Apr 252014

Reading this article on “The White Tourist’s Burden”, I couldn’t help but think of Žižek. Or rather, I thought of Hegel, and Žižek was the occasion. What is it that strikes us as not quite right about the idea of voluntourism? Why is it that the fact that there are other things going on (a vacation, for example) along with volunteering takes away from the altruistic act? And why does it matter? Isn’t the school built or the relief aid given the same whether or not the volunteer is acting as part of a tourism package?

Žižek talks about what he calls the “Starbucks logic” of capitalism1, which I think helps foreground the structure of what is going on with voluntourism. The logic is as follows. Traditionally, capitalism aligns perfectly with our selfish nature. We become consumers, and we increasingly enjoy our products at the expense of various social and environmental costs. As we realize the costs, this consumerism creates guilt, or a sense of the injustices created by our participation in the economic system with an unbalanced moral scale. Our altruistic nature is left unattended to, at least within the context of the prevailing economic forces. Now, however, companies like Starbucks offer ways in which consumers can purge themselves of the guilt of participating in capitalism, racism, etc. (or whatever other hegemonic form of world spirit) through the consumption of their products. So the Starbucks coffee may be a bit more expensive, but acts of altruism (money is donated, sustainable packaging is used, etc.) are included in the price of the beverage. The industry creates products that give the appearance of the union of the selfish and altruistic tendencies, and you can continue being a consumer as always, but now without guilt, because the same product that you wanted anyway now handily compensates the moral law and balances the scales of justice through your purchase.

It seems to me that the same structure is at work in voluntourism, so let’s take a closer look at that structure. The problems caused by various forms of unjust social relations create a division between my role as consumer and my role as moral law-abider. In order to be my moral self and tend to the moral scales, I must in some sense leave my role as consumer. I can do this, for example, through charities, churches, or other institutions that lie outside the dominant economic norms. Though I am actively realizing my altruistic nature, it is only ever a part-time job. I am constantly reminded that my other self is immersed in the relations of consumerism. I am a divided self. Enter the traditional critiques of capitalism as alienating. However, capitalism, though alienating, wants to be all-consuming. It finds ways to tend to my better nature and to bring my altruistic self, as it were, back into the fold, so that I no longer have to look outside of my economic self for my moral self. So I can go on vacation and help others at the same time. It is an all-inclusive package. I am volunteer and tourist in the same moment, I can consume and donate through a single purchase, and I can feel that I am doing good without effort. Isn’t this the end of the story, then? The end, or completion, of capitalism: a perfect unity of human natures and economic forces. A union of my selfish and altruistic selves in which the economic structures adjust themselves to remedy any disequilibrium in the moral law that they create along the way. My very same selfish act now has an unselfish effect. Everyone wins. What’s left is only to wait for the system to adjust itself enough to perfectly compensate, right? Or said differently, instead of actively displacing my selfish acts with altruistic ones, I wait until the arbiters of moral law adjust the criteria to now consider my same selfish acts as unselfish. I go nowhere (except where I am going anyway). I essentially do nothing (except give the “OK”). The best expression of this structure is perhaps AmazonSmile.2

But if I am no longer alienated from myself, am I not now alienated from others? What creates the union of self-same subjectivity in the logic above–what allows my consumption to become a donation and my egoism to become social relation–is the introduction of the mediating factor between myself and others. My relation to others is now mediated so that my relation to myself can return to immediacy. The perfect union of my self-reflected subjectivity now creates the problem of inter-subjectivity. And the mediating factor that reflects myself back into myself thus making inter-subjectivity a problem is technology. It is through technology that I can meet others though we are far apart, but it is also through technology that I can affect others without meeting them. I can put in motion an altruistic act or a compensation of the moral law without disturbing my natural economic desires, as equally I can put in motion a purely selfish act with great costs to others but without my knowledge of those costs. Through such a structure the possibility arises to be alienated, not from others in general, but from the very other that was supposedly the object of my mediated altruistic act of consumption. This is the true meaning of technological globalization. Everyone and everything is brought into closer relation, but a closer relation only ideally, that is, through the mediation that leaves my self-same subjectivity in tact.

Some readings of Hegel would say this above logic is a perfect Hegelian system: the unity of being-for-self and being-for-another in self-reflected subjectivity. In this view, Marx picks up at the master-slave relationship3 and offers the materialist solution to what Hegel had only worked out ideally, that is, he brings self-conscious human being into real other-consciousnesses or social relation. However, though Marx’s critique in general is a necessary counterbalance to the idea of idealism, it is at this precise point in Phenomenology of Spirit where I think the critique misses the mark, as Hegel himself demonstrates the need to go beyond ideal subjectivity toward real social relations between subjects. For if Hegel had only been talking about ideal relationships, about the constitution of self-consciousness through my recognition of myself, about the transcendental self-awareness that converts every object and every other into something to be consumed by me, then he has not added anything beyond Kant and Fichte, and there would have been no reason to write most of the Phenomenology. The critique of self-certainty would have had to go no further than sense-certainty and the realization that sensuous objects are mediated by and for me. On the contrary, consciousness passes through the various forms of truth-seeking (sense-certainty, perception, understanding) and arrives at only the concept of self-consciousness. The “idealist” lesson is now learned. The world and its objects are for consciousness, not in-themselves independent of consciousness. Consciousness, in seeking the truth of its knowledge, has come to realize that what it necessarily seeks is itself, its own structures and world-determining activities. But, Hegel says, we must go further.

Why is the chapter on Self-Consciousness necessary, then? Because Hegel thinks that self-consciousness, and accordingly freedom, is not won merely through an epistemological turn of consciousness, nor through “pure” consciousness that has found all it needs in its own self-reflection, nor through an understanding of the limits and categories of reason. Self-consciousness only becomes actual and free through mutual recognition between two self-consciousnesses. The master-slave relation is the answer to the following question: Now that we have made the “Copernican Turn” and taken hold of our transcendental subjectivity–now that we are fully-developed Kantian idealists–what happens when two of us meet? In short: my self-consciousness and my world are faced with death, through which only can free self-consciousness result. Without the encounter with an other individual, self-consciousness remains pure subjectivity, even after having passed through the mediating factors that consciousness discovered (space, time, language, law). For Hegel, more than pure subjectivity is needed for freedom and thus for true ethical agency.

This encounter with the other, played out in the dynamics of a master-slave relation, constitutes Hegel’s move beyond transcendental subjectivity, anticipates the Marxist critique, and is perhaps a helpful way to address our questions about voluntourism. What is missing in the logic of capitalism above, where our altruistic and selfish natures unite in the economic role of consumer, is the same that is missing in the altruistic act of giving the “OK” to donate, or going on a volunteering vacation, or in the idealist insight into the world-determining structures of consciousness, namely, a real encounter with the other. And for Hegel, for the encounter to be real, life must be at stake. What the subject heretofore has not experienced is a true loss of world, and thus a key lesson on the way to freedom and ethical agency has yet to be learned. And so the two individuals enter the master-slave encounter, as Hegel tells it, each convinced of their own independence and seeking from the other only a reassurance of their self-certainty:

the relation of the two self-conscious individuals is such that they prove themselves and each other through a life-and-death struggle. They must engage in this struggle, for they must raise their certainty of being for themselves to truth, both in the case of the other and in their own case. And it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won.4

They desire to “raise their certainty” to truth, though the truth of their certainty will be reversed on them. In such an encounter one’s life is at stake because one’s whole being is drawn from the desire for pure self-subsisting independence with which we begin into the dependence of something that has threatened our life in its wholly otherness. For Hegel, such an encounter between two self-conscious individual, rather than confirming their natural desires and their given worldviews, turns the world of each upside down. But the individual sets out seeking only a confirmation of their own-ness and independence through this life-and-death struggle:

The individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness. Similarly, just as each stakes his own life, so each must seek the other’s death, for it values the other no more than itself; its essential being is present to it in the form of an ‘other’, it is outside of itself and must rid itself of its self-externality.5

