Liberty Matters

The Mandevillean moment reconsidered


Words matter. They are the malleable tools of our social conversations. In my response to Mikko Tolonen's rich and stimulating essay I propose to concentrate on the vocabulary of self-love and self-esteem. No mere battle of words is here intended. By re-describing our social experience, theoretical idioms shape our understanding as much as they direct our politics. In his essay, Tolonen extends the Mandevillean line of argument beyond the eighteenth-century. This is nothing new, particularly in the history of economic thought where Mandeville's thought is often considered a direct predecessor of Adam Smith's invisible hand and of the basic architecture of his Wealth of Nations, which George Stigler once described as that "stupendous palace erected upon the granite of self- interest." [1] What is new is that Tolonen's interpretation of the Mandevillean moment is not focussed on self-love and laissez faire politics, but on self-esteem and the principle of politeness.[2] Such an interpretation prompts his rethinking of the intellectual tradition from Mandeville to Hayek, and the suggestion that the latter may have missed something important of the Mandevillean moment.
Tolonen accepts that there are strong affinities between Hayek and Mandeville in their anti-rationalist and individualist conceptions of a spontaneous social order. Although he suggests that they share a view of human nature, he admits that Mandeville's anthropological philosophy is decidedly more pessimistic, dealing with the murkier material of our passions, whereas Hayek seems to put great emphasis on a more optimistic view of individuals' "autonomy"[3] and striving capacity. Such a difference results in Hayek's privileging the protection of our freedom to pursue the objects of self-love rather than those of self-esteem, and in a greater emphasis on free socio-economic competition over political protection from risks. From the perspective of social peace, which is a necessary condition for the functioning of civil society, the difference between the Hayekian and Mandevillean views may not have mattered so much in Mandeville's own times and sometime afterwards. For, as Mandeville believed, and Tolonen says in his essay, the protection of self-esteem was based "on the principle of politeness and clear class distinctions that also functioned as a psychological barrier." This is no longer the case in our contemporary societies, where distinctions of rank have given way to a more egalitarian ethos, and therefore, Tolonen concludes, we need a new politics "to guard people's self-esteem." Moreover, such a politics requires two further shifts in the Hayekian view of a free society, allowing for greater governmental intervention (something perhaps approaching the Mandevillean "skillful politician"),[4] and for the more complex regulation of the symbolic goods that arguably are the main objects of self-esteem in modern societies.
To put my cards on the table at the start, I agree with each of Tolonen's contentions. I think, however, that this is no simple extension of the particular liberal paradigm within which Tolonen sets his argument, but a more radical subversion of some of its tenets, which points to a social and theoretical conversation that has been going on for some considerable time, involving very different political projects and currents of thought. I cannot here engage with the argument in full. I therefore limit myself to a few points mainly concerning the languages of self-love and self-esteem. In brief compass: on the historical instability of the dichotomy and the complexity of such languages; on the "reflective" turn behind the early modern fascination with ideas of pride, esteem, and approbation; and on the consequences of such turn for our conceptions of society, morals, and politics.
Tolonen's distinction between self-love and self-esteem is derived from the one introduced by Mandeville in the second volume of the Fable of the Bees[5] and the Enquiry into the Origin of Honour,[6] between "self-love" and "self-liking." It is possible that Mandeville intended such a distinction as a repartee to Bishop Butler's criticism in his Fifteen Sermons,[7] who had faulted the reductionism of selfish systems, such as Mandeville's, on the ground that they were incapable of distinguishing between gratifications from actions that bring either advantage or security to oneself, and gratifications from actions that have no such effects, or indeed involve considerable personal cost and duress. In response to such charges, Mandeville distinguished between self-love, as the instinct that moves us to do something in our own interest and for our self-preservation; and self-liking, as the naturally ingrained preference we have for ourselves over others. In the Enquiry, he calls the latter, "that great value," "that high esteem" that people put on themselves.[8]
In the context of his essay, Tolonen seems to use the distinction in a more abstract way. Self-love approximates the idea of self-interest, as this has become established in modern economic thinking, where self-interest offers a minimal and rational anthropology on which to base and analyse economic action. Self-esteem, on its part, is meant as the sense or feeling of being worthy as a person in a society no longer characterized by ranks and hierarchical distinctions. This abstract dichotomy offers Tolonen a "framework," as he suggests elsewhere, "with the least number of principles necessary"[9] capable of explaining the working of modern large and anonymous societies. There is value in simplification, but one runs the risk of what Hume, also with reference to Mandeville, once called the "love of simplicity."[10] I think there is also value in complexity, which is very often reflected in our language. To quote Hume once again: "it is no wonder, that language should not be very precise in marking the boundaries between virtues and talents, and vices and defects."[11]
The ambiguities of common, and indeed philosophical languages (in the plural) are in evidence in the case of self-love (amour de soi; amore di sé; Selbstliebe), which I take, at least historically, to be the master concept for the idiom we are here concerned with. Usually this idea is defined within a series of dichotomous structures in which self-love is generically opposed to love for others. In morality, this dichotomous structure is linked to debates about selfishness and altruism, or about prudence and moral conduct. In Christian theology, self-love was defined in relation to love of neighbour, or love of God. In political and economic discourses it has contributed to the discussions on rationality and cooperation, private interest and public interest. In sociology and psychology it has become part of reflections on individualism and community, the relationship between the self and the other.
