The perils of the last human – by Warwick Smith in New Philosopher magazine

Issue # 5 of New Philosopher is out today and in it is my piece about what we can learn from Nietzsche about modern political economy and climate change. For those of you who don’t know it, New Philosopher magazine is a great new publication that brings philosophy to bear on a new topic in each issue. It’s for general audiences and is jargon free (or at least very low jargon) and really well produced. No, this isn’t a paid ad, I just like the mag.

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The editors of New Philosopher cut the first three paragraphs from my original piece. It’s my opinion that it was better with them but that’s their call to make. Here’s the start of the original as it flows into the print version. I won’t reproduce the whole thing here until after Issue #6 of New Philosopher comes out (in Nov) but I encourage you to go and buy the magazine cos it’s great.

Edit (5 Dec 14): This piece has since been republished in it’s longer form at The Conversation and is free to read.


The perils of the last human

By Warwick Smith

Nietzsche’s much quoted line “God is dead” was not, as it is often presented, a statement of triumphant atheism but was a warning and a call to action. We had killed God with rationalism and science. With God had gone our moral compass and our sense of purpose and we had nothing to replace them with but science and logic.

This is an existential problem because, as David Hume famously proved, you can’t argue from ‘is’ to ‘should.’ We may be able to use science to help us get what we want but we cannot use science to tell us what to want nor to tell others what they should want.

This is where the field of economics has stepped in. Freedom, according to mainstream neoclassical economics, is fundamentally about the expression of individual preferences. The more money we have the more preferences we can express and, therefore, the freer and happier we are. Boom, Nietzsche’s existential problem solved.

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”

Jeremy Bentham – An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

The utilitarianism that underpins neoclassical economics simply equates money with choice and choice with the freedom to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. The freedom to buy.

Economists tell us that economic growth is, therefore, the key to progress. Growing the economic pie gives more people more options and that is the goal of society. It’s a technocratic system where we believe any problem can be solved by better application of theory.

This technocratic focus on economic growth has brought unprecedented material prosperity to the western world. As a result, major political parties around the world have ceded authority to the technocrats. The utilitarian calculus that sits beneath our economic system is never questioned. Instead, political debate centres on how to balance the trade-offs and whether to compensate the losers in the race to gain wealth and consume.

“I’m very fond of boats myself. I like the way they’re contained. You don’t have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all – the question doesn’t arise, because you’re on a boat aren’t you?”

Tom Stoppard – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead

What’s missing, of course, is any basis on which to evaluate the direction that society, or indeed humanity as a whole, is taking. We’re on a giant cruise ship and we are completely free to explore and enjoy. However, there is nobody identifiable at the helm.

. . . .


Please go and buy a copy of New Philosopher (from most good newsagents and many bookstores) to finish reading the article.

Edit (5 Dec 14): This piece has since been republished in it’s longer form at The Conversation and is free to read.

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5 Responses to The perils of the last human – by Warwick Smith in New Philosopher magazine

  1. bjmuirhead says:

    Nietzsche’s intent wth the statement that “God is dead” is so rarely brought out from beind erroneous general knowledge that I have to agree with you that it should have been left in. In any event, I had not heard about this magazine until now, so thank you for that also.

    • BJ,
      Yes, the magazine is great.

      I felt that the God is dead line and what followed gave the piece greater depth and put the reign of economics in some context. As I said though, that’s the editor’s call to make. I’m pleased that I retain copyright and I will publish the whole thing here in its original form once the next edition of the magazine is out.

  2. Pingback: Part 3 of three part series on democracy in The Guardian | Reconstructing Economics

  3. djimjam says:

    Hi Warwick. Came to your blog via the article you published in the guardian -“If democracy is broken, why should we vote?”. This third part of a series I enjoyed so much I had to backtrack and read parts one and two (insert smiley emoticon of your choice) I thoroughly enjoy analysis and the way you present it – simple but far from simplistic. What a novelty to find on the internet – critical thinking! Glad to have found your blog and the New Philosopher looks well worth checking out. Thanks for doing what you do.

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