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GBS Schweiz

Zizek on consumption and charity: What?

on 15. März 2013

So Zizek is trying to update us on consumption and charity. The probability that this guy has something worthwhile to say, conditional e.g. on what he said and wrote about vegetarians, isn’t exactly high. (Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri have taught him a lesson in clear-thinking in the Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Yes – in the really existing Journal of Baudrillard Studies.)

He does raise some points regarding consumption and the idea of charity that might be valid under a suitable interpretation. The main problem, though, is this: He rarely tells us what this means in practice. What, precisely, should we do now? I suppose he’d be critical of the Effective Altruist idea of „cost-effective charity“ on similar grounds („philanthropy is the enemy of justice“). But this seems misguided, as Will MacAskill shows in his presentation on the Ethics of Career Choice (slide 31 onward). The ethical „Giving What We Can“ argument, for instance, is an argument to the effect that one should fund the organization that most cost-effectively makes the world a better place. If that’s a political organization working for some structural/systemic change, we should go for that option. But a strong empirical argument is needed here: What structural changes exactly, how beneficial would they be with what degree of certainty, and how likely are they to happen – in other words: What’s the expected value? – Zizek doesn’t seem to do much on this essential front.

In fact, the only relevant questions are the following:

(1) Ethical/Normative: What, precisely, is or should be our goal?

Zizek does a terrible job here, the goal remains unclear, he doesn’t even try to think carefully about ethics proper (continuing a Marxist tradition) – which is one reason why non-human animals don’t enter his picture.

(2) Empirical/Strategic: How, precisely, can we best achieve the goal, given our current situation and resources?

And here again, Zizek does a pretty terrible job, neither defending nor even clearly proposing answers to the question of what I should do with my time, energy and money.

Take the „bio“ point: Sure, it’s probably true that people do it mainly because it gives them warm fuzzies. They haven’t really thought about what the goal is/what „making the world a better place“ means, whether buying „bio“ achieves it, and (if so) how efficiently. But what does he offer instead? I could buy non-veg, vegetarian, vegan; regional; seasonal; organic; fair trade; … – what should I do and why? What about other things I could be doing with my money, i.e. opportunity costs? What about buying the cheapest stuff and donating the money saved to the cause/organization that most urgently needs our time, energy and money? (And what would the candidates for „most urgent cause“ be and why?) Those are the relevant questions. Whoever doesn’t address them very clearly and rationally, I submit, is wasting our limited time. Despite the fuzzies we might get from learning about how ideology is at work in toilet architecture.