Humanizing Economics?

Saint MartinGuest post by Laurent Dobuzinskis

Do markets foster cooperation and individual autonomy, or are they at best amoral, and at worst immoral? Does economic theory justify selfishness? Does the state have an obligation to promote the general welfare and to correct market failures, or are such efforts counterproductive? And how do economists address these questions? Do they speak with a distinctive voice in comparison to other scholars in the social sciences or the humanities?

Although there is an obvious risk here of overgeneralizing and of ignoring important nuances, examining these questions matters because a) economists are still considered to be the most reliable experts on what makes market work “efficiently,” and b) no viable and compelling alternative to a market economy has been fully worked out yet, in spite of a torrent of critiques of “neoliberalism.” But does this mean that the status quo, with which more and more people are increasingly dissatisfied, must be maintained? If not, what can be done, in both practical terms and in terms of generating innovative ideas that would be inspiring and yet pragmatic? And how do economists, on their own, or increasingly by engaging with a broader community of scholars and practitioners, contribute to this debate?

I provide an account of these debates in my two recently published books (Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought and Economic Growth and Inequality: The Economists' Dilemma). This account incidentally is, I hope, fair and balanced insofar as the (philosophically) pragmatic perspective to which I adhere implies that I am skeptical of overtly dogmatic positions. But, as I explain below, I do eventually come off the proverbial fence.

If one takes a very long view of the history of economic theory—as I do in Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought—the prominence of these fundamental normative questions has waxed and waned in economic theory. In more recent years, after a period of triumphalism for the neoclassical critics of “government failures,” which has come to as a result of the “Great Recession” and the pandemic, there are signs that a promising intellectual renewal is under way at the crossroads of economics, social psychology, and evolutionary biology.

The contours of this emerging paradigm are still fuzzy, but the “big idea” here is the displacement of the figure of the utility-maximizing homo economicus by a less self-regarding homo reciprocans (Bowles and Gintis 2002), motivated by a search for fair reciprocity. Altruism has not replaced selfishness in these new socio-economic approaches. But self-interest is being redefined as an “enlightened” form of self-interest in which the “self” is constituted by a plurality of mutually dependent interests. Conversely, the rationality of the maximization calculus gives way to a more open-ended reasoning which factors in changing circumstances and adjusting preferences. Fair reciprocity is the key to unraveling complex socio-economic dilemmas. The perceived lack of concern for this deeply seated expectation of fairness is arguably one of the main causes of the current rise of reactionary populism. But this concept can also inform a rethinking of political economy.

In a sense, this is a rediscovery of the concept of “sympathy” which was central to Adam Smith’s works and most classical political economists, including other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as some early French ans Italian pioneers of the discipline (such as Condillac and Genovesi, respectively). This is a profound insight that draws attention to the considerable extent to which most people care about others but also what others think of them—and this includes the political economists themselves whose theories who were not indifferent toward the human subjects of their analyses. Their advocacy of free markets was unmistakable, but it was tempered by this awareness and was conducive to a reformist/perfectionist approach. John Stuart Mill exemplified the latter; classical political economy, however, was displaced by modern scientific economics at the turn of the last century. Although many neoclassical economists were individually concerned with social problems, as Alfred Marshall certainly was, their methodological commitment to economic “efficiency”—that is, reaching an optimal equilibrium—meant that if there was a tension between “efficiency” and “equity,” they tended to err on the side of efficiency. Economic agents became lifeless automata following the instructions of a maximizing algorithm.

John Maynard Keynes challenged this perspective, but his moral intuitions were diluted in the mathematical models formulated by the architects of post-war Keynesianism. In any event, Keynesianism reached a dead-end in the 1970s. For several decades thereafter until the Great Recession of 2008-2010, neoclassical models reigned largely unopposed within mainstream economics. Of course, critical counteroffensives, mostly from outside of the discipline of economics, were launched by proponents of “social justice.” But their efforts have had relatively little impact on public policy, with the possible exception of environmental regulations. The neoclassical orthodoxy suffered a serious blow as a result of the Great Recession (followed in turn by the COVID-19 pandemic), when a new methodological pluralism came into effect. But within this (relatively) pluralistic context, behavioural/experimental models occupy a central place. They bring to light the complex ways in which people make decisions about their own welfare, sometimes creatively (often being guided by notion of fair reciprocity), and sometimes in naively “irrational” ways.

