
moral problems that run deep in the consumer society.
From my point of view, the key that unlocks the door explaining why the
consumer society is unsustainable is its false anthropology. I think that the
consumer society is a self-destructive enterprise not only owing to biophysical
limits, but primarily because it operates an over-simplistic vision of who man
is and how he achieves happiness. With this in mind, I am convinced that a
concept of sustainable consumption must carry clear indications regarding man's
metaphysical constitution and the genuine sources of his moral fulfillment.
Ecological damage, however, remains a negative consequence of this flawed
anthropological foundation and perhaps the most urgent motive for change.
2. The degenerate anthropology of the consumer society
From my point of view the consumer society does not begin during the Industrial
Revolution in the 19th century or the American Dream of the 1950s. Consumerism
is instead the end result of a gradual process of anthropological reductionism
that has progressed in stages since the Renaissance. I claim that a victory of
animal laborans -- conceived as a paramount understanding of human make-up --
that amalgamated both Adam Smith's idea of homo economicus and Thomas Hobbes'
concept of possessive individual became the mainspring of consumerism.
Hannah Arendt in her magisterial book The Human Condition presents man's
nature as a compact, three dimensional and hierarchically organized structure.
She says that human life, named also by Arendt active life, consists of three
major components: (1) labour, (2) work, and (3) action. Labour is the most
inferior one, and action the most superior. Each component refers to a
particular condition of human existence.
(1) Labour correlates to the condition of biological necessities. Labour is an
activity by which man pledges the survival for himself and for the entire
species. It is a means to satisfy existential needs, in particular to support
the natural processes of the human body like growth, metabolism and ageing.
Emblematic of this condition is the figure of animal laborans.
(2) Work is related to worldliness (being in the world), which is the sum of
all the artefacts that man produces, gathers and uses to secure himself a
permanence of existence, and to reduce daily effort. Through work people
construct a world of things, a specific ecological recess proper to human
beings. The function of this space is to provide some stability and
predictability of living that are rare in the natural environment dominated by
animals. This condition of existence is represented by homo faber.
(3) The third existential condition is politeia -- a public sphere where men
can open channels of inter-personal dialogue, build a society, and preserve
common memory. An activity that corresponds to this condition is action
(praxis), and a human type that operates in this sphere is zoon politikon.
Praxis is exclusively human, since it occurs directly among people without the
mediation of either things or matter. It is tied to the fact that not one
person, but many people live on the Earth. Thus, plurality is both a sine qua
non, and conditio per quam of the politics. A set of functioning political
institutions, especially in a situation when the sphere of religiosity is weak
or insignificant, constitutes a sphere of remembrance, tradition, and dialogue.
It preserves social patrimony and protects many individual lives from oblivion
by making them function as parts of the historic narration.
It seems to me that in the consumer society the ultimate source of personal
fulfilment is neither the condition of zoon politikon, nor homo faber but that
of animal laborans. While politics is racket, and most job-roles stultifying,
satisfaction of basic needs like eating, drinking, dressing up and sexual
attraction has become the most central dynamic of human life.
Political life does not mean much to the vast majority of citizens since it has
lost its lofty ancient character. Politics that is rife with petty feuds,
influence peddling, sexual misdeeds, clownish behaviour, and recently even drug
taking resembles rather a cesspool of graft than a noble service for the common
good. A world of politics that consists of fluid coalitions with blurred
profiles which excel in sleaze and cronyism is a rather dubious candidate as a
source of personal fulfilment. The ideal of zoon politikon seems trivial and
What is even worse, work is in just as deep a crisis. The consumer society
suffers from a shortage of fulfilling job roles. Owing to industrialisation,
computerisation and procedural standardisation a great number of job roles have
the perverse effect of corrupting the human mind and character. Many are
tedious, robotically repetitive and stultifying. (Suffice it to think of
assembly-line workers, call centre operators, fast food restaurant employees,
or computer data entry clerks.) As a consequence, the ideal of homo faber is
also at stake due to standardisation and mechanisation of work. Practical
skills deteriorate and creativity degenerate when on the one hand job tasks are
narrow and procedures routinized; and on the other hand consumption of goods is
shaped by the rules of planned obsolescence, fast-pace substitution, and
pre-packaged, ready to use solutions to daily needs.
