Bo Li, The Moral Foundation of Liberalism
“In examining social arrangements, they never lost sight of the ultimate question, cui bono?”
– Stephen Holmes
Liberalism is a collection of values and institutions. What are the moral underpinnings of these values and institutions? This is the focus of this essay.
Before we begin, a caveat is needed. When I say “liberalism” or “liberal” in this essay, I mean what most political scientists mean when they use these terms in academic writings concerning the history of political thought. In these writings, “liberalism” means the mainstream values and institutions that have dominated the Western world for over two hundred years, in which men and women are presumed free and equal, and in which individual rights are protected, governments are limited, and constitutionalism and the rule of law are indispensable institutions. Some people like to call this collection of values and institutions “classical liberalism.” In this essay, I will use “liberalism” and “classical liberalism” interchangeably when these terms are used to describe the core propositions of liberalism, which have remained largely the same for more than two hundred years.
When one reads the works of classical liberals, two apparently conflicting themes would surface. First, there is a general postulate that rational self-interest underlies all human actions. I will call this postulate the “universal self-interest postulate” or simply the “self-interest postulate.” Second, there is also a recognition that rational self-interest more often than not does not characterize human motivation; instead, people are often driven by passions, irrational emotions and non-calculating convictions. I will call this claim the “limited rationality postulate.” These two behavioral postulates form the moral foundation of liberalism.
More specifically, the universal self-interest postulate and the limited rationality postulate underlie several important moral principles of liberalism. The first moral principle is that everyone should be a judge of his or her own interest and welfare. I will call this the “principle of autonomy.” The second is that different persons’ interests are morally equal (that is, no person, or no one class of persons, can claim its interest is nobler, or morally more superior, than any other persons or classes of persons). I will call this the “principle of equality.” The principle of equality implies that everyone’s interest should receive equal consideration from a social perspective, and that every human being has the same intrinsic worth. The third moral principle is that everyone should be free to pursue his or her own interest and choice, subject to John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” (i.e., in pursuit of his or her own interest, he or she cannot harm another person’s legitimate interests). I will call this the “principle of freedom.” The fourth and final principle is that everyone should bear the consequences resulting from his or her actions in pursuit of individual interests. I will call this the “principle of responsibility.” The remarkable feature of liberal democracy is that all four principles are largely upheld while social order and economic efficiency are also achieved.
My focus in this essay, instead of being the four moral principles, will be the two behavioral postulates — the universal self-interest postulate and the limited rationality postulate — which form the foundation of the four moral principles. In what follows, I will discuss these two postulates in sequence. In so doing, I will borrow heavily from Stephen Holmes’ excellent and unconventional exposition of the secret history of self-interest in his 1995 book Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy.
The first postulate, universal self-interest, has important implications for thinking about politics. First, if everyone is self-interested, it means that rulers are also self-interested. A natural corollary is that rulers, too, need to be ruled — otherwise the political system will be turned into a self-serving machine of the politicians. The pre-modern fable that certain religious, political or civic leaders were somehow driven by higher and nobler causes fell apart when faced with the fundamentally liberal claim of universal self-interest. This basic assumption laid the behavioral foundation for the liberal political theory of separation of power, checks and balances and limited government. Without separation of power and checks and balances, self-interested politicians will use their power for their own advantages, often at the expenses of the public good.
Second, universal self-interest has a strong moral implication, which is moral equality. Universal self-interest means, first and foremost, that morally no one is above anyone else. “he postulate of universal self-interest, although logically incompatible with insight into the rich variety of human motives, first rose to cultural prominence because of its unmistakably egalitarian and democratic implications” (Holmes, 1995, p. 44). Once we subscribe to moral equality, it is but a small step for us to endorse political equality and democracy. This is so for at least two reasons. First, moral equality implies that no one is better qualified, at least morally, to rule than any other members of the community. As Robert Dahl puts it, if people believe that “no single member, and no minority of members, is so definitely better qualified to rule that the one or the few should be permitted to rule over the entire association,” then “the imperatives of logic and practical knowledge will strongly tend to lead them to the adoption of a more or less democratic process among themselves” (Dahl, 1989, p. 32). Second, as Holmes puts it, “o acknowledge the legitimacy of interests is to say that all citizens, no matter what their socially ascribed status, have concerns that are worthy of attention.” For liberals, the best way to assure this attention is political equality.
