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Back to Smith and Bentham: The Influence of Social Interactions on Happiness

Laurie Bréban, PHARE, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
Sigot Nathalie, PHARE, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Income inequality is one of the arguments that may explain the Easterlin paradox, through relative utility. However, the relationship between happiness, wealth and the distribution of wealth is a longstanding issue. Smith, Bentham and Edgeworth shared a common interest in the question of happiness and a common psychological approach when dealing with it, although they tackled it in three different ways. In his Moral philosophy, Smith emphasized the crucial role of pleasures heterogeneity when dealing with the shift from poverty to wealth: after he became rich, a poor man did not necessarily improve his level of happiness because the change in his situation translated in the sacrifice of the pleasure of “personal liberty” for the “frivolous pleasures of vanity and superiority”. This means that, for Smith, the quality of pleasures was crucial since it determined how distribution might affect the individual level of happiness. Bentham dropped this distinction between different kinds of pleasures and based his theory on “generic pleasures”. He also adopted the assumption of marginal decreasing utility, which implied that the shift from poverty to wealth increased the happiness of the individual but less than in a proportion to the wealth. He concluded that the more equal the income distribution is, the higher is the social happiness. However, analyses posterior to Bentham’s one show that such a position supposes to admit that individuals have an equal ability to happiness. Now, such an egalitarism is abandon by Edgeworth : in order to reach the greatest happiness, the one who has a greater ability to pleasure should have greater means. As a result, going from poverty to wealth does not have the same effect on each individual simply because individual are different by nature. This is what leads Edgeworth to justify inequalities in society. Thus, our communication aims at revisiting the opposition between these three positions and their normative implications.


Keywords: Inequality, wealth, happiness, Smith, Bentham, Edgeworth

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