Politics and Rational Self-Interest

One key element of the modern political tradition that we, as members of post-industrial liberal democracies, have inherited is the notion that a political order can be grounded on the foundation of the rational pursuit of self-interest. This strand in the modern tradition supposes that institutions could be constructed that would channel the rational pursuit of self-interest, such that citizens did not need to be virtuous to secure the common good. As with Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand, the forces of the society could be arranged such that by each pursuing what he or she wanted, all would benefit. The individuals in this society may not be great or noble, but all would be better off because these institutions accord public benefits through the pursuit of naked self-interest.

This was a radical innovation in the tradition of political and ethical thought. For Aristotle and Plato, and for Medieval political thought, the bonds of society were based on obligations between members of different classes, and what held together were these shared duties and goals that all had to pursue in order have a prospering, healthy state. For this tradition, a minimally just state could not be based on each individual rationally pursuing what he or she wanted. The reason for this is quite simple. Societies demand sacrifices from their members in order to secure the common good, and a state will not be able to protect itself from internal corruption and external enemies, if each individual sees the state as a mere convenient way to get what they want. These self-interested individuals will just abandon the society when things are not going well, and therefore such a society will always be in danger of collapse and tyranny.

The notion of grounding of social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest is a powerful notion, and in many cases, it is simpler to rely on people’s self interest to create positive consequences rather than relying on some notion of what we owe to others or the common good. However, I think this notion ultimately fails as a grounding of political society, because it cannot provide an adequate account of what we understand to be good statesmanship and good citizenship. I think it also fails in the realm of economics, but its failure is more contested in that area, so I will focus on the political realm. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the notion of grounding social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest as the “enlightened self-interest tradition.”

Firstly, for the enlightened self-interest tradition there is no reason in principle why anyone, including a leader, needs to value the pursuit of the common good intrinsically, rather than as a means to career prosperity, enhanced reputation or some other extrinsic good. For this tradition self-interest is not what we ought to be interested in so that our lives go well, but instead whatever we happen to value; it’s conception of self-interest is that of the economist. As a result unless the statesman happens to value the common good as part of is own good, the pursuit of the common good will simply be one means among many to pursue whatever his apparent self-interest consists in. Furthermore, there is no reason in principle to think that the enlightened self-interest statesman will value the pursuit of the common good as an aspect of his own good; perhaps some leaders see their own good as bound up with that of their community, but there is no evident reason to suppose that this is in fact the case. Consequently, there is no necessary reason why the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest would pursue the common good.

Now, rightly, in response to this, someone might say the argument just elaborated does not show that institutions cannot direct the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest to pursue the common good, because it is actually in their long term self-interest to pursue the common good. In light of this, we must turn to the question of whether institutions can put cleverness in support of the common good.

Institutions are very powerful tools to direct the energies of people towards particular goals. As an example, the fact that donations to charities are a tax deduction surely makes people more likely to give to charity as their taxable income will be lower if they give to charity. In this way, a person’s interest in keeping more of their gross income supports increased revenue for charities. However, the fact that institutions have this result, in particular cases, does not mean that institutions provide a stable safeguard to ensure that individuals pursue the common good. This is so, for a few reasons.

Firstly, the rules of institutions always admit of interpretation, and consequently even institutions that direct avarice towards public beneficence can be corrupted, if those making decisions are shamelessly self-interested. As an example of this we might consider John Yoo who co-authored legal opinions that made “enhanced interrogation techniques” legal, in the context of the USA, by narrowly defining torture, so that practises that would be commonly viewed as torture could be framed as something else entirely. In this case, reasonable and considered judgment is required in applying the rules of any institutions, whether these rules are formal laws, or internal procedures or policies of a governmental organization. Rules by their nature are general and cannot anticipate all particulars, and so good judgment in applying rules must exist in order for proper statesmanship to be possible. Quite simply, institutions that direct the pursuit of self-interest towards justice are insufficient for justice because judicious interpretation and sound judgment is required when dealing with novel cases and new situations.

