Friday, November 1, 2013

The Corrupting Influence of Philosophy

At the risk of sounding redundant, I will repeat an old question: What is the use of philosophy? Seen from the point of view of another species, if one may be allowed such an absurd position, philosophy must seem like one of the more peculiar human activities.

Reflection is somewhat contrived and artificial when practised by the human being. It does not come naturally in man; significant efforts are required and the result is often far from impressive. As George Santayana said, it is difficult to overcome “the present with its instant joys in order laboriously to conceive the absent and the hypothetical.”[1] It is not surprising, therefore, that the spiritual foundations of modern civilisation were laid only relatively recently.[2] In the last two or three millennia, philosophy has spread slowly, indirectly influencing values and changing modes of thinking across society.

For the individual, this diffusion of philosophy cannot be said to have a positive influence, from either a physical or a spiritual point of view. Physically, the highest objective of life, besides mere survival, is the reproduction of the species and the accumulation of material wealth. Philosophy is not helpful in reaching these goals; on the contrary. As Rousseau famously said, reflection turns a man inward and philosophy isolates him.[3] This explains why many of the best thinkers never had children and were thus unable to fulfil the main biological duty of any living being: to beget an offspring.[4] The same principle can be seen at work in the general population, which is generally only indirectly exposed to philosophy. In the modern world, the influence of philosophy is at least partially responsible for the fact that the fertility rate in women is inversely correlated with their level of education.[5] There is also the movement of “voluntary childlessness”, which is followed mostly by highly educated men and women.[6] It would seem, therefore, that the more the human population engages in speculative and rational thinking, the less its members are inclined to procreate. Regarding material wealth, it is hardly necessary to comment on philosophy's poor capability in this respect. Reflection is hardly the most important factor for financial success.

From a spiritual point of view, the highest objective in life is peace and happiness. Here too, philosophy tends to make things more rather than less difficult. A thoughtful life is rarely a harmonious life. The best way to stay happy is to stay ignorant, like children. As Russian poet Alexander Griboedov said, there is "woe from wit."[7] Philosophy often troubles the soul; it has a disturbing tendency of stirring things up and stripping reality of its veneer. Reflection requires serious moments of solitude, “away from the market-place”, as Nietzsche said.[8]

It would seem, therefore, that philosophy is unnecessary and even counter-productive to the fulfilment of the most important physical and spiritual objectives of the human life. Philosophy is at best a useless activity, and at worse a harmful one for successful living.

Philosophy leads to a certain abnormality or ailment in the human soul when the individual is exposed to it directly. This spiritual sickness expresses itself as a morbid questioning of the world, destroying that innocent confidence that is so useful in life. Sometimes doubt is good, of course, because it increases the chances of survival. A healthy dose of natural scepticism is the basis for both individual and social development. But philosophy often generates a level of doubt that goes far beyond what the human mind generally is able to handle.

This may be one reason questions of philosophy are never settled. The same questions lead to different answers after thousands of years of ruminations, because the proposed answers are never universally satisfactory. The human being will always be fundamentally unprepared to conclusively answer questions that are so much wider in scope than daily life. The tragedy is that the human being has the intellectual capability of asking philosophical questions, but not the capability of answering them.

Political philosophy is a good example of this dilemma. This area of philosophy only exists because of the endless disagreements among some members of the human species regarding how society could or should be organised. Less intelligent species never had to deal with this problem: their members live naturally together in an implicit and instinctive social compact. The extreme intelligence of the human species has driven it away from the natural life, almost to the point of self-annihilation.[9] The Homo Sapiens seems to have been a step too far in the evolution of the human being; the Homo Erectus did not live in such confusion.

Since the exposure to philosophy can threaten individual well-being and social harmony, it is possible to conclude that there is such a thing as over-education. This is what the accusers of Socrates had in mind when they put him on trial for, among other things, “corruption of the youth.”[10] In this vein, today's policy recommendation would consist in reducing the intellectual education of society, for instance by limiting higher education to the natural sciences, and removing funding for those subjects that stimulate reflection, namely most subjects belonging to the humanities.[11] This is the dream of many educators and pundits, since the humanities are generally considered a waste of time and money in the capitalist society.[12] After all, economic growth is driven primarily by developments in the natural sciences.

A certain restriction or discouragement of higher education also makes sense because most professions do not require any serious thinking capability. The post-industrial service society requires a work-force consisting of simple-minded executers and quick-witted specialists, not thinking generalists.[13] The exposure to philosophy threatens the political stability of modern society because it kills the natural joy and happy insouciance of the majority. Several countries apparently recognise this and are trying, perhaps unwittingly, to limit access to higher education, for instance, by dramatically raising their university tuition fees and by letting the educational scores of their teenagers remain poor.[14]

However, the limitation of education for the good of society may not actually be needed, since reflection is far less common than is generally supposed. Most people never practice philosophy or even engage in any kind of sustained thinking. They are not worse off for it, since philosophy is not recommended for a successful life. As Santayana said, “reason is indeed not indispensable to life, nor needful if living anyhow be the sole and indeterminate aim; as the existence of animals and of most men sufficiently proves.”[15] Fortunately, most members of the human species remain happily insulated from most of the corrupting influence of philosophy. 


