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Civil Happiness: Economics and Human Flourishing in Historical Perspective

Author(s):Bruni, Luigino
Reviewer(s):Noell, Edd

Published by EH.NET (March 2007)

Luigino Bruni, Civil Happiness: Economics and Human Flourishing in Historical Perspective. New York: Routledge, 2006. xv + 169 pp. $135 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-415-32628-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Edd Noell, Department of Economics, Westmont College

Economists, along with psychologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists, are at the forefront of modern research on happiness (Layard, 2005). Over the past three decades economists have been wrestling with the quandary posed by Easterlin’s Paradox, namely that individuals do not report an increasing level of happiness despite increases in personal income over time. Through an analysis of developments in the history of thought on “economics and human flourishing,” Luigino Bruni’s Civil Happiness finds that mainstream economics has lost its reliance on the civil happiness tradition and thus is ironically ill-equipped to explain the paradox. Bruni, an Associate Professor of Economics at the Universita degli Studi di Milano Bicocca in Italy, claims that happiness invariably involves interpersonal relationships yet this consideration is excluded by economics. While there is some hope in the work of behavioral economists, for the most part modern economics lacks the methodological tools to appreciate the role of sociality as a source of happiness. Bruni suggests that economics will be better served by appreciating the insight that happiness understood in a civil sense does not necessarily rise and fall with changing income levels.

Why and when did economics lose sight of the interpersonal dimension of happiness? Bruni points to Adam Smith and Antonio Genovesi as crucial figures in the late eighteenth century who took similar yet fundamentally different approaches to addressing happiness in the emerging market society. Smith’s approach of treating economic relations instrumentally was employed by “the Cambridge civil tradition” of Malthus and Marshall in the nineteenth century (pp. 88-89). In the same era Bentham’s utilitarianism shaped a hedonist approach to economics which eventually reduced happiness to pleasure in the works of Jevons. By the twentieth century the influence of Wicksteed and Pareto had eliminated even this subjectivist approach to happiness, excluding civil happiness from legitimate consideration. The eleven chapters of Bruni’s book examine both well-known and somewhat overlooked primary works in the history of economic thought to describe the manner in which this banishment occurred and the consequences of these developments for “happiness” as understood in modern economics.

In the first three chapters Bruni sets out to demonstrate the deficiencies of economics’ understanding of happiness and the consequent shortcomings of current explanations of Easterlin’s Paradox. Bruni highlights the direct relationship “between individual well-being and sociality-as-relationality” found in ancient Greek philosophy but absent in the mainstream literature of economics (p. 17). Distinguishing between hedonism and Aristotle’s eudaimonism, he affirms the latter concept as superior in that it provides an ethical approach to happiness by seeing it as the realization of an individual’s potential. Aristotle proclaims that wealth, health and other goods are merely means for achieving eudaimonia (classical happiness), which is only achieved indirectly through the practice of relational virtues of intrinsic value such as friendship and participation in civic life. After being supplanted by Neo-Platonism for over a thousand years, eudaimonia was revived in the form of civic humanism during the Renaissance. Civic humanists describe man as a “civil animal” pursuing civic virtue. However, the bitter civil strife in Europe generated reflection on a different view of human nature, dubbed by Bruni the “uncivil animal” tradition and represented by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Mandeville, and Hume. Each have in common “an asocial and selfish anthropology” (p. 39).

One of the particularly strong contributions of the book is Bruni’s discussion in chapters 4-6 of the lesser known eighteenth-century Italian Public Happiness tradition and its attempted reconciliation of the civil and uncivil perspectives on human nature. Misunderstood as a concept imported from the French Enlightenment, the notion of “public happiness” instead stems from the natural law tradition of Scholasticism and Civic Humanism. A key element in this tradition is that “there is no happiness outside society and there is no society without civil virtues and intentional love for the public good” (p. 42). Genovesi is most significant here as a leader of the Neapolitan School of Civil Economy, which identifies happiness with reciprocity, in that “happiness and positive interpersonal relationships are … two sides of the same coin” (p. 67). The reconciliation of civil and uncivil perspectives draws on the crucial role of marketplace reciprocity. Bruni asserts that for Genovesi “engagement in economic relations is an exercise of civil virtues” (p. 70) because “making oneself happy doesn’t mean impoverishing others, but means making them rich as you enrich yourself and thus you become happier together” (p. 76). At the same time Genovesi does not facilely identify wealth and well-being as identical measures.

In Chapter 7, Bruni turns to the British classical school and finds both continuities and discontinuities with the Italian school in understanding civil happiness. Both Smith and Genovesi claim that “wealth is a means for obtaining the distinction and admiration from others, upon which our happiness chiefly depends” (p. 80) but wealth is not an end in itself. Yet Smith does not see “civil virtues as a precondition for markets” (as Genovesi does), but instead depicts commerce as “the ‘creator’ of civil virtues” (p. 83, emphasis in the original). For Smith market relationships don’t depend on the classic relational virtues of friendship, benevolence and/or sympathy. Bruni acknowledges that Smith views them as “natural sentiments” and “fundamental features of human beings, just because the human being is naturally social and needs cooperation to survive.” Still, he states that in Smith’s estimation “the market itself doesn’t require them, and works even better without them” (pp. 87-88, emphasis in original). Instead of Genovesi’s approach to sociality in the market, it is Smith’s conception of the market as a place for instrumental yet civil relationships which shaped nineteenth-century classical economics.

