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Economics as a Moral Science (in American Economic Review)

Mark D. White

The papers given in the "Economics as a Moral Science" session at the ASSA meetings in Denver this past January appear in the latest issue of American Economic Review (101/3, May 2011):

The Restoration of Welfare Economics (Anthony B. Atkinson)

This paper argues that welfare economics should be restored to a prominent place on the agenda of economists, and should occupy a central role in the teaching of economics. Economists should provide justification for the ethical criteria underlying welfare statements, and these criteria require constant re-evaluation in the light of developments in economic analysis and in moral philosophy. Economists need to be more explicit about the relation between welfare criteria and the objectives of governments, policy-makers and individual citizens. Moreover, such a restoration of welfare economics should be accompanied by consideration of the adoption of an ethical code for the economics profession.

Markets and Morality (Jagdish Bhagwati)

The paper addresses two issues. First, economics has evolved both as a positive science and, from moral philosophy, also as a normative discipline. Advancing the public good requires that public policy walk on both these legs. Second, the criticism has been forcefully made that markets undermine morality. This contention is refuted in several ways.

Economics: A Moral Inquiry with Religious Origins (Benjamin M. Friedman)

In contrast to the standard interpretation of the origins of economics out of the secular European Enlightenment of the 18th century, the transition in thinking that we rightly identify with Adam Smith and his contemporaries and followers, which gave us economics as we now know it, was powerfully influenced by then-controversial changes in religious belief in the English-speaking Protestant world in which they lived: in particular, key aspects of the movement away from orthodox Calvinism. Further, those at-the-outset influences of religious thinking not only fostered the subsequent spread of Smithian thinking, especially in America, but shaped the course of its reception. The ultimate result was a variety of fundamental resonances between economic thinking and religious thinking that continue to influence our public discussion of economic issues, and our public debate over economic policy, today.

Economists as Worldly Philosophers (Robert J. Shiller and Virginia M. Shiller)

While leading figures in the early history of economics conceived of it as inseparable from philosophy and other humanities, there has been movement, especially in recent decades, towards its becoming an essentially technical field with narrowly specialized areas of inquiry. Certainly, specialization has allowed for great progress in economic science. However, recent events surrounding the financial crisis support the arguments of some that economics needs to develop forums for interdisciplinary interaction and to aspire to broader vision.


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