Utilitarianism – the core of it

Mark Pendergast, writing on August 15th, 1993 in the New York Times

A Brief History of Coca-Colonization

He really brought utilitarianism down to its very core: 

Devoted employees of the 101-year-old company that makes the world’s favorite soft drink have always believed that the human being was created primarily to serve as a conduit for the dark fizzy beverage. 

Indeed, it is not primarily the utilitarian customer – it is the producer that counts. And furthermore, as a job is a utility and even an essential one, it is better to be of the same opinion as s/he is and identify with “your” firm.

Now, is that a paradox? The real producer is surely not producing, at most sitting alone or amongst other CEOs, thinking about new strategies of extending business, without considering possible negative externalities, elaborating ways of producing externalities in order to enhance profit …

Now one may wonder and take up the question recently asked here;

What is if the satisfied human actually is becoming aware of the fact that s/he is a “pig”, in the metaphorical sense? A being that established this satisfaction on deception, wrong-doing, bribery or simply not sufficiently questioning the facts … just a moron …?

Utilitarianism against Utility



Obviously there is no answer to the question which Lessing once put to the utilitarian philosophers of his time: “And what is the use of use?” The perplexity of utilitarianism is that it gets caught in the unending chain of means and ends without ever arriving at some principle which could justify the category of means and end, that is, of utility itself.[1]

[1]            Arendt, Hannah, 1958: The Human Condition. Introduction by Margaret Canovan; Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 154

Karl Marx on Margaret Thatcher?

Well, it is of course not so, but reading The Capital again, I got stuck when I came to the footnote 2 on page 605:[1]

Bentham is a purely English phenomenon. Not even excepting our philosopher, Christian Wolff, in no time and in no country has the most homespun commonplace ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way. The principle of utility was no discovery of Bentham. He simply reproduced in his dull way what Helvétius and other Frenchmen had said with esprit in the 18th century. To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch. Bentham makes short work of it. With the driest naïveté he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shop- keeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful. This yard-measure, then, he applies to past, present, and future. The Christian religion, e. g., is “useful”, “because it forbids in the name of religion the same faults that the penal code condemns in the name of the law”. Artistic criticism is “harmful”, because it disturbs worthy people in their enjoyment of Martin Tupper, etc. With such rubbish has the brave fellow, with his motto, “nulla dies sine linea”, piled up mountains of books. Had I the courage of my friend, Heinrich Heine, I should call Mr. Jeremy a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.

The difference between Bentham and Thatcher was that she did not pile up mountains of books but made, by applying the same way of thinking, a country relatively rich, its people relatively poor and the thinking absolutely un-societalist = lacking any consideration of solidarity. Indeed,

there is no such thing as society

– after the country had been reduced on individuals and at most family and neighbourhood, the plan is now Europeanised: BREXIT was and is an expression of exactly the same thought.

[1]            Marx & Engels. Collected Works. Volume 35; Lawrence & Wishart, electronic books; 2010

Living on the Margins

Acknowledgements [1]

Kant is frequently coming to my mind these last day’s – one reason may be that Birgit mentioned him; to be honest she talked about her appreciation of the well-known categorical imperative, as he stated in the second half of the 18th century

act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation

But there had been another reason for thinking about him, namely changing the train: the change from going high speed, non-stop from Roma to Milano, and then going on with the regional train to Pavia.

After arriving there, I receive an SMS from Lorenzo:

Welcome in padania

And for a philosopher, trained in the spirit of Western (which means very much German) philosophy there is only a small step from Pandania to Kant. Isn’t the “umbrella story” nearly as famous as the categorical imperative? The story of a philosopher of whom Heinrich Heine wrote:

The history of Immanuel Kant’s life is difficult to portray, for he had neither life nor history. He led a mechanically ordered, almost abstract bachelor existence in a quiet, remote little street in Königsberg, an old town on the northeastern border of Germany. I do not believe that the great clock of the cathedral there performed more dispassionately and methodically its outward routine of the day than did its fellow countryman Immanuel Kant. Getting up in the morning, drinking coffee, writing, giving lectures, eating, walking, everything had its appointed time, and the neighbors knew for certain that it was half-past three when Immanuel Kant, in his gray frock-coat, his Spanish cane in his hand, stepped out of his house and strolled to the little linden avenue called after him to this day the “Philosopher’s Path.” Eight times he walked up and down it, in every season of the year, and when the sky was overcast, or gray clouds announced a rain coming, old Lampe, his servant, was seen walking anxiously behind him with a big umbrella under his arm, like an image of Providence.[2]

I suppose there is a very close link between Kant’s very specific modesty and his imperative.


