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In Search of Higher Pleasures

August 22nd, 2007 · 4 Comments

Kerry links to Will Wilkinson’s unflattering review of the most recent anti-consumerist jeremiad from Ben “Jihad vs. McWorld” Barber:

Barber claims that not only is modern capitalism no longer satisfying
real needs, but is in some sense making us worse off. The modern consumer,
Barber writes, “is less the happy sensualist than the compulsive
masturbator, a reluctant addict working at himself with little pleasure,
encouraged in his labor by an ethic of infantilization that releases him to
an indulgence he cannot altogether welcome” (p. 51). Not a pretty picture.
But, again, Barber is simply making things up…

If capitalism has stopped meeting real needs, we should not see improvement
in almost every indicator of well-being in capitalist nations.
But we do. I have no doubt that many of us consume lots of things that
Barber disapproves of—and having read this book, I have a very good
sense of which things those are—but there is nothing to be said in favor
of the moralized overproduction theory in the absence of a theory of
needs, and evidence that our current patterns of consumption are not
meeting real needs.

Comments-regular Joe doesn’t think this is quite sufficient:

Is it not possible that the entirety of the improvements in well-being in capitalist countries comes from people who grew up poor being able to afford decent doctors and washing machines (to pick two examples), and little or none of it comes from people with four pairs of Chuck Taylors being able to buy four more?

The other commenters jump on him a bit, but I think the point is a perfectly fair one: Rising happiness in the developed world could be consistent with Barber’s thesis in this way. Suppose for a moment that it’s true, then, that there’s some point of diminishing returns, where subjective satisfaction for most people just plateaus with increasing wealth. What follows?

One possibility is that the kind of consumerism Barber laments is an unfortunate but necessarily concomitant of the kind of capitalist system that does the best job of generating the desired effect of satisfying the more basic needs of the worse off. The idea here might be that for all the energy “wasted” on the manufacture and satisfaction of artificial desires, the aspirations created by consumerism still create a surplus that also benefits the worst off, because they motivate the most productive to keep laboring far past the point where their most basic needs are satisfied. As I recall, Hayek actually flirted with an argument of this form in The Constitution of Liberty. If I were in the mood to be cutesy, I might construct an inverted Marxian theory of the exploitation of the upper-classes, wherein false consciousness impels the richest to exert themselves to increase their wealth, with all the hedonic benefits past some threshold expropriated by the proletariat—but I’ll leave that, and the determination of how plausible this story is, as an exercise for the reader.

The more important thing I think gets lost here is that we sometimes care about dimensions of our experience beyond the pure quantity of satisfaction we get from it, to the extent that varied experiences are commensurable enough to talk coherently about “satisfaction” in some consistent way across the cases. Mill famously tried to accomodate this fact within utilitarian structure with a doctrine of “higher” and “lower” pleasures, though not especially convincingly. Maybe I get acclimated to having more music available in my iPod than most people a century ago would have heard in a lifetime, so that such gadgets stop adding appreciably to the quantity of my happiness. Maybe I even get so spoiled by having access to the best recordings of my favorite pieces of music that I’m annoyed by the imperfections in performances that would have enthralled me in an iPodless world. If magnitude is the only dimension of my appreciation I care about, this is a straightforward loss; if what I enjoy and how I enjoy matter to me above and beyond the brute quantity of my enjoyment, it might not be.

Consider a thought experiment Kwame Appiah offers up in The Ethics of Identity (to make a rather different point that I’m not sure I agree with)—we can call it the Identity Machine:
Suppose it were possible, through some sort of instantaneous genetic engineering, to change any aspect of your nature, so that you coul have any combination of capacities that has ever been within the range of human possibility: you could hve Michael Jordan’s fade-away shot, Mozart’s musicality, Groucho Marx’s comic gifts, Proust’s delicate way with language. Suppose you could put these together with any desires you wanted—homo- or hetero-, a taste for Wagner or Eminem. (You might saunter into the metamorphosis chamber whistling the overture to Die Meistersinger and strut out murmuring “Will the Real Slim Shady Please Stand up?”)

The point I want to draw out here is that you would probably not just make yourself whatever sort of person was most likely to get their preferences satisfied—debasing your tastes for some marginal increase in subjective enjoyment, say. Greater wealth might increase our ability to shape the quality of our lives without making them happier, but unless we’re just insisting that being happier is all people ought to care about—though it’s demonstrably not the only thing they do care about—that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. The problem arises if people are struggling to get richer on the theory that it will make them happier, but this turns out to be wrong.

Totally unrelated to all of that, this line from Will’s review is just sort of delicious:

The argument of Consumed is a barrage of small
facts tenuously connected by undermotivated pet theories exhumed from
the graveyard of 20th century social theory—Freud, Marcuse, Adorno,
Dewey—which at best add up to a vague impression that there may be
some evidence that supports the thesis.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 JasonL // Aug 23, 2007 at 9:49 am

    I think it has much to do with the immediacy associated with needs and lack of immediacy associated with wants. It is easy to have purpose when things are hard. Your purpose is to survive, then maybe to help your offspring not have to struggle.

    If you have all needs satisfied, and you have endured no struggle from which you need save your children, well, things get hard. Motivation absent need is hard. People may struggle to get wealthier because they hope it will make them happy, but they may also struggle to to get wealthier because they then have a struggle to engage in. If the output of that struggle is more wealth for everyone, and if you can take wealth to mean a greater number of options, it seems like we’re doing exactly what we should be doing to me.

  • 2 Barry // Aug 23, 2007 at 10:03 am

    I read the Atlantic article ‘Jihad vs McWorld’ yesterday, for the first time. It was written in 1992, and hasn’t aged well, IMHO. Some authors are just full of it, and that’s that.

  • 3 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // Aug 25, 2007 at 5:35 am

    I remember that a long time ago, we discussed the possibility of grounding well-being in pleasure, and rationality in expected preference-satisfaction. That’s still the way I like to do it.

    Action that promotes preference-satisfaction but not pleasure just seems completely fruitless to me from the point of view of well-being. Consider cases where my preferences are in fact satisfied but I’m unaware of it, and I’m gnashing my teeth because I think things have gone terribly — would you say I’m any better off for that?

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