Much of the modern perception of the role of economic production in human life – whether on the Left or on the Right of the political spectrum – views it as an inferior, instrumental activity oriented toward self-preservation, self-interest, or profit, and thus as essentially distinct from the truly human action concerned with moral values, justice, and various forms of self-fulfillment. This widely shared worldview is rooted, on the one hand, in the Aristotelian tradition that sees labor as a badge of slavery, and freedom as lying in the domain of politics and pure (not technical) knowledge, and, on the other hand, in the aristocratic mediaeval Christian outlook, which – partly under Aristotle’s influence – sees nature as always already adapted (by divine design) to serving human bodily needs, and the purpose of life as directed toward higher, spiritual reality. Marx, although he attacked the Aristotelian distinction between “action” and “production,” also envisaged the undistorted production process in essentially collectivist Aristotelian terms.
As against this, liberal thinkers, above all Locke, have developed an elaborate alternative to the Aristotelian worldview, reinterpreting the production process as a moral activity par excellence consisting in a gradual transformation of the alien nature into a genuinely human environment reflecting human design and providing the basis of human autonomy. Adam Smith completed Locke’s thought by explaining how production is essentially a form of cooperation among free individuals whose self-interested labor serves the best interest of all. The greatest “culture war” in history is to re-establish the moral significance of economic activity in the consciousness of modern political and cultural elites.
The Moral Significance of Economic Life,
Capitalism & Society, Vol. 8, Issue 2, Article 1, 2013
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