When the Scientist Is Also a Philosopher
March 23, 2014
Greg Mankiw in yesterday’s New York Times argues that there’s a “dirty little secret” we need to know: economists who give policy advice are dispensing ethics!
This statement is unfortunate for two reasons.
First, it is lamentable that so obvious a statement has to made. How many economists out there believe that public policy is simply a matter of mechanistic model tinkering? The answer is probably too many.
Second, it is lamentable because Mankiw never uses the word “ethics,” only the term “political philosophy.” That, as I take it, sanitizes the concept. Political philosophy, to my view, has to do with the establishment and legitimacy of governments, property rights, freedom, and justice. It certainly includes a discernment of normative ethics, but includes much more than that of a positive nature. Why not clearly speak of normative values?
Mankiw’s examples continue the practice of linking economists to utilitarian philosophy. That is only partly correct: Utilitarians would give equal weight to each person’s moral standing in assessing happiness; the standard efficiency model weights more heavily the outcomes of people will money to spend in the market. This is no small difference.
Mankiw’s conclusion is a good one: “At the very least, a large dose of humility is in order.”
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