But statesmanship is more than application of the rules or procedures of an institution. Instead, legislation is fundamental to the activity of statesmanship. Now, it is often argued that in representative democracies it is in politician’s self interest to rule in a way that aims at the common good, because otherwise they will not be reelected. As delegates of the people, the politician, or statesman, must do what the people see as the common good in order to be reelected. The initial problem here is that what citizens want may not be the common good, especially where long term and short term interests are in conflict. Climate change gives a great example of this phenomena, as politicians often do not want to take significant measures on climate change because while most citizens recognize the problem, many significant changes that are called for would at least have some negative consequences on economic prosperity in the short term. As an example, those who are dependent on high-carbon emission industries for their employment will likely be in a more precarious situation if aggressive measures are made to cut emissions. Selling a short term loss for a long term gain is a difficult task, and made all the more difficult in a situation like the one in post-industrial liberal democracies in which instant gratification is the order of life. In this way public opinion in such societies has a tendency to be excessively conservative and aims at the status quo as people tend to discount long term interests in favour of securing short term ones. As a result even if politicians act as delegates for the people and do what they want, often much of what politicians will legislate will be contrary to what they ought to rationally do if they were considering the overall significance of long term and short-term goals. And if leaders of a society take this path of least resistance and simply focus on being reelected how can it be said that the common good can be secured in this context by the rational pursuit of self-interest in conjunction with institutions of electoral representation? Clearly, the common good will be sacrificed for satiating short term interests.

Now some might argue that the example just mentioned is a case where the failure is one of people being adequately rationally self-interested. From this perspective if people really were rational they would not discount long-term interests for short term interests of lesser severity. However, this argument contains the seeds of its own destruction. Firstly, if humans often fail to effectively pursue their rational self-interest because they do not adequately consider long-term interests, than rational self-interest is an equally imperious foundation for social order to virtue or decency. Part of the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account is that it can take human being as they are and create a just society, rather than having to transform human beings into citizens. But if humans often fail to pursue rational self-interest, the creation of the rationally self-interested agent is a matter of convention, rather than nature. So by accepting the failure of people to be adequately rational as a part of humanity the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account loses one of its largest advantages, which is being able to create a just society without having to transform human nature.

The other reason why this rebuttal fails is that long-term interests include both interests that we need to secure within our own finite lives, but also interests we are pursuing for the sake of future generations and that we will not see the fruits of within our own lives. Even if a state has citizens that are very judicious about ensuring that good things happen within their lives, there is no reason to think that this will mean that they will leave a good community for those who inherit the community after they die. Therefore, the pursuit of rational self-interest even at its most enlightened fails to ensure that we provide future generations with a community that is sustainable and that future generations can adequately care for. But to paraphrase Arendt, politics, citizenship and statesmanship are deeply bound to the fact that we are born into a community that existed before us and others will inherit that community after we die. In this light good citizenship and statesmanship cannot be bound to securing interests within the biological life of a particular person or generation, but instead have to preserve the good community for future inhabitants.

In this way, the best statesman cannot simply try to do what will get him an election victory or make him popular, but will have to act as a caretaker to best ensure the equity, prosperity and freedom of the society he is taking care of for his generation and for future generations. Likewise, being a good citizen does not merely mean participating in politics and voicing one’s opinions. Instead it means reflecting on what is best for the society as a whole, taking into account future generations, and taking action on that basis. Consequently, the idea of founding society based on self-interest fails because it cannot grasp the specifically political aspect of our existence that is incarnated in citizenship and statesmanship.

Pope Francis’ Laudato Si: Human and Non-Human Nature

Over the past few days I have been reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical “Laudato si”. This work presents a radical critique of modernity. While I deeply disagree with Francis in some respects, this work should be read by anyone interested in politics, history or philosophy because it challenges some of the most basic presuppositions that many modern people take for granted. I cannot discuss all of “Laudato si”, but in particular, I want to focus on how humans relate to non-human nature. Francis discusses this topic in depth in “Laudato si” and contrasts the Christian relation to non-human nature with that of modernity. It seems to me that both the relation of nature encapsulated within the so-called modern tradition and Francis’ approach are modes of thought are problematic as they fail to fully appreciate the relation of the good of humanity to the good of non-human nature.

