[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 74
7th September 2012
I. 'The Problem of Abortion: A Utilitarian Discussion' by Tejasha
II. 'The Fetish of Risk' by Geoff Skoll and Maximiliano Korstanje
III. Terry Eagleton meets Roger Scruton at the Royal Institution
The issue of abortion is one to which many philosophers have
contributed, yet the debate continues unresolved. Research Scholar
Tejasha Kalita has taken her fresh eyes -- and Indian perspective --
to the question, looking to see whether it really is the case, as
many have tended to assume, that the problem can be resolved by
appeal to utilitarian ethics. It is perhaps not too great a surprise
to discover that it cannot, but it is interesting to discover some of
the reasons why not. I was particularly interested in the discussion
of sex-selective abortion, which is justified by those who practise
it as a 'necessary evil'.
In a powerful rehearsal of the classic arguments of Freud and Marx,
co-authors Prof. Geoff Skoll of Buffalo State College USA and
Maximiliano Korstanje from the University of Palermo, look at the
fetishism of risk in contemporary society, further developing points
that Korstanje argued in his previous paper 'Emergencies and the Mass
Media' (Philosophy for Business Issue 70, 23rd September 2011). The
paper illustrates the continuing importance of the style of social
analysis one might term 'radical unmasking'. However, when you're
using a potent weapon such as Freud you have to be careful you don't
accidentally point it at yourself.
My old lecturer from my days at Birkbeck College London (1972-6)
Roger Scruton vaults back on the stage next Thursday in London, where
he crosses swords with his arch-rival Terry Eagleton. Both are Fellows
of the British Academy, an honour that many aspire to and few achieve.
If you have any chance to get to the Big Smoke on 13th September, then
do take advantage of the opportunity to see the duel which promises to
be a cracker and don't forget to bring your popcorn.
I. 'THE PROBLEM OF ABORTION: A UTILITARIAN DISCUSSION' BY TEJASHA
Among some of the issues of practical ethics or applied ethics,
abortion is one of the important. An ethical dilemma is always found
to be associated, regarding the relationship between a mother and the
foetus. One of the important theories of ethics is utilitarianism as
it places importance on the consequences of an action. The aim of
this paper is to discover whether is it possible to come to a
definite conclusion on the problem of abortion, with the help of the
theory of utilitarianism.
Varieties of utilitarianism
Let us first see, what exactly is utilitarianism? Utilitarianism is a
very old ethical theory. It is a normative form of ethical theory,
which became popular during 18th to 19th centuries. The most
influential contributors to this theory were Jeremy Bentham and John
Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism is the idea according to which the moral
worth of an action is determined solely by its utility in providing
happiness or pleasure as summed among all sentient beings. It is thus
a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action
is determined by its outcome. The basic moral principle of
utilitarianism is called 'The Principle of Utility' or 'The Greatest
So far as Jeremy Bentham's view on utilitarianism is concerned, pain
and the pleasure are the two main intrinsic values in the world. The
rightness or the wrongness of an action is totally determined by the
capacity to produce the pleasure or the happiness by that action.
Bentham uses the term 'pleasure' and 'happiness' in the same sense.
Bentham's theory of utilitarianism was later modified by John Stuart
Mill. According to Mill all pleasures are not equal in their status.
According to Mill, cultural, intellectual and spiritual pleasures are
of greater value than mere physical pleasure, because the former would
be valued higher than the latter by competent judges. A competent
judge, according to Mill, is anyone who has experienced both the
lower pleasures and the higher. His famous quote found in
Utilitarianism (book) was, 'it is better to be a human dissatisfied
than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool
satisfied' demonstrating Mill's distinction between higher and lower
pleasures. Mill always says that by fulfilling ones desire also, one
may have pleasure. But happiness is something, which comes from
following virtues rather than desires.
Again utilitarianism is of two types, act utilitarianism and rule
utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism is a utilitarian theory of ethics
which states that the right action is the one which produces the
greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of
beings. On the other hand, rule utilitarianism is a form of
utilitarianism that says actions are moral when they conform to the
rules that lead to the greatest good, or that 'the rightness or
wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of
the rule of which it is an instance.'
In addition to these form of utilitarianism, one contemporary
modified version of utilitarianism is also found, that is the
preference utilitarianism. Preference utilitarians interpret the best
consequences in terms of 'preference satisfaction'. This means that
'good' is described as the satisfaction of each person's individual
preferences or desires, and a right action is that which leads to
this satisfaction. Since what is good depends solely on individual
preferences, there can be nothing that is in itself good or bad
except for the resulting state of mind. Preference utilitarianism
therefore can be distinguished by its acknowledgment that every
person's experience of satisfaction will be unique.
Problem of abortion
The main issue of this paper is the problem of abortion. Now taking
in to account of the various versions of the theory of
utilitarianism, it is to be seen whether the problem of abortion can
be solved by applying the theory of utilitarianism or not.
Abortion is something the decision on which is mainly based on many
factors. Mainly the decision of abortion is taken by a woman, if the
pregnancy is unwanted for her. It may be the case that the pregnancy
is a result of rape. It can also be the case that due to her
pregnancy, the mother may have to lose her job. It may be the case
that the foetus has some incurable disease and if that foetus will
born, then that child will have to carry that disease for a whole
lifetime, which will create problems for that particular child as
well as for the entire family. Again due to financial reasons,
sometimes it is become difficult for a particular family to carry the
burden of another child. Another important point is that, if the
health condition of the pregnant woman is poor, abortion is become
essential, otherwise that woman may lose her life. So under these
conditions, abortion is seen as necessary.
