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The Possibility of Disinterested Action

August 18, 2013

Gloria Origgi in The Berlin Review of Books:

In one of his perfect narratives, Heinrich von Kleist tells the sad story of two secret lovers separated and condemned to death just before the earthquake that was to destroy Santiago de Chile in 1647. 684px-Belisaire_demandant_l'aumone_Jacques-Louis_DavidHaving miraculously survived, they enjoy for a few days the mercy of an enchanted social atmosphere. Their judges and executioners, transformed by the tragedy and the ensuing chaos, multiply gestures of altruism and generosity. The blissful mood persists for a short while, but soon the rules and norms of civil life are being reinstated and a Mass is celebrated during which the crime of the two poor lovers is denounced as the cause of all the evil. The lovers, unable to escape the fury of collective condemnation, are clubbed to death. The reciprocal altruism and the disinterested society that the cataclysm had spawned turns out to be ephemeral, unnatural, as if the ferocious end were a way to compensate for the uncanny sense of self that the people had experienced when acting in such a disinterested manner.

Jon Elster’s latest book, Le désintéressement, based on his Collège de France lectures in 2006-2007, discusses the very possibility of disinterested action. Is it possible for a human being to act in a truly disinterested manner? Do disinterested actions have a psychological unity or are they the mere product of circumstances? Is disinterestedness an individual or a collective phenomenon?

From a strictly rational point of view, that of utilitarian economic rationality, to the critique of which Elster had devoted an important part of his work, disinterestedness looks irrational. It violates the rules of maximisation of utility. As if human action without the kind of rational and interested motivation that optimise the individual utility was bereft of justification, irrational or at least arational. Elster’s aim, in this first volume of a trilogy that will be dedicated to the critique of the classical theory of Homo Economicus, is precisely to combine a critique of the motivational model of interest with a methodological individualistic approach, and not to go along with holistic explanations in terms of superstructure characteristic of other social science traditions such as Marxism and structuralism. Pierre Bourdieu for instance reduces the possibility of disinterested action to the social mechanics of distinction, assuming that it only occurs as a means of increasing one’s symbolic capital in an economy where not all exchanges are material. Elster, on the contrary, seeks individual motivations for disinterested acts, disinterested reasons to act that are moreover independent of the social superstructure.

There are two defining features of Homo Economicus that disinterested actions may undermine: rationality and interested motivation. Elster’s approach saves rationality at the expense of interested motivation. [More]

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