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Pain and human action: Locke to Bentham


  • Marco E. L. Guidi

    () (Department of Social Studies, Faculty of Economics, University of Brescia)


It is one of the assumptions of this paper that what is usually considered as a single hedonistic tradition was in fact the result of very different approaches to the analysis of individual decisions. Some of the differences between these approaches were also discussed by authors who aimed at improving hedonistic analysis, and who intended to use this analysis to discuss ethical and political problems. The interpretation of human action in terms of pleasure and pain was also criticised by authors who opposed hedonism and its utilitarian implications. It is known that many sensationalist philosophers, starting from Locke and Condillac, were attracted by political economy and used their analysis of pain and pleasure to elaborate the principles of economics. The paper explores the role different approaches to pain and pleasure have in the formulation of economic theories. In particular, this paper examines Bentham's criticism to Locke's and Maupertuis's theories of human action. Bentham does not agree with the view that pain - or uneasiness - is the main motive to individual activity. The pessimistic conclusion of this approach - drawn by Maupertuis - is that happiness is nearly impossible in human life, and this conclusion is for Bentham destructive of utilitarian ethics and politics. Such a theory is also implicitly destructive of political economy, inasmuch as for Bentham this science aims at improving the well-being of nations. It is a fact that some exponents of the Italian Enlightenment adopted both Locke's sensationalism and Maupertuis's pessimism. Among them are Gian Maria Ortes, Antonio Genovesi, Cesare Beccaria and Pietro Verri. Locke's approach played also an important role in their economic writings. The paper focuses on the works of Ortes and Verri.

Suggested Citation

  • Marco E. L. Guidi, "undated". "Pain and human action: Locke to Bentham," Departmental Working Papers guidi-19950101-1, University of Brescia, Department of Social Studies.
  • Handle: RePEc:usb:dipdss:guidi-19950101-1

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    Jeremy Bentham; hedonistic theory; Italian economic thought;

    JEL classification:

    • B11 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Preclassical (Ancient, Medieval, Mercantilist, Physiocratic)
    • B12 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Classical (includes Adam Smith)

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