Rationality, Economics and Violence: A Social and Environmental Philosophy by Kenneth Wilson

The previous chapter discussed aspects of scientific rationality. This chapter continues the theme of rationality by discussing its economic form. The main concern is that the concept of rationality involved in laissez-faire capitalism turns out to be less than rational. Let me give an example of how economic “rationality” can be found wanting. This example relies on an interpretation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As Joel E. Cohen notes,

Prisoners Dilemma

The Prisoner’s Dilemma demonstrates that individuals who independently pursue their own self-interest, utterly without co-operation, may arrive at a result which is not optimal for anyone.[1]

This result is reminiscent of criticisms made of liberal individualism in chapter 3. Moreover, Cohen applies this model in an imaginative way. He gives the argument that the participants in the Prisoner’s Dilemma may be interpreted as the rich, industrialised countries being one participant, and the developing countries the other. The choice that these participants have before them is to reduce or increase the consumption of fossil fuels which add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Cohen notes that the optimum outcome of this Prisoner’s Dilemma is that both participants reduce their carbon dioxide emissions such that the negative effects of global warming are averted. Cohen continues,
This interpretation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game is not fantasy. At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, William Reilly, the administrator of the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency, and Curtis Bohlen, the assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, saw the potential benefits to the United States of making commitments to higher environmental standards in both developed and underdeveloped countries.
For developed countries raising environmental standards in developing countries offered three payoffs: lessening global problems that could be solved by no single party, such as ozone depletion, greenhouse warming and protection of biological diversity; decreasing the handicap on strictly regulated industries in developing countries by increasing the environmental regulation of industries in developing countries; and augmenting the market in developing countries for cleaner technologies and for environmental goods and services that are available in the industrial nations.
The developing countries at Rio wanted higher environmental standards plus foreign aid from the developed countries to assist them in meeting those standards, in preserving biodiversity and in developing economically. Others in the domestic and economic staff of the US White House saw in Rio only political and economic vulnerability. They viewed pressures for increased foreign aid as an unalloyed drawback, as a zero-sum game (what your side gains, our side loses). In the end, the White House view of the Rio conference as a zero-sum game dominated the view of it as a Prisoner’s Dilemma.[2]
This passage is worth quoting at length because it makes clear the point that the White House decided to act in terms of its own self-interest rather than co-operate with the developing countries. Therefore, it may be asked: is self-interest which takes this form really rational at all? It is likely that the White House would have justified its decision on the basis that it is to its benefit to continue with the present status quo. Given the potentially damaging effects of global warming, one has to question the fundamental rationality of the White House’s decision. This then, is a specific example of a general principle. If economic rationality does not meet the criterion of environmental sustainability, then it cannot be genuinely rational, since it is irrational to damage that on which humanity depends.
The prevailing economic orthodoxy seems woefully inadequate. This is particularly so in view of the fact that, at the time of writing, the environmental implications of economic activity are not given all the serious consideration they deserve. As André Gorz notes:

The ecological restructuring of society demands that economic rationality be subordinated to an eco-social rationality. That subordination is incompatible with the capitalist paradigm of maximisation of productivity and profit. It is also incompatible with a market economy which forces competing enterprises into constant product innovation and differentiation, into continually creating new desires and proposing satisfaction of those desires by raising consumption to as high a level as possible….[3]

