Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

“So, they undeniably have the right to guide themselves to happiness.”: The Role of Natural Law in Cameralists’ defence of Self-Interest

Nokkala Ere, University of Helsinki

Happiness was the key concept of cameralist discourse. This paper reinterprets the cameralists’ conception of happiness by exploring their economic and political thought in relation to early modern natural jurisprudence. The paper argues that “natural rights” played a pivotal role in transforming cameral sciences into a discourse that recognized legitimate self-interest and the right of housefathers to guide themselves to happiness. As the paper demonstrates, the reassessment of cameralist natural law has consequences for the reappraisal of cameralist political and economic thought. Christian Wolff’s (1679-1754) natural law, built on his Leibnizian perfectionist metaphysics, is interpreted in the secondary literature as the philosophical cornerstone of eighteenth century cameralists. Wolff has been regarded as “the philosopher of the cameralists” advocating the interests of a tutelary interventionist state. Wolff’s rationalist, anti-voluntarist natural law had a strong emphasis on duties, and he legitimized fatherly government in terms of ascending associations from family to the ruler, and finally to the greatest state, “Civitas maxima”. It was the task of the reasonable father – be it the father of the family, ruler, or the Rector of the greatest state – to lead the members of the association in question to happiness. However, not at all cameralists were admirers of Wolff’s natural law. In fact, among philosophers it was Christian Thomasius (1655-1728) who first proposed founding a chair in oeconomic sciences at the University of Halle. Thomasius’s voluntarist, historically and empirically argued variation of natural law differed clearly from Wolff’s by putting the emphasis on passions and instincts instead of reasons. This emphasis was further developed by Thomasius’s pupils such as Nicolaus Hieronymus Gundling (1671-1729) and Johann Jacob Schmauss 1690-1754). The latter’s “New System of Natural Law” (1754), known as the “natural law of instincts”, provided the foundation for late cameralists’ advocacy of legitimate self-interest and self-government; for the idea that men could and should lead themselves to happiness. This found its clearest expression in the writings of the late cameralists Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi (1717-1771) and Johann Friedrich von Pfeiffer (1718-1787), who both argued that every reasonable being should be able to govern himself and lead himself to happiness. The aim of this paper is not to make late cameralists “liberals”. Neither should they be regarded as “democrats” or "republicans". Still, making them all simple defenders of an all-encompassing tutelary state would be misguided. This paper is submitted as part of Session proposal: Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in Cameralist teaching


Keywords: cameralism, happiness, natural law, natural rights, self-interest

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