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.