From ethics to economics:F.Y. Edgeworth, 1845–1926

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2010), Volume 18

Family and early years

 

Ysidro Edgeworth in 1917, aged 72. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Ysidro Edgeworth in 1917, aged 72. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Ysidro Francis Edgeworth’s grandfather, Richard, was a utilitarian, following the philosopher Bentham in believing that sensory pleasure and pain are everything and that morally correct actions maximise a population’s happiness, defined as aggregate pleasure minus pain. The moral code should be deduced from this maximisation principle and not from ‘truths’ of revealed religion. Utilitarianism was unusual among Anglo-Irish landlords.
Utilitarians believed that education should focus on the practical, without fables, poetry or pointless play. Richard married four times and viewed his 22 children, of whom fifteen survived him, as case-study material. With his eldest daughter, Maria, he published Practical education (1798). It maintained that education should be enjoyable, but that was not his children’s experience. The poet Coleridge wrote that Richard’s children had been ‘most miserable . . . yet the father in his book is ever vaporising about their happiness’. The eldest son received a Rousseau-inspired education and was driven to emigrate, while Richard’s second wife’s child register—raw material for Practical education—records that ‘little Lovell’ could not spell a simple word until ‘his father had given him several hard strokes with a whip’.
Richard also published on higher education, praising science and condemning the classics. His estate management involved numerous technical innovations that were sometimes more comical than effective. Nevertheless, Virginia Woolf’s summary—‘a portentous bore . . . who almost invented the telegraph’—is a little harsh.
Francis Beaufort Edgeworth was a son by his father’s last wife. He was supposedly Maria’s favourite stepbrother, although 42 years younger, and featured in her children’s tales—although a contemporary, Mozley, wrote that ‘Maria Edgeworth cared for the actual Frank as much as he cared for her, which was so little that it was better not to mention her’. Pushed towards science, he did poorly when sent to Cambridge. Friends, who included Tennyson, thought him more suited to literature. He married Rosa Florentina Eroles, a Catalan, and they lived in Italy and England until financial necessity drove them back to Edgeworthstown, where Francis helped run the estate. Their fifth and last son, born in 1845, was christened Ysidro. Francis died the following year, aged 37.

 

Edgeworthstown House as depicted in vol. III of Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall’s Ireland—its scenery and character (1843).

Edgeworthstown House as depicted in vol. III of Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall’s Ireland—its scenery and character (1843).

Ysidro was educated at home by private tutors, but it was not the utilitarian education suffered by his father’s generation; he enjoyed poetry and classical mythology. He entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1862 and read classics unhurriedly, moving, degree-less, to Oxford in 1867. He was awarded a ‘first’ in 1873, but had completed formal studies earlier and moved to London to read law. He later wrote that he studied maths then too. His book New and old methods of ethics appeared in 1877, the same year he was called to the bar.

Ethics, utilitarianism and accidental economics
The book is really about utilitarian ethics, and the family involvement and experience surely motivated him. His analysis is dispassionate and not anti-utilitarian. Unlike his father, he had no personal reason to resent his grandfather and aunt or their theories. He had also read the philosopher/economist J.S. Mill, who had received a strict utilitarian education which he felt ‘alienated him from art and emotion’ and caused a nervous breakdown. But Mill still believed that there was good in utilitarianism.
Edgeworth attempted to give a logical and mathematical framework to the approaches of Bentham and Mill. Defining the morally correct choice among alternative actions as that which maximises total happiness is not straightforward. If an action benefits A and deprives B, can the gain and loss be quantified? Edgeworth drew on the European psychophysicists Weber and Fechner, who claimed that human experience of pleasure or pain was subject to diminishing returns—the higher the existing stimulus, the lower the increment in sensation generated by another unit of stimulus. Edgeworth postulated ‘utility’ functions through which individuals convert resources (stimulus) to happiness (sensation). He required the functions to obey diminishing returns (concavity), which has strong implications. For example, if individual utility functions are identical and resources limited, equal distribution maximises utility.