nonrenewable resources

We might say then, for example, that, rather than using the traditional measures of GNP or GDP, economic performance could be more satisfactorily indexed in the light of environmental concerns. Specifically, it may be suggested that economic performance could be measured on the basis that the smaller the quantity of non-renewable resources the economy uses, the better the economy may be said to be performing. Some measure along these lines must, I think, be adopted if we are to avoid irrevocable environmental disaster.
This, to me, seems the rational option. This being the case, it does not follow that it is the easy option, since reduction in the use of non-renewable resources as an index of economic performance amounts to a virtual reversal of economic thinking. Yet such an index of economic performance seems eminently rational, since an index of this type would have the potential to put economic activity on sustainable ground.
There is a second shibboleth which I wish to question, and it concerns the distribution of resources. According to classical economics it is the market which distributes goods, and which, in more recent times, has been restricted by progressive taxation. Now, consider the following method of distribution of a particular good. For the sake of simplicity I choose oil, though it could be many other goods or services. In principle, the annual production of North Sea oil could be equally distributed among, say, every citizen of Scotland. However, rather than every citizen having his or her own personal storage facility, it may be suggested that every citizen has his or her bank account credited with the total revenue received from sales minus the cost of production, such that every citizen would have an annual income, equivalent in size.
On this model all citizens would have an income by virtue of being citizens of Scotland. Moreover, in this case it is not a small cadre of institutional shareholders who benefit, rather it is the citizenry at large. In a sense, the organisations involved in extracting oil would become not-for-profit, in that profits would be equally distributed among the citizenry rather than shareholders. Nationalisation sought to take economic power from large companies and replace their role with the State. The case which has been described, circumvents both the role of large companies and that of the State, to the overall benefit of the “people on the ground.”
It is something along these lines that nationalisation ought to have achieved. The reason that it did not, lies in the paradigm originating in the seventeenth-century (described in chapter 3), in which, although equality before the ballot box could be conceived (and eventually realised), in no way could equivalence of the right to property be realised. This explains why, even in the western democracies, it is the class of possessors who have effective political power and not the people themselves.[4]
It is not asserted that the egalitarian method of distributing wealth from a natural resource described is unproblematic. Nevertheless, it is asserted that this is evidence that there are real, and potentially viable alternative routes to thinking about economic realities in general. In a sense, at issue here is whether it is Adam Smith’s “hidden hand” that guides economic realities, or, whether reason can grasp them? If one is to support the hidden hand hypothesis, this amounts to an appeal to mysticism and a back seat for rationality. If one advocates that reason can grasp such matters, then one is drawn into an avenue which is, to say the least, unfashionable; that is, the idea that human rationality could, in principle, plan economic realities.

It was a choice of this sort that the White House faced in the example discussed earlier. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their faith in mystically muddling through proved stronger on this occasion. I now discuss constraints a genuine, real economic rationality must contend with. What follows describes criteria against which economic rationality must be assessed if it is to be genuinely rational at all.

The first of these will be referred to as the lower bound of resource utilisation, and the second, the upper bound of resource utilisation. The lower bound is the classical battle-ground for debates in economic theory, political theory and political philosophy. The main problem for this lower bound is: how are the essentials of life to be provided for everyone? This has been called the lower bound because it represents some minimum threshold level above which resources must be present such that human existence can flourish. Examples of necessary elements the lower bound must include are clean water, an adequate diet, shelter, health care, education and security to name a few.
The upper bound of resource utilisation is defined with reference to the finite properties of the biosphere. If the lower bound is not satisfied then people suffer, and fail to achieve their full potential. If resource utilisation does not remain within the upper bound then environmental disaster is the inevitable consequence, which involves not only calling the continuance of the biosphere into question, but also therefore, our own continuance. In order to satisfy the twin criteria of environmental sustainability and social justice, resource utilisation must lie within these bounds.[5]
Therefore, for human actions in the biosphere to be more than superficially rational, they have to be carried out within these constraints; and, this is the challenge that faces economic reason. Is reason equal to this challenge? Traditionally there are two main answers to this question. The first is exemplified by the quotation from Burke given in the Introduction. In essence, whatever economic realities pertain, these are in some sense immutable. On this view, the determination of price in the marketplace is governed by the relation between supply and demand, and such determinations are of a similar status to the laws of physics.
This brings us to the second traditional answer. This view argues that economic realities are intimately connected with a broad set of cultural values and priorities, and, as such, are subject to a degree of malleability. The example given in the Introduction of the brewing industry in the West and its absence in orthodox Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, illustrates this point. Not only religious belief, but other factors such as law, tradition, custom, climate and of course the presence of natural resources, all importantly influence the type of economic activity which takes place in a given cultural context.
Having revealed the answer preferred here, allow me to emphasise and justify my preference. At the heart of the difference between the two positions described lies an important issue. The former position would have us instate a type of isotropy in human existence in which economics deals with issues in much the same way as does any natural science. In effect, this is a form of positivism in which the distinction between social science and natural science is collapsed. (This is an issue which is dealt with at greater length in the following chapter.)
On the other hand, the latter position sees economic realities as distinct in type from the natural sciences. Moreover, this position sees human beings as agents who are actively engaged in reality according to complex sets of values and priorities. Thus, in an important sense, economic realities are mind-dependent, and they are creations of human cultural realities. For instance, that Stealth bombers exist, is a reflection of a set of desires which brought them into existence. Put differently, the position taken here, is that it is we who create the market and determine its properties, as opposed to the market tyrannically determining us. Therefore, the challenge of economic reason may possibly be responded to via recourse to establishing legitimate priorities and values – values in the non-financial sense of the term.
The upper bound is a relatively recent additional dimension to debates in economic thought. Given the description already given, any account of human well-being must deal with both bounds, since they define a ‘window’ within which we have to exist if we are to achieve both international social justice and environmental sustainability. To take international social justice, it is known empirically that a large proportion of the Earth’s human population in the underdeveloped countries live in conditions of abject poverty, that is, their mode of existence does not satisfy the lower bound.

