Self-Interest Rightly Understood: On Harvey Mansfield’s 2007 Jefferson Lecture

The American enterprise lends itself to the conduct of political science today: it is a science concerned with satisfaction, utility, and power. The reason why it is concerned with these concepts is that individuals can be abstracted into something more general, and their behavior can be predicted. Hence, “self-interest” arises, and it is a loaded concept: it doesn’t actually take into account my actual self-interest or your self-interest, but says that whatever our interests are, they are reducible to being satisfied, or finding use of things, or exerting power.

How exactly does Constitutionalism lend itself wrongly to political science? Simple: it assumes in mere ambition and greed the President and the Congress, respectively, can be set into roles. Now our Founders were aware of the classics and the Scottish Enlightenment. They actually had a slightly more expansive account of ambition than we do. But nonetheless, our obsession with power starts from the very mode of analysis used to craft the Constitution.

And I need not tell you that this fundamental problem has the capacity, if resolved wrongly, to destroy American life from the inside out. Arguing that terrorism is bad is a controversial thing on my undergrad campus. Seriously. Don’t I understand that all people want satisfaction, or to have things they can use, or seek power? Like, the idea that people might blow themselves up for causes well beyond self-interest – that they really might be religious in a sense, as well as butchers and thugs, and that they need to be stopped immediately – that’s alien to us. We know all people are the same: peace comes from assuming everyone is a dumbass like ourselves, and not insisting on standing firm where we must and reasoning with those who are obviously open to reason.

Mansfield centers his lecture around the Greek concept of thumos. All it means is “spiritedness,” but the implications are huge. Here is the summary of his own lecture that he provides at the conclusion of the lecture:

My profession needs to open its eyes and admit to its curriculum the help of literature and history. It should be unafraid to risk considering what is ignored by science and may lack the approval of science. The humanities too, whose professors often suffer from a faint heart, need to recover their faith in what is individual and their courage to defend it. Thumos is not merely theoretical. To learn of it will improve your life as well as your thinking. It is up to you to improve your life by behaving as if it were important, but let me provide a summary of the things that you will know better after reflecting on the nature of thumos: the contrast between anger and gain; the insistence on victory; the function of protectiveness; the stubbornness of partisanship; the role of assertiveness; the ever-presence of one’s own; the task of religion; the result of individuality; the ambition of greatness.

The contrast between anger and gain has gotten Mansfield in trouble, because he has said that civil rights and feminism are best understood as honor-seeking movements (note the “spiritedness” in the background) and are not primarily interested in material gain. This seems to be a knock on those movements, if one thinks that material gain matters more than equality, which is a position of being respected and honored. Mansfield makes it very clear that he thinks these movements were seeking equality:

Blacks and women wanted benefits only as a sign of equality, not to give themselves greater purchasing power. Power is too vague a term when separated from honor; when we say that people are “empowered,” that means they have the power that goes with honor.

and he continues his blasting of political science, implying very strongly that in ignoring issues of honor and only considering material gain/power that liberals who conduct this sort of analysis are secretly racist and sexist in a sense. They don’t actually appreciate difference or the significance of equality in human life; they’re bound to a “science” with a completely artificial notion of what people want:

The two honor-seeking movements I mentioned have been generalized in the concept of identity politics, illustrating the tendency of political science to perform abstractions and to avoid proper names. For how can you have a politics of identity or of meaning without using the names that go with identity and meaning?

Political science refuses to recognize meaning, and when it looks for a “gain” we can all share in, it robs people who do not have material things or power of even the dignity of their right to be respected. That political scientists in the US are moral actors is purely coincidental: the field itself could be practiced by Nazis, and it can certainly be used to wither away sentiments and thoughts more essential to society than political science itself.

Mansfield’s observations about our “insistence on victory,” “protectiveness,” and “the ever-presence of one’s own” make the “rational actor” that would be presumed by any social science, not just political science, but also economics, seem like a myth:

Even the most self-centered libertarian wants everyone to be a libertarian; for the world would be a better place if only everyone were perfectly selfish….

