Self Interest and the Social Bond

Wendy provided me with some food for thought the other day when she serendipitously drew my attention via her post on a light switch puzzle to the fact that the English political philosopher Norman Geras has a blog. Geras is the author of an excellent book, The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust, which I first read after the 2001 election. It was a help for me then – in that I was searching for some sort of alternative vision of society to the reality of the interaction of primal emotions such as fear and self-interest so masterfully articulated by John Howard in his election strategy. I’m grateful to Wendy not just for pointing me to a blog I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading, but also for inspiring me to take another look at Geras’ work.

Whether or not we go with the story that the recent election turned on interest rates, I think it’s uncontestable that Howard’s appeal to the electorate was predicated on individual self interest rather than any sense of social solidarity or the public good. Ken also recently made some good comments on how we might think about the application of principles of playful competition within a strong social network to the workplace.

Geras, I think, would accept the descriptor of that peculiarly English breed, the analytical Marxist. But his argument in The Contract of Mutual Indifference is not predicated on an acceptance of Marxist economics (though it does perhaps rest on a Marxist ontology). Where Geras can help us, in our post-election musings, is the neat and elegant way he reworks the social contract tradition to demonstrate that self-interest – abstracted from social bonds – undermines the freedoms Liberalism should provide.

Geras’ argument is very simple. He takes as his starting point the phenomenon of the observer who turns his or her face away from the awareness of suffering, a figure particularly highlighted in the ample literature on the Holocaust. He then questions why this indifference – and our indifference today to suffering – whether caused by poverty or violence – and reformulates the standard Liberal social contract argument.

For Geras, the truth of our society is that we have a contract of mutual indifference. That is, we implicitly agree not to help those in need in return for an acceptance that they are unlikely to help us if we need it. It’s pretty clear how this ties in not just with indifference to war or violence, but also with the foundations of an economy built on self-interest.

Geras makes the point that built into Liberalism’s assumption of personal freedom is the freedom to ignore the interests of others, provided one does no positive harm to them. I’d like to take this argument a bit further shortly. Geras’ solution – again elegant in its simplicity and power – is that we don’t need to take the problems of the world on our shoulders. Rather, we are justified in putting ourselves and those with whom we are intimate first, but provided that we also do something for others. An example to which he returns is the greater force Amnesty could have (and the less an excessive commitment would be required of its members) if it had a million rather than a hundred thousand members in the UK. It was in this way that Geras helped me after the 2001 election. I felt guilty that I hadn’t done more. And I felt that I hadn’t because of my own self interest. Geras demonstrates both that we have a legitimate right to our own life projects and interests, but also that we can all enhance those projects by devoting some of our time to building richer social networks, and a better and more caring society generally.

I’d like to give Geras’ argument on Liberalism a bit of a twist. It seems to me that if we go back to the philosophical justification for the pursuit of individual happiness advanced by Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill, Bentham’s utilitarianism didn’t distinguish between any particular quality in pleasure that could be maximised, while Mill recognised that our ability to enjoy life depended on the social conditions for self-development. Bentham, I would suggest, saw democracy as a means to Liberalism while Mill recognised that the two pillars of Liberal Democracy had always to be intertwined.

In his later writing, Mill extended this principle to intervention in the individualist economy, arguing it was unjust that –

the produce of labour should be apportioned as we now see it, almost in an inverse ratio to the labour – the largest portions to those who have never worked at all, the next largest to those whose work is almost nominal, and so in a descending scale, the remuneration dwindling as the work grows harder and more disagreeable, until the most fatiguing and exhausting bodily labour cannot count with certainty on being able to earn even the necessities of life.

In his Considerations on Representative Government, Mill laid out his ideal of the ‘advancement of community… in intellect, in virtue, and in practical activity and efficiency’. We heard a lot in the election campaign about the ladder of opportunity. Perhaps ironically given Mark Latham’s earlier interest in social capital theory, the ladder seemed very much one that a disparate collection of individuals could climb. We didn’t hear enough about how the social interest required a community and a society which would enable each of us to achieve our true self interest.

What would a society look like – in post-Millennial Australia – where we followed Geras’ exhortation to break the contract of mutual indifference and recognised that our true self interest lay in strengthening the social bond?

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2021 years ago

What’s most interesting about this quote from Mill is how things have changed – the affluent as a class now work much harder than the poor.

But beside Mark’s point I realise. I would be interested to hear him on the ‘crowding out’ thesis – that because we pay the government a large percentage of our income we no longer feel obliged to help disadvantaged people ourselves; that our system of government encourages indifference.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Andrew, thanks, an interesting and stimulating comment as usual from you. Mill was certainly writing in a different context – entrenched aristocratic wealth. One could still mount an argument along his lines about the link between reward and productivity, but that’s a different story as you note.

