Self‐Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism: Bernard Mandeville v. Francis Hutcheson
Smith discusses what Mandeville meant in saying that private vices produce public benefits, and how Hutcheson criticized that theory.
Now that this lengthy series is winding down to a close, it might be helpful to summarize a basic controversy that arose in a number of my essays, one that concerns the natural sociability of humankind. In other words, is the desire of people to interact with other people (beyond the family unit) and to form enduring associations called “society” a natural propensity of human beings? Or do people form societies only after utilitarian calculations reveal that such associations will advance the self‐interested goals of the participants?
Those many classical liberals who upheld the natural sociability of man did not deny that self‐interested considerations played a role in the early history of societies; but they also maintained that humans have a natural propensity—or instinct, as it was sometimes called—to interact with other humans, and that the benefits accruing from this interaction were not foreseen or designed by the participants. Explicit calculations of personal utility occurred only after societies had been formed, for only then were people able to experience the benefits of social life and subsequently strive to maintain the conditions, such as justice, that made those benefits possible.
As I explained in previous essays in this series, Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville were two of the most influential philosophers who denied the natural sociability of man—and, not coincidentally, both were psychological egoists who argued that all human actions are ultimately motivated by self‐interested considerations. Consequently, if all actions are driven by self‐interested desires, people would never have formed societies unless they believed, prior to their entry into a society, that such interaction would benefit them personally. For Hobbes, our egoistic proclivities in a state of nature (a society without government) would result in a perpetual war of every man against every man, so a stable social order was not possible until an absolute government instilled the fear of death in its subjects, after which this self‐interested fear trumped our violent, predatory instincts to harm or kill others in the course of getting what we want.
Mandeville agreed with Hobbes in some respects, but he added his own twist. He did not believe that threats of violence by a government would have resulted in social order, but he did believe that people needed “the curb of government” to sustain a peaceful, productive society. In a theory that smacks of Hayekian constructivism (a notion that I explained in my last essay), Mandeville speculated that governments appealed to the vanity and pride of people rather than to their fears. Rulers (and other “wise men” in league with government) subdued the natural bent of humans to please themselves by convincing them “that it was more beneficial for every Body to conquer than indulge his Appetites, and much better to mind the Publick than what seem’d his private interest.” In pursuit of this objective, wise rulers were unable to provide any “real rewards” that would compensate for the sacrifice of egoistic pursuits for the public good, so they examined “all the Strength and Frailties of our Nature”; and they concluded that “Flattery must be the most powerful Argument that could be used” to divert people from their narrow self‐interested pursuits in favor of the public good. It was by using the “bewitching Engine” of flattery that rulers appealed to the natural vanity of human beings by persuading them that they were rational creatures “capable of performing the most noble Achievements.” Mandeville continued:
Having by this artful way of Flattery insinuated themselves into the Hearts of Men, [rulers] began to instruct them in the Notions of Honour and Shame; representing [shame] as the worst of all Evils, and the other as the highest Good to which Mortals could aspire: Which being done, they laid before them how unbecoming it was the Dignity of such sublime Creatures to be solicitous about gratifying those Appetites, which they had in common with Brutes, and at the same time unmindful of those higher Qualities that gave them the preeminence over all visible Beings. They indeed confess’d, that those impulses of Nature were very pressing; that it was troublesome to resist, and very difficult wholly to subdue them. But this they only used as an Argument to demonstrate, how glorious the Conquest of them was on the one hand, and how scandalous on the other not to attempt it.
As illustrated in these remarks, Mandeville substituted vanity and pride for Hobbesian fear in his explanation of how self‐interest can be manipulated by government so as to make social order possible. Pride, like fear, is an egoistic motive, so both schemes never waver from the thesis that self‐interest alone drives human actions. But whereas the Hobbesian fear of death is quite real, pride, as explained by Mandeville, is a type of deception inculcated by rulers and their philosophical allies. Individuals who believe themselves to be noble, altruistic, or public‐spirited are deceiving themselves; such individuals are in fact motivated by the desire to be praised and flattered by others—the wellsprings of egoistic pride.
Although Mandeville discussed and defended his thesis in detail throughout both volumes of The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, it would serve no purpose to follow him further. It should be noted, however, that this aspect of Mandeville’s social theory does not harmonize with his reputation as a pioneer in the theory of spontaneous order and social evolution. It may be true, as F.B. Kaye (editor of the definitive edition of The Fable of the Bees) maintained, that Mandeville did not mean to say that wise rulers perpetrated their psychological manipulation at one time in order to kick‐start social order but that, instead, the process occurred over a long period of time. This qualification was necessary if Kaye was to defend his claim that Mandeville was a pioneer in historical sociology and anthropology—a claim echoed by F.A. Hayek and other scholars, including libertarian scholars. A problem here is that Mandeville reveled in positing paradoxes, with the result that he sometimes seemed to defend inconsistent positions. But the passages I quoted are from An Enquiry Into the Origin of Moral Virtue (in the first volume of The Fable of the Bees), which is one of Mandeville’s most important pieces. And there we find an implausible—indeed fanciful—theory that treats social order as a construction, in effect, of wise rulers who manipulated their subjects psychologically as a means to further the public good. How rulers became so much wiser than their subjects, Mandeville did not attempt to explain. (His approach reminds me of those skeptics of ancient Greece who argued that the gods were deliberately concocted by rulers as a means of maintaining political control.)