This paradigmatic shift at the empirical level opens up intriguing normative perspectives. If there is no good reason for limiting one’s horizon to self-interested motivations and narrowly “rational” calculations as the only “realistic” hypothesis for modeling socio-economic problems, it follows that there is no good reason for reformers not taking advantage of this quasi-natural disposition to act cooperatively. The policy instruments I emphasize in Growth and Economic Inequality follow from a shift from traditional redistributive programs to asset-based interventions (or predistribution). Injustices are not caused merely by the unfair distribution of incomes, but more fundamentally by an unfair allocation of capital resources (i.e., wealth). Predistribution would enable individuals and households to acquire capital and/or offer them opportunities to have some say about how capital is used by those who own most of it. Some examples include: a “stake-holder” grant (a lump-sum provided to young adults to invest as they wish) or a basic income guarantee; facilitating access to home ownership; and a generalization of the German codetermination system which empowers employees of large corporation by giving them seats on the boards of these corporations. The overall outcome would be what some Italian economists (such as Luigino Bruni) call a “civil economy.”

Wrapping up this post, I would like to draw a parallel between my intellectual journey and that of theorists such as Vernon Smith (Smith and Wilson 2019) and Deidre McCloskey (2021), who see recent developments as an invitation to revisit Smithian sympathy in an effort to “humanize” economics while remaining faithful to the core tenets of classical liberalism. But in my case, I’ve gone one step further by (tentatively) siding with the Italian civil economy tradition (Bruni 2006; Bruni and Zamagni 2016; Calvo 2018) which insists, albeit perhaps a little too naively (Martino and Müller 2018), on responsibilizing decision-makers and on mobilizing civil society in the development and implementation of predistributive initiatives.

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LAURENT DOBUZINSKIS teaches political Science at Simon Fraser University (Canada). His research interests include the history of political and economic ideas, the philosophy of social science (e.g., complexity theory), and public policy. Although leaning toward classical liberalism, his works reflect a preference for “nonideal theory” as a framework for achieving a pragmatic synthesis of complementary perspectives on civil society, markets, and political institutions. He is the author of The Self-Organizing Polity: An Epistemological Analysis of Political Life (1987), Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought (2022), and Economic Growth and Inequality: The Economists’ Dilemma (2023), as well as of articles and book chapters on an eclectic range of issues concerning practical and theoretical developments in political economy, from the role of think tanks to a basic income guarantee to the uses of game theory.


Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 2002. “Homo Reciprocans.Nature 155 (January): 125-128.

Bruni, Luigino. 2006. Civil Happiness: Economics and Human Flourishing in Historical Perspective. London: Routledge.

Bruni, Luigino and Stefano Zamagni. 2016. Civil Economy: Another Idea of the Market. Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing.

Calvo, Patrick. 2018. The Cordial Economy: Ethics, Recognition and Reciprocity. Cham: Springer Nature.

Dobuzinskis, Laurent. 2022. Moral Discourse in the History of Economic Thought. London: Routledge.

Dobuzinskis, Laurent. 2023. Economic Growth and Inequality: The Economists' Dilemma. London: Routledge.

McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2021. Bettering Humanomics: A New, and Old, Approach to Economic Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martino, Maria Guadalupe and Christian Müller. 2018. “Reciprocity in the Civil Economy: A Critical Assessment.” Journal for Markets and Ethics 6, No. 1: 63-74.

Smith, Vernon and Bart J. Wilson. 2019. Humanomics: Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations for the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Online conference: Is Economics the Tragic Science? Critical Responses to DeMartino

DeMartino Tragic ScienceBy Mark D. White

Apologies for the short notice, but there is a free online conference this Thursday (March 30) to discuss George DeMartino's recent book, The Tragic Science:

In his most recent book, The Tragic Science (2022), Professor George DeMartino (University of Denver) argues for a harm-centric economics. Economic policy analysis recognises that most economic interventions entail harms along with benefits. But the notion of harm that economists standardly accept is, DeMartino argues, highly restricted. This limited conception of harm blinds economists to the real damage that economic policy interventions can inflict and this ought, DeMartino suggests, to encourage us to revisit the notion of harm in economic theory and practice. Join us to appraise this important idea.

See here for the conference Zoom link and conference program.

Call for papers: "Health Law as Private Law," Petrie-Flom Center (Harvard Law School), June 2023

Health_insurance_illustration_2023_400_388_70_sBy Mark D. White

We have another call for papers from a conference in which I've proudly participated in the past (2014), this one on the subject of "Health Law as Private Law" presented by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. and to be held in late June 2023. From the conference description:

In the pursuit of public health and universal coverage, health law scholars have long focused on the role of government, and especially the federal government. Yet, whether it is health plan coverage of reproductive services or exclusions of gender affirming care, consumer medical debt or physician practice agreements, hospital mergers or private equity acquisitions, medical negligence waivers or informed consent violations – U.S. healthcare is also substantially governed by private relations, enforced by law. Is private law – the law circumscribing the relations between individuals and institutions – a pathology or a potential fix for the U.S. health care system? In what ways might private law be used as a catalyst for health care reform, separate from federal or state initiatives?

