The Prostitution of Virtue: Nike, In-N-Out, and American Praxis


In a discussion with the media think tank Big Think, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek talked of the idea of pseudo-activism, describing it in the following way:

“When we are shown scenes of starving children in Africa, with a call for us to do something to help them, the underlying ideological message is something like: "Don't think, don't politicize, forget about the true causes of their poverty, just act, contribute money, so that you will not have to think!”

In our current climate, we have seen the rather embedded nature of this message is accepted unthinkingly. However, in a society that has begun to accept Puritanical forms of "virtue", whether in relation to identity politics, individual conduct, or relation of the genders, this message has taken a rather potent elevation. Our very actions themselves have made it so one does not have to politicize, rather the actions themselves have developed an almost a priori form of politicization. And, not only is this politicization temporary, it is often the tool of consumerist manipulation. The best way to get a group of mindless individuals to buy your items in bulk is to associate yourself with either one of the loud, extreme political groups of our time, or in the case of Nike, take a legitimate cause and use it to provoke a reaction in order to gain customers while covering up their more immoral behavior.

However, the intentions of the corporations are for another time. In this article, I want to outline the effects of the line of thinking sold to us by a consumerist culture born out of social disorder. American virtue, nowadays, is both illusory, due to the very nature of virtue as proposed since Aristotle, but also because of it's specific social formulation in American culture.

Praxis as Virtue: American Culture as Pseudo-activism

American virtue is a virtue of praxis, or the idea of a particular set of ideas having meaning if, and only if, they are applied in action. This is not to be confused with some form of consequentialism, which while a primitive form of ethics in and of itself would nonetheless have a deeper angle to it. Americans live, currently, in a particular extension of corporate culture in which action, any action, is deemed better than not acting. The idea of action itself, of praxis, is seen as virtuous. The person who takes time to think, to put their chin to their fist and contemplate, is seen as many things, the most damning of which is a coward. To stop and think is seen as being disingenuous, as being uncommitted to whatever cause you proclaim for yourself. For America, a trusting of the instincts only, a trusting of a pure form of praxis, where one merely acts and reacts, is the predominant belief.

This can be seen more so in the reactions to both In-N-Out and Nike. Those who are against the political donations of In-N-Out have urged people to boycott it, which I find to be ridiculous. To tell others where to eat, and to give an almost metaphysical aspect to food, is to me almost a sinister notion. Similarly, the people on the right who are pushing, like hysterical and blind sheep, for people to eat there, are just as sinister, and in a much more transparent way. They will react to anything, buy anything, do anything, if it is in opposition to "liberals". They too have given food a metaphysical aspect, but instead of tarnishing it as some form of evil, they have elevated it to a form of goodness. Both the boycotters and the supporters are the same. They are doing the same thing, for different reasons.

The Paradox to Praxis: Outsourcing Virtue

In our culture, the reason our activism, our belief in praxis as virtue, is so empty is that this form of bad faith comes from our inability to withstand even the most minuscule of conflicts. This is done by outsourcing our virtue, selling our soul, to organizations or people in return for passively supporting them. This is why we have moved from a support of specific principles, followed by specific actions, to the acceptance of all actions, no matter what they are, as long as they are actions. Actions can be, as in the case of Nike, as simple as putting on a Nike shirt, burning a Nike shirt, or putting their campaign ad as your profile picture. It is a form of virtue that costs you nothing. As in most of American life, where one looks to get as much as they can for the lowest price, so we have established this for our virtue. Do as little as you can, for the greatest amount of "virtue".

Our outsourcing of virtue can be understood in the example given by Slavoj Zizek in his movie A Pervert's Guide to Ideology, in which he points out that Starbucks works this way. You pay a little more for your drink, but they tell you that in return the money is given to some charity elsewhere. They soften the guilt usually felt with the passive actions of a consumer by making it seem as though you have contributed. It explains our very thin, appearance driven pseudo-activism of today: we feel guilty for the fact we would prefer not to do anything at all, and so find a minimal way to do something, even if it is truly worthless.