And in one way or another this had been the topic of the workshop on the 15th and 16th of May in Pavia, organised by the Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori, Pavia, as part of the Laboratorio EXPO+EXPO Milano 2015 in collaboration with the Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli – I already mentioned it earlier.

One general theme had been the search for responsibility. And of course this means today – and in the context of discussing sustainability (which is one of the focus points of the 2015-EXPO in Milano).

I am not entirely sure, but at least it looks as if I am accommodated these days in an old monastery. Pavia, at least if one comes from Rome, has indeed something of a sleepy little town. We frequently take this as being something negative, but I mean it here very much in a positive sense: People seem to be “in place”. Sure, this is also something, I frequently experience at home, but there it is more something that is located outside of real life: outside of the hassle and bustle of hectic daily life that is concerned with securing …, well, what is it actually securing?

One point, I found especially important during these last days had been the following: Frequently and actually increasingly we speak of responsibility and agency in a seemingly neutral way. We may reach from Kant who has the rational individual in mind – still as if there would be one and only one “unbound” rationality – to Smith who established at least the foundation for thinking in a very restricted way of the homo oeconomicus, leaving the Moral Sentiments outside, a kind of adjunct feature of wishful thinking, characterised in Chapter I of Part IV of the book by the words:

The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.

Sure, the chain of persons – philosophers, economists, lawyers and sociologists and others – could be continued. However, having said

leaving the moral sentiments outside, a kind of adjunct feature of wishful thinking

is not quite right and needs at least some qualification. “Wishfulness” in the given sense is about attempting to define appropriateness.

In this way, I am actually not too convinced if Heine had been right, speaking of Kant’s ideas as most revolutionary, radical, as he worded it: “world-crushing thoughts”. Actually, his thought had been very conservative, a matter of conserving the frontiers, encapsulating the world as it is. His categorical imperative had been finally depending on limited scope:

  • the accountable process – which then indeed had been translated into procedures
  • the elimination of content/substance
  • the limited, i.e. accountable space of action

Seen in this light we have to emphasise that the imperative is actually not an innate universal law as long as we cannot fill the formula substantially – broadly speaking it had been the expression of the appropriation of the now stabilised odern nation state by the citoyens. In other words: affirmation of power in space and time.


As valid as the point Niklas Luhmann made by pointing out the importance of Legimitation by Procedure is, he did not recognise the actually important difference between procedure and process. Sure, both have much in common at first sight; but finally processes are much more, are full of contradictions and connotations which cannot be overcome by simple reference to forms, be they understood as structure or as process.

Mauro van Aken stated in an article that had been also presented during the conference, dealing with Local Management of Common Resources:

Appropriating water, by means of various techniques and solidarity networks, is unavoidable for many farmers facing plant stress or patterns of distribution not adapted to local needs (on the contrary, they are often adapted according to water bureaucracy needs). Taking water out of turn constitutes in fact a ‘savoir-faire’, a set of incorporated practices that become more complex the greater technical complexity and lack of transparency of the distribution system. At the same time, it constitutes a way of making water a public sphere, more closely related to social relations and farming needs. The processes of local participation and institutional restyling according to the new developmental idiom are deeply linked to economic liberalization and neoliberal paradigms imported into the Middle East.[3]

With this we come easily to the in practice difficult to tackle point:

  • The point of reference for determining substance is people’s production and reproduction of everyday’s life. In this light we are dealing with ‘social production’ as production which is (i) a social process (acting together) but also (ii) a matter of producing relations (between people and between people and the natural environment)
  • Furthermore the point of reference is demarcation – as matter of appropriation; this is concerned with defining the means that are appropriate to the goal of production and the need and available means of production
  • Also of relevance is the determination of power structures – in the light of the before mentioned demarcation
  • Finally – but not least – we are confronted with the issue of resilience as matter of securing congruence.

