Human Nature and homo economicus

1 February 2011


Some time ago in Human Nature I discussed concepts of human nature in Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. I find myself returning time and again to the theme of human nature, as, for example, a couple of months ago when I wrote in Philosophy Teaching by Examples, “even when an idea has been as rigorously disproved as it is possible for an idea to be disproved by history, even a disgraced and defeated idea is never put out of historical action entirely if it has some ongoing basis in human nature or in the perennial character of human affairs.”

Practical philosophers — those that Heilbronner famously called The Worldly Philosophers — philosophical historians like Thucydides, and thoughtful men of all times have struggled with the maddeningly elusive nature of human nature, which at times seems so simple and so obvious, while at other times it seems incapable of definition and the very idea an affront to human freedom. In purely philosophical contexts we can do without human nature (as, for example, Sartre’s rejection of the very idea of human nature in his thick ontological treatise Being and Nothingness), but when we turn to the ordinary business of life, and to individuals making history with their peers from the “bottom up” as it were, it is difficult to avoid invoking human nature. However, I have noticed that in my many posts on economics I have not made any systematic attempt to given an explication of human nature in an economic context. And this is exactly what Homo economicus is, or is supposed to be: human nature in an economic context. This is a necessarily abstract perspective, and no one ought to mistake an abstraction for the real thing, except we know that the very idea of Homo economicus gets people rather worked up.

Previously in On the Very Idea of a “Reason of Humanity” and Amending Self-Interest and Addendum to “Technical Ecstasy” I wrote about the economic abstraction of homo economicus. The very idea of of homo economicus seems to provoke those who have taken a set against economic reductionism, or, if you will, the economic interpretation of history. Like invoking the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, one can expect a predictable reaction against invoking homo economicus.

A strong formulation of homo economicus would be the claim that human nature is simply identical with homo economicus. To say that human nature is nothing but those properties ascribed to homo economicus — a self-interested maximizer of surplus value — is clearly a form of economic reductionism. A weak formulation of homo economicus would be the claim that human nature is sometimes identical with homo economicus. It is difficult to imagine a rational way to reject this weak thesis.

The weak formulation of the thesis of Homo economicus is consistent with weak formulations of radically different conceptions of human nature, because if human nature can embody a given character at one moment while embodying a distinct character at another moment, there is no reason that episodes of self-interest can be interspersed with episodes of altruism. Thus the weak formulation of homo economicus is simply the claim that human beings are sometimes selfish, and this is obviously true. Therefore it would be more interesting to consider the luke-warm formulation of homo economicus, which would be that human nature is mostly identical to homo economicus, which is to say that homo economicus describes the rule, and, while acknowledging exceptions to the rule, also acknowledges that exceptions are sufficiently rare to be exceptions.

But this discussion already assumes too much, as though we already know what human nature is, what what homo economicus is. We do not know, and we must go much deeper into the structure of civilization as well as into the life of the individual in order to make sense of the forces that shape civilizations and individuals alike. In the spirit of integral ecology we can exapt the biological ideas of ontogeny and phylogeny for the explication of socio-economic categories. Ontogeny gives us the life of the individual, while phylogeny gives us the structure of the civilization in which the individual emerges, and, as is to be expected, the two do not exist in isolation, but each shapes the other.

In Human Nature and the Human Condition I attempted to demonstrate the interplay of the ontogeny and phylogeny of human nature in terms of the development of the individual within particular historical circumstances. The theses I formulated there can be summarized thus:

Human nature is a function of the human condition.
The human condition is a function of the longue durée.
Therefore, human nature is a function of the longue durée.
The longue durée endures, but is not permanent.
Therefore, human nature endures, but is not permanent.
Human nature, as a function of the longue durée, reflects the paradigm of integral history within which it takes shape.

While integral history is the ultimate framework in which human experience (and therefore human nature) can be set, the paradigms of integral history — the pre-human, the nomadic, the agricultural, and the industrial, to date — are the most powerful and pervasive forces shaping human nature at any one moment of history, there are other powerful and pervasive forces that expressed differently and emerge differently in history.

From these two classes of structural forces that shape individuals and their histories — the three historical paradigms of social organization and the four conceptions of history — there follows a typology of twelve possibilities. For example, within the paradigms of integral history, there are conceptions of the nature of human-being-in-the-world based on our presumed agency (or lack therefore) which I called conceptions of history. Conceptions of history represent perennial expressions of human self-understanding, and they also represent the longue durée to an even greater degree than the paradigms of integral history, because the perennial possibilities of self-understanding of our place in nature transcend the paradigms of integral history. There are cataclysmic, naturalistic, political, and eschatological conceptions of human agency alike in nomadic, agricultural, and industrialized societies.

Both the economic institutions of civilizational paradigms — i.e., how the greater part of the people of any era of history make a life for themselves, whether by hunting and gathering, or by farming, or by industrial labor — and the self-understanding of one’s place in the world, which means one’s self-understanding of one’s place within the civilizational paradigm of one’s time, are forces of the longue durée that shape lives, and in shaping individual lives, also shape entire societies.