[1] G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, p9. Prometheus Books, 1998.

[2] From Wikipedia : Karl Jaspers argued that during the Axial Age "the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.” (

[3] J-J. Rousseau, On the Origin of the Inequality Among Men.

[4] For instance: Plato, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, Santayana, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Foucault, and many others.

[5] See the article from The Guardian, “Should we care that smart women aren't having kids?”, by Sadhbh Walshe. And the relation between education and childbirth:
[6] From wikipedia: “Childless persons tend to have higher educations than those that do have children. Due to their higher education these childless couples also tend to have professional and managerial positions.”

[7] "Горе от ума", Грибоедов.

[8] F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. “Away from the market-place and from fame taketh place all that is great...” Chapter XII, p49.

[9] For instance with World War I and II (total 85M people), and later with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident (see wikipedia:
[10] Plato, The Apology of Socrates.

[11] Something along these lines has already been suggested, for instance, by Bill Gates. See for instance:

[12] This argument is not so outrageous as it seems apparently, since it has been seriously proposed, for instance, by Jonathan Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, that: “Among the solutions he advocates is cutting back on higher education, thereby reducing its depressing influence on American fertility.” See the The New Yorker, Head Count, by Elizabeth Kolbert, October 2013.

[13] This well-known trait of the modern society was pointed out almost a century ago by thinkers such as John Dewey, José Ortega y Gasset, J. K. Galbraith, and others. Today it has just become clearer than before. For instance, J.K Galbraith: “The real accomplishment of modern science and technology consists in taking ordinary men, informing them narrowly and deeply and then, through appropriate organization, arranging to have their knowledge combined with that of other specialized but equally ordinary men.” J.K. Galbraith, The New Industrial State, p62, Hamish Hamilton publishers, 1967. 
    More recently, see the study of managers and salaried workers by Professor Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, Oxford University Press.

[14] This is the case, for instance, in countries such as the UK, the US, and Canada. See: In the UK, fees have triples under the Cameron government. A similar situation has been seen in Canada in the last 20 years: For the situation in the US, here is the official data:

    Regarding low educational scores, this trend is particularly clear in the US. See for instance, the following article which shows that education level of teenagers have not improved at all in 40 years: and
[15] G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, p51. Prometheus Books, 1998.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Some Thoughts on Marketing

Marketing is usually seen from the point of view of its utility, but not always from the point of view of its scope. In almost any company, marketing clearly plays an important and useful role, but what is often less clear is that marketing is made up of a ragtag collection of disparate functions assembled under a common name. To do “marketing” can often mean doing at various times all or some of the following activities: sales, advertising, finance, planning, logistics, sociology, journalism, psychology and many others.

Marketing, therefore, can hardly be called a “science,” though many of its gurus do so all the time. There is hardly a better way to improve the brand image of marketing than to claim that marketing is a serious science, complete with its laws and theories. A lot of efforts are put into the marketing of marketing; the first subject of marketing is marketing itself. But perhaps marketing could be called science if sociology or anthropology can be called sciences. These subjects all deal with human affairs; they are therefore necessarily variable, imprecise and subjective. Marketing is empirical only in the popular sense that it slowly improves over time, as a response to external conditions. It is not empirical in the scientific sense.

Marketing can be more aptly described as a special mixture capable of boosting a company's sales. Its complex formula is often updated; the marketing mix is tweaked in order to improve its effect. The dream of the marketing executive is to find the magic potion that will work wonders on the customer.

Marketing was born as one of the modern corporation's many reactions to its market environment. It is therefore not a forward-looking activity by definition. The marketing method was not as developed half a century ago as is it today simply because today's sophistication was not needed at that time. Product offerings of the past satisfied the demands of those customers; competition in those days was not strong enough to stimulate any deeper thinking about pricing strategies; and corporate profits and shareholder returns were good enough for many innovative marketing proposals to be disregarded. Though some companies are better at it than others, marketing is always a product of its time. It seems reasonable to think then that in the future, as society evolves, marketing will continue its adaptation.

Despite this reality, scholars of marketing often try to have the last word by proposing a final, universally applicable, "unifying theory" of marketing. This is not surprising since it is the best chance for them to be remembered after they are gone. The desire to seek general all-encompassing theories has always existed, in all fields; it might be called the "Newton obsession." It is also a practical strategy since it allows academics to respond to all possible questions with the same answer. Currently, the grand unifying model of marketing is based on the concept that all goods, whether “tangible” or “intangible,” should be seen as services. 

