Tokyo and WeberI just flew to Tokyo. I have seen little of it yet besides the airport, the trains, my sleeping quarters and a local convenience market—more on that later.
But on the flight I read (well in some ways re-read) Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This is part of my ongoing effort to read rather closely some work with which I am familiar, but are too important to my work to not know in a systematic and detailed fashion. Loosely speaking I am interested in interest—that is self-interest. I am curious about self-interest because my research is on American trade policy and Native Americans in the later 18th and early 19th centuries.
In short I am not too fond of the phrase “that was in [class, nation, person]’s self-interest” and even less fond of the phrase “they did it [or perhaps said it, or perhaps thought it] because it was in their self-interest.” The reason I am not fond of it is not because I think it does not get at something important. My problem is that I think it can be vague, unspecific, and is often (given the definition the authors applies) little more than a tautology.
I suppose I knew this already, and had seen it before, but Max Weber’s idea of a capitalistic ethic seems intriguing. I was particularly struck but a passage where he explains the self-denial of capitalistic ethics:
In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudaemonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by the acquisition as the ultimate purpose in his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs…The earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling; and this virtue and proficiency are, as it is now difficult to see, the real Alpha and Omega of [Benjamin] Franklin’s ethic, as expressed in the passages we have quoted, as well as in all his works without exception. (Weber, 2002 Routledge edition)
Certainly Weber is aiming this at Marx, and there is nothing substantially knew in noting that he is suspicious of man as naturally economically self-interested. But I think this passage is particularly clear and interesting. Whatever one thinks about his contention that material gain can be and is conducted for reasons beyond personal utility, the possibility is intriguing. It makes one wonder what good precisely it does to show that an action is in the economic self-interest of the actor.
But, let me not digress into a recapitulation of my latest paper, that way lies madness.
Anyway, off to explore Tokyo…
1) What I mean here is that the author sometimes seems to define actions as necessarily “self-interested,” (IE Action--->self-interest IE self-interest OR NOT action if I remember my logic correctly). Since actions are self-interest, the project of “showing this” (sometimes in a complicated way) seems to amount to little more than a tautology).