So these are some of the conditions, for which abortion becomes
essential. Otherwise the consequences produced out of it will be
painful. But under these circumstances, if a woman take the help of
abortion, then ultimate result will be happiness or pleasure.
According to act utilitarianism, the consequences of each above
mentioned cases will determine whether that action is right or wrong.
Rightness and wrongness of and action will be determined by the
consequences produced by that action. So far as the problem of
abortion is concerned, here if we try to see the problem with the
help of utilitarianism, the first thing here is to be seen is the
production of happiness. First we see the problem from the angle of
the pregnant woman. A particular woman is a person. So the happiness
of the pregnant woman is most important, so far as the problem of
abortion is concerned.
Let us see some of the conditions of abortion and how utilitarianism
deals with the conditions.
(1) If the woman is a rape victim, then it is very natural that that
pregnancy is unwanted. In this case, it is natural that the woman
does not want to carry the foetus to the term. If the baby born, in
this kind of case, then along with the girl, her whole family will
have to suffer from many problems. So far as the child is considered,
that child will not get a very good social status. The family or the
society may also think about the fact that the child had the gene of
a rapist, a criminal. So in this case that child can also become a
criminal and create problems for the society. Utilitarianism always
says about the principle of 'greatest happiness of the greatest
number'. So in this case abortion of the foetus leads to the greatest
happiness of the greatest number. That is why it can be said that
according to utilitarianism, under this circumstance abortion is
(2) We can take another instance here. If the foetus is suffering
from an incurable disease, then in this circumstance most of the
parents want to abort the foetus. In this condition if the child
born, he/she will have to suffer from that incurable disease for the
whole life time. That child will have to suffer and tolerate pain for
the over though his/her life. Along with the child, the whole family
members also have to suffer from a bad mental as well as physical
condition for the whole life. A child in this case needs treatment
for the whole life, which can be to too costly. But the guarantee of
a positive result can given by nobody. Because of it, it may happen
that the whole family may have to suffer from a very heavy financial
crisis. So to give birth the child will be painful for the entire
family. In this case it is better to abort the foetus, then to give
birth to that. So it is seen that in this case also, the abortion of
the foetus will bring the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Therefore, abortion is permissible here too.
(3) Another condition plays an important role so far as the issue of
abortion is concerned. If a family has already children and that
family is not financially so sound to have another child, under that
condition also the pregnant woman can think about the abortion.
Because of the bad financial condition of the family, to provide a
good and healthy environment and good education to the child is not
possible. So ultimately that child may not have better and secured
future. So the consequence of this act is pain and not pleasure or
happiness. That is why here in this case also it can be said that
abortion is permissible from the point of view of utilitarianism.
(4) Another contemporary condition of doing abortion is the career of
the mother. In the contemporary world, in many corporate sectors, to
become pregnant may lead to end of one's professional career. Again
the working schedule is sometimes found so hectic that it is become
very difficult to give time to the child. Both the parents are
equally busy and that is why most of the cases they decide not to
have baby. In this kind of case usually it becomes difficult to give
a proper solution. So if the happiness of the mother is concerned,
then from the utilitarian point of view also the decision of abortion
is right. But here generally the greatest happiness of the maximum
people is taken into consideration. In this kind of case it may be
the case that though the mother does not want the child, but other
members of the family may want it. In such conditions whose 'will'
get more preference is a significant question.
(5) Another important form of abortion is sex-selective abortion.
Because of many socio-cultural and religious reasons it is found that
sex-selective abortion is practiced. Especially in India, it is seen
that boy child is given preference in comparison to the girl child.
The main reason behind sex-selective abortion is dowry. In many parts
of the country during the wedding time a girl is required to take a
good amount of dowry with her. So the wedding of a daughter becomes a
big problem for the family of the girl. Especially for a poor family.
So people want to take the help of abortion, when they discover that
the foetus is a female.
In this kind of case, even the pregnant woman may not want the child.
Because she knows that, if the girl child is born, she will have to
suffer from family violence and negligence. She would not have proper
education, like her male siblings. Even after her marriage, she would
have to suffer mistreatment from their in-laws. Again if a woman is
able to give birth a male child, her status of the society increases.
Because of the patriarchal set up of society, even the pregnant woman
many times wants to do sex-selective abortion. In this condition
also, from utilitarian view point, abortion is permitted, as it
results the happiness of all the family members, sometimes even the
happiness of the pregnant woman too.
One important point, which is found here, is that the foetus is
carried by the pregnant woman. But in cases (4) and (5), if we look
at this from the utilitarian point of view then the decision of
abortion is dependent on the permission and will of all the family
members. In fact in most cases the opinions of the family members are
considered as more important then the opinion of the pregnant woman.
One important problem one finds in utilitarianism is that according
to the application of the greatest happiness of the greatest number
theory even a social evil like sex-selective abortion also becomes
justifiable. It is a big limitation of this theory so far as its
application to the problem of abortion is concerned.
An important moral aspect of abortion is that the foetus is carried
by the woman. It is something, which is totally related to the body
of the woman. All the sufferings and the pains are felt by the woman
only, and not by any other member of the society. Laura M Purdy in
this context expresses her view from a feminist perspective. The
woman who carries the foetus in their body is a person first and she
has the right over her body. Conservative writers over-rule the
rights of the women regarding her body and will. So far as
mother-foetus relation is concerned, they are both closely
intertwined, but separate from each other also. Conservative writers
totally forget about the right of the women in order to protect the
right of the foetus.
On the other hand, the pro-choice supporters always forget about the
child in order to protect the freedom and rights of the woman.