Indeed, as Cohen notes, it has been estimated that in 1992, “The more than two billion people in the poorest countries lived on an average income of $400, or a dollar a day.”[6] At the same time, there is a proportion in the developed countries which broadly lives far above the lower bound. Again as Cohen comments, “In 1992, the 830 million people in the world’s richest countries enjoyed an average annual income of $22,000 – a truly astounding achievement.”[7]

economic inequality

This inequality has a number of standard responses. Typically the liberal response claims that responsibility lies only between members of a community. This view denies any alleged responsibility the better off have for the worst off, when these terms are interpreted on a global basis. On the other hand, the cosmopolitan asserts the binding validity of such a responsibility. The clear advantage of the cosmopolitan position is that it follows through to its logical conclusion the egalitarian principle. More concretely, this debate addresses the question of whether the developed countries have moral responsibilities to the developing and underdeveloped countries. If it is accepted that this responsibility does exist, how might it be manifest?
The best option would be to transfer resources to the developing and underdeveloped countries correlated with greater simplicity and a more parsimonious use of resources in the developed countries. This trade off satisfies two criteria. Firstly, it would be a step to achieving international social justice (the lower bound), and secondly, it would reduce the pressure the developed countries place on the upper bound by the extravagant use of resources. Clearly this position is a radical challenge to the self-interested materialism (in the sense of acquisitiveness) of the developed countries. George Kennan clearly described the position that is challenged here, when, in a report to the government of the USA he wrote,
We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population…In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.[8]
Kennan made this statement shortly after the end of the Second World War. One does not have to be particularly pious to regard Kennan’s bald statement of national self-interest as morally repugnant. It is, I would submit, the realpolitik which underpins the activities of the liberal democracies of the developed countries. Against Kennan, John le Carré may be cited,
The mere fact that communism didn’t work doesn’t mean that capitalism does. In many parts of the globe it’s a wrecking, terrible force, displacing people, ruining lifestyles, traditions, ecologies and stable systems with the same ruthlessness as communism.[9]

Furthermore, a similar position is described by Gorz:

Particularly in periods of radical change and accelerated technical innovation, capitalism breaks down the social order, shatters cohesion and “identities”, sweeps away traditional norms and values, and dissolves those communities, allegiances and exchanges that were formerly felt to be entirely natural by bringing them under a system of technical constraints and legal normalisation. This is what Habermas calls the “colonisation of the lifeworld” by the “economic and administrative subsystems”.[10]

