Baggage 3 – Economic Man


There has long been a view of human thought called Economic Man that was developed by economists since the 1800s. People are seen as making rational decisions for their own financial self-interest. The model was distilled into mathematical equations used by economists. The idea of Economic Man as an approximation of the financial behaviour of groups of people is reasonable. However, an ultra-rational, ultra-selfish ideal of human behaviour has, in the later half of the last century, been put forward as something to try to achieve.

A few economists have been critics of the Economic Man model but this is not my concern here. Economists can model people and markets and enterprises as they need and they are not meant to be descriptions of the biological world. It is the use of the ideal Economic Man in other contexts that is the problem, especially assuming it say something about what goes on in the human head. There are a some of problems with Economic Man as an explanation of general human behaviour:

  1. There is no intrinsic motivation and therefore no explanation of why people can be selfless heroes or take pleasure in craftsmanship, humour, goodness etc. The only motivations allowed are greed and other forms of short-term self-interest.

  2. The model does not realistically treat choices made between long and short-term goals or between individual and group goals. These ‘no-right-answer’ choices are the more interesting to many people.

  3. The model only can only deal with people in modern, free-market, money economies and not with primitive economies, such as those based on reciprocal gift giving. Nor does it deal with family dynamics involving the care of children. Sociologists have needed to develop a variation called Homo sociologicus to introduce some of the effects of social environment.

  4. It ignores the deeply cooperative nature of human societies.

  5. Some people confuse morality with the emulating of Economic Man.

  6. The model has a very simplistic notion of cognition – that thinking does not (or should not) be affected by emotions, instincts, feelings etc. Rationality takes on a very restrictive meaning.

How does Economic Man interfere with the understanding of consciousness? For some of the general public, the Economic Man model is the only one they have encountered. They use it far outside the restricted area where it is a valid approximation of human behaviour. This give these people an anti-biological, anti-sociological, anti-psychological, anti-philosophical view of their mental life. The black and white, one dimensional viewpoint that results is a hangup to following the subtleties of neuroscience.

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