In the brilliant, penetrating and amazingly erudite study by David Wootton Power, Pleasure and Profit, subtitled Insatiable appetites from Machiavelli to Madison, readers are treated to an engaging tour of the ‘Enlightenment paradigm’ gaining in the process a more profound understanding of our modern political economy and ethical situation.
The key feature of power, pleasure and profit is that they can be pursued without limit, and the central shift is from Aristotelian ethics and Christian morality to “a new type of decision-making which may be termed instrumental reasoning or cost-benefit analysis1” corresponding to a transformation from Gemeinschaft (community) to Gesellschaft (society) and the emergence of homo oeconomicus with his criteria of utility and social equality. The author remarks that: “For Aristotle, prudence enables one to become virtuous; for Smith, it enables one to become successful.” Alongside this, reason becomes the slave rather than the master of the passions - in particular of ambition, emulation and avarice classified as vices by the ancients when one considers emulation as underpinned by envy.
While virtue in the ancient world was associated with restraint and balance, the author follows Alasdair McIntyre in his diagnosis in After Virtue but differs in his solution while exploring the question of what it means to live “after virtue”. Here he pays detailed attention to the emergence of new vocabulary as a currency, for instance with the words interest and competition, the former with its logic of maximisation and its undercurrent of personal and social selfishness. One can see this pursuit in the ideology of capitalism as well as limitless economic growth.
The definition of happiness, especially in relation to pleasure and virtue, is also transformed. Moderation is replaced by indulgence. The main body of the book consists of chapters on specific concepts frequently related to people: power and Machiavelli, happiness, selfish systems in relation to Hobbes and Locke, utility in place of virtue, the State in terms of checks and balances, profit and the invisible hand, the market in relation to poverty and famines, and finally the whole notion of self-evidence. The book is crammed with insight and draws on well-known as well as obscure authors – who has heard of Voltaire’s contemporary Chastellux or Thomas Davison in terms of profit and benevolence related through charitable giving?
Here there is only space for a few observations. As economies develop, happiness becomes more implicated with wealth and security and is equated with pleasure rather than equanimity and contentment; the ‘pursuit’ of happiness implies individualism, competition, unease and prior discontent. Sympathy emerges as the core element of enlightenment moral philosophy and implies engagement with the community as a duty which is also a part of self-interest. The analysis of the State brings in a nuanced understanding of three types of mechanistic operation: the clock, natural forces and the self-regulation typified by the windmill, all with a growing understanding of the meaning of the word system in a dynamic sense.
The chapter on profit and the invisible hand is excellent and brings in the use of the term circulation applied to money, credit and commodities. It is evident in the chapter on market and poverty that famine is a market failure where Adam Smith falls short in feeling to recognise that country is not like a ship at sea “because it contains people of widely varied circumstances and conditions”. He fails to empathise and does not consider the potential role of charity.
The final chapter deals with self-evidence, quoting in this respect the American Declaration of Independence and showing that its phrasing probably goes back as far as Locke, writing in 1694. The author unpacks the notion of the pursuit of happiness by pointing out that this can apply to four groups pursuing respectively wealth, status, pleasure or virtue. These then have corresponding preconditions in that “wealth requires the freedoms of the marketplace; honours require a career open to talents and a public sphere; pleasure requires, among other things, sexual freedom; and virtue requires religious freedom2”. The author shows how most prominent thinkers develop their own idea of enlightened self-interest as coinciding with morality, even if they occasionally deceive themselves. Here, a redefinition of morality as “an interested obligation through the theory of sympathy” is crucial.
Wootton identifies four moves within a new preoccupation with systems analysis that are also found in the scientific revolution: the move from Aristotelian qualities to mechanistic quantities, from Aristotelian causation to the laws of nature, from the bounded to the unbounded, and finally a realisation that new systems involve feedback mechanisms at all levels. He then points out that the main systems that he has been discussing are examples of what he calls the Tinkerbell effect - concepts such as society, the state, the constitution and the economy only exist because people believe they exist and use them to organise their thoughts. The author provides a comprehensive description3 of what he had earlier called the ‘Enlightenment paradigm’ as applied in psychology, society, moral philosophy, economics and politics. This alone is worth price of the book as it brings home the extent to which we are still living within these systems, even if we react against them: “when we describe what is good about our societies and when we criticise their failings, we are mobilising arguments developed within the Enlightenment paradigm. Weber was right – no matter how we try to escape, we remain within the cage4”.
Hence the paradox that Enlightenment values fostered capitalism and political liberty, and now it is capitalism and political liberty which sustain Enlightenment values in a system dominated by success. This book is essential reading for understanding the climate in which we still live and which is exported worldwide through neoliberalism and globalisation.
1 Wootton David, Power, Pleasure and Profit. Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison, Harvard 2018, p. 5.
2 Ibid., p. 222.
3 Ibid., p. 242.
4 Ibid., p. 247.