Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Moral Significance of Economic Life: Aristotle vs. Locke

Andrzej Rapaczynski discusses "The Moral Significance of Economic Life" in the most recent issue of Capitalism and Society. Painting with broad strokes, he sketches the outlines of two broad orientations toward the moral significance of economic life, what might be summarized as an Aristotelian view and a Lockean view. In a lead-in to discussing the Aristotelian view, he writes:

"The first thing that strikes many as deeply unattractive about much economic activity
is that the motivating force of its practitioners is self-interest. Right there, economics and morality part ways: morality, it is often said, is about other-regarding behavior, while self interest is at best what we share with all kinds of lower creatures, and at worst a form of straightforward moral insensitivity – egoism, selfishness, a preference for one’s own self – as opposed to following the most basic moral norm of treating others as true equals who deserve the same consideration as ourselves. ... A general contempt for things “bourgeois” (as opposed to “noble”) is only the most general expression of this heritage. Its more concrete forms are the idea that the (bourgeois) pursuit of money (even if the economists may see it as capital accumulation) is in fact “vulgar” and the idea that the “vocation” of man consists in the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, as well as a life of “service” devoted to politics and social benevolence. These rather straightforward translations of a model of life “worthy of a gentleman” remain very deeply ingrained in our own culture."
As Rapaczynski discusses, Aristotle laid out the argument along these lines:  

"But to be a citizen, according to Aristotle, a person must already be free, i.e. one whose needs are already satisfied, so he can devote his energy and attention to those things that are not the necessities imposed on us by our nature, but which can be pursued for their own sake and with no other purpose in mind. Freedom, for Aristotle, means freedom from necessity, and thus a citizen is someone who has the leisure needed to devote his life to the higher ends that allow the fulfillment of man’s true vocation. The satisfaction of those necessities, on the other hand, i.e. the process of production, is not something that constitutes a part of public, political life. On the contrary, production is a mere precondition of citizenship and, much as sexual intercourse, which is a precondition of the reproduction of the species, it is entirely excluded from the public domain, and takes place in the privacy of a household – oikos, from which derives our term for “economics.” Economic decisions are thus also not at all something that the state is supposed to be involved with; they are an entirely private matter of the master of the household, whose freedom is sustained by production, and most of the productive process is carried out by people who are themselves not free. Indeed, the very labor, i.e. the physical and mental effort involved in the production of goods and services necessary to satisfy human needs (and enable some men to devote their energies to free action), is the quintessence of unfreedom that immediately identifies those who perform it as slaves."
These arguments have of course filtered down to us through various more modern philosophers, like Rousseau and Marx, but it seems to me that they capture a current of thought that remains strong. At a college campus, it's common to hear discussions of how people should be "citizens" who pursue "public service," or a job in arts or science. It's common to hear political arguments which implicitly or explicitly treat most workers in a free market as suffering under a form of forced labor. Those who work hard all their lives at a job are viewed as having in some way missing out on the higher and better things of life, either by misguided and socially conditioned pressured, or because they were forced to do so by a need to pay the bills. In all of these interpretations, the typical work that most people is often at odds with moral virtue, or at best a sort of devil's compromise of necessity with moral virtue.   

An alternative view of moral virtue, Rapaczynski argues, is due to John Locke, who viewed the jobs of work and production as building blocks of human freedom and moral virtue. Rapaczynski writes: 