The contrast in view between Kennan on the one hand, and Gorz and le Carré on the other, is a clear instance of the well-known differences between Right and Left political philosophies respectively. Kennan’s remarks could well be seen as the hidden agenda behind the position taken by the White House at Rio. Gorz and le Carré are examples of thinkers who are not prepared to let laissez-faire capitalism pass uncriticised. Given the nature of the issues under discussion at Rio, it appears that the view exemplified by Kennan is not only Right-wing, it is also irrational.
To return to the upper bound, irrespective of how affluent a community is, if its resource utilisation is environmentally unsustainable, then serious problems are inevitable. The Kantian principle that an action is moral if all agents can adopt it as a maxim, is instructive in this regard. Taking the motor car as an example, most are owned by people in the developed nations. As things stand, there is substantial evidence that exhaust fumes contribute significantly to global warming. (For the purposes of the discussion I assume that this empirical statement is reliable.)
This is a result that has come about as a consequence of only a minority of the planet’s population having access to motorised transport.[11] Given this, the proposal that one implements the principle of universalisation so that all would have, say, equivalent access to motorised transport, on grounds of social justice, simply does not hold water. A minority engaged in this activity, already breaches the upper bound. Consequently we are ineluctably forced to the conclusion that the model of affluence manifest by the developed countries cannot function as a sustainable aspiration to those who wish it – it is irrational and environmentally unethical.
This may be said to create more problems than it solves, assuming the analysis is correct. This comes about because in the developed countries the dominant socio-economic paradigm goes almost wholly unquestioned. The only major alternative, the communism inspired by Marx, has become at the time of writing, very much an historical phenomenon. Yet, to satisfy both lower and upper bounds, an alternative to the dominant socio-economic paradigm is very much needed. The Romantic notion of a return to the Noble Savage is not viable – there is no going back. As has been made clear modern rationality has its grave problems. But the claim, for example, that postmodernism is an option, does not hold water either. (This term is extremely vague. However its meaning is clarified by noting that it usually means post-modern in the sense of aesthetics.
Post – the modernist movement of the twentieth-century as found in the work of say Joyce or Picasso. As such I interpret it as a form of crypto-romanticism (Cf. Raymond Williams[12] and Brian J. Whitton[13]). This position is defended below in the Appendix.) However, the proposition that the modern age, with all its problems, could be transcended, seems to be the only option open to the optimist. Nonetheless, on a cautionary note, it is a moot point whether any historical transition of epoch, in the large, has ever been made in the full light of consciousness. (This brings us back to the topic treated in chapter 5 on Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, except that in this case the issue is what options the future might hold.)
The two bounds mentioned, leave considerable room for discussion regarding what can be construed as an acceptable life-style. A view has to be developed of what constitutes an adequate life-style within the lower and upper bounds. It is a mistake to attempt to develop such a view by considering any one of these bounds, since there is a relation of mutual influence between them. A world-view, a mode of rationality indeed, which does not make strenuous efforts to satisfy the constraints of these bounds has to be judged as both irrational and unethical. With respect to the modern, western world-view in its hegemonic aspect, it is at present irrational. Nevertheless, by virtue of a genuine attempt to meet the upper and lower bounds, then the modern, western world-view has at least the potential to redeem itself.
These upper and lower bounds have a further constraint which is temporal. The future of the biosphere in general, and of future human generations in particular, depends on how ‘acceptable life-style’ is construed. If what matters is that the immediate needs of this generation are to be met, then one may as well subscribe to apocalyptic nihilism. If, on the other hand, the potentiality of future generations to achieve meaningful well-being on a planet which is managed to achieve a harmonious balance between man’s activities and nature matters, then there is a clear obligation not only to future humans but also to future non-human species. Logically one is forced to the second option, if existence is to have any meaning at all.

human well-being

The picture painted is one of ultimate constraint, within which the challenge is to improve human well-being. The bounds indicated do leave room for choice between alternative life-styles. The many different indigenous peoples lived in relative harmony and balance with nature; this is something modern industrial-technological societies have largely lost. Indigenous peoples often lived lives of extreme hardship which, to some extent, has become a thing of the past in modern societies. The question is: can an increasingly comfortable, convenient life-style be squared away with living in harmony with nature? The obvious answer to this question is that this is possible, if life-styles remain within the constraints described.
Given the ground already covered, there is good reason to doubt the inherent rationality of the prevailing economic system. In view of this I close this chapter with a discussion of the doctrine that “might is right.” There is a strong connection between economic realities and the use of violent methods, in that economic prosperity in the traditional sense tends to accompany military strength.
What does “might is right” really mean? It may be interpreted – assuming it is not simply a slogan – as meaning that physical force in inter-human relations is to be seen as morally justifiable. In other words, violence is to be preferred to peaceful intercourse. This appears to be an appalling doctrine. Yet, it may be noted that for millennia humankind has regarded physical force as an integral part of existence. This is true not only in the case of the use of force in, say, hunting, but also in the case of inter-human violence (that is to say war, or perhaps even boxing). That such violence has existed for millennia, makes no impact upon the moral status of violence. Even if violence were unavoidable, it would not follow that its moral justification would be established. The “sin” of violence could be with us eternally. This seems to be even more appalling.
In what follows, two alternatives are discussed. The first of these is that communication is an important option. The second is a discussion of cultural evolution. The former of these options seeks to question the connection between economic and military power, by arguing for the value and importance of the communicative domain. The latter seeks to defend the view that cultural evolution is a real phenomenon which holds open the possibility that the present mode of economic hegemony and its associated violence could be transcended.
Clearly the State has appropriated the dominant means of violent destruction in most modern societies. The declared advantage of liberal democracy is that political parties are fairly elected to run the State. The main thrust also of modern liberal democratic government is that it simply presides over a status quo in which the inequalities of wealth and privilege are enormous. Clearly the State and the forces of capital are key loci where power directs the actions of most – but for the few anarchists (noble savages!). Moreover the role of speech acts, as against acts of violence, is very important in these areas – just as at a personal level.
The difficulty is that for many of the ends which we wish to achieve the only means by which they can be brought about is through active co-operation. What is more, as a simple consequence of human numbers everyone cannot communicate at once. Asymmetries in the communicative, inter-subjective sphere are unavoidable in the very numerous populaces of modern societies. Secondly, asymmetries in the distribution of wealth, power and technology entail that the communicative, intersubjective sphere becomes distorted. Examples of such distortions would be the unequal distribution of rights and duties, or, to give specific examples, slavery or death in war. Having said all this the question remains: can symmetry be engendered in the communicative, intersubjective sphere?
Jürgen Habermas believes that some kind of an ideal speech situation can be achieved and also that this would have an emancipatory potential. One of the difficulties with Habermas’s communicative ethics is the question of agreement between parties. Human reality shows many instances where it is extremely unlikely that agreement can be reached – there are irresolvable disjunctions in the views people hold. Many of the areas where agreement cannot be reached often involve some degree of cultural interaction – consider Northern Ireland. Similarly, a Hindu is unlikely to agree with a Christian on the principles of faith. This is evidence of the immutability of some of the positions people hold as part of their larger world-view.
Emancipatory potential is not simply an add on. Rather than liberal democracy presiding over an unequal distribution of rights and duties – the status quo – it has a moral duty to improve the lot of the worst off. How this is to be done is a matter for open debate. However, I have some doubt whether a genuine, open debate is possible in the numerous populaces of the societies in which we live to-day. It is just not possible for everyone to talk to everyone else, never mind all at the same time. This problem has been referred to by Hans Blumenberg as the “deficiency of rational intersubjectivity.” It is likely that meaningful consensus can only be achieved by the “layering” of decision making institutions in such a way that the most local decisions are connected to the most global, and that this connection provides a bi-directional channel of communication (that is from the local to the global and vice versa).

