Loss of Rationality: Kant, Consumerism, and Democracy

06/10/2020

My current read is Net Privacy: How We Can Be Free in an Age of Surveillance, written by Sacha Molitorisz, which is unexpectedly intensely philosophical in its approach. At little over the halfway mark, whilst it seemingly hasn’t answered the question posed by the subtitle, it has still been a fascinating book that I would recommend. Although I do intend on writing a piece on it relating to the commodification of data and privacy, here I want to jump on a bit of a tangent. Molitorisz references Immanuel Kant a number of times, and it is one reference to “rational beings” that I am homing in on.

Because in the modern world, Kant’s rational beings are seemingly dwindling.

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

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

The above quote is Kant’s “formula of humanity”. I must disclose that I know basically nothing about Immanuel Kant or his philosophy beyond what has been discussed by Molitorisz in Net Privacy, and have not read the above quoted work – I have simply copied it from Net Privacy. However, I am merely using it as a springboard into my own thoughts, not necessarily the context in which Kant discusses his. Any connection (or perhaps even contradiction) to further passages and works by Kant are coincidental.

As Molitorisz describes it:

“The idea is that reasoning beings may never be treated as mere means, but only ever as agents who set ends for themselves by making plans and pursuing projects.”

Sacha Molitorisz, Net Privacy: How We Can Be Free in an Age of Surveillance. pg. 189.

Essentially, rational beings are those who set themselves ends, and the moral position is that one must always treat others (other rational beings) as such, never for their own purposes, as a “means”. There are obviously more recent considerations, such as those who are disabled who may not have the capacity to “set themselves ends” – unsure whether Kant accounts for this, but arguably the concept has greater strength in that context, as using those who are vulnerable as means would be extremely unethical.

It is this notion of the “rational being” that I wish to bounce off, because looking at both the political sphere and the consumer society we live in, I fear that that sense of rationality, while always tenuous, has been taken advantage of and lost more in recent decades. The effects of this are, as the state of the world rather brutally shows us, alarming and dangerous, and not only destroys the individual but the community and society at large.

Consumerism

First, consumerism. In the ideal “free market”, consumers will make informed decisions about which brands, products and services they will purchase or use. If a company is engaging in unethical practices, for example, such as unsustainable sourcing or the use of slave labour, consumers can elect to boycott and refuse their goods and services. Either the company must change their ways or fail, with others who will act ethically taking their place.

With all the information about a product, the company that produced it, and their own needs and wants, a consumer is able to make the most suitable choice out of the options available to them whether that be a type of vehicle or what they want for dinner on a night out. A rational being will make a rational choice.

This is hardly ever the case, however, for two reasons. The first is the role of advertising and public relations; the second is how the current system is inherently built upon exploitation.

Advertising

How corporate advertising and public relations attacks the rational and informed consumer should be quite obvious. The purpose of advertising is to convince people to use a specific product or service, usually taking advantage of every motive except rationality. An advertisement could resonate emotionally, such as associating a product with joy – this will make you happy, or the inverse, you will be unhappy without it. They could use nostalgia, linking their product or service with something from the childhood of the target audience. Or it could just fall back on old faithful – sex sells.

Advertising creates desires, wants, and preconceptions that are not always based on rational or informed decision making. A car advertisement might use a catchy song you recognise, but that does not mean it will the best vehicle for your everyday needs. Fast food commercials showcase some tasty looking props, but the actual quality of the food – both in terms of nutritional value and how it looks in reality – is not reflected at all. A notable celebrity might promote a ride sharing service, but the reverence granted to them by the consumer is certainly not granted to the average driver by the company.

That isn’t to say advertising doesn’t have a place – marketing and building a brand and reputation is a vital part of a successful enterprise, regardless of the overarching system. But the ways in which it is carried out can obscure much information the consumer does not have access to that may well sway their choices.

Systemic Failures and Limitations

The other side to this is the consumer’s choice being limited to such a degree that it could be argued they do not, in fact, even have a choice. Even with fully autonomous and competent rationality, people can be constrained by the various systems that envelop them. In the context of this piece, it generally falls back to the failures and limitations of capitalism and the corporate control of society at large.

The most obvious example is monopolies. To use fast food as the example again, there might be a number of different franchises we can choose from. McDonalds has burgers, KFC has chicken, Taco Bell attempts Mexican food, Dominos has pizza. The illusion of choice exists, but these are all American multinationals. Australian companies, and more important, regular restaurants and small businesses like cafes, can and have been overrun by powerful interests.

There is a suburb near where I live that has for many years managed to keep fast food outlets away for that reason. There are a number of small local stores and restaurants with a rather diverse range of cuisines, and the introduction of a Dominos nearby in the next suburb over was, at the time, quite a big deal. Recently, a KFC has also opened up. I’m unsure if any other companies have plans on encroaching into that suburb, or indeed popping up actually amongst the small local businesses, but the threat of it has been lurking for years.

It could be argued that people do like those fast food ventures, and that is certainly true – I am quite a fan of KFC myself. But if smaller businesses, who have thrived in the local community, are unable to compete against an onslaught of multinational behemoths, what choice is there for the individual consumer? A choice of five giant franchises might be cool, but the choice to support a local Indian store might be removed as a result.

In the US, Walmart is probably the most apt example. Local businesses cannot compete with the company owned by one of the world’s wealthiest families, so all people are left with is the single choice. Rationality is stunted by external forces. Noam Chomsky also used transport to this effect. You may have a choice between ten or more car brands, but what about the desire to support a functional public transport system? There is certainly a need for both, but the choices, and therefore the opportunities for individuals, are limited by design.

