Repugnant motives, desirable ends?

As the question of the “moral” case for socialism (or at least, critique of capitalism) has come up in the comments on my previous post, I’m going to jump to this aspect of Cohen’s book and come back to his definition of socialism later.

Cohen’s overall desire seems to be to have a system that promotes free cooperation and reciprocity among people, in a similar way to how people engage freely in cooperation and reciprocity in certain areas of life (such as a camping trip). Cooperation and reciprocity are found within market exchanges, but only on a “this for that” basis: I serve “in order to be served”. Cohen argues that reciprocity in a market system is based on “greed and fear”:

I give as little service as I can in exchange for as much service as I can get: I want to buy cheap and sell dear. I serve others either in order to get something that I desire – that is the greed motivation; or in order to ensure that something I seek to avoid is avoided – that is the fear motivation.(p.42)

Does that sound unduly negative? It does to me. But I think the point is this: it is certainly true that most people do not behave solely in this way. But that is because the market-exchange aspects of any transaction are not the only ones at work: most of us have other motivations at work too. These include the desire to be liked and to “feel good about oneself”, and also a genuine desire to cooperate and help other people.

The point is that those are distinct from the specifically market-driven aspects of our motivation. I may not like to apply the words “greed and fear” to my own behaviour – and I suspect that Cohen’s choice of such loaded words may distract at least as much as it illuminates – but I find Cohen’s expansion of what he means by them uncomfortably close to home.

Later in the book, Cohen observes that “greed and fear” (in the sense described above) have proven highly effective means of generating productivity in a modern society. He continues:

But we should never forget that greed and fear are repugnant motives. Who would propose running a society on the basis of such motives, and thereby promoting the psychology to which they belong, if they were not known to be effective, if they did not have the instrumental value which is the only value they have?

Cohen cites Adam Smith’s observation that “we place our faith not in the butcher’s generosity but in his self-interest when we rely on him to provision us”:

Smith thereby propounded a wholly instrumental justification of market motivation, in the face of what he acknowledged to be its unattractive intrinsic character.

Too many on the left have ignored the question of the market’s effectiveness, engaging instead in “a moralistic condemnation of market motivation that fails to address its instrumental justification”. Others, more recently, have gone too far in the opposite direction and forgotten that “the market is intrinsically repugnant”:

It is the genius of the market that it (1) recruits low-grade motives to (2) desirable ends; but (3) it also produces undesirable effects, including significant unjust inequality.

Early proponents of capitalism recognised this tension between the “repugnant” motivations and “desirable” outcomes of market mechanism, such as:

…the eighteenth-century writer Bernard Mandeville, whose market-praising Fable of the Bees was subtitled Private Vices, Public Benefits. Many contemporary celebrants of the market play down the truth in the first part of that subtitle.

I’m not entirely comfortable with Cohen’s critique, especially his reduction of market motivations to “greed and fear”. But I do think he is correct in identifying the ethical challenge that is posed to contemporary supporters of capitalism by their own forebears.

Why is it that today we are less aware of (or less bothered by) the “private vices” that underly the “public benefits” of capitalism than were people of earlier ages? As C.S. Lewis pointed out, medieval Christendom was at one with earlier civilisations in condemning the lending of money at interest; now it is the foundation of our economic system. Many writers from earlier centuries (such as Martin Luther) can make for uncomfortable reading for supporters of a modern market economy.

The answer must be that capitalism has shaped how we think, what we consider to be “obvious” and “natural”. In other words, it’s a matter of ideology.

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5 thoughts on “Repugnant motives, desirable ends?”

  1. But is self-interest, as distinct from selfishness, morally questionable? It sounds like one has to fall back on the ‘BBC definition’ of profit to make that claim.

  2. I think that this is a problem in certain forms of economic thought in a way that it is not in others. The underlying anthropologies in both the Scottish and Austrian traditions (to take the two examples that I know most about) are often grossly mistaken. They are generally founded on the idea of individuals driven purely by self-interest. This is patently false, both at an empirical and at a deeper anthropological level.

    If you start on such a foundation you will form an economy that encourages such self-seeking and erodes a culture of trust. You will need increasing government involvement and also oversight within companies with employees monitoring employees, as the underlying axiom on which the system is built has the corollary that no one else has your interests at heart, but that everyone is pulling in their own direction. This fostering of distrust also encourages a culture of cheating and selfishness, as an absence of trust will seldom be met with an increase in trustworthiness.

    The assumption is that sympathy is external to contract, but few of us actually live consistently like this. Most of us enter into economic contracts for social and personal reasons. I buy from a local butcher rather than the supermarket because I value and want to support his business. I sell my services to someone at a significantly lower price because I realize that he is going through financial hardship. We all frequently act economically in such ways.

    Many economists will try to reduce such behaviour to the model of self-service (which need not be directly equated with selfishness, but could simply refer to the sort of truism that one finds in Ephesians 5:29), regarding the calculations in terms of increased emotional value, or something along those lines, but I think that there is more going on here. What is being revealed is the reciprocal and gift character of human economic action, something that many forms of economics systematically deny. By denying it they have established an amoral (and often immoral) form of the market.

    The rejection of gift-giving as a basis for our understanding of the marketplace is often done on the basis of the identification of gift-giving with altruism, which is understood in terms of disinterest. The alternative to disinterested gift-giving is self-service. However, no true gift is disinterested. Gift-giving is motivated by love for the one to whom we are giving, and no love is disinterested. In giving we seek a return and reciprocity, we aim at community and fellowship. Gift-giving is a sort of non-compulsive compulsion.

