Monthly Archives: May 2015

“Utilitarianism, the Moral Sciences, and Political Economy: Mill-Grote-Sidgwick” Istvan Hont Memorial Lecture, St Andrews 11 May 2015

You can listen here to the lecture I recently gave in St Andrews that outlines the direction my work will take over the next few years, exploring the transformation in economic thinking over the period 1870-1930.

Since I am talking to a Powerpoint presentation it might be helpful to look at this MGS Presentation while listening to the lecture, especially in respect of the flow chart that I introduce early on.  As you will gather, I drew lines and arrows on the screen while talking to this image. The crucial part here is the bifurcation around Mill: straight on to Grote-Sidgwick-Marshall, deviation to the left with Jevons-Edgeworth-Wicksteed.  My point is that this deviation is generally regarded as a dead-end; that Marshall successfully suppressed any influence that Jevons might have had, securing the development of economic thinking in Britain for the next fifty years as fundamentally Marshallian.  I argue otherwise, that this line comes back during the 1930s to cut this legacy off; in the hands of Robbins and Hicks, the Jevonian version of utilitarianism is deployed to reshape economics as a formalised enterprise, and to block off the conception of economics as a moral science.

It is this conception that I wish to explore, since I regard the neoclassical approach inaugurated in the 1930s and to which Hicks and Robbins contributed as itself a dead-end.  More interesting is the scope that the moral sciences lent economic thinking; in which Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics (1874) reappears as a work that draws heavily on Grote’s critique of Mill, in which the political economy of Mill needs to be reconsidered, which reconsideration can then approach Sidgwick’s work not simply as “modern moral philosophy”, but as fundamental to the understanding of moral sciences long lost to view.  For entirely understandable reasons Marshall struggled to detach economics from this framework; but in so doing he created the undoing of his project, while at the same time contributing to the reorganisation of the rump of the moral sciences in Cambridge as modern philosophy.