Beyond Charity: Zizek and the satisfaction of moral impulses in general

Zizek’s critique of Starbucks is cutting: capitalism sells us, alongside the products destroying the world, products which claim to include in their consumption its repair and redemption. The truth to extract from this is deep and wide-spreading: the unjust society you live in sells you its own repair as a libidinal supplement, to subvert desires for political change into individualistic tokenistic capitalist actions. The way of formulating this principle in terms of capitalism consumption, however, is unduly narrow; ideological displacement of activity with the goal of resistance or reform is possible, perhaps common, in all facets of modern political and moral life.  We must consider the implications of this critique not only on the topics of charity and eco-friendly consumption, but also for political activity more broadly.

Zizek’s critique of charity is based on an essentially simple idea: a genuine moral impulse to combat a real problem can be displaced towards an action which, although carefully constructed (or simply by happenstance) satisfies the impulse, fails to combat the problem which gave rise to the impulse. Thereby, the initial moral problem which gave rise to the impulse is rendered impotent – unable to engender motivational capacity which might have otherwise led to legitimate remedies. I do not mean, however, that every moral impulse is initially genuine and only thereafter becomes ideologically displaced – certainly some moral impulses are in the first instance highly ideologically motivated in their production (take, for instance, selective news coverage of a military conflict that portrays the crimes of the enemy and the heroic actions of “our side” – this might produce a moral impulse to give to a veterans charity). However, even highly moral impulses highly partisan in their creation can, as far as I understand, still be motivated by a genuine human value, i.e. helping a fellow countryman who has made a noble sacrifice in pursuit of a just cause.

They key is therefore the relation between the moral impulse’s creation and satisfaction and the real problem in relation to which it exists. That relation is one of understanding: desires are literally ways of emotionally understanding a situation. It is in terms of understanding that we should grasp the success or failure of moral motivation to deal with a situation – when an impulse is ideologically displaced, this both is an emotional way of misunderstanding a situation (e.g. liberal guilt), and at the same time an intellectual, or implicit intellectual mis understanding (i.e. “every little bit helps”). We should therefore consider education, both intellectual and emotional, to be the primary weapon against moral displacement.

But all this so far is pure theory – how can we actually tell in a real situation whether a moral impulse is being generated and/or satisfied ideologically? Zizek’s Starbucks example is cheap – obviously major corporations are going to sell you ethics as another product on the menu, and obviously the real positive effect of ethical consumption exists only to satisfy the customers moral impulse (and therefore the relative education of a corporations customers explains to what extent a firm deems it necessary to back up its green face with real improvements in the field – for instance compare Starbucks’ coffee and chocolate buying practices with Tim Hortans). The fact is, we can’t know in advance – we have to do the hard empirical and psycho-analytic work of determining the moral desires and consequences – both intended and unintended – of the actions those impulses engender. That said, we can perhaps draw some general formulations that might help any particular inquiry.

Leaving the issue of charity aside (Zizek’s own critique already deals with this), we might look at other political choices which involve consumption – such as vegetarianism, veganism, consumer boycotts of Israel, buy-nothing-day, etc… I do not think that there is a  problem with asserting that all of these actions are based on a moral impulse which we should call genuine – we want to stop the suffering of animals, we don’t like the occupation and attacks on the Palestinian territories, we see that the consumer economy is needlessly destroying the environment and enslaving the population with debt, and so on. But each of these actions tends to presume its own success in the carrying out of the action itself. Take for example, vegetarianism – is there not a tendency to see your decision to stop your own consumption of animals as a personal sacrifice, as “doing your part”, and when you’ve succeeded in cutting yourself off from the omnipresent luxury of meat, you are “doing your part”? When of course, if one actually holds to the principle of ending the suffering and slaughter of animals to serve a contingent human need, the only value in becoming vegetarian is the value it derives from being effective towards that end. And yet – how many vegetarians are capable of imagining a world without meat production? And of those, how many are capable of an analysis which links where we are today to a world without meat production, and actually take part in forward-looking activities other than being vegetarian and talking to other vegetarians about how great it is to be vegetarian? The key is, I think is in the satisfaction of the moral impulse: if one’s moral impulse is satisfied, or satiated by the activity one takes up on the basis of it, then one is entrapped in an ideology of personal goodness (“Ideology” here means a way of grasping a problem which mystifies it, which renders one’s engagement with it a fantasy rather than reality). If, however, one constantly experiences the inadequacy of one’s attempt – and even the more strongly the more resolutely one engages in the attempt, then one might have freed oneself from ideological mystification.

