Saturday, September 22, 2007

Reminding Marxists Of Lessons From Hegel

Whilst in Italy earlier this month, I saw an television advert for English courses. Now, I suppose this is in a way, for a Briton, odd enough; regrettably, the idea that it would be worth trying to sell foreign language courses on television in the UK is laughable. What was more interesting though was the way in which it was thought best to attempt to seel foreign language courses to Italians. The advert began with a young Italian man being asked for directions by two attractive young English-speaking women, and quickly becoming unable to reply to them in English, with the result that they walked off, leaving him looking dejected, and ended with him, having taken the advertised course, chatting relaxedly in English with another attractive young woman. The clear implication was, Italian men, without being able to speak English, you will be unable to get into the knickers of foreign women, and that this is a quite sufficient reason for you to want to learn to speak English.

There are at least two things to be said about this, I think, first simply to note the gender bias in the targeted consumers, which is likely to be difficult to explain without invoking patriarchy and the dread southern-European-family-structure; in short, sexism. All this should be familiar enough, so I think what is more interesting in a way is the attitude to foreigners, and especially foreign women, which would of course further reinforce the first point. The hardly particularly disguised assumption of the advert is that as soon as you can speak to the gullible foreign women, they will almost wet themselves with desire for a bit of latin loving, and hence will be yours for the taking. Italian women, with whom it is presumably possible for Italian men to converse comprehensibly at any time, may be wise to your ways, but foreigners are ripe for exploitation. Now, maybe such encounters, if they ever pass out of the mythos of Italian collective consciousness and into real existence, are not quite as exploitative as that implies; plenty of foreign women might quite enjoy a quick fling, indeed be looking for it, even see it as an integral part of the experience of their holiday, although you might think they'd bother to learn a bit of Italian if that was the case. Perhaps the structure of options, the set of costs and benefits, which face Italian women and seem to make them unwilling to provide such a receptive audience to the charms of Italian manhood are more morally troubling.

Either way, the advert is an interesting artefact for this kind of cultural anthropology: it is really rather rich, interpretatively. Equally, a conversation I had with a German, about the Learco Chindamo case and a similar one in Germany, which revealed that apparently the thought on the German right was that the person in question should be deported not because they weren't German, but because they were foreign; that their 'home' nationality - the person in question had spent their entire life in Germany - should bear the burden of dealing with them, because they were one of them. Now, both I and the person I was talking to agreed that that was horseshit, but for interestingly different reasons. As with Chindamo, my instinctive response is that questions of nationality and collective responsibilities is irrelevant, and what matters is where the person has ties, where it is reasonable to expect them to have to live out a life; if you can't speak Italian, and your family lives in Britain, it is hardly fair to deport you to Italy. What the German said, though, didn't dispute the claim that collective responsibility was what was relevant, instead pointing out that if the collective responsibility is going to fall anywhere, it is hardly likely to be on a society which, as a collectivity, has, by virtue of distance, hardly had an impact on a life, over the one in which that life has in its entirety been lived out.

Although perhaps less - maybe because I know less about Germany, and maybe because it is more obviously directly political, although see Beppe Grillo, who could not be more Italian or more revealing if he tried, as a possible counterexample to that - than the example of the Italian advert, this is also an potentially revealing resource for cultural anthropology. I think the more explicitly communitarian argument has bite; it is one pretty convincing retort to the response which asks why we should have to bear the burden of providing the rights it looks like deportation might violate, even without taking into account the positive force of its assignment of responsibility. That, I suppose, is not really cultural anthropology though, but more a kind of useful addition to the stores of anti-xenophobia. What is culturally revealing about the two responses is the differing conceptions of citizenship, of what it means to share a polis, that they point to. Even if I stand as a kind of ultra-liberal outlier - which I think I think I do, however accurately - and so my response cannot be viewed as typical, the point that those who wanted Chindamo deported never applied to the claim that somehow Italians or Filipinos en masse were responsible for his misdeeds. The discourse as a whole was much more individualistic, much less tied up with notions of solidarity, of collective responsibility, which at least indicates that the good of citizenship is understood quite differently.

Now, interesting as these observations may be, they hardly vindicate the title's claim to be reminding Marxists of lessons from Hegel (I won't name the Marxists in question; regular readers should be able to work out who I mean - and it's not just them either; you know who you are). One of Hegel's major criticisms of other moral and political philosophers was of abstraction, of formalistic and hence empty systems. The thought is that unless you know what it is you are distributing, it is going to be a matter of luck rather than judgment if you come up with plausible principles for its distribution. Indeed, according to Hegel, I think, a purely formal criterion, because it will not have considered the conditions of its own application, will not only be empty, in the sense that it will be indeterminate over a wide range of potential distributions, but will undermine itself; a system of formal right will end up saying that people have no right to have rights, or at least something like that. Hegel applied this criticism to Kant; I've said before I don't think it applies, because I think that the reflexivity that Hegel requires is present in Kant's account of reason and of how reason alone can stop reason's demands for grounds.

