Liberty Matters

Modelling the future and semantics of self-love


It gives me great pleasure to engage in this discussion on Mandeville with three esteemed colleagues. In the opening essay, I wanted to bring Hayek forward with respect to Mandeville because the popular Enlightenment discourse today seems to be partly dominated by such rationalists as Richard Dawkins[1], Steven Pinker[2], and the like, a feature of contemporary intellectual climate that I am not very fond of. Regardless of different political outlooks, we should use our understanding of the key debates in eighteenth-century Britain to show that the glorification of reason was not part of the understanding of civil society during the Enlightenment. What can be called the "Scottish Enlightenment," for example, was built upon "Sceptical Sentimentalism." For me, rationalism, rational choice theory (also in relation to egoism and self-interest) and Benthamite utilitarianism are anti-"Scottish Enlightenment" perspectives. Judging by the three responses to my essay, we are all on the same page about the nature of Enlightenment thinking.
Jimena Hurtado 
My essay was partly written as an attempt to induce people to think about the politics of self-esteem and what they might consist of when we unravel the logic of the "Mandevillean Moment" (as Dario Castiglione calls it). Therefore, in the essay, I did not dedicate much space to the necessary grounding of the argument in Mandeville's texts. I am thus grateful to Jimena Hurtado for the sensible discussion of wisdom and politics in Mandeville's works and to Andrea Branchi for his learned views on the relevance of honour, which both, in my opinion, nicely complement my essay. With respect to the question of natural and "not-so-natural" sociability, I find the category of "artificial" in contrast to "unnatural" interesting, and would be interested to hear Jimena further discuss her views on the relationship between these two categories.
For Mandeville, in my perspective, if there is a necessary bond between particular passions and the corresponding moral institutions, then the evolutionary process itself is natural, even when, for example, politeness as such is not. This then has unavoidable political consequences (or so I try to argue). The local variance in customs can be vast, but all large societies in one form or another have established a moral institution of politeness. The existence of politeness is thus inevitable for a flourishing large society. It is then the responsibility of political actors to guard the discovered foundational moral institutions during times of global turbulence. Wisdom is therefore also embedded in these customs.
Political actors need to have real power in order to be able to act, but also the wisdom to decide which levers to pull and for what reason. Like nature, customs need preservation, care, and sometimes innovation. If you unwittingly dismantle certain customs as a political actor (effectively we are all political actors these days) this might have undesired effects in the long term. My point about the relevance of the political underpinnings of established customs is that they will be overrun if they are not cultivated, eventually taking down entire civil societies. Consequently, the reason why a custom is established based on human nature does not change, while in the course of history the customs themselves vary considerably. The wisdom of politeness is to secure people's feelings of their own worth regardless of the local variance of this moral institution. My further suggestion has been that we should be able to figure out more concretely what this means in our contemporary world.
Andrea Branchi
I enjoyed Andrea putting the accent on the subject of honour for Mandeville (as I envisioned he might naturally do). Branchi is also correct to point us towards the relevant question of whether to read skilful politicians as a metaphor or not when thinking about Mandeville. As pointed out by Dario Castiglione, I took certain liberties in my essay to discuss matters at a higher level of abstraction. At the same time, the contemporary relevance of honour still puzzles me. What has become of horizontal honour with respect to transition to the modern world? What would Mandeville think about "our" politeness? Change in manners at a particular time could derail a nation or a civilization many years later. It is the government's responsibility to secure the customs. Or is it? I would like to hear more about what Andrea thinks about this.
Branchi asks: "Where is the room for political action? And what sort of action?" My answer here would be that if the interpretation of political wisdom, which Mandeville himself talks about, is correct--namely that we need to secure self-love and self-liking--then we need to think about how we can ensure that the foundation of everyone's self-esteem is secured. This is a political question. Securing the moral institutions and making sure, for example, that crimes are punished is the designated space for concrete political action.
Dario Castiglione
In his perceptive discussion of my essay as well as of my earlier work, Dario Castiglione puts his emphasis on the semantics of self-love. One of Dario's points is that I am oversimplifying things with my use of the distinction between self-love and self-liking -- Dario acknowledges that he is in basic agreement with me about the need for a politics of self-esteem and that it is important to figure out what this actually entails, but he does not see this as an extension of the liberal paradigm that I use as my context. To me, the position taken up by Dario resembles to some extent that of Christian Maurer's recent book, Self-Love, Egoism and the Selfish Hypothesis, which is a very careful study of the vocabularies of self-love.[3]
In my opinion, Maurer was not able to turn his meticulous analysis of eighteenth-century language of self-love into an engagement with contemporary issues relevant for current day civil society. The important lesson about self-esteem is lost in Maurer's book because of his focus on retaining all the complexity of particular historical discourses on self-interest and self-love. I would be very keen to see how Dario manages to put his ideas about the semantics of self-love into practice at the level of political theory. There are fruitful points in Dario's response where he mentions that more elaborated reflections could be carried out elsewhere. I sincerely hope that we witness this one day. I am very intrigued by Dario's take on Mandeville and politics of self-esteem precisely because of the potential contemporary relevance. As we see in Dario's reply, he is aware that what made the most famous twentieth-century analyses of eighteenth-century moral and political thought (Hirschman and Lovejoy) successful was their contemporary engagement.