According to Purdy a pregnant woman may think about the overall
circumstances of her surroundings, such as the situation of the
society, financial condition of the family etc. Because bad
environment can lead to a bad life for the child. By thinking on the
circumstances also a mother may think not to take the child to the
world. For Laura Purdy the moral issue of abortion is not dependent
on the fact that whether the foetus is a person or not. But a woman
ought to do what they can for their foetus and the future children.
But here responsibility is not limited to the mother, but to the
whole society. So Purdy tries to give the right to the woman to take
her decision by herself itself by taking in to consideration to her
surroundings and all the circumstances related to her and the foetus.
Here Purdy raises issue of the concept of person.
Utilitarianism always gives importance on the consequences produced
by an action. The consequence or result is measured by the production
of the happiness or pleasure of a particular action. The rightness or
wrongness (or the morality) of an action is determined by that
particular action's capacity to produce the pleasure or the
happiness. Now one question will arise here i.e. what should be the
procedure on the basis of which an individual is able to determine
that an action is capable to produce pleasure? The answer to this
question is 'choice'. Now another question is found to arise, i.e.,
whose choice will this be?
It is said that a woman is a person, as she is a rational,
self-conscious being. So here it is important to give preference to
the happiness of the woman. If she is happy in aborting the foetus,
then she has the permission to do so. It may be the case that, a
woman does not want to become mother, but because of the failure of
contraceptive somehow accidentally a woman becomes pregnant. Here in
this case if she wants to abort the foetus, she has the right to do
so. Otherwise, she cannot fill the happiness and for the whole life
that feeling may be with her and it may affect the child also. She
may not give her hundred percent love, affection and care to the
Judith Jarvis cites an interesting example in this respect. Imagine
someone who wakes up in the morning to himself back to back in bed
with a famous unconscious violinist, who is suffering from a fatal
kidney ailment. The society of music lovers has discovered from
medical records that only one particular man has the right blood type
which matches with the violinist's. So they have kidnapped that person
and last night the violinist circulatory system was plugged into the
person's kidney so that it can extract poisons from the violinist's
blood as well as that person's own. To unplug the person would be
kill the violinist. This process will continue for nine months and
then the violinist will be recovered for his ailment and the two
people can safely be separated.
Thomson finds this scenario to be analogous with at least some cases
of pregnancy as her support the moral permissibility of induced
abortion. In this paper Thomson showed that the right to life
consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right
not to be killed unjustly. So, on the basis of this argument that the
foetus is a person and he or she also has the right to life, we cannot
oppose abortion. Thomson's article defends abortion rights and
functions primarily to the idea of mother-foetus consanguinity. So
here it is seen that the writer tries to defend the abortion in those
cases, where the pregnancy is accidental or unwanted.
Here it is said that so far as the happiness is concerned, it is
related to the person. So if that is the case then the right to life
and the happiness of the foetus also cannot be ignored. According to
many philosophers, the foetus is also a person. A foetus is mainly
regarded to be potential person. Because when it is born, it become
that same person. It is wrong to kill an infant. An infant also does
not have the rational capacity, but gradually when it grows up all
these qualities will be possessed by him/her. The same is the case
with the foetus. A foetus is also a potential person. After its birth
all the qualities will be gradually possessed by the foetus also. So,
in the case of abortion the happiness of the foetus is totally
neglected. Yet the foetus is also an innocent human being like the
pregnant woman. In fact in many cases it is seen that a woman gets
pregnant by her own will, but after discovering the pregnancy and
because of some unavoidable circumstances, she takes the decision of
abortion. But the innocent foetus is killed in this process.
The main argument which is given in against the abortion is like this:
It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
A human foetus is an innocent human being.
Therefore it is wrong to kill a human foetus.
The pro-life supporters always present this argument against of the
abortion. Peter Singer in this regard criticizes the second premise
of the argument. He says that if a 'human' is taken as equivalent to
'person', the second premise of the argument, which asserts that the
foetus is a human being, is clearly false; for one cannot plausibly
argue that a foetus is either rational or self-conscious. If, on the
other hand, 'human' is taken to mean no more than 'member of the
species Homo sapiens', then it needs to be shown why mere membership
of a given biological species should be a sufficient basis for a
right to life. Rather, the defender of abortion may wish to argue, we
should look at the foetus for what it is.
According to Peter singer a foetus is not a person as potentiality
and actuality are two different things. According to Peter Singer
even a chimpanzee or a dolphin has more value than a foetus. Even an
old man or a person in coma can be killed if they are compared with
the other higher animals like chimpanzee or dolphin. The version of
utilitarianism applied by Peter Singer is called preference
utilitarianism. Here Peter Singer says that it s favourable for the
pregnant woman if she has given the right to do abortion, as the
foetus is something which is related to her body only. A woman is a
human being and a person, as she is self-conscious and rational in
actuality. So it is seen that so far as utilitarian view is
concerned, it has ultimately tried to solve the problem of abortion
by taking into account the concept of person.
Abortion is not an issue that can solved with help of the production
of the degrees happiness only. Even the debate over the concept of
person is not clear. The main point in this regard is that, for all
philosophers, the woman is an actual person. So if a foetus is
considered to be person also, still the position of the woman cannot
be denied. Jane English has mainly highlighted the aspect of moral
psychology. She alloweds the right to the pregnant women to decide if
she would choose to preserve her life by terminating her pregnancy.
English has written this article from feminist point of view. In this
article she had also maintained that utilitarian theory does not have
merit. English believes that the abortion debate cannot be explained
only with the concept of person.
