Our current economic system takes the concept of the homo oeconomicus for granted. It has colonized the human mind and overtaken the diversity and wealth of human capabilities. It is time to embrace a more holistic view on human behavior, and the many ways it can be life-serving, and life-affirming.
The concept of the homo oeconomicus is often the first thing we learn about economics, whether implicitly by basically any sales advert, or in an introductory session on economics. It embodies the model behavior all our business plans, marketing strategies, budget plans, insurance policies and all the other projections and plans we make in the economy are based on. It has even been adapted into the area of political economy, and of course famously to public choice theory, to analyze or predict political behavior. The homo oeconomicus is the model of perfect rationality: a human being always looking to satisfy his – or her – self-interest and maximize utility wherever possible. Additionally, this model human has complete information about all markets and the properties of all goods.
The human mind is capable of more than cost-benefit analysis
If we take the element of perfect knowledge on markets and goods aside, it assumes that human being’s behavior is always logical and based on a cost-benefit analysis. It embodies a perfection of the model human behavior that became the ideal in the West with the renaissance. Obvious criticism of this model is of course that it is too egoistic, cannot account for altruistic behavior, or any behavior that cannot be understood as generating the best use and return for the individual.
Indeed, proponents are far from it to classify partnerships or altruistic behavior as incompatible with the homo oeconomicus. Sacrifices or compromises in for others can in some situations be the best option available – but this choice would not be made if a higher utility for that individual could be achieved with a different option. It reduces partnerships and altruistic behavior to being only a community of convenience, where the individual will break out whenever possible of if he or she can satisfy personal needs without assistance.
True visionaries are not naïve dreamers
Even though there is a long list of critics – most notably Kate Raworth - this model is still so commonplace that other ideas of human behavior are considered and exception to the norm, and anyone postulating things differently is called a naïve dreamer. But we need to remember: The search for the highest gain, advantage or utility is a construct generated by the economic system we live in. It has created this model and recreates it by making it the golds standard of what a human being should be like. But the egoistic pursuit of personal gain and wellbeing above everything else is what got us into the reckless resource depletion – of our mind and bodies as well as all other planetary resources - in the first place.
Life-serving economies also means: We assume people look for life, not just the best kind of survival. An individual’s choice that maximizes utility is hardly enlivening when it comes at the suffering and pain of so many other human beings and the ecosystem. There are more than enough people who know this, but the system is giving us no other options. In the search for life-serving economies, we acknowledge, simply, that life can mean many different things in different places. A pluriversality of approaches to life-serving and life-giving economies is needed. What remains the same: the quest for what gives life does not end with the single human being, but needs to take the collective and the planet into account, as all are inseparable.
We need a pluriverse approach to human capabilities
Such a pluriverse approach also means that we do not fall into the trap of searching for what universal model (homo sociologicus or other) should now replace the homo oeconomicus. Nor is it a suggestion to completely do away with rational reasoning as the renaissance thinkers catalyzed it. The idea of a human being looking for life is far too diverse and contextualized to be the basis of a global model on economic behavior. We need instead a more holistic view on human behavior, and the many ways it can be life serving, and life-affirming. It is not the race for the perfect model, but for finding out what gives life to us and this planet in different places. We need to measure simply more than one idea of the human mindset.
The search for the highest gain, advantage or utility is a construct generated by the economic system we live in.
We need a holistic view on human behavior, and the many ways it can be life serving, and life-affirming.