|Murtahda Mutahhari and John Stuart Mill’s
Critique of the Consumeristic Commodification of Culture
Andrew Gustafson, Ph.D. Bethel College, Minnesota firstname.lastname@example.org
Preface: A Brief Explanation of this paper:
I am a philosophy professor at Bethel University. I wrote my dissertation on Mill, and knew nothing about Mutahhari before I discovered a conference advertisement November 2003 for a conference to be held in Tehran, Iran in honor of Mutahhari on the topic of religion, freedom, and liberty. After reading my first work by Mutahhari, and discovering that he says some things quite similar to Mill about higher and lower sentiments, I immediately decided to write a paper comparing Mill to Mutahhari, and then read 8-10 short works by Mutahhari. I had always wanted to go to Iran. While at first I thought it might be easier to write a paper comparing a Christian to a Muslim thinker, I eventually decided to stick with Mill, the British Agnostic, and only mention Christian points of view in passing. Of course Mill’s view of higher sentiments has always seemed (quite obviously) in keeping with Aristotle’s virtue ethics, which in turn is quite in keeping with Christian ethics and Christian notions of proper function etc. So when I talk about Mill’s moral sentiments, it is to my mind simply a kissing cousin of the Christian point of view.
The paper was very well received, and I have been invited to come back to Iran, which I plan to do this winter. I have very much enjoyed getting to know some of my Iranian Muslim colleagues, and I have come to respect their personal integrity and faithfulness. I have been academically and personally enriched by the exchange, and I am currently working to publish a book of essays (by some of my Iranian colleagues) on the thought of Mutahhari.
I am energized for these projects by my hope that through my interactions Americans will better understand Iranians and visa-versa. So far, I have seen that this can and does happen, naturally, and I have been blessed by these new friendships. I have learned much about real Islamic faith, and they have learned some more about real Christianity, and both of us have been dissuaded of some of our misunderstandings in the process. That is certainly one of the goals of intellectual discourse.
In Islam, travel is praised, though not as a permanent activity similar to a gypsy life. In the same way, staying permanently in a village or a town all one’s life is a form of enslavement which is not recommended since it weakens one’s soul and spirit. Travel, especially if one is equipped with knowledge gained at home, is more profitable, while for an ignorant person, it is of little value
Mutahhari goes on to say, “There is a special delight of conversation and companionship that is often afforded by travel. This contact with lofty minds may ennoble your spirit.” I am optimistic that my travel to Iran to be with you has already begun to open my mind and ennoble my spirit.
When I first read Mutahhari, I sensed that I was reading a man who was wise and calm. It has become obvious to me that in the generous spirit of Mutahhari, I could find some thinking in common with my own Christian philosophy, and even see reflections of his wisdom in some secular philosophers—wisdom which would speak to the rampant materialism and corruption of culture, and speak about the meaning of life and soul of a human being.
Mutahhari’s wisdom speaks to and illuminates our current worldwide predicament perfectly in many respects. Mutahhari reminds us that a culture falters when it loses its noble high aspirations and ideals. (Goal of Life, Ch 3) True freedom can come only when the soul of a man is properly functioning and guided by healthy principles. This insight is parallel to Christian values, and it also reminded me of one of my favorite secular philosophers, John Stuart Mill.
In this paper, I will examine the commonalities between Mutahhari, Christian, and Mill’s thoughts on three topics: 1) the importance of nurturing the higher capacities/qualities in humans and the problem of consumerism and materialism in modern culture, 2) the important role of religion for providing ideals and nurturing those higher capacities, and 3) the relationship between restriction and liberty. I hope that this will help us reflect more upon some of the common characteristics of Islamic, Christian, and Mill’s thought on these topics, and their common desire to restrain the consumeristic commodification of culture.1
Loss of Ideals in Modern Atheistic Society
In his essay, Man and Universe, Mutahhari discusses the problem of an atheistic society, and the emptiness which accompanies the loss of ideals in secular modern thinking, using Sartre, the French existentialist as an example. Mutahhari says,
Society is now threatened with an idealistic vacuum. Some people want to fill this vacuum with pure philosophy and some others are seeking the help of literature, art and humanitarian sciences for this purpose. (Man and Universe, Ch 4)
Mutahhari laments the loss of ideals in the modern world. He uses the example of Sartre who held that we had an endless empty ideal:
Sartre and others say that man should not stop at a boundary, but he should go beyond it and change the previous plan for a new goal, and in this way advance constantly. This means perpetual motion in a direction without having a definite goal and destination from the beginning, . . .” (Goal of Life, end of Ch. 3)2
Man has no natural purpose or meaning, according to Sartre. Humans create their own meaning and purpose because there is no given purpose to their lives.3 We see this today. But what Sartre fails to note is that often, without any transcendent ideals, modern man often turns to the purchase of material objects to fill the void. We see in contemporary postmodern society a rampant materialism—an attempt to find self worth through purchasing goods. This process by which all values are converted into monetary value is the commodification of values. Advertisements tell us that we can purchase happiness, success, peace, even spiritual fulfillment by purchasing particular products. This attempt to sell people non-material values (Happiness, peace, joy) via material goods ultimately undermines transcendent spiritual values. But more than this, it often leads to a self-centeredness which undermines our sense of self as a social being. I am habituated to be concerned most about MY desires, rather than the good of the many. In this way consumerism undermines the fabric of society.
