The topics of self-interest and sacrifice are commonly discussed on this blog—my own view being that any form of either is bound to lead to selfishness unless both are aligned to God’s will (through good, old-fashioned obedience).
I’m currently reading Love & Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, in which author and economist Jennifer Roback Morse takes a unique approach to the subject, arguing that our views of “rational” man have been severely lacking on both sides (if your ideological buckets are that neat and tidy, that is).
Without incorporating love into our usual assumptions about the self and the other, argues Morse, we will structure a philosophy of life around a fantasy and be doomed to a mechanistic, regressive society.
First, the not unique part—i.e. a summary of the context:
The decentralized market economy is probably the most celebrated self-regulating social institution. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” insight shows that people pursuing their own self-interest can actually end up furthering the public interest through no intention of their own. Since Smith’s time, free market economists have developed the Invisible Hand concept further through a construct called homo economicus, or economic man. Economic man is a rational person who calculates the costs and benefits of each potential action and chooses the action that brings him the most happiness.
The obvious problem is that we are not, and can never be, fully rational, no matter how much Ayn Rand wishes it were so (though we can certainly be more rational than we are).
On the other side is a similar problem, one which, though more obvious, is plagued by increasingly abundant misunderstanding: other people have an even smaller chance of being “fully rational” on our behalves.
The lofty bureaucrat on top of the hill may think he has a better idea than we do about the appropriate price of an orange (or a cup of coffee), but our personal preferences would likely differ if Grocer Bob had the chance to experiment. Of course, the implications lead to deeper struggles than the prices of oranges and coffee, which is why more fundamental, philosophical variations on Rousseau’s “natural goodness of man” have long served as platforms upon which many a tyrant has constructed his moralistic authoritarian palaces.
Yet even critiques of centralized approaches to knowledge and decisionmaking—Hayek’s, most notably—seem to only get us back to square one: that individual choice would be better (and it would!).
Yes, our knowledge is limited, and yes, our definitions of the “good” will not naturally conform. These are crucial realities to confront, but do they mean that our philosophy of life should end at generic individual autonomy, even with some token qualifications?
Morse doesn’t think so, and believes that by looking to infanthood—that universal human experience of supreme dependency and irrationality—we can unlock a proper approach to self-interest and human engagement.
We are not born as rational, choosing agents, able to defend ourselves and our property, able to negotiate contracts and exchanges. We are born as dependent babies, utterly incapable of meeting our own needs—or even of knowing what our needs are. As infants, we do not know what is good or safe. We even resist sleep in spite of being so exhausted we cannot hold our heads up. We are completely dependent on others for our very survival.
In our experience as helpless infants, we learn some important things: whether the world is a safe place that can be counted on to meet our needs; whether we in particular are worthy of living; and whether others can be trusted. We learn whether people respond to us favorably, and we learn ways to encourage them to do so.
This is nothing explicitly new, to be sure, but Morse’s approach to “social capital” strikes me as a bit more specific and absolute: that family is the most important element, more so than friendships, religions, and, yes, free markets (which I agree can help reinforce things like trust).
To prove her case, Morse looks to extreme situations wherein the family has been removed, focusing specifically on child abandonment and the attachment disorder that so often follows:
The classic case of attachment disorder is a child who does not care what anyone thinks of him. The disapproval of others does not deter this child from bad behavior because no other person, even someone who loves him very much, matters to the child. He responds only to physical punishment and to the suspension of privileges. The child does whatever he thinks he can get away with, no matter the cost to others. He does not monitor his own behavior, so authority figures must constantly be wary of him and watch him. He lies if he thinks it is advantageous to life. He steals if he can get away with it. He may go through the motions of offering affection, but people who live with him sense in him a kind of phoniness. He shows no regret at hurting another person, though he may offer perfunctory apologies.
This, Morse argues, is the direction of a society that sucks the love out of its view of the individual and life in general. This — a society of calculating, isolation-prone individuals— is the logical outcome of a society that gets the intersection of self-interest and sacrifice wrong. We’ve seen it in the Robotic State formerly known as the U.S.S.R., and we continue to see it in that same state’s pseudo-capitalistic aftermath.
Such dispositions are due to an inability to discern and reconcile one’s self with the world around him, and Morse’s thesis is that this is typically more due to a lack of human love than it is an intrusion of evil:
This is the child whom some social theorists might have imagined a “noble savage,” untouched by corrupting adult influences. This is the child in the state of nature, who takes care of himself, who has no society around him, having survived a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short.” But plainly this person is not fit for social life. Most people would call him a sociopath, and not dignify him with the label homo economicus. Certainly, this left-alone child bears no resemblance to anyone’s notion of a “noble savage.”
The desperate condition of the abandoned child shows us that we have, all along, been counting on something to hold society together, something more than the mutual interests of autonomous individuals. We have taken that something else for granted, and hence, overlooked it, even though it has been under our noses all along. That missing element is none other than love.
Thus, Morse simultaneously tears down both homo economicus and the “noble savage” hypothesis all at once (as did, I believe, Adam Smith, though to a lesser and more indirect extent). We are humans who rely on love — most optimally and comprehensively delivered through the family.
I’ve not yet finished the book, but Morse appears to be on to something spectacular, if only in the way she is framing this issue. Yet as valuable as her input may be, we mustn’t forget its limit in scope: such “love” cannot fully return or be maximized in the family without hooking it up to the proper source.
“Love is from God,” wrote the Apostle John, “and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
If we pay heed to this, striving for the love of God in our families and in our child-rearing, we will raise individuals who are not only capable of maintaining and engaging in community, but empowered to build it.