As to the ‘crowding out’ thesis, I don’t know whether the alternative would be a return to philanthropical relief, but any study of the history of welfare policy would suggest that the social dispositions which give rise to giving vary widely in both motivation and distribution in different eras. But I don’t want to get into a disquisition on social welfare regimes per se right now.

I would comment that one aspect of indifference is also indifference on the part of those who receive distributional transfers – something that the “democratic administration” movement of the 60s and the third way people pick up on, but not entirely satisfactorily to my mind. But what I think you’re getting at is closer to what I’m talking about in the post – indifference based on self interest of the advantaged majority.

My suggestion here would be that as social solidarity declines, there is a concomitant shift towards regarding the welfare system as a residual system. Combined with a growth in the attitude that those who are welfare recipients could exercise choice to live otherwise, this has a tendency to create resentment against payment of taxation to subsidise what comes to seem as a second class public system (eg in health and education), which further encourages the disposition to self responsibility in those who can afford to opt out into a private system. A cycle begins which further residualises the public system, downgrades the quality of service, etc. The classic case study of this phenomenon might be the implicit psychology behind the campaign encouraging people to take out private insurance at the 30 year old rate (don’t wait til you’re 50 – what will the public system be like then?).

This is the negative of the case for universalism in social service provision. The key point I think is that all this is spurred by a decline in social solidarity and an increased belief that one must fend for oneself. I wouldn’t draw from this an argument against private provision or choice or against some selectivity and means-testing in service provision and obviously in income transfers, but I do think that a greater dose of universalism would be a good thing. But I think the key to this is not redesigning social and welfare policy (though that’s a big part of it) but rather shifting attitudes towards a less selfish individualism.

I don’t know if that’s an adequate answer to what you were thinking of?

Che Tibby
2021 years ago

mark,
highly interesting post. i’ve been struggling with this idea of self-interest myself, and you’re ideas are well beyond mine. i did have a question for you though.
to what extent do you think that this culture of self-interest is brought about by the contemporary complexity of society itself? something i noticed that appears to undermine democratic participation is high issue complexity, if something requires a sophisticated or measured consideration, a person will often inadvertently “sub-contract” the issue to the relevant experts.
the iraq is a good example. whether you believed there were WMDs or not, there were too many variables, senarios and opinions circulating for the average voter to understand. this isn’t because they’re stupid, but just because there was such a great weight of information that you have to have excess time to absorb it. consequently, people seemed to delegate their judgement (or reserve their judgement) to ‘the elite’. the fact that they were subsequently mislead is merely an indication of the failings of the process, but the process of decision delegation stands.
i’ve been toying with the idea that complexity and time constraint are two reasons why citizens are disconnecting from civil society except in the most superficial way?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Thanks, Che – I think you’re on to something there. For some reason, German political sociologists have thought a lot about complexity. Niklas Luhmann argues that complexity in issue resolution effectively insulates the political system from the “life-world” (which he thinks is a good thing), and Ulrich Beck (the theorist of the “risk society”) thinks the same, but thinks it’s a bad thing. Back in the 30s, Joseph Schumpeter, a very famous economist, made the same point in his analysis of politics – his argument being that politics and policy should effectively be the domain of experts.

I think this sort of argument has the anti-democratic tendency that you identify well. We as citizens don’t feel we have the expertise to judge, and thus we cease to pay attention. What I think we need though – to counter this – is debate about the broad politics and values behind particular policy orientations and political decisions. Too often, I think politicians nit-pick and over-complexify precisely to keep us disconnected and close down public debate.

Che Tibby
2021 years ago

i agree with you there. the tendency towards specialisation is anti-democratic, but broad debate about values (and presumably morality) doesn’t solve the problem of disconnection, because civic education is still time consuming. consequently, we’re back at square one with public disinterest and delegation to potentially corrupt elites.
i also think a normative argument concerning the legitimacy of elites making decisions for the public is largely useless, because that is after all the function of representative democracy, we elect people for that specific purpose.
instead, we have a catch-22 where the public does not have the discursive sophistication to fully contribute to important issues, nor the means other than limited electoral weight to implement its will (and via submissions to legislative committees) nor the time to acquire the necessary sophistication. this makes elites therefore essential.
i’m guessing that this is what you’re driving at when you mention broader debate concerning values. i’m also guessing that you advocate such a debate because communal identities like class no longer carry enough relevance to generate partisanship?
as i said, there simply is not enough civic education to allow reasoned debate on morality. which would necessarily imply that ‘moral elites’, such as the churches, would dominate public discourse. and this in turn implies closer public adherence to potenially diametric moral poles (not to mention competition or, god forbid, conflict between bastions of morality (the religions).
instead, as william connelly argues, we have a tendency to secularise ‘the centre’ of relative morality, identity and the like, leaving a “neutral” leadership of economic managers. sound familiar?

dan
dan
2021 years ago

Mark:

I just began Norm Geras’s grim (but fascinating) Contract of Mutual Indifference, so I’m happy to have stumbled into an intelligent discussion of its arguments. I’m curious, however, about your references to a “decline in social solidarity”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Che, thanks for your comment. Yes, I do think that class identities have declined to the point where they no longer necessarily correlate with partisan identification and are not necessarily amenable to being the juncture or point around which issues can be politicised.