The rise of the self-interest postulate represented an awakening, at least among an important group of intellectuals in 17th and 18th century Europe, to the idea that no one should be presumed morally superior to any other person. “riters in the Enlightenment tradition were ardent debunkers and unmaskers. In examining social arrangements, they never lost sight of the ultimate question, cui bono? Without wishing to imply that self-interest was the motive behind all human actions, they were naturally fond of exposing self-interested motives wrapped in rhetoric about heroic sacrifice and the common good” (Holmes, 1995, p. 66).
Historically, the postulate of universal self-interest became culturally dominant not only because of its clearly egalitarian and democratic implications, but also because a host of pre-liberal and liberal writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth century endorsed the rational pursuit of self-interest as a better alternative to “the violent passion for glory” and other irrational motivations championed by the European nobility, on the one hand, and the “self-abnegation” preached by the Catholic church of their time, on the other (Holmes, 1995, pp. 53-57, 60-62).
First, as Albert Hirschman and Stephen Holmes show convincingly in their respective work, rational self-interest was regarded by authors including Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, David Hume and Adam Smith as a “relatively peaceful and harmless alternative” to the aristocratic pursuit of glory and other irrational motives, which often had disastrous consequences (see, Hirschman, 1997, pp. 9-63; Holmes, 1995, pp. 53-57). “Commerce is ‘low,’ but it is not the cruelest fate individuals and groups can inflict on each other. Interests are base, but they also raise the comfort level of social interaction” (Holmes, 1995, p. 54).
Second, for the same group of classical liberals, many of whom were Protestants, the Catholic dogma of original sin also helped cast self-interest in a more favorable light (Holmes, 1995, pp. 60-62). The Catholic doctrine of original sin, according to the progenitors and advocates of classical liberalism, tends to induce people to hate themselves and to hate the world. As such, authors like Hume, Voltaire, Tocqueville and Mill had a favorable view of self-interest. “Religion, [John Stuart Mill] believes, generally favors ’the inactive character, as being more in harmony with the submission due to the divine will.’ If you can get a person interested in himself, by contrast, you need apply little more than a gentle nudge to get him interested in others as well. The large step is not from egoism to altruism, but from religiously induced ‘absence of desire’ to a willingness to bestir oneself in the world at all” (Holmes, 1995, p. 61).
We have discussed, very briefly, the history of the self-interest postulate. Several observations are in order. First, one problem with Stephen Holmes’, and some of his pre-liberal and liberal predecessors’, analysis is that it seems to equate self-interest with rationality. The reality is that people are more often self-interested than they are rational. People may not be rational when they demonstrate often self-contradictory tendencies to follow rules, to break rules, to hate changes, to love changes, to enjoy telling people what to do, to relish being told what to do, to embrace risk, or to be distressed by uncertainty. But they are often doing so with a basic concern about their own well-being. Although people have irrational goals rooted in animosity, enmity, hatred, envy, excessive pride or vanity, their goals are often still self-serving.
Of course, no serious observer can deny that there are still some human motivations that are selfless, and that affection, attachment, love and pity for underserved misfortune are all non-interested behaviors that many people practice. When it comes to modern politics, however, self-interest is probably more fundamental than selfless, non-interested behavior. This is so for several reasons: First, modern commercialism, the market economy and neoclassical economics have awakened and elevated rational self-interest. Second, in politics, self-interest is probably much more common than in other areas. As David Hume puts it, although followers of groups are often motivated by principles or passions, leaders of groups, including political leaders, are often driven by interest. “The heads of the factions are commonly most governed by ; the inferior members of them by ” (Hume, 1987, p. 65). The bottom line, I think, is that in politics people may not always be rational, but they are basically self-interested. For liberals, universal self-interest is not only “better” than irrational motivations in the normative sense, it is also more accurate in the descriptive sense.
For liberals, the postulate of universal self-interest is not only politically sound and anthropologically accurate, it is also economically productive. One of the most remarkable achievements of Western economics since Adam Smith is its successful and convincing demonstration, through both empirical evidence and mathematical analysis, that a market economy based on self-interest, together with some minimal conditions, can always find prices to clear supplies and demands, and these prices are reached without any intervention from a central planner or an external force. And equally remarkably, these market-clearing prices are also proven to be economically efficient. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” as such, remains one of the most powerful vindications of self-interest ever written.