Since at least Kenneth Arrow’s Nobel Prize-winning work in economics, we have understood that there are clear market failures in health care, including agency problems, collective action problems, and information problems. Clarity on these problems can motivate reform. At the very least, understanding the limits of the private law approaches, including those imposed by legislation, regulation, and litigation – sheds light on the potential opportunities for structural reform.

This conference seeks to explore the intersection of private law and health care, especially regarding how private law can be a tool for achieving health care reform or addressing a significant health care or public health problem. Overall, this conference and subsequent book project seek to map out the challenges and opportunities of using private law and the tools it provides to govern and shape our health care system. Contributions that explore the interaction of government initiatives and regulatory reform with private law actions in the health care space are within the scope of this project as long as the contributions focus on the private law aspects.

More details, including suggested topics and submission details (one-page abstracts due October 17, 2022), can be found at the Petrie-Flom website.

Call for papers: "Law and Economics of Justice," University of Lucerne, March 17-18, 2023

LucerneBy Mark D. White

Courtesy of Klaus Mathis, I'm pleased to present the call for papers for the tenth Law and Economics Conference at the University of Lucerne in Switzerland (in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Law School), from March 17-18, 2023. This year's theme is one near and dear to this blogger's heart: Law and Economics of Justice: Efficiency, Reciprocity, Meritocracy. I participated in the conference in 2015 (on nudging) and it was one of my favorite conference experiences ever—I highly recommend it.

The call elaborates on the three subtopics:

Efficiency: Traditionally, the economic analysis of law was guided by the goal of efficiency. Economists usually define efficiency as Pareto efficiency or Kaldor-Hicks efficiency. Any change that puts one member of society in a better position without making somebody else worse off is a Pareto improvement. A change is a Kaldor-Hicks improvement if the gainers value their gains more than the losers their losses, whereby only hypothetical compensation is required. Efficiency as a normative goal is heavily contested. In particular, many authors see an antagonism between efficiency and distributive justice, which they qualify as the greatest socioeconomic goal conflict. Other authors view efficiency not as a goal itself but rather as an instrument to achieve social goals. In any case, the economic analysis of law has to differ between two steps: the positive analysis and the evaluation of the results by normative criteria.

Reciprocity: Economists have traditionally based their models on the self-interest hypothesis of the homo oeconomicus. In this model, an individual maximizes his own utility without showing altruistic or jealous behaviour. Behavioural economics calls into question the theorem of self-interest. Many people do, in fact, stray away from exclusively self-interested behaviour. There are also signs that the consideration of fairness and mutual benefits are important to bilateral negotiations and the functioning of markets. For example, in the ultimatum game, two players have to agree on the division of a fixed sum of money, with one player proposing the division and the other accepting or rejecting the division and with that the money for both players. Empirical evidence shows that offers with only a small share of the available sum are considered unfair and therefore rejected.

Meritocracy: The concept of meritocracy refers to a system, organization or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power and influence on the basis of their abilities and merits. This means that through hard work, an individual is able to climb the social ladder. Moreover, meritocracy directs the most talented people into the most functionally important positions and thereby enhances a society’s efficiency. However, the equalizing function of meritocracy has been criticized. Rather than reducing inequality, meritocracy is seen as the cause of racial, economic, and social inequality.

Submissions take the form of a short (1-2 pages) description of the topic and a short CV, and should be sent to Klaus Mathis ([email protected]) by September 30, 2022. Papers will be chosen by October 15, and draft papers are due February 28, 2023. (A conference volume is planned, and final papers will be expected soon after the conference.)

Accommodations are provided for the speakers courtesy of the conference, but they are responsible for arranging their own travel. (I remember the train ride from Zurich to Lucerne well—such breathtaking scenery!)

For complete details, please see the call for papers PDF here.

New book: George DeMartino, The Tragic Science: How Economists Cause Harm (Even as They Aspire to Do Good)

DeMartino Tragic ScienceBy Mark D. White

New from the University of Chicago Press is The Tragic Science: How Economists Cause Harm (Even as They Aspire to Do Good) by George DeMartino (University of Denver), the foremost expert in the professional ethics of the economics profession. (See, for instance, his wildly successful book The Economist's Oath as well as The Oxford Handbook of Professional Economic Ethics, co-edited with Deirdre McCloskey.)