Mutahhari and Mill on the Higher and Lower Qualities of Man
Mutahhari is optimistic about humanity when he writes,
Human conscience is not so depraved that people cannot be inspired by anything higher and nobler than their basic material needs (The Awaited Savior, Ch7)
Mutahhari and Mill both criticize a worldview without higher ideals. They both believe that ideals are necessary for mankind to progress. Both Mutahhari and Mill discuss this in terms of higher and lower capacities. If mankind loses their ability to pursue the higher capacities, then he is doomed to live in an animal-like state. They agree that non-materialistic goals must be held in regard over material ends, or society will falter.
Mutahhari tells us,
In monotheism, however the goal is always there from the very beginning, clear and unlimited, as well. It always remains new and challenging. No other world vision constitutes the source and spirit of a school of thought, as both and ideal and a motivating force. At the same time, monotheism creates obligation, produces joy, provides guidance and encourages self-sacrifice. (Goal of Life)
God provides us an affirmative and concrete goal which has definite purpose for our lives. Yet God, as infinite and unlimited, remains in some sense always beyond us, always new, and always challenging. Theism, for this reason, provides an infinite source of vision and hope.
Mutahhari develops his view of human nature from his monotheism. He says, “Man himself being a kind of animal, has many things in common with other animals. At the same time he has many dissimilatiries which distinguish him from other animals and make him superior to them.” (Man and Universe Ch 1) He says that the two key features unique to man are differences in attitude and inclination. Man can reflect on his wants and desires in ways animals cannot. Animal desires are inferior to humans’ in four ways: 1) Animal desires are strictly material, not spiritual; 2) they are primarily selfish, and not given to transcendental values beyond their immediate kin; 3) they are concerned only with their immediate environment; 4) they are primarily concerned with the instantaneous moment. Man, on the other hand, can have transcendent spiritual values which bring him beyond himself to purposes beyond the present moment and location. In this sense, the transcendent values which Man can have faith in help him to become transcendent to the material part of his life.
John Stuart Mill also held to a higher and lower capacity distinction, like the ancient Greek Epicureans. He says that humans have capacities for higher pleasures which animals do not enjoy, including intellect, moral sentiment, noble feeling, and imagination. Humans can enjoy books, while dogs cannot. We can use our imagination to create art or beautiful architecture, while chickens cannot. We can have pleasure from acts of heroism, or from seeing beauty, while animals generally have no such capacity. He provides five criteria for trying to determine higher from lower capacities. 1) the person aquainted with both types of pleasure is best able to judge which is the superior, or higher, pleasure. 2) The higher pleasures are usually unique to Humans and 3) involve the intellect, not merely the body. 4) Higher pleasures can be chosen without a loss of pride, liberty, or dignity by the one who chooses it. And 5) Higher pleasures are inexhaustible. While I get full of food, the more one exercises the higher capacities, the greater those appetites become. For example: those who pursue education have a greater capacity to learn, while those who do not pursue education get bored quite quickly4
The pursuit of these higher pleasures ultimately leads to a strengthening of society, and develops a social bond and concern for others which helps the individual to transcend his own material existence. This leads to habits and desires which make him care for the others around him:
Not only does all strengthening of social ties, and all healthy growth of society, give to each individual a stronger personal interest in practically consulting the welfare of others; it also leads him to identify his feelings more and more with their good, or at least with an ever greater degree of practical consideration for it. He comes, as though instinctively, to be conscious of himself as a being who of course pays regard to others.5
But Mill realized that the man who loses his ability to live an excellent meaning-filled life does not purposefully cast these abilities aside; rather, they gradually fade away as one pursues the typical life lived simply for material success. Mill himself says,
Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them and the society into which it has town them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.6
People become quite adept at ignoring their mortality and the fruitlessness of their lives. The fact seems to be that many people don’t realize that they are living and working without significance because they have blinded themselves through consumerism and other methods of self-induced ignorance. The problem, Mill says, is that people fail to nurture the higher feelings, and because of that, they lose their ability to find happiness through the more noble pursuits. Note that part of the problem here is that the demands of the society help the young to lose these capacities. We must be vigilant against letting this happen.
The loss of higher capacities in society:
Advertisers may not be intending to break down our society, or reduce awareness of important societal issues.7 But advertisers, insofar as they provide materialistic goals and desires for me to pursue, and direct my attention towards attaining these goals, they inadvertently help me to forget about others and the societal needs around me. Insofar as advertisers perpetually manipulate my desires and emotions as they attempt to persuade me to purchase goods and products, they induce a great deal of cynicism in the public, and this loss of good will is detrimental to culture. That is the long term price paid for the short-term benefit to the advertisers and their clients:
Long experience has revealed that while certain kinds of actions may provide short-term advantages, they tend in the long run to have gravely adverse consequences for the population as a whole. Fraud and deception, for example, may be advantageous for a time-- particularly for those who are concealing the truth-- but they tend, in the long run, to diminish respect for the truth, to increase popular cynicism, to make communication more difficult, and to cause a breakdown in other important institutions.8
Advertising causes breakdown in society both insofar as it turns my attention towards myself, and insofar as its constant manipulation of desires causes cynicism and widespread lack of good will towards others.
Benefits of Religion—Mutahhari
Knowledge without faith is a sharp sword in the hand of a drunken brute. It is a lamp in the hand of a thief to help him pick up the best articles at midnight. (Man and Universe, Ch2)
In his Man and Universe Mutahhari claims that there are benefits which come through religious belief: 1. Happiness and Delight, which come to us because a. one with faith can have hope that there is order in the world, laws sustained by a just well-intentioned Overseer, and that there is opportunity and possibility in the world; b. the man without faith sees the world as hopeless, and consequently has a despairing heart, and c. one who has faith expects that good efforts produce good effects—in other words, that justice will follow justice; d. faith in the future provides a restful heart and peace
Religious faith also improves social relations, because religious faith “respects truth, honors justice, encourages kindness and mutual confidence, inculcates the spirit of piety, acknowledges moral values, emboldens the individuals to resist tyranny and unites them into a homogeneous body.” He also mentions that “Most of the outstanding men who have shed luster on the world and have shone on the firmament of history, were inspired by religious feelings” In the United States, for example, I know of no hospital begun by an atheist society. Yet I know of hundreds of hospitals begun by churches or religious orders.
Mutahhari points out that Shi’ite believer has faith in the progress of humanity. Some, he says, think destruction is necessary first, but in this sense they are like Marxists who think a dark day of revolution must precede the dawn of the coming of the messiah and worldwide peace.9
Mutahhari, it seemed to me, saw exactly what is the problem of many cultures in the world today, including my own in the United States. The secular person says that life is what they make it—what they do—and more and more—what they buy and own. So marketing has helped producers to sell modern people what they will become, by making them think that what they own or can afford to do is what makes them who they are. This commodification of self is often purely materialistic, in that it has no spiritual or non-physical ideals. It has ideals, but these ideals are purely materialistic—goals of the attainment of happiness through purchased goods and purchased experiences. This commodification of what culture values could not take place if the values themselves were not first changed to some degree.10
The Instrumental Role of Religion in Supporting Social Sympathy:
Mill’s Interest in Religion’s Power to Direct Sentiments
Mill was not a Christian, but saw religion as beneficial to society, especially to the nurturing of social sentiments. Mill supported the instrumental role which religion can play in fostering social sympathy. Mill was essentially interested in religion—particularly Protestant Christianity’s power to help mold social sentiments. There is no question that Mill was quite interested in the benefits and utility of religion.i He spoke highly of Coleridge’s attempts to bring philosophy and religion togetherii,
Mill saw the revealed teachings of Jesus to be utilitarian doctrine. He says “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”iii
Mill sees in the teachings of Christ a desire for all people to be united in a feeling of mutual sympathy and concern:
If the view adopted by the utilitarian philosophy of the nature of the moral sense be correct, this difficulty will always present itself, until the influences which form moral character have taken the same hold of the principle which they have taken of some of the consequences-- until by the improvement of education, the feeling of unity with our fellow creatures shall be (what it cannot be doubted that Christ intended it to be) as deeply rooted in our character, and to our own consciousness as completely a part of our nature, as the horror of crime is in an ordinarily well-brought up young person.iv
It is through education that this sentiment of unity will be nurtured and strengthened. It is not simply an innate feeling, but a potential feeling which should be intentionally directed towards the good of the community. The more we nurture the higher sentiments, the stronger this social sympathy will become.
Limits as essential to true liberty
Mutahhari and Mill both realize that true freedom requires some restriction. Mutahhari saw this to be best seen through the revelation of divine law in the Q’ran. Mill thought that the principle of liberty could be derived from the utilitarian principle—that the basis for individual liberty was that it would bring about happiness, and that the basis for restricting some personal liberties was that restricting these liberties would bring about a greater happiness as well. Ultimately, Mill advocated that individuals were free to do as they wish so long as their actions did not interfere with the freedoms of others.