We might, on this basis, attempt to extend Zizek’s charity analysis far beyond particular cases, and even draw up some rules based on universalizabilty by which we might evaluate particular political causes. First, any political project one engages in where the engagement satisfies the moral impulse rather than heightens it, is likely to be ideological. Second, any political project which necessarily excludes others, such as the attempt to extricate yourself from complicitness in the evils of current social and political systems, is ideological because it can not be universalized: even if you convince everyone you are right, only a small proportion of those people can actually participate. Third, any political project which while not necessarily excluding anyone, contingently excludes others on the basis of cultural beliefs and practices, should not be pursued as the centre, or at least not the only centre of one’s political engagement.

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15 thoughts on “Beyond Charity: Zizek and the satisfaction of moral impulses in general

  1. Some people do, occasionally, read blogs.

    I’m interested by your use of Žižek here. And his ideas seem to have much in common with some of what Baudrillard wrote on the virus of capitalism. Specifically, I am interested by your thoughts on vegetarianism and your suggestions for an application of universability.

    Firstly, vegetarianism and the genuine moral impulse, a subject which intrigues me as I have been a vegetarian since I was 18 (a mighty long time). Over the years, many have suggested that I am taking a morally superior position with regard to this choice that I made many years ago. Certainly, if I think back, the choice I made at 18 to become vegetarian was ideologically motivated. In the intervening years my choice has become more, not less, morally problematic for me. Initially my decision to become vegetarian was motivated by my belief that it was obscene to eat animals. In recent years my beliefs have changed. I no longer believe that eating animals is “wrong” but I do believe that the conditions animals live in, and the methods used to kill them for food, need be scrutinised. However, this is not all. To return to your suggestions for universal applicability, your third condition – “Third, any political project which while not necessarily excluding anyone, contingently excludes others on the basis of cultural beliefs and practices, should not be pursued as the centre, or at least not the only centre of one’s political engagement” – seems entirely appropriate to my musings on my own vegetarian state. Who am I to dictate to others with regard to eating meat? The availability of alternative food sources, cultural practices and geographical economics need to be considered with regards to the embodied position that others find themselves and the availability of choices to them. Indeed, as the years go by my choice to be a vegetarian provides me with more moral ambiguities than answers. As an ideology, I cannot subscribe to it universally. I acknowledge that my choice to be a vegetarian is aided by the fact that I live in the West, I have a choice of alternative food sources widely available to me, time to cook the food I want to eat etc. Does a personal choice to be a vegetarian mean that I have to believe that there will be a world without meat production? No, because then I would have to apply a rule of universality to others who may not be in a situated position to follow through on the rule. If, however, I do not pursue my own personal choice, then I fall into a place of “resignation” where I feel that my own small action has no significant effect. At the same time, neither can I overestimate the effect of my small action. My moral impulse cannot be satisfied with regard to my vegetarianism. I cannot universally apply the rule that “nobody should eat meat”, in fact I do not believe in this rule. Neither can I apply the rule that “all animals should be treated well, kept in dignified conditions until they are slaughtered and should be slaughtered with the least amount of pain and stress”, although I do believe it should be a consideration, but not everybody in the world is in a cultural, social or economic position to apply this rule. I can say that I refuse to eat meat because I do not want to support a capital machine that disregards any ethical code around harvesting animals for food. But what of GM foods, mass harvested vegetables? I can choose to try to eat organic produce. But the provenance for truly organic produce is shady to say the least. And sometimes I just cannot afford to buy organic. So, I accept that my choice to be vegetarian is truly compromised, and I keep questioning my decision, and hope that in the indefinate questioning I will, at the very least, never consign myself to a situation of resignation. My moral impulse remains deeply unsatisfied.

    That is why I like your formulation. Firstly, that a moral impulse should not be satisfied but heightened. An excellent rule because has anyone come up with the perfect formulation or model for a “better world”? A better world would have to be an ongoing project. Secondly, on the subject of complicity. Beauvoir speaks about this a lot. Whilst at times our embeddedness is an obstacle to seeing our own complicity in the structures to the freedoms of others, a deliberate disavowal of the possibility of our complicity with those structures is a pernicious thing. Thirdly, when one cannot apply the rule of universality to ALL others, then a political project cannot be pursued as a central tenet if it cannot include everyone. Excellent. I’ve always been highly suspicious of moral and political arguments which favour the “greater good”, perhaps because I am a woman.