This way of considering things may be seen as somewhat unorthodox, in that, an underlying principle at stake here is that of radical, participatory democracy. Put differently this is the idea that, in principle, everyone might have something valuable to contribute to the decision making process. On this basis no one ought to be excluded from having at least the potential to contribute. Clearly this is a problem for the “jaw-jaw is better than war-war” theory. The nature of the problem is that political power is an inevitable consequence of the layering of decision making institutions, and in turn this entails that political power may be abused. Is this insurmountable?


Since ancient times some philosophers have believed that it is insurmountable and some have even gone so far to suggest that violence is a good in itself. I interpret this as a sort of nihilism which has been enormously influential – even if wrong. This is borne out by the efforts which have been made internationally to develop weapons of mass destruction. Time and time again humankind has found itself in the situation of not being able to avoid violence – witness the innumerable wars. This is perhaps the main lesson history teaches, namely, that human rationality all too easily fails.
Yet, the problem of induction also teaches that there is no way of knowing whether the future is to be like the past and as such – perhaps surprisingly – this can be construed as a source of some hope. For good or ill, human destiny is at least to some extent in our own hands – it is of our own making. If this position is false, then the nihilistic (fatalistic) alternative must be true. It has been made clear that in the most favourable of circumstances the human future is for us to mould. Such a view relies on the role of intention in our actions-in-the-world. We may be lucky enough to be in the position of making choices about what course of action we may choose. Also, for this view to hold, mind must have a degree of flexibility such that alternative options may be assessed and, in principle, carried out. As has already been indicated there are many forms of behaviour which humans engage in which require an important element of communication. It is only through communication that we can have any hope at all of establishing the options others are considering, since the thoughts and intentions of others are not given to us automatically and directly.
An account of this type tends to rely on the individual as its starting point, even while the historical and the social may be factored in – and in my view there is much to be said for this approach. Nevertheless, a definitive account of the nature of the individual even were it discovered, would not be sufficient, by itself, to understand the possibilities and limitations of the human future. The other side of the coin, is the issue of cultural evolution. On this view collections of human beings are treated as meta-organisms. To clarify this idea comparison may be made with other meta-organisms such as ants, termites or bees. Synergetic co-operation, in the instance of the human species, generates culture and ultimately civilisation.
Human culture and civilisation is a collective venture which no single individual could achieve alone. Put simply then, we have to combine the perspective of the individual with that of the community or society at large. Prima facie, this may not seem a particularly controversial proposal. Nonetheless, the work of Steven Lukes among others has clearly shown the deep-seated individualism which pervades liberal democratic societies. Right-wing, and even moderate commentators, see this as a positive advantage of modern societies.
My reaction to this is to point out that the rights and duties of the individual can be over-valorised. The role of the individual has to be balanced by considerations of the overall well-functioning of the community – however large. (A clear example of this problem is that while it would cause negligible damage for only one motorist to drive about as he or she wished, the same does not hold if all individuals (or a large proportion) do the same – witness the potential threat of global warming.)
As has been argued economic realities and therefore economic rationality are closely tied up with cultural priorities. The importance of the idea of cultural evolution lies in the possibility that it may be an avenue by means of which the present crisis of modernity may be transcended. The view that cultural evolution is an empty category and that the laws of economics are as immutable as those of physics is one which leaves little room for optimism. That is to say, if the modern, western world-view is immutable, then the future appears rather bleak.
On the other hand, the notion that cultural realities are subject to change leaves room for the bounds which have been discussed to be met. Consequently, the view defended here has its origins, in the modern period, with the work of Hegel and Marx. With respect to Marx, I remain agnostic regarding what the future of culture is likely to be. Nevertheless, the essential idea that culture could evolve to transcend the present system, is one which cannot be dismissed out of hand. The evolution of language, the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution are three examples where dramatic changes took place in human existence. Further, no one can be certain that others do not await in the future.
One of the most important concepts for developing an account of cultural evolution is ‘consciousness’. The OED records that John Locke was one of the first to use this term. It also records that the primary meaning of consciousness is “joint or mutual knowledge.” It is consciousness in this sense that I am interested here, as opposed to its use as a fashionable synonym for mind. The importance of the term and its definition lies in the observation that if knowledge can be joint or mutual, then this, as it were, breaks the back of the notion that knowledge is something an individual possesses in isolation. The importance of this notion for ideas of cultural evolution is that it provides a basis on which knowledge can be construed as shared.

