William Flesch
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The death of Cordelia and the economics of preference in eighteenth-century moral psychology
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Evolutionary biology, in particular evolutionary psychology, has tended to replay some of the arguments about value and motivation that were first debated by the economic psychologists or psychologically oriented economists of the Enlightenment, from Locke to Bentham. The basic point of contention is whether motivation can be reduced to a single (and therefore tautologically selfish) goal – whether pleasure or reproductive success – or whether we ever act on motives that do not reduce to the optimal means of getting what we want. It is possible to stage this debate as an argument between Bernard Mandeville and those like Hume and Adam Smith who wrote in Hutcheson’s wake. Evolutionary game theory has recently shown how second- and third-order motivations – motivations to have or to spurn certain motivations – might evolve; it has had to do so, since the evolution of such higher order motivation is central to human cooperation. Smith and Hume anticipated the ideas of such contemporary economic evolutionary psychologists as Robert Frank and George Ainslie: their insights derive from and cast light on the experience of the literary experience of tragedy, or of the sublime, in which we take pleasure from having our own wishes balked and baffled. The debate between Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson on the death of Cordelia in King Lear instantiates and helpfully clarifies the psychological dynamics of these issues.

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