John Locke (1632-1704) believed that one should use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition. Used properly, reason could determine the legitimate functions of institutions and optimize the functioning of a society with respect to both spiritual and material welfare. Locke rationalized inequality through a complex analysis of people’s rights in a social contract, and especially the right to withdraw their consent if power of an institution or government is abused. During the Enlightenment the scientific rationalization of nature evolved into the optimistic faith in the ability of man to develop progressively through education and the use of reason. Science and reason were promoted not to just understand the world, but to change it as well.
Romanticism was a revolt against Enlightenment rationalism. It became a significant force in the early 19th century and radically changed the way people perceived themselves and the state of nature around them. The person listens more intently to the individual conscience than to the demands of society, and prefers rebellion to acceptance. Romanticism allowed people to get away from the constricted, rational views of life and concentrate on an emotional and sentimental side of life. Romantics recognized the limits of human reason to comprehend reality and be objective. The Romantics attacked the Enlightenment because it blocked free play of emotions and creativity.
In the 19th century two philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, stood out with their reaction against the ‘impersonal’ rationalism of the Enlightenment, and stressed the importance of the individual. Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the ‘father of existentialism,’ believed that one must choose one’s own way without the aide of universal objective standards. Against the traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right and wrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can be found for moral decisions. To make moral assessments, one must first know what an action is intended to accomplish and what its possible consequences will be on others. Thus for the existentialist, it is necessary to create one’s own values in a world in which traditional values no longer govern.
Nietzsche (1844-1900) rejected the power of reason, and the belief that science would automatically lead to progress. He claimed there was no objective fact about what has value in itself – culture consisted of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure. The system, if followed by the majority of the people, supports the interests of the dominant class. In the past the aristocracy developed the opposing values of good and bad. Good is power enhancing; bad is power diminishing, and the strong continue to define what is good. In such a system people do not seek knowledge for knowledge sake, rather for what is useful to maintain power (the dominate state). Nietzsche said, “God is dead” in the sense that the lives of modern people are not God-centered, and our sciences make no reference to God.
For Nietzsche the values (culture and traditions) of the dominant society (with an ideology consistent with its interests) were oppressing the emergence of a new generation of stronger individual and a more vigorous society and culture. Darwin has effectively shown that searching for a true definition of species is not only futile but unnecessary since the definition of a species is something temporary, something which will change over time, without any permanent lasting and stable reality. Nietzsche strived through his philosophical work to do the same for cultural values. He substituted Darwin’s adaptive fitness with creative power – for Nietzsche everything is in flux. Ideas should change as soon as information and inputs change. The goal of the good life was self-fulfillment achieved by overcoming the conflicts in both natural and cultural environments through free personal choices.
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a contemporary of the robber barons, combined the new ideas on Darwinian evolutionary perspectives with his institutional approach to economic analysis. Veblen described man’s conflict: “The life of man in society, just as the life of other species, is a struggle for existence, and therefore is a process of selective adaptation. The evolution of social structures has been a process of natural selection of institutions.” Veblen used the term, conspicuous consumption, to depict the behavioral characteristic of the nouveau riche, a new class that emerged in the nineteenth century capitalistic society as a result of the accumulation of wealth. He saw the modern industrial community as being polarized between those making money and those making goods. Veblen wanted people to understand the social and cultural causes and effects of economic changes.1
Since the turn of the 20th century there has been a belief that technology and reason could make us masters of our own environment. Max Weber (1864-1920) noted by loosening the hold of custom and tradition, rationalization led to new practices that were chosen because they were efficient and predictable, rather than customary. A rational society is one built around logic and efficiency rather than morality or tradition. Rationalization of the economy created the mindset that the economy requires less and less engineering (regulations), and would be capable of fixing itself. This, in turn, created the notion that there exists an inherent natural law unaffected by human endeavor and weakness that drives the economy. However, the corporation’s imperative for short-term profits means that during this recession the demands for less taxation and the need for budgets of governments to be opportunistically cut, comes from a voice that becomes ever more shrill. Today we recognize the limits of economic rationalization that underpins an ideology based on selfishness, and the need for changes to allow the free personal choices required for individuals to reach their full potential.
The consequences of the 2008 debacle – ongoing high unemployment and the growing income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society underscores the basis of rational self-interest (selfishness). When challenging ideology (in 2013 the status quo) it is necessary to choose criterion for distinguishing ideas that support the relations of domination. The economic system of the past 50 years is a codification of political ideology defended by proxies. When one declares that the increasing economic inequality is the consequence of the new social contract of the last five decades, the news media on the right stridently accuses one of inciting class warfare. This reaction is consistent with the observations of Thorstein Veblen, that is, the power of the wealthy to respond to minor challenges from new ideas as a constituency, and when they do, to claim the whole system is threatened.2 Rather than seek to destroy the Western system of rationalization like Nietzsche, we need to transform it.
1 Horsman, Greg. Evolutionary Economics and Equality: An Age of Enlightenment p 89-101.