Against rewards and punishments (against meritocracy, against coercion) - humanaesfera


Short text addressing the issue of rewards and punishments, law, rule of law, meritocracy and wage labor.


[This text was translated into English by humanaesfera from the original version in portuguese (Contra as recompensas e punições (contra a meritocracia, contra a coerção))]

The reward of virtue is virtue itself, whereas the punishment of folly and self-abandonment is folly itself. Whoever wants rewards and punishments finds nothing that entices him in virtue and knowledge, and avoids evil acts with hesitation, by forcing himself as a slave. He expects his servitude to be paid at a price which in his eyes is worth far more than love: the more expensive the more aversion he has to good and the more he coerce himself.” (free adaptation of an argument found in Letter 43, from Espinosa to Jacob Osten, February 1671).
In order to propagate virtue, encouragement and persuasive speech are better than law and coercion. Who refuse to be unjust because of fear of the law will probably commit evil in secret. On the contrary, who is led towards duty by conviction will probably not be unjust either in secrecy or openly.” (Democritus of Abdera fragment DK 68 B 181)

Rewards and punishments presuppose a violence (power) which deprived human beings of their own conditions of existence, preventing them from existing by themselves, autonomously, and allowing it to promise (to reward) and threaten (to punish). Fear and hope, the whip and the meat thrown to the beasts. Fighting this power is only possible if we abolish the private ownership of the conditions of existence (means of life and production), making them free, so that we develop ourselves and our productions as activities and enjoyments that are worth themselves, multilateral manifestations of our faculties, desires, needs, passions … free, that is, without any force that can be in the position (classes) of submitting ourselves to rewards and punishments. In other words, without the deceit of the exchange of equivalents, be it hierarchical or mercantile, since in fact they are always pseudo-equivalents: surplus labor and surplus value. Rewards and punishments will be supplanted by the joy or sadness intrinsic for each one creating and experimenting the free activities, productions and fruitions, the only motive of all composition and dissolution in the free worldwide association we call communism.

But the paranoid and frightened only see the world through the spectacles of threat and reward (they want the end of “impunity” and the retribution of their “merits”). So let's see better: what is the relationship between an action (“good” or “evil”) and its sanction (reward or punishment)? No matter how hard you look, there is simply no relationship. The only thing that connects them is necessarily a force totally extrinsic to the act and to the reason of the act. Therefore, the conclusion is clear: the relation between “crime” and punishment (and between servility and reward) is always arbitrary, external, irrational, useless. (And when children are “educated” in this way, they are only taught, at best, that it is acceptable to “settle” things through blackmail and hit - and when they grow up they will probably swell the Party of Order, the lynchers "in defense of the family").

Others argue that only rules or law (“the rule of law,” or even Kant's “universal laws of reason”) will prevent rewards and punishments from being arbitrary. However, in addition to the idea of equivalence between act and sanction being arbitrary in itself - a pure exchange of apples for oranges - it is impossible for the law to go around by itself to apply sanctions (rewards and punishments), because after all the law is just a pile of papers. The law can only be effective if applied by a force that is not the law, which is therefore literally outlaw, out of law, above the law: the police, the military, the boss... in practice, arbitrariness always reigns.

As for the “rule of law”:

[…] a totally nonviolent resolution of conflicts can never lead to a legal contract. For the latter, however peacefully it may have been entered into by the parties, leads finally to possible violence, because it confers on both parties the right to take recourse to violence in some form against the other, should he break the agreement. Not only that; like the outcome, the origin of every contract also points toward violence. It need not be directly present in it as lawmaking violence, but is represented in it insofar as the power that guarantees a legal contract is in turn of violent origin even if violence is not introduced into the contract itself. [...] however desirable and gratifying a flourishing parliament might be by comparison, a discussion of means of political agreement that are in principle nonviolent cannot be concerned with parliamentarianism. For what parliament achieves in vital affairs can only be those legal decrees that in their input and output are attended by violence.” (Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence).

There are also those who, impregnated with religion and spirituality, believe in an entity called “evil,” “wickedness,” and say that man (as well as matter and the world as a whole) by himself is “evil.” It is no wonder that the places in the world where religiosity is most intense are the most violent, because the a priori expectation of evil in human relations, in a generalized mutual mistrust, makes this ghost (“wickedness”) real in practice. For them, “good” is self-sacrifice, self-effacement; that is, for them “good” is something repulsive, which precisely because it has no value in itself, is worth for something else, is “merit” (which serves to reincarnate better, to reach nirvana, or to ascend to paradise and avoid hell, or be promoted by the boss). Against this we defend a materialistic ethic:

Man is egoism. Without egoism, man would not exist. It is egoism which is the motive of all his actions, the motor of all his thoughts. [...] it is to improve himself, to enlarge the circle of his influence, that man carries his head high and sets his gaze on the distance. It is for his own gratification that he marches off to win collective satisfactions. It is for himself, individually, that he wants to participate in the lively effervescence of the general good fortune; it is for his own sake that he dreads the thought of the suffering of others. His egoism, constantly goaded by the instinct of his gradual development, and by the sentiment of solidarity which ties him to his fellows, demands perpetual expression of his existence in the existence of others. It is what ancient society improperly called devotion, but which is only mirroring [spéculation] — mirroring more humanitarian as it is more intelligent, and more humanicidal as it is more imbecile. [...] It is not humanly possible to make a move, to act with the arms, the heart or the brain, without the sensation reflecting back from one to the other like an electric shock. And that takes place in the state of anarchic community, in the state of free and intelligent nature [...].

Constraint is the mother of all vices. And it is banished by reason from the Humanisphere. Of course egoism, intelligent egoism, is too well developed there for anyone to think of assaulting their neighbor. And it is by egoism that they make good acts.

[...] we are all born with the germ of all the faculties [...], external circumstances act directly on us. Depending on whether these faculties are or have been exposed to their influence, they acquire a greater or lesser growth, taking shape in one manner or another. [...]

The milieu in which we live and the diversity of the viewpoints where men are placed, which make it so that not one can see things from the same angle, explain [...] the diversity of their passions and aptitudes.” (Joseph Déjacque, Le Humanisphère, 1858)
humanaesfera, May 2014