Thursday, May 29, 2014

Economics and Morality

I  have written an essay for the June 2014 issue of Finance and Development on the subject of "Economics and Morality" (51: 2, pp. 34-38). Here are the opening paragraphs, the closing paragraphs, and a couple of snippets in between. Of course, I encourage you to read the whole thing.

"Economists prefer to sidestep moral issues. They like to say they study trade-offs and incentives and interactions, leaving value judgments to the political process and society. But moral judgments aren’t willing to sidestep economics. Critiques of the relationship between economics and moral virtue can be grouped under three main headings: To what extent does ordinary economic life hold a capacity for virtue? Is economic analysis overstepping its bounds into zones of behavior that should be preserved from economics? Does the study of economics itself discourage moral behavior? ..."
"Rather than focusing on philosophical abstractions about the moral content of work, consider a prototypical family: parents working, raising some children, friendly with coworkers and neighbors, interacting with extended family, involved with personal interests and their community. It seems haughty and elitist, or perhaps betraying unworldly detachment, to assert that people who work are condemned to live without virtue—unless they can squeeze in a bit of virtuous activity in their spare time. On the other hand, it seems bizarrely and unrealistically high minded to assert that daily work surrounds people every day with transformational opportunities for virtue. A middle ground might be to accept that while moments of grace and opportunities for virtue can occur in all aspects of life, including economic life, the range and variety of opportunities for virtue may vary depending on the characteristics of one’s economic life. ..."
"A standard complaint about studying economics is that the subject is “all about getting money and being rich.” ... Economists can feel unfairly singled out by this complaint. After all, many academic subjects study unsavory aspects of human behavior. Political science, history, psychology, sociology, and literature are often concerned with aggression, obsessiveness, selfishness, and cruelty, not to mention lust, sloth, greed, envy, pride, wrath, and gluttony. But no one seems to fear that students in these other disciplines are on the fast track to becoming sociopaths. Why is economics supposed to be so uniquely corrupting? After all, professional economists run the ideological gamut from far left to far right, which suggests that training in economics is not an ideological straitjacket."
"I have become wary over the years of questions framed in a way that seeks to pit economics against moral virtue in a winner-takes-all brawl. No economist would recommend consulting an economics textbook as a practical source of transcendent moral wisdom. As the recent global economic crisis reminded anyone who needed reminding, economics doesn’t have answers for all of the world’s economic problems. But to be fair, moral philosophers don’t have answers for all the world’s spiritual and ethical problems. In his famous 1890 Principles of Economics textbook, the
great economist Alfred Marshall wrote that “economics is the study of people in the everyday business of life.” Economists cannot banish the importance of moral issues in their field of study and should not seek to do so. But when moral philosophers consider topics that touch on the ordinary business of life, they cannot wish away or banish the importance of economics either."