At this point, we reach an explanation of why the consumer society is
anthropologically alienating, or better, de-humanising. As stated by R. Bocock,
'the defining characteristic of non-alienated activity is human creativity --
the artist and craftsman being ideal-typical examples'. Since industrial
capitalism tends to marginalise creativity at work by various techniques of
procedural standardisation, consequently 'workers come to invest themselves in
the most basic aspects of biological consumption and think that this is where
they are being most fully human, not in their work'. It is palpable that in
the consumer society work for many people is sheer drudgery, an inevitable
necessity and a mere means which grants access to after-work immediate
self-gratification in the consumer paradise of kaleidoscopic variety of goods
It seems that even the laborans element of human condition is loosing its worth
and dignity. Since it is often difficult to make a creative use of your human
potential at work, people channel their energy into consumption. They hope to
fulfil their resourceful capacities by gathering consumer experiences in
eating, drinking, dressing up and travelling, and by amassing of goods
according to passable fashions and fluctuating trends. Unfortunately, they can
never reach personal fulfilment by doing so because the prevailing model of
mass-market consumption does not favour self-actualisation. 'Consumers have
been removed from experiencing a sense of creativity, of autonomy, in many
activities by the increasing pre-packaging of experience [...]. The goods and
experiences which are consumed have become pre-packaged, already created and
coded to produce the required consumer responses'.
Consumerism then corrodes human character inasmuch it champions passive,
pre-defined experiences, rather than active, and entrepreneurial do-it-yourself
attitude. For example, in the mass-market consumer society, ready-made meals
beat cooking; watching sports is more popular than playing them; listening to
music trumps playing instruments and singing; and commercial travel packages to
distant resorts are more popular than direct contact with nature by gardening,
cycling or hiking in your own neighbourhood.
The second reason why consumerism is anthropologically destructive is because
not only does it diminish the laborans element -- the working capacity of man
-- but also it reduces man's essence to his animal component. Once the ideals
of zoon politikon and homo faber are dead, the only remaining element is life,
pure biology and its needs. What is typical of the consumer society is its
exclusive focus on satisfaction of the most basic material needs and primordial
inclinations of human nature like self-preservation, sexual satisfaction,
safety, and comfort, (which seems to be a refined response to fear of death).
In particular, the consumer society relies on the 'animal' side of homo sapiens
especially when it envelops products with sexual messages.
The consumer society results in a situation which is anthropologically
alienating, for it degrades, de-humanises man's nature. To live according to
human nature means to follow reason which guides us towards the most noble
goals. Consumption however perverts this rational order because it reduces
human existence to its 'animal' dimension. It entraps man in a squirrel-cage of
immediate self-gratification, (sexual) pleasure and material comfort. When our
life is reduced to mere satisfaction of biological needs and basic instincts,
the non-material needs of higher order like intellectual enterprise, personal
fulfilment, love, intimacy and religiosity do not find their proper space of
actualisation and are absorbed into the 'animal' realm.
These non-material genuine human needs very often undergo a process of
'commodification', since their satisfaction is reduced to the acquisition of
certain goods or lifestyles. Personal fulfilment for instance becomes a
function of material status. Love diminishes to collecting boyfriends and/ or
girlfriends who are desired, acquired and discarded after a while as any other
good that we find temporarily fashionable and attractive. Intimacy decreases to
casual sex which in the consumer culture becomes a commodity exchanged between
persons on the grounds of mutual agreement. Finally, religiosity declines into
consumption-driven research of self-perfection and self-sufficiency.
Consumerism then is a perverse form of material transcendence, because it
attempts to satiate the infinite and immaterial human needs of higher order
with material possessions. Never-ending amassing of material goods and consumer
experiences becomes a dwarfed and then bogus substitute for man's hunger of
moral excellence, meaningful love, deep knowledge and religious belief.
It is even more frightening that in the long run the consumer society can
destroy not only 'higher' strata of the human condition like vita
contemplativa, political activity or creative work, but also the corporal
dimension itself. The human body runs the risk of disintegration and even
annihilation in the all-intrusive process of consumer 'commodification'. As
observed by an Italian sociologist Vanni Codeluppi, the consumer logic of
variability and flexibility which so far has been applied to fashion, now
begins to affect human body as well. Codeluppi calls it a phenomenon of 'body
flow'. Today, man's physique tends to be remodelled and re-shaped according
to temporary demands. Human anatomy is not taken any more as given, nor
definitive. The consumer logic seems to disregard objective biological
conditions and biological laws that govern our physical existence. Corporal
figure is not a limiting factor any more, but rather a plastic materia prima
that can be formed and re-formed to achieve a desired effect.
One example of the 'the body flow' phenomenon comes from the photo industry.
Digital 'correction' and/ or embroidering of photo images is already a standard
procedure that applies even to the most attractive super models. Similarly, a
rising popularity of capricious cosmetic (not corrective!) interventions is
more evidence that the human body is being gradually 'commodified'. While for
many people aesthetic surgery can be a justified need to correct objective
defects, for others, especially movie stars and fashion models, on and off
modifications of facial features, breasts, hips, calves, etc., become a sine
qua non condition to stay on the market, to get another role, to be attractive.