An important point which is to be mentioned here is that if we avoid
the debate over the concept of person and concentrate on issue of
pain and pleasure, we find that so far as the foetus is concerned
from the medical point of view, it was earlier said that abortion can
be done during the period of first trimester. The main reason behind
it is that the foetus is unable to feel any pain during this period.
But modern research has proved that a human foetus does not feel any
kind of pain before twenty-four weeks. So utilitarianism is here
dependent on the results of the medical science. Yet there are many
people who could not do abortion, because earlier it was not
permitted after three months.
There is always a possibility that some new research may say
something new. In this case it has become very difficult to come to a
definite conclusion about the exact period of abortion. Again if we
see the problem of abortion from the angle of a mother then it is
found that a mother has to undergo certain physical pain during the
time of pregnancy and more particularly on the time of delivery. But
in most of the cases when the baby comes in her lap the level of
pleasure she feels is totally inexpressible. It is an eternal bliss
for her. So there are hardly any cases we find where it is found that
the mother takes the help of abortion to get rid of the pain that she
will have to suffer during the time of delivery. Again in many cases
after the abortion a woman suffers from both mental and physical
pain. The intensity of the mental pain and the guilt feeling and the
trauma a woman suffers after the abortion is even more painful for
her then the pain she would have to suffer in the time of pregnancy
and delivery. In many cases of abortion a woman herself wants
abortion but the result of it always does not leads pleasure for her.
The needs of the situation and willingness to do what is perceived to
be necessary always do not go together for an individual.
The important point which is found in this paper is that the issue of
abortion is a very complicated issue and it is very difficult to come
to a definite conclusion regarding this problem. In this paper we
have tried to solve these issues with the help of utilitarian ethics.
But it is found that it does not much help to solve this issue
properly, as the consequences produced by abortion is vary from
person to person and situation to situation. This paper concludes
ultimately with the point that the problem of abortion is a problem
which is related to a mother and the foetus carried by the woman. The
basis of this relationship is emotion, care, and love. So it is not
possible to evaluate the definite degrees of pain and pleasure
produced in consequence of the act of abortion.
1. Laura M Purdy, 'Are Pregnant Women Fetal Containers?', Bioethics,
vol 4 Issue 4,pp-273-291, 2007
2. Judith Jarvis Thomson Jarvis, 'Defense of Abortion', Philosophy
and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no.1 (fall 1971)
3. Peter Singer, 'Abortion', In Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford
Companion to Philosophy, Oxford, 1995, pp. 2-3
4. Jane English, 'Abortion and the Concept of a Person,' Canadian
Journal of Philosophy, vol.5 no.2, 233-243, 1975
Pojman L P., Vaughan L, 2007 'The Moral life- An Introductory Reader
in Ethics and Literature', New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press )
MacKinnon Barbara, 1998 'Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues,
second Edition', Wadsworth Publishing Company,
Bonevac Daniel, 2005 'Today's Moral Issues- Classic and Contemporary
Perspectives', McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Langua,
Mayfield Publishing Company
Timmons Mark, 2007 'Disputed Moral Issues: A Reader', New York,
Oxford, Oxford University Press
Holland Stephen, 2003 'Bioethics: An Philosophical Introduction',
Cambridge, Oxford, Policy Press in association with Blackwell
Bowden Peta, 1997 'Caring: Gender-Sensitive Ethics' Routledge, London
Marquis Don, 'Why Abortion Is Immoral', 'The Journal of Philosophy',
vol. LXXXVI. 4, pp- 183-202, (April 1989)
Callahan Daniel, 'Abortion and Medical Ethics', 'The ANNALS of the
American Academy of Political and Social Science', Vol. 437, No. 1,
Crome Keith,' Is Peter Singer's Utilitarian Argument about Abortion
Tenable?' Richmond Journal of Philosophy 17 (Spring 2008)
McMillan Carol, 'Women, Reason and Nature: Some Philosophical
Problems with Feminism', Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1982.
http://www.utilitarian.org/abortion.html accessed 26 December 2010
http://www.megaessays.com/viewpaper/101954.html accessed 26 December
utilitarianism-and-abortion-36068.html accessed 26 December 2010
accessed 26 December 2010
Department of HSS, IIT Guwahati
E-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) Tejasha Kalita 2012
II. 'THE FETISH OF RISK' BY GEOFF SKOLL AND MAXIMILIANO KORSTANJE
This paper cites the contributions of Sigmund Freud and other
theorists on totems, taboos, and by extension fetishes. Our
elaboration seizes on these ideas as they were addressed by Karl Marx
and Sigmund Freud. Marx wrote of totems and fetishes mainly from the
perspective of political economy. Freud delved into their
psychological import. We argue that Marx and Freud dealt with the
same thing and in similar ways. They both treated totems and fetishes
as things and practices functioning to ward off anxiety. Also, they
both treated totems and fetishes as promoters of illusion, one from
the psychological and the other from the political perspective.
Totems and fetishes represent ways people try to ward off anxiety,
and they function as building blocks of illusions. Complementary to
Marx, Freud wrote about totems and fetishes from a psycho-economic
perspective, but he did so in two respects. He wrote several books
devoted to social, as opposed to individual psychology, and these
books mainly analyzed the origin of religion. He attributed the
origins of religion to totemism. He also wrote about totemic defenses
in the form of fetishes with respect to individual, intrapsychic
economics. Totems and fetishes memorialize and defend against
anxiety. They act as screens against memories, totems for social
memories and fetishes for the personal.
In Marx's terminology, totems and fetishes take the form of political
economic institutions and commodities, respectively. For both Marx and
Freud, totems and fetishes defend the status quo be concealing
reality. The legacy of both today may be well applied to the
philosophy of risk, a slippery matter that merits to be studied.
