Homo economicus, or Economic human, is the concept in some economic theories of humans as rational and narrowly self-interested actors who have the ability to make judgments towards their subjectively defined ends. This theory stands in contrast to the concept of Homo reciprocans, which states that human beings are primarily motivated by the desire to be cooperative, and improve their environment.
History of the term
The term "Economic Man" was used for the first time in the late nineteenth century by critics of John Stuart Mill’s work on political economy. Below is a passage from Mill’s work that those 19th-century critics were referring to:
"[Political economy] does not treat the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end."
Later in the same work, Mill goes on to write that he is proposing “an arbitrary definition of man, as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.”
Although the term did not come into use until the 19th century, it is often associated with the ideas of 18th century thinkers like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote:
"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 interest."
This suggests the same sort of rational, self-interested, labor-averse individual that Mill proposes (although Smith did claim that individuals have sympathy for the well-being of others, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments). Aristotle's Politics discussed the nature of self interest in Book II, Part V.
"Again, how immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own; for surely the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly censured; this, however, is not the mere love of self, but the love of self in excess, like the miser's love of money; for all, or almost all, men love money and other such objects in a measure. And further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property."
Full article ▸