The Limits of Economic Inquiry

“To know what is useful to a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself cannot be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to Man, he that would criticize all human acts, movements, relations etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch. Bentham makes short work of it. With the driest naïveté, he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man.” – Karl Marx in Capital

“The concern is not to suppress economic thought as we know it, but to expand it.”

Introduction: Expanding the realm of the economic

In social science a perpetual question of legitimacy is the definition and delimitation of the economic. What is ‘economic’ fundamentally defines with what we, collectively as well as individually, can economize, within which frames we can meaningfully make trade-offs. In an acclaimed economics text-book trade-offs are said to be made concerning: 1. which goods/services to produce, 2. how to produce, and 3. who receives goods/services (Perloff, 2004: p 2). Some domains of our existence are however generally considered to be beyond economic inquiry, and therefore meaningful trade-offs cannot be made between that which we generally consider as ‘economic’ and that which we do not. Critical theorists have lately been working towards opening greater domains of human existence to be compared with economic analysis: how does the redistribution of wealth relate to the redistribution of recognition? Which of these two should come first in political discourse? etc. (Fraser & Honneth, 2003). At the other end of the spectrum of social theory, models from economics are spreading into other social sciences, as indicated by the growth of rational choice theory and public choice theory as well as by popular books such as Lewitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics from 2005, where almost everything sub-lunar is brought under ‘economic’ scrutiny.

This paper defends the legitimacy of an economic approach to society as a chief matter of social science, but an attempt is also made to criticize the dominant conception of ‘goods’ and ‘utility’ in the rational choice and public choice paradigms. The Socratic principle of some ends being more rational than others is defended against Hume’s notion of all preferences being beyond the rational (Rawling, 2003: p 115). Hume famously wrote that there is nothing ‘irrational’ about preferring the end of the world to the scratching of one’s finger. The Weberian paradigm of defining modernity by separating goal-oriented rationality from means-oriented rationality can be viewed as a continuation of this Humean tradition (Udehn, 2003: p 148). Although such differentiation is crucial for modern civilization to evolve, the task today is arguably to integrate normativity with rationality in a functional manner. The aim of this paper is to contribute, with a small step, to the working out of an effective theoretical framework for making normative distinctions and trade-offs that are today neglected by the dominant economic models used in political and economic thought. A framework of this kind is needed because of the relative retreat that economic thinking has made: from being based on progressive liberal theory in the 19th century, to becoming a chief legitimator of the status quo (MacPherson, 1977). Neo-classic economic theory seeks to increase growth, trade and utility, but does not in and of itself explain why this is good, nor does it take into account the distribution of utility. Notable economists of the last two decades like Amartya Sen have worked to introduce an ethical aspect into economic theory proper, but this has stirred controversy and not made its way into the economics textbooks (Morris, 2010). In the public sphere, notions of ‘green growth’, ‘pro-poor growth’ (Angelsen & Wunder, 2008: p. 96) and ‘gross national happiness’ have been suggested. These concepts still require further operationalization in order to be taken into account within a clear ‘economic’ paradigm. They are not clearly defined and usable in for instance financial departments around the world. Indeed, economic thought no longer plays the role of expanding our horizons, but appears to be locked down into the paradigmatic utilitarian concepts of 19th century liberal thought. To evolve beyond its current confines, economic thought must go back to its philosophical roots and redefine its core concepts, while keeping its practicality and usefulness, and incorporating a refined sociological sensitivity.

The concern is not to suppress economic thought as we know it, but to expand it. The ability to – without flinching – hold, control and accept the consequences of hard-lined, cynical theories is very important in any economic inquiry. Tough realities don’t become less tough just because we don’t like them. In life in general, and in social science in particular, it is advisable to expand our ability to, when necessary, accept and take into account even the grimmest insights about social reality. This permits our responses to have more predictable outcomes. Hard truths are often sugar-coated in academic literature and text-books to avoid the stigmatizing of the author as ‘cynical’ or ‘cruel’, because the study of self-interested, rational individuals or institutions can appear to be a heartless enterprise. There is of course nothing heartless in stating the consequences of a relevant fact or interpretation that can be scientifically supported, however unappealing or even appalling it may be. But hard-line theories can also be fetishized, being seen as a sign of that well-needed masculine pride. Cynicism has a certain lure that can cripple our understanding of reality. Theories can be influenced by our personalities, or worse, come to influence our whole world-views and make us blind to great potentials and opportunities because ‘we see past all that’. They can become identities and political defences for unjust social realities. Cynical thought is a powerful tool, but it is ultimately a very poor basis for relating to a universe that literally speaking evolved from dust to Shakespeare, from survival of the fittest to solidarity.

