The contested origins of ‘economic man’: Hutcheson, Berkeley and Swift’s engagement with Bernard Mandeville
Introduction Economic man is generally regarded as self-interested and rational. While most economists allow that people are neither entirely self-interested nor entirely rational, they argue that the concept of economic man is a useful abstraction with tractable analytical and predictive properties. The dominant conception is not, however, uncontroversial. Ariel Rubinstein (2006) has expressed concern that economic training distorts behaviour and causes people to act in more selfish ways. Deirdre McCloskey (2007) has argued that economists have focused excessively on prudence to the neglect of other virtues which are equally important for the health of bourgeois life. In several papers over three decades, Amartya Sen has engaged with the assumptions underlying the conception of rational economic man. Among the aspects to which he has drawn specific attention are: (i) consequentialism, the judging of acts by their consequences; (ii) the focus on act evaluation rather than rule evaluation; and (iii) the focus on the effects on the individual. Concerns of the type expressed by McCloskey, Rubinstein and Sen go back a long way. They were at their most intense in the early eighteenth century as the conception of the market economy emerged in the writings of Mandeville, Hutcheson and Hume. Bernard Mandeville’s provocative espousal of consequentialism, arguing that private vices could lead to public benefits, suggested that the traditional virtues had no relevance in the modern world. Mandeville’s intentional provoking of his critics succeeded magnificently and his views were widely condemned as dangerous and immoral. Amongst Mandeville’s best known critics were Francis Hutcheson and Bishop Berkeley both of whom lived in Dublin in the 1720s. Less well known as a critic of Mandeville but perhaps the most effective of all, was the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift.