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.

Transcendence, Disenchantment and Unbelief

Talking about transcendence within a society that tends to see the universe as disenchanted and purposeless may seem odd, as anything transcendent seems to have little place in such a universe, but yet many of us have experiences that are best described as transcendent. Consequently, it seems to me that even those, like myself, who lack religious belief may require the concept of transcendence to understand their own experiences, so it is not a concept we can do without. I will examine two types of experience that I have had that I can only understand as transcendent to try to clarify why I think this.

The first experience is that of coming into contact with nature while one is alone. When I hike through a quiet trail alone somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, nature does not appear as merely a collection of matter arranged in a particular way, rather it is as if there is something behind the appearances of the landscape that I am connected with. This other thing that I feel connected with is not something that I can easily describe, but it appears to me as I hear the rustling of the leaves and the howling of the wind, and feel the uneven ground under my feet as I walk through this quiet path; it is at once something that is ever present through these walks, but yet indescribable in particular terms. In this context I do not feel like an ordinary self with ordinary human purposes, rather I feel connected with something beyond ordinary experience .The cause of this experience is not something that I understand, but the experience does seem to be best described as transcendent, as the experience is not simply beautiful, purifying or pleasant; it is all of these things, but it is more as it involves a sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary.

The other transcendent experience I wish to discuss involves creative musical inspiration. As a struggling musician I often find myself trying to force certain musical ideas which tends to only lead to frustration, but once in a while I will be playing my instrument and something will take over me, as if I were captured by something other than myself. In the moments of the creation of the composition I am not a self in the ordinary sense of a being that can disengage and reflect, but rather I am connected with something beyond myself which takes me out of my ordinary selfhood and drives me to create something wonderful and beautiful. It is hard to find an adjective to describe this kind of experience, but I do think transcendence fits, because in this kind of experience it as if something beyond our ordinary understanding peers in and grabs us and reveals what it is that we wanted to create, but could not describe before we had created it. Once again, the actual underlying cause of this experience is not clear to me, but the experience seems to not be one of ordinary immanent existence, but something transcendent.

So, it seems to me that transcendent is a category that is necessary to make sense of our experiences, as I would hazard a guess that many others have similar experiences and have an equally difficult time describing them in other terms. What is responsible for this sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary that we experience in creative musical inspiration, or quiet walks through nature, or other experiences, is not clear to me, but the category of the transcendent is still required to make sense of these experience and so even though we may believe in a disenchanted, purposeless universe, this does not mean that we have no use for the concept of the transcendent.

Agalloch, Romanticism, Wonder and Nature

One of my favourite bands is Agalloch; they are a metal band from Portland, although their music has progressive and folk elements. One interesting element of their music is that many of their albums have a significant pagan element, which expresses a strong sense of wonder towards the natural world. This sense of wonder towards the natural world can be found in much romantic art and literature. For this entry I would like to examine some of Agalloch’s lyrics to try to outline the nature of the wonder we experience towards nature. Furthermore, I will argue that the reason why we experience this wonder towards nature is that our phenomenological experience of nature is something that resists our sense of the universe as disenchanted, and because we are “porous selves” who are vulnerable to being controlled by external forces, including elements of nature.

The Agalloch piece that I will examine is “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion.” In this song the lyrics state:

“Through vast valleys I wander
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
’til the lost forsaken endless
This is where I choose to tread”

It should be noted that in these lyrics the search for God is not something that is done through dialogue with other human beings about the natural world. Rather God is something that as isolated individuals we search out for in the natural world. Our connection to God is not mediated by our social role, or membership in a society. Rather, our relation to God is one that stands apart from society.

Furthermore, the lyrics state:

“Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God
Then God is not dead”

It should be noted that the suggestion being put forth here is that the revealing of God is something that can occur through a vision of the panorama of nature itself. Furthermore, the allusion to Nietzsche’s notion that “God is dead” suggests that while God may seem dead as we live our everyday lives in society, that our sense of wonder towards the natural world reveals something beyond. Consequently, according to Agalloch it seems that our sense of wonder towards nature is something that consists in seeing something powerful, majestic and transcendent in nature that tends not to reveal itself through our lives within society.

While I may not believe that God exists in nature in the way that some of these lyrics suggest, I do a feel a deep sense of wonder and transcendence as I encounter certain elements of the natural world. I remember standing at the top of Mt.Pilatus in Switzerland and feeling a deep sense of wonder towards the view. I could not clearly articulate what this sense of wonder meant in terms of propositional belief, but I certainly felt something resonate deeply within me, and this sense of resonance is not something that I tend to experience as I navigate society. Consequently, Agalloch’s lyrics in this song seem to present an accurate and compelling picture of the sense of wonder that we experience towards nature.

The preceding may have clarified the nature of the sense of wonder we experience towards nature, but it has not clarified why we feel this sense of wonder towards nature. So for the remainder of this entry I will address that question. While I do believe that humans have always felt a sense of wonder towards nature, I think that for members of post-industrial societies this sense of wonder is intensified by the fact that most members of post-industrial societies, whether they believe in God or not, believe in a disenchanted universe. This belief in disenchantment states that the universe is purposeless, in and of itself, and can be best understood in terms of efficient causation. In this sense, the universe is best understood in analogy with a machine. However, while the phenomenological experience of post-industrial society reinforces this mechanistic view of the universe as everything within society seems to operate in terms of efficient causation, the phenomenological experience of nature does not. There is something mysterious and powerful about the phenomenological experience of nature that does not seem to be rendered intelligible by translation into strict efficient causation. The natural world seems to be a living place with its own meanings, rather than just an extremely complex arrangement of matter reacting in particular ways. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that one reason why contemporary people have experiences of wonder towards nature is because our experience of nature is one which suggests to us that the natural world cannot be fit into the simple disenchanted worldview that we have. Nature then appears as something that transcends the disenchanted universe and consequently we feel wonder at this seeming transcendence. It should be noted that I am not suggesting that the natural world cannot be made sense of in terms of a disenchanted view of the universe, only that our phenomenological experience of nature seems to suggest that it cannot.

One other reason for the wonder we experience towards the natural world is the fact that the natural world has a power over us such that we come to feel wonder for it without choosing to do so, or looking to nature for inspiration. Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way in which modern people see their self as invulnerable to being acted upon by the external world; this idea is encapsulated by the idea that if we try we can avoid having things get to us if we are disciplined enough. Taylor contrasts this with the notion of the “porous self” which he suggests would have been common during the middle ages in Latin Christendom, in which the self was vulnerable to being acted upon by meanings that were outside of itself; things that were a part of nature or emanations from God or Satan. These meanings could take control of us, and guide our actions for significant portions of time. To some degree our phenomenological experience of nature is one in which our nature as porous selves is revealed. My sense of the power and majesty of the mountain acts on me and I feel a sense of wonder for it. I do not choose to feel a sense of wonder towards the mountain, rather I am acted on by the mountain and come to feel a sense of awe or wonder, and there is nothing I can do about this fact. Thus, it seems plausible to think that our sense of wonder towards the natural world might be a function of the fact that, despite the self-image we possess, we are porous selves to some extent and are vulnerable to being acted upon by nature.

While there is no specific political, ethical or spiritual point that I am trying to make through this entry beyond what I have specified above, it should be noted that if we better understand our sense of wonder towards nature then we are better able to understand our spiritual predicament. And one way to best ensure that we adequately respond to this predicament is through gaining the deepest possible understanding of the situation as we can achieve.

Now listen to some Agalloch because they are absolutely wonderful.