What we need today is not primarily more hard-line understanding of the functions of power relations and enlightened self-interest. Certainly, these aspect of social-theoretical understanding must be cherished and protected from politically correct moosh-moosh that attempts to repress and deny basic truths about human agency: for instance, that all relations are created and upheld through use of power and violence (Foucault, Laing); that there is a very strong statistical correlation between enlightened self-interest and empirical agency (Buchanan, von Mises), etc. But keeping these aspects in mind, what I feel is urgently needed in social science today is an encompassing softer theoretical framework. By ‘softer’ I mean a theoretical framework that allows us to both study society as feeling, compassionate, contemplative human beings and to make tough collective decisions about the employment of resources and dispatching of state violence (i.e. legislation). A paradigm is needed that without apology takes both an uncompromisingly cynical view of society and a deeply idealistic one. Our outlook should be philosophically satisfying and socially functional. Why should we ask anything less of ourselves?

Economic thought must deepen its grounding social theory. It is hence too limited a task to understand what the Club of Rome called the ‘Limits to Growth’. That entire problematic is only a function of a deeper concern that is directly social-philosophical: namely that of the limits of economic inquiry. To expand these limits is the purpose of laying out the following five articles.

Article I. Utility is a means

What is the utility of the Pyramids? This thought experiment is proposed in all seriousness. If one looks past the myths presented by nationalistically inclined Egyptian tourist guides, it is apparent that the Pyramids must have been built with the help of coercion, by forced labour. Thousands of human beings must have suffered under the burning sun for the sake of raising a pile of rocks of little use to themselves, that served only to artificially enhance the grandiosity of their exploiters. And yet, the building of the Pyramids is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest achievements of humanity as a whole. Was it worth it? To whom? The human labor put into building the Pyramids could doubtlessly have been much better allocated to serve the well-being of the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. But the Pyramids stand today as an inspirational monument to human creativity and will likely continue to do so for ages to come. They draw our attention to the cradle of civilization and confront us with the material reality of history, with the ebb and flow of whole cultures, of centres of political power and nexuses of economic interaction and accumulation. The Pyramids served as a wondrous adventure at their discovery and uncovering in modern times. And they are today a major tourist attraction, offering a lot of rich people ‘an experience’ and a lot of poor people a living. These effects were certainly not intended by the architects of the Pyramids, but it cannot be denied that they add to their utility.

“What is the utility of the Pyramids? This thought experiment is proposed in all seriousness.”

The above considerations put into focus certain paradoxical aspects about the classical notion of ‘utility’. There are three tensions that underlie the confusion around evaluating the utility of something originating from another epoch:

1. The tension between utilitarian awareness or reasoning, and non-utilitarian awareness or reasoning.
2. The tension between the immediate pleasure principle of living subjects, and the long-term effects in all future times.
3. The tension between the understanding and interpretation of the acting subjects, and evaluation through the retroactive re-interpretation of historical hindsight.

Does the occurrence of these tensions discredit the idea of utility as a goal of human activity? Not at all. Rather, what should be underlined is that these tensions require of the observer a certain social-philosophical sensitivity for the term ‘utility’ to be meaningfully employed as a guiding concept for human activity. The three tensions should not be settled through a direct either/or logic: for instance, that ‘real’ utility would be that of utilitarian consciousness, working with a perspective of all future times and with the apprehension of historical hindsight. Such a position is of little use, because the tension de facto remains. No, the lesson to be learned is that both extremes of each paradoxical aspect must be held simultaneously, and the tensions must be resolved through the acceptance of their insolubility. Counter-intuitive as such as position may appear, it is the only way to avoid that one or another crucial aspect of the term ‘utility’ is repressed and denied.
The intellectual sensitivity towards these tensions is lacking in social science today, as in the cultural discourse at large. With this lack in mind it is hardly surprising to find that observers bound from different paradigms (e.g. neo-classic economists of libertarian bent, deep-ecologists and utilitarian animal rights defenders) are unable to meaningfully compare their conclusions in a cross-disciplinary manner and quantify the interests they are expressing in a way that can be understood extra-disciplinarily. Instead of fruitfully comparing perspectives, the different perspectives compete to frame reality and define the discourse. In academia, this represents the creation of tropes in which social scientists can rest assured that they have the ‘real’ perspective and that the perspectives of ‘those other academics’ are inferior, because otherwise they’d come to the same sound conclusions, wouldn’t they? Simple empirical observations can reaffirm this state of affairs: how large percentage of Masters students of sociology take seriously the neo-classic growth models? Very few, which is surprising given the tantamount importance that these models have in today’s political reality around the world. And how many economics students take seriously the account of animal rights in a utilitarian perspective, upon which their own theoretical grounding ultimately rests? Again, very few.