Moreover, consciousness has some unexpected epistemological consequences. For instance: how could knowledge be joint or mutual? One answer to this question is that knowledge may be shared via communication, via the human facility for symbols. Therefore, since knowledge may be shared through communication, this provides a ground on which cultural evolution might take place. There is another answer to this question, and it turns around the scholastic notion of the a priori – that is to say, knowledge apprehended independently of experience.

At first glance, this would appear to be a hopeless contradiction in terms. On closer examination, the a priori can be made sense of by suggesting that it refers, in some sense, to that which is epistemically genetic. It is clear how we might come to this conclusion. Since the a priori is not, by definition, exogenous in origin – in contrast to the a posteriori – then given that it is a valid category, it must be endogenous in origin. (It may be inferred here that in the second answer I have given I am pointing to some notion of genetic epistemology. This in itself is not a novel position. It is quite possible that something similar crossed Kant’s mind, since it is clear from passages in The Critique of Judgement that he was familiar with early ideas concerning evolutionary biology. In addition, Piaget attempted to outline his own account of genetic epistemology.)
The two answers proposed are not at all contradictory. In stead it is contended that they point to two distinct forms of knowledge. The first is that knowledge which is embodied in strings of symbols used in communication (both oral and written). The second is that knowledge which is embodied in the very structure of the matter of which we are composed. In this context, two points may be made. Firstly, the second form of knowledge mentioned is a condition of the possibility of the existence of the first. In other words, before symbols can be used anatomical structures have to evolve which can produce and comprehend such symbols. Secondly, while this is a fair description of the historical priority of so-called “genetic knowledge” and “symbolic knowledge,” the former cannot be dealt with by philosophy alone. It is one of those areas where philosophy meets biology, chemistry and physics.


To recap, the use of consciousness in the historically correct sense I have indicated can provide a basis to outline the non-isolated nature of the individual, and the immanent co-operative synergy which should be encouraged as the ground to regulate inter-human relations, as opposed to the doctrine of might is right. Clearly, the category which is most important for the defence of cultural evolution is symbolic knowledge. In addition, as has been argued, synergetic co-operation between human beings is constitutive of civilisation and culture and this is based on a communicative, intersubjective domain. This again is an important point, since if might is right is correct, then synergetic co-operation is replaced by brute, physical domination. Moreover, if one combines such domination with a simplistic individualism one has a formula sufficient to undermine the very fabric of civilisation.
Bearing this in mind it is possible to make some comments regarding the cultural realm, and by doing so one augments a possible alternative to the might is right doctrine. A first step in this direction is to note that the cultural realm is normative in nature. This is an important point which has been made at length by John R. Searle in his recent monograph The Construction of Social Reality.[14] There is a degree of flexibility about cultural reality and presumably this has arisen as a means of meeting the variable challenges of survival. The symbolic knowledge, described above, which is embodied in this realm only arises through the setting of complex sets of conventions.