Freud's Totemism and His Theory of Religion
Most of Freud's explicitly social thought deals with religion.
Religions are belief systems distinguished from other kinds of belief
systems in that they are based on faith and authority. They are
systems rooted in meanings. In his last full length treatment of
religion, Moses and Monotheism (1939), Freud sought to explain
Judaism and certain character traits attributed to Jews as a people.
His specific aim holds less importance for the present than the logic
he used to achieve it. Freud rejected certain objections to his
earlier Totem and Taboo (1913), and made a point of reaffirming what
he had written previously (1939:131). He reiterated in briefer form
what he had argued at length in 1913. He summarized it as follows:
The original human society took the form of a horde or band. All
males were the leader's sons; all females were his property, either
wives or daughters. The leader enforced his authority with violence,
including death or castration. At some point, the brothers united to
overpower their father.
Totemism and its later religious derivatives, according to Freud,
carries the power of prohibition through symbolic effect -- that is,
it forces the ego to inhibit action toward a desired aim, not through
reality testing, but through meaning. Taking this line of thought
somewhat further, but not I think violating Freud's intent, is that
incest and its positive charge, exogamy, are the primary social
norms. Their force is represented by the totem, a kind of fetish for
the inhibited drives and around which later religious embellishments
build their doctrines. Through this logic, Freud built his conclusion
that religion is neurosis writ large.
From that time [Totem and Taboo, 1913] I have never doubted
that religious phenomena are only to be understood on the
pattern of the individual neurotic symptoms familiar to us
-- as the return of the long since forgotten, important
events in the primaeval history of the human family -- and
that they have to thank precisely their origin for their
compulsive character and that, accordingly, they are
effective on human beings by force of the historical truth
of their content. (1939:58)
Religion, for Freud, embodies the dialectical struggle and the
inherent discontent of the human condition. With all its observable
trappings, its symbols, rituals, doctrines; religion tells the tale
of not only human history, but the continuous conflict among three
moments of being human: the biophysical, the psychological, and the
social. They all condition each other. When speaking of humanity, the
pure organism is an impossibility. Mind and society are not add-ons,
they are essential. Freud gave a central role to religion in his
social thought, because, like neurotic symptoms, religion represents,
albeit in distorted, condensed, displaced, and symbolic forms the
phylogenetic history of human sociality.
Moreover, religion reveals the connection between ontogeny and
phylogeny. That is, religion recapitulates what individual confessors
experience in their personal early histories. Freud posited a primeval
drama, his story of the primal horde, to account for religion. Despite
its improbability in ethnological terms, the primal horde drama does
resemble the oedipal drama. In fact, it more than resembles it; it is
a reenactment of it. But which came first, oedipus or the primal
horde? The answer to that question displays Freud's dialectic,
because the answer is that neither came first. They occur together;
they condition each other, and they explain each other.
Early humans, assuming for the moment they are anatomically modern
humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, fantasized the primal horde drama.
True, maybe occasionally some early human groups actually enacted it,
but that occurrence is no more necessary than the actual seduction of
children by parents, because unconscious processes do not distinguish
between thought and external reality. Nevertheless, they either enact
it or fantasize it, because they have superegos and egos that have
formed as a result of their individual oedipal dramas.
Freud's primal horde drama finds reenactment in small groups with
regularity. Therapy groups, task groups, committees, not the least
academic committees, disclose it all the time (Bion 1961; Parsons and
Bales 1955). They are not engaged in a religious ritual, rather
religious rituals use the drama as part of their institutionalized
forms. The reenactment of the primal horde occurs in groups as
reenactments of shared oedipal experiences. The primal father,
threatening, domineering, and adored re-occurs regularly in ordinary
For Freud, fetishism is a perversion that avoids neurosis. The fetish
symbolizes the phallus. Fetishists choose any number of different
kinds of objects as phallic representations. They choose according to
the peculiar particulars of their personal, psychological biographies.
The choice of object is less important than its function: it wards off
anxiety and stimulates sexual excitement. In his clinical work, Freud
discovered that the fetish, in whatever form it takes, represents a
missing penis (1905, 1927). The fetish serves as a solution to the
castration complex, which involves anxiety about castration.
The fetish reassures the fetishist that s/he will not be castrated
and that women really have penises. Formation of the fetish depends
on disavowal: pretending what was seen was not seen. At the same time
the reassurance of the missing women's penis is displaced onto the
fetish object. The fetish produces sexual stimulation because if
castration is not a risk, then the fetishist is free to indulge his
or her sexual fantasies. Of course, the castration complex also lies
at the base of totemism, because the totem represents an overcoming
of the castrator -- the primal father. Both the totem and the fetish
allay anxiety in non-neurotic ways, that is they do not produce
Freud defined and described anxiety as a signal of danger. 'Anxiety
is a reaction to a situation of danger. It is obviated by the ego's
doing something to avoid that situation or to withdraw from it. It
might be said that symptoms are created so as to avoid the generating
of anxiety' (1926:128-9). The difference between fear and anxiety,
between realistic and ego determined reactions, versus unrealistic
imagined fears lies at the bottom of symptoms, fetishes, and totems.
For example, the ego can take steps to protect itself from external
threats, by hiding, avoidance, or employing various safety devices
such as the safety belts used by who must work high off the ground.
The ego cannot use such tactics for internal threats based on fears
of imagined castration or other punishments for forbidden desires.
The latter are the source of symptoms, totems, and fetishes.