Let us look closer at the three tensions mentioned above. A sufficient social-philosophical grounding is lacking in contemporary social science, as the concept of ‘utility’, whether used explicitly or implicitly, is taken for granted – despite the persistence of the three tensions. This ‘taken for granted’ is a fallacy that consists of two parts. The first part of the fallacy is simply that utility is understood as a given, something which has material reality, which it does not. Utility arises in a context where what is useful is somehow defined in reference to material reality and to a given interpretation of the same. Like in Marx’s quote at the beginning of this paper, what is useful to a dog is not the same as what is useful to a human being. And what is useful to human beings also changes along the lines of economic, cultural and personal development as has been shown by numerous scholars, from Maslow to Jean Gebser to Carol Gilligan to Robert Kegan. The second and crucial part of the fallacy is that utility is taken to be a goal, which it is not. Utility is a means for something else. As such utility is an empty slot. It is a void, nothing. Nobody dreams of a life full of utility. We dream of lives full of wonder, love, joy, excitement, pleasure, validation, harmony, bliss. We don’t wish one another ‘useful holidays’ and so on. Nevertheless utility is taken to be the chief de facto aim of our political and economic life. (It could even be argued that in our time, we have a ruling ideology that turns utility into a ‘sublime object’, charges it with an air of sacredness. God is dead. Utility is God. Long live utility!)

Why is it important to point out that utility is a means, rather than an end? Simply because ends in and of themselves cannot be rationally discussed and quantified. That some courses of action generate more ‘marginal utility’ than others is a useful guidance, but only if this utility serves a good end. What if the end is the destruction of a minority segment of the population? The goodness of that end cannot be quantified by existing economic theory! I don’t pretend to give a satisfying answer to the ultimate end of human activity, but as working hypothesis I suggest that the end towards we strive is ‘bliss’. Today economic inquiry halts at utility without being concerned with its relationship to bliss. As Stanley Jevons in 1871 famously argued that ‘to maximize pleasure, is the problem of economics’ (Udehn, 2003: p 145), it may appear that economics is already the science of bliss. But this is far from the case. Jevons’ definition serves only to underline the role of rationality as a means for maximizing utility, without inquiring into the relationship between utility and bliss. Utility is taken as directly conductive to pleasure. It is not understood critically, with awareness of its own radical contingency. The contingency of this link between utility and bliss, as outlined above, exposes the philosophical weakness of the grounding of our economic thought, hence of our modern political enterprise as a whole. The development of Jevons’ thought by Menger and other Austrians (into a science of the economizing of scarce resources to satisfy needs) has made economic thought grow in practical usefulness, although it has not freed economic inquiry from its very limited scope. Indeed, the impressive technical development of economic science within econometrics, macroeconomics and financial economics is largely built on the same philosophically weak grounding.

A parallel discussion is possible on the notion of ‘goods’. Are goods good in and of themselves, or are they good only in a certain context? Does it make a difference in what mind-set and for what purpose a good is consumed? Is the act of producing a good more important than interpreting it? Are some goods only perceived as good, but are really bad? Goods are empty. They only become good in relation to bliss.

So if utility is a means for and end, and this end is bliss – what is then bliss? We cannot pretend to give bliss a positive meaning, at least not in this paper. Rather bliss must be understood as a subjectively lived quality in existence that is always implicit, unreachable, unknowable. Even if we empirically study the anatomy of bliss as a series of bio-chemical reactions in the nervous system of a given living creature, this does not grant us subjective first-person, lived knowledge of bliss. Much like Adorno and Horkheimer warned us, when we attempt to positively define reality, we do so at risk of violating reality, the object. Bliss is to wake up a careless morning and have coffee; to look at the clear, awe-inspiring midday skies; to become aware of a deep silence around us; to anticipate the arrival of a loved one; to fight for a good cause; to work hard and feel good about it. Nowhere in these examples can one find the exact address of ‘bliss’. It is subtle, implicit. Bliss is always already in all living experience, as is suffering. Sentient beings cannot live completely indifferently, we are always somewhere on the scale between suffering and bliss.

If life is a book, a text-line, bliss is in the understood context in which it is read. Cut an exciting novel into pieces and try to locate the exact letter, or combination of letters that makes it exciting and you are bound to fail. However, it is possible to see how the author of the book has used different techniques to create fertile ground for an exciting reading experience. The same can be said of bliss. Although bliss in and of itself must remain unknowable, and although it would be a violation to define it (beautiful home, faith in God, love relationship, meaningful work, good habits, altruism …), what can be known is utility, and our relationship to it. With today’s quite limited understanding of utility, you cannot make trade-offs between different forms of utility: there is just utility – and the more of it, the better.

“With today’s quite limited understanding of utility, you cannot make trade-offs between different forms of utility: there is just utility – and the more of it, the better.”

At the same time, paradoxically, the prevailing understanding of utility is a case of what Marxists call reification, as something insubstantial is given the status of a positively knowable substance, even to the extent that it becomes the object of idolatry. By expanding our idea of what economics is to maximize, trade-offs can become possible between things that have hitherto been beyond economic inquiry. It should hence be possible to expand our possibilities for bliss by changing our conceptions of economic inquiry. As starting-point for such a critical enterprise I suggest the notion of utility as a means, an empty slot. This empty slot is to be filled with bliss: an unknowable quality of existence. It should be easier than it sounds.

