Book Review: “Indispensable Goods” by Tom Pepper

I’m publishing here my review of Tom Pepper’s (aka The Faithful Buddhist) new book, Indispensable Goods: Thoughts on Ideology, Agency, the Meaning of Life, and Other Somewhat Important Things. The book is available on Amazon.


It has been some time since I’ve published anything on this blog. The reason for this has been, chiefly, that the kinds of things I have to say now have nothing at all to do with Buddhism, at least not in any recognizable form, and I simply don’t have the time or the energy to try to “rehabilitate” Buddhist concepts. Much more useful than critiquing the rubbish that is found in the Buddhist literature section, I’ve found, is to actually begin to think through the problem of human suffering, and the ways in which we can struggle against it. There are many different obviously delusional ideas that one can spend one’s time criticizing, but, eventually, this becomes tedious, and the effort to grow up starts to occupy more of one’s time.

What I mean by “the effort to grow up” is the attempt to develop the agency necessary to consciously replace one’s ideology with one that produces less suffering. And, for this purpose, I’ve found this book to be an indispensable tool (pardon the pun).

Now, what does it mean to “consciously choose one’s ideology?”

In the first chapter of the book, Pepper points to an assumption which, as it happens, most of us do not even recognize as being an assumption. The assumption is “that it is simply not possible to be motivated by something if we don’t believe it to be somehow necessary (36).” It has been the rat-race of religion and of moral philosophy for thousands of years to attempt to establish a necessary basis for the kinds of ideologies we engage in. It is almost universally assumed that, in order to engage in a particular social practice, we should be able to justify that practice by reference to some external necessity.

This “necessity” can take many forms. One may appeal to God as the necessary reason why we should behave in a particular way. For many people today, this is no longer convincing, and so there are two more dominant strategies we see. On the one hand, moral philosophers attempt to determine the “right” actions on the basis of natural law or rational necessity. The idea being that, by constructing a moral system from fundamental principles, we can discover how we ought to behave. On the other hand, there is the kind of relativism which rejects this approach, and argues that we cannot appeal to any such rational structure, but can instead only follow our individual desires. On this view, what is necessary is not something outside of ourselves or anything in the objective world—including other humans—but only our own deepest desires. 

Pepper argues that both of these approaches are dangerous,; they are based on a list of profound misunderstandings of the way in which the world works, and they prevent us from ever developing any real agency. To have real agency is not to act on the basis of an external necessity, but to choose, on the basis of reasons developed within language, the kinds of intentions we ought to produce in the world. That is, “we can recognize our ideological practices as being socially constructed, and yet with this awareness still be fully invested in them and even get enjoyment from them (36).” In other words, the kinds of things we ought to do are not discovered in fact, but they are produced socially, and moreover we can decide which things we “ought” to do, not on the basis of a fact or a system, nor on the basis of arbitrary individual desires, but by collective agreement.

This is surely a shocking claim to many people, to say nothing of moral philosophers. “Why should I act in this way, rather than in another?” we all ask. But the point is precisely that there is no external necessity to be found or constructed here; one can choose to act without such an external justification, but only on the basis purely of a collectively agreed upon decision, arrived at through a negotiation within language. Indeed this is already how humans organize society—on the basis of intentions which are socially produced, and so can be changed. The crucial point here is that it is not the intentions which we already have that we have to figure out how to meet. Rather, the task is precisely to decide what kind of intentions we ought to have! And such a decision requires not an escape from ideology, but precisely that we participate in an ideology which produces the kinds of intentions we decide we ought to have. This is because we don’t actually have any intentions “until after we are in ideology. It only seems that we always had them because we have been part of some social symbolic system since even before we were born (25).”

I have no doubt that the above paragraph will be incomprehensible to most people. And there are reasons for this—as we will see. The claim that we can decide on which intentions we ought to have is not only difficult to grasp conceptually; it also always triggers the fiercest resistance from all across the philosophical spectrum. The idea that we can only act on the basis of some necessity over which we have no control, be it God, reason, or our deepest inscrutable desires, is something that Hegel, more than anyone, fought against. And this is probably one of the main reasons why Hegel is so difficult to understand. But why is this conception of ideology, which Althusser attempted to develop further, so difficult to accept?

The answer is that this is a conclusion which makes sense only on the basis of previously established assumptions about the nature of a wide range of things such as language, reason, emotion, human nature, history, and other such “basic” philosophical concepts, which we take for granted but do not actually have a coherent understanding of. And so Pepper attempts, in this book, to do something which I think nobody else has yet done in a systematic manner: to point out these errors which prevent us from arriving at an adequate understanding of ideology, to make explicit the assumptions which an Althusserian conception of ideology rests on.

At times Pepper’s project appears as something overly heroic. After all, he really does challenge a whole bunch of assumptions that are common not only among “the masses,” but which are reproduced on the theoretical level by virtually all of academic philosophy, and even some very smart scientists. But to get past this it’s useful to keep another question which Pepper raises from the outset in mind, and that is the following: how is it the case that most of us say that we wish to participate in ideologies that produce a world without things like inequality, sexism, racism, and so on, and yet our practices continue to reproduce these very things? This is obviously the case if we look around in the world, and yet the reason why it is the case seems to escape us.

But Pepper makes an important point in relation to this. Discussing the development of technology, he points out that “what we most complain about is usually exactly what a new technology is meant to do (30).” The example given is that of television: at one point we complained about all the sex and violence on television, things we imagine we find unacceptable in the world. But in fact the purpose of this technology was precisely to encourage sex and violence. The same logic can be applied to all of our social practices. That is to say, it is possible to be mistaken about our own intentions, and the social practices which produce them. The reason why the errors raised in the book need to be challenged, is that they prevent us from coming to a correct understanding of the kinds of intentions which our social practices produce, from which it follows that, through the development of new kinds of social practices, we can produce our intentions consciously. This idea—that we can be confused about our own intentions—is no less hard to swallow, yet it is precisely the reluctance to accept this fact that prevents us from developing any true agency in the world.

So what, exactly, are these errors which we must overcome, and the assumptions we ought to replace them with? These include a large range of subjects which I will not go into here. The reason is that, as Pepper explains, these assumptions are not independent of each other, but mutually reinforcing, and I think that the arguments in the book should speak for themselves, in their intended arrangement.

The book itself is divided into fifteen chapters, the majority of which make explicit a particular error, and attempt to replace it with a more correct assumption about the subject under consideration. For example, there are chapters titled “Human Nature,” “Language,” “Mind,” “Free Will,” “Emotion,” and so on. After all of these are explained, the last few chapters attempt to work out a correct understanding of ideology in general, which depends on the reader having gone through the entire process of examining one error after another, each of which is dependent on the rest. In this way, the book is structured similarly to Hegel’s Phenomenology—and one would be a fool to attempt to summarize the Phenomenology in a review! Rather, the reader must go through the process themselves. Often one feels that Pepper is taking us on a zig-zag of a detour. However, as is the case with Althusser (who was very fond of “detours”), all the seemingly disparate pieces fall together once the process is complete, and it becomes clear why each detour was necessary in the first place.

Despite the seemingly wide range of topics discussed, the question of intentions always looms in the background. There is a method to this kind of work, which I would say consists of making explicit intentions that were previously implicit in our social practices, and the discourses surrounding them. At times the method feels a bit dry and academic—especially in the difficult early chapters on the so-called “ontological collapse.” However, once all of the errors tackled are clearly addressed, it becomes clear how the method is something that can be applied to the real world. I will briefly give a recent example of the usefulness of this method.

Earlier in May, the United Nations failed to pass a resolution on the coronavirus pandemic. The problem was that the two largest imperialist powers in the world—the US and China—could not come to an agreement on the content of the resolution. The United States wanted the resolution to blame China for the spread of the virus, while China objected to this, insisting that the resolution refer to the UN’s own body, the World Health Organization’s, role in tackling the crisis. As Daniel Morely writes in his article on the subject:

This means that four months into the greatest global crisis since World War Two, the organisation whose entire purpose is supposedly to foster global cooperation has nothing to say or do about it. It is unable to call for any cease-fires to tackle the pandemic or take any other action. It is truly impotent at the very moment it should be the most powerful and important organisation on earth.  

To the enlightened liberal establishment and their political commentators, this appears inscrutable. How is it that an international body which is meant to foster global cooperation is unable to do so precisely when it most needs to? This can only make sense if we make our intentions explicit with respect to this institution. In order to make sense of this situation, we would have to point out that as a matter of fact the UN is incapable of fulfilling the role of fostering global cooperation and peace precisely because it was never intended to do so in the first place! The United Nations is not an impartial body, interested only in making the world a better place for all. The fact of the matter is that, under our system of global capitalism, in which rival imperialist powers fight for control, no such body can actually exist. In the final instance, it would have to represent the interests of either one imperialist nation or the other. To the extent that such an organization “functions,” it is capable only of imposing the will of one imperialist nation over the rest of the world. Or, if these interests happen to align, then the ostensible function of ensuring global cooperation is redundant, and the organization plays no role at all.

The same goes for the WHO. As Morely points out, the outlook of the WHO’s foundation was not, as many claim, to be an independent scientific organization that serves the interests of humanity as a whole:

[The] outlook was never one of ending disease by tackling the most important basis of it, that is, chronic poverty and inequality. Instead it was based on the need to lance off inequality’s symptoms whilst preserving this inequality, so that capitalists may expand into new areas of the world, exploiting said inequality, without having too many sanitary barriers to doing so. Specific diseases were highlighted so that vaccines could be developed for them. In this way, troublesome diseases could be destroyed or mitigated without expensive social programmes and challenges to the privileges of the rich.