The modern tradition that Francis decries sees non-human nature as something that possesses no inherent value. According to this approach, man simply needs to figure out how to use the formless mass that is the Earth to serve his purposes; our relation to non-human nature is like a craftsman working with raw matter with no ethical significance. Francis critiques this perspective on numerous grounds including that it encourage ecological devastation, fails to respect the inherent goodness of nature, and encourages man to see himself as a God like being who only has to figure out he want to use nature, instead of asking how God intended nature to be used. In addition Francis points out that this view of non-human nature cannot help but affect the way we relate to other human beings and encourages us to see other humans too as objects to be exploited. Consequently our relation to non-human nature cannot be completely isolated from our relation to humanity.

Contrastingly, Francis puts forward a view of the way we should relate to non-human nature that sees nature as intrinsically valuable, and a reflection of God’s glory. Furthermore, he notes that it is man’s task to be a steward over the Earth and care for it. This is not only because the Earth is a common home for humanity, but because God has entrusted the care of Earth to mankind not only as a home for humans, but as a creation that needs to be cherished for its intrinsic worth. Man may have dominion over the animals, but he must take care of creation, rather than ruling over without due consideration for its worth. For Francis this requires not only changing law and behaviour, but fundamentally altering our understanding of the way we relate to non-human nature, such that we see it as God’s creation that must be cared for, rather than as something to be simply used for our convenience.

The modern perspective that Francis critiques is quite clearly problematic, and for those of us who are non-Christian, like myself, do not need to reference scripture to notice its shortcomings. At the most basic level all we need to do is recognize that non-human lives can go well or poorly, and these non-human lives matter in some sense. I think this is a plausible belief to hold because when we reflect, even if we believe that it is justifiable to slaughter animals for the resources they can provide, it does not seem justifiable to treat them in whatever way suits our ends at that given moment. For example, if wolf testicles were found to produce an oil that rejuvenated skin and prevented the appearance of aging it still seems horrifying to go around and castrate wolves or start raising wolves in conditions that don’t allow for the activities of the excellence of a wolf display itself, like having them live in small, isolated cages where they are not able to move, play or hunt to access these oils. Consequently, nature puts a claim on us, and I would agree with Francis that we have the responsibility to care for the Earth and other beings, and more specifically, all other things being equal, to try to ensure that we adopt a mode of life, that allows the lives of all beings to go well.

But what does it mean to ensure that the lives of all beings goes well? Is there a natural harmony of interest between the species that occupy the Earth that would allow all species to flourish simultaneously? The first of these questions is quite difficult for me to answer, and I will not get to it here, but to the second question I have to say that the answer tends to be no if we adopt a plausible conception of what makes a life go well. The flourishing of one species and another are not necessarily mutually supporting. The concept of “the ecosystem” sometimes has the hypnotic effect of making us think that there is a natural harmony in the environment such that we imagine nature as if it were the Garden of Eden. But this perspective does not hold up as from a very basic evolutionary perspective the ecosystem has no such harmony over time. If nature is understood in terms of species struggling for their survival, sometimes against other species, who compete with them for food and resources then it seems plausible to think that the flourishing of one species could come at the expense of another. Does this mean that humans should just struggle for their survival at all costs and not care for other beings? No, of course not. We, as beings capable of reflection on nature and value, have a responsibility to care for the Earth and ensure that its intrinsic worth is preserved. But this does not mean that non-human nature poses no threat to us. There is always the possibility that humans could be wiped out, or damaged by another species, whether it is a virus or super intelligent, malevolent Otters. From a historical perspective we have good reason to think that Cro-Magnon overtook Neanderthal man through violence among other means. So, I see little reason to think that non-human nature poses no threat to human flourishing.

