DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

4. The economic side of human nature

Liberals accord intrinsic value to people as individuals, and attach particular importance to each individual’s capacity to organize a life on their own terms. What terms are these likely to be? What nature of beings are these whose individual freedom we value? And what are the uses to which their freedom is likely to be put?

Critics commonly associate liberal individualism with an egoistic and acquisitive view of human nature. They say the classic liberals all gave pride of place, among human motivations, to the desire for power, pleasure and material possessions. Humanity, they argue, is reduced in liberal theory to nothing more than a competitive mass of market individuals – voracious consumers with unlimited appetites, hostile or indifferent to the well-being of others, and requiring no more of their political and legal institutions than that they secure the conditions for market activity.

The picture is not entirely a distortion. Liberal individualism does recognize that individuals’ interests do not necessarily or naturally harmonize with one another. Each individual has a life of their own to lead, and there is no guarantee that one person’s desires will not conflict with another’s. Sometimes, as in Hobbes’s theory, this is represented as an inherent hostility, a competitive diffidence and a ‘mutuall will of hurting’, issuing in a ‘war of all against all’. Sometimes, as in John Rawls’ work, it is seen simply as a postulate of mutual disinterest (rather than hostility). Mostly it is seen in Immanuel Kant’s words as a matter of the ‘unsociable sociability of men’ – that there are things we share in common, things that drive us to society, things we can only accomplish together, as well as aspects of our nature that make us prickly, adversarial and wilfully isolated individuals.

Moreover, although – as we shall see – liberals believe that there are terms on which individuals with diverse or even opposed interests can live in peace with one another, it has never been part of their political philosophy that reason, enlightenment or socialization would put an end to this basic diversity or competitiveness. (To the extent that Rousseau suggests that the social contract might produce ‘a remarkable change in man’, his speculations take him outside the liberal tradition.) In the nature of things, humans will inevitably come up with diverse and opposed views of what makes life worth living, while the exigencies of our situation in the world – the moderate scarcity of material resources and our vulnerability to one another – will always furnish the raw materials for anxiety, competition and conflict (see Human nature).

A related objection is that liberals subordinate politics to economics: they see political structures merely as instruments for securing economic peace and market interaction, and they ignore the higher calling for the state outlined, for example, in the theories of Aristotle, Hegel or Hannah Arendt.

The image is accurate, but it is not clear why it should be regarded as an objection. Certainly, liberals do not regard participation in politics as an end in itself; unlike the civic humanists, they do not think that the most important virtues and activities are those oriented towards politics and the formal exercise of power over others (see Republicanism). It does not follow that they think of political participation as a narrow self-interested enterprise. In political science, the term ’liberalism’ is commonly associated with interest group politics, but philosophical liberals are about equally divided on the question of whether voters in a democracy should orient their decisions to the common good or to their own interests (with the common good emerging as some sort of resultant from the political process). The point, however, is that even those who believe we should vote on our views about the common good still maintain that politics is, in the end, a means to promote the interests of individuals (all individuals), not an end in itself. They may believe in Rousseauian democracy, they may even hope that democratic participation can bring out the best in people (although many are dubious about that), but their firmest conviction is that individuals have interests and purposes of their own to pursue which have nothing intrinsically to do with politics or the state, and that the function of government is to facilitate those individual purposes not judge them or replace them with political or social ones.

To say that these purposes are individual is not necessarily to say that they are economic or materialistic in their content. It is surprising, in fact, how few liberal theorists have actually held the economically acquisitive picture of human nature. Hobbes did, certainly, and so did some of the eighteenth-century political economists. But many others in the liberal tradition see material motives as means to individual ends that may well be ethical, even spiritual in their content. John Locke, notorious in some circles as the apostle of possessive individualism, insisted that our primary mission in life is to ascertain what our creator requires of us in the way of conduct and worship: ’the observance of these things is the highest obligation that lies upon mankind, and…our utmost care, application and diligence, ought to be exercised in the search and performance of them because there is nothing in this world that is of any consideration in comparison with eternity’ (1689 (1991): 42). Modern liberals, too, tend to stress the ethical and cultural character of individual pursuits. We each have our own conception of happiness or the good life – a view about what makes a life worth living – and it is the diversity of individual ideals of this kind that political structures must accommodate.

In general, there is an intriguing ambivalence in the liberal tradition about whether this shift from economic to ethical individualism presents the social problem as more or less intractable. On the one hand, it seems to make the situation look better. Economic conflict is a zero-sum game: what you have I cannot have, or, worse still, what you have puts you in a better position to take what I have away from me; I therefore have an excellent reason of self-protection to deprive you of as many resources as I can. Ethical and spiritual individualism, by contrast, seems less intrinsically competitive: ’one man does not violate the right of another’, wrote Locke, ’by his erroneous opinions…nor is his perdition any prejudice to another man’s affairs’ (1689 (1991): 42). The appropriate social posture for religious or ethical individualists seems to be the mutual indifference of Rawls’ theory rather than the competition or conflict of Hobbes.

In fact, of course, that has not been our experience. Wars of religion have been at least as deadly as wars for territory or resources. We may think of commercial life as bland or shallow, but there is a certain sense of relief in Voltaire’s comment about the London Stock Exchange: ’Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt’ (1734 (1980): 41). Even Hobbes, whose Leviathan is the locus classicus for the economic war of all against all, was adamant that the problem of the struggle for resources could be solved, since people would be willing to make concessions to a strong state that could keep the peace. But sectarian religious fervour he thought of as a form of madness, and he doubted whether the partisans of rival religious ideals could ever come to terms with one another (see Toleration).

Critics of liberalism will no doubt persevere in their charge that the tradition flatters the materialistic side of human nature at the expense of cultural and spiritual aspirations. They will say that liberals have paid too much attention to the ways in which political and legal structures can foster market economies and too little to the contribution they can make to the quality of ethical choice. A number of liberal writers have taken this criticism seriously. Joseph Raz (1986), for example, has argued that there is an aspiration towards value in the very concept of autonomy, so that a liberal commitment to freedom should not be thought of as incompatible with a social commitment to ethical perfectionism (see Perfectionism).

There comes a point, however, when liberal philosophers simply have to stand up and defend the channelling of political energies towards the real (but apparently soluble) problems of famine, plague and poverty, and away from moral, cultural and religious disputes, which promise little more in the way of progress than war, sectarianism and cults of ethical correctness. The preoccupation with economics is not based on scepticism about the ethical or spiritual dimensions of human life. It is based rather on a moderate sense of what politics can and cannot accomplish in a world where people disagree about God, value and the meaning of life, but largely converge in their desire to avoid hunger and disease and to better their material conditions.

Citing this article:
Waldron, Jeremy. The economic side of human nature. Liberalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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