This much is obvious. What is less obvious and more interesting is how these classes of structural forces manifest themselves in history. Historical paradigms of social organization are primarily phylogenetic forces, whereas conceptions of history are primarily ontogenic forces. Individuals, whether by choice or by temperament, have an understanding of their place in the world, which is a conception of whatever agency they possess or fail to possess, and they bring this understanding to the life that they make for themselves within the paradigm of socio-economic organization, which is a function not of the individual and individual development but rather of community and social development.

Human nature as embodied in the individual person has all the instability of individual temperament: it varies from individual to individual, and so the individual may embody a conception of human nature at odds with his time. As And, moreover, as individual variation is the basis of natural selection — without which there would be no evolution, therefore no human beings, therefore no human nature — it is to be expected that embodied human nature varies across individuals. What aspects of variable human temperament are actualized by or stifled by the socio-economic context in which the individual emerges is another matter. While the individual varies, the social context in which the individual makes his life and livelihood, imposes a socio-economic unity even upon diverse temperaments.

These individual and social forces, ontogenic and phylogenetic forces, develop in parallel in a relationship of coevolution. A particular sense of human agency will foster the development of a particular socio-economic paradigm, while a particular paradigm of socio-economic organization will foster a particular sense of human agency among the members of a society so organized. There can be exceptions to each — societies that fail to respond to the sense of agency entertained by its members, and individuals who fail to conform in their sense of agency with the society of which they are a member — which are not counter-examples to the rule in the sense of denying the existence of the rule.

The fortunes of industrialized civilization rise of fall on the strength of the economy, in all its complexity, reaching from the daily transactions of the individual person to the highest dealings of the councils of state. The centrality of the economy to the mature institutions of industrialized civilization means that homo economicus is made central to the mature institutions of industrialized civilization, and this pervasive economic pressure shapes individuals who live within these circumstances. Under the industrial paradigm, then, homo economicus becomes human nature, because human nature is a function of the em>longue durée that reflects the paradigm of integral history within which it takes shape.

Ontogeny — the development of the individual’s sense of agency — and phylogeny — the development of socio-economic institutions by which individuals within a society live — are simply the individual and his circumstances, each of which embody a certain conception of human nature, and even of homo economicus (since economic man must differ from one economic system to another). The dialectic of the individual in society seeks a resolution between the individual’s development of a human nature, in the sense of his or her agency, and society’s development of human nature, in the sense of established ways of life. This resolution is often attended by conflict, as matters of such import are rarely settled peacefully. The individual may fight against an imposed way of life, and a society will fight to make the individual conform to its way of life. This conflict can be destructive, or it can be the source of creative tension.

In what Joseph Campbell called the Economic Interpretation of History, homo economicus is the central agent. An alternative formulation to this would be to say that all agents are ultimately reducible to homo economicus. This is a particularly telling formulation, since it puts us in mind of the passage from Thucydides that I have quoted in several posts (Relative Poverty, among them), such that:

War takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.

It is not only war, but any hardship that takes away the easy supply of daily wants, that brings men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. War can be a rough master, to be sure, but the economy itself can prove a rough master, or a natural disaster, or any other interruption in the human condition. Hardship is also a source of conflict, and it too can be destructive or a source of creative tension.

As civilization matures and becomes more comprehensive, more pervasive, more all-encompassing, interruptions to the easy supply of daily wants become all the more noticeable, partly because daily wants have escalated in industrialized civilization many orders of magnitude beyond the minimal needs of life, and partly because the interruptions because less frequent and therefore more unusual. Such a mature civilization, to the degree that it regiments life, which increases over time as institutions mature, forecloses on possibilities for its members. This means not only conflict, but an increasing tension which can spur greater destructiveness or greater creative tension. Mature civilizations that survive the destructive forces created by regimentation in conflict with individual freedom and possibility, give rise to the great monuments of higher civilization. This comes about through escalating creative tension.

Our industrialized civilization today has clearly embodied profound conflicts between individuals in their societies as well as between societies. In the twentieth century it become a real possibility that civilization could commit suicide. While we have thus far avoided civilizational suicide, we have not avoided destructive conflict. It could be argued that, in the twentieth century, social tensions were primarily resolved through destructive release of tension, which would account for the world wars over the past hundred years, as well as the failure of industrialized civilization to yet attain to the achievements of higher civilization. However, it could also be argued that the unique place of homo economicus within the industrial paradigm militates against the emergence of higher civilization.

Can a civilizational paradigm that makes economic activity central, and therefore places homo economicus at the center of its conception of life, transcend these imperatives and achieve greatness in other areas of endeavor? I would argue that it is indeed possible, but not yet actual. The great civilizations of the agricultural paradigm placed the warrior at their center, and made warfare the central activity, and yet from this violent context the great achievements of classical civilization emerged. For this to occur within the industrial paradigm may require the axialization of the industrial paradigm, and this is still come centuries in the future.

. . . . .

I realize, of course, that I have not done justice to my topic — the relation of human nature to homo economicus — but hopefully I have at least begun a sketch of how the two are interrelated. Improved formulations can only follow from further meditation on this difficult and large question.

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