That is, the intention which was being reproduced in the founding of the WHO was not to benefit humanity, but to increase the profits of a handful of capitalists. The scientists that work for the WHO may not understand this. In this sense, they are participating in an ideology without knowledge of the actual intentions which it serves.

This is just one example of how this method can be used to think more clearly about the problems facing humanity. There are many others. What Pepper achieves brilliantly is teach the reader how to think, how to avoid the errors that prevent a correct understanding of our social formations.

However, the task is not merely to make explicit the intentions of our current ideologies; it is also to decide whether we wish to continue to participate in such ideologies. That is, we can, once we have come to a correct understanding of the intentions behind our ideologies, and the institutions which reproduce them (for instance, the WHO), we can consciously decide to choose whether these intentions are worth having. Such a decision need not, and indeed cannot, be made on the basis of an objective necessity. One may well choose to participate in an ideology which produces misery for the majority in the interests of a minority. That is, we may choose to reproduce the intention of causing enormous amounts of suffering for the vast majority of humanity, while enriching a handful of parasites that are destroying the planet and leading humanity off a cliff, possibly to extinction. Presumably, however, most of us do not want to participate in such an ideology, for the simple reason that most of us will of course, not be in the minority but the majority. The question, then, is one of creating new ideologies in which we can participate, that would produce the opposite intention. But this cannot be done until we learn how to think, and to task Pepper clears the way.

One thought on “Book Review: “Indispensable Goods” by Tom Pepper

  1. “the kinds of things we ought to do are not discovered in fact, but they are produced socially, and moreover we can decide which things we “ought” to do, not on the basis of a fact or a system, nor on the basis of arbitrary individual desires, but by collective agreement”…” one can choose to act without such an external justification, but only on the basis purely of a collectively agreed upon decision, arrived at through a negotiation within language.”…”Indeed this is already how humans organize society—on the basis of intentions which are socially produced, and so can be changed”

    So another way of talking about ideology would be considered folk psychology. Folk psychology can be seen as a set of social practices for how one should behave and what to believe, specific to a culture.

    “a conclusion which makes sense only on the basis of previously established assumptions about the nature of a wide range of things such as language, reason, emotion, human nature, history, and other such “basic” philosophical concepts, which we take for granted but do not actually have a coherent understanding of.”…”a whole bunch of assumptions that are common not only among “the masses,” but which are reproduced on the theoretical level by virtually all of academic philosophy, and even some very smart scientists.”

    These basic concepts are rooted in a folk psychology – what you/Pepper would call an ideology. These established assumptions pre-configure our attempts to understand these concepts, and to be philosophically confused about them – I believe the latter Wittgenstein project was to refigure philosophy to understand them better.

    “how is it the case that most of us say that we wish to participate in ideologies that produce a world without things like inequality, sexism, racism, and so on, and yet our practices continue to reproduce these very things? This is obviously the case if we look around in the world, and yet the reason why it is the case seems to escape us”

    A common answer now is social signalling – we act in ways to give to convince ourselves (and hence to others) that we want to remove these things from the world, not to actually remove them. See for example the “The elephant in the brain”.

    ” it is possible to be mistaken about our own intentions, and the social practices which produce them.
    This seems like one of basic insights of psychology – going back to Freud – most of the conscious verbal reasons we provide to explain our actions (via our purported intentions) are post-hoc fabricated rationalisations.
    “it follows that, through the development of new kinds of social practices, we can produce our intentions consciously.”

    I think this is enlightenment?

    The problem with this thinking seems to be that itself is rooted in folk psychology assumptions about intentions as causes of behaviour that can be recovered. It appears to presuppose that intentions are meaningful kinds, rather than products of our folk psychology. But it makes sense if we think the idea that we can produce our social practices consciously itself is an ideology – it is a particular folk psychological practice. But we already have that through folk psychology. So I think people would have a hard time figuring out which of our intentions are the “real” intentions, because all of our intentions arise from the social practice.

    “Presumably, however, most of us do not want to participate in such an ideology, for the simple reason that most of us will of course, not be in the minority but the majority.”

    It seems like the logic here is that if we are realise how selfish we are, then we would stop being so selfish. This is because being selfish is actually harmful to yourself (through in reality people reading this book/blog post are more likely to be in the minority group).

    Even if this was true, this appears to assume humans are a lot more rational than they actually are.
    One problem is that dominant “ideologies” are often not built on minority/majority distinctions, but on social group distinctions – we care about our own tribe and not about other tribes.

    A particular social group can attempt to an shift ideology to create new ideologies (i.e. moral norms) but other social groups might be resistant to that. So see the “culture war”. In that we can see people can be very aware and open of how the “true” intentions of out-groups differ from what they themselves might believe, say, for example, the intention to reduce the suffering of all beings. So I think people already can “think”, it’s just that we are not very good at applying that thinking to ourselves.

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