1. The Principle of Liberty Is Founded Upon the Principle of Utility, or the Social Good
Mill is famous for his “principle of liberty” which is “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”11 The only grounds of interfering with another’s free actions is that his actions would harm others. His freedom must not be interfered with “for his own sake,” as Mill says, “His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”12 But what cannot be forgotten is that Mill is discussing a particular type of person: a fully mature and intelligent adult: “It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties.”13
2. Limits of Individual Sovereignty, and the Importance of Society and Education
In his classic work, On Liberty, Mill asks the question, “What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself?” While Mill rejects the notion of social contract as a fictitious imaginative myth with no basis in reality, he does think people do have obligations to the society which protects their rights:
Though society is not founded on contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest.14
He goes on to outline these obligation as being first, one has not the right to injure the rightful interests of another, and second, each must bear his own share of responsibility in defending the society. “These conditions society is justified in enforcing at all costs to those who endeavour to withhold fulfillment.” If a person’s conduct affects no one else, then there is no basis for any societal intervention (although, of course, the public is always free to have their opinions) but if the persons action does affect others, then it becomes a reasonable question to pursue. So, while Mill supports individual liberty and dissent from public opinion adamantly, he simultaneously requires that the pursuit of one’s own free liberties does not interfere with the rights of the rest:
It would be a great misunderstanding of this doctrine to suppose that it is one of selfish indifference which pretends that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and that they should not concern themselves about the well-doing or well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved.15
What Mill objects to is the use of oppressive societal pressure in achieving the desired behavior, particularly external sanctions by either law or social custom. This is clear when he says, “Instead of any diminution, there is need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote instruments to persuade people to their good than whips and scourges, either of the literal or the metaphorical sort”16
While some had primarily focused on the punitive sanctions of government as a tool for societal pressure to achieve compliance from individuals, Mill always strongly encourages education over other forms of societal pressures. He always wants to maintain the individual’s integrity, while encouraging and persuading through education of the intellect and training of the sentiments:
However, while my actions are not to be interfered with when they not affect others, Mill does say that, “Acts injurious to others require a totally different treatment.”17 Mill does distinguish here between the former actions which are not properly immoral because they do not affect others, and those which are immoral because they do affect the well being of others.18
Mill does not advocate coercion or physical force to bring about compliance from an individual. But on the other hand, Mill does not advocate no-interference policy whereby the society should not in any way attempt to affect or influence moral agents. Society does play a powerful and positive and essential role in the development and life of an individual, and this is why Mill often blames poor education for the lack of happiness and poor moral behavior in society, which keep us from attaining an ideal state of liberty for all. Mill says, “The present wretched education and wretched social arrangements, are the only real hindrance to its being attainable by almost all.”19
I believe that consumerism in culture is gradually undermining our social structures and values. My students come to my Christian liberal arts college with much more knowledge about commodities like Lexus, Nike, Abercrombie and Fitch, NFL etc. than they do about key concepts like justice, morality, Plato, French Revolution, etc. Insofar as our commodified culture inadvertently draws us away from the substantial and towards the commodified, it undermines the basic transcendental understandings which we need to share to have a true society. We are slowly forgetting and neglecting our sense of transcendent values, higher aspirations, and the reality of life as we become more and more directed towards material pursuits, consumer mentality, and buy into the commodification of values which has now begun to permeate cultures worldwide through globalization.
I have argued here that Mutahhari and Mill share common concerns about the importance of transcendent values and higher sentiments, the valuable role of religion in nurturing the higher capacities of man, and then highlighted Mill’s view of liberty. In these respects, at least, the conservative Islamic values and liberal democratic values might share a good deal more common ground than is often expected when it comes to the importance of nurturing higher values in society, even if Mill’s view of the limits of liberty might be set at a different place than Mutahhari’s. I believe that the struggle we face as societies is attempting to allow for vigorous innovation and creativity by maintaining freedom, not only politically and structurally, but socially as well. The oppressive force of mass opinion often crushes the individual creativity which helps a society to remain vibrant and healthy. I also have argued here that one of the most important oppressive forces in society may be the consumerism which appears to be gradually overtaking the world via the free-market economy. If this is the case, then some concern with the free-market and its consumerism is understandable not only to those who ascribe to Mutahhari, but also to those of us who ascribe to the liberal democratic thinking of Mill.
iSee Mill’s “Utility of Religion”Collected Works X (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1963).
iiMill, “Coleridge”, Collected Works X (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1963), 159-60.
iii Mill, Utilitarianism, 64 (2.18.6).
iv Mill, Utilitarianism, 73 (2.18.6).