Where it is not present is in systems which claim that the morally relevant effects of simple misfortune should be equalised, while those of calculated gambles should be left to lie where they fall, or that the constraints involved in the fantasies of free-marketeers are the only just ones on individual liberty. Too many people have misread Rawls' claim about the priority of the right: he does not say that the right is either ontologically or epistemologically prior to the good, but that the good is not either ontologically or epistemologically prior to the right, and indeed to read what Rawls says elsewhere as being committed to the thought that the right is in either of those ways prior to the good would be very odd. His objection against classical utilitarianism is that it would deprive people of particular goods: the right against being sacrificed Rawls argues for is a right not to have certain kinds of goods sacrificed, and importantly dependent on the significance of those goods, rather than being a right unattached to anything, latching on to any good it so pleases, and would of course be bizarre if it were.

That, though, the requirement that moral principles know what they are applying themselves to before they start issuing instructions, makes it imperative that if you are going to attempt to think about which moral principles might be appropriate, that you understand the goods you are going to be calling for them to be applied to. It is the nature, what it is that matters about them, of the primary social goods that means that Rawls' two principles, if they are appropriate for their distribution, are so appropriate. Equally, it is the fundamental importance of the primary social goods, the all-purpose means for doing more or less anything, that mean that it is so important for having acceptable principles for their distribution; what makes Rawls' principles appropriate, if they are appropriate, is that they are focused on that importance.

In order to understand the nature of goods in this way though, we need to understand the way they fit into the system of various human purposes: as I've just said, what makes the primary social goods important in the way that Rawls' principles are supposed to recognise is that they are things you want whatever else you want; they slot into the system of various human purposes pretty centrally. This is unlikely to be case with other goods: indeed, there is a sense in which it can't be, since being an all-purpose means simply is what it is to be a primary social good - with the caveat that they are relevantly social; breathable air is not typically a primary social good. In any case, whether you are arguing about the primary social goods or other goods, the point remains that you need to understand their relevance, their significance, in terms of the things humans do, the practices they engage in, since there could hardly be any other way of judging that significance. That, though, means you better be able to do the kind of cultural anthropology I tried to engage in at the beginning of this piece, because if you can't do that, you can't understand the goods you are distributing. So, more than you thought you were getting; not just a jeremiad against the dread southern-european-family-structure, but also against much of contemporary moral and political philosophy. I suppose this is hardly unexpected.


Ben said...

The more I think about it, though I haven't given this serious thought and textual criticism, the more dubious I am about this idea of 'primary social goods'. Not only does it seem some sort of fudge, but it seriously obscures questions of comparison/measurement, and I'm not entirely convinced it won't come out with a (virtually) empty set. For example, what if I want to live as a poor monk? (And assuming one could costlessly abandon unwanted goods is a) to make a significant assumption and b) threatens to make everything become something I'd rationally want from the OP 'just in case').

Chris Brooke said...

Hmm. I'll read the post more carefully tomorrow morning when I'm less tired, and pay attention to the political-theoretical argument, but in the meantime you'll be needing to study this classic Onion Point/Counterpoint, "European Men Are So Romantic" vs "American Girls Are So Easy".

Rob Jubb said...


genius! Clearly, The Onion is a very important resource for political philosophy.


they're supposed to be a fudge; that's the point. And as for the 'things a rational [person] wants whatever else [they] wan[t]' stuff, Rawls has a model of what it is to be a rational person, and indeed, if he didn't, he'd fall victim to exactly the kind of vice I'm trying to describe, precisely because it's not irrational per se to want to be a poor monk.

Anonymous said...

And to think that the only thought the description of the advert brought to my mind was "sex sells".

MatGB said...

Alternate view, because, like Chris, I need time to read it properly.

In Italy, as elsewhere, language tuition take up is overwhelmingly female. My old job was a language school (it's possible that add was made by one of the travel agents that sells them), and about 70% of the customers were female, including from Italy.

Ergo, if you want to improve sales, persuade blokes it's a good idea and give them a reason they can relate to--the girls are already signing up in droves.

Over here, language travel is almost unheard of, my employers were German, in Germany pretty much all my friends there had heard of my employers, it's a fairly big business.

Rob Jubb said...


that's interesting (and now I think about it, I think I'd heard something like that before). I'm not sure it's necessarily fatal to the idea that the advert displays a degree of gender bias in whom it chooses as its targeted audience, since the fact that women make up the majority of participants in language classes does not mean that a higher proportion of men than women are potentially interested in learning English (an analogy: no-one would think that just because a higher proportion of pensioners than 16-25 year-olds have hip replacements, it would be a better idea to advertise hip replacements amongst 16-25 year-olds; ergo, that product a is more popular in demographic group x than in demographic group y does not entail that demographic group y contains more scope for the expansion of the product's market). Also, if the advert is itself gender-blind in its choice of target audience, that doesn't explain why language-learning more generally so obviously isn't gender-blind, although it would, if the disparity is as universal as you say, take the heat off the dread southern-european-family-structure as an explanatory factor. And of course it says nothing about the way that you try and sell learning a foreign language to Italian men; not by the prospect of leaving Italy, as I would have thought you would in the UK (possibly that has something to do with the climate, but that can't be the whole thing), but by that of sleeping with American exchange students.