“The Cambridge civil tradition” is examined in Chapter 8 and is contrasted in Chapter 9 with a “parallel stream” of thought also flowing in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century England, Bentham’s Utilitarianism. Here Bruni focuses particularly on the works of Malthus, Marshall, and J.S. Mill. While Malthus and Marshall acknowledge that wealth is merely a means to happiness, and that happiness depends on elements in life such as friendships, leisure, and religion, they also consider these components of happiness to be “external” to economics. Malthus finds them “… to be too ill-defined for inclusion in the economic domain, since economic analysis needs data and objective measurement …” (p. 91). At the same time, Mill’s particular recognition of the public, relational dimension of happiness places him close to the civil economy tradition and in opposition to Bentham’s reduction of happiness to hedonist utility. Bruni moves on to helpfully discuss the rise and influence of the hedonist and individualistic version of utilitarianism. He highlights the manner in which hedonic utility penetrates neoclassical economics in England (Jevons, Edgeworth) and Italy (Pantaleoni) so that the meaning of happiness is shrunk and “all connections with civic virtues” are severed. Bruni observes “Once Economics broke away from the classical idea of happiness, happiness became pleasure and Public Happiness became the sum of individual pleasures” (p. 104).

In Chapter 10 Bruni discusses “the solipsistic foundations of contemporary Economics” for which even the hedonist approach to happiness is abandoned. At the turn of the twentieth century, Pareto and Wicksteed play a key role in excluding “non-instrumental interpersonal relations”; Bruni makes a convincing case that in their work we find the reasons for “the passage from happiness/pleasure to purely instrumental choices without any reference to the psychology of the subject” (p. 108). Where Pareto drops consideration of motives and focuses exclusively on rational choice, Wicksteed understands economics to be “compatible with any motive, including altruism” and indeed holds that “most non-selfish behaviour is instrumental” (pp. 115, 117). Bruni ends the chapter with a short discussion of two examples of modern research agendas which continue to rely on an instrumental framework and exclude interpersonal relationships, i.e., game theory and Becker’s extension of economic logic to a very wide range of human behavior.

In the concluding chapter, Bruni names deficiencies in modern economic methodology yet lauds some recent developments. While many economists explain “genuine sociality” as a positive externality, they don’t see “family life, friendships, and close relationships” (p. 122) as relevant for happiness. While they expound positional theories of happiness, for the most part they don’t recognize relational goods “which cannot be produced, consumed or acquired by a single individual, because they depend on interaction with others and are enjoyed only if shared with others” (p. 124). Yet particular fields of economics are emerging which emphasize the significance of interpersonal relations. Bruni is hopeful that developments recognizing the role of “reciprocity, trust, intentions, fairness, esteem and similar concepts” in both behavioral and experimental economics indicate “a new season of interest for the interpersonal dimension” (p. 123).

Historians of economics will likely find in Civil Happiness both useful insights and certain gaps in the thesis that call for further explanation. For example, researchers on Smith should benefit from Bruni’s largely careful comparison of the Scottish moral philosopher and the Italian Genovesi on the market and civil life. Bruni’s observation that the term “happiness” rarely is found in either of Smith’s two major works and his interpretation of Smith’s position on “happiness as deception” could well generate a new line of inquiry for Smithian scholarship. Yet one wishes that Bruni had more fully explored the role of sentiments, passions and instincts lying behind rational decisions which are emphasized by Smith and others prior to nineteenth-century classical and neoclassical economics. In addition, Bruni’s argument leaves out any sense of why Bentham’s identification of happiness with pleasure is so influential upon Jevons, Edgeworth and Pantaleoni. Further exploration of the transformation of economic thinking on motivation and choice with respect to happiness is needed here; pursuit of the analysis provided by Schabas (2005) on how economists came to more narrowly depict individuals as rational utility-maximizing human agents would be particularly helpful.

Nonetheless, Civil Happiness presents an important addition to the economics literature on happiness through an analysis of the key turning points in economic thought. Bruni is particularly helpful in demonstrating the implicit connections between earlier sources in economics and two quite different facets of modern thought. One is the work of behavioral and experimental economists which draws on nineteenth-century utilitarianism; as Bruni notes, “the approach of the contemporary scholars working on happiness is Benthamite or Jevonsian, an approach where it is also allowed that people get happiness/pleasure from social interactions” (p. 118). The other feature is characteristic of mainstream economics. It relies upon the “methodological move performed mainly by Pareto and Wicksteed” to exclude subjectivist considerations and thus “has tremendous difficulties in understanding the interpersonal matter that is happiness” (pp. 108, 118). This turn in economic methodology needs to be reconsidered. Bruni is probably correct in asserting that an “economic theory more open to genuine sociality could better understand not only the ‘Easterlin paradox’ but also those interactions (that are growing more and more in postmodern market societies) characterized by the presence of relational goods” (p. 123). Civil Happiness challenges economists not to reify a narrow concept of happiness but rather re-examine its nature in order to realize greater progress in our research on a number of substantial dimensions of civil society.


Richard Layard (2005), Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. New York: Penguin Books.

Margaret Schabas (2005), The Natural Origins of Economics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Edd Noell is Professor of Economics at Westmont College and an editor of the journal Faith and Economics. His current research is directed towards developments in economic thought on the living wage in Adam Smith and in early twentieth-century British and American economics. He is the author of ?Smith and a Living Wage: Competition, Economic Compulsion, and the Scholastic Legacy,? History of Political Economy 38 (Spring 2006): 151-74.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval