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July 4, 2013

[NOTE: This is less spontaneous than my usual posts. I wrote it in a sitting – but I then ran it past some friends… and they shared it with a few of theirs – for comment. One of the latter, whose opinion I value both for realism/pragmatism, and for an ability to see big strategic shifts and issues, described it as “Bold”. I’ve taken this to have something of the understatement of “courageous decision” in Yes Minister. He had paid me the complement of taking me at my word, that this is about living a principle and not just ‘doing a bit of good in your spare time’ or ‘adding a bit of CSR to your business’. I guess he’s right – not least because most people don’t feel they are in a position to be that choosy if they want to keep their job/business and pay the bills. On the other hand, once you’ve written it down, I find it difficult not to be drawn back to the principle again and again, in personal life and in business, unless you feel totally, totally, certain that you can’t reconcile it with making a living. That’s ‘making a living’ by the way – not necessarily becoming rich or feeling indefinitely financially secure. 

I’m also becoming wary of making big pronouncements. They can so easily look like disconnected pronouncements of principle, rather than plans for action. I’m already sitting on one of those [the “Street Network thing”], now in its third year of preparation. So I can’t let this second resolution drift by. But maybe there’s something about the combination of the two, and the feeling that I actually have put the conditions in place, which means that I can bring both to life this summer. By posting this text I’m sticking my neck out a bit further. making it a little bit harder to go back. “Bold” ? Definitely. Let’s just hope that “Bold” can be good. So here’s to Kant, but not cant… or can’t?]

The piece:

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

I think this is my manifesto. If you like classical hierarchies you can think of it as the foundation on top of which I try to arrange everything else – explanations, plans, advocacy, interpretations…

I start with a simple splitting of the world into two parts – a so-called ‘binary fission’. Or at least I propose to sort people and their actions into just two heaps.  The basis of this fission is a rendering of  Kant’s Categorical Imperative.


That’s Immanuel Kant – German philosopher. In his work, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he refined his formulation of something called the ‘Categorical Imperative’. His project was to show that moral principles can be derived from reason. This project is incidental to my interest. The fact that he attempts to arrive at the imperative through pure reasoning, in the same way as is supposed to apply to mathematics or geometry, is by the by. For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced by his argument but I don’t feel the need to write the long treatise that would be required to explain why.

What I do like is the Imperative itself. I’m going to pretend that I can make a case for ‘moral sense’ – i.e. the idea that we recognise, and implicitly share recognition of, basic moral truths as a result of our human make-up. I’m going to cut straight to saying that’s why I like the Imperative… derived from pure reason or not. It comes in different formulations, like medicine, and I like the Second Formulation which says:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.”

Whatever way I have made my own moral journeys – by thinking about evolution or consciousness or aesthetics or socially constructed meaning and value – and interestingly whether I am thinking about myself or about other people… I now realise that this is what all my moral destinations have in common.

The only approach to myself, to my finite and seemingly quite short life, that makes sense as a project is that I keep trying to become a better me. No point merely standing still… whilst trying to heap up physical and financial security around myself. No point trying to accumulate externalised acclaim or status… except where they reflect a genuine progress or achievement I can accept and appreciate for itself. The only internal motive for ‘carrying on’ is to get better at being me. It’s built into us of course – that’s why gaming and levelling and unlocking all hold us in such thrall. But, and here’s a big sub-project in itself, that also entails understanding what I am, and what a better one of those looks like.

Similarly, the only sense I can make out of living a life amongst other people, and having some self-worth in such a society, is to help others to become better versions of themselves too. You can help them to subsist unchanged but, as with yourself, that just seems to be a recipe for nihilistic waiting for it all to end.

I could write whole books on how I’ve arrived at this conclusion, or this pair of matching conclusions [one for self and one for others], from all kinds of starting points… biological, meditative, economic. As recently as the end of last year I was only really coming to realise that this *was* where I keep coming back to, and that some theories I have about human perception [vision etc] and hard-wired human capabilities for reasoning and social collaboration were also all coming together at this same spot. But I won’t. Because right now I don’t need to convince anyone else. I just need to actually act on this principle rather than regard it as an optional intellectual truth… one that you subscribe to, enshrine on a bookshelf, and occasionally draw comfort from or assess yourself against.

The uncomfortable truth appears to be that you actually need to live the Categorical Imperative… which is a lot harder than you might think, particularly when you try to apply it to yourself as an end… when you try to remember the moral duty to improve yourself as a human, and not to see this as some ultimate selfishness. The best way I can think of to sustain this self-regard is the one I once offered to someone who was being treated for quite severe depression. Her biggest block was the feeling that to invest in making herself better was a selfishness and, in particular, a neglect of her family and her children. This was making her resist help. The analogy I used was the safety instructions that they give you on aircraft about using the emergency oxygen. They always say that if you are travelling with small children you should fit your own oxygen mask first. This isn’t because they think small children are more expendable, or that they condone selfishness. It’s because, however much you might want to look after your kids and keep them supplied with oxygen, you aren’t going to be able to do that if you pass out first. For the depressed lady, looking after her family meant first looking after herself. So for me it’s the same with treating yourself as an end. If you aren’t, literally, making the best of yourself then you are always going to be less effective in helping others than you might have been. Perhaps there are also some shades of Ghandi’s ‘be the change you want to see’ in this too.

But what’s this ‘binary fission’ stuff I said about splitting the world into two?