Another failure that branches off from this is the unwilling yet passive support for exploitation. Modern slavery is booming across countless industries, from agriculture to textiles, manufacturing to mining for resources. Most of this occurs in developing countries, caught in the grip of dictatorial governments and/or callous corporate masters. Nike threatens workers who try to organise; armed guards force families, including children, to mine cobalt; over 90% of out chocolate globally likely has links to some form of slave or coerced labour.

But clothing, vehicles, food, electronics, etc. are all necessities and luxuries that we enjoy daily, thus contributing to this system. And finding alternatives is not always viable. For example, I don’t order books from Amazon, preferring to use the Australian site Booktopia or independent and collective stores like PM or AK Press. The caveat for my more feel-good consumer choices is cost – Booktopia can be almost painfully more expensive than Amazon or its subsidiaries like Book Depository. So people who cannot afford higher prices shouldn’t buy books?

Obviously that is an absurd stance. I cannot judge those who order from Amazon because to do so would be an unfair display of privileged morality. Nor is it the fault of the individual consumer, or indeed the masses, that Amazon’s practices deny workers basic rights and living standards. The issue is systemic, and while individuals, if able, can make “better” choices, that is not always possible, nor useful. There are also other areas where I fail this test too – I have a smart phone, have a car that requires fossil fuels to run, and own clothes that were probably made by some poor soul in South East Asia somewhere.

My choices are limited, so my ability to act rationally in these circumstances is limited. Further, Kant’s formula of humanity, by default, has completely been abolished. Millions of people are mere means to the ends we blissfully enjoy, and so we not only limit but essentially destroy the humanity of those who the system sacrifices and exploits.

The system must change.

Democracy

The second sphere I want to explore is the political one, which Molitorisz fairly well lays a groundwork for by describing the activities of corporate and government groups regarding our net privacy. It is no secret at this stage that governments and corporate giants know every detail about us, either through direct information grabbing or inference. Shadow profiles exist of people who don’t have an online presence, and private truths can be discovered before we learn them ourselves, such as companies correctly knowing sexual orientation, or the story of how Target knew a young girl was pregnant before her father.

Most alarming is the effect this can have, and has had, on democracy. Molitorisz discusses the role Cambridge Analytica played, mostly in the US and UK, but also involvement elsewhere too. Cambridge Analytica got access to thousands of peoples’ data and was able to use it to not only target political advertising to them, but to do so in a scarily precise manner. While the exact amount of influence this campaign had on elections, notably the US election in 2016, may never be known, its impact is undeniable.

Studies have been done – and slammed for the entirely unethical nature of them – that intentionally manipulated social media users’ behaviours and mental health. Manufacturing a Facebook timeline to show happier content tends to make for more positive engagements online. More concerningly, the expected opposite is true – sadder content made unsuspecting subjects more depressed. One hardly needs to explain the ethical nightmare that is, but the implications of this research go well beyond the realm of scientific ethics.

Cambridge Analytica proved that deeply personalised advertising can affect voting patterns and behaviours, either by enticing people to vote a particular way or alienating them from the process entirely.

In a democracy, the concept goes, the members of government are elected fairly by an informed citizenry. Again, explanation is hardly needed to know that that simply is not the case, even in the “free world”, but for argument’s sake let’s say it is for the most part. Kant’s rational being, being presented with their voting options (this also suffers from the limitations mentioned above), would ideally make their decision without deception, coercion, or manipulation of any kind. Nor would they act in a way as to enforce those methods upon other rational beings, lest they be used merely as a means to an end they may not share.

Yet that is exactly what most political advertising (propaganda) is. Cambridge Analytica took this to an extreme, concentrating on a person by person approach. The public, the voters (at least, those who are eligible) are merely a means to political power. And so is their data, their very being.

How can you be sure your thoughts, your concerns, your views and ideas, are actually yours? With technology playing such an invasive and all-consuming role in how we live our lives, there are a myriad of ways one can be manipulated. From the marketing perspective mentioned above it’s bad enough – companies can predict where you will be in 24 hours or what you might want or need before you know yourself. This raises a number of issues on its own, but when you apply this level of surveillance and data collection to a discussion about political leanings and voting habits, suddenly the legitimacy of our democracy is questionable.

Can your vote really be considered your own? In the US you realistically only have two choices, so not at all there. In most other “democracies” there is usually a two-party system with some minor parties and Independents to occasionally shift the balance. But public relations (read propaganda) and political advertising tends to drown out much of the actual policy stances and decisions. The citizen cannot be considered informed, and in many cases they are scarily misinformed. Their vote, from Kant’s theory, cannot be considered rational.

Systemic change is absolutely required to combat this. Democracy should not be for sale or held hostage by those collecting insane and unethical amounts of data on the masses. This involves a number of activities, not least the tackling of misinformation and propagation of genuine fact and ideas. If we don’t, then we end up in a vicious cycle where those who twist the system retain power, which they use to entrench themselves, further denying individuals their capacity for rational choice and their humanity.

Using another as a “mere means to an end” is wrong. When it is done on a national or global scale with detrimental outcomes on society as a whole, the governments and institutions that hold power must be opposed. If we don’t, tyranny, as we see, is the outcome.

One thought on “Loss of Rationality: Kant, Consumerism, and Democracy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s