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THURSDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2018
This week's WordArc podcast, much to my delight, was a response to my article, "The Prostitution of Talent". The content of the response, much to my disappointment, seemed to me to be way off the mark. I should take at least half the blame for this, and so I'll try to clear up the confusion that I may have caused in the podcast reply, namely by WordArc user "Jackson", or Scott Barnes. I'm pretty sure he didn't get what I was getting at, among other things. I should say that I went to school with Scott, and consider him a friend. And as William Blake wrote, "Opposition is true friendship."

The podcast video also featured Alamir (WordArc's creator) and Claudia (Alamir’s fiancé (congratulations, guys) and WordArc contributor), both of whom played Devil's advocate to Scott's own evasive Devil advocacy.

Okay. Scott summed up my thesis like this: "Intellectuals should be champions of freedom and democracy; corporations want to use intellectuals to increase the bottom line. Intellectuals shouldn't be doing that." Close enough. He then goes on to say that I'm working on an assumption, a bias, a pre-judgment, which is that "intellectuals are meant to oppose corporate power." Scott then gives his own definition for an intellectual: "Someone strength is mental." Intellectuals, for Scott, have "knowledge, intelligence, cunning." So far so good. I actually agree with Scott there. I don't think, as Scott assumes I do, that intellectuals are meant to do anything, as if they have some essential purpose to inherenet to their being. They don't. That's why their power is so ambiguous. It can go both ways, like anything else. They can do both good and bad.

Scott then contrasts the term "intellectual" with "strong man", and finds that the only difference between these two is "the knack by which they ear their bread." Working with this assumption, Scott confidently claims, "If that's what an intellectual is, what if you're not some libertarian like Matt?" This is where Scott starts to sound crazy. I must have been horribly unclear if he thinks I'm a Libertarian (according to Scott's Facebook profile, under political views, he's a Libertarian). All my talk about government regulation in the article should have made it perfectly obvious that I'm nothing close to libertarian. Libertarians believe in the minimalist state, the socalled night-watchmen's state. So on that point I was a little surprised. I didn't think Scott was that obtuse or naive. But maybe it was just a slip of the tongue.

Even more confusingly, though, Scott goes on to say that, in contrast to my (falsely purported) libertarianism, "What if you're Nietzschean, and think that people should just go will-to-power take what they can? Well, Matt, I think that intellectuals are doing the right thing by getting along with corporations." My understanding is that "libertarians" and "Nietzscheans" might actually have a lot in common, that is, they both believe in the ultimate, unfettered freedom of the individual, unburdened by external notions of right and wrong, good and evil. Hence Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and libertarians' distaste for any publicly enforced set of ethical standards outside of individual contracts made by "free-association".

So, disregarding the strange contrast between Libertarians and Nietzscheans, Scott did touch on one of my main points: that knowledge and talent are not inherently good. It depends what you do with them, like any tool. I guess where I differ with Scott is what "doing the right thing means". Now, since I'm not a libertarian or a relativist Nietzschean, I think it makes sense for me to talk about "right" and "wrong", or at least "ethical" and "unethical", but I'm not sure it makes any sense for Scott to say, given his Nietzschean might-equals-right idea, that he thinks "intellectuals are doing the right thing". Either ethics exist, or they don't. And if they do (which they do) then we actually can talk about right and wrong. If ethics don't exist, all that of right and wrong, should and shouldn't, are out the window.

Scott must be aware of that major philosophical distinction between the "is" and the "ought", the empirical or descriptive versus the normative or ethical . The way things are, and the way things should be. Working without this distinction leads us to say things like, as Scott does, "Taking your intellectual capital and exchanging it for money. That's kind of what university is these days." And he's right, this is what university is like these days. But should it be? Without ethical questions like these we're hardly human. Civilization and society are based on asking these ethical questions, finding out what we can live with, and how we can and, dare I say it, should live together. One of the worst human tendencies, implicit in Scott's claim about modern university education, is the ethically lazy attitude of saying, 'Well, that's just the say things are. Whatta-ya-gonna-do?" Certainly, taking any ethical stance is out of fashion in our post-modern value vacuum, and Scott is quite in fashion.

After summarizing my discussion of Socrates and the Sophists in Ancient Greece - that is, of the ethical conflict between selling your knowledge to the greedy and ambitious, as the Sophists did, and freely sharing the tools of thought, like Socrates, necessary for seeing through the illusions and stereotypes of your society - Scott unconvincingly admits that "I respect all of that", but then goes on to say, much more sincerely, that if someone "genius" like Bill Gates (who Scott jokes is not a genius but merely an "opportunist", making a snarky, implicit ethical judgment) "really should be allowed to create a tyrannical world-standing empire. Like, that's his right." So, again, Scott uses the S-word (should), in stark contrast to his heroic, Nietzschean individualism, which has no time for oppressive "shoulds" and "should nots". And again, the unimaginative and unethical 'appeal to reality': "Matt's forgetting that that's something people like to do. We pretend we don't want to." In other words, That's just the way things are, Matt. Get with the program, etc.

I'm not so naive to think that people aren't "that way". I'm fully aware of people's greed, ambition, and just plain evil. That's why I wrote the article in the first place! Once you recognize the way things are, then you move on to the way you can imagine them to be, that is, better. Apparently for Scott, this imaginative and ethical exercise is passé. Not realistic, I suppose. Weak. Bleeding-heart stuff. What would Nietzsche say, right?