 

 

Beatrice Webb (née Potter) in 1883—the only female Edgeworth is recorded as pursuing. But in her diary for 4 June 1889 she wrote: ‘This man is pathetic . . . he bores me’. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Beatrice Webb (née Potter) in 1883—the only female Edgeworth is recorded as pursuing. But in her diary for 4 June 1889 she wrote: ‘This man is pathetic . . . he bores me’. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

But ‘real world’ relevance required elaboration and difficult mathematics. Edgeworth allowed utility accumulation over time, which upsets distributive equality. Suppose that health care is limited so that just one of two lives can be saved. If one candidate is young and wealthy with a potentially long life of pleasure while the other is old and poor, the implication of utility maximisation is obvious. He introduced a ‘sentient capacity’ variable too. Edgeworth, like Bentham, did not limit utilitarianism’s scope to humans alone but considered the morally appropriate treatment of all sentient creatures. Justification for the exploitation of animals follows from permitting the capacity for experiencing pleasure and pain to differ between species. Although a chicken’s happiness counts for something, the greater utility that the human derives from food and avoidance of hunger more than cancels out the disutility of terminating the chicken. Influenced by Darwinian eugenics, he extended capacity differences to humans:

 

‘In the minds of many good men among the moderns and the wisest of the ancients, there appears a . . . sentiment in favour of aristocratical privilege—the privilege of man above brute, of civilised above savage, of birth, of talent and of the male sex. This sentiment . . . has a ground of utilitarianism in . . . differences of capacity.’

 

With this perspective the family landlord lifestyle was reconciled with utilitarianism.

 

Utilitarianism mattered to Edgeworth, but modern economists neither know nor care much about it. Nevertheless, today many economic problems are investigated by formulating utility functions and constraints and seeing what optimisation implies. He was accidentally making tools for modern economics. His 1879 paper in the journal Mind is still about ethics and utilitarianism, and even his book Mathematical psychics (1881) commences in this context.
Initially Edgeworth supposed utility to be objectively measurable, but he soon relaxed that. He reduced utility assessment of a set of options to no more than a preference ordering that could vary by individual. The unique utility maximising solution is replaced by multiple allocations, each such that any reallocation of resources between individuals could only increase the utility of some by reducing that of others. This was the ‘Pareto optimality concept’—sixteen years before Pareto. The indifference curve, ubiquitous in modern economics, emerged as a key concept. By now he appreciated that his ideas had economic implications and he analysed trade, deriving some of the most important results in economics. Even so, in 1882 Edgeworth argued with L. Stephen in Mind about what Darwin’s theory implied for utilitarianism.

 

Earning a living
By 1877 Edgeworth was financially pinched—both money and patience were running out in Edgeworthstown. He sought university positions, but for years without success. He taught in schools for miserable pay, teaching ethics, logic, theatre and Greek. He hoped that his Ethics book, published at his own expense, would attract attention, but it was ignored. His writing style has been blamed for this. Besides tough maths, he illustrated arguments through classical allusions and witticisms, sometimes in Greek or Latin. This would defeat a modern reader, but the classics were prominent in the education of the middle classes in Victorian times. This was the era when a British general, Charles James Napier, having conquered Sindh in north-west India, is said to have reported to his superior the single-word pun peccavi (‘I have sinned’).

 

 

All Souls College, Oxford, where Edgeworth obtained the Drummond chair and fellowship in 1892. He died there in February 1926.

All Souls College, Oxford, where Edgeworth obtained the Drummond chair and fellowship in 1892. He died there in February 1926.

Edgeworth was probably a poor performer in these teaching posts, judging from later evidence. Edward Mason, subsequently Harvard’s development economist, went to Oxford for his Ph.D degree and described him as ‘probably the worst lecturer I ever heard. His classes usually started the term with 20 to 25 students, but by the end were down to two or three.’ Assigned Edgeworth as supervisor, however, he found him ‘satisfactory and delightful’. His difficulty in teaching groups was probably due to nervousness—friends described him as shy and inarticulate in company. He could sometimes overcome this. The economist Harrod described a lecture:

 

‘For a time he tumbled about, inaudible and confused, pawing the air with his hands, as though making some great effort, and then he suddenly emerged into a fascinating passage of perfect lucidity.’

Fortunately Edgeworth got to know some prominent economists after 1877. He met Jevons through a common acquaintance, the psychologist Sully, and they became friends. Through Jevons he met Marshall of Cambridge and others. When Mathematical psychics was published, both economists reviewed it. Marshall said ‘this book shows signs of genius’, while Jevons wrote ‘this book . . . is remarkable’.
Edgeworth was also working on statistics. He published 40 papers in the 1880s as well as another book, Metretike (1887). These works and glowing testimonials from Marshall and others secured a professorship in King’s College, London, in 1888. In 1892 he obtained the Drummond chair at Oxford and fellowship of All Souls.

