Marco Rubio, Capitalist Logic, and the “Value” of Philosophy

In the fourth Republican presidential debate last night, Marcio Rubio said (now famously) that “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” As with prior comments regarding the worthlessness of the humanities, the response to Rubio has been swift, and justifications and arguments for the value of philosophy are being provided with passion and vigor. However, I think Rubio’s comments have implications for much deeper issues than simply whether or not philosophy is “worthwhile.”

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: What makes something worthwhile or valuable? As philosophers object to Rubio and argue that, in fact, philosophy is valuable, they are employing the exact same logic that Rubio is employing in arguing that philosophy is not valuable — namely, the logic of capitalism. It’s pretty simple to lay this out:

Premise 1: The measure of a thing’s value is money (i.e., the question of the “value” of something is ultimately a question of how much money it’s worth).
Premise 2: Accordingly, if a thing is not worth any money it is, effectively, worthless.
Premise 3: Philosophy is not worth any money.
Conclusion: Philosophy is worthless.

In trying to prove Rubio wrong, philosophers are implicitly accepting the first two premises and simply disagreeing with premise three. If we change premise three (the argument goes) to read, “Philosophy is worth money,” then the conclusion “Philosophy is worthwhile” will necessarily follow.

But I think there are some real problems with this (and perhaps those problems are clear at this point). I think it is absolutely true that, for capitalism, money is the only intrinsically valuable thing. Everything else — including human beings — is measured against the value standard of money. Hence, if I do not work and therefore do not contribute to the maximization of profit I do not “deserve” food, shelter, healthcare, etc. — which is to say, I do not “deserve” to live — which is to say, I am not intrinsically valuable. And hence, furthermore, I have been reassured (by capitalists) that capitalists do not like slavery “because it’s not profitable.” The question, in other words, is not whether or not slavery is immoral, but whether or not it is profitable.

I imagine it is clear at this point where I am going. When we say that philosophy is valuable because it’s profitable we are still conceding that philosophy’s value is totally relative and can only be measured against capital. What happens, then, if Rubio wins the debate and proves that, empirically, philosophy is not worth much money? Those who were arguing for the monetary value of philosophy would have to concede that, in fact, philosophy is not valuable. And perhaps in a few years the market will change and philosophy will be worth money, at which point the philosophers will be able to proclaim, “Now philosophy is worthwhile.” (Until the market changes again, that is.)

And, by the same token, if I could have demonstrated that slavery was in fact more profitable (not a difficult thing to do), my capitalist interlocutors would have been perforce obliged to concede that slavery is therefore valuable (literally! Because cheaper labor means more profit which means more value!)

I am reminded of a wonderful passage from Heidegger (which I am tempted to recite every time someone asks me what I am going to “do” with my philosophy degree):

You often hear such remarks as “Philosophy leads to nothing,” “You can’t do anything with philosophy,” and readily imagine that they confirm an expression of your own. There is no denying the soundness of the two phrases, particularly common among scientists and teachers of science. Any attempt to refute them by proving that after all it does “lead to something” merely strengthens the prevailing misinterpretation to the effect that the everyday standards by which we judge bicycles or sulphur baths are applicable to philosophy . . . granted that we cannot do anything with philosophy, might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?

According to the logic of capitalism, philosophy may or may not be valuable at any given time. However, I maintain that philosophy, like human beings, needs no external justification (like money) for being considered valuable (I am still forced to use the economic term, “value!”) and I therefore will not try to demonstrate to Rubio and friends the value of philosophy. We would be ships passing in the night, for, in the absence of dollar signs, they would see no conceivable way that I could reasonably continue to argue that philosophy is valuable. I, on the other hand, would be unwilling to employ the rationality of: Money = Value, and No Money = No Value.

I don’t care whether or not philosophy is worth any money — that question has absolutely no bearing whatsoever upon my decision to value it.

Nietzsche on the Prejudices of the Philosophers

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are — how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness — but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of rank, who are more honest and doltish — and talk of ‘inspiration’); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’ — most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract — that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’ — and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself.

— Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil