European Journal of Philosophy

Skip to Search

Skip to Navigation

Early View Articles

Helvétius's challenge: Moral luck, political constitutions, and the economy of esteem

Abstract This article explores a historical challenge for contemporary accounts of the role that the desire of being esteemed can play in exercising social control. According to Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit, the economy of esteem normally has two aspects: it is supportive of virtuous action and it occurs spontaneously. The analysis of esteem presented by the 18th‐century materialist Claude‐Adrien Helvétius challenges the intuition that these two aspects go together unproblematically. This is so because, in Helvétius's view, the desire for esteem is always triggered by sensible interest. In the frequent situations where sensible interest diverges from the demands of virtue, the economy of esteem thus can be spontaneous but will not be supportive of virtue. Helvétius allows for cases of moral luck where sensible interest coincides with the demands of virtue but regards these cases as rare occurrences. This is why he believes that a functioning economy of esteem crucially depends on political constitutions—in which case the economy of esteem can be supportive of virtue but will not be spontaneous.

Add This link

Bookmark and Share>