They quickly learn, however, the lesson of the master-slave encounter: the truth that they were seeking turns out to be the reverse of what they thought. “This trial by death, however, does away with the truth which was supposed to issue from it, and so, too, with certainty of self generally.”6 And so the consciousness that considered itself independent and sought to prove its independence in the encounter with the other now realizes that its nature is the reverse of what it wants to be: it is dependent on the other even in its independence. The master is only master because the slave is slave. The master gains his independence from the world of objects, while simultaneously enjoying the fruits of it, only because the slave becomes the dependent one, subjected to the master and to the work of fulfilling the master’s desires:

What desire failed to achieve, he succeeds in doing, viz. to have done with the thing altogether, and to achieve satisfaction in the enjoyment of it. Desire failed to do this because of the thing’s independence; but the lord, who has interposed the bondsman between it and himself, takes to himself only the dependent aspect of the thing and has the pure enjoyment of it.7

Though the master’s desires are indeed fulfilled, they are fulfilled through the work of the servant, while the master in effect sits back and does nothing but give the “OK, do it.” Far from his truth remaining within his own self-reflected subjectivity–what had been taken to be the idea of self-consciousness–“the truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the servile consciousness of the bondsman.”8 The truth of self-certainty for the master becomes the dependence on an other, and the master is left in a kind of tragic stalemate from which he can only move forward by relinquishing the very thing that makes the master the master: his mastery.

Told from the other perspective, the slave learns the lesson of self-consciousness through two moments. First, he learns what it means to lose one’s whole world and to be stripped of all self-certainty, for though the slave subjects himself to the master in order to preserve his life, the relation inflicts on the slave an absolute fear of death. Because the other is an absolute other seeking to confirm his absolute independence, my independence and everything previously taken for me as given is put into question. That is, I come to realize that there is an other for whom I am a mere dependent object. So the slave’s “whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, the absolute Lord. In that experience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations.” Without such a moment in which my world is challenged to its core, there is no chance of true self-consciousness, for this “absolute melting-away of everything stable” is the “essential nature of self-consciousness.”9

Second, though “the fear of the lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom,” says Hegel, what brings the slave finally to free himself from his slavery is the work he does in the service of the other. Remember that the master sought to preserve his independence from the world by putting the slave to work for him. The master gave up his activity for the freedom of subjective independence, while the slave became the active one, fulfilling the desires of the master and taking on as his own the work that would fulfill those desires. Through this service, the slave comes to realize that the encounter with the master has made him the agent of real activity. “Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is.” What he truly is is an individual whose dependence on another constitutes his independence, whose work in the service of another constitutes his own activity, and whose loss of world makes possible his self-consciousness. So Hegel says:

in fear, the being-for-self is present in the bondsman himself; in fashioning the thing, he becomes aware that being-for-self belongs to him, that he himself exists essentially and actually in his own right. . . . the bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own.10

And so through these two moments, the fear of death and activity, the individual moves from conscious subject to inter-subjective self-consciousness. Without activity, the fear inflicted by the other produces a self-reflective inwardness, and one retreats into oneself for confirmation of self-certainty. Without the fear of death that challenges one’s world, activity “is only an empty self-centered attitude.”11 For Hegel, it is not enough to pass through the lessons of sense-certainty, perception, and understanding (the whole first section of the Phenomenology called “Consciousness”), and to find the truth of knowledge in the transcendental subject. To become self-consciousness, consciousness must encounter a wholly other and learn that the subjectivity that it has constructed for itself is still dependent on the other. It learns that self-consciousness is inter-subjectivity.

This interpretation of the master-slave encounter is certainly not the only one. But viewed from the perspective of the overall movement of the Phenomenology, I find that the real force of the arrival to self-consciousness is the movement from subjectivity (subject-object relations) to inter-subjectivity (subject-subject relations), or from the idea of self-consciousness to its proof. The proof ultimately lies in the story of the slave who staked his own life by experiencing an absolute challenge to self-will and ultimately accepted the challenge. Through this death to himself and to his own immediate interests, he gained a greater freedom of self-consciousness no longer burdened with the other but enriched by it. His action proved his truth as free self-conscious agent, whereas the inaction of the master proved the untruth of his independence. To quote from Findlay’s analysis:

