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September 2010 posts

No, Professor Krugman, Economics Is a Morality Play

Mark D. White

I usually try to ignore Paul Krugman, but sometimes I can't. (Sorry.) Thanks to Steve Horwitz (here and here), I lit upon Krugman's September 28 New York Times blog post, "Economics Is Not a Morality Play," in which he writes:

The market economy is a system for organizing activity — a pretty good system most of the time, though not always — with no special moral significance.

But as I've argued elsewhere, the (pure) market economy preserves individual choice and values and thereby embodies respect for the autonomy and dignity of persons. And this has tremendous moral significance, at least if you care about such things as autonomy and dignity.

What Professor Krugman does not seem to understand is that when he approves of something "working" ("Cuba doesn’t work; Sweden works pretty well"), he is making a moral judgment based on promoting the goal of "working" (whatever he means by that). Whether he adheres to some version of utilitarianism (promoting some measure of well-being) or a squishy undefined pragmatism ("whatever works"), his system is just as ethically loaded, and depends on just as many controversial moral presuppositions, as deontology or virtue ethics, which presumably is what he is referring to as "a morality play."

Economics cannot escape ethics, and people like Paul Krugman ignore that fact as their own peril--and, proportionate to their influence, ours as well.

Pro Tanto Retributivism: Judgment and the Balance of Principles in Criminal Justice

Mark D. White

I recently posted a new paper to SSRN, "Pro Tanto Retributivism: Judgment and the Balance of Principles in Criminal Justice," forthcoming in my edited volume Retributivism: Essays on Theory and Policy (Oxford University Press):

In this chapter, I suggest a way that deontological retributivists can accommodate the compromises to the ideal of just punishment made necessary in the real world by scarce resources and competing societal needs and goals (a context also emphasized by Cahill and Markel in their chapters in this book). I consider recent work supporting consequentialist retributivism, in which trade-offs are allowed in order to maximize some measure of punishment or justice, but find the quantification of just punishment problematic due to the ideal or principled nature of justice inherent in the concept. Instead, I propose a practical, deontological retributivism in which the principle of just punishment is balanced with other principles and goals according to a concept of judgment drawn from the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the jurisprudence of Ronald Dworkin. After outlining the resulting “pro tanto retributivism,” I compare it to other suggestions regarding how to balance competing interests within punishment, including Michael S. Moore’s “threshold retributivism,” and argue that my conception is both more flexible while adhering to a more deontological understanding of retributivism.

This is a philosophical companion of sorts to my chapter in Theoretical Foundations of Law and Economics, "Retributivism in a World of Scarcity" (pre-print draft available at SSRN here), which laid out the economic problems with a deontological retributivism that mandates just punishment of all criminals. The new paper suggests a way that deontologists can be comfortable with the compromises in just punishment that scarcity demands, drawing on a conception of balancing principles drawn from the thought of both Immanual Kant and Ronald Dworkin, an ongoing project of mine which is previewed here (as well as in my forthcoming Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character from Stanford).

Wall Street Journal letters on health care, privacy, and choice

Mark D. White

I thought the first two letters to the editor in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal were excellent, reinforcing a point made in my chapter from Accepting the Invisible Hand: Market-Based Approaches to Social-Economic Problems on markets, dignity, and health care (see this previous post):

Dr. Sally Satel helpfully describes some of the factors inhibiting compassion in the practice of medicine ("Physician, Humanize Thyself," Taste, Sept. 17). Apart from the question of whether compassion can be taught anywhere, let alone in a medical school, in the current environment of "managed care" and government micromanaged "best practices" there is not much hope for compassion with or without cloaking ceremonies. Compassion for one patient can consume the time needed for diagnosis of others. We may be lucky if we can make do with competence.

Whatever the Affordable Care Act delivers, it will not be compassionate medicine from a distant and indifferent government bureaucracy. We would all do well to invest as individuals in building our relationships with our own physicians to help us make personal medical decisions. Compassion in medicine is now effectively forbidden by law, at least until the bureaucrats approve a billing code for it.

Jason Segall

Americans for

Free Choice in Medicine

Newport Beach, Calif.