Whereas neurotic symptoms and fetishes are individualistic, totems
are social. Totems are culturally shared symbolic representations of
common experiences. According to Freud, the oedipus complex and
castration anxiety are part of normal human development. It is in
that sense that they are shared. Totems and religion in general, for
which the totem is the template, solve by condensing, displacing, and
symbolizing human problems into a particular image. Because they have
a social and cultural foundation, they give rise to institutionalized
reinforcements -- churches for example. At certain times and in
certain places, questioning the bases of religious institutions
amounted to heresy, which was suppressed often violently. The heretic
becomes anyone who would question or dispute the narrative of the
totemic religion. Such heretics pose a threat to the established
social order, because they call into question the neat solution the
totem has offered. The totem solves on a mass scale the economic
problem of how to inhibit human drives by repressing and displacing
them onto the totem.
Marx and the Fetishism of Commodities and Capital
Marx offered an analysis about a different level of economy, not the
psycho-economic but the political economic. Marx first used the
concept of fetish to refer to economic things in a series of articles
in 1842. He relied on the exposition of religious fetishism by Charles
de Brosses (1760), Auguste Compte's materialist treatment of the
stages of religion (1841), and Ludwig Feuerbach's analysis of
Christianity (1841). The basic idea in all three is that religious
belief and practices involve investing material objects -- statues,
painted rocks, bits of bone, and so on -- with supernatural powers.
For a Western version, consider the power attributed to holy water,
or in medieval times, to pieces of the 'True Cross.'
Evident to the outside observer, but not to believers, is that the
fetish object has power because and only because people have invested
it with powerful qualities. In this respect, Freud's sexual fetish
object, and religious fetish objects operate similarly. The
fetishistic shoe, to use one common example, arouses sexuality
because and only because the fetishist has attributed sexual powers
to it. Marx stressed that the fetish solves a political economic
problem -- namely, the problem of how to get the masses of people to
accept the predominant social order, despite what their senses tell
them. In this way Marx's fetish functions the same as Freud's.
Despite what his eyes tell him, the fetishist solves the problem of
castration fear and yearning for forbidden desires. The effect of
both kinds of fetish results in continued domination; the sexual
fetish by the law of the primal father who threatens castration, and
political fetish by laws of the society. (Marx 1867:77)
The key to the transformation of things people produce into
commodities lies in the fact that people do not produce commodities
for each other or even for themselves. They produce commodities for a
market. Under the tutelage of capital the market becomes an impersonal
institution in which things find their trading equivalence through
other things, most commonly mediated by money. In the twenty-first
century, the character of this capitalist market assumes a clear form
when securities exchange for other securities untouched by human hands
as computerized, online trading takes over more and more of capital
markets. Consequently, the social institution of the market appears
to order economic relations among people, and at the same time it
obscures two facts. First, people in interaction with each other
created and continually create the market. Second, ownership and
therefore the possibility of exchange itself is a social creation.
To clarify, Marx distinguished between human labor and the
subsistence activities of non-human animals (Marx, 1944, 389-9).
Humans live in a world they themselves create, and they attain
consciousness through their own creations, most noticeably that of
language. This last is also something Freud observed (1923). People
labor to make language. Language is necessarily a social product;
there is no such thing as an idiosyncratic language. Moreover,
language is not a once and for all kind of thing, but people make it
continually through their linguistic interactions, and they
continually change it, as historical linguistics shows. The English
written by Geoffrey Chaucer, for instance, appears foreign to present
day Anglophones: as language so all of human productive activity.
Except in the case of certain writings for sale, musical and other
performances, and so on, most people do not think of language, their
talk and writing, as a commodity. Nonetheless, as soon as it is
turned into a commodity, it takes on the fantastical character of the
fetish. Consider a best-selling novel or song. It becomes private
property. The creator's labor becomes estranged, alienated, as it
becomes the property not only of the author, but also various
business enterprises, publishing houses and the like. This begins to
appear natural, but it is most unnatural. It is unnatural because the
author was not the sole creator of the linguistic work. S/he used the
materials fashioned by all humanity throughout human history. The
work becomes alienated by turning into a commodity.
In time, however, the commodity can revert to a form that is less
alienated. It can become a classic. Therefore, for example, the
writings of Plato, Shakespeare, or Confucius begin to reassert their
social character. That is, they become public property, part of
humanity's cultural heritage. Although this negation of the
alienation, to use a Hegelian turn of phrase, provides food for
thought, the immediate purpose of this essay focuses attention on the
alienation through commodification.
The fetish of the commodity conceals the process of alienation. It
puts in place of shared ownership, a common cultural heritage, a
market value. That market value is liable to appropriation. Various
actors appropriate it in the form of profit, which they claim to own,
and subsequently convert into capital. In the Grundrisse (1973),
Marx's outline for what became Capital, he described the process of
alienation. The social character of activity, as well as the social
form of the product, and the share of individuals in production here
appear as something alien and objective, confronting the individuals
not as their relation to one another, but as their subordination to
relations which subsist independently of them and which arise out of
collisions between mutually indifferent individuals. (Marx 1973:157)
Commodity fetishism goes hand in hand with the totemism of the
market. The market is treated as a sui generis kind of thing as if
early trade relations among tribal peoples or the markets of medieval
Europe differed only by technological advances from the markets of
Wall Street, the City of London, and others. Everyone must worship
the totem of the market else they starve. Marx was clear about it,
rejecting this natural market in favor of an historical particular
change, which he called primitive accumulation. He was not referring
to the accumulation of wealth in ancient societies, and even less so
in non-state societies, in which some individuals gain wealth while
others persist in poverty. He defined primitive accumulation as the
starting point for the production of commodities and expropriation of
profit through the wage system. He likened it to original sin in
theology (1867:713). It occurs in primal times, but primal times in
capitalism, not primal times in human history. It is the time of
primary alienation in which occurs 'the historical process of
divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears
primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital...'
