Beyond Pain and Pleasure

I am an economist by profession and vocation. The discipline of economics is grounded in the assumption that people have given and stable  preferences (that would be a surprise to marketing professionals!) and individuals are in pursuit of their own self-interest guided by those preferences. That model of human nature is known as homo economicus. (economic person). Homo economicus is a self-interested, cost-benefit and pleasure/pain calculating machine that surveys the range of options and chooses the one that uses personal resources of time, money and attention to reach the greatest satisfaction with the least pain in the process.

Homo economicus does not encompass all aspects of being human. It is a subset of the larger species, homo sapiens, which literally means “wise person.”  Homo economicus seeks happiness. Homo sapiens seeks joy. Homo economicus has a job that is a means to a materialistic end. Homo sapiens has a vocation that is an end in itself.  Homo economicus is the Lone Ranger without Tonto, Robinson Crusoe without Friday. Homo sapiens values connections to others. Homo economicus is a competitor in a world of scarcity.  Homo sapiens is a collaborator in a world of abundance.

Psychologists, biologists, and behavioral economists have challenged the validity of both the self-interest assumption and the calculating skills of actual human beings. Research by psychologists and neurobiologists finds that  emotions, habits, and the influence of others play a big role in shaping values, attitudes, and choices. Their research also raises questions about the assumption that the brain is an efficient pleasure/pain calculating machine. Homo sapiens is less like a computer and more like a person that has a need to belong, to be loved, to be accepted and respected, to be useful, and to be part of a community.

I was thinking about those two views of human beings as I began reading David Brooks’ wise new book called The Second Mountain. Without using the same labels, Brooks acknowledges the integrity of both versions, but he sees them as sequential rather than as alternative ways of being. Like theologian Richard Rohr in Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Second Half of Life, like Kohlberg with his six stages of human moral development, Brooks sees these two kinds of humans as successive stages that we can aspire to pass through, in which the first will eventually be subsumed and expanded into the second. According to Brooks, there will often (but not always )be a valley of despair, loss, and rethinking the meaning of lifebetween the two mountains there will .

It is okay to enjoy the world. It is good to improve the world.  We can do both.

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