Humane, compassionate physicians may be the ideal but first I want competence. Next, I want my doctors to be zealous advocates resisting intrusions into our intimate and privileged relationship.

I am continually puzzled that liberals defend Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion yet ignore its foundational principle when it comes to supporting government-run health care. The abortion cases all rely on Justice William O. Douglas's discovery in Griswold v. Connecticut of those famous "penumbras, formed by emanations" from the Bill of Rights protecting privacy rights of married couples and the right of a woman to consult her physician about contraception.

Liberals have always said they want Uncle Sam to stay out of our bedrooms. Can't we agree that we don't want any third person—with or without a checkbook—in the examining room with our physicians, not the president, not Congress and not any bureaucrat?

Roger H. Leemis

Southfield, Mich.

Blondie, health care, and Nudge

Mark D. White

Yesterday's Blondie strip was enlightening, albeit (likely) unintentionally so:


I imagine Dagwood's response to the incentives provided by having to deal with some of the expenses of one's own health insurance is supposed to elicit disgruntled agreement among readers. But it really highlights an unintended consequence of the alternative: if individuals aren't responsible for any of the costs of their own health care, they have less incentive to pay attention to their own health and adjust their behavior accordingly. (The more cynical among us would recognize that the Nudgers will happily regulate people's behavior for them--how convenient.)

An unintentional survey of the ethics of gays in the military in the WSJ

Mark D. White

In today's Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens has a piece arguing why the GOP should let "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) lapse in the 2011 Defense Bill, and in it he happens to cover the three mainstream approaches to ethics: consequentialism (DADT forces the expulsion or rejection of qualified, eager men and women from the armed forces), deontology (DADT violates the rights of homosexuals), and virtue ethics (DADT discourages honesty). And, in a consequentialist twist on virtue ethics, he argues (correctly, in my opinion) that this incentive for dishonesty is what weakens the armed forces, not the existence of homosexual servicemen and women itself:

In the meantime, it's worth noting that there are an estimated 48,000 homosexuals on active duty or the reserves, many of them in critical occupations, many with distinguished service records. If they pose any risk at all to America's security, it is, paradoxically, because DADT institutionalizes dishonesty, puts them at risk of blackmail, and forces fellow warfighters who may know about their orientation to make an invidious choice between comradeship and the law. That's no way to run a military.

If you'll indulge me my comics habit for a moment, the origin of the new Batwoman included a similar message on DADT, when a young Kate Kane has to withdraw from the US Military Academy after word gets out that she is a lesbian. Her CO asks her to deny the rumor (subtly insinuating that he knows they're true), but she cites the military code of honesty, and chooses to accept a discharge rather than compromise that principle. (This scene can be found in Batwoman: Elegy, written by Greg Rucka and illsutrated by the incomparable J.H. Williams.)

This shows that DADT not only asks our men and woman in the armed forces to deny an essential part of themselves, but also to deny the very principles on which the military is grounded, in order to serve their country. Stephens emphasizes the more basic consequentialist argument (which is certainly valid as well), but I favor the others (naturally)--just ask Batwoman!

Ethics in science

A number of economists insist that ethics has no role in economics, at least not in positive economics.  Periodically, we have to keep relearning that internal ethics are the foundation on which trust in science is built.

Knowing this, it was still a shock to read this in the Aug 28th Economist Magazine:

Marc Hauser, a professor of psychology at Harvard who made his name probing the evolutionary origins of morality, is suspected of having committed the closest thing academia has to a deadly sin: cheating.

The article is unclear about what Hauser is accused of, but falsifying data is one likely charge. 

There aren’t enough journal referees out there with the time to monitor every would-be academic cheater.  And on a benefit-cost basis the risk of cheating may look quite good for someone trying to get tenure—a lifetime sinecure! 

That is why having a non-consequentialist ethical framework at work in science is so critically important.  We are better served by researchers who ascribe to a higher duty to the profession and truth-telling than to their own career outcomes. 

Even so, when was the last time any graduate school professor lectured to his or her students on professional ethics? 

Of course, internal restraints are not enough; we also need better external accountability to beef up the costs and probability of getting caught for cheating.  Ethical pluralism suggests we need a mix of ethical approaches to keep science progressing.