 

Spartan living, interests, friends and lack of love

 

Plaques to Francis Ysidro Edgeworth and his grandfather, Richard, on the gatepost of Edgeworthstown House (now Our Lady’s Manor Nursing Home), erected by the National Science and Engineering Commemorative Plaques Committee in September 2007

Plaques to Francis Ysidro Edgeworth and his grandfather, Richard, on the gatepost of Edgeworthstown House (now Our Lady’s Manor Nursing Home), erected by the National Science and Engineering Commemorative Plaques Committee in September 2007

Little is recorded about Edgeworth’s private life before middle age and not much thereafter. The economist Keynes, who was 40 years younger, knew him in later years and wrote an obituary, and he gets mentions, usually brief, in the diaries or memoirs of some contemporaries. Edgeworth’s lifestyle was austere in the impecunious London years. He rented two modest rooms and acquired few possessions, not even books or journals, using libraries instead. He did dine out constantly, probably because he could not cope otherwise. He kept physically fit through walking and swimming, and, when finances improved, through golf and boating. He disliked travel, having a propensity to miss trains and boats. He continued this lifestyle in All Souls.

 

Edgeworth read widely on many subjects, especially Ireland. This shows up in his writings, sometimes unexpectedly. Mathematical psychics (1881) has an appendix ‘On the present crisis in Ireland’. His sympathy with Irish landlords explains oddities in papers. Writing about urban rates, he fulminated that ‘only a disciple of Henry George would treat a landowner like a slave-owner’. (George, an American advocate of land taxes, criticised Irish landlords in 1882.) He reviewed books on Irish themes in The Economic Journal, including works by AE, Horace Plunkett and others. He picked out and poked gentle fun at AE’s vision of the future rural Irish village, so similar to that nowadays attributed to de Valera’s 1944 radio broadcast.
Edgeworth’s friends seem to have been mostly academics, extending from Jevons to Keynes. Sidney Lysaght (now known as Edward McLysaght, the authority on Irish surnames) was one exception, and his son was given the Christian name Edgeworth after his godfather. Edgeworth never married, although Keynes says ‘not for want of susceptibility’. He does not elaborate, and the only female whom Edgeworth is recorded as pursuing was Beatrice Potter, a well-off lady researching the British cooperative movement. His pursuit took him to perhaps uncongenial venues, including the Fabian Society, where middle-class socialists including Shaw and Webb sought to destroy capitalism by listening to readings from Marx (in French). When Beatrice’s book appeared he penned a glowing review. But it was to no avail. In her diary for 4 June 1889 she wrote: ‘This man is pathetic . . . his starved affections . . . furtive glances of unsatisfied desire . . . he bores me’.

 

Fame, inheritance and deferred retirement
Honours came Edgeworth’s way—fellowships of academies and presidencies of societies. Contemporaries considered Marshall his superior, however, and suggested that he himself conceded that. But they may have missed mockery in Edgeworth’s remarks, as, for example, when Bonar recalled him saying ‘Marshall was at the council today; it was as if Achilles had come back’. The 1960s reappraisal of Mathematical psychics toppled Marshall from his nineteenth-century pedestal and replaced him with Edgeworth. His stature in statistics still awaits full recognition.

 

Despite being the fifth son of a sixth son, he inherited the estate from his brother Antonio in 1911. In the wake of land acts it was much reduced, so he kept his Oxford posts, although resigning editorship of the Economic Journal. He spent summers attending to estate affairs, mostly staying in the St George Club, Kingstown, rather than Edgeworthstown. The world war made travel difficult and he was soon editing the Journal again, because his replacement, Keynes, was involved with war financing and the Versailles negotiations. He told Keynes that he was refurbishing Edgeworthstown for his retirement, but probably the Irish War of Independence and Civil War deterred him. Edgeworth was getting old and All Souls was a cosy nook. A married niece of his, Mrs Montagu, was managing Edgeworthstown and he willed her the estate. He died in Oxford in February 1926 and is buried in Holywell cemetery. It is now closed and termed a ‘wildlife reserve’, and his grave is unmarked. HI

 

Professor Denis Conniffe teaches econometrics at University College Dublin.

Further reading:
J.M. Keynes, ‘Francis Ysidro Edgeworth’, Economic Journal 36 (1926), 140–53.
P. Newman, ‘Edgeworth’, in The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics Vol. 2 (London, 1987), 85–98.

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