Numerous previous posts have emphasized the importance of having a theory of the actor when we do social science or history. Are people impulsive, emotional, envious, prudent, or moral — or a mix of all of these things in different settings? We need to have some explicit and fact-based ideas about how and why people act as they do. This is not a new discovery for philosophers, and in fact much of the history of Western philosophy has wrestled with this question — Aristotle, Augustine, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, and Hegel included.
Albert Hirschman is an important social theorist, generally classified as an economist, who often placed the varieties and sources of action at the center of his writings. (Here is an appreciation of Hirschman by Cass Sunstein in the New York Review of Books; link.) This interest in the actor is particularly evident in Hirschman’s book, The Passions and the Interests (1977) — with an interesting twist. The book is a contribution to the history of ideas rather than contemporary social theory. Hirschman wants to know how the pursuit of personal gain came to be viewed as the central human virtue, the foundational assumption of much of the social sciences, and the foundation of the liberal ideal of society. And implicitly, he wants to know if we can arrive at a more adequate theory of the good society by reconsidering some of those assumptions.
One way of characterizing Hirschman’s leading intuition in this book is the question of whether different kinds of society reflect different mentalities at the level of the ordinary actors within them. Is there a “spirit” of capitalism, a characteristic set of motives and ways of thinking that its denizens possess? Is this spirit different from those associated with feudalism or the socioeconomic system of the ancient world? And how would various passions be linked to various features of the social order? Here is a revealing passage from Vico that Hirschman thinks captures much of this agenda:
Out of ferocity, avarice, and ambition, the three vices which lead all mankind astray, [society] makes national defense, commerce, and politics, and thereby causes the strength, the wealth, and the wisdom of the republics; out of these three great vices which would certainly destroy man on earth, society thus causes the civil happiness to emerge. This principle proves the existence of divine providence: through its intelligent laws the passions of men who are entirely occupied by the pursuit of their private utility are transformed into a civil order which permits men to live in human society. (kl 240)
On this line of thought, we might say that greed and self-interest are the spirit of capitalism, honor is the spirit of feudalism, and power is the spirit of the ancient world. And it turns out that each of these ideas corresponds to a passion in traditional philosophy of action (greed for material wealth, quest for glory, thirst for power).
The central problem, according to Hirschman, was how to control the passions in action. Some theorists came to believe that the only way to control the passions was through the workings of other passions. Here is Spinoza on this idea:
An affect cannot be restrained nor removed unless by an opposed and stronger affect. (kl 294)
So how have reflective people (philosophers, social theorists) thought about the springs of human action in different epochs? Hirschman’s essay offers a careful history and review of one important strand of thinking about action, the extended debate that has existed over the nature and role of the passions in human action. He looks at this idea through a careful reading of thinkers like Augustine, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Montesquieu, the Duke of Rohan, and others. He tries to piece together the meaning that the ideas of passions and interests possessed in medieval and modern thought, how the concept of interest changed over time, and how the ideals concerning society and government were refracted as a consequence. Hirschman goes into exegetical detail about how a series of thinkers in the history of philosophy have thought about the virtues and passions, and how these were thought to contribute to various kinds of society. Here he makes the historical point linking ideas to social forms:
With or without such sophisticated justification [as offered by St. Augustine], striving for honor and glory was exalted by the medieval chivalric ethos even though it stood at odds with the central teachings … of a long line of religious writers, from St. Thomas Aquinas to Dante, who attacked glory-seeking as both vain and sinful. (kl 186)
It is Hirschman’s view that there was a very interesting evolution in thought about the passions during the early modern period. The heroic ideal was replaced by the idea that it is best for people to follow their own best interests. And this transition occurred, in part, through the swing towards positive science in the treatment of the world as expressed by Galileo and Hobbes.
Eventually self-interest came to be thought of as the antidote to arbitrary, capricious action based on more unruly passions. David Hume plays a central role in Hirschman’s account. Hume advocated for restraining the “love of pleasure” by the “love of gain” (kl 321). And “Hume similarly uses the terms ‘passion of interest’ or the ‘interested affection’ as synonyms for the ‘ avidity of acquiring goods and possessions’ or the ‘love of gain'” (kl 424). (It is significant to recall that Hume and Adam Smith were neighbors and friends in the Scottish Enlightenment.)