  2. Tina,

    I’m glad you like my formulation, but I don’t think you’ll like my interpretation of it.

    “Third, any political project which while not necessarily excluding anyone, contingently excludes others on the basis of cultural beliefs and practices, should not be pursued as the centre, or at least not the only centre of one’s political engagement” – seems entirely appropriate to my musings on my own vegetarian state. Who am I to dictate to others with regard to eating meat?”

    I don’t at all mean for these formulations to restrict one’s ability to make moral judgements. Personally, I think the production of meat and animal products is completely reprehensible. The principle is quite simple – we should not enslave and torture emotive beings with futures for a contingent human need. I’m entirely opposed to the “who am I to dictate others” relativistic liberalism.

    The grounds on which I’m suggesting that people ought oust veganism or vegetarianism from the centre of their politics has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of eating meat or dairy or eggs. It has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of raising animals “ethically” (I think this direction of thought can be easily criticized with the same logic we use to criticize charity). Rather, I’m suggesting we de-centre animal rights or animal welfare politics on purely pragmatic grounds.

    To give an example – we might think that US supported coups of democratic regimes around the world are 100% wrong – no “who am I to say for others” is appropriate here. And yet, there are specific contexts where making US imperialism the centre of one’s politics would not be effective – because, say for strong cultural reasons, people were not able to associate America with “committing crimes overseas” (I’ve written about this recently here: http://burycoal.com/blog/2010/10/07/imperialism-and-moral-obligation/). And, if the people one is trying to organized can’t be organized on the issue you are using, it’s a contingently non-universalizable issue, and it’s ineffective and wrong. And, it’s wrong for very boring reasons Hegel outlined in philosophy of right (and which I referenced here in relation to climate denial: http://burycoal.com/blog/2010/03/05/hegel-and-climate-denial/). The reason is roughly, if we think we’re smart enough to know the outcomes of our actions, even to a limited extent, then we can be held responsible for outcomes we could have known even if we happened to ignore them. So, the way that applies to this case is – we can be held responsible for the failure of our own actions (i.e. political projects) if we could have known they were doomed to failure. We are therefore demanded to consider effectivity in all practical life. And it’s on the grounds of effectivity, not moral rightness, that de-centreing of just but non universalizable causes makes sense.

  3. “Thirdly, when one cannot apply the rule of universality to ALL others, then a political project cannot be pursued as a central tenet if it cannot include everyone. Excellent. I’ve always been highly suspicious of moral and political arguments which favour the “greater good”, perhaps because I am a woman.”

    I think the second and third formulations exist in a difficult tension. I doubt any program is fully universalizable. However, perhaps some programs structurally exclude others in an oppressive way, and others create opportunities for solidarity across lines of differences that prevent strict identification with the same project. This might correspond to the Deleuzian analysis of the oppressed/oppressor identities which I wrote after visiting Northern Ireland (https://northernsong.wordpress.com/2010/07/05/dynamics-of-identity-how-the-oppressed-and-the-oppressors-are-not-the-same/).

  4. Relevant?

    “the ethical demand is something that arises
    in relation to the particular other person that I am faced with. the demand
    that they exert on me is a demand that I could never meet. That’s the basic
    intuition. that demand splits me so the relationship to the neighbour is
    anarchic, in the sense in which the relationship to the neighbour is one
    where I cannot possibly meet the claim that is made upon me. It is that not
    being able to meet that claim that is the condition for, not paralysis, but
    action in the world. That’s the thought.”
    http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:z-SHeDzykdAJ:www.ucd.ie/philosophy/perspectives/resources/Simon_critcheley_interview.pdf+heideggerian+anarchism&hl=en&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESj4CFDNXPYk9l0mtUlKHNQT4wpxlEiLhvRmSbhe4xWL6xLvJIyTmhS4sA6-_AJulI-DxpUW4pjOn3dk1A6Op7jhm0liDXT7npLWD5i_ZJNPGoE2zW35f_mmKb_7KWI2LcqFMu9b&sig=AHIEtbS50-EjjZ1Ctw23hA0ZJSwlkdw4XA