Frequently such conventions take on a tacit or implicit role in regulating human actions-in-the-world. For instance, while we use norms of language and behaviour everyday of our lives, it is often rare – because it is not required – for us to bring these norms to conscious, critical examination. (Most people – but for the few grammarians – have a tacit or implicit knowledge of the rules of language use.)

The vast corpus of knowledge we have concerning not only changes in norms of behaviour (customs) but also the history of changes in language is, in my opinion, clear evidence of the malleability of the cultural realm. This is not only evidence in the argument against a determinist interpretation of human existence, but more importantly here, it is evidence that what we have taken to be true of inter-human relations in the past need not automatically be true in the future.
It is along these lines that the cultural realm is not only an important reality when opposing might is right, but also that we must see the cultural realm as being quite distinct from the purely factual or objective world. The normative realm of culture is a creation of the activity of our brains, by means of which we guide and organise our actions in the world, and as such it is a creation of human inter-subjectivity. On the one hand the cultural realm, the realm of norms and values, has an objective reality. It really exists. On the other, the very nature of cultural reality cannot be separated from the functioning of human subjectivity and inter-subjectivity.
Human cultural reality is one of those areas where questions of objective fact meet and interplay with subjective and inter-subjective matters. Historically the traditional means of expressing this idea has been to distinguish between the human sciences and the natural sciences. This distinction is attributed to the neo-Kantian von Rickert. (The idea behind the distinction underpins the common institutional demarcation found between arts, social science, and natural science in many universities and colleges.) The distinction arises from the premise that there are two different kettles of fish involved when one enquires into objective nature and the world of human subjectivity and inter-subjectivity – the cultural realm. Thus if one collapses this distinction in favour of the objective world alone, and thereby denies the important role of the cultural domain, the importance of communication, as opposed to force, diminishes also.
It is an elementary fact that human existence requires the utilisation of resources – and it is for these that humankind has often been prepared to commit acts of violence. Against this consider the following. As a consequence of the biological evolutionary process, the normative realm eventually emerged and it is in this realm that reason functions. The normative realm is the general background or lens through which we interpret the world. Further, it may be argued that we have it in our power to improve the reality which may await us tomorrow. This is the opposite of the position which would nihilistically make it worse through violence. The question arises: is reason of sufficient power to produce and distribute the essentials necessary for more than mere naked survival? It is at this point that we face a fundamental issue which has been at stake since the inception of the socialist opposition to capitalist hegemony. Are the “laws” of economics facts of nature in the same way that the laws of physics are? Or, are the “laws” of economics, at least to some extent normative, cultural realities? Seyla Benhabib answers as follows,

In all human societies the distribution of social wealth entails a set of power relations, while under capitalism the power relations inherent in the distribution of social wealth appear as laws of the market, as consequences of an automatically determined process.[15]

In other words, the functioning of power in the capitalist system has the effect of objectifying what is in fact a normative, cultural reality. In a sense, this is the trick of treating appearance as reality, of treating what are matters of values and priorities in an objectifying manner.
Since the future is never perfectly predictable, particularly in the instance of the human future, it is likely that some degree of gambling with resources will always be a part of life. (It may be noted that having to face the ineradicable role of chance in life, if minimised, need not be a perversion of reason.) Nevertheless, it is an open question as to whether the sort of gambling behaviour which currently rules economic reality is the only possible alternative. Laissez-faire theorists, in effect, subscribe to the theory that life is but a game of dice. In another guise this is the idea that life is nasty, brutish and short with everyone eternally battling against everyone else – the war of each against all (Hobbes) – reason is but an illusion (Hume) – all that matters is the narrow satisfaction of brute, self-interest and the passions.


This is the grim, bleak picture many laissez-faire theorists seek to promote. In response, as has been argued, it is quite possible that economic realities are, in part, normative. Since economic activity primarily functions to provide the essentials of existence, plus a few luxuries, economics could never be a purely normative activity or set of doctrines – nor, let it be said, is it necessarily a purely factual matter. Economics is a discipline and mode of the exchange of goods between people which lies at the interface between the normative and the purely factual. No one doubts that people need at least food to survive, but what may be argued about is how best to provide that food. Those on the Left in the West have typically taken the view that the market has to be regulated. Those on the extreme Left have strenuously argued that the State should control the market. Although Asiatic communists tried this strategy, it has failed if not under its own weight, then certainly under the pressure of the external world.
Putting this aside, the evidence is that the market has become increasingly powerful. Multinational companies routinely expect elected governments to follow their wishes. Can reason be put before the market in importance? Of course, the laissez-faire theorist argues that reason is an illusion, humankind is essentially bestial, and that economic realities are to be squared away with the laws of physics. Indeed it is quite common for the laissez-faire theorist to attempt to back up his or her position with reference to the “facts” of evolutionary theory. It is my contention that the laissez-faire theorist typically believes that might is right. Figuratively, human beings have to fight the competitive fight in order to succeed.

