Economists as Incidental Ethicists

by Shaun Terry

I want to argue that economics, perhaps unwittingly, makes moral claims. What, then, could I mean by “moral claim?” When contemplating possible behaviors, we consider that which seems “good,” “right,” and “natural,” among other considerations. Economics often seems to tell us what we should value and why, even if this is not economics’s true aim. Wilber’s article helps to outline much of this, but I believe that he makes some mistakes, and I aim to clarify what I find to be the most compelling points.

I will start with what I think is a minor point. On pg. 138, Wilber refers to Kuhn’s position, which says that we cannot be objective because our sense of the world relies on theoretical understandings. I think that this is an important point, but Kuhn’s framework seems a bit abstract. I am inclined to take a position that compares our sense observation to a distorted image of the world. I think it is important to recognize that value judgments seem to be necessary in order to make any sense of the world. We do not wander aimlessly through life without common sense of values. As such, economists, just as everyone else, have human aims in mind, whether they are always privy to this fact or not. To this point, Wilber alludes to Blaug’s conception of how some of this works in economics.

On pg. 139, Wilber refers to Blaug: “Blaug concedes that both ‘factual’, and ‘moral’ arguments rest ‘at bottom’ ‘on certain definite techniques of persuasion, which in turn depend for their effectiveness on shared values of one kind or another’ (Blaug, 1992: 115)” If there is an objective truth, humans might be convinced that they know what it is, but there does not seem to be a sufficient means of verifying it. To some degree, we seem to rely on faith. Moreover, and to Smith’s point that Wilber alludes to just below his quote from Blaug (and as I have argued in previous papers), humans seem to agree on a number of moral questions, despite that the positions required by these moral stances often require disregard for what would appear to be the most self-interested outcome.

Later, in Wilber’s section on ethical outcomes, I would argue that he makes some mistakes but that his overall message is correct: economics seems to take a moralistic position despite not fully accounting for moral considerations. The moral claim in economics may come in somewhat unfamiliar terms, but indeed, I would argue that many economists put so much faith in the market and in economics understandings that they often put these above moral considerations that come from other sources: “Markets don’t lie,” “People have insatiable wants,” and “Competition is good” are often taken as prescriptions for behavior, regardless of whether this is the willful intent of economists. Wilber may oversimplify some of his examples (I would argue that he seems to), but if he means to point out that common thinking in economics sometimes makes inflexible claims that contradict our shared moral codes (I would argue that he seems to), then it seems that he is right to say so. Some people may not find the ethical stances of economics to be important, but they can inform that which seems to be most important to us: health and happiness.

I find important Wilber’s point, on pg. 139, about social trust. If we observe countries with greater social trust (as in the Scandinavian countries and Japan), they tend to be (if we believe the research) more egalitarian, more altruistic, and healthier than countries with lower social trust. Happier people are generally found to be healthier, although there could be exceptions to that. What could be more important to economic actors than health and happiness? Indeed, the notion that self-interest is people’s main driver seems too simple. If one were to assert that self-interest were more important to people than altruism is, we could get into a long discussion on where self-interest begins and where altruism ends; what seems clear is that people often find it important to consider others. An argument could also be made that, to some point, greater altruism improves health and happiness.

Near to Wilber’s point on pg. 139, if we look at the Norwegian case, their society seems to depend a good deal on social trust. This social trust seems to help the economy and Norway’s institutions to run efficiently. In fact, the efficiency of Norway’s institutions seems to help to create social trust, which appears to improve conditions overall for Norwegians. To some degree, there appears to be cyclicality. Perhaps cultivating social trust would be advisable to all communities, and perhaps John Neville Keynes could help in that.

I like John Neville Keynes’s idea, referred to on pg. 138 of Wilber, of separating economics three ways. As things stand, all economists seem to be charged with practicing positive economics. As such, if someone who does not practice positive economics aims to use economists’ findings, they are subject to scrutiny; nevermind that economists are a self-selected group who necessarily mostly buy into certain assumptions that the rest of society might not. If we undermine those outside economics’s small, self-selected circle who criticize economics methods, we narrow the narrative on the value of contemporary economics. It may be that economists are, in some ways, the experts on what economists do, but doctors’ methods are refined by public health experts and new methods are developed by scientists and technologists, just as there are externally formed regulations that govern auto mechanics, and engineers and new technologies determine emerging techniques. Why should economics be so different?

Surely, it is not the case that only economists can figure out what economists do, just as expert observers, for various reasons, explain how doctors and auto mechanics perform their work. It is important that outside experts do so. It allows for considerations of ethics, best practices, and broad implications from the kinds of work that they do, allowing them to be impartial in their analyses. If we can take good care to elucidate economists’ practices, whatever work economists do that informs our behaviors might fully consider that which is best for people.

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