Search type


Fred Horton


Homo Economicus as Subject: A Return to the State of Nature


Research interests

Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Economics

Research details

The nature of the subject presupposed in Rational Choice Theory (RCT), homo economicus is of a very specific ethical disposition. Although not incapable of altruistic acts he or she will only engage in them if doing so has a positive impact on their subjectively defined utility. In Amartya Sen’s terms this is defined as ‘sympathy’. He distinguishes this from ‘commitment’, a deeper concern where we take the pains and plans of others to be important regardless of their immediate impact on our own welfare. Not only does RCT have no room in its model for such commitment but it can be shown that framing incentives and decisions according to RCT principles actually induces the behaviour assumed and can ‘crowd out’ commitment-focused motivation.

My thesis makes three claims. Firstly, that the model of motivation assumed in RCT is informed by and reflects Hobbes’s account of the subject emerging from the state of nature into a contractual relation. Secondly, that this model of transition is based on a flawed account of subjectivity and this incoherence is reflected in RCT today. Finally, that the best way to understand these flaws and potentially uncover solutions for them is to compare Hobbes’s account with Hegel’s grounding of subjectivity in the dialectic of recognition and desire.

For Hegel we are only able to attain self-consciousness by recognising the autonomy of the other. For Hobbes the other is merely an impediment to my enjoyment and empowerment. It is difficult to see how such a subject would reason that it is in his or her best interests to enter into a contractual relation and even more so to trust that this relation will last. Concurrently, it is difficult to see how homo economicus can ever consider the experience of others to be of any real, independent significance. If my argument is accepted and we are to take the distinction between sympathy and commitment seriously then we must abandon Hobbes and become Hegelians.

Other information

I completed both my BA in Economics and my MA in Political Economy at Manchester.