  5. Hi Tristan,

    I do not think that it is my right to dictate to anyone and I this is a pragmatic respnse, as in the spirit of democracy (which I concede I have a utopian vision of which sits uneasily with the dystopian reality of democracy we operate in, hence my comments about the greater good and being a woman) it seems to me to be reprehensible and unpragmatic to assume a dictatorial position with regards to argumentation. Dictating or imposing my world view is not likely to result in an effective result. I do not believe that my position is motivated by i a liberal relativistic disposition. It is surely pragmatically preferable to formulate and persuade from the position of a rational ethical argument rather than a dictatorial one? In my opinion rational argument is more likely to provide a positive result than imposition because beliefs (perhaps irrational and arbitrary) need time to change and only truly change when a preferable argument can be provided which is preferable. My moral judgement is that the production and consumption of meat products in privileged Western societies is undesirable but I am in a minority with regard to this moral judgement, yet I am willing to persist to provide rational arguments about the ethics of meat production which, over time, may influence the judgements of others. I will tirelessly campaign to express my convictions, and aim to provide a rationale for them. Yet I pragmatically accept that my convictions need time to be expressed and to effect change.

    I am not familiar with this argument of Hegel’s (and will try to catch up on the posts you have flagged). It seems to me that there is a problem with the way you have suggested Hegel’s effectivity argument. It appears to me that Beauvoir follows Hegel to some extent with regard to a disavowal of responsibility for the outcomes of our choices and this again relates to time. How, and in what time span, can we anticipate effectivity? You say “we can be held responsible for the failure of our own actions (i.e. political projects) if we could have known they were doomed to failure” but I would question this. Doomed to failure in the short term or the long term. “Failure” is a big word. It closes possibilites for change down. For example, in the short term raising certain issues with regards to the inequalities of women’s pay in the workplace is unlikely to issue effective results. Is the project of promoting equality of pay doomed to failure? I would say no, that commitment to the project of raising awareness with regard to this particular aspect of sexual inequality is likely to a reward in the long term. So, temporality becomes implicated with effectivity.

    When you talk about a pragmatic position I understand that some issues are more “pressing” than others, ie a short term solution is not only desirable but necessary. But effectivity works on a multivalent level. So, how does Hegel define effectivity with regards to time?

  6. Regarding your second post, I am going to read your blog re: Deleuze before I say very much. I am inspired by, but also occassionally suspicious, of the idea of creating “opportunities for solidarity across lines of differences that prevent strict identification with the same project”. In many ways, and here I am thinking of specifics that relate to women’s rights, lines of solidarity have obscured differences. Whilst there may be a nebulous or tangible identifications with the same project (for example in the Irish quest for a republic at the turn of the 20th century) these identifications can severely obscure the very important nuances in diversions from central tenets of identification (the women’s movement aligned itself in Ireland with it’s support for a nation state, put it’s campaigning for women’s rights on hold for this cause on the understanding that women’s rights were peripheral to the rights of a nation. Problem is that the issue of women’s rights was not put back on the political agenda as the issue of cementing the nation state was seen as central).

    Anyway, I’ll get back to you on this one.

  7. I’ve read a fair bit of Critchley (he’s a great interpreter of Levinas) but not his. Again, will get back to you on this when I’ve digested it.

  8. “I do not think that it is my right to dictate to anyone and I this is a pragmatic respnse, as in the spirit of democracy”

    I don’t know what you mean by “dictate” – what’s the difference between not being willing to dictate, and not being willing to take a stand?

    I think it’s crucial to democracy to take stands. For instance, I think Israel’s new oath-law is racist, and I can give my reasons. And while I wouldn’t bet my life on this in terms of certainty (that’s not what certainty is, anyway), I’m willing to say it in public and deal with the consequences. I don’t care if the majority of my society doesn’t give a shit about arab-israelis or palestinians. I don’t care if the majority think criticism of Israel is racist (and, I wouldn’t be surprised if, around where I live, that is a majority).

    The spirit of democracy is not saying it’s alright for other people to commit atrocities. And I think the way we treat animals is an atrocity. And there are lots of atrocities – the use of child soldiers in the Congo (largely due to demand for cell phones), the US secret prisons, the siege of Fallujah, Gitmo, the list is long.

    As for Critchley, I think he’s on my side: (from an interview)

    Interviewer: you describe yourself as a phenomenologist and your book is concerned with an ethical experience but if we begin phenomenologically from the phenomena of experience then we can’t prejudice that experience by stating ‘to experience the world in this way is wicked, to experience the world in that way is not to be wicked.’ From a christian point of view, with the presupposition of a universal human compassion informed by god, you could condemn walking by a homeless person as wicked but it does not seem so straightforward for a phenomenologist.