"The person responsible for the most fundamental re-orientation of European thinking about the place of production in the constitution of human liberty – in fact of the very concept of labor that Aristotle had seen as the essence of slavery – is John Locke. Arguing quite consciously against the Aristotelian tradition, Locke claims that labor is the most fundamental attribute of humanity because it is the activity that enables human beings to transform the alien natural world around them into a “tamed,” “human” environment, reflecting our own design, serving our needs, and capable of freeing us from the shackles of the mechanical laws of nature. ...
It is this aspect of Locke’s theory that provides the most important moral basis of the nascent modern liberal outlook in which economic activity is no longer seen as geared toward “mere satisfaction” of heteronomously generated needs imposed on us by our physical existence, or as just a precondition of human freedom. On the contrary, economic activity is now seen as the most basic process though which human beings transform the world around them in their own image and initiate a complex interaction between themselves and the natural world that amounts to an activity of human “self-creation”: what labor produces is not just goods or commodities, but the very autonomous human beings who now live the lives they themselves design and determine. Thus, labor, which is at the basis of economic life, far from enslaving those who engage in it, is the prime expression of human creativity, a true production of new reality governed by human intellect and imagination, in which we can recognize and shape ourselves in accordance with our own will. ... 
At its origins, then, the modern liberal worldview is not primarily a political theory, but a moral theory of economic production. It is a theory that views labor as a paradigmatic expression of human freedom and the way in which we interact with the world around us and form ourselves as autonomous self-creations. ... Art, literature, and music, because of the particularly sophisticated nature of their products, may be more clearly recognizable as the primary artifacts of human culture, but their place in human life is not in principle different from the other objects we produce both to consume and to define the fundamental conditions of our own existence. To be sure, economic life can run into its own excesses and generate all kinds of pragmatic and moral problems. Excessive inequality is always a possible outcome of economic activity, and the thoroughgoing transformation of the natural world can wander into ecological and environmental dead-ends. Some collective regulation of economic life is therefore always necessary to set its clear rules, prevent unintended distortions, assure some basic dignity for all the participants, etc. But, unlike for Aristotle, politics and other non-economic forms of self-governance are not, for liberals, the primary locus of human self-realization. ...  On the contrary, it is that the proper discourse of politics is mostly derivative with respect to economic life because the latter is the primary creative activity of the modern man. Political regulation of economic life is thus not an imposition of some external higher norms curtailing the amoral, self-interested pursuits of economic actors, but a process of collective reflection that aims at eliminating contingent distortions of the ethics of production and at bringing out its inherent and defining “spiritual” values."

One way in which I mull over this distinction is to consider how people react to this question: Is someone who has a job like a pipe-fitter, a factory worker, or an airline pilot somehow living a less morally significant life than someone who has a job as an elected official, or professor of chemistry, or an artist? The Aristotelian view tends to argue that the jobs in "public service" or the arts or sciences have greater moral value, while workers in other jobs are wage-slaves whose work does not correspond to the best-lived life for humans. A Lockean view tends to argue that all of these jobs are part of the system by which humans practice self-determination, and interact with the natural world and with each other, and thus all of these jobs have similar moral significance. Like all sweeping philosophical distinctions, it would be unwise and a bit silly to reduce such this question to a binary black-and-white answer. Most of us hold potentially contradictory elements of both views. But for myself, I learned in long-ago college philosophy classes that I tend to find John Locke and Adam Smith more congenial to my own thinking than Aristotle, Rousseau and Marx. 

Here's a final thought from Rapaczynski: 

"But one cannot understand much of the standard language of contemporary social analysis without realizing that the tension between economic activity, on the one hand, and moral concerns (as well as the models of life thought to be truly worth living), on the other, is deeply ingrained in Western culture and constitutes an important component of social consciousness in the developed world. ... The greatest achievement of modernity – its unprecedented productive growth, with all its
material wealth and the individual freedom it enabled – has been, in the consciousness of too many, relegated to the domain of the morally empty and the spiritually impoverished. The greatest “culture war” in history is still going on."

Those with a taste for these issues might also be interested in two articles in the Fall 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. (Full disclosure: I've worked as Managing Editor of JEP since the first issue in Fall 1987.) Michael Sandel  wrote "Market Reasoning as Moral Reasoning: Why Economists Should Re-engage with Political Philosophy," some themes of which were discussed here on this blog. The other article, by Luigino Bruni and Robert Sugden, is called "Reclaiming Virtue Ethics for Economics" and some aspects were discussed here on this blog.