It’s because I now see the Categorical Imperative running through the things that most offend me. I’m talking about the negative, as is often more striking and vivid in morality, even though I also know I recognise the positive alternatives. Three things, in particular, have always given me a sense that something is badly wrong:

The first is where politicians, in order to promote what they regard as a general improvement for humanity or ‘the country’, are prepared to sacrifice [perhaps even see it as routine to sacrifice] some people, or the quality of those people’s lives, in the achievement of that end. In extremis this is a wartime leader sacrificing the lives and health of millions in order to sustain the nation, ‘our way of life’, or to keep barbarism at bay. But it also shows up as the sacrifice of many people to a life of unemployment, or traumatic change, in pursuit of the ‘end’ of economic growth or modernisation. These ends, of course, benefit everyone… …except when they don’t.

The second is in the workplace where I see people who regard others, in particular those they manage, as functionally interchangeable ways of getting the job done – irrespective of those people’s own professional or personal development. At best such leaders see this as a norm, where ‘everyone realises they have to work to earn money and pay the bills’ [i.e. to sustain themselves, or seek improvement outside work] and where this instrumental treatment is therefore OK. At worst they are people who also see others as the means to better themselves and gain individual promotion and further financial reward or status, rather than seeking to create a successful and fulfilling team for its own sake.

The third, and somehow the worst, is when salespeople and marketers see others only as consumers. That’s in the strict sense – where the purpose of a great swathe of other people is to buy your goods and services, generate your turnover and thereby support the making of a profit. Again this seems to many people to be a simple fact of life, or an obvious necessity. You have to sell things in order to create and grow the means to create yet more… it’s the basis of industry and commerce. But the crux here for me is when you merely sell. That is, when your sole goal and source of great professional pride, is to shift as many units as you can at the price you think you can get for them. Or, to put it another way, when you feel you can be indifferent to whether the purchaser needs this product, can afford it, is not adversely affected by it and so on. I’m not talking about dangerous or shoddy goods, I’m talking about every scenario where the primary impulsion is to sell, rather than to identify and fulfil needs. Don’t tell me that this latter comes along for free; that if you don’t offer “needed” goods and services at the right price you just won’t sell anything. We know very well that millions [sometimes more than the cost of creating the products themselves] are pumped into creating wants, persuading consumers to buy, and incentivising sales people to use all manner of tactics to get those sales. Otherwise simply describing the product and its characteristics would enable ‘consumers’ to select what was best for them… and those things which best fulfilled well-articulated needs would sell themselves.

That is, of course, what treating ‘consumers’ as ends in themselves, rather than as a means to revenue, would look like. It would mean understanding real needs [not necessarily fabricated wants] and a good deal of that might be about treating people as ends in themselves… through helping them [that’s “each other” btw] to understand and articulate what they really need. This is where authenticity also has a part to play… where brands are able to believe in their own products because they have applied the Categorial Imperative to themselves [leaders and founders], to their employees and to their customers. Authenticity is about not having to use sales and marketing to bridge a gap between the promise and the reality or between the actual and the fair price.

You might well say I am naïve and that, apart from anything else, those who try to practice business through the Categorical Imperative will simply put themselves at a disadvantage so long as they are competing with anyone who chooses to use traditional sales and marketing. That now perhaps includes the kneecap whacking, reflex exploiting, behavioural sciences and ‘big data’, to gain an advantage. What would I have you do? Ban advertising, or taking pictures from a nice angle in a nice light, or saying positive things, or making your shop smell nice… stacking your oranges in pyramids and improving your use of the apostrophe?

In short – I don’t know! But there’s a project there, which involves concepts such as the ‘intention economy’ and the use of ‘un-marketing’, which should keep me busy for a while… and help me work out who my business friends and allies are. At least I will know that what I do is as consistent with my values as I can manage to make it.

You may ask why the ‘marketing thing’ seems to bother me the most, and get the most coverage… the most words? Surely this is less immoral, under the Categorical Imperative, than raising uncountable heaps of dead around Stalingrad to achieve the ends of Communism or Nazi-ism? After all – it’s not armed robbery or murder.

Actually I think it’s only different in degree – not in kind.

If the great majority of our daily lives is directly, or in a supporting role, geared towards the treatment of each other as ‘consumers’, as means to revenue, which in turn pays wages to fund a life of material aspiration and purchased fulfilment, then we are conspiring to suck the majority of the point and purpose out of each other’s lives. Pushing a wave of unmet, un-meetable, wants in front of ourselves like a cartoon donkey with a carrot on a stick tied to its head, and bombarding ourselves and each other with selling messages and images, we actually are killing each other, by degrees, or at least killing the people we might otherwise have become.

Put like that, it matters. That’s the thing about morality – it tends to matter.

But hang on. I have, of course, done nothing more than describe something called consumerism, or the consumer society. But these phrases get hollowed out, and faded, with time and use. We need to keep re-inventing the story, lest we fall asleep, and we need to keep an eye out for when new technologies come along which afford some of the means for alternatives, at exactly the same time as they offer new means to carry on old business.

So all power to those who seek to bring in new isms – around community interest, not for profits, mutualism… or just good products and services that people really need, at a price which supports development and growth, but doesn’t amount to exploitation and greed… or isn’t sucked into funding an accelerating vortex… an arms race… of marketing.

From here on I’m going to be applying in earnest those two facets of Immanuel Kant’s offering:

1. In this action or choice am I treating myself as an end, not just a means? [And btw do I even know what I am, what my own end and ‘Purpose’ are, and what a better me looks like?]

2. Does it treat other people as an end, and not merely a means? [And btw do I even know how to identify what the ‘ends’ of human beings are… other than through some innate empathy and sense derived from my being a naturally social animal?]

Hands up if you’re doing this already and think you can help me… for example I can see how this looks like the principles of compassion, or loving kindness, which underwrite several religions… or the Christian teaching that everyone is our neighbour.

Hands up, equally, if you don’t already do this… but would like to, would like to help, and fancy coming with me.

Update: In this context, good to see UK Government consulting on incentives for employee ownership of companies 


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