An Inquiry Into The Human Prospect by Robert L. Heilbroner

The Giannini Library at UC Berkeley discarded a pile of books, and I picked up Heilbroner’s An Inquiry Into The Human Prospect. The book is old (1974; books discarded from libraries usually are), and much of the discussion feels dated. Other parts are still relevant. But, let me take it from the top.

AnInquiryIntoTheHumanProspectOn the first page, Heilbroner asks Is there hope for man? Heilbroner then lists three large problems which together makes his question pertinent: population growth, the spread of nuclear weapons, and environmental problems (including resource depletion, pollution, and climate change). All three problems are to different degrees still relevant today. Both population growth and environmental problems still pose threats on global scales. They are also, I think, largely viewed as connected. We still worry about nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, but the Armageddon-like prospect of nuclear war is not upon us like it must have been during the cold war.

Heilbroner is a careful writer, and before he plunges into his analysis, he discusses its validity:

The problem caused by the intrusion of subjective values into its inquiries has always troubled social science, which has struggled, without too much success, to attain the presumed “value free” objectivity of the natural sciences. Alas, this ambition fails into account that the position of the social science investigator differs sharply from that of the observer of the natural world. The latter may stage his reputation as he regards the stars through his telescope or the cells through his microscope, but he is not himself morally embedded in the field he scrutinizes. By contrast, the social investigator is inextricably bound up with the objects of his scrutiny, as a member of a group, a class, a society, a nation, bringing him with feelings of animus or defensiveness to the phenomena he observes. In a word, his position in society-not only his material position but his moral position-is implicated in and often jeopardized by the act of investigation, and it is not surprising, therefore, that we find behind the great bulk of social science arguments that serve to justify the existential position of the social scientist [pp. 22-23*].

Heilbroner moves on to point out that while the moral position of the analyst (himself) has potential implications for his analysis, the moral position of the reader has implications for how to comprehend the analysis. In the end, Heilbroner finds that his conclusions about the human prospect do not accord with his own preferences and interests.

Parts of the book is not as relevant today as it was when it was written. For example, a lengthy discussion of whether a socialist or capitalist society is better able to take on the challenges Heilbroner has identified is today only of academic interest. That the discussion builds upon the work of Freud and his followers makes it arcane in my eyes, but I am relatively short-sighted. An interesting remark, though, on the necessity of regarding the political aspect:

We live in an age in which the very capacity for socio-economic analysis marks us off from the past. We read with amusement or shock the historical prognoses of the classical historians or political philosophers, into which socio-economic dynamics do not enter at all ( for the very good reason that the relevant social systems had not yet evolved) and in which, instead, we find purely political predictions , usually of dynastic rise and fall, and so forth. But however more “scientific” our socio-economic method may seem by comparison, its omission of a political dimension is nonetheless crippling, even fatal, for a comprehension of the human prospect [p. 100].

In the following discussion, Heilbroner asserts that the nation-state must be ‘considered as the embodiment of purely political, as well as socio-economic, behavioral forces’ (p. 112). I am not sure I fully understand Heilbroner here, but his assertion made me think about all the different historical configurations of the map of Europe. Does his assertion have implications for observed political behavior when political borders change? Would it be possible to empirically test his assertion in some sense?

The problem of time discounting is much debated in the current climate change debate. Heilbroner puts it clear:

[The] devaluation of the future is generally considered to be an entirely rational response to the uncertainties of life. But if we apply this same calculus of “reason” to the human prospect, we face the horrendous possibility that humanity may react to the approach of environmental danger by indulging in a vast fling while it is still possible-a fling entirely justified by the estimation of present enjoyments over future ones. On what private, “rational” considerations, after all, should we make sacrifices now to ease the lot of generations whom we will never live to see [pp. 114 – 115]?

Heilbroner finds it difficult to believe the ‘contemporary industrial man’ is willing to make the necessary sacrifices (p. 115). While I have not discussed all parts of the analysis, much of it is as I said not so relevant today as it undoubtedly was in 1974, it is nonetheless clear that Heilbroner finds little support for a positive view on the future:

[W]ith the full spectacle of the human prospect before us, the spirit quails and the will falters. We find ourselves pressed to the very limit of our personal capacities, not alone in summoning up the courage to look squarely at the dimensions of the impending predicament, but in finding words that can offer some plausible relief in a situation so bleak [p. 136].

In fact, the only consolation Heilbroner can offer, is that the idea of Atlas, the Greek god which figures on the cover of the book and who bears ‘with endless perseverance the weight of the heavens in his hands’, springs from elements within us (pp. 143 – 144).

*Page numbers refer to the 1974 edition (paperback).


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One Response to “An Inquiry Into The Human Prospect by Robert L. Heilbroner”

  1. Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby | Kvams Says:

    […] but algebraic manipulations are boring and blogging is (somewhat more) fun. After the dead serious Inquiry Into the Human Prospect by Heilbroner, I almost by accident picked up Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick […]

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