Homo Economicus is a Cultural Artifact


The central thesis of my work is that modern cultures/societies have evolved on a set of fundamental beliefs that do not match the way the world works. Over time, while the institutions of society, based on these beliefs, have become more entrenched, complex, and powerful, they are failing to produce the normative goals of individuals and the larger collective society. This failure is being compounded by the appearance of unintended consequences that loom large enough to pose existential threats to the Earth and its life forms.

If this is the case, then the way out of the situation is simple in theory, but exceedingly difficult in practice. Replace the faulty beliefs; faulty in the pragmatic outcomes of building a world based on them. To the staunch defenders of modernity’s primary beliefs, be assured that I am not arguing that these beliefs are not based on experience; I am saying only that they do not fit the larger interconnected system in we exist. I am deliberately avoiding commenting about the truth of these beliefs at this point, but will later in this essay.

The cultural engine based on these beliefs runs the modern world. This world includes almost all of the industrialized economies of the globe. China and India have one foot there, and one stuck in their traditional culture, but are moving into modernity. When I speak of modernity, I refer to a particular set of foundational beliefs and norms on which the political economy and other major societal institutions are grounded. One belief provides the basic way we explain the way the natural universe, including human beings, works. It is difficult to compress that into a single sentence, but here is a try. We believe in an objective reality, composed of entities with fixed characteristics (nature) that follow knowable, fixed rules of behavior, determined by applying the methods of science to produce the rules. Objective means these rules are acontextual, and fixed in time. An apple always falls downward from a tree, whether in your yard or mine, and will do the same over all time. Human subjects create these rules by observing pieces of the universe in carefully controlled circumstances (reductionism). Both the idea of an objective universe and the reductionist methodology can be traced to René Descartes.

The second belief is a corollary to the first, but so important that it must be set it apart as distinct. It is the belief we invoke to explain the behaviors of human beings. It follows from the first in that it assumes that humans have a characteristic nature and whose behavior follows certain rules, just like everything else in the universe. One of these rules is that humans are rational, that is, their mental processes follow the rules of reason, some universal set of logical processes. This belief became more closely defined during the time of the Enlightenment philosophers to a particular logic. Humans would act in a way to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. As economics began to be shaped by Adam Smith and others, this became even more precise and refers to some utility function or ordering that determined the priority of action. While not a scientific taxonomic distinction, humans were labeled by a new species name, Homo economicus: A rational and narrowly self-interested person who acts primarily to acquire goods and services and is never satisfied. An ancillary concept to this is that the acquisition of material objects has become very high on the modern scale of people’s utility functions.

These beliefs underpin both the two major political economic systems of modernity, capitalism and socialism. Adam Smith gave us this pithy idea; “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” John Stuart Mill expressed a similar theme, “[Political economy] does not treat the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth…” Marx wrote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Each of these men saw human beings as possessing some sort of internal desire that served as the basis for their economic life. The idea grew to encompass all action beyond the economic. Altruistic acts could be explained by arguing the value of helping another outweighed all other options at the moment of decision. The word, need, became reified as in the use Marx made of it. As a noun, it could be and is conventionally viewed as a part of human nature.

This essay was triggered by a conversation I participate in on the Global Transition Network (GTN), a group seeking ways to bring about a transition to flourishing. The sponsors of the GTN use a different normative description, but one that fits this single word very closely. The following quoted lines were posted by a neuroscientist commenting on “the deep problem of what a person actually needs.”

The need a person feels is for something better than he or she already has. This feeling arises from a core brain circuit, present in all animals, that makes us feel good when we receive something better than expected: a warm spot when we are cold, a berry or nut when we are hungry, and so on. But as modern life removes most environmental fluctuations, the circuit “adapts.” Now, when we are warm, dry, and fed, our innate neural circuits drive us to seek new satisfactions. The problem of “need” cannot be plastered over with a slogan; it cannot be controlled by legislation or social pressure.

I fully subscribe to the cognitive model he provides, but not at all to the way he elaborates the consequences. He has failed to put brackets around his scientific thinking and, instead, assumes that need refers to the culturally bound idea about acquisition. Note the use of the phrase “receive something.” He also assumes that the received object is “mine,” that is, private property. Based on the same model of cognitive functioning, I come to a distinctly different explanation of and definition of “need.”

As I often do, I refer to the work of Antonio Damasio, a well-known neuroscientist. Damasio uses a model that separates the brain into three major parts, each corresponding to a different “self.” My language and description lack the nuance and detail he offers, but still represents, I belief, the overall construction of human cognition. The “protoself” refers to processes that originate in the evolutionarily oldest portion of the brain. Here lies the source of more or less automatic responses to certain experiences-fear, disgust, anger, sadness, or happiness. The universality of these emotional acts across cultures and even among some animals suggests a genetic, structural foundation.

The “core self” refers to processes in parts of the brain primarily involved with maintaining the body’s homeostasis, that is, keeping it alive and controlling its movements. The third part, the “autobiographical self,” is the parts of the brain that process the experience of living from moment to moment. Damasio describes this portion as containing neuronal structures that capture images of experiences and the actions that accompanied them. This is the part of the brain/self primarily involved in intentional action, actions over which we could say the actor has a choice and are directed toward the immediate context. The now-mostly accepted description of the brain as having a part that captures one’s life history also indicates an important role for cultural and individual contexts. Using terms from evolutionary biology, we can say a self, a term used to describe the behaviors of a human being, have both a phylogeny and ontology. The first, phylogeny, is that part of the self that arises from cultural experiences, experiences common to other humans in the same cultural settings, from the society as the larger bound to other institutional setting such as work, school, or religious institutions. The second, ontogeny, describes the idiosyncratic experience of the individual and is unique to every individual, even to identical twins.

All this is background to my next point. I argue that “need” is phylogenic, coming from the meaning that the culture gives to it. Words are symbols that humans use to express feelings and other cognition processes. The quote above uses the culturally bound meaning of need, that is, the need for some thing. As I interpret Damasio and other cognitive scientists, some image of the thing may rest in the brain, but the important feature is the process of acting to get it as mine. The process produces whatever positive or pleasurable response, that later can be expressed as, “I needed that.” So-called, “mirror neurons” may be involved in embedding the processes that create pleasure. The object itself is not the source of meaning; the pleasure response comes from the process. If we now put brackets around the cultural context, the phylogeny, we are still left with the ontogeny, a reference to a process that produces a pleasurable response. The Enlightenment philosophers and scientists appear to be right after all.

But what would result from a different phylogeny, that is, a different cultural experience. We would still expect to observe “needy” behaviors, that is, behaviors that produce pleasurable results, but they would be triggered by a different set of actions. What might happen if pleasure was triggered by care, that is, performing empathic actions for others, instead of our self-directed normal behaviors? Over time, following the way language comes to be, we might start to describe human beings as creatures that have a “need” to act to provide empathic care for others, but including myself as a possible other. Before Smith spoke as in the above quote, he thought that human nature was, ironically, based on empathy. Changing the beliefs that run the modern culture is certainly very difficult, but is possible compared to the challenge of changing our genetic components. The first would take a few generations; the second, an epoch.