Article II. Utility is the result of stream-of-action

Microeconomics is really a microsociology explaining macro-scale realities. It theorizes about the individual (household) and draws conclusions about prices on markets on basis of the expected choices and actions of this individual (household). The argument of this paper is to unfold against a similar understanding: a microsociological basis explaining macrosociological realities.

In Maurice Godelier’s search for a cross-cultural, comparative economic science, he outlined three major parts of the work (Godelier, 1978: p 25):

1. A philosophical part (interpreted here as ‘defining utility’)
2. An economic part (interpreted here as ‘quantifying utility’)
3. An anthropological part (interpreted here as ‘qualifying subjects for utility’)

We are now to take the transitioning step from the philosophical work of Article I, to the economic work in Article III. Article II is here to provide a bridge between the two. By holding that utility is a means for bliss, we have opened the door to making a shift in the micro¬sociological basis upon which microeconomic thought (being the heart of economics) is based. If utility is defined differently, surely its quantifications must rest upon different theoretical assumptions. This understanding of utility is in and of itself not very substantial and practically meaningful and must hence be linked to realities that are empirically observable, quantifiable: namely actions.

Newton taught us that every action is met by an equal reaction. Indeed, no action in the universe is ever isolated, outside a causal chain of more or less distinguishable events. The same is true of all intentional actions undertaken by sentient beings. All actions have consequences, and this has implications for economic inquiry, as we shall soon see. We are now to zoom in on a few completely uncontroversial truisms about objective reality and draw the consequences for economic inquiry (which is of course a somewhat more controversial enterprise!):

  • First truism: from birth until death, all sentient beings are involved in a constant stream of agency. This agency can be more or less conscious, more or less controlled, more or less overt (uttered words versus inner monolog etc.). No sentient being ever ceases to act.
  • Second truism: each moment of each action has consequences that spread in a causal chain, by the laws of physics connected with the whole of the universe, without exception. The ongoing consequences of each moment never stop – they keep working their way through world history until the universe ceases to exist.
  • Third truism: each moment of each action has consequences conductive to both bliss and suffering. No action ever has entirely blissful consequences, and no action ever brings only suffering, which means that no action, no matter how vile can ever bring eternal suffering to all living things.

Many discussions could be held with these truisms as starting points. They put into focus certain existential predicaments that we all face; they form a basis for ethical awareness; they disprove the idea of ‘purity from sin’; they push morality beyond an anthropocentric view; and they guarantee a minimum of hope in the future (as was held by the Stoics). But for the purpose of this discussion, it is relevant to look at these truisms as foundational for a micro-sociology as basis for economic inquiry. Here a term should be borrowed from symbolic interactionism – stream-of-action. This term denotes the stream of constant agency that all (not sentient in this case, but human) beings produce. The term also implies that all actions emerge in a symbolic order and must be interpreted to be rendered meaningful, for their purpose and effect to be understood. Furthermore it implies that such an interpretation is largely implicit, and that the interpretation can change or evolve, for instance by becoming more conscious and critical (Charon, 2001).

The point for economic inquiry is then that all utility must ultimately originate from this stream-of-action. Not from choices made, from things produced, from games played (game theory) or from trade-offs – all these are merely descriptions of instances within the stream-of-action of certain agents.

All action has motive. The motive may be more or less clear, more or less explicit, more or less conscious, but it is always there, even in an insect. It is in the word ‘motive’ – the mover – that which propels action, grants to the stream its direction. Motive always emerges from a lack, or emptiness, something that is not there, not yet achieved, fulfilled. The motive of the author to write this paper is to write something he has not already written (and to receive academic credits, not already received), and so on. This links to the Hegelian notion of a dialectic based around a constitutive emptiness: in Adorno this is a ‘negative dialectic’, in Lacan it is ‘lack in the self’.

“The motive of action is always to affect the effect of future action: we eat and drink so that we can live to learn philosophy, learn philosophy so that we can live better, and so on.”

The motive of action is always to affect the effect of future action: we eat and drink so that we can live to learn philosophy, learn philosophy so that we can live better, and so on. Here we must step away from individual atomism to grasp the full scope of agency and motive. Individual atomism is a limited perspective upon which current microeconomics is based. Symbolic interactionism is also a relatively weak perspective in regard to its critical potential because it still adheres to a kind of atomism. Although agency emerges from individuals with some kind of what American philosopher Ken Wilber calls a ‘dominant monad’ that controls the whole of the organism, and never from social entities like states or firms (that consist of many individual agents), the effect of agency is always social, affecting the effects of future actions of the individual agent as well as the future actions of other individual agents. No man is an island. To further deepen this understanding, one must take into account that the ‘self’ is by no means a sealed entity that can uncritically be linked to the individual agent. ‘Selves’ are in themselves structures that are built in social surroundings (no-self of infant agency, undifferentiated tribal self, modern individualist self, deconstructed post-modern self, and so on). Hence we are left with a lattice or network of interconnected nexuses of different quality, identification, motive and awareness: from these nexuses stream-of-action emerges affecting the sum of suffering and bliss of the network as a whole. This warrants further discussion, but suffice at this point to underline the non-atomic nature of agency.

