Risking all defies the laws of economics


A social revolution is, in many circumstances, started by something small. Something that was said or done that to all appearances was of no consequence. But, since then, it is no longer possible to continue acting the way we have. It is also no longer possible to continue thinking the way we have.

Something irreversible has happened. The word or action was in contravention with the social order. It broke the law. It upended what is socially permissible. This generated, in the breast of every member of society, the feeling that it cannot be ignored and that it must be answered. Any event that disturbs the social order in this way necessitates a response.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1 1955, after she had been ordered to do so by the bus driver. Nothing after that date was the same in the United States.

The unthinkable had happened. An African-American woman had refused to comply with an order issued by a white man. This was an open challenge to the racial and segregation laws of the city (incarnate in every white person). If the unthinkable was possible, then everything was possible. This event led to black people boycotting buses in Montgomery for a year.

One person’s decision affected society at large. Parks’s action split the history of the US in two. One lived either before that event, or after it.

If we look for an explanation of how this is possible, then we soon realise how little some economists understand human behaviour.

Let me take as an example the economist and Nobel prize laureate Gary Becker. In his book The Economic Approach to Human Behaviour, Becker argues that human behaviour involves participants maximising their utility or interest. A person will choose to get married, for instance, when “the utility expected from marriage exceeds that expected from remaining single”.

A choice or decision is rational, in Becker’s view, if it is the result of a cost-benefit analysis. An agent will add up the benefits of the several options available to her in one column, as it were, and, in the other, the costs of procuring them. The options where the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs are the ones that are rational for the agent to choose.

Becker insists that, from this perspective, there is no reason to draw a distinction between “major and minor decisions, such as those involving life and death in contrast to the choice of a brand of coffee”. They all conform to the same pattern.

This strikes me as patently false. If it was true, then we would have to say that Parks’s decision was irrational. This would miss the entire point and significance of her action.

Suppose I am undecided between buying Douwe Egberts coffee and Nescafé. The one is more expensive but tastier. The other is cheaper but not so flavoursome. I am weighing the benefits and costs of both brands to decide which one to buy.

When Parks refused to give up her seat and challenged the bus driver, she was not adding up benefits and costs. She sacrificed all interest and utility. Like Antigone in Sophocles’s eponymous drama, she broke the law of the city and risked everything. Not knowing what would happen, she exposed herself to incalculable consequences. She risked certain death. Her action was political in the extreme.

Unlike the person who considers different brands of coffee, Parks had become in that instant a political subject.

To risk certain death is, from an economic point of view, a nonprofitable investment. The capitalist or utilitarian can only think of such risks as “irrational”. No one gains from it, certainly not the person who could die, but also not those who would remain behind. Someone’s death is an irreparable loss. It leaves an absence in the world that cannot be quelled by those who survive (which is why the work of mourning is infinite).

There is something suspiciously ideological about thinking that decisions that transgress utility and cost-benefit analyses are “irrational”. It hides the fact that such decisions constitute the human being as a political agent, and not merely as an economic one.

Liberty or death. That was a major political slogan in many of the struggles for independence from the 18th century onwards. In 1803, for instance, Jean-Jacques Dessalines led an armed revolt under this slogan against the French troops Napoleon had sent to subdue the slave uprising on the island of Saint-Domingue.

Dessalines defeated the French troops in January 1804. Combining the end of slavery with the end of colonialism on the island, he established the first independent constitutional nation of black citizens, which was called Haiti after its original Arawak name.

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (a major influence on Frantz Fanon) had read about the Haitian revolution in the press. It is possible that this event gave him the insight that freedom is won in a struggle for recognition.

A human being who first awakens to his or her freedom wants others to recognise it. In Hegel’s view, I elicit from others a recognition of my independence when I have shown them that I am not subservient to the imperative of survival or to a biological attachment to life, and that I prefer death to subjection to the authority or rule of another. As he says in his 1806 book, The Phenomenology of Spirit, it is “only through staking one’s life that freedom is won”.

A decision involving life and death is different in kind from a choice about what brand of coffee to buy.

A choice about what commodity to buy is not properly speaking “a choice”. If the decision to buy Nescafé is the logical outcome of a calculation of benefits and costs, then there is no responsibility. I cannot be responsible when I do not risk anything. In such a situation, I cannot be praised or blamed. I simply draw a conclusion from a set of premises. At worst, I miscalculate. I commit a technical error and infer the wrong conclusion (“I should have bought Douwe Egberts instead”).

The decisions that interrupt the ordinary course of events involve the extremes of life and death. They expose us to losses from which no one can profit, such as the loss of a human life. A loss that cannot be turned into a gain or compensated for introduces a tension into social life that necessitates a change. It calls for a response.

Put differently, there is no question of a calculation of benefits and costs where a human life is concerned. Unlike the loss of a commodity, which is replaceable, the loss of a human life is irreplaceable. When a human life is put at stake, one is exposed to something incalculable in the general economy of life. A decision in the strict sense where one risks one’s life, whether in the name of freedom or justice, always involves this element of the incalculable and the unknown.

The whole of life is renounced, and everything in it, family, friends, possessions, when certain death is risked. The meaning of everything is at stake for the very first time, as if it was being decided in the moment. We take a plunge, beyond all the certainties and calculations of reason, into the unknown.

Perhaps there is something of a leap of faith in every decision, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard suggests. Perhaps the capitalist is right after all in thinking that there is something mad or excessive about a decision that sacrifices all utility and interest, all expectations of benefits. But such decisions are the stuff that remove what is blunted in life; they give it focus and meaning. They are the kinds of decisions that make a difference.

Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg and co-founder and co-chair of the Centre for Phenomenology in South Africa. These are his own views.

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Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler is a full professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg

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