    Simon C: I condemn it. I think that, phenomenologically, if you look into the deep structure of that experience of the other passing by indifferently is not our fundamental orientation towards the other as an other. our orientation towards the other at the level of deep subjective experience is one of something like compassion or something like being affectively moved by their presence. Phenomenology is a way of relearning to see the world and relearning to see other people in that world. It is not just descriptive, it’s shot through with normative assumptions. It’s not just value free description, it never was.”

    (PDF LINK):

    http://www.ucd.ie/philosophy/…/Simon_critcheley_interview.pdf

  9. “I am inspired by, but also occassionally suspicious, of the idea of creating “opportunities for solidarity across lines of differences that prevent strict identification with the same project””

    I’m referring to the murals I saw in the Falls road region of Belfast, which expressed solidarity with Cuba, Caledonia, Gaza, the West Bank, and the civil rights struggle in the US. I don’t see how such solidarity could exist without acknowledging that those in Belfast who stand in solidarity with, say, Cuba, are not actually to be strictly identified with the Cuban struggle against US oppression. There are photographs here:

    https://northernsong.wordpress.com/2010/05/13/religions-murals-and-stability-in-identity-formation/

    But, the same thing is happening in Canada. The Toronto Environmental Action Network did an action earlier this month in Toronto in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en nation opposing a oil pipeline to take tar-sands oil to Vancouver:

    http://toronto.mediacoop.ca/photo/enbridge-inc-confronted-investor-day-toronto/4769

  10. Northern Song,
    I recently read Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology and have been interested in using it to analyze what has been argued to be the ideology of veganism as well as “carnism.” If you receive this and would be interested in giving me some feedback (since you are more familiar with Zizek than I), please email me. (I would’ve emailed you, but I couldn’t find an address).
    Best,
    adam

  11. This was a very interesting read. But I am little bit puzzled regarding the example of veganism/vegetarianism. From what I know you are a vegan yourself. I may have misunderstood your reasoning here, but you seem to be presenting pretty strong arguments against veganism, which you, if I understood you right, never refute. You wrote the following:

    “When of course, if one actually holds to the principle of ending the suffering and slaughter of animals to serve a contingent human need, the only value in becoming vegetarian is the value it derives from being effective towards that end. And yet – how many vegetarians are capable of imagining a world without meat production? And of those, how many are capable of an analysis which links where we are today to a world without meat production, and actually take part in forward-looking activities other than being vegetarian and talking to other vegetarians about how great it is to be vegetarian?”

    I assume that you don’t think veganism is effective towards the goal of ending the suffering and slaughter of animals, and that you can’t imagine a world without meat production. Does it then boil down to personal ethics for you? If so, can it really be an ethical act to go vegan/vegetarian if it has so negligible consequences, in the sense that it does not bring the world closer to the above stated goal? I am curious to know what your position is here.

    1. I do believe it can be effective, what I’m doing is criticizing the tendency among vegans to lack the consciousness necessary to help bring it about.

  12. Ok, I see. Regarding what vegans could do to bring it about, are you thinking of things like speaking out among people, spreading information, a movie for instance, and so forth?

    I am going off-topic now, but what I doubt about the effectiveness is if you really can change the world through consumer choice. A pessimist would point to how much meat is being thrown away in trade or how we eat more meat now in total even though the number of vegetarians/vegans has increased. One could perhaps in defense argue that even though we all are embedded in a system why not try to minimize our complicity in relationships of exploitation. I don’t know what your thoughts are regarding this, perhaps you value the qualititative aspect higher than the quantitative aspect of foregoing animal products, in the sense that while the act doesn’t necessarily have an effect on their market value it can enable us to transform the way we relate to ourselves and non-human animals.

    1. Yes – I believe the qualitative aspect to be the more important one. Politics functions through the universal adoption of prescriptions, and politically (not morally) speaking I would compare vegans to 18th century abolitionists. Actually, I think it’s a problem that the term is “vegan” rather than “non-human animal solidarity activist” – it’s a problem that the term reflects back on the human’s practice rather than the animals they are acting in solidarity with, or the political cause they are struggling for. The point of ethical veganism, for me at least, is not so much one’s own practice but the intentionality towards an end to the current practices that are abhorrent.

      My original post, which I would update today with a critique of the term “vegan”, is a critique of the tendency of activism in general to fall back onto itself in self-obsession rather than critically reach out in commitment to transformation rather than self-purity.

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