Hence we are left with the conclusion that utility is the sum of the effect of all current stream-of-action on the sum of all future stream-of-action, where bliss is the indefinable negative that drives the motivation but is never caught directly in observable stream-of-action, the point that is always referred to but never met. See figure 1. below.

Fig 1. All events occur on scale of non-indifferent sentience

The figure should be understood as a theoretical model of the sum of a definable network’s sum of stream-of-action. As we have observed, all action has consequences, and all sentient beings are in states of non-indifference (suffering or bliss). From here it can be observed that actions that bring about more extreme suffering or bliss are less frequent (or less likely to occur) than actions that bring about moderate amounts of suffering or bliss or actions that bring about a more balanced amount of both suffering and bliss (for instance, by benefiting one and depriving another). On a trivial level: It is more frequent to buy milk and spill some on the table than to start a world war or invent a cure for cancer. It should be an uncontroversial claim that the effects of streams-of-action follow a normal distribution as indicated in fig. 1.

It should further be noted that this model says nothing of which actions lead to what consequences or anything about what the ‘normal’ or ‘median’ utility of actions in a given network might be. The white middle is never ‘ethically neutral’. Ethical neutrality is a nonsensical concept. The ethics of given actions are questions that must be resolved separately with a social-philosophical sensitivity towards the notion of utility as discussed above. Given that we are here theoretically discussing the ‘eternal consequences for all sentient beings’ it is important to see that the model itself cannot give guidance, only point out the deep and inescapable ethical importance of our collective stream-of-action.

From here it should become clear that an encompassing economic paradigm used with normative sensitivity should economize not primarily scarce resources, but stream-of-action – that is, the whole scope of human agency. An economic science that looks solely upon what is today loosely termed ‘economic activity’ will miss out on the most relevant trade-offs to be made. This would not be a problem if economic thought did not so thoroughly influence our understanding of the political. However, since this influence is abound it is fair to hold that economics (as in ‘political economy’) should become a critical tool-kit for the distribution and redistribution of human stream-of-action, overt as well as covert.

Article III. Utility can be studied at different levels of depth

Article III attempts to establish the transition from philosophical inquiry to economic thought in which trade-offs can be made. As we have seen, the effect of an action (upon the effect of future actions) depends upon the causal chain through which the action is spread or transmitted. The causal chain can affect wider parts of the network, or affect a target point in the network more strongly if it is transmitted through a stronger medium. Hence the medium through which our action is transmitted is a crucial component of the real effect of the action. All practical tools or technologies can be understood as such action-transmitting media: doctors who use modern medical equipment with scientific expertise can be expected to have greater effect upon the future action of their patients (by saving their lives etc.) than ancient practitioners. Industrial society has greater impact on the environment than do hunter-gathered societies. To denote this significance of effect-transmitting media I have borrowed Kevin Kelly’s term ‘the technium’. The technium is technology studied as an evolutionary phenomenon inherent in the structure of the universe. See figure 2. below.

Fig 2. Note that the technium is not a negative value, of the Y-axis, but a THIRD DIMENSION

Kevin Kelly is a scientific journalist, former editor of Wired Magazine and speaker at many leading scientific and futurist conferences. The merit of his concept of the technium is that it emphasizes the non-anthropocentric dimension of technological progress. When the first eukaryote cells ‘realized’ that they could use that poisonous piss of theirs in which they were drowning in countless billions (i.e. oxygen) to destroy other living matter and from that retrieve energy for their own growth, evolution took a giant leap as the first animal life appeared on our planet. This was an ‘innovation’ of sorts, and the technium was at that time something external, new – it was oxygen. I’m simplifying to a violent extent, of course, but you get the picture. Thus the technium is a broader term than technology as it denotes anything that transmits the effect of the stream-of-action of a given sentient being.

Figure 2 should be understood in the following way: the suffering or bliss ultimately resulting from any given action or ongoing activity is multiplied by the technium that transmits it. The darker the gray areas beneath each point on the suffering-bliss continuum, the greater the effect of the action. An act of aggression matters more when transmitted by an atomic bomb and insults hurt more on TV than at the local pub.