From the publisher's blurb:

The practice of economics, as economists will tell you, is a powerful force for good. Economists are the guardians of the world’s economies and financial systems. The applications of economic theory can alleviate poverty, reduce disease, and promote sustainability.

While this narrative has been successfully propagated by economists, it belies a more challenging truth: economic interventions, including those economists deem successful, also cause harm. Sometimes the harm is manageable and short-lived. But just as often the harm is deep, enduring, and even irreparable. And too often the harm falls on those least able to survive it.

In The Tragic Science, George F. DeMartino says what economists have too long repressed: that economists do great harm even as they aspire to do good. Economist-induced harm, DeMartino shows, results in part from economists’ “irreparable ignorance”—from the fact that they know far less than they tend to believe they know—and from disciplinary training that treats the human tolls of economic policies and interventions as simply the costs of promoting social betterment. DeMartino details the complicated nature of economic harm, explores economists’ frequent failure to recognize it, and makes a sobering case for professional humility and for genuine respect for those who stand to be harmed by economists’ practice.

At a moment in history when the economics profession holds enormous power, DeMartino’s work demonstrates the downside of its influence and the responsibility facing those who practice the tragic science.

New book: Adler and Norheim, Prioritarianism in Practice

Prioritarianism in practiceMark D. White

Out now from Cambridge University Press is a new book co-edited by Matthew Adler (Duke University) and Ole Norheim (University of Bergen) titled Prioritarianism in Practice. The abstract reads:

Prioritarianism is an ethical theory that gives extra weight to the well-being of the worse off. In contrast, dominant policy-evaluation methodologies, such as benefit-cost analysis, cost-effectiveness analysis, and utilitarianism, ignore or downplay issues of fair distribution. Based on a research group founded by the editors, this important book is the first to show how prioritarianism can be used to assess governmental policies and evaluate societal conditions. This book uses prioritarianism as a methodology to evaluate governmental policy across a variety of policy domains: taxation, health policy, risk regulation, education, climate policy, and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also the first to demonstrate how prioritarianism improves on GDP as an indicator of a society's progress over time. Edited by two senior figures in the field with contributions from some of the world's leading economists, this volume bridges the gap from the theory of prioritarianism to its practical application.

The chapters are as follows:

1. "Introduction," Matthew D. Adler and Ole F. Norheim
2. "Theory of prioritarianism," Matthew D. Adler
3. "Well-being measurement," Matthew D. Adler and Koen Decancq
4. "Prioritarianism and optimal taxation," Matti Tuomala and Matthew Weinzierl
5. "Prioritarianism and measuring social progress," Koen Decancq and Eric Schokkaert
6. "Prioritarianism and health policy," Richard Cookson, Ole F. Norheim, and Ieva Skarda
7. "Prioritarianism and fatality risk regulation," James K. Hammitt and Nicolas Treich
8. "Prioritarianism and climate change," Maddalena Ferranna and Marc Fleurbaey
9. "Prioritarianism and education," Erwin Ooghe
10. "Empirical research on ethical preferences: How popular is prioritarianism?" Erik Schokkaert and Benoît Tarroux
11. "Prioritarianism and equality of opportunity," Paolo Brunori, Francisco H.G. Ferreira, and Vito Peragine
12. "Prioritarianism and the covid-19 pandemic," David E. Bloom, Maddalena Ferranna, and J. P. Sevilla.

New book: Grivaux and Badiei, The Positive and the Normative in Economic Thought

Positive and normativeBy Mark D. White

Coming out in June from Routledge is a new book titled The Positive and the Normative in Economic Thought, edited by Agnès Grivaux and Sina Badiei:

The book responds to the need for greater clarity regarding the relationship between descriptive, evaluative and prescriptive approaches within positive and normative economics. It also analyses the entanglement between evaluative and prescriptive perspectives within several theoretical frameworks in normative economics such as social choice theory, the capability approach, behavioural welfare economics and various theories of justice.

It provides a forum for discussion between various schools of economic thought and several theoretical frameworks on the relationship between the study of facts, norms and values, with particular emphasis on classical political economy, the Marxian school of economics, the Frankfurt School, the Austrian school, the Chicago school, rational choice theory, expected utility theory, behavioural economics, experimental economics, development economics, welfare economics, public economics, constitutional political economy, the capability approach and politico-economic theories of justice.

Given the scope of questions treated in this book, it will be of interest to economists, historians of economic thought, political philosophers and philosophers of science, especially those interested in the philosophy and epistemology of economics.