So the transition is more or less complete; the vice of avarice has become the virtue of the pursuit of self-interest.
Once money-making wore the label of “interests” and reentered in this disguise the competition with other passions, it was suddenly acclaimed and even given the task of holding back those passions that had long been thought to be much less reprehensible. (kl 459)
It appears that the case for giving free rein and encouragement to private acquisitive pursuits was both the outcome of a long train of Western thought and an important ingredient of the intellectual climate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (kl 679)
The pursuit of gain (commerce) becomes the hidden hand that guides individual activities towards the collective good. And this idea does not originate with Adam Smith. Here is Montesquieu in the Spirit of the Laws on the advantages of commerce as a foundation for society:
The spirit of commerce brings with it the spirit of frugality, of economy, of moderation, of work, of wisdom, of tranquility, of order, and of regularity. In this manner, as long as this spirit prevails, the riches it creates do not have any bad effects. (kl 697)
And here is James Steuart about the advantages of a market society for the quality of government:
The statesman looks about with amazement; he who was wont to consider himself as the first man in the society in every respect, perceives himself eclipsed by the lustre of private wealth, which avoids his grasp when he attempts to seize it. This makes his government more complex and more difficult to be carried on; he must now avail himself of art and address as well as of power and authority. (kl 793)
The advantages that this shift in the theory of the actor made possible, according to Hirschman, were predictability and constancy (kl 520). Theorists like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, and Smith argued that a science of man was possible if we postulate that action derives from an assessment of self-interest. And that science is — political economy. And the social ideal that corresponds to it is what Hegel and Marx referred to as “civil society”, where individuals pursued their own interests in their own ways. It is a liberal market society where the maximum amount of social coordination occurs through market mechanisms.
On this genealogy, interest started out as one of the three primary passions — love of power, lust, and avarice. The passions were thought to produce bad behavior; so a recurring question was how to harness the passions in more socially constructive ways. And many thinkers came to the conclusion that only the passions themselves could serve to regulate the passions — not pure reason. In particular, it was maintained that a strong regard for one’s own interests could lead to self-regulation. But the most interesting part of the evolution of meanings is that interests came to be normatively favored, and they came to be understood to be distinct from the passions.
We might call this the intellectual history of economic liberalism as a political ideology. And it is an ideology that Hirschman finds ultimately flawed. So did Tocqueville:
A nation that demands from its government nothing but the maintenance of order is already a slave in the bottom of its heart; it is the slave of its well-being, and the man who is to chain it can arrive on the scene. (kl 1141)
More generally, the anti-capitalist critiques associated with Marx, Durkheim, and the anarchists were powerful: the pure pursuit of gain has resulted in a society in which poverty, coercion, and anomie have become the lot of the majority of society.
This is very interesting work in the history of ideas and ideology. And Hirschman engages in the work for a very serious reason: to try to discern some of the sources of the systemic flaws in modern market-based society. In this regard it is interesting to compare Hirschman’s analysis of the development of the theory of the actor based on self-interest with C. B. Macpherson’s analysis of the development of the theory of “possessive individualism”. Here is a discussion of Macpherson’s theory (link).
(Here is Thomas Carlyle as anti-capitalist critic from the conservative side, on the topic of market society. He is contrasting the social order of aristocracy with the market order created by capitalism:
It was [Aristocrats’] happiness that, in struggling for their own objects, they had to govern the Lower Classes, even in this sense of governing. For, in one word, Cash Payment had not then grown to be the universal sole nexus of man to man; it was something other than money that the high then expected from the low, and could not live without getting from the low. Not as buyer and seller alone, of land or what else it might be, but in many senses still as soldier and captain, as clansman and head, as loyal subject and guiding king, was the low related to the high. With the supreme triump of Cash, a changed time has entered; there must a changed Aristocracy enter. We invite the British reader to meditate earnestly on these things. (Chartism, 58)
Carlyle is anti-liberal in more senses than one; he is reactionary and hierarchical, and he is a fierce critic of the ideal of a cash-driven market society.)