Mandeville’s theory of the origin of moral virtue—pride begot by flattery—brings us to his conceptions of virtue and vice. According to Mandeville, whether an action is morally good (virtuous) or morally bad (vicious) depends entirely on the motives that actuated it. Good actions are motivated solely by a concern for others, whereas morally bad actions are motivated by self‐interest. In this theory of moral rigorism (as F.B. Kaye called it) no action can be morally good if it is motivated by self‐interest, and it was by using this conception of vice that Mandeville defended his celebrated thesis that private vices generate public benefits. When boiled down to essentials, this is to say nothing more than that self‐interested actions frequently benefit society as a whole. This was scarcely news to the many moral philosophers, both before and after Mandeville, who had no objections to the pursuit of self‐interest, rightly understood. Mandeville’s scandalous pronouncement rested almost entirely on his substitution of “vice” for “self‐interest.”
In Remarks Upon The Fable of the Bees (1750), Francis Hutcheson (whom I mentioned in my last essay) noted the ambiguity in Mandeville’s claim that private vices produce public benefits, a proposition that may be understood in five different ways. But Mandeville, according to Hutcheson, never explained precisely what he meant. If all he meant to say was that self‐interested actions will sometimes produce social benefits, then Mandeville scored an easy victory by defining “virtue” too narrowly. Self‐interested actions are not necessarily immoral, and self‐love is quite compatible with benevolence. As Hutcheson put it in On the Natural Sociability of Mankind (1730), “the innate self‐love of our nature [is] in no way contrary to our common and benevolent affections.”
In Remarks, Hutcheson also attacked Mandeville for his arbitrary definitions of certain vices. Contrary to Mandeville, for example, the traditional vice of “luxury” did not refer to the enjoyment of goods that are not absolutely necessary for our survival; rather, the vice of “luxury” traditionally signified goods that one cannot reasonably afford—goods that are purchased at the expense of one’s obligation to care for one’s family, etc. Similarly, the vice of “pride” did not condemn legitimate accomplishments that deserved the esteem and praise of others; rather, it meant “having an opinion for our own virtues…greater than what they really are; arrogating to ourselves either obedience, service, or external marks of honour to which we have no right.” And “intemperance” did not mean the effort to satisfy any sensual desire; rather, it referred to “that use of meat and drink which is pernicious to the health and vigour of any person in the discharge of the offices of life.”
These vices, Hutcheson went on to explain, will vary according to the characteristics and situations of individuals. “Every one’s own knowledge, and experience of his constitution and fortune, will suggest to him what is suitable to his own circumstances.” Mandeville’s claim “that using any thing above the bare necessaries of life is intemperance, pride, or luxury” is, according to Hutcheson, simply “ridiculous.” It is not as if “temperance, frugality, or moderation, denoted fixed weights or measures or sums, which all were to observe, and not a proportion to men’s circumstances.” In short, many vices as defined by Mandeville are not true vices at all, but are merely the reasonable pursuit of self‐interest.
Adam Smith later expressed similar objections in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Mandeville’s approach is “wholly pernicious” because it “seems to take away altogether the distinction between vice and virtue.” Mandeville was wrong to equate self‐interest with vice, “since self‐love may frequently be a virtuous motive of action.” Moreover, contrary to Mandeville, Smith maintained that “the desire of doing what is honourable and noble, of rendering ourselves the proper objects of esteem and approbation, cannot with any propriety be called vanity. Even the love of well‐grounded fame and reputation, the desire of acquiring esteem by what is really estimable, does not deserve that name.”
In the final analysis, therefore, neither Hutcheson nor Smith disagreed with Mandeville about the socially beneficial effects of self‐interested actions (if pursued within the boundaries of justice). Their major objection was that Mandeville created his paradox of private vices and public benefits by defining “vice” so arbitrarily and narrowly as to tarnish all self‐interested actions as types of vice.
But what of Mandeville’s argument that authentic vices (e.g., theft) and even natural disasters (e.g., shipwrecks) generate socially beneficial outcomes because of the employment they create? Hutcheson (in Remarks) replied by invoking opportunity costs (a topic I discussed in my last essay). Consider the drunkard who neglects his family to buy liquor, or the dandy who buys expensive clothes that he cannot reasonably afford. According to Mandeville, such excesses benefit society because someone must produce the liquor and clothes needed to satisfy those vices. But, as Hutcheson pointed out, if the drunkard had spent his money on food and clothes for his family instead of on liquor, that alternative would also have created employment. The same reasoning applies to the dandy and his expensive clothes, as well as to shipwrecks and other examples discussed by Mandeville. It is consumer demand, not vices per se, that keeps the wheels of commerce turning. To attribute the benefits of commerce to private vices was merely a perverse and misleading way of saying the same thing.