Modernity, especially the free market, has liberated Western man. But does it also offer a good answer to the question of the good life? Not necessarily, because the free market may also be dehumanizing.

Boek 'Het Goede Leven en de Vrije Markt'For various reasons the question arises whether and to what extent our free market economy, which develops in interaction with capital and technology, always contributes to the good life. That was the central question of a book that we recently published, titled “The Good Life and the Free Market; A Cultural-Philosophical Analysis” (so far only available in Dutch).

With modernity on the way to the good life

We have assumed that the free market as we know it is clearly a manifestation of modernity: the Western project of human liberation that is being realized mainly by the scientific, technological and organizational control of the world. As such, we have interpreted modernity as an explicit answer to the question of the good life. It is therefore not a morally neutral development, but a conscious project with its own moral dimension.

The exciting question that must be thoroughly addressed: is the answer that modernity gives to the question of the good life also a good answer? In order to answer this question, we have posed the idea that the realization of the good life always depends on the conditions of human existence as such.

The conditions of existence that determine our lives

Against this background we have distinguished five conditions of existence that always play a role in the way we live and shape our freedom: relationships, institutions, body, nature and meaning. Together they form the elementary dimensions of the good life, to which the realization of freedom is bound.

  • A human being derives from and is shaped by relationships and is thus part of diverse communities, from private relationships to the political community.
  • People organize themselves in institutions: mutually shared patterns of action and organizational connections that enable them to jointly realize matters that transcend the individual level.
  • We are physical beings – whether we like it or not, and with the possibilities, limitations and needs that it brings.
  • Through our body we are connected to nature without which we cannot exist.
  • Man transcends the physical and the natural in his focus on meaning in life.

In order to obtain a sharper view of the nature of these dimensions and the way in which they play a role in human existence, we have started our considerations with an exposition of influential sources from Western cultural history. The answers that have been formulated in other times and cultures can shed new light on our own situation and clarify it. They are, so to speak, ‘contrast sources’.

Contrast sources to clarify situation

The first contrast source was the so-called virtue ethics of Aristotle. Aristotle gives us a perspective on the nature of man and on the state as a political community that is strikingly different from the modern perspective. We are not so much autonomous individuals who enter into economic and social contracts, but we are communal beings from the start, who arrive at the highest level of personal fulfillment in friendships and while living together with others.

Moreover Aristotle made clear to us that true happiness is not to be found in external goods such as prestige, money or power, but in the way we live, or in the reality of our soul according to its own nature and excellence.

These are fundamental insights into the good life that we seem to have lost sight of in modern times, but which are of lasting significance. There is a good reason for virtue again gaining popularity today…

The second contrast source is the tradition of Christianity and the way in which it has left its mark on our culture and also on philosophy itself. The fundamental difference with the aristocratic concept of man from antiquity is that Christianity assumes the fundamental equality and equivalence of all people on earth. It also poses the concept of charity (agapè, caritas) as central to our understanding of social and political life.

With the rise of cities there a market emerges

In the middle ages we see the rise of cities in which there was a major role for guilds and all kinds of collaborations. This is when the concept of the market first emerges that is still of great importance for the design of our current economic and social life. The market functions as a cooperative space that is partly aimed at giving people freedom and to stimulate that their individual talents are developed and put to use.

This view becomes an important part of the ideas of Adam Smith, father of modern economic thinking. In contrast with the ancient world, people were in addition positive about labor as an important activity in life that was good for a person. In the Protestant world the conscientious exercise of your profession and the loving care of your family are seen as the fulfillment of a divine duty.

Much of this influences the development of modernity. Think of its work ethic, think also of the democratization of the ideals of happiness and freedom, which are no longer reserved for certain groups, but are now deemed relevant to all people. The good life is no longer an elitist affair.

The free market leads to liberation…

The emergence of the free market at the end of the eighteenth century is, in our view, an essential part of modernity as a project of liberation.

It is especially the development of a market economy that enables people to realize their individual freedom: we become less dependent on our family for choosing our profession and achieving our happiness, as there is now a socio-economic space open to us enables us to make our own choices.

We can live in line with our own preferences, develop our own talents and become economically successful through hard work.

… but also dehumanizes work and society

The apparent neutrality of the concept of the free market towards individual people and their choices however turns out to very different in practice. As we repeatedly stress in our book, the market as a techno-economic system also potentially has a dehumanizing effect on the organization of work and society.

Moreover, within this system, a veiled anthropology and morality of individual happiness seems to become dominant – man as a self-interested rational animal – which has major consequences for social life. New forms of inequality and abuse of power arise.

The disruptive effect of the free market on society has been recognized since the first half of the nineteenth century; In addition to the well-known socialist and communist protest movements, various social organizations such as churches, associations and political parties have also worked to counter the disruptive effect of the free market.

State and civil society come into action

In recent decades, however, the emphasis has clearly (again) been placed on the autonomy of the free market, as a result of which the aforementioned technical-economic system has grown to gigantic proportions. Modern tech companies such as Google, Amazon and Alibaba are actually new forms of feudalism in which financial and social disparities between people have increased enormously.

Some of the founders and leaders of these companies currently have extreme amounts of money and power, while they are to virtually no one accountable. In addition, financial institutions currently play a role of an unhealthy size in our economic life, with all the risks and forms of abuse of power that this entails.

It is therefore almost inevitable that the state and civil society will come into action to bring the free market back under control. There are currently various signs in that direction.

This translated excerpt from the book “Het Goede Leven en de Vrije Markt; Een Cultuurfilosofische Analyse” originally appeared in Dutch on the website