Working Paper BETA #2017-28

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Author(s) : Philippe Gillig

Abstract : This paper deals with a debate about the universality of the “desire of wealth” in John Stuart Mill’s thought. The debate occurred in the literature about fifteen years ago, when Samuel Hollander and Sandra Peart published in 1999 a criticism of Abraham Hirsch and Neil De Marchi’s interpretation of Mill’s methodology. This article constitutes an attempt to solve the debate by providing a rationale for the disagreement between both sets of scholars. In particular, we show that the divergence between them comes from the fact that they ground their respective arguments using different texts, while neglecting that Mill gradually changed his mind in his writings subsequent to the 1836 essay entitled “On the Definition of Political Economy...”. First, in accordance with the development of his ethology, Mill deprived the maximizing behavior of its universal validity; then, Mill focused more and more on “competition” as economics’ basic axiom in order to stress its historical relevance; and finally Mill strengthened the relativity of the behavioral axiom with the introduction of the concept of “custom”.

Key-words : homo œconomicus; universal laws; John Stuart Mill; economic methodology.

JEL Classification : B12; B41