[the slave] achieves a self-consciousness not opposed to otherness, but which discovers itself in otherness. . . . Hegel thinks that the discipline of service and obedience is essential to self-consciousness: mere mastery of things alone would not yield it. Only the discipline of service enables the conscious being to master himself, i.e. his finite, contingent, natural self. Without this discipline formative ability would degenerate into a narrow cleverness placed at the service of personal self-will. . . . Not to have undergone such discipline results in a trivialization of self-consciousness which never rises above petty finite interests.12

In the lesson of inter-subjectivity that Hegel teaches through the master-slave encounter, we find the truth of ethical agency. The claim is that ethical life is not constituted through the subject-object relation of adherence to moral law. Nor is merely bringing the external law inward in free self-determining subjectivity a sufficient condition for self-conscious agency. Self-consciousness is realized in the recognition of and by another self-consciousness, because only through the duality of social relations is the duality of self given its meaning. Awareness of this duality of self is then the condition for all the other projects of reason, philosophy, and politics which attempt to subordinate the lesser (selfish or natural) desires to the greater (altruistic or rational) ones. That such a subordination could happen in the individual is made possible by it already having happened through the relationship with another. In this way, the encounter with another is a condition for the emergence of self-consciousness, of the division of altruistic and selfish natures, and thus of ethical agency of any kind.

This lesson suggests what may be missing from the supposed union of altruism and selfishness toward which capitalism tends. The structure wherein I donate by consuming, I volunteer by vacationing, I meet the other by going nowhere, and the ethical act is a mere “OK, do it” is a structure that claims to bring individuals together and facilitate ethical acts while discouraging precisely the kind of encounter with the other that is the condition of self-conscious agency. Not only that, but by not actually encountering the other, meeting them where they are, and experiencing the challenge of loss of world, I remain, like the master, ignorant of the truth of my action. I only confirm my own self-certainty through the feeling of satisfying my altruistic nature, while the fate of my actions is completely out of my hands. As Hegel says, service without the fear of death remains an empty subjectivity that fails to recognize the other as other.

In the union of my altruistic and selfish natures toward which the logic of absolute consumerism strives, I have the perfect coincidence of my desire for mastery and my desire for recognition as a benevolent master. But this union is only ideal, because what I thought was the exercise of my altruistic nature turns out to be a relegation of my action to a mediating factor which protects me from the real challenge of otherness. To act ethically toward an other I must recognize them. How can I recognize an other if I have no experience of their otherness, and what kind of recognition can I receive from the other whom I do not myself recognize? What kind of mastery do I exercise if I have not subjected my independence to any challenge? These are questions which I believe Hegel helps us raise in a way that orients us toward an ethical agency that seeks the challenge of the encounter with others, as the very condition of our ethical act and our own well-being, rather than toward an altruistic consumerism that merely facilitates the sending out of my own self-certainty to others.


  1. Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzcfsq1_bt8 []
  2. A program that allows Amazon customers to donate .5% of their purchase to a charity, but in fact Amazon does the donating, and their is no cost to the customer. So you can buy the same books at the same prices through the same method and “donate” by giving Amazon the “OK” to donate. The only plausible reason why the customer is even needed, why Amazon wouldn’t just go ahead and make the donations, is that by involving the customer there is a benefit to Amazon beyond the traditional PR benefit of corporate donation: a marketing hook that promises the good feeling of altruism without any altruistic action. The action I take to say, “Yes, donate”, is an artificial scenario constructed by Amazon with the precise goal of allowing me to donate by not donating. My action is unnecessary for the donation to occur but necessary to confirm my own altruistic nature and that of Amazon. The recipient of the donation is only the occasion for Amazon and I to each prove our self-certainty. See: http://smile.amazon.com/about []
  3. Though I use “master” and “slave” instead of “lord” and “bondsman”, I will be referring to Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Miller, Oxford University Press: 1977 []
  4. Ibid., 113-114. []
  5. Ibid., 114. []
  6. Ibid., 114. []
  7. Ibid., 116. []
  8. Ibid., 117. []
  9. Ibid., 117. []
  10. Ibid., 118. []
  11. Ibid., 119. []
  12. Ibid., 522-523. []

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of