Capitalism, autonomy, and education: Why We Work

JOE BIDEN’s comments on the dignity of work at the Democratic National Convention last week (was it just last week?) inspired an interesting meditation on “What Work Is Really For?” from Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Mr Gutting explains that philosophers from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell have taught that we work so that we can buy time for meaningful leisure. But Mr Gutting worries that capitalist, consumer cultures leaves their natives with fatuous desires and therefore ill-prepared to make good use of their free time. This thought leads Mr Gutting to propose that higher education function less to make us to better producers, and more to make us wiser consumers, thereby somewhat offsetting the insidious effects of capitalism on our desires and enhancing our autonomy by making us more reflective about our wants and about the contours of a good life generally.


Though I agree with Mr Gutting about the role of liberal education in widening our horizons and lending context to our choices, he stumbles along the way into several errors common in critiques of consumer culture. He writes:

[C]apitalism as such is not interested in quality of life. It is essentially a system for producing things to sell at a profit, the greater the better.  If products sell because they improve the quality of our life, well and good, but it doesn’t in the end matter why they sell.  The system works at least as well if a product sells not because it is a genuine contribution to human well-being but because people are falsely persuaded that they should have it.  Often, in fact, it’s easier to persuade people to buy something that’s inferior than it is to make something that’s superior. This is why stores are filled with products that cater to fads and insecurities but no real human need.

It’s true, as Mr Gutting says, that the engine of capitalism runs on profits, not on well-being. And no doubt many of our desires do not spring from deep, autonomous reflection on the nature of the good life. But it is a basic mistake to suggest that participating in fads and seeking fortification against insecurity fulfils “no real human need”. The humiliation and anxiety of a teen too poor to keep up with school fashion is not trivial, and neither is the ease and confidence that comes from fitting in. We do learn to better manage the disquiet of social comparison as we mature, but we are never free of it. Imitation is how culture is reproduced over generations. And status-conscious striving not only leads us to speak as others speak, to dress as others dress, and to consume what others consume, but also, when well-channeled by society’s institutions and norms, drives the invention in the arts and sciences which lead to, among other things, capitalist consumer culture, as well the Notre Dame University philosophy department.

Now, if consumer desire was only randomly or incidentally related to “real human need”, and businesses could pile up profits by persuading consumers “falsely” to want whatever crap they want consumers to want, we would have good reason to doubt that inhabitants of consumer cultures will ever make prudent use of their leisure. And so it is that Mr Gutting doubts it:

It would seem, then, that we should increase leisure—and make life more worthwhile—by producing only what makes for better lives. In turn, workers would have the satisfaction of producing things of real value. (For a recent informed and vigorous defense of this view, see Robert and Edward Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough?)

But this raises the essential question: who decides what is of real value? The capitalist system’s own answer is consumers, free to buy whatever they want in an open market. I call this capitalism’s own answer because it is the one that keeps the system operating autonomously, a law unto itself. It especially appeals to owners, managers and others with a vested interest in the system.

But the answer is disingenuous. From our infancy the market itself has worked to make us consumers, primed to buy whatever it is selling regardless of its relevance to human flourishing.

This strikes me as unjustifiably condescending to consumers. Isn’t it even a little plausible that consumers, and not just “owners and managers” will find “capitalism’s own answer”—that consumers themselves decide what is of real value to them—especially appealing? I know Mr Gutting is a philosopher, but empiricism is really not so terrifying if you give it a chance.

The United Nations Human Development Index, which integrates measures of health, wealth, and education, is intended as a proxy measure of human flourishing. The top 20 countries in the index each practice some form capitalism, and each comprises a “consumer culture”. Anglophone welfare capitalism and Northern European capitalist social democracy, which seem to do about equally well on the HDI, are good as it gets in terms of this standard measure of human well-being. And other measures, such as self-reported life satisfaction, give similar results. Thus we must reject Mr Gutting’s implicit hypothesis that consumer choice under capitalism is uncorrelated with consumer well-being. Capitalist consumer cultures are where humans tend to flourish best.

Speaking of disingenuity, I fear that Mr Gutting here is guilty of a form of intellectual slackness all too typical of the humanities scholar: reasoning from canned ideology instead of evidence. Even as a specimen of a priori reasoning, Mr Gutting’s argument seems lacking. Human preferences are always and everywhere socially primed. To point out that “the market” has primed us to want what it sells does nothing to establish that it gets us either nearer or further away from our genuine interests, from authentic human flourishing, than do the alternatives. How does patriarchial agrarian communitarianism fare in its ability to align desire with the objective conditions for flourishing? How does authoritarian socialism fare? How does Islamic theocracy fare? What is the superior alternative? Where are people in fact well-educated and relatively autonomous? It bears repeating that Nordic social democracy, like Anglophone welfare capitalism, is integrated with and supported by a form of capitalist consumer culture, and so cannot be an alternative to it. (I bought this desk at IKEA!)

Mr Gutting writes:

True freedom requires that we take part in the market as fully formed agents, with life goals determined not by advertising campaigns but by our own experience of and reflection on the various possibilities of human fulfillment.  Such freedom in turn requires a liberating education, one centered not on indoctrination, social conditioning or technical training but on developing persons capable of informed and intelligent commitments to the values that guide their lives.

This conception of freedom strikes me as a bit too demanding. Again, there’s nothing special about advertising campaigns. Our goals are shaped at least as much by our family and friends as by religious indoctrination or our conformist, status-seeking instincts. It would be foolish to deny that “true freedom” has nothing to do with weakening the influence of all these forces upon us, but neither must we be Diogenes, sleeping naked in ditches wholly indifferent to the opinions of men, to count as truly free. That said, Mr Gutting is spot on about the liberating effects of a liberal-arts education, and you need not be a philosophy professor worried about budget cuts to believe it.

However, I would add the observation that, as a matter of fact, the world’s best universities sprouted in the world’s most capitalist cultures, and that this is no coincidence. If Mr Gutting is right that the well-educated are, in one important sense, more “fully formed” as agents than the less-well-educated, then it would seem that these capitalist cultures, full as they are of excellent, accessible universities, should be most expected to produce people well-prepared to intelligently employ themselves at leisure. Now, if it happens that some people actually work more as their level of educational attainment rises, then maybe Aristotle et alia had it wrong. Work is not always instrumental to leisure. For some people some of the time, work is intrinsically satisfying, partly constitutive of well-being, and undertaken for its own sake.

this article originally  appeared in the Economist on Sep. 14, 202

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