I’m in agreement with the point Chris Sheil has repeatedly made over at Backpages. Politics is about an attempt to construct hegemony – ideally unifying the people with one vision of society – but in practice aiming for a divide where your concepts trump the other side’s. In my writing on politics, I’m also partial to Chantal Mouffe’s tweaking of Carl Schmitt’s thesis that politics is about making the friend/enemy distinction. In other words, contra Schmitt, Mouffe suggests that politics is about identifying a point of agonism (not antagonism) and clearly lining up on one side of an argument. Political divides rest on social identities, but the important point is that social identities are in part able to be shaped by discursive intervention at the political level. Mark Latham, in my view, tried this with policies such as the education and tax/family platforms but anticipating later more detailed analysis, it has to be said that Howard has been much more successful in articulating a range of more fluid and non-class based social identities to his political position.

Dan, your point is an interesting one as well. My reading of Australian, US, and UK labour history would suggest that traditionally the working class have been more solidaristic in Australia and the UK than in the States. A couple of factors come into play here – the absence of a large social democratic of Labor party, the ease with which employers and elites have used race as a divide, and the persistence of what one might call a Jeffersonian ideology which downplays the importance of the wage labour relation as a defining factor. Not that I’m suggesting that Australia is some sort of workers’ paradise – or ever was! I think that Geras argues well that what he is suggesting is not utopian – merely that our society can be more solidaristic than it is now – and that shifting things in this direction is a pre-eminently political task.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Dan, also, you’re right about social mobility. Most sociological studies would show it’s much rarer than people think, but the fact that people think it’s possible or common does indeed tend to reduce the salience of class in identity formation. This is not impacted on by what I would see as the relative decline of the middle class in both Australia and America (although obviously “objective” measures of class are a massively controversial and contested thing) in that downward social mobility often reinforces existing class mores. And of course, there’s the shifts in the economy and the nature of finance which enable a lot of people to maintain a middle class lifestyle based on credit despite a static or diminishing income – at least for a time. The latter factor was obviously a huge one in the Australian election and broke in favour of the right.

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

Mark, whilst no society was or ever will be a workers’ utopia, Australia did seem, in many respects, to be closer to it than elsewhere. The beginning of the 20th Century found Australia not only at the top of the economic pecking order, but also far more egalitarian than other parts of the world. Was it a land of unbridled euality — of course not; but in relative terms, which surely are what matters most, it was a positive example for the rest of the world.
As a youngster, unlike my peers, I preferred listening to old people to marbles, etc. A common thread in their stories was how fortunate they felt to have lived at a time, and in a country, in which there’d been an overall gradual improvement, and birth didn’t condemn you to the opportunity bereft life of the “old country”.
The War Years saw much of the economic struggle put aside. Even [or especially?]the Communist Union Leaders were preaching harder work ahead of wages and conditions. After the War the race was on again, and two things stand out in my mind
1] There were far greater opportunities opening up for ordinary people than [according to my older family members] had ever been the case before.
2] Even though individual opportunities were there, there was still a strong sense of community over individual, of egalitarian attitudes, of being part of a nation which would make it a better world for all — or at least most?

What happened? With increasing affluence, we seemed to become caught up the race of rising expectations. We lost an outlook I’d seen among those born in the 18th Century which accepted, even found pleasure in the fact, that others were going to evntually do better than they had. In its place was an obsession with “me”. We were interested only in more for ourselves, and no matter how much we had, we xould always be bitter about someone — anyone — having more.
On the question of social mobility I supect it has slowed down; but is this surprising? Look at some of the “progressive” changes we’ve made.
The State School and Teacher Union bureaucracies have combined to destroy the State School systems’ ability to provide sound educational bases for socially disadvantaged students. They pointed out that not everyone succeeded under the older systems [which was patently true, but irrelevant] then set about creating a new system which favoured those who came from homes like their own middle class backgrounds. Add to this the fact that among many of these “progressive educators”, there was a strong anti-intellectual prejudice, arising from their own mediocre abilities, and it’s perhaps understandable why they could convince themselves they were helping (sic) the working class.
But who among our educational barbarians could be expected to admit, other than privately, the mistake? When you’ve run The Titanic onto an iceberg, your career would be jeapordised by confessing.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Thanks for that, Norman. There’s no question in my mind we’ve become a less egalitarian and more individualistic society, and it’s interesting to hear some historical reflections on past attitudes.