Self‐Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism: Shaftesbury
Smith begins his exploration of self‐interest and social order by explaining Shaftesbury’s theory of social psychology.
In my last essay I outlined Emile Durkheim’s objection to the theory of spontaneous order, according to which the self‐interested actions of individuals will generate an unplanned social order. I also promised to discuss that topic in this week’s essay, and so I shall, but I have deviated from my original plan in several ways.
First, Durkheim intended his objections to apply not only to Herbert Spencer but to classical liberals generally, who typically emphasized the importance of rational self‐interest in generating and maintaining social order and a free society. But to focus on Spencer’s ideas alone could not do justice to this grand tradition, and it might even prove misleading. Spencer introduced some complicating factors into liberal thinking, especially in the fields of social and moral evolution, that were atypical and sometimes did more harm than good. I have therefore decided to take a broader view of the relationship between self‐interest and social order in the liberal tradition. I find this perspective much more interesting, and I think most of my readers will agree.
Second, Durkheim’s own ideas, which were the foundation of his objections to classical liberalism, are so complex and convoluted that I decided they were not worth the space, time, and effort that would be required to explain them, even in a cursory manner.
Third, there is a common misconception, even among scholars, that classical liberals marched pretty much in lockstep in matters pertaining to self‐interest and social order, whereas we actually find interesting differences and debates within the liberal tradition. I shall illustrate this point by exploring the ideas of three eighteenth‐century liberals—Shaftesbury, David Hume, and Adam Smith—in this series. Whether or not the discussion will continue after that point is something I will figure out later.
Unlike Durkheim and other positivists, eighteenth‐century liberals emphasized that an understanding of human psychology is essential if we are to understand the ultimate foundations of social order. It is therefore better to characterize this series as an exploration of liberal social psychology rather than liberal sociology. Let us now proceed to our first of three classical liberals.
Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671–1713), the Third Earl of Shaftesbury and author of Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), is not as well known today as David Hume, Adam Smith, or even lesser‐known British moralists, such as Francis Hutcheson. Yet he was a commanding figure in eighteenth‐century liberal thought whose far‐reaching influence was widely acknowledged. (Shaftesbury’s grandfather, the First Earl of Shaftesbury, was John Locke’s patron who had Locke tutor his grandson.)
It was Shaftesbury who pioneered the idea of sympathy—a psychological phenomenon that might be described today as “empathy”—as a key to understanding the “natural sociability of man.” (I shall discuss this meaning of “sympathy” in more detail in a later essay.) Shaftesbury veered from the moral rationalism found in John Locke and later figures, such as Samuel Clarke, and pioneered the school of thought known as “sentimentalism”—an approach that would later be developed in greater detail by Hutcheson, Hume, Smith, and other philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. This is not to say that Shaftesbury and later sentimentalists denigrated the role of reason in human affairs; they manifestly did not, but they also maintained that the elements of social order, such as justice and benevolence, did not originally arise from abstract philosophical reasoning. Rather, just as Adam Smith would later discuss a spontaneous economic order in his Wealth of Nations, so Shaftesbury and other sentimentalists focused on the fundamental psychological elements of a social order that, as Adam Ferguson put it in a different context, is “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”
In An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (which would later be incorporated into his Characteristics), Shaftesbury set out to study the “inward anatomy” of the human mind, an enterprise he deemed essential to understanding human sociability. Although social interaction is first and foremost a subjective phenomenon, Shaftesbury complained that most previous philosophers had largely neglected the psychological aspects and principles of social order. “[I]t is apparent that few of us endeavour to become anatomists of this sort. Nor is anyone ashamed of the deepest ignorance in such a subject,” even though “the order or symmetry of this inward part is, in itself, no less real and exact as that of the body.”
Of course, many philosophers had woven a psychological perspective into their theories of social order, for a certain amount of this is necessary in any discussion of human nature, but Shaftesbury rejected many of those treatments as insufficient, if not downright false. He was especially critical of a doctrine known as psychological egoism, which insisted that all human actions are necessarily self‐interested. In one respect Shaftesbury did not object to this primitive hedonistic analysis, since all human action is motivated by the desire to attain happiness, or satisfaction of the self, in some sense. Nevertheless, it is a serious error to suppose that all human actions are motivated by self‐interest, as that term is commonly understood. Individuals are part of a social system—they are born into society and find their greatest pleasures in interacting with others—so in addition to selfish passions (which Shaftesbury by no means condemned, when properly moderated and understood), there are also social passions that can be gratified only during the course of social interaction.
In the final analysis, according to Shaftesbury, psychological egoism is little more than a play on words. However many examples of disinterested or benevolent behavior are presented to psychological egoists—those “distributors and petty retailers of this wit”—they manage to show how “self is still at the bottom.” Few will dispute the claim “that happiness was to be pursued and in fact was always sought after,” but this is scarcely the relevant point. Rather, we should determine the true nature of happiness, and whether it can be achieved by those who focus narrowly upon themselves at the expense of others. If we pay attention to this issue rather than “run[ning] changes and divisions without end upon this article of self love,” the “question would not be ‘who loved himself or who not?’ but ‘who loved and served himself the rightest and after the truest manner?’”
This rejection of psychological egoism as irrelevant at best and devious at worst would later be explored at greater length by Bishop Butler, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and others. So much for the common claim that classical liberals believed that all human actions are motivated by self‐interest.
