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« Chandran Kukathas on Genocide | Main | David Papineau on Scientific Realism »

January 12, 2009



Because she underestimates biological causes, I think that Ms Soper's idea undermines itself. If hedonism were all there was in life - then I think her ideas would have taken over by now. The cost-benefit of overwork to overconsume simply does not weigh out. The hedonistic benefit of working 60+ hours per week to buy a $500,000 house with a pool does not work. People would not put themselves through that ordeal. So, she interprets the cost-benefit in that we are over-valuing the house with the pool, and that if we didn't value the house+pool as much, then we would live in a more sustainable world. In other words, we are just dumb when it comes to working out cost-benefit ratios. I interpret the cost-benefit as that it is not about the house+pool - but it is about showing off to the world that you have the ability to work 60+ hours to buy a ton of stuff, and still have the energy to "enjoy it" - thus you are an awesome potential mate. We do know how to do cost-benefit, just that the benefits are not about hedonistic pleasure - they are about status and sex.

Ak Mike

Thank you for presenting this interesting view from what appears to be a completely clueless philosopher. I apologize because my comments relate entirely to her views as she presents them on this podcast - it may be that in her writings Ms. Soper has far more depth to her position. As propounded by her in the podcast, her philosophy is undermined by the reality shes seems not to be aware of.

First, she is obviously mistaken that consumerism is a product of capitalism. There is no society, including all socialist societies, in which people do not wish to attain more goods and services. In socialist societies, these desires are typically forcibly suppressed, leading to black markets and despair.

Second, she appears to fail to understand that the modern advanced societies, the "consumerist" societies, have more leisure than any other societies since at least the time that humans moved from hunter-gatherer cultures to farmer cultures. Leisure has been steadily increasing. The notion that we are working harder now is a myth, presumably promulgated by those whose knowledge of the past is shaped by literature relating the goings on of the leisure classes of former days.

Third, much of the stuff that we buy is for the purpose of giving us more leisure and freeing up our time for discretionary pursuits. Refrigerators save us from the tedium and time waste of daily trips to the grocer. Washing machines save us from the daily hours of washing dishes and clothes. Even the poor in our societies can afford these devices.

Fourth, our "consumerist" societies are more and more consuming and producing services rather than goods - entertainment, recreation, education, travel, medicine. Which of these does Ms. Soper demand that I give up?

Fifth, in regard to her environmental concerns, Ms. Soper appears to be unaware that the less developed societies in our world are the ones producing the most pollution. The wealthier societies have dramatically reduced toxic emissions over the last few decades. The best way to attack this problem is to ensure that we are all wealthy enough to afford the necessary remedial measures.

I suppose there is more that could be pointed out, but no need. Ms. Soper is moved by a romantic impulse that longs for the sepia toned world of bicycles, steam locomotives, picnics with men in boaters and women in big hats, big pitchers of lemonade, etc. Marxism is also a form of romance harkening back to that sepia toned image. Romance is a beautiful impulse, but when that impulse is imposed on us, it tends to produce ugly results.


So, when we adjust our cost-benefit thinking, we'll all ride bikes instead of driving.

Who is going to work swing shift to make the bicycles?


I was listening to Philosophy Bites on the way in today, and I was amazed at what was allowed to pass in the interview with Kate Soper.

1) There’s nothing inherently “capitalist” about environmental degradation. Look at Easter Island, or more recently, North Korea, China in the Great Leap Forward era and the Aral Sea. What might help prevent it is the liberty people have to publicise it and protest it, against the interests of the state or narrow property rights.

2) If she thinks capitalist society drains us of the potential to enjoy pleasure, she should try being a farmer. Urban migration is about the search for an easier life, though loss of land is a contributing factor. My father could have helped her on that. Obviously capitalists are quite happy to have workers do 18-hour shifts, but that’s where liberty comes in to allow organisation to curb this tendency, and encourage employers to invest in robots. One of the strongest themes in literature on Soviet life is how tired everyone is, because they have to do as they are told at work, and finding what they need away from work is so complicated and unrewarding. The thought that compulsory “slow transport” would add to the ability to enjoy life more is ludicrous.

3) She skated so lightly over the issue of enforcement, implying it would be consensual. We can see the resentment that exists now against people being forced to accept what is “good”, from wheely bin fines to the concept that welfare rights should be extended to immigrants to the prohibition of capital punishment. Enforcement of a more sustainable lifestyle may be in our interests (read Jared Diamond in praise of China’s one-child policy), but the implied restraint on liberty was not raised at all. I see her as a Pol Pot in waiting, and she would probably think he had his heart in the right place. Most importantly, this would never come about as the result of of free choice, no more than the one child policy did.

4) She praised Philosophy Bites as an example of post-materialist production, while neglecting to mention that it was produced, distributed and consumed on products that didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago which were the fruits of murderous capitalist competition and globalised sourcing, and constituted a “manufactured desire”. Goalhanger!

5) The idea of “amour propre” and the foolish things it makes us do is interesting, but the consequences of seeking to control it, and the mechanisms that this would require and the liberties it would potentially infringe were not mentioned. Surely “amour propre” is descended from evolutionary “display” which is about the promotion of oneself as a potential mate. While it seems ludicrous to us to think buying a Porsche rather than a bicycle will achieve this, the impulse is so fundamental to us that the process of controlling it will be a messy one.

6) While she made some strong criticisms of the foolishness of consumerism and the threat it prevents to the environment, she made no case for the joys of “alternative hedonism” whatsoever. It is wishful thinking on stilts to think she will persuade anyone. This leaves control, either by inserting herself into a high-minded and unaccountable bureaucracy to impose on the serfs what they are too foolish to see is in their interests, or the Pol Pot route. The trade-off between liberty and sustainability has to be discussed more explicitly.
So much more I could say.

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