I conclude that it remains a real possibility that reason can be put before the market in importance. This is really equivalent to saying that the severe economic suffering many hundreds of millions of people face internationally is in fact avoidable. The only way to bring this about is not to advocate versions of the might is right doctrine I have outlined, but rather to bolster and develop means by which needs may be determined and met. Of course, this is a task for communicative reason not force. Finally, as André Gorz remarks:

Abandoning the reference to socialism would lead also to abandoning any reference to a desirable “beyond” of capitalism, would lead us to accept this latter as “natural” and unchangeable, and to speak with a naive idealism of democracy and justice whilst treating as a negligible quantity the economico-material matrix of capital which, because it necessarily demands profitability above all, cannot help but be a source of domination, alienation and violence.[16]
To conclude Part Two, this thesis has sought to defend the concept of rationality by exposing deficiencies in the hegemonic model of what counts as such. If human actions in the biosphere are to be just and sustainable, then the best possible conception of reason is a requirement to successfully guide these. Moreover, as I hope I have shown the, as it were, hegemonic model of what counts as rational is not enough.
Simply because some form of rationality is hegemonic does not entail that it is unproblematic. The three aspects of rationality which have been discussed, each represent a hegemonic view of rationality in the modern, western world-view. In short, I have tried to show ways in which conceptions of the rational may be enriched and strengthened, without becoming tyrannical.
Whilst Part One dealt with problematic aspects of dominant models of the agent, Part Two has sought to identify aspects of that rationality which guides the agent’s actions in the biosphere. Each of the aspects of agency and rationality which have been discussed, represents an important feature which underpins what it is to be a rational agent in the modern, western world-view.
Rather than seeking to analyse all of those features which underpin what it is to be a rational agent in the modern, western world, the focus has been on a few of the most important. Given that there is a crisis of modernity, it would be expected that any analysis of rationality would find it wanting in some respects. By identifying some of the weaknesses in the understanding of the concept, this suggests ways forward by means of which the crisis of modernity may be resolved.
[1] Joel E. Cohen, Op. Cit., p. 394.
[2] Joel E. Cohen, Op. Cit., p. 395.
[3] André Gorz, Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology, (London: Verso, 1994), p. 12.
[4] The reader may ask if it is immoral to deprive a minority of shareholders to the overall benefit of an entire population. Here the view has been taken that the achievement of a more egalitarian distribution of resources is to be seen as quite moral.
[5] Putting aside the socio-political obstacles which stand in the way of the satisfaction of the two criteria mentioned, there is an objective feature which drives the lower bound closer to (and perhaps beyond) the upper bound, that is, the growth rate of the planet’s human population. The greater the number of consumers of resources, ceteris paribus, then the greater the quantity of resources utilised. The point made here is that while two bounds have been separated, there remain important connections between them.
[6] Joel E. Cohen, Op. Cit., p. 53.
[7] Joel E. Cohen, Op. Cit., p. 53.
[8] Quoted by Jeremy Leaman in, “The Decontamination of German History: Jürgen Habermas and the “Historikerstreit” in West Germany”, Economy and Society, Vol. 17, no. 4, 1988, pp. 518-529, p. 526.
[9] John le Carré, The Guardian Weekly, 29.12.96., p. 13.
[10] André Gorz, Op. Cit., p. 16.
[11] As Larry Elliot writes in his article, “A green light that signals stop, not go”, “There are only about two million cars in the country [China], one for every 700 people. The US has 1.7 people per car.” The Guardian Weekly 28.9.97, p. 19.
[12] Raymond Williams, “When Was Modernism”, The New Left Review, nos. 173-178, 1989, pp. 48-52.
[13] Brian J. Whitton, “Herder’s Critique of the Enlightenment: Cultural Community versus Cosmopolitan Rationalism”, History and Theory, Vol. 27, 1988, pp. 146-168.
[14] John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, (London: Penguin, 1995).
[15] Seyla Benhabib, Op. Cit., p. 124.
[16] André Gorz, Op. Cit., p. ix.

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