Growing demand for cosmetic treatments and dermatological services like
piercing, tattoos, artificial tuning and extravagant hair-styling are signs
that our biological identity is blurred. Human body becomes fluid and nomadic.
It does not have fixed limits. Generally speaking, the pervasive logic of
consumption advances a view that man does not have a stable metaphysical or
religious identity. We are all potential mutants with removable interfaces.
As a consequence, we can say that the consumer society is de-humanising not
only because it reduces homo sapiens to animal laborans, but also it tends to
degrade the corporal dimension itself. Under pressure of the commercial logic
of infinite flux and variability, man tries to shake off his determined
physical constitution to enjoy unlimited modifications of his body. The
ultimate frontier of this process of the 'body flow' may be a dialectic fusion
of man with robots a la Robocop or Terminator.
All in all, consumerism is an anthropological disease, a degenerative
side-product of a damaging over-turn that occurred within the structure of
active life. For centuries active life was a subject of progressing dwarfism
and rising bestiality that led to a triumph of animal laborans, and prepared
the ground for the rise of the consumer society. Altogether, the rise of
today's homo consumator is based on two major intellectual shifts: (1) modern
emphasis on active life has completely marginalized contemplative life; (2)
active life has been reduced to mere life (human biology). Animal laborans
appropriated the public sphere which ceased to serve affairs of the highest
dignity. Instead, it has transformed into consumer mass culture which is
nothing but a common fulfilment of private necessities in the public realm.
The decadence of the public sphere is evident when we realise how little
concern we give to the matters of immortality and eternity. In ancient times
the public space -- understood as a kind of cultural treasury and common memory
-- was a mechanism to rescue from oblivion all that was considered valuable. It
served as a counter-balance against the fleeting character of individual life.
Today, however, any talk of aspirations to immortality in politics sounds
pompously vain. Furthermore, the emancipation of labour brought about a
reduction of all our activities to a common denominator: 'whatever we do, we do
it as a matter of earning for life'. Everything else falls automatically in
the category of leisure.
Seen from the anthropological angle, today's dominance of material consumption
and private affluence over the common good illustrates a historical victory of
the human condition of animal laborans over homo faber and zoon politikon. It
means that commerce has triumphed over politics. Animal laborans is a dwarfed
homo sapiens whose life revolves around satisfaction of material needs and
capricious pleasures. He has retreated from political life, and has
instrumentalized work since a paid job is only a means to consumption. Homo
sapiens has become a mere animal laborans because he has retreated into the
private sphere where he focuses on satisfaction of the most basic needs: food,
comfort, and sexual pleasure.
3. Moral consequences of false anthropology: 'commodification'
The more time and personal effort we dedicate to material acquisition of status
goods and cultivation of image, the more we become like the goods that we
desire. We objectify ourselves and others. 'Living only to labour and to
consume the products of our labour we become re-created [...] in the image of
dead things which can neither see nor feel. Entrusting our identity to dead
objects, we take on their characteristics and imagine ourselves to be mere
things without capacity for listening, feeling, or truly communicating. Thus we
become estranged from our very selves, from each other [...]. Human
relationships, activities, qualities become thing-like relations, actions, and
qualities. We become transformed into the idols we trust'.
To put it other terms, owing to ubiquitous presence of material values, we lose
properly humane qualities. As J.F. Kavanaugh puts it, we become 'thingified' in
our way of being and thinking. We perceive ourselves, others and the entire
world around us according to categories that are typical of dead, material
Commodities do not have either interiority or subjectivity. They are not
equipped with personhood or free will. They are not capable of love, intimacy
or empathy. Finally, knowing that material goods are not persons (metaphysical
subjects), they do not have intrinsic dignity. The only way to know objects is
by using instrumental reasoning like external observation, repeatable
experiments and quantitative measurements. We treat material goods in a
mechanic and utilitarian way. We have a relation of domination and supremacy
over things. We produce, use, consume, and throw them away.
In the consumer society, however, the use of 'thing-type' knowledge, categories
and treatment applies not only to commodities, but to persons as well. We
perceive other people as if they were disposable goods that we keep as long as
they please, excite, or are useful to us. 'We begin to understand and recreate
ourselves in the image and likeness of the products of our hands'. The
dominance of instrumental, positivistic rationality and material values
destroys the most distinguished and properly human traits, chiefly interiority,
qualitative thinking, moral freedom, interpersonal affection. Under the pressure
of consumer values, interior life is overshadowed by a cult of exterior image.
