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Power, Pleasure and Profit

David Wootton, Power, Pleasure and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018, pp. 386.

This is a book on the (very large) subject of “the Enlightenment” and its moral consequences. That it is a traditional scholarly work can be judged by the fact that of its 386 pages only 250 are text while the remaining 136 are notes and appendices. The “Enlightenment” is seen as not a “project” but a “paradigm”, a complex change in mindset occurring over three centuries from the fifteenth onwards. Many authors are discussed, though Machiavelli, Hobbes and Adam Smith get the most attention and discussions of happiness and its pursuit, our supposed raison d’être in the Enlightenment paradigm, feature prominently.

It is more difficult to describe the central thesis of the book. In summarising the author says (p.241), “This book has been about power, pleasure and profit, three goods which can be pursued without limit. These endless pursuits stepped into a gap opened up by the decline of godliness and of Aristotelian virtue”. The blurb on the cover adds that this “created a world in which virtue, honor, shame and guilt count for almost nothing and what counts is success.” That is a rather more dramatic and contemporary claim, suggestive of a kind of moral degeneracy; I don’t think Wootton is normally trying to justify that kind of claim, though I think he gets closest if you put his account of Smith on famine together with the claim that Smith’s thought has a “grip” on our culture. But if I’m right about the difference Wootton would be far from the first author whom I have reviewed or interviewed who has been given a publisher’s puff that goes beyond his real claims in the direction of contemporary “relevance”.

There is a huge amount to enjoy and admire in the detailed argument of the book. In my case this would certainly include the introduction to such previously unknown characters as Émilie Du Chatelet or Edmund Spenser (as a political thinker), and the complex accounts of the histories of words and concepts such as “the pursuit of happiness”. For instance, I was unaware of the ways in which the language of ethics seemed to change with each generation or of Smith’s “linguistic conservatism”: apparently there are only five new words in The Wealth of Nations and those fairly trivial, making him far from a typical economist.

But I am much less convinced by the supposed general thesis of the book. In discussing the “Enlightenment” the author seems to me to conflate true selfishness with the kind of instrumentality which aims to maximise the good of a collective which is smaller than the whole of humanity. Machiavelli, for example, said he would give up his soul for his country: that surely makes him a good deal more altruistic (in our terms) than devoutly religious persons hoping to go to heaven?

Even more importantly, I don’t think he properly appreciates the wonderful negative aspects of the “Enlightenment”. To pursue the metaphor, you don’t always have to find a new source of light to be enlightened. You can sometimes just remove the obstacles between you and illumination. I think this is particularly important in considering what Voltaire, in his thoughts on England, had to say or Mandeville, in the various versions of The Fable of the Bees or David Hume, particularly in his History of England Vol. V I. It amounts to a kind of zeitgeist which says, “We spent two centuries fighting and arguing about the related questions of religious revelation and political legitimacy. We resolved nothing, but we did learn to ignore these questions and now we’re doing very well.” The Enlightenment, in this sense and at its best, is mostly about not being bothered, not about erecting ideas of equality and fraternity because as soon as you do that you find yourself destroying wealth and (once again) chopping off heads on an industrial scale. Mandeville, of course, went further in naughtily insisting that private vices, particularly greed, produced public virtue in the form of wealth. Greed is good, at least a lot of the time.

In the text, but mostly in Appendix D, the author considers the parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke chapter 10, the subject of numerous pamphlets and sermons during the period he is discussing and irresistible as a text for clarifying certain moral questions. But I don’t think it serves his own argument well. It’s important to note that the two passers-by who ignore the mugging victim can be assumed to be religious: in the New English Bible they are described as a “priest” and a “Levite”, the latter being a member of a tribe with specific religious duties within Judaism. They have, therefore, knowledge of an ethical rulebook based on religion; this may, on some interpretations, keep them away from the victim because they regard him as “unclean”. In the proper and precise sense of the word none of the three has any obligation to help; they are not, for example, doctors or married to him.

They may be thought to have a duty to help derived from some general external prescription rather than a commitment: that is a broader and more contestable term. This is what Christ seems to be suggesting because he is answering the question, “Who is my neighbour?” But in explaining the Samaritan’s motives, he describes him as being “moved to pity”, which means he is acting on emotion or ethical intuition rather than on knowledge of duty. In any case it would be an odd kind of duty that applied only to people within our line of vision. Wootton’s account of the history of ethics offers us a long menu of general moral characteristics which might lead the Samaritan to cross the road: “benevolence”, “humanity”, “fellow-feeling”, “generosity”, “sympathy” and (from nearer our own times) “altruism” and “empathy”.

The important point about the Samaritan is surely that the story still has complete contemporary resonance. We wouldn’t dream of saying, “How medieval!” about someone who went to help a mugging victim. We can all construct contemporary versions of the narrative: in mine the magistrate and the moral philosopher pass by while the bloke from Wolverhampton with the tattoos and the England shirt comes over and says, “Blimey, mate, you need help.” It makes as much sense to ask why you wouldn’t help as why you would. There’s no sense in the story that helping is dangerous or even particularly costly so wouldn’t life be more interesting and rewarding if you helped than if you didn’t? We may not go the whole way with Bishop Butler in equating self-love with benevolence, but surely they often go together like greed and good consequences.

Wootton tells us that he admires Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and is writing in the spirit of that book. When I was a teenager I deeply admired A.J.Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic because it argued that most things people believe are “meaningless”. I came to realise (as did the author) that this was only true in terms of a particular and restricted meaning of meaning. In the same way we are only living after virtue in a very particular and restricted sense of virtue.

Lincoln Allison 2019

(Published in Times Higher Education in February 2019.)