The crucial factor that creates alienated labour with the coming of
capitalism is the predominance of commodity production and wage
labour (Sayers 2011:90). This is the original sin, or in Freud's
imaginative reconstruction of the primal family, the displacement of
the primal father by a band of brothers who then erect a totem both
to commemorate their triumph and prevent the primal father's
reinstatement. In Freud's case, the totem is erected to ward off
anxiety about castration and deflect guilt for the imagined crime of
killing the father. In the Marxian scenario, the totem of the market
obscures a different crime. 'The starting-point that gave rise to the
wage-labourer as well as to the capitalist was the servitude of the
labourer' (Marx 1867:715). The crime is theft of the earth, the
commons, and subordination of the workers from whom the capitalist
extracts surplus value -- the value they produce over and above that
needed for their own subsistence and reproduction. Precapitalist
societies may have stratification, a class hierarchy, actual slavery,
and other forms of inequality and inequity, but they do not mystify
extraction of surplus value as a result of workers' servitude. The
servitude is quite open and clear to view by everyone involved.
In precapitalist societies work is an autonomous activity
which for the most part directly meets the needs of the
household and locality. With the coming of capitalism, work
itself becomes a commodity, undertaken for wages. People no
longer work for themselves, but for another, and their
activities are owned and controlled by that other, by
capital [emphasis added] (Sayers 2011:91).
Note that what Sayers says is not that in precapitalist societies no
one worked for another, because, of course, slaves worked for their
masters and serfs worked for their lords. The one for whom workers
labor under capitalism is not a person, but a thing -- capital.
Capital is the master fetish where the chief totem is the market.
Totemism, Fetishism and Risk
Following this argument, Korstanje (2011; 2012) mentions three
examples of risk in the modern world: terrorism, crime, and
automobiles. Totems are similar to risk for modern mind, they are
sacred-fears that protect particular economic goods.
Before examining each, the notion of risk needs definition. In early
capitalism, sometimes identified as mercantile capitalism, trade
served as the main way to accumulate capital. Trade, especially long
distance trade in the early modern period, the fourteenth to the
seventeenth centuries, involved great risks and concomitantly, even
greater profits when successful. Banking and insurance arose to cover
both possibilities, with the merchants of Venice acting as models.
Recently, two social theorists have proposed a different concept of
risk, and they do so in two slightly different ways. Nonetheless,
both agree that risk, at least the way they conceive it, is a recent
phenomenon, dating from the advent of late modernity, sometime in the
latter part of the twentieth century. Ulrich Beck (1986) and Anthony
Giddens (1990, 1991, 1999) both say risk is a product of late
modernity in which human made hazards replace natural hazards as the
main threat to well being. The hazards of environmental degradation
-- for example, nuclear disasters, global warming, and contamination
of water and air -- come from human activity and pose greater threats
than non-human induced dangers. The difference between the two lies in
the different importance they attach to social status. Beck says that
modern risk has replaced class stratification, whereas Giddens
recognizes that degrees of risk differ according to people's status
in the prevailing social hierarchy. For present purposes, these
differences are minor. Neither focuses on the three sources of risk
identified by Korstanje (2012).
With the US declaration of a war on terror, terrorism has assumed the
publicly touted cynosure of risks and anxiety. Crime has run a close
second, sometimes with little to distinguish them, since the US
government has criminalized individuals deemed as terrorists because
they oppose US policies, such as invasions of various strategic
countries around the world, Iraq and Afghanistan most notably.
Interpersonal crime assumed the mantle of a major risk in late
modernity largely through the efforts of various reactionary
politicians in the United States and Great Britain along with certain
other strategic political ploys in other countries.
Richard Nixon ran on and won the presidency of the United States in
1968 by relying on a platform devoted to curbing crime in the
streets, by coded reference to which he meant racial minorities and
those who opposed the US invasion of Vietnam. He won the presidency
by saddling his opponent with being soft on crime. George H.W. Bush
successfully used the same tactic in 1988. Both Nixon and Bush relied
on a racial code in which they associated crime with racial
minorities, especially Black Americans. Using terrorists as
scapegoats remains less obviously racial as the terrorism label
attaches mainly to a religion -- Islam. In the United States,
however, most adherents are Black Americans, and their
co-religionists tend to be connected with people hailing from Asia
and especially the Middle East where US military and economic
strategic interests abide.
The totem connected with this kind of political culture is security.
US policy has increasingly advanced a national and international
policy of a national security state. The advantage of the national
security state for the ruling class involves both diversion of public
attention, and policies aimed at cementing the position of the ruling
class while enriching them further at the same time.
Automobiles present themselves as a remarkably clear example as the
commodity as fetish. Especially in the United States, cars have long
been associated with masculine sexuality. A common cultural
assumption is that having a fast and sleek car attracts women. Cars
also hold the promise to men, and to women albeit usually to a lesser
extent, of control of great power (hundreds of horse power) as a
Risks of terrorism beget counter-terrorism. Risks of interpersonal
crime, or at any rate, individual crime such as stealing the goose
from the commons, beget domestic security apparatuses -- increased
policing, surveillance, and a brisk industry in home and business
protection services, not to mention a growing private prison
industry. Terrorism and interpersonal crime represent quintessences
of alienation. In both, people attack each other as means to ends.
Terrorists attack to gain some political advantage. Criminals attack
their victims for economic advantage or revenge. Both types of
attackers may also pursue terror and crime for other purposes, but
politics, economic gain, and revenge figure prominently for both
Automobile culture represents social alienation in a different
fashion. It secludes people within steel armor as they speed along
their way. Individuals do not greet each other by waves or tips of
the hat, calling out greetings, smiling, or giving social
acknowledgement in other ways. Contrast travel by automobile with
that of various forms of public transportation -- trains, planes, or
buses. Recently, the emergence of SUVs as the personal vehicle of
choice, show the marketability of security in transport, regardless
of how actuarially inaccurate the claim might be. In fact, public
transport is far safer than any kind of automobile.
Marx and Freud offer counter-narratives. Freud told the story of the
primal horde as a way to account for religion and subordination of
masses to a fetishized object, the totem. Marx told the story of the
emergence of alienated labor subordinated to another fetishized
object, capital. Both these counter-narrative provide models for a
lucid and critical analysis of predominant narratives of terrorism,
crime, and automobile culture. The counter-narratives reveal the
underlying aim to main social hierarchies by ensuring that the masses
displace fears onto objects that present few dangers, while at the
same time ignoring their own subordination. People yearn for the
commodities they themselves produce, but no matter how many
commodities they acquire, they can never fulfill their desires, just
as the fetishist cannot achieve full satisfaction of sexual desire.
The effect is the same as a thirsty person drinking salt water. The
masses thereby become complicit in their own servitude.
Beck, Ulrich. 1986 (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity,
translated by Mark Ritter. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications
Beck Ulrich. 2006. La Sociedad del riesgo, hacia una nueva
modernidad. Buenos Aires, Paidos
Bion, Wilfred R. 1961. Experiences in Groups and Other Papers. New
York, NY: Basic Books
Freud, Sigmund. 1964. The Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited and translated by James
Strachey, 24 vols. [SE]. London, UK: Hogarth Press
________ 1905. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. SE vol.
________ 1913. Totem and Taboo. SE vol. 13:1-162
________ 1923. The Ego and the Id, translated by James Strachey. SE
________ 1926. Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety. SE vol. 20:87-178
________ 1927. Fetishism. SE vol. 21:149-157
________ 1939. Moses and Monotheism. SE vol. 23:3-143
Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press.
________ 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the
Late Modern Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
________ 1999. Risk and Responsibility. Modern Law Review 62(1):1-10
________ 1999. Consecuencias de la Modernidad. Madrid, Alianza
Korstanje, Maximiliano. (2011). 'Reconnecting with Poverty: new
challenges of disasters Management'. International Journal of
Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment. Vol. 2 (2): 165-177
Korstanje, Maximiliano. (2012). 'Introduction to the thinking of Cass
Sunstein: risk and rationale applied on Latin-American reality'. A
Contracorriente. Revista de Historia Social y Literatura en America
Latina. Vol. 9 (3): 291-315
Marx, Karl. 1842a. The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kolnische
________ 1842b. Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood
________ 1844 (1975). Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In
Early Writings, translated by Rodney Livingston and Gregor Benton;
introduced by Lucio Colletti, 279-400. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin
________ 1867 (1967). Capital Volume 1: The Process of Capitalist
Production, edited by Frederick Engels; translated from the third
German edition by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. New York, NY:
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. 1848 (1983). Manifesto of the
Communist Party, translated by S. Moore. In The Portable Karl Marx,
Edited by Eugene Kamenka, 203-241. New York, NY: Penguin Books
Parsons, Talcott and Robert F. Bales. 1955. Family, Socialization,
and Interaction Process. Glencoe, IL: Free Press
Sayers, Sean. 2011. Marx and Alienation: Essays on Hegelian Themes.
New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan
(c) Maximiliano E. Korstanje and Geoff Skoll 2012
III. TERRY EAGLETON MEETS ROGER SCRUTON AT THE ROYAL INSTITUTION
From: email@example.com (Kit Cockburn)
To: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Terry Eagleton vs Roger Scruton for Intelligence Squared,
Dear Dr Klempner,
I'm writing to you from Intelligence Squared.
We stage live debates in London, New York and Hong Kong.
On Thursday 13th September we're hosting Terry Eagleton in
conversation with long time adversary Roger Scruton at the Royal
Both are Fellows of the British Academy, both of them against the
excesses of the market, both of them environmentalists. Yet the sting
has not gone out of their two deeply opposed world views.
Please find more information here:
Needless to say we're very excited about bringing both figureheads of
the right and left together, and I was hoping you might consider
circulating the event details to your members and students?
Marketing and Press Manager
Add: Newcombe House, 45 Notting Hill Gate, London, W11 3LQ
Tel: 0207 221 1177
Mob: 07989 173 979
*TERRY EAGLETON MEETS ROGER SCRUTON*
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 13, 7PM | ROYAL INSTITUTION
For 40 years, culture has been one of the major battlegrounds where
the left and right have come into conflict. Fogey-ish traditionalists
defended the established canon as the arena for critical judgment.
They did old-fashioned things like read books and talk about
narrative, characters, and moral qualities. Modish
post-structuralists, on the other hand, saw everything and anything
as equally worthy of analysis and deconstruction. They focused on
texts and multiple meanings and unpicked the sexual codes in car
design as readily as the patriarchal order in Jane Austen.
Throughout these battles, Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton have been
central. Eagleton, poster-boy of the firebrands -- but able to talk
the analytical philosophy of the traditionalists; Scruton, the
traditionalists' thinking man, but nevertheless devourer -- and
assimilator -- of the works of Foucault, Derrida and Barthes.
Now both are Fellows of the British Academy, both of them against the
excesses of the market, both of them environmentalists and both
Catholic sympathisers -- yet the sting has not gone out of their two
deeply opposed world views. Come and find out why.