We find this argument already outlined in the reflections on the Critique of Instrumental Reason, written by Max Horkheimer in 1947. He refers to a «new thinking» as subjectivist reason and writes:

In the subjectivist view, when «reason» is used to connote a thing or an idea rather than an act, it refers exclusively to the relation of such an object or concept itself. It means that the thing or the idea is good for something else. There is no reasonable aim as such, and to discuss the superiority of one aim over another in terms of reason becomes meaningless. From the subjective approach, such a discussion is possible only if both aims serve a third and higher one, that is, if they are means, not ends.

It is a multiple issue – requiring looking at economic issues, not least the question of inequality – be it in the commonly discussed understanding but also in terms of “environmental democracy”[4]; the mechanisms of “social support”, revisiting the typology provided by T.H. Marshall[5]; also the questions of rights and legality gain new momentum; and we may also look at mental health – latest since Durkheim’s work on Anomy, the other on Suicide we know that these are specifically relevant also in the context of causing mental illness as matter of power imbalances – sure, it comes not least to my mind as I wrote briefly about it, replying to a mail in which Joanne, a student from a couple of years back, asked for some general points on mental illness – so here the answer then:[6]

… if we look seriously at the “construction” of mental (ill-)health in daily life, we are actually dealing innately with soci(et)al power. And then you may of course come back to what we most likely (even for me teaching is somewhat repeating myself every year, though not literally) talked about: the twofold character of power (being able to, pouvoir, potere, machen) and control (as matter of violence, oppression etc.). On the other hand – and closely linked – the question of appropriation as matter of acquiring property and control over something (or somebody) and the appropriateness as matter of being appropriate, suitable for the subject, person, constellation in which we act.

If you put this into a matrix, you see where (abuse of) power is “causing” madness. Those points where you find massive fractures …. – of course, this is not least also a matter of degrees. Finally we are all somewhat mad: using power that we do not have, doing things we are not completely able to do etc.. I think there is nothing wrong with it – and we may even see here a germ of innovation etc. Though not being too agreeable on Bell in general, there is some validity in the point when he writes:

And even madness, in the writing of such social theorists as Michel Foucault and R.D. Laing, is now conceived to be a superior form of truth.[7]

And as much as I yalked here about mental (ill-)health, it is actually much more and more general: the issue of socio-environmental sustainability or as I wrote in the beginning: of “being in place”.


Pavia – Padania – it all comes back again to the point: Think Global, Act Local. Or the paradox may actually by that if we really think local, we may arrive at being able to act finally global.

Economically it is the simple thing that is so difficult to set into place: establishing the congruence of producing  use value and exchange value. At the end, at least demarcation should be mentioned again: competition, in particular competition in the global economy, but also more in general: as “competitive lifestyle” and “lifestyle of competitiveness” is actually one factor causing and expressing this shift from being guided by use-values to being guided by exchange values. The first is surely – as well – a matter of subsistence-sustainability based lifestyles where lifestyles are understood as matter of accumulation systems, entailing as such specific patterns of consumption.



[1]            My special thanks go to the team of IUSS, in particular to Enrica, Enrica and Nadia. I also want to thank the Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli for making my participation in the workshop possible. I am especially grateful to Nadia for the interesting conversation the day after the workshop.

[2]            Copied from http://www.schillerinstitute.org/fid_91-96/921_footsteps_soc_plato.html

[3]            Participating in Agribusiness: Contested Meanings of Rurality and Water in Jordan; in: Agrarian Transformation in the Arab World: Persistent and Emerging Challenges, H. Ayeb, R. Saad eds, Cairo Papers, 2014 Vol. 32. No. 2, The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo

[4]            see my presentation, to be delivered in June in Hangzhou, PRC.

[5]            see Marshall, Tom H., 1950: Citizenship and Social Class; in: Citizenship and Social Class; Marshall, Tom H./Tom Bottomore; London et altera: Pluto Press1992

[6]            She thought as editor of a relevant book I could give her some advise – I edited the book Mental Health and Risk (New York: Nova Science 2006) together with Lydia Sapouna.

[7]            Bell, Daniel, 1976: The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism; New York: Basic : 34: