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Economics as a Moral Science

Jonathan B. Wight

I have been remiss in reporting on the ASSA meetings in Denver last week.  Prominent among the sessions was one entitled above.  Heavy hitters on the panel included Benjamin Friedman (Harvard), Robert Shiller (Yale), and Tony Atkinson (Oxford).  Jagdish Bhagwati (Columbia) was to have presented also but could not make it.  Douglas Bernheim of Stanford presided.

The title of the session draws on the 1968 AEA Presidential address of Kenneth Boulding, “Economics as a Moral Science”—although only one of the participants appeared to be cognizant of Boulding’s contribution.  Indeed, my impression is that while all of the speakers were sincere in promoting the idea that normative analysis is an integral and essential part of economics, they did not have deep wells to draw upon.

Atkinson gave a lucid account of welfare economics and the need to revive it.  Friedman gave an interesting account of the role of religion in the rise of modern economics.  And Shiller gave a rambling and distracting account of why (in the end) we should all read Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers

It is gratifying that AEA put together this session; but it reflects the times that no one of these speakers mentioned alternative ethical frameworks—such as virtue ethics or Kantianism (sorry Mark!).  There is much work still to be done to have an engaging conversation and debate about economics as a moral science.

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