From this figure one can begin to see that utility has different layers, as it were: different levels of depth. Again, all stream-of-action targets future stream-of-action, more or less consciously, but without exception. Hence the conclusion can be drawn that different actions will affect the future sum of stream-of-action in different ways. More conscious action can change future streams of action more thoroughly. Conversely damage, or negative utility, can also occur on different levels of depth. Was the great catastrophe that extinguished the dinosaurs more barbaric than the Holocaust? Most would argue that it was not: no bad intentions were there when the meteor struck (which cannot itself be considered as an act, but rather as a circumstance), no human lives were lost, and no thinking person lost his or her dignity and faith in life. Utility depends on the awareness of the stream-of-action, upon the medium through which it is transmitted, and upon the depth of the awareness of the network of sentient beings whose future streams-of-action are affected. With so many living, feeling and thinking human beings and other highly developed animals present in the world today, the actions of whom are transmitted through such tremendous technium (itself growing with accelerating pace), the ethical significance of our actions has grown to a truly unprecedented magnitude.

Although this initial mapping of utility must necessarily be crude, five levels of utility can be identified from what has been said so far. These levels are of increasing depth, but not of increasing significance. They will be discussed one by one and examples will be given. The levels of utility have always existed, although they have become consciously supported means for bliss along the lines of progress in history. I have argued elsewhere in alignment with Norbert Elias, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (a leading ‘positive psychologist’ and author of the concept of ‘flow’) as well as the classic evolutionary sociologists like Durkheim and Spencer that historical progress is defined by greater interacting integration and individuation. As individuals become more aware of their uniqueness and simultaneously become more integrated into increasingly complex networks of greater depth-of-self-awareness, the nature of the effect of their stream-of-action makes qualitative shifts into deeper, more subtle levels. The levels are the following:

1. Instrumental utility
2. Systemic utility
3. Meta-systemic utility
4. Paradigmatic utility
5. Cross-paradigmatic or Existential utility

The ‘title prefixes’ of utility levels 2, 3, 4 and 5 are borrowed from the ‘Model of Hierarchical Complexity’ of complex systems theorist and Harvard psychiatrist Michael Commons. Although there are admittedly still unresolved problems with the definitions of these utilities, they are presented here in their raw hypothetical form, open to either theoretic refinement or fundamental critique and revision. See figure 3 below.

Fig 3. The five forms of utility and their relation to one another in sentient event space

The point of the model is to summarize the different possible effects upon stream-of-action that actions can have. These effects are what define the different levels of utility. They also form a basis for functionally analysing the division of labour in society.

Instrumental utility (U1) results from actions that serve a practical end of maintenance of one kind or another: to eat, to build, to grow food, to buy grocery, to distribute grocery, to kill in order to survive. All of our routine, concrete activity and work falls under this category, ranging from health-care to security to transport to retailing to teaching at public schools. The maintenance of an equilibrium of stream-of-action increases the frequency of the mean effect of the sum of a network’s stream-of-action. Instrumental utility has always existed but it came into awareness only with the invention of the first simple tools: ‘Hey, I can have more of this maintaining effect if I use this instrument’. This awareness of U1 can be found in chimpanzees and other intelligent primates. In human history the U1 evolved greatly with the introduction of horticultural livelihood, as human beings could then relatively easily sustain themselves and their offspring, greatly increasing the population and hence the frequency of their mean effect of sum of stream-of-action. This is why U1 is marked in figure 3 as an arrow raising the peak of the normal distribution (thus also increasing the total area underneath the normal distribution curve). Note that awareness of U1 is not the awareness of innovation: chimpanzees don’t consciously think about expanding their tool-kit, indeed they consistently toss away their tool after each usage. Members of horticultural societies were obviously not aware of technological development – how could they have been? They just saw instrumental use in things around them, which lead to a major shift in their concrete stream-of-action.

Systemic utility (U2) results from actions that expand the utility of the existing technium. In neo-classic growth theory this is called ‘allocation of resources’, not increasing the derivative of the growth function over time, but simply raising the level of utility by increasing the constant of the linear function (y = b*x +c, where c is the constant). In the division of labour U2 is in all planning and administration: economists, pragmatic politicians, bureaucrats, managers, human resource people and so on. U2 has always existed but came into conscious awareness with the first political formations, where the function was generally fulfilled by or in collaboration with priesthood. U2 is marked by an arrow that pushes the constant of the technium downwards, hence increasing the effect of the full scale of stream-of-action, from the most blissful, to the most dastardly. If we find a smart way of putting into practice something really bad on large scale, like a war, we get more suffering. Systemic damage is some kind of waste of allocation of resources through bad planning, mismanagement etc, which would mean that the good and bad effects of the sum of stream-of-action decreases.

Meta-systemic utility (U3) results from actions that change the theoretical possibility for innovation, for expansion of the technium. When U3 is consciously pursued new insights about the nature of the universe are sought for their explicit potential to bring about innovation, changing the whole setting within which the system can be built. Research in medical science has brought wondrous cures, put into systemic use by states, instrumentally administered by physicians, resulting in the virtual eradication of formerly pandemic diseases. U3 became acknowledged in the wake of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, with the laying out of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) and the founding of the Royal Society in London. At this point people saw the direct utility of actively supporting scientific inquiry. U3 changes the curve of the technium, increasing exponentially, not linearly, the effect of the whole sum of stream-of-action: suffering as well as bliss. Hence the greatest tragedies in history and the greatest triumphs appear to converge chronologically as the technium has expanded. U3 is meta-systemic because it pushes the reaches of what systems can be built. Examples of U3 labour are the natural scientist, the engineer, the philosopher of scientific method.