What would happen if each person were motivated, not by self-interest, but rather exclusively by altruistic concerns for the welfare of others? The result would be chaos. In economic terms, if each person cared only for the welfare of others, the market would never reach an equilibrium, because no market-clearing price would exist. This fact, in addition to fitting economic intuition, can be proven by rigorous economic model. Interestingly, Western economists were not alone in understanding this issue, a Chinese writer also realized this problem more than two hundred years ago. In his novel Flowers in the Mirror (“Jing Hua Yuan” in Chinese), Li Ruzhen described a country called the Land of Gentlemen. In this country, instead of being self-interested, each person cared only for the welfare of others. As a result, no transaction could take place without the intervention of an external force. The clever novelist told several stories where parties to transactions argued endlessly and fruitlessly about the appropriate price, quantity or quality of goods, each party trying to give the other side a better deal. The result would have been no deal at all but for the intervention by external parties.
The moral of Li Ruzhen’s stories is that no market equilibrium would exist if each person cared only for the well-being of others. In addition, as Mao (1997) points out, some people incorrectly think that, if each person cared more about other people than about himself or herself, then there would be no disputes. Li Ruzhen’s Land of Gentlemen tells us that the contrary is true. There would still be plenty of, if not more, quarrels in the imaginary world where everybody cared only for the welfare of others.
Self-interest may be politically accurate and economically efficient, but is it moral? Is the moral equality of universal self-interest an equality among immoral people? The answer is no. As Spinoza puts it, “the endeavour of preserving oneself is the first and only basis of virtue” (Spinoza, 1993, Part IV, Prop XXII, p. 155). The following quote from Holmes (1995) is illuminating:
“Self-love is nothing more shameful than a steady desire for well-being and a wholesome attachment to sweet life. A natural result of our physical makeup, the self-love with which human beings come into the world turns out, when examined more closely, to be morally neutral – neither good nor bad. A baby who suddenly stops crying to look at himself in a mirror deserves neither praise or blame. Depending on how it is reshaped through education, primitive self-love will become just or unjust, a virtue or a vice. In its primal state, however, it cannot be classified in either way.” (Holmes, 1995, p. 62)
Furthermore, if one thinks that the postulate of universal self-interest is immoral, he or she must also denounce the four moral principles of liberalism, which many of the antiliberals probably do not want to do. The dilemma for antiliberals, however, is that to accept the principle of autonomy and the principle of freedom is to acknowledge the legitimacy of everyone’s interest, and to endorse the principle of moral equality (based on interest) is to underwrite the universality and equality of such interest.
In addition to the claim of universal self-interest, there is another important liberal postulate about human behavior: there are limits to human rationality and people are often irrational (e.g., emotional, passionate, vengeful, and envious). The intellectual history of limited rationality and irrationality is well summarized by Holmes (1995). Here I want to focus on the work of David Hume, one of the major authors reviewed by Holmes (1995). Hume organized human motivations into a tripartite scheme: interest-driven, affection-driven, and principle-driven, or in the words of Stephen Holmes, interests, passions, and norms. The following quote from Holmes (1995) is illuminating:
“Several things should be said about this three-part scheme. First, although there is no insinuation whatsoever that interested behavior is always harmless, Hume obviously considers interests far less dangerous than a number of more violent and combustible passions. Second, he assumes that a person’s motives are always mixed, that interests, passions, and norms conspire together to shape every human action. Nevertheless, sometimes one motive predominates and sometimes others. We can therefore speak meaningfully of largely principle-driven, largely interest-driven, and largely affection-driven behavior. Third, within a single group, such as a religious sect or movement, Hume tends to correlate different motives with different roles – so that leaders and elites are ordinarily motivated by calculating interest while followers are usually motivated by noncalculating principle or affect. Fourth, by distinguishing motives in this way, Hume makes it possible to analyze the causal interconnections between them. To use his example, a man may be a royalist from principle, but when he receives a sinecure from the king his ardor for his principles may suddenly redouble… Fifth, and still more strikingly, Hume explains how animosity among hostile factions is able to sustain itself even when it runs counter to every party’s present interest.” (Holmes, 1995, p. 50)
Hume then goes on to describe several forms of irrational tendencies, passions or affections that rational self-interest cannot easily explain, including psychological rigidity, inherited animosity, infatuation with a leader, religious zeal, compulsive impatience with being contradicted, and eagerness to imitate. The lesson is simple: many common forms of human behavior are irrational or limitedly rational. “For Hume, and his mainstream liberal followers such as Smith and Madison, ‘interest’ would be a useless category if it were not reserved for one motive contending with others. Each of them therefore rejects imperialistic attempts to explain all behavior by invoking the rational pursuit of personal advantage” (Holmes, 1995, p. 53).