The table of contents is very promising:

"The Positive and the Normative in Economic Thought: A Historical-Analytic Appraisal" (Sina Badiei and Agnès Grivaux)
"The Positive-Normative Distinction in the Classical Economic Methodology" (Michel S. Zouboulakis)
"Descriptions, Prescriptions and Norms: The Tripartite Classification of Economics by John Neville Keynes" (Gilles Campagnolo)
"Normative Economics and Its Enemies: Marx, Mises and Friedman" (Sina Badiei)
"Economics as a Normative Discipline: Value Disentanglement in an 'Objective' Economics" (John B. Davis)
"Realism and Deliberation in Normative Economics: The Fruitful Intellectual Dialogue Between James Buchanan and John Rawls" (Nathanaël Colin-Jaeger, Malte Dold, and Alexandre Gascoin)
"Normative Economics and Public Reason: Who Are the Addressees?" (Cyril Hédoin)
"Reconciling Normative and Behavioural Economics: The Problem That Cannot Be Solved" (Guilhem Lecouteux)
"The Unacknowledged Normative Content of Randomised Control Trials in Economics and Its Dangers" (Seán Mfundza Muller)
"The Positive, the Normative and the Marxian Heritage in the Early Frankfurt School" (Agnès Grivaux)
"Economics as Value-Laden Science: Lessons From the Philosophy of Science on the Normative/Positive Distinctions and Rational Choice Theory" (Magdalena Małecka)
"The Positive, the Normative and the Ontology of Social Problems" (Jesús Zamora-Bonilla)

Postdoctoral Fellow in Economic and Environmental Ethics at University of Gothenburg

GothenburgBy Mark D. White

Thanks to Christian Munthe, we have a fantastic announcement for postdocs in economic and environmental ethics at the University of Gothenburg. From the posting:

The University of Gothenburg tackles society’s challenges with diverse knowledge. 56 000 students and 6 600 employees make the university a large and inspiring place to work and study. Strong research and attractive study programmes attract scientists and students from around the world. With new knowledge and new perspectives, the University contributes to a better future.

The University of Gothenburg is looking to hire one or more 2-year post docs in the intersection of economic and environmental ethics. Economic ethics is the application of moral or political philosophy to critical issues in business organizations or the economic system. Environmental ethics is the application of moral or political philosophy to critical issues in the relationship between humans and non-human environmental systems. The research area should be understood broadly so as to include subtopics like business ethics, the political philosophy of financial markets, ethics of commodification, ethics of climate change, ethics of biodiversity, environmental philosophy and the philosophy of (environmental) economics. Any applications related to these subfields are welcome.

Potential research questions in these fields include the following:

    • What moral duties, if any, do commercial firms have to mitigate climate change?
    • Do consumers have a duty to invest in sustainable firms?
    • Is sustainability an irreducible moral value?
    • Can environmental values (such as biodiversity) be expressed in monetary terms?
    • Do advantaged nations have duties to promote sustainability in vulnerable nations?
    • Is the state justified in coercing financial markets towards sustainability?

The post doc will join the Financial Ethics Research Group which consists of philosophers and economists dedicated to ethical and political issues raised by the financial system (in the broadest sense). More specifically, the post doc will be connected to the research program Sustainable Finance Lab, which is a collaboration between several Swedish universities that is funded by Vinnova, Sweden’s innovation agency. Additional funding is due to the University of Gothenburg, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation, and the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (Mistra).

More details are available here.

Kwarciński and Turek, "Can Normative Economics Be Convincing without the Notion of Well-Being?"

Filozofia naukiBy Mark D. White

In the open-access special issue of the journal Filozofia Nauki (The Philosophy of Science) with the theme "Philosophy of Economics" (guest-edited by Łukasz Hardt and Marcin Poręba), Tomasz Kwarciński and Krzysztof M. Turek (Cracow University of Economics) ask the question, "Can Normative Economics Be Convincing without the Notion of Well-Being?"

From the abstract:

In this article, we examine the notion of well-being in light of the relationship between positive and normative economics. Having identified four interrelationships between possible theoretical developments within the two fields, we propose a framework for the analysis of normative economic theories. The starting point for these considerations were competing stances on well-being proposed by neoclassical welfare economics, Robert Sugden, Amartya Sen, and Daniel Hausman.

Near the end of their introduction, they preview their contributions:

First, if the development of positive economics is the main mode of resolving normative issues, then the category of well-being (especially when as specific as welfare) can be abandoned or replaced. Second, when the welfare approach in normative economics is replaced by an opportunity or capability approach, the question remains whether to accept normative minimalism, in the hope of resolving most normative issues through the development of positive economics, or on the contrary, accept a value-laden approach in normative economics. Third, if the category of well-being is to remain crucial in normative economics, a richer, normative account of that concept is required, since positive economics cannot solve normative problems by merely equating well-being with welfare.