Paradigmatic utility (U4) results from actions that change the existing ethical understanding through which stream-of-action is organized. When paradigms change, new thought structures (interpretations of reality) emerge, affecting the conceived purpose of action, including the conceived purpose of all former/grosser levels of utility. Although paradigms have shifted since the cradle of human culture, the more deep-going shifts that affect not only contingent types (names of deities, architectural detail, ceremonial procedures, etc.) but more qualitatively absolute or ontological levels (Aristotelian teleological cosmology to Newtonian physics, traditional society to modernity, etc.) have increased in frequency over time. Unless this trend has somehow been reversed we are likely to experience qualitative cosmological shifts yet more often in the future – a mind-bogging thought considering the impact of recent qualitative shifts like Darwinianism and the general theory of relativity! U4 is when a shift occurs not only in knowledge about the universe but in thought-relation to society and/or the universe: new cosmologies, ideologies, moral philosophies. U4 became acknowledged somewhere during or after the Enlightenment. Voltaire’s catch-phrase ‘I hate your opinion, but I am ready to die for your right to speak it’ is an early sign-post. The founding of the Humbolt university in Germany can be seen as another stepping stone. J.S. Mill’s liberal notions of a ‘market of ideas’ and of ‘experimental life-forms’ were later fully institutionalized and made into democratic norms. States actively support a lively cultural debate and some cultural critics are even highly esteemed. The realization that society’s norms evolve in qualitative shifts was a foundational principle behind Marxist thought, behind the institutionalization of critical social science, psycho-analysis and moral philosophy. In the division of labour one can identify ideologues, critical social scientists and moral philosophers. In figure 3. U4 is marked as an arrow pushing the whole of the normal distribution to the right, towards bliss: for instance by granting society new norms on sexuality and aesthetics or emancipating oppressed minorities. If damage is done at the U4 level, the whole scale is pushed leftwards, towards suffering. The rise of 20th century fascism is perhaps in retrospect the clearest example: with the technium and systemic utility present at that time, the effects were catastrophic.

Cross-paradigmatic or Existential utility (U5) results from actions that deepen the cognitive awareness of the network and the sentient beings within it, making them more sentient. Such change occurs not in thought, but in the pre-conceptual space of awareness in which thought and other cognitive structures (sensory experiences, emotions, etc.) emerge. U5 is meta-paradigmatic because it sets the limits for what paradigms can emerge at all: Christianity or socialism could never have been brought about by cats. That U5 has always existed is clear: the mechanisms of evolution brought about elevated awareness in for instance human beings from what was originally just a hot cloud of hydrogen gas. U5 is existential because it is not located within thought-structure (the subject matter of structuralism as in Lévi-Strauss etc.), but rather in the awareness within which thought-structure arises. Religious mysticism and contemplative practice as developed by the founders of many religions and esoteric traditions serve U5 as they explicitly change the pre-conceptual relationship of human beings to their lived universe (and according to a growing host of neurological research, evolve the cognitive capacities of the brain by thickening the neo-cortex and increasing neural connectivity). Mysticism can range from shamanism to the so-called ‘non-dual mysticism’ discovered more or less simultaneously during the fourteenth century in Tibet and by Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart. Although such traditions serve U5, it was not recognized as a specific form of utility: the spiritual practice discovered was always taken as an absolute, and not as an evolutionary step to bringing about even greater depth in future stream-of-action. Institutional religion in turn has almost exclusively served U1 and U2, by supporting political power and by spreading certain U5 structures. Although critical thinkers of existential insight have defended existential utility for at least half a century (Erich Fromm, Roy Bhaskar, Sri Aurobindo, Jiddu Krishnamurti, etc.) it has yet to be recognized in the dominant discourse of any existing culture, and hence U5 cannot really be identified in any existent division of labor. U5 is more dangerous than any other form of utility, as it brings about the capacity for suffering. Hydrogen atoms don’t suffer; insects do. Human beings suffer immensely. And human beings with greater awareness of their individuality suffer even more (which is why the Holocaust is more tragic than the extinction of the dinosaurs). What is suffering if not an elevated awareness unable to manifest itself, unable to relate to the universe in a manner corresponding to the altitude of its consciousness? An insect does not suffer from the inability to distinguish itself from its surroundings. A human being not able to distinguish her own thoughts from the outside world is psychotic, subject to unimaginable suffering (which is why mysticism, which eradicates the sense of separate self, is closely related to psychosis). Consider the fate of Satan: an angel that falls from the heavens, and is left in hell. Conversely, when a human being with great poetic depth gazes upon the sky or manifests her sexuality, the bliss is likely far beyond that of any insect performing the corresponding actions. U5 increases the scale of the suffering-bliss continuum logarithmically. Future technium is likely to bring about greater possibilities for boosting U5. If this is not done with sufficient U4 development, the suffering could be greater than anything experienced yet in history.

