Europe in Search of Europeans   /   Spring 2014   /    Book Reviews

The Purpose-Driven Life

Eric Schliesser

Ali Sabbagh/flickr.

Unleashing bad motives for good results?

The Skidelskys are a father-son authorial team. The elder, Robert, is a life peer in the House of Lords and an English economic historian who has written an acclaimed biography of John Maynard Keynes. The younger, Edward, is a lecturer at Exeter University and the author of a discerning intellectual biography of philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Their book is framed as an extended discussion of a brief, neglected essay by Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” which was first presented in 1928 and revised and published as the Great Depression got underway in 1930.

The Skidelskys see Keynes’ essay as prophetic in its contention that capitalism, “the life of economic striving and money-making, was a transitional stage, a means to an end, the end being the good life.” They see the present as a time when the transitional stage could be left behind if our “civilization” knew what “the good life” was. First describing the historical roots of what the Skidelskys call the “Faustian bargain”—that is, the willingness to unleash “bad motives for the sake of good results”—they then set forth a substantive conception of the good life. They detail seven “basic goods” that public policy ought to be aimed at—health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure—as well as some of the policy means of achieving these. Along the way, they explain how they differ from two other anti-consumerist visions, one embracing happiness as the goal of public policy, the other rejecting economic growth in the name of ecological values.

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