Chimps receive names from human beings with equanimity, but do not give themselves names. These are items yet to come in the imputed progress of chimpanzee civilization. Their greatest triumph, however, will be the achievement of science. For science, according to science, ought to be the most important attribute of human beings. Modern science especially seems to represent the control of our environment, of nature. To be sure, science as opposed to religion recognizes nothing sacred either outside man or within him. But collectively, science is the assertion of man over non-man, surely an unembarrassed claim to importance and rule. Yet as individuals, scientists are anonymous factors in the scientific enterprise, each one substitutable for another. For all science cares, scientists could as well be numbered as named.

The latter passage I have not-so-subtly selected to demonstrate that even the empirical sciences have an agenda. And if you say “well, that agenda can be analyzed via the social sciences without regards to value,” without realizing that the social sciences ape (no pun intended) the empirical sciences and further, that when the social sciences make claims that stick they are starting from points like “opportunity cost,” which might be Socratic in not making any explicit claim that utility is normative, well, you’ve got some issues to settle.

The social sciences have an agenda, when all is said and done. The idea is to rid modern life of anger – let’s destroy partisanship, let’s rid ourselves of religion and the idea that great indignation might fuel love, let’s get rid of ambition. Let’s focus instead so intently on “one’s own” that we think our own interests are what is best for humanity, and then call that a science. Claims of injustice can be accounted for in modern theories of rights, there’s no need for anyone to rule. The agenda is nothing short of peaceable anarchism through the sciences (I’m not sure exactly how to account for the charges against political scientists above. It could be asserted that they don’t know their field wholly, or that peaceable anarchism makes no real provision for what means it should be achieved by).

The main obstacle to this agenda is that it claims to be science, when it is in fact value-laden in the extreme. Thus it covers up the truth in key places, places where it can’t afford to cover up the truth. Mansfield shows us that the concept of self-interest itself can be understood in a better way than modern political science cares to understand it.

To see how self-interest can be rightly understood, all one needs to see is that when one gets angry, one moves from the particular (I was wronged) to the general (I need something that is not being given in the current state of affairs). There is a common good, and we can deliberate and disagree about it. The issue with political science nowadays is that it denies the very possibility of this debate – this debate can only take place on blogs or in households. It isn’t empirical, because it assumes people as individuals might actually have more to say about their world than themselves, even if their reasoning starts from their particular position. People aren’t meant to think: they’re an aggregate whose behavior can be predicted, and whose wants can always be satisfied. Political science insists we look narrowly, that if we write for example, we “write what we know.”

But I say – and I’m getting this from the author Richard Steinberg – “know what you write.” You’re always going to make a claim about the general: why not see what other claims people make instead of assuming that you’ve worked out the numbers, and thus have a theory which shows how all people can be satisfied? Self-interest is really a deep tension between the self and the world that makes itself manifest when things don’t go exactly as planned.

To see why self-interest isn’t as simple as those who do more empirical studies would have us believe, consider merely that we don’t act the way we’re supposed to act on paper. The more empirical attempts to study politics often conflate the descriptive with the prescriptive: they see things that can be quantified as “satisficers” and then say everyone should want those, so the model works out nicely. Self-interest is being purposely misunderstood in the majority of social science literature in order to push a sense of value.

Deliberation means we can debate value, that we don’t need to be told what we must think. It means we can be responsible enough to concede when we’ve lost, and yet strong enough to keep fighting the good fight with respect for our opponents. Notice how Mansfield describes “losers” in his lecture – they’re people that keep giving because their sense of pride means that they know how to be ashamed. If they didn’t know how to be ashamed, we’re in a world of trouble: it means we can’t conduct politics, since each of us must have a tyrannical grasp on what makes us happy, or else are consigned to the dustbin.

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