    Of course, if we deny the fundamental role of gift-giving, we will increasingly resort to other forms of compulsion, most particularly the compulsion of government. This is one of my big problems with most forms of socialism, which replace the liberating compulsion of the gift and the society of trust with the enslaving compulsion of the government. The freeing non-compulsive interval between giver and receiver prevents the gift from becoming an entitlement and encourages the growth of generosity. It frees the giver, even while the compulsion of mutuality is laid upon him. Far from creating a more regulated market, a market based upon the reciprocity and gift character of human economic action would do away with much of the paranoid oversight and regulation that surrounds us today. It would be a much freer market than the one that we presently enjoy today.

    Of course, given the systematic undermining of a culture of trust and reciprocity that has been ongoing for centuries such change would never occur overnight. What is required is a movement that seeks to encourage a different form of capitalism, founded upon more Christian and human anthropological foundations.

  3. “Who would propose running a society on the basis of such motives, and thereby promoting the psychology to which they belong, if they were not known to be effective, if they did not have the instrumental value which is the only value they have?”

    Juxtaposed with his camping trip image, I find this very telling. The wonderful thing about a camping trip is that you can pretend to be living in nature for a while. People rarely “rough it” to any real degree. If they did for any length of time, they might find their psychology changing in the direction of the fear he speaks of. After a bear incident for example. It’s harder to sleep afterward. As a social theorist, he presents something that has the outward trappings of a “state of nature,” but is not. Why? Rousseau or Hobbes would try to paint man outside of society as their argument for an arrangement. Cohen paints him in natural surroundings, but living off of the surplus of society.

    What he neglects is that survival is a real issue. We are hard-wired to survive. Fear responds to dangers to survival. Greed responds to scarcity. While this wiring can be transcended, it is not healthy to have it extinguished. Those who take no care for their lives end up as burdens to others. If we act without regard to costs, we might expose ourselves to mortal danger to give a stranger a cup of coffee. To have people do that would not be a good thing. That we don’t make such choices is to be attributed to a kind of pain versus pleasure calculation that we all make all the time. Something the author labels “fear.”

    The market theorist begins with an anthropology. He asks “What is man?” I am not clear from the description whether Cohen believes man has an innate psychology. Does he think man is innately altruistic? The camping trip model would suggest so, except that what it shows mostly is that once people’s basic needs are met, they are generous to their friends. Hardly a basis for drawing broad conclusions on how they can act with strangers. Or does he believe man is naturally greedy and fearful and propose to change that by force?

    I know I’m only commenting on what has been said so far. He might deal with the objections I’ve raised. This is not a refutation. But it does express questions I would need answered.

  4. Rick: Cohen is certainly not trying to change humanity by force. I’m not sure what his anthropology is – this book is too short to go into that sort of detail.

    once people’s basic needs are met, they are generous to their friends. Hardly a basis for drawing broad conclusions on how they can act with strangers.

    Cohen’s argument is that people ought to treat “strangers” as friends and brothers, though he recognises that it’s far from clear that this can be achieved in practice: hence his distinction between “desirability” and “feasibility”.

    This is a pretty crucial distinction in his argument. Talk of “coercion” and “forcing” people to behave in a “socialist” way is a matter of the feasibility (and accessibility) of socialism: can socialism work, or can we achieve a socialist society in the first place, without coercion and central control? (As an aside, I do wonder whether your own view gives enough recognition to the coercion and violence that underpins the existing capitalist order.)

    We’ve not yet found a way to answer “yes” to those questions, which is a serious problem for the viability of socialism. But that doesn’t affect the question of the desirability of socialism: the question of whether it would be desirable to have a society in which people were motivated by a desire to share and help one another, to treat each other as brothers and sisters, with neither coercion nor a selfish reciprocity.

    From a Christian point of view, it’s the desirability of a society in which the guiding principle is “love your neighbour as yourself”. Equally, though, from a Christian point of view we have to recognise human fallenness. The question is how far we can get towards the former while still burdened with the latter. I simply don’t know the answer to that question, but that shouldn’t diminish the desirability of the former. (Whether the former could usefully be described as “socialism” is then another question, of course.)

  5. “As an aside, I do wonder whether your own view gives enough recognition to the coercion and violence that underpins the existing capitalist order.”

    My own view is based on the non-initiation of force doctrine. Insofar as coercion and violence underpin the existing capitalist order, I am not in favor of the existing capitalist order. I tend to use the terms “free market” and “laissez-faire”, but less often use capitalism for the reasons mentioned.

    “But that doesn’t affect the question of the desirability of socialism: the question of whether it would be desirable to have a society in which people were motivated by a desire to share and help one another, to treat each other as brothers and sisters, with neither coercion nor a selfish reciprocity. ”

    Here I think there is a failure to use definitions properly. To use the OED definition, socialism is “A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership or control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc. by the community as a whole and their administration or distribution in the interests of all.”

    This is first of all about ownership and control. If things are owned and controlled in this way, there is coercion.

    If you drop that side of things, then I’m not sure what’s being advocated. Though it still looks either like you’re advocating people spontaneously developing a different nature, or forbidding free transactions that some think are unfair. But if you have people judging the transactions, transaction costs will go up and fewer needs will be served.

    The great thing about the market is that it allows much less of life to be political. People can opt out of this or that polity. When you make the whole nation into a unit that controls things, there is no way to opt out except leaving the country.

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