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Smith and Rousseau on envy in commercial societies

Abstract : Several works emphasise the similarities between Rousseau and Smith's analysis of self-interest. We will show, along the lines of Le Jalle, that these similarities end on a divergent appreciation of the importance of envy in commercial societies for, contrary to Rousseau, Smith did not consider envy to be a major threat in commercial societies. Part 1 presents their quite similar definitions of envy based on three characteristics: envy comes from a disadvantageous comparison with others; it is painful and malevolent. Part 2, then, studies their moral psychology, or the way they understand the relationship between sympathy and pity on the one hand, and comparison and envy on the other. Here, we identify significant differences between our two philosophers which might explain why they have opposing views on the predominance of envy in commercial societies and on the issue of inequalities of wealth as we show in Part 3. Rousseau thinks that envy increases with wealth and inequality and thus pervades commercial societies, while Smith sees envy as the exception rather than the rule, and, moreover, does not provide a historical genesis for envy. For Smith, it is emulation rather than envy which is the driving force of the progress of society.
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Submitted on : Monday, December 13, 2021 - 8:49:49 PM
Last modification on : Friday, May 6, 2022 - 4:56:02 PM

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Claire Pignol, Benoît Walraevens. Smith and Rousseau on envy in commercial societies. European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Taylor & Francis (Routledge), 2017, 24 (6), pp.1214-1246. ⟨10.1080/09672567.2017.1378693⟩. ⟨hal-03478252⟩

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