Philosophers from Rousseau to Nietzsche have offered answersby Naomi Goulder / May 26, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: Nietzsche—America’s superman
On 31st May Naomi Goulder will speak at “The Good, The Bad and the Controversial” at “HowTheLightGetsIn”—the philosophy and music session at Hay Festival. The discussion will be hosted by Sameer Rahim, Prospect’s Arts and Books Editor.
When moral considerations are invoked, it is often to limit or constrain pursuit of our individual interests or preferences for the sake of others. It’s “unfair” to put one’s money in a tax haven. It’s “wrong” to leave people sleeping on the street—or to deny entry to refugees. At the same time, it’s widely assumed to be rational, inevitable even, for an individual to act so as to maximize the satisfaction of his own preferences or goals.
Is this tension inevitable? Granted, certain preferences seem made for harmonious coexistence or cooperation; if I take enough pleasure in promoting others’ interests, self-interest and duty may coincide. But not all preferences are like that: power and prestige may be inherently competitive and we are thrown into conflict whenever the resources we desire are scarce. In Plato’s Republic, from around 380 BC, Glaucon presses Socrates for a response to the concern that justice lies “in the troublesome class, among goods which are to be pursued [only] for the sake of rewards and of reputation, but in themselves are disagreeable and rather to be avoided.”
Perhaps, when good will and fellow feeling give out, state-backed incentive structures must take their place. With its monopoly of coercive power, the state may correct natural misalignments between individual self-interest and the collective good by creating incentives to divert self-interested desires towards socially beneficial goals. Bureaucrats may design laws to coordinate and maximize satisfaction of existing individual preferences. Through threat of punishment, the wayward self-interested individual can be brought into line. This can coordinate individual self-interest and the collective good at the national level—but it doesn’t go far beyond that.
Is there room for imagination, even psychological transformation, to more globally beneficial effect? Like those pioneering advertisers who at some point stopped seeking to satisfy existing desires and started inspiring new desires instead, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) built a theory on the malleability of human nature.…