Materialism distorts our personhood inasmuch it binds our spiritual energy and
non-material expectations to material possessions. All human needs suddenly
become commodities, and eudaimonia shrinks to material affluence.
Probably, the most frightening ethical repercussion of this consumption-fuelled
'thing-type' consciousness is dissolution of moral freedom. As previously
stated, the more we are absorbed in material consumption, the more we become in
our mind and habits like the goods we desire. Knowing that things do not have
interiority or subjectivity, they are not free. We run a risk of applying the
same reasoning to ourselves and other people. Following our 'thingified'
mentality, the result is that the only freedom we can enjoy is a free choice
between goods, not moral freedom. Based on this logic, sexual instinct for
example is beyond control and free from commitment. If we are like goods, we
cannot exercise control over ourselves.
As Kavanaugh points out, the 'commodified ethic' of the consumer society is an
ethic of is, rather than ought to. It is an ethic of quantity, preferences,
acceptance and cultural permissiveness. The ethics of consumer materialism
validates what is. It authorises us to focus on the most atavistic needs and
deadens properly human aspiration of spiritual growth and moral excellence.
Analogously to the mythological King Minos who is so engrossed with material
affluence -- the possession of gold -- that he ends up turning whatever he
touches into gold, today's consumers are so mesmerised by commodities that they
objectify mental categories, behaviour and interpersonal relations.
4. Conclusions: moral edge of the sustainable consumption agenda
As I tend to see it, the real dilemma regarding consumption is neither
ecological, nor technological but moral. Therefore, the error of exaggerated
consumption, namely consumerism, cannot be solved somehow from the 'outside' by
fiat with positivist legal procedures like the Kyoto protocol because there will
always be some nations with good reasons to disobey. No positive law has the
force to make people moral. Only people can do that; and they can only do that
by freely choosing to do the morally right thing for the right reason. By
forbidding certain actions, law can only help people to prevent
self-corruption, preserve moral ecology, and lead people to distinguish between
the morally right and wrong.
What we need is an 'inside' approach, a moral education and a set of strong
cultural convictions that would promote liberal perfectionism.
We must admit that consumption is first of all in the mind. It is a culture
constituted by a set of convictions about the good life, fashion, prosperity,
progress. To fix what is wrong with our consumption patterns we need to first
reform our culture. In brief, it means that first and foremost we should
re-examine our anthropological, moral and cultural assumptions, and then
establish new technological solutions and social policies consonant with our
In particular, an education portfolio that promotes the ancient Hellenic ideal
of a beautiful and fulfilling life can help to de-couple well being from
material affluence and shift people's attention from acquisition of goods to
non-material ends like arts, sciences, sports, and religion. From my point of
view, integral human formation is the most essential means to combat the
misery of animal laborans, the prevailing human model in the consumer society.
We can save future generations of citizen-consumers from anthropological
decadence, provided that the scholastic curriculum stresses aesthetics,
cultivation of good manners, taste and elegance, harmonious development of mind
and body, maturity of critical thinking, and the practice of self-control. A
scholastic agenda that is rooted in the Greek ideals of kalos-kagathos
(beautiful and noble) and paideia (human excellence) can become a weighty
countermeasure against the consumer society that turns homo sapiens into animal
laborans -- a creature who works to satisfy his carnal necessities.
1. What I mean by the consumer society is a culture where access, possession
and use of fashionable goods and services is the most central activity inasmuch
as material affluence is the mainspring of personal well-being and social
status. In the consumer society, never-ending acquisition of commodities
becomes an activity valuable in itself, rather than a mere means to higher ends.
I use the terms consumer society and consumerism as synonyms that always denote
'the crass elevation of material acquisition to the status of a dominant social
paradigm'. (T. Princen -- M. Maniates -- K. Conca (edd.), Confronting
Consumption, The MIT Press, Cambridge-London 2002, 3-4).
2. H. Arendt, The Human Condition. A study of the central dilemmas facing
modern man, Doubleday Anchor Book, New York 1959.
3. One thought-provoking study of this issue is R. Sennett, The Corrosion of
Character. The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism, W.W. Norton
& Company, New York-London 1998.
Sennett claims that flexibility of work regime and short-term thinking which
are central features of today's capitalism are destructive to human character.
Formation of good character is contingent on long-term goals, interpersonal
loyalty, mutual commitments, common purposes, trust and shared values. None of
these elements finds proper ground to grow in the consumer capitalism. It is
almost impossible to find out what important values and cherished personal
traits are when such concepts as 'long term' or 'permanent' are meaningless in
business. Today's capitalism damages our personality, families and social ties
because it tells us that the most important values are flexibility,
adaptability, change, independence while fulfilling private life requires just
the opposite -- commitment, long-term goals and mutual dependence.