I therefore find an attempt to discover the language of self-love admirable, but I am not sure if I see how adding more complexity to the picture will help us advance in the political context. For example, in his book, Maurer found "5 concepts" of self-love and much complexity at the cost of turning the discussion into something that resembles antiquarianism. As Dario perceives it, I believe that only one conceptual distinction in this setting has relevant consequences. It is the distinction between self-love and pride (call it self-love, self-respect, amour-propre or whatever when pointing towards a passion in human nature that can be explained as due or undue pride -- but pride nevertheless). It is this distinction that gives us a fresh basis for understanding human nature and civil society from the modern perspective.
This matters as well when we practice intellectual history. Mandeville, Hume, and Adam Smith all belong to what I call the school of sceptical sentimentalism, and to make sense of their thinking we are best off talking about self-liking or pride without confusing this discussion with self-love. Thus, we are provided, in my opinion, with a solid foundation of making sense of the development of Enlightenment thinking. There is hence a good reason not to try to cover all of this under the umbrella of self-love (as Maurer attempted to do).
As human beings, we have different kinds of feelings and desires. As Butler pointed out (featured also in Dario's response), they cannot be explained away. Their relation to the self is complex, yet there does seem to be some kind of uniformity in human nature. But why is pride such a crucial category to analyse? I think the reason is that it takes us beyond the question of motives, and it liberates us from only thinking about moral motivation and self-interest. Instead of complexities of real moral motivation, what people are after these days are theories/models how to explain the world.
An economist's answer to what they are doing with a crude Hobbesian egoist interpretation is often simple: we are modelling human behaviour. They know the model does not explain everything (there could be for example genuine religious emotions that are purposely and simply ignored in the theoretical framework), but they don't care because on the large scale the model aggregates the world well enough and they are able to form predictions and schemes. What is the intellectual historian's / history of philosophy person's answer to this? Or what is the use of reading eighteenth-century literature from this perspective? My claim is that we can and perhaps should try to formulate a better basis for models and offer them to others to use. It is not necessarily our business to become economists, really, although there is nothing wrong with this either. One way of doing this is by understanding the role of self-liking or pride as separate from self-love and self-interest and explaining why it matters. We are able to understand choices in a different way without slipping into rational (selfish hypothesis) and irrational (everything else) division, like people tend to do.
From the modelling perspective, the idea of disinterested (or real moral) motivation is not so interesting. Or if it is, I would like to have Dario explain to me why this is so. I think we are better off focusing on the distinction between self-love and pride and offering this to other scholars from economics, sociology, philosophy, or whatever the disciplinary boundaries might be at a given time. This is because from the perspective of modelling, the distinction between self-love and pride takes us to a different track from Chicago school egoism and self-interest. This alternative, Mandevillean track served the purposes of Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes as well as Friedrich Hayek, who were versatile economists with different political outlooks but who were all avid readers of Mandeville. The interesting part here isn't that Mandeville's or Hume's thoughts are more complex than some oversimplifications suggest, but that we are perhaps able to build an interesting model to understand the world based on that complexity. We start approaching sociology instead of metaphysics and moral philosophy in the seventeenth-century sense, and we have at least a chance to look at civil societies differently.
I want to underline that we should make sure, as intellectual historians, that our interests are not only antiquarian. Perhaps we should worry more about this than we worry about oversimplification. In a review of my book on Mandeville and Hume, Pekka Sulkunen wrote: "Mandeville and Hume built their theory of social order much more on effects of action than on its causes or motives. This is prominently the case concerning their evolutionary perspective on the institutions of justice and politeness. Although the institutions of social order are, in the last instance, based on universal human nature, they can be variable according to context, or 'culture' in the narrower and historical sense of the term. These two aspects are crucial for any sociological reflexion on the possibilities of social order in the present world situation."[4], The reason I am very fond of this is because Sulkunen understood the idea about self-love and self-liking as a model for the theoretical origin of modern society.
This is one way in which the distinction between self-love and pride has value for modelling the contemporary world. The point is that such a model serves the interests of sociology in a way that was not anticipated before. But what about the economists? How could we encourage them to advance their thinking away from rational choice theories back to the realm where Marx, Keynes, and Hayek built their understanding of civil society? My short answer is by offering a more sensible theoretical setting about human nature. I don't claim that the "Mandevillean Moment" has already been exhausted. I encourage my three interlocutors to think further about the possibilities of analysing the early modern language of self-love and self-esteem from the perspective of modelling the possible future. I think they have plenty to offer in this respect, as will many other intellectual historians when we find the courage to engage with contemporary issues.
[1.] cf. Richard Dawkins, God delusion, Bantam Books, 2006.
[2.] See especially, Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Penguin Books, 2018.
[3.] Christian Maurer, Self-Love, Egoism and the Selfish Hypothesis, Edinburgh University Press, 2019.
[4.] Pekka Sulkunen, "The proto-sociology of Mandeville and Hume," Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 15, 2014, pp. 361-365.