Shaftesbury rejected a utilitarian analysis of social passions of the sort that a psychological egoist might defend. It is not as if individuals somehow calculate that their own interests coincide or harmonize with the interests of others, after which favorable emotional responses follow suit. Rather, the social passions develop naturally, from the psychological constitution of man and our early interactions with others, and therefore precede any such rational analysis. We begin to feel an affinity with our family and fellow humans long before we are able to project the long‐range consequences of our actions, so the psychology of human sentiments (a combination of mental and emotional dispositions) must be viewed as an independent subject apart from the rational calculations of an acting agent. In short, whereas many individualists, such as John Locke, had stressed the natural sociability of man, Shaftesbury believed this sentiment had not been adequately explained, owing to insufficient attention to the “anatomy” of the human mind.
The appellation “sentimentalist” is therefore an appropriate label for Shaftesbury’s approach (and those British liberals who followed him), owing to its stress on the natural “sentiments” that generate social order. And this is why it is appropriate to include Shaftesbury, Hume, and Smith in a discussion of social psychology. Of course, the term “psychology” had not yet been coined—all this was subsumed under the label “moral science” or “moral philosophy”—but the issues discussed by eighteenth‐century sentimentalists have much in common with those discussed by modern social psychologists and sociologists, and many of their insights retain their value even today. That value may easily be overlooked because the normative vocabulary of eighteenth‐century social psychology, such as “virtue,” “vice,” and “merit,” is no longer in fashion, having been widely dismissed as contrary to the value‐free terms of social science. Nevertheless, British moralists understood that humans are normative animals, and that social interaction depends on a complex web of value judgments and value‐laden feelings, so it may be that some modern social theorists have lagged behind their predecessors in this respect.
All “sensible creatures,” Shaftesbury argued, may be said to pursue the good inasmuch as they engage in life‐sustaining activities, but normative concepts like “virtue” and “merit” apply only to the human species—creatures endowed with reason who are capable of reflecting on their own mental states and processes.
In a creature capable of forming general notions of things, not only the outward beings which offer themselves to the sense are the objects of the affection, but the very actions themselves and the affections of pity, kindness, gratitude and their contraries, being brought up into the mind by reflection, become objects. So that, by means of this reflected sense, there arises another kind of affection towards those very affections themselves, which have been already felt and have now become the subject of a new liking or dislike.
Shaftesbury drew an analogy between the outward sense of sight and the inward sense of spontaneous normative judgments (the so‐called “moral sense”) whereby we assess thoughts, motives, reactions, and emotions, both in ourselves and others. The human mind is a “spectator or auditor of other minds,” a reflective instrument that cannot help but form opinions about these psychological states. The mind will assess various sentiments as soft or harsh, agreeable or disagreeable, harmonious or dissonant according to the inherent characteristics of the psychological object which it contemplates. “Nor can it withhold its admiration and ecstasy, its aversion and scorn, any more in what relates to one than to the other of these subjects.” And just as we retain impressions of the objects perceived by our external senses, so we retain notions of “the moral and intellectual kind,” which we continue to reflect upon even when these subjective objects are not immediately present. In all such cases “the heart cannot possibly remain neutral but constantly takes part one way or other.” We naturally approve of what strikes us as “honest and disapprove what is dishonest and corrupt.”
It is again important to stress that Shaftesbury did not regard these evaluations as the products of discursive reasoning. They are not rational judgments in the strict sense, though they may later be confirmed by reason; they are spontaneous responses that flow from human nature itself. Shaftesbury illustrated this point by comparing our prerational evaluations to our aesthetic sensibilities. We respond spontaneously to a beautiful object, even if we have no theory of beauty and have formed no explicit criteria to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly. In thus maintaining that our basic moral reactions are akin to our aesthetic responses, Shaftesbury established a perspective whose influence on eighteenth‐century thought can scarcely be overestimated. In many subsequent philosophers we find the same comparison of the moral and aesthetic realms.
A key element in the social psychology of Shaftesbury is a doctrine known as the natural harmony of rightly understood interests. Long before this approach became famous in the economic sphere via Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the same approach had been explored in the psychological realm by Shaftesbury and other British liberals.
According to Shaftesbury, it is a mistake to assume that the “common interest” or “public good” conflicts with the “attainment of private good.” True, this may happen when self‐interest is unduly exaggerated, but the same is true of an unreasonable concern with the public good, when that is pursued immoderately at the expense of self‐interest.
Shaftesbury argued that there is no inherent conflict between the public and private good when these ideas are rightly understood. This is so primarily because a rational conception of self‐interest is one that has been filtered, so to speak, through our interactions with others. It would therefore be accurate to say, not that the public and private good “harmonize,” as if these were separate and distinct goals, but that they are one and the same thing viewed from different angles. As Shaftesbury put it, “to be well affected towards the public interest and one’s own is not only consistent but inseparable.”
Although it is true that Shaftesbury, Adam Smith and other liberals who had been influenced by Stoicism provided a metaphysical foundation for the “harmony of interests” doctrine, this should not be confused with the Christian notion of divine providence. What Adam Smith famously called “the invisible hand” is not the intervention of a personal god, but the natural operation of an orderly universe in the sphere of social interaction. Therefore, contrary to a common misconception, the invisible hand is not a theological tenet or mode of explanation. It is a working presumption not unlike that employed by modern sociologists.
Social cooperation is an observable fact, so the question arises: How can this be explained? If we assume that there are discernible principles at work, principles that explain how people manage to cooperate in voluntary endeavors despite those selfish proclivities that, according to Hobbes, should logically lead to “a war of every man against every man,” then it becomes the task of the social theorist to explain what these principles are and how they operate. It is in this way that a “harmony of interests” becomes, not an explanation per se, but a reasonable presumption for the social investigator. And in no case do we find Smith, Shaftesbury, or their ideological colleagues appealing to the invisible hand as a satisfactory explanation per se. Instead, working from the premise that social order requires a coordination of individual interests, early liberals attempted to specify the particular mechanisms that generate this social order. For Shaftesbury, those mechanisms are principally psychological in character.