The Economic Man is Dead and We Have Killed Him, You and I!

His portrait is painted in words and equations, not in pictures, if it were to be drawn, however, he would have to look something like this: standing alone, money in hand, calculator in head, and ego in heart. (Raworth, 2017)

The Death of God (1) by Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most celebrated (also misinterpreted) statements in philosophy. By affirming the death of God, the German philosopher did not want to deliver an attack to Christianity, but he was just vouching for a momentous paradigm shift in the history of western culture: the process of secularization. In fact, while for centuries religion had been the bedrock of morality and social norms, after the Enlightenment, the idea that moral norms, values and the order of the universe itself needed of a divine explanation started to seem obsolete for many.

Nietzsche thought that Death of God could be both an opportunity and potential threat for humankind. Infact, if on the one hand it could give access to a broader space of self-determination and belonging for people, on the other, it could make them feel hopeles and meaningless. According to him, the disenchantment for religion had the risk of leaving a gap. In fact, since God was the bedrock of morality, the risk of not finding alternative conditions of existence for moral norms would cause the collapse of morality itself, leading to dramatic consequences. 

Nietzsche stated what Enlightenment philosophers refused to admit, rationality itself is not enough for humans, people need of meaning to live. Therefore, the Death of God did not mean, as some argued, that humans did not need of meaning , but it just affirmed that meaning is not given and that humans can be free to create their own meaning instead. 

However, at the end, the lack of meaning and nihilism have become dominant and I would dare to suggest that gap left by religion is today filled by another constructed myth whose moral features paradoxically represent a rejection of morality, in his shallow excess of hedonism and individualism: Homo Economicus or Economic Man. 

Describing his characteristics, we may say that he resembles the idea of a calculating self-interested man whose main objective is to maximize his own utility by continuously comparing the satisfaction he may gain from consuming different bundles of goods. Furthermore, although the law of diminishing return tells us that the more he consumes of a good, the less he is willing to consume an additional unit of that good, he is actually never satiated (“the more, the better!”). Economists also decided to give him additional superpowers, equipping him with perfect knowledge in order to compare all the available goods and prices. 

Does this despicable character correctly personify the complexity of human nature? Of course he doesn’t (2), and the same economists who progressively drew his portrait knew it (3), but they justified their action by saying that it was for the sake of their discipline. 

For some the statement that I’ve made above, namely that the notion of Homo Economicus has the same impact on society that the representation of God used to have once, may seem an exaggeration. After all, some may argue that the Economic Man is nothing but the simplest unit of analysis of economic thinking, just like the atoms for physics; a sort of constructed model necessary to give a solid background to economic analysis.

I think that this shows once again how a lot of people, also prominent scholars, either because they lack of critical sense or because they are made completely blind by their formalistic biases, fail to see that the models through which we decide to represent reality become in the end the reality itself for us. The imaginary unleashed by the figure of Homo Economicus crosses the economic textbooks and shapes the mind of university teachers, decision makers and individuals, influencing the way they behave and act. Many studies show indeed that people who pursue an education in economics are more likely to be egoistic and self-interested. 

In a study published in 1993 R.Frank and other researchers, by comparing the responses of students to the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”(4), show that economics students are more likely to “inform on” other players (60% of the times) than those studying other subjects (39% of the times). In the U.S, economics professors give less money to charity than their colleagues from other disciplines (5). Economics students in Germany were more likely to accept a bribe to recommend an overpriced plumber (6). And another study shows that when playing the”Ultimatum Game”, economics students tended to keep 13% more than their peers (7).  

Using a large-scale perspective, the consequences of still imaging ourselves as solitary, calculating, competing and insatiable exceed the mere reach of moral dilemmas and concern our own capability to survive in the near future. Both the Climate Crisis and the high level of inequalities are urging us to change a model of development which concentrates unsustainable levels of  wealth and consumption in a bunch of a few rich people (8). We should ask ourselves what would be then the consequences of keeping this attitude considering that we are expected to be more than 10 billion by 2100. 

The above mentioned facts should prompt us to realize that the current economic model based on economic growth and whose underlying assumption is a biased and meaningless view of humanity has now become obsolete. The economists of the 21st century must have the courage to kill the Economic Man (before he can kill us) by replacing him with a new paradigm. This new paradigm should not be conceived for the sake of coherence and structure, but it should place substance at the heart of the discipline.  

References and Sources: 

  • God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882). (1)
  • First, rather than narrowly self-interested we are social and reciprocating. Second, in place of fixed preferences, we have fluid values. Third, instead of isolated we are interdependent. Fourth, rather than calculate, we usually approximate, And fifth, far from having dominion over nature, we are deeply embedded in the web of life. (Raworth, 2017, p.102). (2)
  • The same Adam Smith who was the first one to preach the value of self-interest in making markets work, famously saying: It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest (Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776), was at the same time well-aware that self-interest was far from being the only motivation driving humans actions, as he also said: The are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it (Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1956). (3)
  • Stafford T., Does Studying Economics Makes You More Selfish?, BBC Future, 22nd October, 2013. (4) 
  • Grant A., Does Studying Economics Breed Greed?, Psychology Today, October 22nd 2013. (5) (6) (7)
  • According to Oxfam (2016), the richest 1% owns as much wealth as the rest of the world combined and the 62 richest people have as much as the bottom half of the world population (BBC News, January 18, 2016). (8). 
  • Another Oxfam report argues that the richest 10% is responsible for half of the planet’s individual consumption-based fuel emissions. Colarossi J., The World’s Richest People Emit the Most Carbon. Our World, December 5th, 2015 (8).


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