Yet Francis does not mention this threat that non-human nature puts to humanity. I think there are two reasons for this. The first likely lies within Francis’ Christian anthropology. If God gave the Earth to humans to care for as Francis thinks, than it seems plausible to think that part of the structure of the universe is that humans will maintain their dominion over non-human nature until the end of time. The other reason however is that Francis’ understanding of goodness is rooted in the Christian notion of love or Agape. For Francis, it seems that the core of living well for a human being is to participate in Agape, God’s love for all creation, by loving and caring for one’s fellow human beings and for creation. According to this understanding human goodness is never at odds with the goodness of other species or nature as a whole, rather Agape unites all of creation and relates it back to God.

Now while Agape is a very powerful notion I have a difficult time seeing it as the fundamental core of goodness. For example, let us consider a person who is kind, courageous, caring and generous. In one set of life circumstances this person is a slave to a wealthy landlord. The wealthy landlord does not physically abuse her, but she lacks the ability to pursue many of her own interests and so while she is always kind, courageous, caring and generous, she is never able to pursue romantic love, or develop her interest in the plastic arts or music. Now, on the other hand imagine this same person lives in a society where she is an equal citizen with access to resources that allow her to pursue romantic love and her artistic interests, and consequently she pursues these activities. From the standpoint of character, in both circumstances this women lives equally excellent lives as in both the woman is kind, courageous, caring and generous. But in another sense the latter life circumstances allow the women to live a better life than the former life circumstances, as in the latter life she not only can develop her ethical character, but also can develop other capabilities such as the expression of romantic love and beauty that seem integral to a good life. This is a point that Aristotle makes in the ethics when he suggests that certain external conditions need to obtain for man to have a life that is good in a fundamental sense such as wealth and health. The slave can exhibit positive character traits, but in not being free certain forms of goodness are closed off to him.

In this sense we might say that there are two forms of goodness that need to be present for the best kind of life: the first is goodness of character, and the other is goodness of circumstance. The former ensures the development of intrinsically worthy qualities of character, while the latter ensures that one lives in a context that allows one to pursue the range of activities necessary for the best kind of life. The modern tradition that Francis critiques focuses exclusively on goodness of circumstance by focusing on transforming raw nature to serve human ends and make human life commodious. Contrastingly, Francis seems to be overly fixated on goodness of charaacter to the degree to which he cannot recognize that non-human nature presents a threat to man. Now Francis does not deny that we should try to develop technology and institutions to support the increase of material prosperity for all, but he seems to think that we can do this without any cost to nature, as nowhere in “Laudato si”, does he ever suggest that human flourishing might come at the expense of the flourishing of God’s creation. But if we return to my earlier point about evolution this seems far from plausible. While we can do our best to care for nature and creation to ensure that it flourishes we sometimes have to face the agonistic choice of the flourishing of our species and the decline of another. Without looking at the specifics of the case it is difficult to say what the right choice is in this case, instead, we need to see that, as humans we bear the responsibility of trying to figure out how to make these painful decisions. In this sense human flourishing and the flourishing of non-human nature can come into conflict and in some cases one good will have to be take priority over another, so I find Francis’ suggestion in “Laudato si” that there is a complete harmony between the good of man, and the good non-human nature implausible.

In response to this someone might say that there is no conflict if we reconceive human flourishing so that it is less focused on material prosperity and more on spiritual health, as the conflict is not between human flourishing per se and the flourishing of other species, but between material prosperity for humans and the flourishing of other species. However, this objection seems misguided as imagine that an insect carries a disease that like Syphilis eventually ends in madness, and we have made no progress in understanding how to cure this disease. It probably makes sense to purge this species of fly from urban areas if possible, as this species not only affects physical health, but spiritual and moral well-being, and so there is a genuine conflict between the good of this fly and the good of humanity.

It is possible that I am misreading Francis, and that we actually agree at the most basic level, but if that is the case than Francis has been too willing to conceal the conflict that exists between humanity and non-human nature, such that he make it seem like there is a natural harmony of interests between the two. One of the most profound difficulties in caring for all beings is that some of these beings may pose a threat to us, and our flourishing. So we need to take note of this difficulty.