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Sympathy and its discontents: 'Greatest happiness' versus the 'general good'

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The paper explicates the utilitarian principle of sympathy in terms of the shape of what has been called the 'sympathetic gradient', which determines the allocation of goods to those close by and afar. It examines challenges to the utilitarian impartial weighting scheme that emerged in the literary community, and from evolutionary biology. As sympathy came to be seen as an impediment to evolutionary perfection, voices urged that sympathy be suppressed. Darwin's Descent of Man explicitly countenanced the suppression of sympathy in a trade-off of happiness for the perfection of the race. A post-Darwinian argument concerning a different capacity for pleasure accompanied the demise of sympathy in utilitarian economic analysis. Utilitarians then moved from the early presumption of 'everyone to count for one' to counting 'every equal increment of pleasure' equally.
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Keywords: Darwin; Edgeworth; eugenics; evolutionary biology; greatest happiness principle; sympathy

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Economics Department Baldwin-Wallace College Berea OH 44017 [email protected] David M. Levy 2: James Buchanan Center George Mason University Fairfax VA 22030  : [email protected]

Publication date: September 1, 2004

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