On closer inspection, however, the semantic field covered by the idea of self-love, in a broad sense, includes four different and often intertwined meanings. Self-love as "vice": vanity, narcissism, inordinate love of oneself or our conception of the ego. Self-love as "passion": that feeling that pushes us to prefer ourselves, or what belongs to us or is near us or dearer to us, in the face of people or things that do not directly concern us. Self-love as "instinct": that conatus or impulse that pushes us to defend and protect ourselves and our things. Finally, self-love as "virtue": the cultivation of the self and one's honour, the perfectionist and rational idea that our good coincides with virtuous conduct.
From the point of view of theoretical analysis, all four of these connotations are important, but from the point of view of the history of ideas, they have often been reduced to the distinction between passion (sometimes called, amour-propre) and instinct (amour de soi, in the strict sense). The opposition of passion and instinct, and their intertwining, have characterised the modern debate about self-love and its transformation into "private interest" in economic language. In fact, if we exclude the more narcissistic and egotistic elements of self-love understood as "vice," this can be reduced to a series of passions and feelings, such as pride, ambition, a certain vanity, self-esteem, and a desire for approval coming from either oneself or from others' opinion.
In the rupture – albeit partial and not always explicitly argued – of the dichotomous structure in which self-love is placed lies the key to the transformation of this idea into modern thought. Playing on both conceptual and ethical ambiguities, the moralistic literature of the seventeenth century disarticulated the idea of self-love into a series of passions such as pride and honour, for example, in which self-esteem depends on the esteem that others have for us. This, on the one hand, undermines the introverted character of self-love by socializing the criteria of approval of the individual. On the other hand, it makes the investigation of the "real" motivations for human actions superfluous, since they depend on our desire to be honoured and approved by others but not on the hidden reasons behind such a desire. In this sense, what matters are the actions of individuals and not the character of the individuals themselves. I think the richness and complexity of this early modern debate is as important to our understanding of the policies and politics of social regulation in modern society as the powerful attraction that strong and simplifying principles have on our scientific imagination.
But, there is an important aspect of the early modern debate that centers in particular around ideas of pride, honour, glory, vanity, amour-propre, and self-liking, all ideas that in some respect involve comparison with others, their emulation, and their very esteem and approbation of what we are and what we do. Once again, Hume offers a useful foothold into the problem. In An__Enquiry concerning Moral Principles, he suggests that we have a "constant habit of surveying ourselves, as it were, in reflection," in other words, "we find it necessary to prop our tottering judgement on the correspondent approbation of mankind."[12] This "reflective turn" is perhaps best expressed in Adam Smith's moral theory, which is constantly preoccupied with the process of approbation, and the complex relationship between the agent, the spectator within, and the social production of the spectatorial perspective that makes us judge others and ourselves through others' point of view. Such a process is fraught with difficulties for the reason implicitly suggested by Hume, since what he called the imprecision of language is the obvious sign of practical difficulties in judging people and their intention through signs or even through their very behaviour. Mandeville himself accepts that there can be "excessive" forms of self-liking (in the search for approval), which are counted as a vice; and "just" forms, which are generally praised.
