Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Thursday, September 4, 2014

A RESPONSE TO JAMES

I have had an interesting and fruitful exchange with James on the significance of Eichmann and Arendt's famous book about his trial in Jerusalem.  I should like to respond to James' last comment here, rather than in the comments section, because one of the issues that has come up has a broader importance.  [I think James probably agrees with what I am about to say -- the point is not that I disagree but that his comments prodded me to write about this.]

First, let me say that I know next to nothing about Eichmann, and take no position on that entire dispute.  I already have enough opinions on things I am ignorant of!  But that controversy raises a very important question about the relation between the personal moral characteristics of individuals and the larger moral dimensions of institutions in which they play an important role.

Not only Marx, but many other intelligent theorists, have insisted that it is a mistake to attribute the structural characteristics of capitalism to such personal virtues or vices as thrift or greed, just as it is a mistake to explain the military and foreign policy of a large modern nation by reference to the personal bellicosity or timidity of generals or presidents or prime ministers.  One of the great achievements of the discipline of Political Sociology is precisely its success in turning our attention away from these issues of private morality to the structural features of bureaucratic institutions.

Indeed, as Marx was perhaps the first theorist to argue at length and persuasively, the line of causal influence, if there is one, runs in the other direction.  It is the structural features of capitalism that select for, encourage, reward, and in some cases make necessary the personality traits that we identify as "greed."  Lord knows, English feudal lords, Oriental potentates, American slave owners, and fourteenth century French merchants were personally as greedy as nineteenth century robber barons, but their individual desire for wealth did not move them to organize their economic activities into what we would recognize as capitalism.

Mind you, sometimes the simple truth about the policy choices of modern day corporate managers is that they are moved by Gordon Gekko greed, just as some -- but in fact not very many -- of our modern major generals are bloodthirsty sadists.  And as the muckraking journalism and document leaking of the past half century have made clear, sometimes the simplest conspiracy theories are just flat out true. 

But for the most part, structural, institutional, and ideological explanations are superior, and they save us from the simple-minded belief that things will get better if we just put nice people in charge.  My guess is that on the personal level, George W. Bush is quite as nice as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- or, for that matter, Barney Frank.  [But not Elizabeth Warren.  I have actually met her, and she really is a nice person.]

2 comments:

James said...

Our exchange has indeed been fruitful. My summary and some followup are posted here: http://notphilosophy.com/conversation-with-wolff-on-arendt-and-eichmann/

Best,

James

Jerry Fresia said...

Regarding Elizabeth Warren: I was so disappointed to hear her defend Israel vis-a-vis Gaza, which supports your point, I believe, regarding structure and niceness.