A few notes should be made concerning these five levels of utility. The first is that there is a certain tension between the different forms of utility, from the concretion of the lower levels to the subtleness of the higher ones. It can appear as though concrete levels are ‘more real’ than subtle ones: a nurse or doctor (U1) does more ‘real work’ than a bureaucrat (U2) who sits in the office and organizes the hospital or a medial lab-rat (U3) or the nosy arm-chair philosopher who formulated the principles from which the regulations stem that the bureaucrat follows (U4). Such crude understanding of utility must be seen as a grave misunderstanding. Conversely it may appear as though the philosopher is ‘more refined’ than the carpenter who made his chair. The levels of subtlety must not be used to devalue the different kinds of labor or activity.

A second note is that, in practice, the different levels of utility are always entangled in one another. For instance, an expert at research organization serves U2 but does so in expanding U3 or U4. Also, an astounding part of all U1 in late modern society serves the purpose of maintaining U2, U3 and U4. Furthermore, U5 adjustments can be argued for in U2 terms, for instance by viewing the organizational impact of meditative practices in governmental agencies (Parihar, 2004).

Finally, we must remind ourselves that utility is and remains an empty slot driven by a ‘negative dialectic’ of the indefinable lack or emptiness. Hence what is considered to be U1 is by no means an absolute reality, but only a relational Euclidean point, much like the mathematical concept of the number 1 is only meaningful when put into relation to other numbers. To be very clear: it does not make sense to transcendentally define carpentry as U1!

With these levels of utility in place it is possible to make more encompassing functional analysis than that of ‘conservative’ Parsonian sociology, while retaining a critical gaze and making trade-offs between areas of human activity that were hitherto beyond economic analysis. Such an analysis leaves the ethnocentric understanding of currently prevailing economic thought (the political economy of the nation state that defines utility only in reference to a contingently constructed nationality and what is really a fascistic understanding of whose reality counts – not the reality of animals and foreigners!). The analysis enters a ‘kosmocentric’ utilitarianism that takes into account the suffering or bliss of the universe as a whole – although the political unit of the state can of course still studied for functional reasons, such as its ability to monopolize the creative force of violence (i.e. effectively distribute norms through legislation etc.) and greater interconnectivity of the networks of sentient beings that converge with its territorial borders.

Article IV. Rationality is normative

The subsequent recognition of different levels of utility over time results in an understanding of economic rationality as an evolving entity, not eternally bound by the principles of a certain utilitarian recognition. To account for the construction of the Pyramids by reference to the classical ‘economic man’ is really to overstretch the argument made by main-stream economic historians!

“To account for the construction of the Pyramids by reference to the classical ‘economic man’ is really to overstretch the argument made by main-stream economic historians!”

The rationality through which trade-offs between different distributions of human activity are made is normative, inescapably so. According to the rationality of Pharaohs, it made perfect sense to raise giant graves. According to today’s prevailing rationality it makes little sense to redistribute a much greater part of our collective human activity to philosophical work, contemplation and meditative practice. In the ideological landscape of today rationality presents itself as ‘beyond norms’, just as universal reason. It must be understood that such a ‘pure rationality’ is not viable and that it is very limiting to the scope of our economic inquiry. It is true, that this paper too appeals to the faculty of reason of the reader. But it doesn’t claim to draw conclusions other than those grounded in a normative understanding, a rationality related to a certain set of ideas about what is good and what is not. The normative economic rationality of this paper would by many contemporary and perhaps future readers be rightly viewed as normatively questionable. However, at least the argument admits its own rationality as based upon an ideological view that is connected to an ontological understanding. The ruthless tearing down of every piece of argument in this paper can be celebrated as progress through paradigmatic utility.

Article V. Economics can only be used normatively

It should be clear from what has been said thus far that economic rationality can only be used normatively. This lands us in the economic-anthropological part of the theoretical work, as the economic history of humanity can no longer be written by accounting only of the ‘economic man’ as the author of institutions in the tradition of Douglass North and Mancur Olson (Udehn, 2003). In the light of the understanding presented under Article III and IV, it appears relevant to expand the analysis of economic institutions and their ‘rationality’ to an anthropological work involving at least five ‘economic men’ (aware of U1, aware of U1+U2, and so forth). The anthropological requisites or qualifications for different kinds of normative rationality constitute a matter of great importance if one is to make intelligible trade-offs between the five kinds of utility. Here an important point is that economic analysis itself tracks the five kinds of utility and trade-offs between them, while the economic-anthropological work tracks the awareness and interpretation through which utility arises in stream-of-action. Such a distinction greatly increases the scope of economic inquiry.


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Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.