In his general overview of the century-long debates over those reflective passions that exercise a regulatory function on people behaviour, Arthur Lovejoy distinguishes three abstract forms: "approbativeness," or the desire we have for others' approval and admiration; "self-esteem," or the desire for a "good opinion" that others or oneself can have of one's own action and qualities; and "emulation," or the constant way in which we compare ourselves to others, in order to either feel or show our superiority.[13]
Although the distinctions may be real and convincing, it is often difficult to see how they map onto the intellectual debate, and in different contexts. More to the point, distinctions between excessive or just forms of the expression of such passions remain difficult to establish, regulate, and justify. But, there are important consequences, I think, when one takes the "reflective turn" seriously. Some of those emerge at the end of Lovejoy's excursus on the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century debate, when he quotes Kant as a way of summarizing the significance of this age-old debate in philosophical anthropology:
A craving to inspire in others esteem (Achtung) for our selves, through good behavior (repression of that which could arouse in them a poor opinion [Geringschätzung] of us), is the real basis of all true sociality (Geselligkeit), and, moreover, it gave the first hint (Wink) of the development of man as a moral creature—a small beginning, but an epoch-making one.[14]
Following from this passage, one could venture two final observations in my response to Tolonen's stimulating essay. The first is that the need for the social regulation of the "reflective passions" is both unavoidable and contextual. In modern societies, more than in the past, this can only be achieved through the complex equilibrium between independence of spirit, mutual recognition,[15] and social accommodation. For such a task to be achieved, I agree with Tolonen, politics and human-designed institutions must play a conspicuous part, even in the knowledge that the resulting social order will inevitably escape human forethought. The second is that the "reflective turn" shows that even when sociability, benevolence, or sympathy are excluded as the "natural" basis of society, you cannot take society out of individuals. This is also true for those authors often considered as the classical exponents of the selfish system, such as Hobbes and Mandeville, since the importance they give to glory and self-liking respectively implies an inescapable intersubjective dimension, which can only obtain within a social setting, where trust and cooperation become second nature. There are no individuals without society, but there is no society without individuals. It is by attending at this balance that we may find the right politics for both self-love and self-esteem.
[1.] George J. Stigler, "Smith's Travels on the Ship of State," History of Political Economy 3 (1971), p. 265.
[2.] This interpretation, which rests on a considerable body of recent academic literature, is well developed in his excellent academic study: Mikko Tolonen, Mandeville and Hume: anatomists of civil society. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2013.
[3.] Rather surprisingly, Tolonen talks of "autonomy" and not of "freedom" or "liberty," which are the usual currency in Hayek's vocabulary; while in current philosophical discourse autonomy has usually a stronger positive connotation of authenticity, or "the capacity to be one's own person," see John Christman, "Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy," _The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy _(Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = I take that Tolonen's choice of words is meant to emphasize Hayek's conviction, expressed in the passage from The Road to Serfdom (Sydney: Dymock's Book Arcade, 1944) cited in the essay, that liberty consists in the capacity to make choices over conditions that come under human control, and that human imposition on such a capacity is felt as an arbitrary intervention limiting the ability to influence one's own environment.
[4.] The fact that Mandeville remarks how the work of the "skilful politician" is the result of the accumulation of knowledge over a long stretch of time does not exclude, in his view, that actual skilful politicians can use such accumulated knowledge for the "dextrous management" of the passions to the benefit of the "publick," see, for instance, Fable, vol II, p. 319. For a distinction between the "invisible hand" as a micro-mechanism and the idea of a "spontaneous order" within the context of a theory of social explanation, see amongst others Eric Schliesser, Adam Smith: Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
[5.] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. F.B. Kaye, [1714-1729], Indianapolis, Liberty Classics, 1988.
[6.] Bernard Mandeville, An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour and the Usefulness of Christianity in War, London: J. Brotherton, 1732.
[7.] Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, London: London: J. and J. Knapton, 1726; see also Kaye's annotation in Fable, vol. II, pp. 129-30, note 1.
[8.] Mandeville, Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, p. 3.
[9.] Tolonen, Mandeville and Hume, p. 243.
[10.] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 166.
[11.] Hume Enquiry, p. 177.
[12.] Hume, Enquiry, p. 150.
[13.] Arthur O. Lovejoy, Reflections on Human Nature, Baltimore, The John Hopkins Press, 1961, p. 129.
[14.] Immanuel Kant, Conjectures concerning the Beginning of Human History (1786), cited in Lovejoy, Reflections, p. 193.
[15.] It would be interesting to draw the connection between the ideas of self-esteem and self-worth, with other debates on ideas of self-respect, dignity, and recognition, but this would take us much beyond the scope of my response.