Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Purposeless Technology and Chrematistic Pursuits: The Implicit Subordination of Homo Economicus

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Purposeless Technology and Chrematistic Pursuits: The Implicit Subordination of Homo Economicus

Article excerpt

PREFACE: ON SYNOPTIC PHILOSOPHY

Before proceeding I want to acknowledge some difficulties in presenting a synoptic philosophical argument. The first of these is the impossibility of an exhaustive appraisal of any thinker in their entirety; such is the complexity of another's thought that there will always be omissions made. The second is the challenge of interpreting thinkers through the lens of disciplinary boundaries. To their credit, the thinkers discussed and criticized in this paper knew no disciplinary boundaries. As such, to approach their work through such boundaries would be counterintuitive, if not absurd. The third lies in the two distinct modes of doing philosophy. One is the narrow analysis of parts; the second is the construction of broad narratives designed at bringing together and making sense of otherwise disparate parts. Both modes of philosophy make sacrifices on details, yet both are required in the discipline for their respective strengths. With these strengths come weaknesses. The danger in synthesizing too much, in providing too synoptic an account is the exclusion of particular details. Such an approach cannot do absolute justice to an individual thinker, if absolute justice is an exhaustive appraisal of their work. On the other hand, a narrow analysis likewise leaves no doubt that it will be excluding facts. This is due to the narrowing of scope, the suspension of context and the lack of narrative meaning. Discuss any thinker and you are bound to leave out details; ignore them altogether and you make it a certainty. From a narrow analysis we sacrifice a whole range of related content, implications and, ultimately, the significance of what is being discussed; the why in philosophy. Difficult decisions must be made on the range of exclusions we are willing to make; whether to exclude details for the sake of narrative sense, or narrative sense for the sake of details. Like all papers, this paper makes sacrifices. These sacrifices are aimed at generating interesting ideas, problems and sometimes solutions. The judgment on whether or not these sacrifices enrich or diminish the paper I leave to the reader.

THE PROBLEM OF HOMO ECONOMICUS

Homo economicus, or economic man, is a concept that portrays human beings as isolated, rational agents who act solely in their own material self-interest. Equating rationality with the intelligent pursuit of private gain, (1) Homo economicus is 'dictated and dominated by the rationality of industry and utility.' (2) The 'soul' of this modern economic man is extreme self-interest, (3) and it is from this self-interest that Homo economicus is inevitably drawn into conflict and competition with others. However, Homo economicus is a creature that knows 'neither benevolence or malevolence ... only indifference.' (4) It has no regard for the successes, sufferings or failures of others. For Homo economicus such concerns only enter into considerations in so far as they exist as real or potential market relations.

Despite never using the term himself, Homo economicus is most directly linked to the work of utilitarian J.S. Mill. Mill's economic man is a deliberately simplified abstraction based off reductionist impulses common to early modern science. In this capacity, Homo economicus was understood as 'a hypothetical subject, whose narrow and well-defined motives made him a useful abstraction in economic analysis.' (5) His rationality was limited to self-interest, through an underlying drive for accumulation, along with the pursuit of leisure, luxury and procreation. (6) Mill's argument against expanding this range of motives was that it would risk greater complexity and indeterminacy, and therefore provide less reliable economic modeling. (7) In light of this, Persky notes that 'the message to derive from Mill's homo economicus is not that humans are greedy, not that man is rational, but that social science works best when it ruthlessly limits its range. …

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