Like the postulate of universal self-interest, limited rationality and irrationality have important implications for liberal political thinking. First, limited rationality means that one goal of political institutions should be enhance the cognitive intelligence of public decision-making. Second, limited rationality and irrationality imply that concentration of power can be very harmful or even disastrous. Separation of power as well as checks and balances are necessary, not only to prevent abuses of power due to the calculating self-interest of power holders, but also to make sure that the process of public decision-making is not seriously corrupted by decision makers’ irrational passions and limited foresight.
In fact, if one reads the Federalist Papers, one finds that the Founding Fathers of the United States were keenly aware of the problems of irrational passions and human frailties when they wrote the United States Constitution in 1787. In his famous analysis of factionalism in Federalist No. 10, James Madison wrote:“The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment of different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for the common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.” (Federalist No. 10)
The irony is that many neoclassical economists have forgotten the intellectual tradition of their classical predecessors. Modern economists have often been accused, sometimes rightfully, of being motivational reductionists, because neoclassical economists often assume human beings are always driven by a single motive: rational pursuit of personal advantages. In contrast, classical liberal economists including Adam Smith (cf. Smith, 2000) and John Stuart Mill (cf. Mill, 1978), like other classical liberals, were keenly aware of the irrational sides of human psychology, and their accounts of human motivations were much richer, more complex and more realistic than those of the neoclassical economists. These realistic accounts of human motivations, which take into important consideration the irrational and limitedly rational aspects of human behavior, are not only important for an accurate understanding of economic behavior (one of the major challenges to neoclassical economics today is how to develop a systematic theory of limited rationality), they are also instrumental for grasping the nature and tendencies of political behavior and for developing effective and responsible political theory and political institutions.
I now conclude this essay by making several observations. First, is it self-contradictory for liberals to assert universal self-interest, on the one hand, and widespread irrational and non-selfish motivations, on the other? Stephen Holmes thinks that they are contradictory, but they are so because early liberal thinkers tactically used self-interest as a two-edged sword: as a radically egalitarian and democratic attack on the traditional moral and political order, on the one hand, and as a contrast to a variety of irrational and destructive motivations, on the other.
Holmes might have grasped one important part of the story. As discussed above, however, the story has another part. The conflict between the postulate of universal self-interest and the existence of widespread irrational behavior is not as real as it appears. Self-interestedness and rationality have no necessary relationship. People can be self-interested and at the same time irrational. On the normative level, classical liberals advocated rational pursuit of self-interest. On the descriptive level, classical liberals understood that human beings, especially politicians, are self-interested but only limitedly rational.
Second, the self-interest postulate and the limited rationality postulate form a necessary behavioral foundation for liberalism, but they are not necessary assumptions of democracy (although they may be sufficient), so understood. Political and social equality (the core values of democracy), in theory, do not require that all members of the society be self-interested and limitedly rational. A society in which all members were equally selfless and fully rational might be just as likely (or even more likely) to champion political and social equality as a society under the opposite conditions (i.e., people being universally self-interested and limitedly rational).
Finally, the attitude of liberalism towards human nature is not one of pessimism, but of realism and cautious optimism. As discussed above, in its primal state, self-love is neither a virtue nor a vice. The same thing can be said about limited rationality. We should feel neither pessimistic nor blindly optimistic about human nature. What we should do, however, is to view human nature pragmatically, realistically and accurately. We should acknowledge the existence and moral neutrality of self-interest and limited rationality, understand their potentials and dangers, and try to assemble a system of social and political arrangements that prevents or limits the destructive sides of human nature while preserving and facilitating the virtues that we are capable of possessing and developing.
(The author Bo Li is an attorney with Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York.)
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