Praxis as Ethical Slavery

In his 1945 work Anti-Semite and Jew, the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote the following:

“The anti‐Semite understands nothing about modern society. He would be incapable of conceiving of a constructive plan; his action cannot reach the level of the methodical; it remains on the ground of passion. To a long‐term enterprise he prefers an explosion of rage analogous to the running amuck of the Malays. His intellectual activity is confined to interpretation; he seeks in historical events the signs of the presence of an evil power. Out of this spring those childish and elaborate fabrications which give him his resemblance to the extreme paranoiacs. In addition, anti‐Semitism channels evolutionary drives toward the destruction of certain men, not of institutions. An anti‐Semitic mob will consider it has done enough when it has massacred some Jews and burned a few synagogues. It represents, therefore, a safety valve for the owning classes, who encourage it and thus substitute for a dangerous hate against their regime a beneficent hate against particular people. Above all this naive dualism is eminently reassuring to the anti‐Semite himself. If all he has to do is to remove Evil, that means that the Good is already given. He has no need to seek it in anguish, to invent it, to scrutinize it patiently when he has found it, to prove it in action, to verify it by its consequences, or, finally, to shoulder he responsibilities of the moral choice he has made. It is not by chance that the great outbursts of anti‐Semitic rage conceal a basic optimism. The anti‐Semite has cast his lot for Evil so as not to have to cast his lot for Good. The more one is absorbed in fighting Evil, he less one is tempted to place the Good in question. One does not need to talk about it, yet it is always understood in the discourse of the anti‐Semite and it remains understood in his thought. When he has fulfilled his mission as holy destroyer, the Lost Paradise will reconstitute itself. For the moment so many tasks confront the anti‐Semite that he does not have time to think about it. He is in the breach, fighting, and each of his outbursts of rage is a pretext to avoid the anguished search for the Good.” (Anti-Semite and Jew, page 31-32)"

What one can see, in this passage, is a disposition not too far removed from the current people who perform pseudo-activism. They do not question the "virtue" they pursue, or how they pursue it. They are completely involved in praxis. They do, they act, and that is enough for them. The problem with our whole conception of activism, allowing it to lapse into pseudo-activism, is the idea of virtue itself. Aristotle (and I am paraphrasing here), define virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices. It is this "virtue" which we have taken upon us, which lives in our crude lives as consumers. Virtue's moderation, it's middling effect, is the food upon which corporations, politicians, and even philosophers feast on at our expense. The ground between thinking and action is minimal action without much thought. However, the middling and moderation of anything does not matter unless people know about it. The problem with virtue is, no matter its original conception, it requires an audience.

In our society, virtue is that which one accepts, most often without question. Virtue figures as a transcendent ideal, which we set for ourselves. An external rule we use to push ourselves in a general direction. Thus, the virtue accepted "sets the mean", or the middle upon which one agrees to go. And the whole time, virtue here functions as bad faith: a self deception of ourselves from our more authentic desires. Do I really want to go to In-N-Out? Should I wear Nike all of a sudden, whilst forgetting their sweatshops? Should I really being buy plastic straws, as if doing so constitutes a form of radicalism? The very act of questioning, in this case, constitutes a drive towards more authentic action, which virtue restricts. Virtue tells us the middle, the moderate version, is always the best. Pay the moderate amount of money to the moderate form of goodness, which conforms to your beliefs. Do not think, just act. Do not act out, just act. Plan nothing, do everything.

Before you know it, and this is reflected in discussions I have had with many of these activists, you tell yourself you "have" to do these things. You have to burn the Nike clothes, you have to break your routine and not go to In-N-Out. Instead of asking what you want to do, or even what you think you should do, you submit yourself to virtue, happy of your chains. This mentality is fed on by politicians, celebrities, and corporations, all willing to take your virtue by the nose and led it any way they wish. You become a slave to your virtue, instead of thinking on it for yourself. Instead of realizing the absolutely absurdity of hoarding plastic straws, going to In-N-Out, burning your Nike products, and so on.

What I call for, in response to this, and even to those who have fallen for these traps, are for you to embrace a form of authenticity. Balance what is with what could be, balancing the spontaneous desires of your imagination with the firm facts of the world. Act, if you must, but think before you do so. Do not model yourself on others, do not look for virtue, do not break your back in homage to some idea beyond yourself. Exert yourself if you must, but do so as part of the creative project of your own humanity.

Beyond virtue, beyond morality, beyond praxis: that is where you exist. Free to choose for yourself how to act. To set about the method upon which your go about achieving what you desire. No choice is a choice, and not acting is an act.

R.C. Roberts is an aspiring writer, student of philosophy, and ironic polemicist. You can find this article & more of his work on his blog: The Radical Promethean