I'm so painfully aware that people are ambitious and greedy and that corporations and the people working for them will exploit other people's labour along with the environment, that I wrote the article calling for sensible public control mechanisms - government regulation - instead of the libertarian-style "voluntary restraint", which, in the absence of any incentive to curb their appetite for profit won't solve a thing. Corporations operate in a Hobbesian State-of-Nature, where they must strike first, regardless of the consequences to other people and the environment, because other competing companies might strike before them.

Yes, Scott, intellectuals and artists can and will use their knowledge and talents to prop up corporate power. But should they? Every government lobbyist for a tobacco or oil company, or for any company that destroys the earth and oppresses its workers, is making a daily ethical choice to work for that company, lobbying politicians and distracting them from their duties to their public. It's a matter of looking yourself in the mirror every morning.

Yes. People are comfortable working public relations and advertising jobs, covering up and smoothing over corporations crimes, and convincing consumers to waste money on shit they don't need, helping to maximize profit for the already-rich at the expense of the ever-increasing poor. And as long as companies are allowed to do it, they will. That's exactly why we need mutually binding regulations (especially on the international level) that give companies an incentive to restrain their competitive, race-to-the-bottom, destructive impulses.

Business corporations do not work for the public good. They work for profit. And that is perfectly legitimate. We cannot seriously expect any company to restrain itself from making more money at the expense of the rest of the planet and its human, animal and plant population, unless that company knows that other companies it competes with will also restrain themselves. Hence the need for mutually binding agreements between them. Without this kind of regulation companies are locked in an arms-race type struggle which innocent people get caught between.

Regarding Alamir's comments about Bill Gates's philanthropy: This is the exception, not the rule. We can't rely on the whims of philanthropic support to fund the public good any more than we can expect companies in general to do the right thing. Bill Gates is special case. And the fact that he is a special case shows that we can't rely on philanthropy to provide for society's welfare. For that we need a rigorous, conscious, democratic, public discussion.

After Scott' disingenuousness, his sarcasm, and his digressive (and unfunny) quips ("Do you think Bill Gates is sexy?"), near the end of the video he returns to his default, just-the-way-things-are stance: "I thought getting a job because you're smart is just called life." No hint of ethics. Not for Scott. He might even agree with Margaret Thatcher, that society doesn't really exist, only a bunch of combined individual (self-)interests. That attitude, wholly lacking in imagination and ethics, is the one that global capitalism rests on. Scott, it seems to me, is quite fine with that. Even if he doesn't realize it.

Philosophy is not just about knowledge. It's about ethics and imagination, too. And it only takes a little bit of imagination and ethical flexing to see that's there's much more to life than simply grabbing what you can. That, in fact, is the easiest and shallowest thing a human can do. And that's why there's a difference between individual greed and social welfare, art and propaganda, the civilized public arena and corporate power. What do you think, Scott?
Responses:

Jackson
Matt, you wrote a good article and I agree with you. Corporations are unethical, and we ought to watch them closely and take heed to not become cor...

Comments

Alamir

Alamir

Most of this discussion is directed towards Scot, so I'll leave it up to him on whether he'd like to defend his argument.

I will take the opportunity to comment on where you mentioned me. I want to clarify, that I do agree that Bill Gates is the exception to the rule and not the standard. I thought I had previously presented him that way, but if it wasn't clear then let me do so now. Neither the former "richest man in the world," Bill Gates, nor the man who currently is the richest, Warren Buffett, should be criticized for their philanthropy recklessly. They have both contributed a significan amount of charity without being required by law to do so. Bill Gates has one of the most giving charities and Buffett is known to have given the largest donation ever given, almost $30.7 billion to the Gates Foundation. If people feel the rich need to give more they would have an easier time going after people lower down Forbes' ladder. They're not hard to find.

As to what type of system should be in place. I'm pretty much in agreement with you in that I believe the proper system would be to have it so that the government system itself has the proper laws or guidelines for funding which would be done through higher taxation. By "proper laws," I mean one that avoids many of the problems we have with taxation today; We need a system where funding is prioritized democratically (i.e not a system like Harper's government where funding is being cut from many different groups of people when they're only a minority government). I realize I'm using many general terms, but it's so that I don't detract too much from your main argument.

Hogan

HOGAN

I'm certainly not "criticizing" Bill Gates or Warren Buffett "recklessly", although I'm pretty sure you're not saying I did. It's better that they give so generously than not. And if giving away so much of their money is a good thing, then why not make it a democratic priority, through mandatory taxation, rather than leaving it up individuals and corporations, who get all the false prestige of "being generous" - and what power they must feel by choosing who gets what and how much! - when they're really doing what should be done in the first place. Through voluntary philanthropy, what's normal and fair (i.e.: a decent distibution of wealth) becomes exalted and special, a source of praise and distinction, where the "have-not"s are at the mercy of the "have"s. Anyway, I think we're in agreement, Alamir.

Alamir

Alamir

On another tangent, while we await Scot's reply, I'm still a bit undecided on which party in the Canadian election, and which will best implement a form of taxation that will take what we've mentioned into account. I'm thinking Green, since they have a good chance in my riding. Do you have any favourites?



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