However, as the world becomes ever more complex and specialisation has long been essential for any real expertise, it is rather counter-intuitive to try to develop a general theory of marketing to cover the entire business world. Actually, the opposite approach seems more logical. Marketing in heterogeneous societies should also be heterogeneous. As business areas become more and more specialised and competitive, marketing should be tailor-made to each one of them. For instance, marketing for a social media company cannot possibly have much in common with marketing for a medical equipment manufacturer.

Any proposal for a universal theory of marketing can therefore only be an oversimplified truism, appropriate only as an introduction for undergraduate students. It is in human nature to try to unite and simplify, but sometimes this temptation must be resisted. All the more so in the area of marketing, since it is practised separately by all big players in each business area. Instead, universities with a marketing interest could best contribute by focusing on giving structure and guidance to some of these specific business initiatives.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Why Russia Defends International Law

Russia's particular role in the Syrian conflict is interesting because it reveals the geopolitical reality in which Russia's foreign policy takes shape.

Despite occasional incendiary remarks by President Putin, Russia's official position in this conflict has been one of constancy and moderation, in sharp contrast with the volatile and aggressive positions of the US, France and others. In particular, Russia has clearly taken on the role of defending and “protecting international law,” as President Putin wrote in an unprecedented op-ed, “A Plea for Caution From Russia,” published on Sept. 11th in the New York Times. The word “law” was mentioned no less than seven times in the article; upholding international jurisprudence is obviously of high priority for Russia.

In answer to the United States and France's openly stated intention of bombing Syria, Russian officials have constantly repeated the importance of not violating Chapter VII of the UN Charter, concerning acts of aggression. President Putin also mentioned this point in his New York Times article: “Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” 

None of this should come as a surprise, since this was also Russia's position with regard to the illegal bombing of Serbia by NATO in 1999, as well as the illegal invasion of Iraq by a coalition led by the US and the UK in 2003.

It seems clear, therefore, that upholding international law is a fundamental principle of Russian foreign policy. Notwithstanding the flaws of current international law, such an unwavering and principled position would be admirable for a nation-state, were it not for the fact that Russia adopts this position not because of a high moral standard but out of necessity. There are two reasons for this.

On the one hand, Russia is one of only a handful of nations in the world to have a truly independent foreign policy. Apart from the United States, only China, India, Iran and Russia (and perhaps one or two others) are impervious to foreign pressure when acting on the international stage. This is certainly not the case of Western nations, as their timid and muted reactions even to the most egregious behaviour by the United States make clear (the Assange and the Snowden affairs are good recent indications of their subservience to Uncle Sam).

On the other hand, Russia cannot disregard international law; only the United States can do that (and, by extension, those nations which it decides can do that). Russia therefore has an interest in convincing the USA and its allies to follow international law, according to the principle that a weak nation benefits more than a strong one when commonly agreed rules are followed by all. The strongest nation, currently the United States, is naturally always tempted to violate international law, simply because it can generally do so with impunity. This explains why the United States constantly feels constrained by the international law to which it is bound, and why it does not recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

Russia's position on the Syrian conflict reflects these geopolitical realities. Russia's political independence gives it a freedom of action denied to all but a few countries in the world. However, Russia must use this freedom to insist on the importance of upholding international law, and to try to convince the US (and its allies) not to violate it. At this moment, Russia seems to have succeeded in doing this, but only time will tell if this success will last.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Causes and Consequences of State Corruption

On the 19th of May 2013, the bill prohibiting Russian officials from holding bank accounts abroad or owning foreign-issued shares and bonds came into force. It would seem at first glance like a very useful law. However, though the Kremlin stated that this law will “raise efficiency of anti-corruption efforts,” one can be forgiven for being skeptical about such a promise. This law will probably only have a limited impact on capital outflow because public servants will simply use more discreet and ingenious ways than before of hiding assets abroad.
But at least this new law seems to indicate that the authorities understand how damaging the shockingly high level of state corruption is for the country. At the same time, however, this law is also precisely an example of that personal and non-consensual decision-making style that so permeates Russian business and political life. Indeed, like so often, it sprang from the populist reaction of one man – Vladimir Putin – to recent scandals concerning the ownership of foreign assets by senior public servants.
It is not surprising therefore, that this ban on foreign investment does not target the causes of state corruption, but only one of its visible and embarrassing consequences - asset flight. Why should not a senior official be able to hold assets abroad as long as they have been legitimately earned? He might of course be called “unpatriotic” for doing so, but it should be legally possible for him to take this risk. The underlying reason why this law now makes it illegal is, of course, that the huge wealth amassed by many Russian politicians and civil servants is suspected to be the proceeds of graft. It is worth keeping in mind that, at a minimum, 10% of the value of state tenders of around 10 trillion rubles ($350 billion) per year are lost in this way. It is sometimes said that leaders should lead by example; ironically, this is perhaps exactly what they are doing in Russia, albeit unintentionally. Thus, attempts to reduce state corruption should be made also because of the likely beneficial effect for the whole society.
But, if corruption at state level is now truly a concern for the authorities, they should start by upholding existing laws, rather than creating new ones. If this happened, then firstly, senior officials would not be able to get their hands on as much wealth as before, and secondly, they would feel less need to funnel money abroad because they would perceive Russia as a safer place in which to invest. That the most powerful and well-connected people in Russia – those who best know the system – must be prevented by law from transferring funds abroad is indeed a worrying sign of the difficulties facing Russia.
A more fundamental question is: Would such a law be necessary if the political system wasn’t pervaded by career politicians and life-long civil servants? Corruption feeds on permanent bureaucracies that allow close personal relationships and long lasting business ties to be established. Both in Russia and abroad, the wealth of a career politician should always be seen with suspicion, unless it comes from inheritance. If all political terms in office and public service mandates were limited to, say, a maximum of two reelections or reappointments, graft and cronyism in government would undoubtedly decline.
Such term limitations are sometimes discussed in the media but are obviously rarely implemented, since they disserve the very persons who can pass them into law. Naturally, public servants will resist all changes that are not in their interest, and it is therefore surely not a coincidence that the final version of the bill signed by Putin exempts ownership of foreign real estate. Indeed, houses on the Riviera and apartments in Miami have been the preferred type of foreign investments by wealthy Russian public servants, and this will likely be the case also in the future, if the recent drop in house prices are considered.
Term limitations is not of course not the only way of impacting the level of state corruption; there are other measures, though there is no time to review them in this article. What such measures have in common, though, is that they generally target the causes, not the consequences, of state corruption.
The new law limiting foreign investments of senior officials should, therefore, not be cheered too enthusiastically since it can metaphorically be described as only a bandage on the gunshot wound of state corruption from which Russia suffers.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Need for Public Complaint

Market competition benefits society by inciting companies to improve their products and lower their prices. In practice, of course, this process is never perfect, and Russia is a particularly good example of that. As should be clear to any objective observer, Russian products and services often suffer from bad quality.

As an example, it is possible to mention the mobile internet service in Moscow, which is patchy, congested and overloaded. I am paying 1500 rubles per month for Yota 4G that should provide at least a few megabits per second. However, the service now hardly works at all in the evenings and the connection is broken many times a day. Another example is the elevator in our building, which comes from the Shcherbinsky Lift Factory, a relic from Soviet times. Since it was installed last summer it has broken down at least half a dozen times.

It is hard to imagine that companies can provide such services for long to their customers and survive. Yet in Russia, such companies not only survive; they often thrive.

The reasons for this can be partly found in the particular traits of the Russian market: it is surprisingly uncompetitive, absurdly inefficient, and - at least now, pre-WTO - strongly protected. But the low quality of many Russian products and services is also due to a large extent to the tolerance of bad quality among Russian consumers. Market competition works by a bottom-up process: it is the consumers who, through their choices and their complaints, decide the fate of companies.

Russians may not yet have much political consciousness, but they have acquired a certain level of economic awareness; for instance for the price/quality relationship in the market economy. Middle-class Russians often tend avoid Russian products and services when they can - as their choices of cars and holidays show.

However, such product discrimination is not a sufficient message from the consumers to the market; public complaint is also required. While product discrimination is passive and mostly self-serving, public complaint is active and disinterested. When we complain publicly about a product or a service, we do not hope to resolve our own quality issue, but to inform the community about it so that our fellow citizens can avoid it. This is a habit which, for obvious historical reasons, is not yet very common in Russia – and it is reflected in the quality of the good and services. Russian product quality can be good just after the launch of a business, but it often declines with time, as the stoic Russian customer quietly and patiently suffers.

There are some means for public complaint in Russia, such as the Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor), internet sites such as for financial services complaints, for rating restaurants, the programmes Control Purchase on TV channel ORT1 for food quality exposure, and social networks such as Vkontakte for creating customer groups. However, these avenues are significantly underused: during the entire year 2012, for instance, Rospotrebnadzor received only 1172 complaints for the entire city of Moscow.

It seems reasonable to think, therefore, that if Russian customers showed more intolerance to bad service by complaining more frequently using the means available, including word of mouth, companies might take them more seriously. The quality might then improve, as companies would worry about the impact to their sales of such negative publicity.

This situation is a useful reminder that the success of a market economy depends, among other things, on the active involvement of its citizens, ideally both in the economic and in the political sphere. Though the state of many Western societies show that political responsibility may unfortunately be too much to ask of most people, at least a certain level of economic responsibility might be possible. This means learning the civil virtue of complaining publicly, in order to let market competition improve our lives.