Homo economicus or animal laborans. Is the economic agent the future for human beings?

Marlyse Pouchol

Table of Contents


This article presents and analyzes two representations of the economic agent; that of homo economicus in the works of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), and that of animal laborans, an expression found in the works of Hannah Arendt (1906–1975). Both authors oppose a concept found in Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) that identifies human beings as economic agents, rational beings capable of calculation and logical reasoning for their personal situations but who are not, however, reasonable beings—that is, able to live in harmony with others without the coercive power of a law that restricts their liberties. Mill, dissenting from Bentham’s conception of happiness, attributes greater aspirations to economic agents, aspirations which they themselves could fulfil in the future, as long as true political equality, particularly between men and women, is finally established. Arendt, born a century later, was concerned about a degradation of the image that human beings had of themselves in identifying themselves to an animal laborans. The archetype of the individual whose occupations are all based on the model of an activity necessary for their personal satisfaction, trapped in the privacy of its body, the animal laborans, who only experiences sensations—pain and pleasure—is quite similar to those insufficient, not reasonable beings that Bentham had in mind when defining legislation as a means of creating coexistence. If one follows Arendt, it cannot be excluded that the Benthamite conception of human beings, to which Mill objected, could become tomorrow’s reality: in other words, the reign of the animal laborans, a being alienated from itself, having lost even the need to direct its own behavior towards others, could eventually prevail.

Code JEL: B13, B29.


  • Jeremy Bentham
  • John Stuart Mill
  • Hannah Arendt
  • economic agent
  • homo œconomicus
  • animal laborans

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