4. R. Bocock, Consumption, Routledge, London-New York 1993, 51.
5. R. Bocock, Consumption, 47.
6. R. Bocock, Consumption, 51.
7. V. Codeluppi, Il potere del consumo. Viaggio nei processi di mercificazione
della societa, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 2003, 115-128.
8. 'The emancipation of labour has not resulted in the equality of this
activity with other activities of the vita activa, but in its almost undisputed
predominance. From the standpoint of 'making a living', every activity
disconnected with labour becomes a 'hobby'', in H. Arendt, The Human Condition,
9. J.F. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society. The spirituality of
cultural resistance. 25th anniversary edition, Orbis Books, New York 2006,
10. J.F. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, 49.
11. R.P. George, Making Men Moral: civil liberties and public morality,
Clarendon Press, Oxford 1993.
12. J. Raz, The Morality of Freedom, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1986.
13. An alternative name for this type of formation is 'humane education' which
Zoe Weil describes as education that 'nurtures the best qualities in students
and to offer young people the tools to live accordingly [...]. Humane education
provides students with knowledge, awareness, and information-gathering skills so
that they are able to choose to live according to their list of best qualities
to the greatest extent possible'. 'Humane education' includes accurate
information about the world, and development of creative thinking, positive
frame of mind, curiosity, creativity, reverence, respect and responsibility.
According to the author, the best humane qualities encompass kindness,
compassion, generosity, courage, perseverance, self-discipline, restraint,
humour, wisdom, integrity, willingness to choose change.
Z. Weil, The Power and Promise of Humane Education, New Society Publisher,
Gabriola Island 2004.
(c) Maciej Bazela 2007
Mr Maciej Bazela
Atheneum Pontificio Regina Apostolorum
III. CONFERENCE ON SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY 16 MARCH, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
Title: 'Social Responsibility for (not just large) Companies'
Venue: Hotel Palace Praha, Panska 12, Prague 1
Held under the auspices of the Social and Health Committee of the Senate of the
Organized by the British Chamber of Commerce Czech Republic.
The aim of the conference is to provide complex information about the meaning
of Corporate Social Responsibility, and guidance -- especially for small and
middle-sized companies -- for implementation of CSR principles in Czech
companies and organizations.
PROGRAMME: MORNING SESSION
09:05 Opening Word: Petr Necas, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Czech
09:15 'Even Small Gestures Can Build a Big Company' Steve Harrison, Lee Hecht
09:55 'CSR Through the Eyes of a Philosopher' Geoffrey Klempner, International
Society for Philosophers, Great Britain
10:30 Coffee Break
10:45 'CSR for SMEs' Pavlina Kalousova, Donors Forum Czech Republic
11:05 'Case Study: Green Office' Zekie Dennehy, Provident Financial Czech
11:15 'Responsible Business Practice -- Lessons from the North West of England'
Jeremy Nicholls, Responsibility Northwest, Great Britain
11:55 Questions and Answers
12:00 Lunch (buffet lunch will be held in the restaurant of the Hotel Palace)
PROGRAMME: AFTERNOON SESSION
Welcome: Milan Stech, Senator, Health and Social Affairs Committee
13:00 'Historical Perspective on CSR, or Toma Bata CSR pioneer' Svatava
Navratilova, Toma Bata University, Zlin, Czech Republic
13:20 'Case Study: Pampering Our Employees' Vladimir Kova, UNICORN, Czech
13:35 'Corporate Social Responsibility in Czech Business Practice' Jaroslav
Vich, Enviros Czech Republic
13:55 Coffee Break
14:10 'Developing Employees' Voluntarism' Jana Ruicka, Nadacia Pontis, Slovak
14:30 'Case Study: Engaging Employees in Common Good Initiatives' Eva Williams,
TESCO Czech Republic
14:45 Concluding Discussion
The event will be moderated by Jan Pokorny.
Presenting on behalf of the British Chamber of Commerce will be Miroslav
Sedlak, the head of the 'CSR Working Group' run by the Chamber.
Free entry for invited guests.
Due to the fixed times of each presentation, please note that we will be
starting 9.00 am sharp. Please take this fact into consideration when planning
your arrival to the conference.
The discussion languages will be Czech and English -- simultaneous translation
will be provided.
Registrations can be made at http://www.britishchamber.cz or by email to
Please confirm your participation by 12 March 2007, at the latest.
The Conference is sponsored by Provident Financial and Corinthia Hotels